How Choosing Your Topic Wisely Can Mean Selling More Books

As a self-publisher, you are ultimately going into business. The first and most important step any potential businessperson takes is to decide what product or service to offer customers. So, too, you must determine your “vehicle.” Some forms of writing hold more promise for commercial success than others. You may dream of turning out a volume of poetry, writing a novel, or telling your life story. And you may feel a deep passion for your project. But if making money is your primary goal, you could face an uphill climb. Here are some tips that will help.

Whether you’ve already written your book, know what you are going to write about, or have yet to pick a subject, there are several steps you can take to help ensure its salability. A marketable subject is vital both for commercial publication and for self-publishing.

Some books quickly establish phenomenal sales records and rocket to best-seller status, while others languish, awaiting unceremonious last rites. Why? There are two reasons…

1.) The winners are usually about hot, timely subjects, and
2.)  they’ve been aggressively promoted.

Subject matter greatly influences your book’s track record. Choosing a marketable topic is the first step toward the best-seller dream to which all authors cling (secretly or admittedly). But how do you know what’s marketable?

Nonfiction tops the list. People are hungry for information. It can take the form of a book that shows how to do or make something or gives a formula for self-improvement. Books that show readers how to be wealthier, healthier, or sexier lead the pack.

Capitalizing on New Trends

Beyond the general hunger to be skinnier, richer, and more popular, certain specific topics are more salable than others. Catching the tide of current or anticipated trends is certainly one good way to find a salable topic. By staying alert, you can recognize a hidden need for information before others do. Bingo! A timely, marketable subject. Tune into hot topics. But be careful not to be trapped by a fad. The trick lies in determining the difference between a fad, which can be here today and gone tomorrow, and a genuine trend. Ignore the transient fads.

How can you tell a genuine ongoing trend from a mere novelty? The best you can do is make a shrewd guess. Ask yourself if it’s a single, freaky happening unrelated to anything else or an eruption into wide popularity of something of long-standing interest: fitness, maybe, or organically grown foods. Ask yourself if a lot of people are likely to remain interested in it in a year or two. Think whether other ideas in this field have tended to flash and die or whether they’ve lasted at least long enough for a book on the subject to be written, published, and find an interested readership. You can’t really know for sure, but you can do your best to see that the star to which you’ve hitched your hopes isn’t bright just because it’s falling.

Currently spirituality and religion are hot—in the workplace as well as the home. Of course the subject of money continues to pique peoples’ interest: earning it, investing it, making it, saving it.

Americans continue to be caught up in diet and exercise. There are hundreds of books on these topics. It would make no sense to come out with another run-of-the-mill (pardon the pun) tome on jogging. If you are clever, however, you may find a new way to ride the wave of interest others have generated. Exercise has been popular through the ages. Speaking of aging, books for people fifty and older are in great demand as the baby boomers mature. They seek titles on managing personal finances, volunteerism, aging gracefully, health and fitness, part-time self-employment, downsizing your budget, gardening, and more.

How many books on a subject are too many? Look closely at the competition. Do the existing books leave a gap your book could turn into a target? Remember, if your book is to stand out from the pack, it must have a fresh angle, a unique approach or information to persuade a prospective reader to buy it rather than one of the others.

Ask a few bookstore buyers or managers how well your competition is selling. If it’s one a month, maybe you ought to choose another project. If bookstores are reordering frequently and getting lots of requests, then maybe your book will do well, too. When searching for a marketable subject, one trick is to look at what type of book is selling well, then take a different approach.

For a self-publisher, it’s important to select a specific, clearly defined market. Niches can equal riches. Write for dog lovers, organic gardeners, or parents of disabled children rather than for everybody. By purposely ignoring big general groups and targeting a select audience, you can find and penetrate your market.

Evaluate the possibilities carefully. People are willing to buy and own several cookbooks or gardening guides because these subjects are broad and of general interest. But how many books on hang gliding or training your pet gerbil to do tricks would you want to own? If one would be enough (or too much), your entry into an already crowded field could not be expected to do very well.

Take these things into account and remember that your book’s success isn’t solely dependent on how good a book it is; it’ll depend on how many people need and want it. Don’t let your enthusiasm for bringing out a complete guide to beekeeping blind you to the limited appeal of the subject.

Researching Potential Markets

Want to do stealth research to determine a marketable subject? Become a lurker! Lurkers visit chat rooms, discussion groups, social media networks, or whatever you choose to call groups of people who deliberate online about specific topics. There are (take our word for it) several online groups devoted to your potential subject.

What you want to do is sign on so you can read what is being said, then audit it to determine concerns and problems these people are having. When you see a pattern emerge, you’ve just learned about a need you might want to fill. Another idea is to take a more visible approach and actually ask the members to participate in a simple survey to help pinpoint their needs and wants.

As you climb the sheer cliffs of self-publishing, look for tiny crevices that have been passed over by the “big guys.” You’re a lot less likely to be outscaled by the competition if you define a small niche and address yourself to that audience. For instance, major trade publishers weren’t inclined to do a children’s guide to San Diego, but a private publisher tackled this topic very successfully.

Write What You Know

Of course, you can also hook up to your own personal knowledge. No matter who you are, where you live, or how old you are, you know more about something than most folks, and therefore you possess special knowledge that other people will pay for. All you have to do is write what you know. People from all walks of life, not just professional writers, do it all the time.

“But what do I have to write about?” you ask.

First grab a pad of paper and a pencil. Start listing your hobbies and interests. Write down the jobs you’ve had, and especially note any job functions or procedures that you particularly enjoyed or were good at.

Now think about your successes. Have you won any honors or contests? Received special recognition for something? Do people always praise you for a characteristic or skill? That could contain the germ of a book, because if you are successful, you’re better than most people, and thus you’re an expert with information to sell. But know-how is worthless without “do-how.” What’s do-how? It’s action. Synergy. Innovation. Persistence.

Also think about your failures. That’s how my colleague Marilyn Ross came up with the book Country Bound! Trade Your Business Suit Blues for Blue Jean Dreams. She and her husband, Tom, moved from San Diego, California, to a town of five hundred people in central Colorado. What a disaster! They lost a huge amount of money, suffered unimaginable heartache, and learned a lot about themselves they would never have known. So they wrote a book and turned their crash into cash. It was not just a story about their own experiences but a how-to book to guide folks in carefully evaluating this life-altering decision, and to offer practical suggestions on how to acclimate to rural America.

Before jumping into a book project, the smart people do their homework. Hop on over to to find out what books are already available on the subject and what they are titled. Get the top books in your category and study them. What are their angles? What solutions are they offering? Can you think of better answers? What is missing? Your job is to go the extra inch, to improve on those books.

So remember: Positioning your product means giving your book a competitive edge by making it different or special in some way. And what this ultimately means is giving your book extra sales clout.

(Portions of this article were excerpted from The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition, by Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier; Writer’s Digest Books, 2010.)

About the author  ⁄ Sue Collier

Self-publishing expert SUE COLLIER is coauthor of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition (Writer’s Digest Books, 2010) and the forthcoming Jump Start Your Books Sales, 2nd Edition (Communication Creativity, 2011). She has been working with authors and small presses for more than two decades, providing writing, editing, production, and promotions work for hundreds of book projects. Visit her website and blog Self-Publishing Resources, where you can also sign up for her free monthly self-publishing and book promoting ezine Websites, Wisdom, & Whimsy.

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