Friday, March 18, 2011

The Downside of Niche Marketing

Should writers find a niche and stay there? Conventional wisdom says yes. Me? I'm not so sure. I while back, in a short post entitled Specialization and Books, blogger Becky Miller pondered this trend toward "niche-ing" (or is it niching?) in contemporary fiction. At some point, a writer is asked to identify their niche, what genre they write, and where their stories fit in the market. Nowadays, this is Writing 101. But Becky reflects upon the inherent deficiency of that demand:

In the effort to target an audience, we lose some who don't know to look in a niche they do not necessarily identify with. Perhaps this communication problem is why so many books take on a dual tag: romantic suspense or adventure thriller or science fantasy. Are the tags helpful? I don't really know.

I haven't seen bookstores expanding their sections to include the new dual tags. Christian books, even in Christian book stores, have yet to be sorted into sub genres. And I find the niche concept confining. I love fantasy, but I also read mystery, romance, even mom-lit, though I am not a mom. I don't really fit as a niche reader.

While authors are typically encouraged to find a niche and work it, I happen to find "the niche concept," like Becky, "confining." I mean, I don't read that way, so why should I write that way? For instance, I'm currently splitting reading time between Inferno by Dante Alighieri, Angelology by Danielle Trussoni, Bohoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas, and Godric by Frederick Buechner.

Question: Is this unusual? Do people tend to read all over the map? Or are readers, for the most part, "confined" by genre?

For the aspiring author, the question can be very confusing. On the one hand, the novice novelist is told to write what they want to read, write what drives them, ignore trends and follow their heart. On the other hand, we're told to find a niche, a genre, a market brand, and build a base of readership. And, according to market experts, you can't build readership by being all over the map.

So which is it? If, as a new writer, I aim for a specific genre and target the market, I may end up writing something other than what I really want. But I'll gain readers who will, perhaps, follow me into uncharted terrain. Yet if I write what I want to read -- what my heart tells me to write -- I may feel satisfied, but I'll potentially undermine the opportunity to build readership. So which is it?

My first novel is "niched"; it's a supernatural suspense. But my current novel (the one in process) is wigging out. It keeps veering into other genres. Of course, I keep trying to steer her back into her "niche." But, to my dismay, the story has a mind of it's own.

So what should I do? Follow my heart or the market? Follow my story or conventional wisdom? Are you a "niche reader," or do you tend to wander all over the map? And does writing for a niche audience have a downside? Or does being "confined" ultimately pay off? For an author, do niches become ruts or runways?


Andrea Kuhn Boeshaar said...

Great post, Mike. I think I bounce between two genres -- which, in fact, are related. Women's Fiction and Romance. However, I think of author Lisa Bergren who writes YA (and YA time travel, at that!), Historical Romance, and Children's books. I think it just depends who you are (the power of your name), where your gifts & strengths lay -- and maybe even how good your literary agent is.

Vic DiGital said...

I don't think you can define what sort of author you are until you've written a few books.

As a reader, I'm like you, all over he place. But when it comes to certain writers, it's a curious thing.

George R.R. Martin writes "A Song of Ice and Fire", my favorite fantasy book series. Love it. But I have NO interest in reading any of his other books. There are several authors who I love their creation- the world or the characters.

But there are other authors, like Robert Charles Wilson or China Mieville, who I will read anything they write, and don't care if it's a continuation of any of their other books or series.

And there are some authors who I read their work, as long as those books fall within the genre I know them from. (none coming to mind at the moment, but I know I have those in that category).

And I know I'm not alone in this because for most of the types of authors listed above, their sales fall in line with my attitude about them.

I just got "Resurrection" and it's on my bedside as the next thing I'm going to read. I'm curious as to what my reaction will be. Will I love the characters or world and want to immediately get more stories about them? Or will I find your writing so intriguing that I want to know what else you have to say about other subjects?

But that's too late for you to pick your direction. You're already writing your next book. I know you'd LIKE to be able to write anything and have readers enjoy it, but what will you do if you get a great reaction to the world of "Resurrection", and the sales of your next book tank? Will you become a niche writer to satisfy the fans who truly enjoy your work by returning to that world?

sally apokedak said...

Mike, I don't know if I'm a typical reader, but when I find an author I love, I read everything he's written right away. So when I first discovered CS Lewis, I had a feast for several weeks. I read his nonfiction, his fiction, and his letters, and even his brother's diary (or letters--I can't remember right now.) What I loved was the way Lewis thought. I didn't care what container he put his thoughts in.

That said, I did give up on the space trilogy after one and a half books. It just didn't move fast enough for me. (I love sci-fi/fantasy so it wasn't a genre issue. It was a slow plot issue.)

So even an author I love can lose me on a project. But what I love, normally, is not so much genres, but authors (I admit, though, that most of the authors I love are not as far-flung as Lewis with their genres), so I think your name is your brand.

Marketing people tell me I'm not typical, though. They say that a romance writer can't usually pull her audience with her into mystery.

It would be interesting to see who had tried and failed and who had tried and succeeded.

Nicole said...

Good post, Mike. Tough question.

Sometimes a writer can get bored within a sharply defined genre. If you chose to use the "speculative" genre, that would give you a lot of freedom for where your mind tends to roam. ;)

Vic made a good point--one that should be considered.

A couple of authors who move around in genres are Angela Hunt and Travis Thrasher. Their fans follow.

Mike Duran said...

Great comments, everyone! I wonder if this issue of "niche" relates far more to writers than readers. As writers, writing for a specific market is Business 101. Readers, on the other hand, aren't beholden to a certain genre like us writers need to be. But as several of you have mentioned, a good writer seems to draw readers through different genres. Which makes me wonder how important writing to niche actually is. When I figure it out, I'll let you know. Thanks again for your comments!

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

I've bounced between genres, but right now I have several historical books contracted, so that's what I'm writing.