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Craft: First Sale–Single Title or Category

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 28, 2010

Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011

The great debate between targeting category and single title as a first sale has raged ever since both types of books have published–and the battle is likely to continue to rage for as long as both types of books are being published.

That truth requires you, the writer to make the call.

As a writer, you’re accustomed to making calls. You live a life full of choices and decision-making, not only about writing your books, but about how you attempt to sell them and actually get them into readers’ hands. And if you’ve been writing to sell for any length of time, then odds are high you’ve already discovered that the time to make these choices isn’t necessarily after you’ve written the book–not if your goal is to sell the book.

So which do you target to sell? Category, or single title?

To determine not just an easy answer to that question, but to determine the answer that best serves you and your work, you need to spend some time asking yourself some other questions that are definitely not easy. Actually, they’re very difficult.

Questions like: What do you want?

Now, most of you know I do a lot of lecturing and a lot of writers seek my advice in handling craft and business and career challenges, so you’ll understand what I’m about to say. Often, the first question I’ll ask these writers is: What do you want?

Seems like such a simple question, doesn’t it? But it’s not. Yet the writer’s personal desires are extremely important because not everyone wishes to hit the New York Times bestseller list, or to make a fortune, or even to sell. That makes answering this one little question is vital. And it never ceases to amaze me, but more often than not, when asked this question, most authors answer with, “I want to sell a book.”

Now selling a book is nothing to sneeze at. I wrote six years, fifteen novels before selling the first (never giving a thought to where they’d fit on a bookshelf, which explains the reason it took so long to sell), and selling well might be adequate motivation to help an author write a book. But it isn’t sufficient motivation to help an author keep writing books. Just selling isn’t strong enough, standing alone. It needs muscle. That muscle is in the author’s deep motivation.

Sometimes we writers bury that deep motivation in surface clutter–things that really don’t matter–and then we have to play archeologist and dig for the truth. But digging is well worth the effort, because once we possess the truth and we have a firm grasp on why we’re writing, then we have all the motivation in the world to keep writing. So ask yourself, What do I want–beyond merely selling a book? What is my purpose for writing at all?

Maybe you write for fame and fortune? Maybe it’s an ego thing? Or maybe you use writing and selling a book as a vehicle to prove to yourself or to others that you’re a person of consequence, a serious writer.

Dig deeply to unearth exactly what motivates you. Heaven knows there are easier ways to earn a living, so the “why” is imperative to you to know. Now if you study a group of successful writers, and you dig down to core level, you’ll find there’s really one reason writers write that keeps them writing: They love it. They write their books because the idea of not writing them makes them perfectly nauseous.

In short: They have something to say that they want others to hear.

Listen, every writer wants affirmation s/he can write. Doesn’t matter if it’s that first sale or the fifteenth. Doesn’t matter if it’s a new writer or one who consistently makes the Times list. Regardless of position on that career ladder, we all want affirmation. But from experience, let me tell you the only affirmation that really matters comes from within, not from without–in the form of feedback you get from others. Without, you have one guarantee. For everyone who loves the book, there’ll be someone who doesn’t.

I’m not saying that you can’t appreciate positive feedback; you can, and certainly should. I’m saying this mixed bag of reactions to your writing is the way it is. It’s as inevitable as breathing. And that’s why you can’t allow negative feedback to get you down. It’s also why affirmation standing alone isn’t a strong enough motivation to keep any author writing book after book.

One thing I encounter often is the category writer who loves writing category and it shows in the work. The voice, story-lines, issues examined–everything fits. Yet the writer feels pressured by well-meaning peers who are always encouraging him/her to write a single title novel. Other writers decide to transition to another type of writing not because they don’t love what they’re doing but because they’re sick of snide comments and questions such as, “When are you going to write a real book?” These types of things push writers into writing a single title novel when they really don’t want to go there. In a word, don’t do it. You’re the writer, you choose. Chose not to become a victim. Choose to write books you love, regardless of what type they might be.

