What’s More Important Than Knowing the Marketplace? Knowing Your Audience

A few months back, I tipped Writer Unboxed readers to a new self-published ebook project I launched, The 33. I used its unusual episodic format as an example to encourage storytellers of all stripes — traditionally-published writers, self-published writers, publishers and more — to thoughtfully examine the ebook marketplace and spot opportunities to tell and sell stories in new ways.

Today, I’ll share some of the insights I’ve learned since The 33’s debut, and encourage you to embrace another customer-centric strategy as you move forward with your own writing, and building your career.

First things first: Tell your inner artist to go for a walk or something. That frail, hand-wringing creature has no business reading this post. We’re not talking about craft here. We’re talking about making money with your words. Tell your inner artist to put on some yoga pants, grab a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, and go fret about impostor syndrome or something.

Okay. So. Regardless of your publishing persuasion — traditional, self, Big Five or scrappy indie — you oughta be interested in earning some scratch from your words. And so, with your inner artist busily chomping away on some Chunky Monkey, let’s talk straight: Stories are products. Readers are customers.

Stories are products. Readers are customers.

By studying customer behaviors, you can craft stories — and offer those stories in resonant ways — that will sell more products. This will entertain more people, and put more food on your table. Win-win.

As I mentioned in my last post, observing larger trends in e-publishing is a critical component to this success. E-reading devices — from Kindles to tablets to smartphones — are now ubiquitous. Short stories and short novels / novellas are growing in popularity. Serialized narratives are, too. And the dark days of miserly early-adopters who wouldn’t download a novel unless it was free or 99 cents have ended. Thank goodness.

These trends, and others, suggest that customers’ comfort with e-fiction and shorter-form narratives are here to stay.

The33_Episode5Knowing this, I launched The 33 in January. The 33 is a sci-fi/supernatural thriller ebook series that combines the business models of comic books and TV shows. The 33 isn’t a novel, or a serialized novel. It’s a monthly short story series with recurring characters, told over TV season-like arcs. Some of The 33’s adventures are told over multiple episodes. Others unfold as one-shots. The first season of The 33 will be 12 episodes long.

It’s a weird hybrid of genres, storytelling techniques and business models … and I’m delighted to say that it’s been very successful so far. The 33 is a self-funded, self-published endeavor with no meaningful marketing push. Four episodes, ranging in length from 10,000 to 35,000 words, have been released so far. I also recently released a free 2,000-word one-shot story. A new episode will drop at month’s end.

I’m not generating Quit Your Day Job money yet … but this is a years-long series, which means the endeavor is a marathon, not a sprint. So far, things are going well. The market is supporting my price point per episode ($1.99 and up). Sales are better than expected, given my deliberate lack of marketing. I’m not yet ready to spend the cash, or social capital, on a concerted publicity push. I want more product out in the wild before I do that. My mantra: Make now, market later.

Further, I’m generating more revenue than I expected to be, being only five months in. This is because when I studied the ebook marketplace, I drilled deeper than other creators might. I went from the macro (the meteorological-like shifts in ebook adoption, consumption habits, etc. that I mentioned above) to the micro.

I zeroed in on what my readers wanted. If you want to level up your sales and the connection you have with your customers, read on. This is important.

When I zeroed in on what my readers wanted, I soon found myself facing a very difficult decision about The 33. The decision I made has wound up generating more revenue for me than any other I’ve made before or since.

Years ago, I released my fiction as free podcast-audiobooks. I recorded and published these audio stories myself. This attracted a thriving subculture of book readers to my work — folks like me, who prefer reading with their ears. Even after I stopped giving away my audio stories in 2009, some of these folks remained interested in my career and work.

I knew these people might purchase audiobook episodes of The 33. How many of them would purchase audiobooks, I couldn’t say.

Put another way: I saw a business opportunity within my business opportunity. (A bizception!The 33’s unusual-but-untested episodic format was Level 1. Catering to interested readers with audiobooks was Level 2 … though this approach was also untested.

