This article, written by Tara Wyatt is from the April 2021 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.
Starting a new book or series can be daunting, especially if you’re not sure what you want to write is marketable. Using keyword research and market analysis can help you determine where you fit in the current marketplace. It can also improve your chances of writing a more marketable, sellable book. Even if you’re writing in a tiny niche, keywords can show where your book fits in today’s marketplace.
In this article, we’ll cover how to do the actual research (both the paid way and the free way), and we’ll take a look at author Ines Johnson and how she put keyword research to use in planning her wildly successful series.
It starts with you
Get clear on something crucial before you start diving into this exciting market research. What do you want to write? There will be people who tell you to write the “book of your heart” and others who’ll tell you to write to market. I don’t think those two things are necessarily separate. If you look at the Magical Diagram of Writing Happiness you’ll see that there’s a sweet spot where what you want to write overlaps with what’s selling in your genre. Using keyword and market research can help you find this sweet spot and nail down where your book fits.
But before you start digging into the metadata available, you need to come to it with an understanding of what you want to write.
If you write romance, know what subgenre you’re writing in, whether it’s contemporary, historical or paranormal, for example. Know what heat level you’re aiming for – are you sweet, or are you so spicy your books melt readers’ Kindles? If you see something dominating the bestseller list, you don’t need to pivot your plans to follow the trend. Don’t write a dragon shifter romance if you’re not interested in writing a dragon shifter romance. Part of the beauty of keyword and market research is finding where you fit. I believe we can all find that sweet spot where you’re writing what makes you happy while satisfying the needs of readers.
Once you know what you want to write, it’s time to delve into the nitty gritty of keyword and market research.
Paid vs. free keyword research
When it comes to doing keyword research, you can either spend money or you can spend time. The size of your budget and where you are in your writing career will likely inform this decision. If your time is limited and you want the research done for you, then I highly recommend a tool called K-lytics. K-lytics is a website where you can purchase reports that analyze the ebook market. The reports are divided by genre, and examine sales volume, rank momentum, pricing, competition levels, keywords, tropes, and categories. The reports are quite lengthy and detailed, but everything you could possibly want is at your fingertips. All you have to do is sort through and analyze the information in front of you.
However, there are a couple of drawbacks to using K-lytics. It’s a helpful resource, but far from free. Individual reports start at $37, and each report only focuses on one genre or subgenre. So, if you’re researching multiple genres, it can get pricey quickly. Another drawback is that all of the data is from Amazon. And while Amazon is still far and away the number one platform, it doesn’t take into account other ebook vendors, such as Apple, Nook, Google or Kobo. Lastly, reports are only released or updated once per year, and as we all know, a lot can change in a year. There’s a small chance you’re working with slightly outdated information. That being said, I still believe K-lytics reports are useful tools – more on that in a bit.
If you don’t want to spend the money, then you’ll have to spend the time to do the research yourself. Start by examining the top 100 bestselling books in your genre or subgenre, and drill down as far as the bestseller list will let you. For example, if you’re writing a romance set in 1308, don’t just look at the historical romance bestsellers. Drill down to medieval romance and start looking at the top 100 books in that category. Read the blurbs to see what keywords jump out at you and write them down. Not only is jotting down keywords part of researching the market, but it’s an excellent brainstorming exercise. For example, you might write down keywords such as “castle,” “knight,” “time travel,” “bride,” “royalty,” “highlander,” and so on. Playing with the keywords in different combinations can spark story ideas that are still fresh, but fit the current marketplace. You’re writing what you want – a medieval romance – but with an eye on the market thanks to your research.
From reading the blurbs, you can also glean an understanding of what the popular tropes are, and you should write those down as well. For example, you might have tropes such as marriage of convenience, forbidden love, handsome protector, and enemies to lovers written down. Just like keywords, these function as both market research and brainstorming fodder.
While looking at the top 100 books, pay attention to the books’ other categories. Make a note of how the books are priced, if they’re part of a series, and any commonalities among the covers. Is the trend to have a couple? A single shirtless man? A woman in a gorgeous gown? What colors and fonts stand out? Look at all the metadata available to you, even page count because this will give you a sense of word count in the most popular books in your desired category.
Coming back to your list of keywords, open a private or incognito window in your browser, head to Amazon and start searching. See what other suggestions come up when you type “time travel romance” and look at the books in your search results. Doing this kind of research can be tedious and time consuming, but also invaluable when it comes to understanding the market and where the book you want to write will fit.
Putting it all together: keyword analysis and market research in action
Overwhelmed yet? Don’t be. While the process can seem daunting, it’s not. To walk us through a real-life example, I spoke to author Ines Johnson, who writes sweet romance under the pen name Shanae Johnson. Johnson used keyword research and K-lytics reports when planning to launch her new pen name.
“I knew I wanted to jump into the sweet [romance] market and I wanted to have that as a second business to complement my steamy name,” said Johnson. To learn more about the market, she turned to K-lytics and spent a lot of time pouring over the data in that year’s clean romance report. “I was interested in what tropes were popular with clean and wholesome romance. I was interested in what keywords were the most popular as well as what people were typing into Amazon. I wanted to see any patterns. I wanted to understand how to price my books.”
From this research, her popular series The Brides of Purple Heart Ranch was born. Johnson analyzed the keywords in the report to come up with a series concept that fit the sweet category, but that hadn’t already been done to death. Using the K-lytics report, she was able to gain an understanding of what readers in her target category (what she knew she wanted to write) were interested in and wanting more of. She also learned what to avoid and what was oversaturated. By analyzing the tropes, categories, keywords and trends, Johnson was able to craft a unique series concept, price it appropriately, give it covers that fit with the bestselling books in her subgenre, and realize her dream of paying her bills with her writing.
“When I first started, my goal was to make $85 a day because that [added up to] $2500 a month. That’s what it cost me to pay my rent, buy groceries, pay the electric bill and get my kids to and from school,” said Johnson. Using keyword research to plan a series – by writing both what she wanted and something that fit within the marketplace, she accomplished her goal.
Now Johnson uses her strategy to energize her backlist as well. “I think we forget about the backlist,” she said. “It’s already written; how can we keep selling those books? New release money is nice but backlist money is constant. So, look at the bestseller list, look at what’s hot and trending now. How can that apply to your backlist?”
Ways to improve the backlist include re-writing blurbs to emphasize popular tropes or keywords, or rebranding with new covers.
Whether you choose to spend the money or the time, engaging in keyword and market research is invaluable for authors who want their books to find a home in today’s crowded marketplace. It’s possible to write both the book of your heart and a book that will sell. You just have to find that sweet spot. Understanding the market will help you do just that.