I wish I could stress the importance of this. If there is a “secret” to writing, I’m convinced that has to be it. Your love shines through in your work in the form of enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm–which cannot be faked!–infuses the book with the magic. That magic is the one element of writing that cannot be taught. The one element of writing that transports the reader from reading words on a page to living and experiencing the events in a novel.

Some erroneously believe anyone can write category novels. That, my friends, is fiction. It takes a special talent to write tight, to get a solid, cohesive, and compelling story that fits within line perimeters and yet remains unique and fresh. The simple truth is, not every author has that special talent. Some authors write wonderful category novels and terrible single title books. Some write wonderful single title books and terrible category novels. And more often that not, what determines a writer’s strength is a combination of author theme and relevance.

If you’ve been on the Aids4Writers list, you’ve heard me talk about author theme before. If not, then you’re probably wondering what the spit it is, since little is written on the topic even though it’s a writer’s greatest asset. If you’ve written two or twelve or twenty-two books, author theme is the one thread all the books have in common that is uniquely your thread. And, yes, every writer has one. It’s like a fingerprint. Uniquely yours.

Taking that from the abstract concept to the specific example: I’ve written category romance, single title romance, paranormals–historical and contemporary, romantic suspense, straight suspense, thrillers, political thrillers, psycho-thrillers, military thrillers, time-travel novels, and some I call my weird books because they’re contemporary but read as historicals. Yet regardless of the novels’ genre, they have one thing in common: every single one of them is a healing book. My author theme is healing.

Some other common author themes are protector, redemption, small town life, and second chance books. Now, take a look at your books. What is your author theme?

This is important because some themes are better suited to either category or single title. In truth, I’ve read excellent books carrying the same theme in both types, but typically different authors had written the books.

Now why is that? A theme is a theme, right? If an author writes within his/her theme, then something else must further define his/her strength at writing in one area versus another. But what? What makes one or the other the writer’s natural forum?

What further defines an author’s work–preference aside because we’re focusing on finding the writer’s natural forum–is the author’s voice.

Voice was once described to me as writing the way you talk. That’s a good starting point, yet to decide the course of an entire career, I think as writers we would be wise to dig a little deeper. The best way I’ve found to do this is to read a respectable number of both types of books–category and single title. Then read your books and compare. Your natural rhythms, phraseology, the complexity of your plots, the pacing and scope of the book all reflect in your voice.

Personally, I tend to get too complex for category. I love to read them and I start out with great intentions in writing them–a simple, straightforward story peopled with characters of substance, rich and deep. But then something happens along the way and my intentions are shot. Things twist and turn and before I know it, the book is 480 pages long and to cut anything anywhere leaves gaping holes in the plot or huge logic gaps in characters’ motivations. This is why I’ve done one category novel and 13 or so single title or mainstream novels.

I analyzed the work and discovered that I love subplots, and often my subplots end up with subplots (some intentionally, some just magically appear). The important thing is that this is the way my mind works. It’s my natural forum. To spare myself challenges, I respect my forum.

Now, how relevant is author theme and voice to finding your natural forum? Darned relevant to you, the human-being writer, and to you, the writer selling the writing.

Let me explain why. If you’re feeling like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole, then odds are very high that you’re working outside your natural forum. No writer does their best work outside their natural forum. Not doing your best work means you, the writer, feels discontent and unfulfilled. This does not make writing a pleasant experience. Eventually, being discontent and unfulfilled by your work makes writing something you want to avoid. These reactions to your work guarantee your work will be absent of enthusiasm (can’t get out of a book what you don’t put into it), and that means no magic. No magic translates to no sale.

Why deliberately diminish the odds of selling what you write? We all know competition is stiff and your best work shines. Shining work, infused with the magic, is the work that sells. So finding your natural forum isn’t something you, the writer, want to get around to one of these days. It’s essential. Do it now, the sooner the better.

It’s also essential for the writer to have realistic expectations.

