Before we begin, let me point out that this article is not intended to be some sort of blueprint for “How To Write A Bestselling Urban Fantasy Series”. The article merely outlines the research I did before I started writing the male urban fantasy series that I’m still hard at work on.
As well as that, this article will delve into the often misunderstood concept of “writing to market”. This is my take on it (as everyone seems to have their own idea about it) and one which I’m sure you’ll find useful if you are planning on gearing your next series towards a particular market instead of writing what you want and hoping it will appeal to someone afterwards.
If you are interested in urban fantasy, then you will also find this article useful as a means to starting or adding to your own research on the subject. I uncovered a lot of background reading material that I found to be extremely useful, and I will list most of that material here.
First, let’s discuss the write to market concept, then I’ll give a brief overview of how I went about writing to market myself. Despite what you may have read on the subject already, it never hurts to get another perspective.
What Exactly Is Writing To Market And Will It Guarantee My Success?
Let’s get this out of the way first. Writing to market, no matter how well done, will not guarantee that you end up selling a lot of books. Nothing will guarantee that, unless your name is Stephen King or Lee Childs.
Writing to market will however, give you a greater than average chance of selling a lot of books–and maybe, if you’re lucky–hitting the bestseller lists.
Finding any kind of sustainable success in publishing is largely down to how well you can line all of your ducks up in a row, so to speak. That’s what writing to market really is: making sure you have all your ducks lined up in a row, giving you the greatest chance of your work sticking (and by sticking I mean selling consistently well over time).
If your current publishing efforts aren’t working–if your books aren’t sticking–then it is down to you not having all your ducks properly lined up, or the right ducks just aren’t there in the first place.
My first urban fantasy series, although it sells copies, didn’t really make much of an impact. This may be down to several factors, but mostly I put it down to the fact that I didn’t write to market enough. Thinking I knew the market already when I actually didn’t, I went ahead and wrote the story I wanted. I still hit certain tropes, but the books aren’t dialed in enough to make any real impact. The fourth book will be out soon, so we’ll see what difference that makes. The reason I am thinking much more about the market now is because I don’t want to repeat what happened with the last series. It’s all a learning curve though, and each book builds on the next.
For a book or series to do well and shift a lot of copies it must have at least these four things going for it:
1. A great cover.
2. A great story that satisfies reader expectations.
3. A winning description (blurb) with correct keywords and categories in place.
4. Some sort of marketing plan for before and after release.
At the very least, you must have all four of those things in place to have a chance at success. If one or more is off or missing then you will fail. Sure there are always exceptions to the rule. Some badly written stories with shit covers do sell occasionally, but very few.
Besides which, you should always be aiming for the highest standards possible. You can rest assured that other writers do, so you at least have to match the efforts of those other writers if you want part of the shared pot.
So in a general sense, writing to market is having all the important fundamentals in place before you publish.
Beyond that, writing to market is also making sure that your work is strongly geared towards hitting readers’ expectations in terms of story, cover, description etc. This is also where the WTM concept gets a bit misunderstood.
Writing to market does not mean copying what has already been done. You don’t take a bestseller and decide to rip it off completely, or copy the book in your own words in terms of story, structure or character. It still amazes me that many people think this is what writing to market means: to straight up copy or rip-off another author’s work. That’s plagiarism is not what is being advocated at all.
What is being advocated is that you look at the bestselling books in your genre and you try to work out the commonalities between them, the shared tropes that readers of those books want to see.
Extracting The Tropes
A trope (or genre trope) is an often used plot device in fiction (both on the page and on the screen). To quote TV Tropes (the ultimate trope resource):
A trope is a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.
There are hundreds of such tropes in fiction and most of them are listed and fully explained on the aforementioned website. If you want to delve into the tropes of your chosen genre (and I suggest you do if you are going to be writing to market) then you should check the site out.
Basically, you are looking for the shared tropes of the bestselling indie books in your genre. The genre that I am currently writing towards is male urban fantasy, which is enjoying something of a resurgence at the moment. From what I gathered about these newer crop of books, here are some of the main tropes of that particular genre:
Strong male lead.
Largely urban setting.
Action orientated plot containing a central mystery that the protagonist must unravel.
Lots of supernatural elements like creatures (vampires, werewolves etc.) and magic use.
Those are just some of the basic tropes of the genre. Rest assured that readers will want to see some or all of those tropes in action if they decide to read a book in this genre. The tropes make the genre what it is. They are what attract readers in the first place. If you don’t meet those reader expectations your book won’t get read. It’s that simple. Which is why tropes are important.
The good news is that if you already read a lot in your chosen genre then you will already have a good idea of what the tropes are. More than that, you will probably know them pretty intimately, which will make it easier for you to implement them.
