Remember the moment you first dreamed of becoming a writer?

Maybe you were reclining in a comfy chair in your home library, sipping a cup of coffee, gazing at your beautiful books. Maybe it was high school English class studying Dostoevsky’s social commentary on czarist Russia. Maybe you wrote a story and a teacher encouraged you to submit it to a school magazine. Maybe you majored in creative writing in college, mentoring under professors who touted their M.F.As or Ph.Ds teaching the mastery of literature, language, imagery and allegory.

But none of this teaches you how to write a bestseller.

Let me be frank: I enjoy literature, not commercial fiction like Dan Brown or John Grisham. But there’s a reason why “literary” books like The Kite Runner sell better than anything by Thomas Pynchon.

So what’s the key? Marketing.

Now, you may not want to think like corporate publishers. Marketing may sound like a menacing business term. But if you grasp it, you’ll be infinitely more prepared to shop around your first manuscript. Let’s break it down:

Marketing: What it is

  • Knowing your target customers and what they want
  • Knowing why your product attracts your customers, and
  • Directing customers to your product while monitoring your competition.

It’s accomplished through market research—obtaining feedback from current and potential customers. In the business world, companies distribute surveys, analyze trends, and study competitors.

Marketing: What it isn't

Advertising or promotion. Advertising is not synonymous with marketing. If your product has no market, no amount of promotion will sell it. In the 1990s, Sony spent a fortune developing the MiniDisc—a high-quality diskette that could record and playback sound. But nobody wanted to switch from the CD.

So what does that mean to you, a writer aspiring to publish? Simple. Save yourself some heartache and identify who would want to buy your book before you spend years writing it.

Don’t make the rookie mistake of assuming anyone could buy your book. I mean, you’re right. Anyone could. But publishers ask who wants to buy your book. To answer that, do the following:

1. Understand your readers.

Think about it. What customer buys Metamucil? Is it the same as the one who buys tooth-whitener? Probably not. So is your book is intended for readers over 40 or for those around 18-25? And if so, is your narrative style fitting? Target audiences also boil down to things like gender, ethnicity, and even annual income!

Also, keep in mind readers read for different reasons than writers write. Some readers seek strong literary work. Some desire escapism (“check-your-head-at-the-door”). Writers, on the contrary, want to express themselves. Well, you might author a complex UFO tale as an allegory for the poor and marginalized, but if your readers want Star Wars you will lose them.

2. Understand genre.

Likely, the first thing an agent will do with your manuscript is determine on what bookshelf it will sell. Will it be filed under Sci-fi? Horror? Mystery? Romance? You may feel this doesn’t do your project justice, but publishers use genre to forecast sales. So be fluent in it.

If your genre isn’t popular right now, it’s less likely they’ll consider your book. But if the genre is popular and you position your book as a fresh idea in the market, you’re exponentially more likely to get published!

3. Matching story ideas to media

Is your idea better suited for a novel, short story, screenplay or stage play? Well, it depends. Screenplays can be lucrative, but the market is flooded. Stage plays have less competition and reliance on corporate money, but have little distribution. Novels are a purer art form (in my opinion, although I’m biased), because no one can change what’s on the page. And short stories can be published virtually anywhere—a magazine, a trade journal, a website—anywhere.

Evaluate your idea. Does it have the complexity to carry a 300-page novel? Or is the payoff too small in scope? (If so, consider the short story or screenplay option.)

Be honest. Did you come up with your vampire story by reading Anne Rice or by watching Buffy? If it was Buffy, write it as a screenplay. The horror market for fiction is completely different than for screenplays.

Also, hate to say it, but some media are dead. Novellas are antiquated, unless you can compile several into a book. Printing expenses for a book less than 40,000 words (or 200 printed pages) rarely justify an investment to publish. Why? Bookstores don’t like to carry products with little shelf presence.

4. Research markets intuitively

Lastly, do some independent market research. No need for surveys. Just pay attention. Glance at Publishers Weekly or the NY Times Bestseller List. Want to know what stories are hot? Go to the movies. Disaster was big once (Armageddon, Twister, Titanic) but now treasure hunts are in style (Da Vinci Code, Fool’s Gold, National Treasure). Just monitor yourself… don’t fall into the land of “I-can-write-better-than-that!”

Sample readers are the last step… because a reader will only read something once.

I used to work in customer service. We listened to aggravating callers jabber about what they disliked about our company. Our website sucked. Our forms were confusing. They were on hold for too long. My coworkers and I usually just shrugged it off.

One day my boss said, “I love complaints!” “Why?” I asked. “It’s invaluable information!” he cried. “Every complaint we get represents a hundred people who didn’t complain about the same problem.”

He had a point: People rarely stick around to explain why they don’t buy your product. They just move on to someone else who serves them better.

You write a chapter and someone says it’s boring or cliché or predictable. You may feel defensive. You may even shout it’s a first draft! Or I worked really hard on this! You just don’t get it! But writers don’t deserve leeway, just like readers don’t have obligation. Use their feedback to make your story more marketable. We can’t complain to customers, because customers always have the right to buy from someone else.

Does my story have a fighting chance?

Never a guarantee. Trends are fickle. Publishers hate taking risks. Nearly every concept has been done—often better than yours. Just focus on your target audience and try to keep them happy.

But try not to be discouraged. Most importantly, write what you know. Pursue what inspires you and write the best you can. Simply keep marketing concepts in the back of your mind. They’ll only help you develop your first masterpiece!

This article is part 2 of a series. Make sure to check out part 1: Yes, But Do You Want Anyone To Read It? An Intro To The World of Agents, Editors and Publishing.