Some will disagree with me on my next point, but remember, I’m a school-of-hard-knocks graduate who wrote exactly what she pleased without even a shadow of thought as to what would sell. Fifteen novels and six years’ worth of writing. Then, I finally decided if I wanted to sell a book, I had to write one I loved (always and forever the one unbreakable, unbendable, inflexible rule I keep) but also a book that fit in a specific spot on a bookshelf in the local book store: a book publishers could buy and sell to their readers. I did this–targeted a book–and that book sold.
I’ve been selling ever since, which is why I pass along to you the experience. If you’re writing for your own pleasure, you can ignore this tidbit. If you’re writing to sell, you’d be wise not to ignore it but to give it respectable consideration in your decision-making process on what to write.

Weigh marketing factors into your writing. It is realistic to weigh in marketing factors. If as a writer, you’re lucky enough to be versatile and you’re able to write either single title or category novels, then marketing and realistic expectations are apt to carry a lot of weight in deciding what to write. That brings us to what I call, “just the facts, ma’am” on what impacts not only your selling to a publisher but that publisher selling to their readers.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that odds rank higher for any author (new or previously published) selling a shining category novel versus selling a shining single title. Why? Simply put, more category novels are published and there are more slots available. I’ll expound on that shortly. Conversely, single title novels tend to stay on the shelf a little longer and, given strong publisher support, the income potential is much higher.

Now let’s pause, step around to the other side of the desk, and look at a submission from the publisher/editorial perspective. Let’s do that now.

Publishers know their real money is in an author’s backlist. (A backlist is all of the author’s previously published works to which a publisher has publishing rights.) This is important because in real terms it translates to single title fiction publishers acquiring only authors they believe are multi-book producers who will be with them a long while. (The exception to this mindset is in nonfiction, where an author might well only write and intend to write one book.) Now why do publishers have this mindset? In a word, money.

The truth about money every writer contemplating a decision on what type of
writing to write should know:

Early on in a career, authors earning most on a book are writing romance. (It has the lion’s share of the market.) Early on in a career, most single title authors would earn more money on a category novel than on a single title novel. Early on in a career, most single title authors sign contract novels for lower advances and royalty rates than they do later on in their careers, once they’ve established themselves in the market and increased their monetary value to publishers. These facts make an author’s backlist very valuable indeed–and a publisher’s just reward for building and “growing” that author.

Let’s take this concept from the abstract and make it concrete.

As a newly published category writer, the author has marketing help. The reader base for the book has been identified by the publisher and, having a book within a line, such as Silhouette Intimate Moments or Harlequin Superromance or Harlequin American, automatically brings readers of that type of book to your book. Many readers buy all of the books in a line each and every month because they know the type of story they’re going to get and that’s the kind of story they want to read. Also, companies like Harlequin/Silhouette spend a fortune on marketing studies, promotional packages, advertising–all of which promotes the line of books they’re selling to the readers they have previously identified as readers of that line of books. The new author benefits from this “line identification” and reader-line recognition.

As a newly published author in single title, more often than not, your book is out there on its own. If your book can be categorized as “Romance” or “Mystery” or “Suspense,” then that’s good. The classification tells the bookseller and wholesaler/distributor where the book belongs on the shelf so readers can find it. If your novel falls under “Fiction,” that can sound good but it can actually translate to your book getting lost in the sea of fiction on the bookshelves.

Now why is that? We hear writers aspire to make the leap from genre to mainstream all the time. If there are drawbacks, why then do writers eagerly yearn for this? Frankly, its been my experience that many writers don’t yet realize the significance of the novel’s classification or that classification’s impact on sales.

Under the “Fiction” label in single title (or mainstream), the readers don’t have a clue what kind of book you’ve written. Could be anything. So especially in this classification, it’s important that a writer have strong “name recognition.” That name recognition tells readers already familiar with this author’s work what type of book they can expect to find. (Author theme comes in handy now and then, doesn’t it?). And this awareness makes readers far more likely to part with their hard-earned money to buy the book.

You see, without name recognition or line recognition or even genre recognition, you’re asking the reader (and must convince the reader) to take a risk, to buy a book by a new, unknown author.

Okay, even more concrete.

