This article, written by Trish Milburn is from the September 2022 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
We’ve all heard the widely accepted advice given to authors who want to succeed in today’s crowded fiction space: write a series, stick to popular genres and sub-genres, and target a wide audience. This all make perfect sense and has yielded enviable levels of success for many authors. But sometimes going for the widely popular just isn’t the path for us, and deciding to go a niche route is a valid choice as well.
The decision to go niche, or to travel what may be a harder road to success, can be a conscious one as it was for me, may grow organically out of a single book as it did for Neil Plakcy, or just sort of happen when a writer follows their muse, as is the case for CJ Archer.
“I write where my muse takes me, with one eye on the market,” said Archer, who writes the Glass and Steele historical fantasy mysteries with a romantic element set in Victorian London. “If I looked at what was selling and decided that was the only genre to write in, I’d have given up years ago. Trying to craft something in those genres would have driven me to boredom. By writing the story I want to write, and including elements I know my readers like, I’ve managed to make a decent living.”
The genesis for Plakcy’s Have Body, Will Guard male/male adventure romance series came while driving home from work in a bad mood and a desire to run away to some exotic locale where he would meet a handsome man who would sweep him along on an adventure.
“Well, that didn’t happen, but I did decide to write a book about a mild-mannered English professor…who gets kicked to the curb by a long-term partner and answers an ad for a job in Tunisia,” Plakcy said. “The job falls through, but he meets a sexy bodyguard who needs his help…and away we go.”
What resulted was Three Wrong Turns in the Desert, a romance novel with an adventure plot. Plakcy admits that isn’t that unusual in today’s marketplace.
“But I wanted to write about the same two guys and give them new adventures in close protection. That’s what led me to this underpopulated and largely unrecognized niche of LGBTQ action and adventure fiction,” Plakcy said.
Burnout and a recent discovery of K-pop music led to my own decision to try niche fiction with my Idol in Love series of romances not only set in that musical world but which also take place in South Korea with mostly Korean characters. Even though my hope has been to tap into the rising popularity of Korean music and culture, the decision to write in this niche was prompted by the need to find the joy in writing again. I had been writing in the widely popular area of cowboy romance, but I was really burned out.
Nicholas Harvey readily admits that he was naïve about potential quick success when he wrote his first book in 2017 and expected a “fun little stream of extra cash.”
After taking time to study the industry and take some courses, he discovered he needed to be writing a series. He’d missed the indie publishing wave and began in earnest just before COVID hit and “everyone who’d ever thought of writing a novel had time to do so.”
“I found the sub-genre of sea adventures and convinced myself I’d fit in that box,” he said. “Which my books do, except they squeeze into a small corner of that aforementioned box,” since his main character is a woman, a dive boat operator in the Cayman Islands, doesn’t know martial arts or have a military or police background, and he writes in UK English. “My expectations in December 2017 were hopeful my book would be some kind of runaway success. By January 2020, my expectations were of a long and difficult road ahead to build the brand.”
Plakcy says that gradually writing narrower than even the M/M romance sub-genre has led to “an established, if small, fan base, and I keep writing the books because I love the characters and so do some readers.”
Pros of niche writing
A big positive is the freedom to write what you love because, as Harvey said, “nothing deadens the soul faster than not expressing what’s itching to become words on paper.”
Being a big fish in a little pond also has advantages if your name becomes synonymous with the niche.
Since Patricia Rice left traditional publishing, she’s been able to write the historical romances with a psychic twist that she wanted to and that she knew her readers would enjoy.
“I’ve been able to expand these books from the Georgian era through Regency, Victorian, and into contemporary times,” she said. “I have taken them from romance into romantic suspense and currently into mystery with romantic elements. I’ve been producing more books instead of wasting months and months on plotting and writing synopses and chapters to send to my agent in hopes of hitting the sweet spot of easily marketable fiction. And I am making twice the amount of money I made when I was an extremely well paid author of traditional historical romance—because I can keep the books on the shelves where readers can find them.
“Make no mistake—I’m not saying the niche market is paying my way. I write that because I enjoy it. I’m saying that being able to sell my books in ways traditional publishing can’t is expanding my audience. I could not do this in traditional publishing.”
Archer points out that if you’re writing what you enjoy, it makes sitting down at the desk day in and day out easier.
I have also found this to be true. Deciding to write in a niche that I enjoy and can get excited about has taken away the dread I was feeling toward writing, even knowing that I might not sell anywhere near as many copies. I left a job that I dreaded going to 17 years ago so that I could write full time, so the last thing I wanted was for the writing to become the job I dreaded.
Cons and cautions
Plakcy cites niche books being harder to market and to make real money on, while Archer says that writing in a popular genre won’t necessarily lead to higher sales.
“I see authors worrying all the time about their low sales numbers and they write in genres with the highest readership,” Archer said.
Harvey said it’s important to put on your business hat and to be honest with yourself if you’re considering writing niche fiction, particularly if it’s really niche.
“There are lots of poorly written, well marketed books selling like hotcakes, and plenty of brilliantly written, poorly marketed books logging one sale a week,” Harvey said. “Are there any other novels close to what you’re about to or have written? There already exists something similar to what you’re creating and therefore a market to work with. What really becomes tricky is when you take your elements and spin them into another genre entirely. But one thing I’ve come to realize…it’s a great big world out there and you’ll have to try pretty hard to find a niche that doesn’t have a following of some kind.”
Marketing the niche book
Harvey said it’s easy to feel that niche writing is much harder to market than main genres, but he doesn’t believe that’s true these days.
“Marketing for niche takes the same methods as any other genre,” he said. “It all begins with understanding your readers. We all tend to think our audiences are clones of ourselves, but they rarely are. I was convinced scuba divers would love my series, and to an extent they do. But the majority of my audience are 55+ who like the idea of scuba diving, or simply love the island and adventure vibe.”
Amazon and Facebook advertising can be more difficult to target with niche books because of fewer comparable authors, so Harvey suggests finding detail targeting in other ways.
“For the 99.9% of us who don’t luck into a homerun with their first novel, no marketing will pay out until you have more books. Both Facebook and AMS ads are too competitive and expensive,” he said. “I’m a relatively small fish, but with 11 books in my AJ Bailey series, I net $15 from every book one that I sell based on my read-through numbers, as sell-through gets cloudy after a while with discount promos skewing the numbers.”
Even with a potentially more difficult climb in niche fiction, hard work can pay off.
“Since January 2020, I’ve been blessed with steady growth,” Harvey said. “Each year my gross has doubled. I will hit six figures for the year (2022) if growth continues as it has.”
The niche path
Rice said that if an author has the ability and support to write what you want, it’s remarkably satisfying to do so.
“Besides, someone has to start each new trend—why not you?”