Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.39: Positioning Your Book in the Marketplace

Your Hosts: Howard, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Dongwon

“Positioning feels like the most important question in all of publishing.” — DongWon Song

In this episode we talk about how to ask and answer the question of positioning, which is “who is this book for?”

Credits: This episode was recorded before a live audience aboard Liberty of the Seas by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Identify and describe your target reader. Use comp titles as necessary.

Thing of the week: Black Girl in a Big Dress.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Positioning your book for agents, editors, publishers, bookstores, and, oh yes, readers. Who is this book for, and how do you reach that audience? Positioning answers those questions, looking at title, jacket, release price, release format, release method… Target readership is often defined as fans of this series or that author. The right genre, the right look, the right copy, and the right promotion to the right audience. Comp titles construct a Venn diagram of target readers. Often you are positioning for two or more audiences at the same time! Content must align with packaging and positioning.You need to know the merits of your book, what’s exciting about it, what will people like about it. Meet reader expectations, and if you shift the positioning in a series, make sure you signal the change to your readers.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 39.

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses. Positioning Your Book in the Marketplace.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Dongwon] And we’re not that smart.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.

[Howard] We are recording live on the WXR Retreat in front of a studio audience of our attendees and students and awesome writers…

[Whoo! Applause.]

[Howard] When you heard from them much earlier this year, they had questions. Some of them still have those questions, but this is not an episode where they get to ask them. We’re talking about how you as an author go about positioning your book for the editors who will edit it, the publishers who will publish it, the bookstores who will shelve it and bookstore it, and ultimately the readers who will read it. Because the marketplace is a large and complex thing. Dongwon pitched this idea to us, so I’ll just let him start.

[Dongwon] Positioning is one of my favorite things to talk about. In part, because it feels like the most essential question in all of publishing. It took a long time for me to really understand this concept. I was lucky enough to work with a very brilliant publisher, helped me work through what publishing as a separate activity is, which is independent from editing or releasing the book or whatever it is. For me, it really clicked in when I started to understand this concept of positioning. So, when we talk about publishing, the thing that’s always really important to me, and what feels like, to me, the more I do this, is really the only question is who is this book for. All the other questions that we ask along the way sort of derive from this question of if we’re going to publish this book, who are we trying to publish this book for, and, how do we reach that audience? Right? So, positioning is sort of the summation of a lot of the efforts that we do to try and reach a certain audience. Positioning encompasses title,, what the jacket looks like, how we’re releasing it, so what price point is it released at, what format does it release in. So, all of those things are how we’re positioning it in the market to reach the target readership, which is usually something we’re defining by are they fans of this other series, are they fans of this other author? So when we position something, we really want to make sure it’s in the right genre, it has the right look, the copy is doing everything it needs to do, and we’re promoting it to the right audience.

[Howard] We touched on this little bit in the comp titles episode, and how, when you pick comp titles, part of what you are doing is constructing a Venn diagram for your target readers. But there’s a lot more to it than just comp titling it in terms of defining this.

[Dan] This process is more complicated than simply saying, “Well, I want everyone to read my book.” You don’t get to say that. You need to actually pick a group and figure out how you are going to reach them.

[Mary Robinette] This is one of those things that I wound up learning through the puppetry, which I’m sure surprises everybody. The thing for us was that because we were taking puppetry into elementary schools, we had a show and we needed to appeal to an audience of kids. We needed to convince people that an audience of kids were going to be interested in this. But we also needed to convince people that it would fulfill certain requirements. So, for that, we had to position it as being an educational thing, while at the same time, I’m like, “We’re doing Pinocchio.” So we would have to find the educational things and bring those to the forefront in the way we were presenting it. Knowing that once they cracked the covers, so to speak, once we were there, it would do the job it was setting out to do. At the same time, we couldn’t position it as a scientific inquiry if that was not the experience that we were going to deliver. That, I think, is one of the things that is challenging a lot of times when we’re thinking about books is that we… The positioning actually has to be for two different audiences at the same time. We forget that a lot of times.

[Dongwon] It’s also really important that what’s actually in the book, the content of the book, which is something it feels like we don’t really talk about sometimes where we’re on the business side. But the content of the book has to be in alignment with the packaging and the positioning. Right? If you’re saying that this book is for fans of Naomi Novik, for example, but really it’s going to read like a big military thriller, then that’s not going to really align very well. You’re going to have a lot of frustrated readers. No matter how good your positioning is, if it’s fundamentally a lie or if it’s fundamentally not honest to the reading experience, your whole project’s going to fall apart. So, one of the things… We’ve been making this joke about the homework for this particular series of talks I’ve been giving on the podcast that it’s about soul-searching, in part, because you really need to have a very clear idea of what your book actually is. Craft is often about writing the thing and letting your subconscious write it for you and not thinking aggressively about it. Once you are done with that, however, once it comes to the publishing part, you need to take a step back and have a very clear eyed view of what are the merits of your book. What’s exciting about it? What do people like about it? That will tell you a lot about how you can position it, how you can frame it, so that publishers, agents, and then ultimately, readers, will be very excited about the thing that you’re trying to present to them.

