How can you sell books if you don’t know your market?

Perhaps no one in country music knew his market better than Porter Waggoner.
Perhaps no one in country music knew his market better than Porter Waggoner.

SELLING BOOKS HAS lot in common with selling country music, whether you like or not.  Authors must find, isolate, and target those readers who appreciate the stories they tell well, then remain true and faithful to those readers. Never herd up a group of fans, then wander off and forget them. Lose them, and you’ve lost everything.

Way back in another lifetime, I found myself in Nashville to write an article about the resurgence of country music. Folk music protest songs about the Vietnam war and the British invasion, headed by the Beatles, had almost sounded the death knell for any love songs delivered with a hillbilly twang.

Porter Waggoner had survived simply because he had found a fan base and, through it all, stayed loyal and true to them. I spent a week on the road with Porter, and he was in real fine spirits, considering he had just walked out on a million dollar deal. No sweat. No regrets.

ABC Television had looked out across the American landscape and realized that country music was making a serious comeback and wanted to produce a major new TV show hosted by Porter Waggoner. “We’ll pay you a million dollars,” the ABC executive said.

Now Porter Waggoner had come off a Missouri farm and risen to country music stardom wearing Nudie suites that glistened with sequins, brightly colored suits, usually blue, decorated with large wagon wheels and cactus that glowed as though they were neon in a hillbilly bar.

However, ABC disdained Porter’s outlandish outfit and wanted to make the country music special more mainline and a little more sophisticated, the executive said.

“How do you plan to do that?” Porter asked.

“We want you to wear a tuxedo,” the ABC executive said.

Porter smiled. He looked at the million-dollar check lying on the desk, shrugged, smiled again, and walked out of the room.

The executive caught him in the hall. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“Back to Nashville.”

“But you didn’t sign the contract.”

“Don’t plan to.”

“Why not?”

“I appreciate the offer,” Porter said. “I really do. But right now, I have enough fans out there who’ll buy two hundred thousand copies of my record if all I do is sing happy birthday. They know who I am and what I am. If I walk out on TV stage in a tuxedo, they’ll think, ‘Well, old Porter’s left us now. He’s gone big time and big city. I can’t afford to let them to ever think I’ve left them.”

Porter knew his market. It was definitely not big city. And he was comfortable where he was.

I think that might illustrate the problem facing a lot of writers these days. We think that all we have to do is write a novel, throw it out for Kindles, Nooks, and iPads, and thousands will find it. Sometimes it happens. Mostly it doesn’t.

I know there are exceptions – there always are – but it strikes me that most authors are simply writing novels without really taking the time to identify and define their primary market, then figuring out ways to reach the swarms of readers who make up that particular market.

I believe I would be better off targeting a specific market, then writing the kinds of books those people wanted to sit down and read. That holds true for all of us who have stories trying to climb from our brains crawl onto the blank screens of our word machines.

A little romance.

Some intrigue.

Some suspense.

A mystery.

A murder or two, if necessary.

Strong characters.

A satisfying ending.

Maybe a little violence?

You be the judge.

Maybe a little sex?

Again, that’s your call.

Maybe a fantasy in a world you create?

Everyone is looking for an escape.

Maybe the future?

Maybe the past?

None of it matters. Genre never matters.

The secret is finding those who can’t wait to read the genre you can’t wait to write.

What I like to write are noir thrillers during those early days of World War II.

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