In Which I Try to Find My Niche

July 2021

My publisher has some very sage words on marketing books. “Find the most segmented group that you can serve well with your books and your marketing and serve them as well as you can.  This is easier and quicker than trying to serve everyone.”

From a marketing point of view, I agree 100%. Indeed it is probably the only way you can market anything without a huge budget. In my old life in technical communication and content strategy I was working and publishing in a highly segmented space. If technical communication and content strategy are not highly segmented enough within the wider sphere of professional writing, my niche within them was structured writing, and within that, my niche was the rhetoric of structured writing, a subject on which I wrote two books. Segmentation is definitely the way to go.

But as a literary proposition, it troubles me. Segmenting a market is one thing. But literature is supposed to be broadening, and addressing a book narrowly to a very narrow segment of audience only serves to entrench them in their own niche, to reinforce their prejudices, to encourage them to turn their eyes inward rather than outward. 

It used to be an accepted principle of civilization that people should read widely. Now the publishing industry increasingly tries to herd readers into narrow genre segments and keep them supplied with a limitless stream of virtually identical books, turning particular genres into forms of addiction. Authors are expected to write only one kind of book. Readers are expected to read only one kind of book.

When you write for such narrow market segments, it changes how you write. It makes you write for a narrower and narrower taste and a narrower and narrower range of opinions. Your work must inevitably become more and more like that of all the other writers in that niche. This is partly from lack of any room to be much different, but also because you will all be reading each other all the time and picking up each other’s habits and patterns of thought. And, in so doing, of course, you become a commodity, easily replaced by the next pastiche artist that knocks on the publisher’s door.

One of my fondest possessions is an anthology published by Doubleday in 1968 called The Best of Both Worlds, An Anthology of Stories for All Ages, compiled by Georgess McHargue.

Everything in it could be read by an intelligent child (though it would probably not be considered child-safe today) and everything in it could be read with enjoyment by an adult of any age. It has stories and novel excerpts from every genre and the list of authors includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. B. White, Evelyn Waugh, William Saroyan, Graham Greene, O Henry, Ernest Hemmingway, Truman Capote, Rumer Godden, Saki, E. Nesbitt, Paul Gallico, Mary Renault, Dylan Thomas, Carl Sandburg, Stephen Leacock, Pearl S. Buck, James Thurber, John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, Joan Aiken, J. R. R. Tolkien, Harper Lee, and Stephen Vincent Benet. And that is far from a complete list. It is wonderful and beautiful and terrifying and inspiring and hugely broadening. It shaped my reading for years afterwards. It is probably the single most significant influence on me as a writer. It may even be the reason I am a writer. 

I can’t imagine anything like that being published today. It is the least segmented thing you could imagine. It is also a symbol of the literary culture that we have lost and that I believe we ought to get back to.

I consider myself to be a Catholic writer (whatever that means). But part of being Catholic is also being catholic, which is to say, broad in your concerns and interests. The Catholic Herald recently published a list of 100 Catholic writers and artists of the last 100 years. It includes names like Anthony Burgess, Arthur Conan Doyle, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemmingway, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Dean Koontz, Elmore Leonard, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, F Scott Fitzgerald, Muriel Spark, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Evelyn Waugh. Not exactly a niche, is it?

There is a movement afoot to create a new Catholic literary revival, a successor to the Catholic literary revival of the last century. But I doubt such a movement can go very far without also reviving a more small-c catholic literary culture. The thing that needs to be revived is the literature of a culture, not the literature of a niche. 

Which is not at all to deny the importance of starting one’s marketing with an addressable niche. But I would seek to serve my niche by getting my readers out of whatever literary ghetto they are in. Or maybe that is the wrong way to look at it. Maybe the niche I want is the rump of people who still want and value the kind of literary culture represented by The Best of Both Worlds. But if those people are my niche, where do I find them?

Found things

Things I found on the web that interested me and might interest you.

The Novelleist

Finding a niche is not just about finding an audience for your novel. These days it is also about finding a niche for your newsletter. Newsletters are the in-thing for writers, which is why I write the one you are currently reading. But the niche for your novels and the niche for your newsletter are not necessarily the same thing. Of course, a writer publishing a newsletter is hoping to build an audience for their novels, but that is a little difficult for someone like me whose book is still several months from release, and for the many other aspiring writers trying to build a platform in order to attract a publisher or an agent. But how do you build a platform — a collection of dedicated readers — when you don’t have a book out for them to read?

Elle Griffin has been building a niche by publishing a newsletter about the places and techniques that independent authors are using to make money online. Griffin is also planning on serializing a novel on Substack. I find this project fascinating. Serialized fiction is hardly new. Dickens’ work all appeared first as serials in various magazines, as did many other novels of the era. The serial novel is now making something of a comeback online, apparently, as another way for authors to do an end run around the traditional publishing industry. I’m not ready to go there myself, but I watch that space with great interest. (And I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that part of the attraction is being spared the purgatorial fires of the editing process.)

Making Six Figures Publishing Online

Elle Griffin’s latest newsletter is an interview with a romance novelist who is making six figures publishing on Kindle Unlimited. Griffin has a number of other such interviews with people making money on other platforms. Finding a niche is not always just about finding a subject or an angle. Sometimes it is about finding a place. I’m certainly not ready to go there. The person she interviewed is writing and publishing two romance novels a month. I don’t even read that many novels in a month, let alone write them. But it is a very good illustration of the power of niche marketing.

But it also rather reinforces my disquiet about niches, because the reader who is consuming romance novels at that rate is probably not sparing much time to look at other kinds of books. They are not, I suspect, someone who is likely to pick up The Best of Both Worlds. (But if I am wrong about that, let me know!)

From the Blog

Grand Tour 11: Intimations of Mortality in a Town Too Pretty to be Beautiful

Only one post from the blog this month because I was so busy trying to figure out my niche that I forgot to write anything. Thinking about marketing has a way of derailing production if you let it. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

This post is another entry from my Grand Tour travel diary. The question of finding my niche does make me ask myself why, when I am supposed to be building a career in fiction, I am spending time publishing a travel diary. (Perhaps you have been asking the same thing.) What can I say? Travel raises questions that interest me. I suspect they are in some ways the same questions that interest me in fiction. This gives me a different way to approach them. The best of both worlds. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

In any case, the post in question is mostly a meditation on human frailty (specifically mine) because I ran out of breath walking around Santa Fe on a hot day. It is an old writer’s trick, to spin great themes out of the smallest and most insignificant of incidents. Unfortunately, we all do it. No niche for me there.