By: Penny C. Sansevieri
Most of us meander into a bookstore, maybe grabbing a latte from the nearby coffee vendor and saunter up and down the aisles looking for our desired title. Bookstores are great and I’ve always said if I were ever to get locked in a store overnight, let it be a bookstore (preferably one with a handy Starbucks inside). But bookstores are so much more than that.
For the savvy author, a bookstore is a great way to not only get to know your market, but to research your competition and get a better understanding of the sales space. This is one of the best and least expensive ways to do your market research. Making your bookstore your research laboratory is a fantastic way to position yourself for success, regardless of how you are published.
Know Your Market
First off, if you’ve written a book for which there is no market (read: there are no books that cater to this audience), you may have a problem. Unless you are already a brand, meaning that you’re a published author with a significant following, it’s unlikely that you will be able to create such momentum for a yet unserved market that a publisher will consider you. If it hasn’t been written there is likely a reason why. Now there are always exceptions of course, my other book: Red Hot Internet Publicity is not a title that I would have published in 1976, mostly because there was no Internet back then. So yes, new markets are developing all the time but it’s key to wait till those markets emerge, otherwise you’re selling to an audience that doesn’t exist. This also goes to creating a new genre for your book. You should fit into an existing genre and find the best one for your market. This is also key since sometimes books can straddle different markets. A change in title can take your book for women wanting to succeed in business and move it from the business category into self-help and/or spirituality. Be clear on where your book belongs. Remember a confused mind won’t make a choice, so if you confuse your reader, you’re likely to lose a sale.
Who Else is Sharing Your Shelf Space?
Understanding what your market is and who else is sharing your shelf space is key. What are their books like and have you read them? This is all part of your market research: know your competition and know who shares your space. It is not just important to know other competing titles; this is key for marketing and media positioning. Also, you should take note of all other recent titles in your category and go visit their websites. If you’re really eager to watch your competition you could also get Google Alerts on their name or book title to see how much traction they are getting. I will usually do this for any major author in my market as well as all of their book titles. Not only can you keep an eye on their hit rate, but these sites and media targets could be good for you as well.
Every Book Tells a Story
Each book in your genre will tell you a little something about the author and publisher. Now I’m not talking about the contents of the book itself, I’m talking about things like the cover, book jacket, book size (both dimensions and page count), as well as endorsements, back cover copy, etc. Getting bookstore shelf space isn’t easy. Generally bookstores won’t keep books on their shelves that aren’t selling, so getting to know books that are doing well in stores can really benefit your title as well. Learning from books that are out there is a great way to position yourself for success.
Books that make it into and onto a shelf in a bookstore need to “look” the part. Yes, your book may be the best out there but if it doesn’t meet the needs of the genre, it simply won’t get put on a shelf. In order to play in the publishing sandbox you must play by the rules. While it’s nice to be a maverick and to hear stories about authors who “bent the rules” and claimed success, if you read the backstory to any success, you’ll find that following the rules and playing to the market is key to success. There are 1,500 books published each day. Yes, you want to stand out but you also want to look the part.
Here’s a checklist to get you started in your bookstore research. You’ll want to expand on this as you find more titles or more ideas to research. I suggest for example adding in URL’s from the book jacket so you can research the author’s website, etc.
- What genre does your book fall into?
- Is there a sub-genre and if so, what is it? (for example, my books fall into reference/writing, writing being the sub-genre)
- List the top five titles and authors in that market:
- Key points each book has in common? (for example, all cookbooks you noted had nutritional analysis on each page)