Like everything else in the publishing business, recording audiobooks is harder than you think. Editing and producing them is difficult, too. It also isn’t free; it requires a monetary investment in decent recording gear. Worse, it’s a time suck. Homebrewing audiobooks pulls you away from other important things, such as writing new stories to sell. Outsourcing audiobook recording and production makes that pain go away … but it brings another kind: monetary expense.

Would my audiobook fans buy a monthly product?, I wondered. If I offered a single text-only ebook product, I’d eliminate any audio-related expense and risk. But how much money would I leave on the table if I didn’t cater to this thriving subculture? These guys loved my free audiobooks, after all.

If you’re new to the e-publishing game, approach it as a startup business. Run a tight ship. Keep costs low. Do whatever you can yourself, unless it defies good sense and taste, and damages the rep of your work. (Like designing your own book covers. Oh, the horrors…) Keep your head down and make cool stuff. Outsource only when absolutely necessary.

I use this approach with The 33, but still pondered outsourcing the audiobook stuff. The additional expense of outsourcing was a turn-off … but a greater risk was that my customers, the people who’d enjoyed my audiobook narration, wouldn’t spend money on a product narrated by someone else. I’d bleed out on audiobook production costs, and not recoup them with sales.

The smart and efficient thing to do was clear: Roll ebook-only. Do audio later, if ever.

But I knew my customers. I knew what they liked, and made a significant bet based on that knowledge.

Every episode of The 33 — including free episodes — is available in audiobook format. These audiobooks are recorded and produced by me. It’s a shit-ton of extra work.

Those monthly audiobooks can only be purchased at my website. They’re priced at $2.99. They’re my the best-selling products.

Actually, that’s not true. The discounted “ebook + audiobook” bundle I offer, priced at $3.99, is my best-selling product, month after month.

Purchases made at my website represent a majority of my total sales. Month after month, they smoke my Kindle, B&N and Kobo sales. Of the sales generated at my site, at least 90% are audiobook products. And since my per-sale royalty is much higher when a purchase is made at my site vs. another marketplace (such as Kindle / Audible / etc.), that converts into a decent wage. Way more than I would make otherwise, had I offered an ebook-only product.

Understand? By observing emerging opportunities on the macro scale … and by using that knowledge and intuition to inform your examination at the micro level … you can craft, package and publish stories in ways that will resonate with customers. And not just any customers — your customers, the people you’ve consistently wooed with great content. These are the folks with whom you’ve built a relationship via social media, email newsletters, personal correspondence and more.

These folks make your career.

Am I saying to not write full-length novels? No. Am I saying to serialize your fiction? No. And I’m not telling you to record your own audiobooks, either.

I am suggesting, however, that you examine the marketplace, and the consumption preferences of your current customers … and customers you haven’t yet acquired. Is there a way to better serve them? Are there ways to eliminate barriers between them and your stories? Look at the marketplace — and at your storytelling strengths — through the eyes of your inner entrepreneur, not artist. Look for opportunities. Mimic established business models to minimize risk, or try something different, like The 33’s hybrid business & storytelling approach.

And finally, if you don’t know your customers’ consumption interests and preferences, get out of your snail shell and ask them. Hit your social networks. Ping your people via your email newsletter. Reach out to a few through private email.

Ask, accumulate data, and move forward armed with a greater understanding of what your people want. This intimate understanding will help you create stories and product offerings that will resonate with your existing customers … and likely attract new ones along the way.

What consumption habits have you learned about YOUR readers that have helped your book’s impact or sales? Share your insights with the community!


About J.C. Hutchins

J.C. Hutchins crafts award-winning transmedia narratives, screenplays and novels for companies such as 20th Century Fox, A&E, Cinemax, Discovery, FOX Broadcasting, Infiniti and Macmillan Publishers. His latest creative endeavor is The 33, a monthly episodic ebook series.