If you don’t already read in your genre, then you had better do so. You don’t have to read every book, just the self published ones that sell the most. They sell that many for a reason. Read them and work out why. Usually it is because the they do a good a job of hitting the tropes and having the other fundamentals firmly in place (those fundamentals also being strongly aimed at the genre audience).
Almost always, the covers will be stand out. Covers are massively important and will nearly sell your book by themselves (as long as the other things are in order). Pay what you have to pay in order to get a top notch cover.
Without a terrific cover you might as well forget it. Covers are that important.
And while we’re at it, if you want the best urban fantasy cover artist in the business right now, check out Rebecca Frank, who designs all of my book covers. Rebecca knows the genre well and just seems to nail it every time with her covers.
Writing Urban Fantasy To Market
As I said, I’m currently writing a new series for the male urban fantasy genre. I have spent a great deal of time examining other books in the genre, the kind of covers they have, the sort of stories involved, the types of characters etc. I’ve looked at them from every angle.
In terms of market research, here are the main books that I targeted in the genre. These are books that are still the bestsellers in the genre:
Strange Magic (Yancy Lazarus Series) by James Hunter
Black Spark (Dark Magic Enforcer Series) by Al K Line
Dead Man (Black Magic Outlaw Series) by Domino Finn
Demon Moon (Prof Croft Series) by Brad Magnarella
Hidden Blade (Soul Eater Series) by Pippa DaCosta
Those five books I read and examined. Not too closely, just enough to see the things they had in common. Unsurprisingly, each book hit all of the tropes I mentioned earlier. Each book also had a cracking a cover, with the male protagonist front and center.
I will admit to not enjoying the books all that much. I’m funny about reading books these days. I’ve read that many now that I am easily put off for reasons that I won’t go into now. It would have to be an exceptional book if I am to keep reading. I found the narrative voice in some of those books to be annoying, which put me off. At least one of the books also had a character that I hated. I still read all the books though, if only in the name of research.
Further Research Into Urban Fantasy And Magick With A “K”
Although I was quite familiar with the urban fantasy genre already, for this project I wanted to delve deeper. I wanted to know everything there was to know about it. I also wanted to see the different takes on the genre and what they had in common with each other.
So I read more books, including graphic novels and comics like Preacher and Hellblazer, which are classics of the genre (Alan Moore’s creation, John Constantine being especially archetypal, with every modern mage and warlock character who followed modeled on him in some way).
I also delved heavily into the world of Role Playing Games. RPG books are a virtual goldmine for any writer in the SFF genres, especially urban fantasy. There are a ton of books and supplements out there that detail complete worlds and universes, magic systems and a whole plethora of characters within those worlds. The level of practical detail in some of the books is staggering. Here are the main ones I read for inspiration and background knowledge:
I also read a number of other RPG books that gave me background and a whole city to base my story in.
In terms of getting a greater feel for the genre, and of becoming aware of the possibilities that exist within it, I found RPG books to be indispensable, and I highly recommend them as research materials.
Writing To Market Is Just Doing The Job Right
WTM is not the magic bullet that many writers think it is. Neither is it a surefire formula for bestsellerdom. As I said, those things don’t exist and no amount of magical thinking will make them exist either.
For me, WTM is a useful concept to help me make sure that I am putting everything that I need to into place, and that I am doing all I can to give my work the greatest chance at succeeding in a crowded marketplace. Doing any less than that is pointless, I think.
Also don’t forget that once you’ve done all your research into genre and completed your market analysis, you still have to write a good book. You have to take all those tropes and ideas and use them to write something good, something that is still fresh (if not unique) and engaging to a reader in your genre.
After that, you put your work out there and hope that you’ve done enough to make it stick, which it should do, going by the experience of other authors who have went by the WTM philosophy. It is definitely doable. It just takes patience and a lot of hard work. In my case, time will tell if I’ve managed to get my ducks in a row this time around. I’ll let you know next year when the first two books in the series come out.
One other thing I have come to realize after four years of dedicated fiction writing (three years of non-fiction writing before that) is that it just takes time before you fully recognize what it is you have to do. In the beginning, you just write anything and put it out there, hoping it will sell. That’s the wrong way to go about things, the opposite of what we’ve been talking about here.
It takes a while for you to know what the ducks even are before you can line them all up. That’s what I found anyway. Experience and persistent hard work count for a great deal.
Writing to market just helps you make the most of that hard work and experience.
Books On Writing To Market
There are a few books out there on the subject, but none as direct as Chris Fox’s bestselling book, aptly named, Writing To Market. It’s a good book, with lots of solid advice. Nothing too groundbreaking. If you’ve been writing a while, you will know about many of the things mentioned in the book already. If you are new to writing or the subject of writing to market then you would do well to check the book out.
Beyond that, check out KB Boards also. WTM is often discussed in the threads there.
Also let me know what your experience is of writing to market. Drop your comments below.