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On Bookselling: Looking for Trends

So! I told you Tuesday about my meteoric rise to bestseller status at Amazon. I showed you a screenshot of Taming Fire contending with Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson for the rank of 82. I told you about the productivity-killing curse of ever-changing sales numbers, and that I was over and done with it.

I lied. I’ve watched very closely as Taming Fire climbed another 20 spots or so over the last couple days. Now I’m in contention with Patrick Rothfuss and the greatest fantasy novel of all time, The Name of the Wind. It’s a heady place to be.

Making Comparisons

I spend a lot of time talking about this to anyone who will listen. Among them is Joshua (who popped in for a couple guest posts a couple weeks ago). He’s got two Weird Westerns slated to go up in 2012, and he’s wondering what Taming Fire‘s sales numbers might mean for him. He’s thinking maybe he should write a fantasy novel.

Among them also is Courtney, whom you know quite well, and who already has a Christian fantasy novel available at Amazon. It’s not selling this much.

And, of course, there’s my other books. I’ve got Gods Tomorrow and Ghost Targets: Expectation in my sci-fi mystery thriller series, and the third book (Restraint) is due out in August. But it took Taming Fire about two weeks to eclipse all the sales, ever, of both those books combined.

I said on Tuesday that Taming Fire‘s success has been a little baffling. That’s primarily because of these comparisons. Why is Taming Fire selling so much more than Colors of Deception? Why is it selling so much more than Gods Tomorrow? Why isn’t its success generating sales of Gods Tomorrow?

If you’ve been writing long, you’ve probably heard the advice before: “You should never compare your success to that of other writers.” It’s oft-repeated and for good reasons. Writing (or for that matter any entertainment) is such a strangely uneven business that the only reasonable move for your sanity is to pick what counts as success for you, and work toward that.

If it’s getting your books read by a certain number of people, work toward that. If it’s making a certain amount of money, work toward that. If it’s changing the way the whole developed world views the value and production of art…well, you’ve got a lot of work ahead. Still, don’t waste time comparing yourself to Bono.


That irregularity becomes a real problem for a businessman, though. As a self-publisher, there’s an awful lot of learning and an awful lot of trial-and-error.

It’s a hugely competitive market, and we all want to do everything we can to stand out. We consider things like running banner ads for our books, going on a book tour (or a blog tour), doing interviews, printing off bookmarks, sending out flyers, participating in discussion boards, spamming Facebook and Twitter, redesigning our covers, reworking our product descriptions, choreographing book trailers, releasing podiobooks….

Any one of those could produce sales. Every one of those will take your time and focus away from writing new books. And that brings us to another bit of advice we’ve heard again and again: “If you want to be a writer in this day and age, you’ve got to be a businessman, too.”

We have to do some amount of self-promotion and sales and design, but how do we know what’s worth doing? How do we judge the return-on-investment?

That’s precisely what we’re asking at Consortium Books right now. That’s what I’m asking myself when I can’t fall asleep at night. What did I do right for Taming Fire that I did wrong for Gods Tomorrow? What can I do for Gods Tomorrow to make it catch up? Should I bother, or should I focus entirely on rushing out the sequel to Taming Fire instead?

The way a savvy businessman answers these questions is by looking at trends. And, as I’ve said, there are no trends. The data points look dangerously close to random.

One idea that’s been bandied about at Consortium Books Headquarters is that Taming Fire is selling so well because it’s a fantasy novel, and fantasy is such an active genre. Then again, Gods Tomorrow is a sci-fi mystery thriller, and all three of those are nearly as active as fantasy. But Gods Tomorrow is our poorest-performing title.

Meanwhile Colors of Deception sits in a relatively languid category at Christian Fantasy, but it sells four or five copies for every one I sell of Gods Tomorrow. See what I mean? The trends are worthless.

