Author Branding, Part Two: Market Research
While it isn’t always possible to get either an honest or an informed answer, for published authors, an obvious place to start our research is with reviews of our books. (Unfortunately, while this will work for my Sebastian series, I don’t have that option with my up-coming thriller series; more about that later.) Unpublished authors can canvas all the writing colleagues, friends, and relatives who’ve read their manuscripts over the years.
So, what do my readers say they like about my Sebastian St. Cyr series? The most frequent responses are, in no necessary order: fast-pacing; complex, richly layered plots; action and suspense; historical accuracy that takes readers into all strata of Regency society; an ensemble of strong characters including a sexy hero; the overarcing mystery in the hero’s personal life (interestingly, the last is inevitably mentioned in person but rarely in written reviews).
For comparative purposes, I then looked at two very different bestselling historical mysteries from 2007: Mistress of the Art of Death and Silent in the Grave (neither of which I have read, so I have no personal prejudices here). Both have female protagonists. “Mistress” is a gritty story about the murder and sexual mutilation of children, set in the time of Henry II (“CSI meets Canterbury Tales”). “Silent” is a cozy set in Victorian England. So, what did the readers of these books like? Fans of “Mistress” repeatedly mention the strong female protagonist, the fascinating historical tidbits and CSI-like forensic details, the secondary romance, and the literary snob appeal of the Chaucer link. Fans of “Silent” liked the strong female protagonist, the Victorian setting, the clothing details, the secondary romance with a dark and mysterious stranger, and the humorous, breezy voice.
I also glanced at what readers of these books said they did NOT like. The secondary romance in “Mistress” annoyed many readers; no one complained about it in “Silent.” This tells me that readers attracted to cozy period mysteries are happy with a romance, whereas at least some readers of “gritty” mysteries will find it an annoyance. Various readers complained of historical inaccuracies. In certain cases these complaints were valid (activities in Victorian England that, while possible, would have raised eyebrows rather than merely earning indulgent smiles; a medieval cholera plague when cholera didn’t actually hit Europe until the 19th century; Sephardic Jews speaking Yiddish, etc); in other cases readers complaining about historical inaccuracies were actually wrong themselves. Some readers of “Mistress” found the prose awkward. Some readers of “Silent” found the breezy voice annoying, and the “strong” female protagonist an idiot. One of my readers said reading my book caused her to suffer what she called “chase-anxiety;” she prefers less suspenseful, less action-packed mysteries with no sex. Several other readers found Sebastian too liberal-minded for their tastes (scary thought). I also know from a link I belong to (CrimeThruTime) that many historical mystery fans didn’t even pick up “Mistress” because they don’t like reading about serial killers of children. Inevitably, the very aspect of a book than attracts some readers will turn off others.
Armed with this kind of information, the author-in-search-of-a-branded-identity then needs to ask some more questions. What is it about my books and about me as a writer that’s different or unique? Who out there would buy what I’m writing? What else is out there that people are buying? What is the market crying for? How do I connect with my readers?
More on that next time.