Monday, June 9, 2014

Guest Blogger Kim Ablon Whitney on Writing Niche Novels, Writing What You Know

The first thing I wrote that evoked a positive reader reaction was about a trip to the Sunday morning pony rides that turned terrifying, when my favorite plodding mount spooked and ran off. That was in first grade, and I was immediately hooked on writing about horses. Since then, I've been a columnist, reporter, and editor for equestrian magazines, and dozens of essays about what horses have meant to me have run in journals, magazines, and anthologies.

Along the way, I've made many friends who also write about horses. Kim Ablon Whitney is one of them. Her novels have earned praise from the American Library Association, Bank Street College of Education, and Booklist Magazine. Kim, a Massachusetts resident, holds an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. She has been a top competitive rider, and is now a horse show judge. Her latest book, Blue Ribbons, is available for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and Kobo.

Please welcome Kim Ablon Whitney. 

I remember a specific conversation with my editor after my second book, The Perfect Distance (a novel set in the world of horse shows), was published. We were discussing what I might write for my third book.  My first book had been about a girl growing up in a family of con artists and I wanted to return to writing about a world I didn’t know.  “I don’t want to write another horse book right away,” I told her.  “I want to stretch. I mean I don’t want to just be the horse book writer.”

My third book, The Other Half of Life, was historical fiction set on a refugee ship during World War II—as far from horses and blue ribbons as you can imagine.  When I started to think about my fourth book project, I decided on my own to look at the sales figures for my first three books. 

The best selling book of the three, by far?  The horse book.  The horse book was also the book for which I received the most online customer reviews, and the one that generated the most emails from readers.  They often asked me whether I was writing another horse book.

I began to ask myself the same question. Why not write another horse book?

I know horses and the horse world inside out.  I love horses and riding.  I have ridden since I was six, shown on the A Circuit, and have been judging horse shows for over twenty years.  Why not use my insider knowledge to create books that my past readers, and likely many more readers lurking out there in the horse world, were eager to read?

While I didn’t love the idea of being pigeonholed, I did begin to realize if I wanted to establish a growing and dedicated readership, it might not be bad to be “the horse book writer.”  Along the way, while writing and publishing my newest book, Blue Ribbons, I learned some valuable lessons about the business of being an author.

 A Niche Can Be Nice

Unless you’re lucky enough to write standout literary fiction (think Ann Patchett), writing for a niche readership can be instrumental to your success.  A niche will help you interest agents and editors, and in a finicky publishing market, it’s easier to sell a book that's clearly quantifiable and describable—what industry lingo calls a “market distinction.”  Agents and editors like projects with a unique appeal and a ready-made audience.

If your niche audience is big enough (vampires, corporate thrillers, etc.), a big publisher may even be interested in it, while a smaller niche may be better suited to an independent press or self-publishing as an e-book (as I did via Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Apple’s iBooks and Kobo).  People are passionate about their interests, and often spend considerable money on the activities they love.  The more narrow the interest, often the more passionate and the more excited they are to find a book that targets their interests.  Publishers have passed on books they claim are “too niche,” only to have that book sell tens of thousands of copies as an e-book.

Nail Your Own Niche

Writing books about the world of horses, young riders, training and equestrian competition, was an obvious niche for me, given my background and work as a United States Equestrian Federation judge at major events.  Perhaps you have an obvious niche yourself.  Did you grow up playing, or have you shepherded a child through, a sport?  Do you know piano playing or spelling bees or gardening?  What kind of work do you do?  Do you know computers inside out, a segment of the medical world, or the retail world?  These are all possible settings for fiction, memoir, or general nonfiction.

Or, perhaps there’s something you’ve always wanted to learn more about.  Decide to make it your niche, and finally take those cooking classes, train for that marathon, travel to India.  Use what you learn and write about it.

Either way, you don’t need to be the foremost expert on a topic.  Yes, you need to know enough to describe the world and get the logistics and lingo right. But you can fill in details and double check facts with experts true experts, who are also  usually willing to be beta readers and help you get it right.

A Niche is a Nice Place to Land

I've learned how very gratifying it feels to write a book that people are interested in.  I love seeing the reviews, emails, and Facebook posts about my horse books in which people relate to the story, tell me how great it was to read a book that brought their world to life, and want me to know they are eagerly anticipating my next horse book.  I am so flattered and nearly giddy with the positive feedback!

Marketing your niche book is also more straightforward than marketing a general fiction book.  You probably already know all the blogs, websites, Facebook groups, and magazines devoted to your niche.  If not, they’ll be easy enough to find.  You won’t be competing for visibility with hundreds of other books, either.  Instead you’ll find there are probably only a handful of books in your chosen niche.

Some niches offer endless opportunities and you’ll never run out of ideas and books waiting to be written.  Others might run dry sooner.  But once you’ve built an audience, your readers might be willing to follow you if your next book falls outside that category.  Think of it like a spin-off from a successful sitcom.

For now, I’m sticking to horse books.  And I’m having a lot of fun writing about something I love and something that readers are passionate about.  I’m hoping to publish my next horse book, Summer Circuit, in the fall and a sequel to Blue Ribbons after that.  Maybe I’ll go back to writing other books someday and hopefully the readers I’ve connected with through my horse books might follow me.  Or maybe I’ll just be “the horse book writer.”  That’s fine with me!

Note from Lisa:  Kim will stop by the blog over the next week to answer any questions left for her in comments.  All those who comment by midnight, Saturday, June 14   21 , will also be entered to win a free download of Blue Ribbons, plus a physical copy of one of her three previous books (must have a U.S. postal address).


Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

Hi Lisa, hi Kim! Lovely post. Like Kim, I've been a lifelong horse lover. I've written one novel that uses this very special part of my life and now I'm moving on to other subjects. I'm not a horse book writer, I'm a writer who wrote one horse book, and before that a music and reincarnation book, and my next book has music and the Himalayas. Here's to versatility! (But I have to say, I'm tempted to indulge in your books. You can't keep a horse girl down.... I'm off to share on Facebook as I'm sure some of my cronies will be interested to meet you.)

Jan Ruth said...

Read this with interest. I wrote a novel about horses too (for grown-ups) and my agent at the time said it was too niche, sigh. I self published it and it's been my most popular title and I loved writing it. I must look up your titles.
Jan Ruth.

laurakcowan said...

I think you're probably right about the passion thing. I write spiritual supernatural fantasy/magical realism/speculative fiction that's a huge hit with spiritual seekers even though I've only reached about 12,000 people so far with free promos and haven't sold a ton, but the more impossibly niche the book is the more on fire those people are who love everything I do. Still building things, since I'm sure many people will love what I do that haven't found it yet, and I love variety in my work as well, but there's nothing like having people email you and say you changed their life. I don't think you get that with general fic as often, even though it's easier to scale up to more readers faster.

Kim Ablon Whitney said...

Thanks for the great comments! I've had publishers tell me my projects are too niche and that's hard to hear. At least now there is another outlet for those niche books! I look forward to checking out all your books too!

Lori Morgan said...

Im so glad you are doing another 'horse' book. While I enjoyed all of your writing I had first read your work because of the horse theme and then purchased your other works because I enjoyed your writing style. I hope to read many future titles about something that is just too 'nichè' lol

Lisa Romeo said...

Laura - congratulations, you were randomly selected as the winner. I've just sent you an email.

Thanks for all who left comments!