  1. says

    Man I love it when you talk business. As I read this, I thought of the 80/20 rule mentioned in many business books, but most recently in Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant. Essentially, you focus on the 20% of activities that generate the most income. Like writing the book. The other 80% you get to when you’ve got the time and\or resources to do so. Most indie writers focus a lot of time on social networking, because it’s easy, but should fall within that 80% category. Those who focus on writing and put out one great book after another are the success stories. When I first read about guys writing 6 books a year (or more), I thought “impossible.” But as I monitored my own output, I realized that it really does take less than two months to write 80,000 words. Then I mess around with 80% stuff like website design, blogging, and social networking. So I made myself a “production schedule” and am holding myself to it. Like you, I’ve decided to write first, market later. And after a few books are completed and you’ve got some sales, you’ve got your platform and followers. Writing, whether you go trad or indie or both, requires output. You start with a few readers with the first, more with the next, and so on. By the time you’re ready to go full-time, you’ve got a dozen books in your stable and a loyal following, greatly reducing your risk.

    Keep plugging away. There’s never been a better time to be an author.

  2. says

    Gee, this sounds really smart, JC! It looks like it hinges on an already established healthy readership. I’m not in that boat yet; my existing readership is pretty small and still building. When I speak with other authors at my level, the frustration runs pretty high about building readership. Ron above makes it sounds so easy to produce (80,000 words in 2 months? 6 books a year?), but it’s not at all easy. Writing is highly demanding work. I have two novels out there (writing a third) and half a dozen short stories published in lit journals and ezines (writing 3 more shorts) and it’s still a grind to get a healthy readership and sales, keep writing, keep enhancing my craft skills, and keep reading because that’s part of being a good writer.

    I find it interesting (and so refreshing) when you say, JC “Stories are products. Readers are consumers.” This is a new perspective for me. Thank you! It’s also opposite of what I keep hearing from book marketing folks who say, if you are expecting any decent money from selling fiction, change your thinking (the pessimism is debilitating). I never entered into this as a money venture anyway; I focus on 4 things: writing, craft, exposure for my books and short stories, and connecting with readers. You say “Examine the marketplace through your inner entrepreneur.” I don’t have an inner entrepreneur, yet. Not sure there’s space or time for one of those. I wish!

    Really enjoyed this post. Very thought provoking.

  3. says

    I, too, found this fascinating.
    A follow-up question however. When you say, “you examine the marketplace, and the consumption preferences of your current customers … and customers you haven’t yet acquired” is it as easy as examining past sales, and asking your social media followers their opinions, or are there other methods you use? In other words, how do you go about this type of research?

  4. says

    You’re one clever guy, JC. Instead of it being about, “Me, me, me.” You’ve done your homework and made it about, “Them, them, them.” Knowing what your readers want and giving it to them. Excellent!

  5. says

    I think your post provides an excellent demonstration of two things. Most importantly, it effectively illustrates what I call the MBA approach to writing.

    But that said, I think you mislead when you suggest the MBA approach can co-exist equally with what you call the “frail, hand-ringing creature” who “has no business reading this post.” You invite your reader to send his childlike inner writer off with a pint of ice cream, so the adults can get down to business, and talk about grown-up matters related to commerce. You next provide a shrewd set of directions for how to assess the market, and then tailor product accordingly.

    My own view is that people who define themselves as writers must be concerned with both selves. But they must choose which of them will be in charge, the MBA or the inner writer. If the MBA self is in charge, then “writer” should probably be replaced by something better suited to business, like “language monetizer” or “prose capital liquidator.”

    If the inner writer dominates, he will be less concerned with profit, and more with pride of ownership–that is, ownership of stories and novels that are the best he can make. And by “best,” I am talking about illusive literary standards, as opposed to market share or unit sales. This kind of writer will see writing well as the best revenge.