Targeting a Market

And yet, even in the heart of all that uncertainty, I’m willing to make one clear guess as to why this book has been, entirely on its own, so much more successful than our others. And the answer lies in the worst review my book has gotten (so far) at

Aaron Pogue’s Taming Fire is your typical high fantasy. There’s the outcast hero; the smart, daring princess; the evil sorcerer; and DRAGONS! Daven is looking for a way to fit in this world where he is known only as the son of a thief. Then a mysterious magician recruits him to the school of magic to fight off the impending doom of dragons. Can Daven live up to the magician’s expectations and save the kingdom, or is he really a good for nothing?

I love the way Aaron has depicted the dragon in this book. It’s got strong writing and solid characters, but there’s not much to distinguish it from all the other fantasy books out there. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to a quick read in a fantastical land.

3 stars.

— Jessie Sanders (my own editor, ladies and gentlemen), used without permission.

I really suspect Taming Fire is selling because it’s a fantasy novel. Not because fantasy is a busy genre, not because fantasy fans have some special predilection for e-readers, but because Taming Fire is just a fantasy novel. Jessie’s review spells it out clearly. If you go to looking for a fantasy novel and you stumble across Taming Fire, you’re going to know you’ve found one.

It’s in the cover art. It’s in the title (no matter what Joshua says). It’s in the product description. It’s in every page of the book.

The whole challenge for writers today is catching the attention of readers. It’s your job as a writer to tell an interesting story and tell it well. But it’s your job as marketer and promoter to catch the attention of the people who would like your book, and convince them to give it a chance.

That’s called targeting an audience. With Taming Fire it was easy. With Gods Tomorrow, I gave myself an uphill battle. Still, it can be done. I’ve spent the last week thinking hard about these things, and Gods Tomorrow has gone through three major changes in that time.

You really don’t have to write center-of-the-road genre fiction to be successful, but you can save yourself some trouble if you do a little bit of market targeting early on. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll talk about how.

4 Responses to “On Bookselling: Looking for Trends”

  1. Alan Pogue says:

    Could it be as simple as the price point?

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Not really, because the three books I’m talking about here (Gods Tomorrow, Colors of Deception, and Taming Fire) are all priced at $0.99. And their performances are radically different (orders of magnitude from one to the next).

      The closest thing I’ve got to a direct comparison is between Gods Tomorrow and its sequel, Ghost Targets: Expectation. They’re aimed at the same market, they have similar covers and descriptions, and they’re both by the same author.

      The only difference there is price point (where Expectation costs three times as much as Gods Tomorrow). But even in that case, I get 1 sale of Expectation for every 2 sales of Gods Tomorrow (so I’m beating out the difference in cost). That’s still not a direct comparison of the effects of cost, though, because the only people who would even consider buying Expectation are people who’ve already bought Gods Tomorrow (since it is the sequel).

      So, really, there’s just not enough information. The information that is available is all incredibly promising (I love that I’m selling between 1:2 with Expectation, and I love that Taming Fire is selling so many copies, no matter how baffling it is). It’s just too jittery to find a trendline until we get a lot more samples.

  2. Mike says:

    One thing that I found refreshing about Taming Fire was the persona of Daven himself…I cannot pinpoint what it is other than say that it is a fantastic read.
    I have been reading fantasy for as long as I can remember…and until the ebook format allowed easy access to indie authors, I was resigned to re-reading old favorites until the new ones books came out.
    Each author puts their spin on the genre’s classic format..but in the end, I devour anything that has great detail, witty characters and a fast paced storyline.
    Really looking forward to the sequel..and I plan to check out your other works as well.
    Well done!

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Thanks so much, Mike! Daven is a character near and dear to my heart, so it means a lot to me to hear that he “works” on the page.

      I think the access to indie authors available in the new digital market is incredibly exciting. Obviously it’s been great for me, personally, but I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for all authors and for anyone who likes to read good books. The more we can let stories compete on their actual merits, and the more we can help writers find their niche audiences instead of requiring everyone to bend their stories toward mass audiences, the better stories become.