[Howard] One of the challenges I’ve had recently with Schlock Mercenary is that I’ve gotten to a point in the story where it is totally story appropriate and extremely science-fictiony fun to explore the relationship between people who are grieving the death of a loved one and the cloned replacement of that loved one. I could noodle on that and tell jokes on that for weeks. I will never forget, it was several years ago, somebody in one of the forums… I don’t remember which one… Said, “I’m liking the story, but it’s been a while since anything exploded.” Oh, that’s right. Oh, I’m telling a science-fiction comic in which things are supposed to explode. So, positioning my book in the marketplace… That’s been done. While there are nuances I am adding that might cause it to shift its position a little bit, there are still readers who are counting the number of weeks between explosions. I need to keep their numbers below about four.


[Dongwon] A lot of this is very much about meeting reader expectations. So, you can shift your positioning in the middle of a series. We see a lot of people do this. But, if you’re going to do that, you need to find other ways to signal to them that you’re making a shift in positioning. So your cover’s aisle might change a little bit. If you’ve used a very rigid title format, which we see in a lot of series, you may want to switch that up, invert it. What you need to do is have a lot of signposts and signals that this is for a slightly different readership than what it’s been before. That way, people can make an informed decision about whether or not this book is for them.

[Howard] Let’s have a non-book of the week of the week.

[Mary Robinette] I am so excited about this web series. It’s called Black Girl in a Big Dress. This hits all of my nerdy buttons. So, the main character is a black girl in a big dress, strangely. Truth in advertising. But she is a cosplayer, and she is specifically a cosplayer who loves Victoriana. So the entire web series is dealing with the idea of what people… Of expectations. She has a cousin who’s like, “Black girls don’t say that.” She’s like, “Excuse me. I am a black girl, and I say these things.” There’s all of this stuff that’s interrogating race and expectations and society and also some of these steaming love scenes where two people are sitting quietly by a fireplace, not speaking to each other, in exquisite clothing. One of them will say, “This is the most romantic thing I have ever experienced.”


[Mary Robinette] The other one will say something like, “Yes, my dear. I do believe we are in love.” Then they’ll go back to reading. It’s amazing. I love this. Then, he kissed her glove. [Gasp] It’s great. It’s funny. There’s beautiful costumes. It’s short. You can binge it. She is just getting ready to do season two. So go to YouTube and Black Girl in a Big Dress. I am a huge, huge fan of this.

[Howard] Okay. Back to marketplace, marketplace positioning. What are some mistakes that we’ve seen authors make, that we’ve seen publishers make? If we’re not afraid to name names, then that’s fine.


[Howard] If we’re afraid to name names, then anonymize it.

[Mary Robinette] Well, I’ll actually talk about something… It was a deliberate choice that we made with the Glamorous Histories series. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we had made a different choice. The first book is straight up a romantic… It’s a straight up romance, Austen pastiche. So we have come up with a… I say we. Every time they showed me a cover, I’m like, “That’s beautiful.” But the covers are all very, very romance heavy. The fourth book is a heist novel. Like, it’s not a romance. I have wondered what would have happened if we had shifted the positioning on that when it came out. Whether I would have lost audience because of doing that, because it no longer looked like the rest of the books in the series, or whether I would have picked up new audience because anyone who is interested in a heist would recognize it as such? So it’s not so much a mistake as it’s like this was a choice that we made. What would have happened if we had made a different choice?

[Dongwon] One thing that can be really interesting is if you go to the bookstore or you go into the market and look for books that have been recovered over the course of that book’s life cycle, right? So, I think Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy… I think it’s on its third or fourth set of covers at this point. They’ve established many different looks for that book. Each one of them has worked in its own way, and continued to build his career. I think it’s really fascinating to see how they’ve chosen to position that book over time to sort of update where the trends in the marketplace are and get a sense of who his audience is, and continued to evolve that and grow that and refine that positioning. That can be a really useful thing for you guys as consumers to take a look at. You can start to unpack some of the logic of what they’re doing. If this book has a very maps oriented look, a very Lord of the Rings-y kind of vibe, versus this, which has a very cinematic vibe, versus the new style, which has a more abstract art vibe. Get a sense of why are they making those choices. One thing that we hear a lot in the industry is a lot of readers love to complain about covers. I completely understand why. Because you have a very powerful attachment to the cover design often. But those are very deliberate choices that are being made by the publisher. You may not always agree with them. But what you can do is start to unpack the logic of why they’re doing this thing. Even if it’s a thing that doesn’t work out, or if it’s a thing that you think is completely wrong for the book. It can be a really interesting thought exercise to try and reverse engineer what was the process the publisher was going through when they were revising the positioning of this thing that’s already been released and usually already successful.