Let’s say you have an author who has written five books for the same publisher. Books one and two were contracted with a $5,000 advances and 6% royalties. Books three and four were contracted with $10,000 advances and 8% royalties. Books five and six were contracted with $15,000 advances and 10% royalties.

Now book one does well. Book two does better. The author is growing, building a reader base as writers do: one reader at a time. Books three and four show a steady and respectable increase in sales. Now out comes book five and it takes off like a rocket. It hits the USA Today or the Times list.

Now the first four books, while not out of print, aren’t on the bookshelves anymore. But when book five explodes on the scene, it creates an enormous demand for the author’s previous books. So the publisher and booksellers bring back those books and make them readily available to readers–and they sell a lot of them.

This is the publisher’s payback for growing that author. On the first four books, the advances have been paid and the royalty rates are lower than on books five and six (which is not yet released). The publisher’s profit margin is higher on those first four books, and the value of the backlist to the publisher becomes very clear. Also, the author’s commercial value has escalated–within the publishing house and in the market. Booksellers’ orders for book six will be substantially higher than for the previous books–and offer an opportunity for previous books to be ordered into stores again. So the author too is happy because s/he is earning more money on books one through four and on book five. S/he is also positioned to earn more money on book six.

This snowball effect doesn’t happen as easily in category fiction, where the novel is published and on the shelf for four to six weeks and then unavailable until the publisher elects to reprint it. When a publisher will reprint depends on a number of things, including how many books the author has with that publisher, how well the author’s current books are doing in the market, and the balance of the publisher’s current releases’ list.

One thing writers can’t afford to forget is that publishers are in business to make money–and you, the writer, want publishers to be fiscally responsible. Not being financially solvent and/or prosperous has a definite impact on you, regardless of what you write. Remember, it is the profits from best-selling commercial novels that give the publisher the funds it needs to also publish those books it knows will not enjoy spectacular sales or even good ones but are important books it feels need to be published.

Now think of all this in terms of your submission and you can see some of what the publisher is considering and what you, the writer, should be considering in deciding what to write. Honestly, I’ve disclosed but a snippet of what an editor must consider when reading your work. (The editor also considers authors currently contracted, the balance of the publisher’s list on what they offer to sell, and house preferences as well as his/her own, and many, many other things, no small part of which is market condition.)

To editors reading submissions, some first book single title novels smack of strong commercial success and those books will have a healthy advertising/promotion budget. Some won’t smack. Most won’t smack, at least not with authority. The determining factor isn’t a scientific formula. It’s largely an intuitive process in the editor and other publishing professionals–and just one of a multitude of things that are out of the author’s control (until they’ve established their value with the publisher).

Just as a writer writes asking him or herself, Can I sell this? An editor reads your submission asking him or herself, Can I sell this? Remember, the publisher facilitates sales to your readers. They’re not the end-buyers. So they buy books they love and they can sell.

If an editor can sell a book–first, in house (via consultations and recommendations of senior editors, executive editors, associate publishers, marketing and sales and other professionals within the publishing house) and then in the market–then the editor will buy your book.

Every book is a risk. New authors are a substantial risk. Remember, the editor’s career as well as the author’s depends on his or her selections. S/he must take a substantial leap of faith in addition to making a logical, analytical deduction on whether or not the book will sell. There have been cases where everything pointed to strong success and the book bombed in the market. It happens.

From experience but still largely by instinct, editors know some books are going to be dynamite sellers. They know other books will enjoy solid but not spectacular sales. And they know that some books will not fare well in the market but are important to see published.

These are the types of things that determine advances and promotional budgets. They are also the things that make a strong category novel writer attractive to a single title publisher.

Many writers have the idea that they can write a few category novels and then jump to single title novels and their category-novel base will elevate the odds of their single title novels being successful. That strategy certainly has worked well for some authors. Lyverle Spencer, Iris Johansen, Catherine Coulter, Kay Hooper, Jayne Ann Krentz, Nora Roberts, and Sandra Brown–just to name a few.

But beware of thinking this strategy always works. If you look closely at the authors mentioned above, you’ll note that they all did something vitally important: In their move from category to single title, they wrote the same kind of book. Many of them added single title novels to their bodies of work and continued to write category novels. Some still do.

