When you think about genres like science fiction, fantasy or horror, what are the first names that come to mind? Asimov? Tolkien? King? Probably. You might struggle to name the second tier of people - their names come slightly more slowly.
Only one or two names will leap to mind instantly in any category of fiction. They are the master authors in their particular field. They dominate that category. There are obviously many authors in any given grouping, not just one - but it’s the one who leaps to mind who ‘rules’ that category as far as general perceptions are concerned. Perceptions mean everything in marketing. Ideally, that’s where you want to be with your book: the first name that people think of. But how can you get to be that first name in people's perceptions?
Here’s a clue: it’s not about ‘visibility’.
Writers can waste thousands of pounds or dollars or whatever their local currency is, as well as hundreds and hundreds of hours, seeking the supposedly Holy Grail of ‘visibility'. The thinking is that the more visible you are, the more sales you’ll get. You know the kind of thing: ‘If only I can get my book in front of a million people, then a certain percentage of them are bound to buy it…’
But these days anyone with a webcam, a YouTube account and a document they call a ‘book’ can become visible and get millions of hits and comments. Some may even get picked up by the mainstream media and have their 15 minutes of fame, per Andy Warhol. But then they will vanish, swept over the edge into oblivion, like someone plunging into Niagara Falls. Visibility isn’t enough.
It isn’t even what you should be aiming for.
Fiction is a crowded marketplace, looked at as a whole. And master authors, or best-selling authors (not always the same thing, but usually) have in many cases been around for years. Trying to replace them in people's minds will be difficult if not impossible. That's because the position is already filled.
So what is the answer?
Create your own empty place.
Put together a whole new category in which your book can be Number One. How do you do that? 1. Know your book.
Step back from your book for a moment.
Perhaps you wrote it with a genre very much in mind; perhaps your work is more ‘literary’ and therefore free from any simple generic descriptors. Or perhaps your work lies between these two: it has some features of a particular genre or genres, but has some things in it which stretch that genre or lie outside of it altogether.
Even if your book seems a very ‘standard’ representative of a kind or type, what you need to try and do is come up with one word - a single word - which describes your particular niche. If you can’t condense it to one word, go for two at the most.
Maybe it’s ‘Ascendancy’. Maybe it’s ‘Numinescence’. Maybe it’s ‘Holy Adventure’. Maybe it’s ‘Comedy Monarchs’.
You might be striving to find a word that is broad enough to include and attract lots of people. That would be a mistake.
That's right: a mistake. You don't want 'lots of people'.
You want a smaller group of very interested people.
That’s right, you're hearing this correctly (though something in you may protest!)
You want a category which, when you think about it, you can’t think of any other name but your own.
‘But I’ve already written my book!’ you might protest. ‘It’s not that different from everyone else's!’ Trust me - there will be something about your book, if it’s any good at all, which makes it different to any other book ever written. Look at Star Wars: it’s almost the tale of The Lord of the Rings but in space. But it has light sabers. ‘Light sabers’ might be a good two words to define its uniqueness.
Something different enough to create its own little genre.
The Lord of the Rings itself is another book which created its own category and then became Number One in it. ‘Magic Ring-Quest’ might also make people think of Wagner or other fairy stories; ‘Hobbit’s Ring-Quest’ can only be Tolkien.
J. K. Rowling invented the ‘Magical School-story’ genre; Terry Pratchett the ‘Comedy Fantasy’ - and so on.
2. Be a master of positioning.
Once you’ve defined your category, it’s time to define its relationship to other categories, or what is called its ‘positioning’.
You need to define your positioning in less than ten words.
‘Ten words?’ you might complain. ‘That’s too narrow!’ Which means that you haven’t quite grasped the idea yet.
You want narrowness; you want to be pigeonholed. You can own a pigeonhole; you can be master of a narrow channel.
You're not trying to rule the ocean - just one decent-sized lake.
‘Comedy Tudors, like History Channel meets Three Stooges’.
‘Numinescent Gladiators’: what if Russell Crowe had been an angel in disguise?
The Knights Templar and their bungled missions result in ‘Holy Misadventure’.
‘R2-D2 becomes the Emperor of the Universe’ = ‘Robognome Ascendancy’.
Silly examples, perhaps - but look at the positioning of more established works and you might get a better idea of what I mean.
What if the bullied, peculiar girl at school had supernatural powers? (Carrie)
Let’s combine political thrillers with superheroes and get Captain America and the Winter Soldier.
Spooky, decrepit old woman in a house where Time is frozen tries to break child’s heart: Great Expectations.
What would your book’s positioning statement be?
Think: familiar + familiar = something very different if that helps.
3. Own your channel.
Readers’ minds are made up of pigeonholes.
All human minds are similarly constructed of tiny boxes, each one with its own ‘pigeon’. Minds don’t like empty boxes: as we saw earlier, attention flows towards emptiness in an effort to fill it.
The box you think you’re trying to fill in the reader’s mind is likely to be already full. It’s hard to jam two pigeons into the same hole.
So make a new box.
To succeed as a writer, you don’t need to control or own the entire mind. Just one box.
Be Number One in your own box.
And if you can't wait, get my book.