[Dan] I’ve learned a lot about this particular topic doing hand selling at conventions. Because it is incredible to talk with readers and see which lines work on them and which lines don’t. One of the things that stands out to me, and I’ve got a couple stories. One that stands out, and I cannot remember the author’s name. But he’s an epic fantasy author who…

[Dongwon] Brandon Sanderson?

[Dan] No. But he uses Brandon as his thing. He shares a booth with me sometimes. We’ll all be in there, all these authors kind of shilling our books to people, we all have our own pitches. He just sits in the corner, he doesn’t have a big billboard, he doesn’t have anything. He just has like a big 3 inch thick fantasy book. People walk by, and he’ll just be sitting on his stool with his arms folded and say, “You guys like epic fantasy? Kind of sort of like Brandon Sanderson or George Martin?” He sells out every single time. So knowing who your audience is and having the product that they want is kind of step one, right? Making sure you know who they are. If you are this audience, you will buy his book. It’s really kind of amazing to watch him do nothing and work just because he knows who his audience is so clearly. One of the other people… I’m going to mention Claudia Gray, who among her many fantastic books, she has a Star Wars book called Lost Stars. Which is a YA romance. It is so clearly a YA romance, but is also a Star Wars book about an Imperial officer and a rebel pirate who are in love with each other. She has found, over the years, that she needs to present that book entirely differently depending on who comes. She can 100% sell that YA romance to a 50-year-old man every single time. But she doesn’t pitch it as a YA romance. She pitches it as a Star Wars book, and sets up kind of all of the background information about what’s going on with the Empire and the pilots and things and how it connects to the movies. So knowing who the audience is, and in that situation, we can adapt on-the-fly. In other situations, you have to plan ahead. With my book, Extreme Makeover, it’s standalone science fiction. I sat down and I was trying to figure out how to position that book and who the audience was. Exactly what Dongwon was talking about at the beginning. Realized that one of the audiences I had not considered is… How to say this? It’s a book about the beauty industry. It’s a book about a beauty company destroying the world. I used to work in the beauty industry. I worked there for eight years. So for me, this was just a book. But once I identified how much more easily it was to sell a book about the beauty industry to women than to men, that entirely change the way that I started positioning my book.

[Howard] I’ve pointed out in the past when we’ve talked about the challenges between self-publishing and publishing through the agented model. It’s the difference between can you sell your book to anybody out on the street, can you sell your book 1000 times, or can you sell your book once. Increasingly, I’ve come to realize that if you think you have the skill set to sell your book 1000 times, if you can make this pitch, if you can recognize your audience, if you can go, “Huh? You like big fat fantasy books? Well, there’s one.” And sell it. Then you probably have the skill set to take it to an agent, to take it to an editor, because you have already identified the audience for them. If you can convince them that you have already identified the audience… Correct me if I’m wrong, Dongwon, but I think they’re really happy when that walks into the room.

[Dongwon] Absolutely. One thing I really want to get across, thank you for bringing this up, Howard, is that it’s the same skill set. It’s the same challenge, right? If you’re self-publishing, if you’re working with a small press or even with a big five press, positioning is still the same fundamental question. Who is this book for? How do we reach that audience? The only difference is how many people are working to solve that problem with you. If you’re on your own, self-publishing, it’s on you to figure it out. If you’re good at that kind of stuff, you’re going to do great in that market. If you don’t know where to start with that, then what you’re really going to have to do is find a bigger team who can help support you and help you answer some of those questions.

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to mention a podcast that we did in a previous season, which was with Michael Underwood, and that was Hand Selling Your Book. Which talks a lot about… That’s a good one to go back and listen to, because it does talk a lot about the tools that you can use once you’ve identified the audience to kind of adjust your presentation for them. Then, the other thing that I just want to draw a line under is that when we’re talking about audience, we are talking about being specific with who it is. It’s not everybody, it’s being super specific. Sometimes, the easiest way to do that is rather than think, “Ah, it’s for women,” think about a specific woman. Or a specific set of women that you know. Sometimes even bring them in as your early readers in the development process while you are… So that you are positioning in some ways from the get go.

[Howard] That brings us around quite nicely to the homework which Dongwon has for us.

[Dongwon] So, like I said, the central question in publishing is who is the book for. So what I’d like you guys to do is start figuring out a way to answer that question for yourself. This answer will evolve over time as you continue to write this book, as it enters the publishing process. But if you start now and you start early and decide who your reader is, that’ll help you define all the other parts of your process. Including the writing process and the creative process. So what I’d like you to do is make a list of attributes of your target readership. Who is the demographic that this book is for? The best way to do that is using the comp titles. So you can use that as a proxy and help you start identifying who’s the fan base for this book, how do I reach them, how do I identify them?

[Howard] Thank you, Dongwon. Thank you to our audience here on the Liberty of the Seas.

[Whoo! Applause]

[Howard] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.