Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What's Not on the Shelf?

I ended up getting very little accomplished yesterday, but then I figured that even the evil PR agency employers gave me comp time if I'd had to work all weekend. Plus, it was June last year before I'd worked as many hours as I've already worked this year, so I'm doing better. I did outline the next scene I need to write, so I'm ready to charge in today.

I don't have a book report this week because busy times meant I didn't finish anything that wasn't a reference book. Instead, I'll talk about books I'm not reading because either they don't exist or I can't find them. This topic has come up in a number of places lately. There was this "Dear Author" post about what's not being published that you want to read, which got into the issue of whether these books don't exist or whether you just haven't found them. The topic also came up in an interview I did a week or so ago in which we got started talking about the things that can happen with independent publishing.

One thing that's kind of cool about independent publishing is that my threshold for profitability is a lot different from Random House's, so an individual writer can go after a smaller niche. A particular kind of book may not meet the threshold for a major publisher's balance sheet, so it doesn't get published, but there may still be enough readers out there who want that kind of thing that an individual author can make money by offering it. While we hear a lot of buzz about the more erotic stuff doing well in self-publishing, apparently one of the really hot niche genres is sweet (non-sexy) Western (cowboy/rancher/pioneer) romances. I can pretty much guarantee that you won't find a single one of these outside the inspirational section at a bookstore, and I'd also bet that if you submitted a non-inspirational Western historical romance without sex scenes in it to a romance publisher it would be rejected, but it seems that if you can write these well and self-publish them, they sell like crazy, probably because there are people who like that sort of thing and can't find them at a bookstore.

Or there's the feast/famine thing that happens with publishing trends, where one kind of thing is all they publish for a while, then it goes bust, and then they don't publish anything at all like that. And yet, did the people who were buying those books during the boom suddenly stop wanting that kind of book, or was it a case of that same group of readers not being enough to support the glut of books, so sales were spread across more books, looking like a drop? When chick lit tanked, publishers dropped it like it had cooties, but I've heard that chick lit sells really well in e-book form, with authors doing quite well by reissuing their old books and writing more to publish independently.

The trick, though, is finding those unmet need niches. In my PR days, one of my clients did software for supply-chain management, with added demand prediction features. Supposedly, they could evaluate sales data to perfectly predict what the store needed to re-stock so that customers never went to the store and didn't find what they wanted. I brought a meeting to a standstill once by asking about how they accounted for the needs that weren't being met. They could only predict based on sales, but if what the customer wanted wasn't on the shelf, there was no way of capturing that unmet demand and making sure it would be there in the future. I used my personal example of constantly going to stores to buy clothes, finding things I liked, but not finding my size. If they didn't have it, I left the store without buying anything, but the store wouldn't know that they would have made more sales if they'd had more of that size. We had to change the way they phrased things in promo materials (and I think I gave the programmers some real headaches).

So, a publisher or bookseller would never know that, say, sweet Western romances were in demand because no sweet Western romances are being published, so there's no sales data to evaluate. Authors are a little closer to readers and have a better chance of hearing what people want, but then it's hard to tell how much of what they're hearing is a real trend or just a few loud voices. The comments to the post I linked to get pretty contradictory, with some people crying out for the exact opposite to what other people want but can't find. And then there's the issue of how to find books, especially with the huge number of self-published books available now. These books may exist, but how do you find out about them, and how do you know it's any good? I don't think even Amazon has a good enough search engine to help you narrow down specific preferences (see my annual search for chick lit-type books set during the Christmas season).

I've been trying to think of what would be on my list. I know I'd like more lighter contemporary fantasy -- without horror elements, with more fun and whimsy. I like my romance to be on the sweeter side, and I like a slow build, even taking place over multiple books, with the romance coming about as the characters deal with something else together, so I guess you might say I want romantic fantasy, romantic science fiction, romantic mystery or romantic adventure instead of actual "romance." I'd like chick lit -- romantic comedy -- with smarter heroines and the plot not revolving around mistakes made while very drunk (that plot got to be old during the "boom" years -- "oops, I got wasted and did something stupid, and now I must find a way out of this fix").

I'm hoping that more people want quirky hybrid stories with slow-build romances and lighter fantasy, since that's what I write, but that's not a clear-cut niche. Is there something you'd love to read that you can't seem to find?

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