The writing, publishing, and marketing landscapes of books is very fluid these days. They refuse to be nailed down to the “Tried and True” solutions anymore. Given that, how does a writer go about choosing a topic/genre to write in these days of shifting sands? Fiction or nonfiction, the problem is universal if you’re going to write for any audience beyond yourself, friends, and family.
Every level in the book industry is trying to second guess what will be a good seller, if not a best seller, next. Their solutions depend on anything from very expensive market surveying and focus groups to trying modifications to what’s working now, to ouiji boards. I’d like to address the writers today. All you other levels in the book industry are welcome to listen in since what the writers produce have a major impact on you.
Write what you know?
This is a common sage bit of advice handed out to beginning writers that makes sense; however, there are some exceptions. Yes, if you write about themes that are familiar to you already, you stand a better chance of producing something that will be interesting to others. In the 1980s and 90s, I wrote several books about the subject of self-defense applied to the military, police, and street defenses. I had studied various fighting system since I was about ten-years-old, especially the Korean killing and maiming art of Hapkido. I had taught many people around the world and had people contacting me about how my information saved their lives. The problem was there were only so many ways one can fold, spindle, and mutilate an opponent. I was getting bored with repackaging the same stuff for different applications. I branched out into self-reliance, political, and later in history books. Most recently, I’ve been trying my hand at mysteries. I still write about what I know, but I’ve found many ways to use that knowledge. My fictional fight scenes are realistic and I think exciting because of my intimate knowledge of what can happen in violent situations.
Ah, but what about writing about things we don’t know about. Many freelance writers of magazine articles can tell you that it is possible to venture into subjects you know next to nothing about and yet still produce credible material. The same goes for copywriters. My bookstore, The Book Barn in Leavenworth, Kansas, had no books about out historic community to sell tourists and citizens alike that were less than $15. There were some good books, but they were $50 to $65 hardbacks. I asked several of our community’s historians if they would be interested in taking on such a project—nobody was. The inevitable happened. My wife, Barb, said, “You’re going to have to write this book.” I knew the town was the first city in Kansas and had a colorful history, of which I knew few details. I had never written anything historical before. All that meant it took me six months of intense research and drafts and rewrites, in addition to taking a lot of pictures of film pictures. The result was a colorful paperback which won three design awards and keeps selling steadily to the exact markets it was written for. Here is the cover of Leavenworth: First City of Kansas.
The Scientific Approach
Another interesting approach to find a topic to write about is to use the tools of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Go to Google or any other major search engine and type in “keywords” and “adwords” and “SEO” and you will be led to any number of services and softwares packages running anywhere from free, to try it before you buy it, or simply purchase one of these many tools. They will explain how to take a key word and enter it into their evaluation engine, which will tell you how many times the word has been requested in a certain time period. You want something that appears to have been requested at least a respectable number of times in the period but not a huge number of times. Too many times means there will be too many others like you jumping onto that bandwagon—why ask for stiff competition. The tool should give you an idea of what those ranges might be. Remember my explanation of Long Tail Marketing in my 31 May, 2010 blog post, Comments on a Garrison Keillor Column by Bob Spear? These types of tools are how one goes about identifying niches in a long tail. By finding several closely related keywords that provide encouraging results and are interesting may have just what you need to write about.
Look for Synergy
Be on the lookout for topics that can be used in interesting combinations. Independence, Missouri and bestselling author Jim Butcher did that very successfully. He combined the genre of hardboiled detective mysteries with the paranormal genre (both of which have been hot genres in the past). Out of that came a big city private eye who happens to be a real warlock and takes on werewolf and vampire cases. What a super combination! This is what I mean by synergy. If nothing else, it is one way to take a couple of tried and true but hackneyed genres and build in new excitement through their use in combination. Try looking at the familiar with a new pair of glasses.
Now, go thou and try something. Who knows where it might lead.