That’s an important thing to notice because it reveals a simple truth. An author can write fifty category romance novels, but if s/he then writes a single title mystery, s/he shouldn’t expect his/her category readers to be a built-in reader base that guarantees his/her single title success. Some readers might follow the author. Some won’t. Readers have a penchant for wanting the same kind of book from an author because that kind of book is the kind they like to read. That’s worth remembering.

Now, I’m not saying an author shouldn’t write whatever s/he wants. I’ve done exactly that my entire career and have no intention of changing the personal policy. It works for me. What I am saying is that if you choose to write dissimilar novels understand going in that your choice impacts your marketing and should, therefore, impact your marketing strategies. Know that your dissimilar-novel choice is also going to influence how attractive you are as a writer to publishers.

Naturally, if your category sales have been strong and you’ve developed a solid reader base, and you then submit a single title of the same type book, you’re more attractive (and valuable) than if you switch genres. Zero or fifty novels, when you switch genres, you’re a newbie all over again and must prove yourself in the market. If you incorporate a category-to-single-title-career strategy then do so grasping the connection between same-type and dissimilar novels. It’s to your advantage for your books to compliment each other, not to confuse the reader. Otherwise, choose dissimilar novels understanding that in the market you’re going to have to build two careers.

We touched on this earlier and in the Aids4Writers program list earlier last year (and probably the previous year, too), but I wanted to reiterate because I feel it’s so important.

Writing is always challenging. Always. No one masters it, which makes the craft so appealing to many of us. Please, do NOT be guilty of developing an arrogant attitude about one type of writing holding more value than another. On occasion when lecturing, I run into an author (or a group of authors) who feel that there is no value in any commercial fiction. It’s selling out the art for the dollar. And too often, I’m sorry to say, I hear the same type of comments flow between category and single title writers–assertions that one kind is “better” than the other.

It’s not. Nor is it any worse. The bottom line is that there is value in all types of writing. Each type touches readers in a way that the other types do not because the reader doesn’t necessarily read those other types. Each type brings an author’s unique individuality and universality to the work which offers readers new perspectives, new insights. And that grants the writer the opportunity to open doors in minds that had been closed.

Once at a lecture, I encountered a literary writer who firmly believed “entertaining” fiction was worthless. “Only that which challenged convictions and the intellect was worth the life of a tree.”

I begged to differ. After all, as a commercial fiction writer, I had learned coming out of the gate that my first priority is to entertain. I shared this example:

Once, there lived a terminally ill man. He and his wife had no children, which left the wife as his primary–and secondary–caregiver. She moved a hospital bed into their living room and a bedside chair, where she spent the next six months, watching her husband die, day by day, hour by hour, and minute by minute.

After six months of keeping the bedside vigil, she was weary from the strain. The only respite she had came in short snatches, where sitting beside her husband’s bed, she kept her fingertips against his pulse–making sure he continued to breathe– and read a few pages in a book. In reading, she momentarily escaped what had become her harsh reality.

These brief respites rejuvenated her. They recharged her batteries, let her catch her breath so she could summon more strength. The strength she needed to again face the horror of watching the man she loved die.

Now this story isn’t fiction and the book was real. It was also a romance novel. We all know that romance novels are generally considered the most “entertainment only” of all fiction published.

I asked the literary author, if he saw any value in writing such a book–one that gave a heart and soul-weary woman a brief respite from the challenges of losing a spouse. If he considered those brief moments of respite purely entertainment, or had they been more? And I wondered if that wife were asked, would she consider that book worth the life of a tree.

The literary author didn’t answer, and you don’t have to answer either. The value of
that book to that woman at that critical time in her life is evident to any who choose to see it.

The point? Literary or commercial, category or single title, it makes no difference. All hold value to someone.

So write whatever suits you. Whatever respects you as a human being and respects your gift. There is no right or wrong path, only different ones. And aren’t we lucky that’s true?

Otherwise we would only need one writer. We would only need one book.


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