    The second lesson in your post can be thought of as an illustration of the first: you have very effectively used a piece of writing–the post–to market your own products.

  6. says

    Without the intentionality of marketing my writing, I would have left Pride’s Children where my fearful self says it still belongs: inside my skull, where I can be the only one who knows it, and I can tinker with it to my heart’s desire.

    Nobody uses their very limited daily writing time to put the words in a tangible form, to learn how to do that as well as one’s native talent allows, to maintain a blog publishing schedule (new scene every Tuesday), and to put that ahead of everything else – unless the ultimate goal is to reach as many people as possible with a powerful story – and that means marketing and sales.

    I will narrate the audiobook. I like ‘as read by author’ versions.

    I am studying my audience – and have a few ‘spies’ into the world of the women who buy most hardcover novels, and read many, many books per year, belong to book clubs, and are always looking for more because they read so fast and so much.

    But ice cream is fattening – my inner artiste works as hard as my business partner. That’s the only place where I disagree with you.


  7. says

    That’s a VERY interesting model!

    I’ve been thinking a lot about how the marketplace has changed – in particular with ebooks – and have been contemplating some different ways to try to identify and address the market(s) my writing might appeal to.

    This gives me a lot of good ideas – thanks for making us think!

  8. says

    I think Ron has it right on the money – 80,000 words is 80,000 words, and if, as a writer, you have faith that your continual progress will act as a distillery for making potent stories, then I think this is the way to go. Always move forward, ever thinking about what makes a story people want to read, and your output will keep changing. Now, let’s get cracking on producing some quality moonshine.

  9. says

    Wow! So happy you wrote this post! I completely set back my release date on my work, only so I could revise, rewrite & restructure my Series VINDICTA.

    She was a monster, and series III & IV have not even been written yet. The original MS came in at over 186K, and editors kept telling me to split the book. YAY! Two books….but easier said than done. Then I too, got hooked into Sean Platt & his crew, Hugh Howey etc. and I thought, ‘my books would totally work in serialized form with some tweaking’. I’ve never had so much fun writing before.

    Each episode comes in around 15 – 20K, and I’ve been able to stay true to the story arc, with reworking the scenes etc., and not have to loose anything of the original flavor.

    Plus, multiple titles can only work in your favor as an indie-publisher.

    Good stuff!!

  10. Francesca says

    First, let me get the fluff stuff out of the way, because I have instant kinship to anyone who uses a cat in their avatar. My cat likes to sit behind my computer screen. Of course it’s distracting…..she’s stalks me with her large dilated pupils and every now and then she tries to bite the corner of my laptop. But in return, the lonely act of writing is made easier when her antics are there to keep me company.

    Now on to the tuff stuff. I’ve been giving this self-publishing thing a lot of thought, especially as I try to land an agent for my novel. As an ex-corporate person, the idea of treating my words like my business resonates with me. It makes senses, and if you think of successful authors, the Janet Evanoviches and the John Grishmans, they succeed because they churn out the kind of books they know their audience wants. Anyone running a business, be it an author or corporation, who understands the needs of their customers and works towards fulfilling those needs should eventually succeed. There’s nothing wrong in catering to the desires of your consumer. Your ability to flesh out an audiobook opportunity (which is made more impressive because it can only be purchased directly from your website for increased margin) is one of the first posts I’ve seen dedicated to the topic. Kudos to you and thanks for sharing your brilliance!

    My question for you: how do you go about the overall task of recognizing trends? This seems to be my biggest stumbling block. I consistently check the NYT and USA Today best selling lists, but I haven’t yet drilled down the Amazon categories.

    I would love a post on how you specifically go about monitoring information available online. Guidance on understanding the categories and genres to self-publish (along with numbers). Finding a reliable source to secure this information. For example (and I’m making this up), if I were to write a story about a woman who just went through a divorce and I wrote it with humor, how do I go about determining comparable works? (I hope my question makes sense).

    In the meantime – thanks and I wish you continued success!