Getting Past Genre in Digital Acquisitions

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Full Fathom Five Digital genre fiction ebooksThe growth of ebook publishing has heralded the growth of genre publishing—and it’s no wonder: Readers gravitate toward online communities that mirror their interests. By publishing genre-oriented ebooks, publishers and authors can cater to established communities of readers.

And since ebooks can often be produced inexpensively and sold at lower prices than many of their print counterparts, they’re perfect for those communities of voracious readers. At the height of the ebook boom, a low-priced, commercial genre title could find amazing traction. The author Amanda Hocking is one famous example of this type of success. Between 2010 and 2011, her self-published, $2.99 paranormal romance ebooks sold over a million units.

But the boom years are over, and many of the hit-making formulas acquiring editors and indie authors developed just a few years ago are bringing diminishing returns. Facing a much more competitive market than ever before, digital fiction publishers need to rethink their acquisition strategies.

Today, a paranormal romance ebook priced at $2.99 is just one of many thousands of paranormal romance ebooks priced at $2.99 or less. And that’s to say nothing of the huge number of ebooks that are available for free. Many publishers have found that the value of giving away free ebooks in order to build up reviews has all but disappeared.

Genre fiction in particular risks becoming a victim of its own success. Because it’s become an established winner in the digital space, the marketplace is now so over-saturated that digital publishers can’t afford not to think more creatively about how they acquire new content.

That was our guiding principle in October 2014 when we launched Full Fathom Five Digital. We planned to release commercial fantasy, romance, horror and thriller ebooks—but how to stand out in a sea of these genres? The experiment is still in its early days, but we’ve already learned a lot about what seems to work and what doesn’t when it comes to digital acquisitions. Here are five of them:

  1. Acquire readers, not just authors.
    Editors already know to look for authors who have already found a following, however small, but while publishers are turning more attention to fan fiction communities, many aren’t being utilized to their full potential. Publishers tend to see writers of online fan fiction and original fiction, like those on Wattpad, as a means for sparking initial sales. But they can sometimes exceed that marketing function to emerge as strong, independent brands in their own right and should be approached accordingly from the get-go. Amanda Black’s Apartment novels and SJ Hooks’s Absolute novels both originated as Twilight fan fiction posted as online serials and are now among Full Fathom Five Digital’s best-selling titles. In October, we will relaunch Catrina Burgess’s Dark Rituals series, a Wattpad “Best Suspense” winner with over 1 million reads before we acquired it.
  2. Develop more content for every publication.
    For commercial fiction publishers of both print and ebooks, series are important. A romance trilogy will usually gather a larger readership than a single romance title; there are more covers to look at, more releases to anticipate and more content for readers to consume and share. In the digital space where ebooks are not visible on physical shelves and where individual titles (especially new releases) can quickly disappear into the Amazon abyss, publishers need to deliver more content for continual promotion. That can include a spinoff or interim novella of eighty pages, a prequel, a glossary, the history of a character or more. Many authors cut material from their full-length titles that can be repurposed as ancillary content for marketing purposes. And because the ebook life-cycle runs at a quick pace, developing and publishing this content frequently (once every three months, at least!) will keep books and authors in the public eye.
  3. Titles that live and breathe digitally don’t need to be high-tech.
    There’s a wide range of content that thrives more authentically in digital form without incorporating expensive enhancements that few publishers have found success with. The addition of even modest technological functionality into a publishing process that’s no longer encumbered by page count limitations and print production costs can go a long way. A work with clickable text that directs readers to an online component, a character with a corresponding Twitter account—those are just two relatively small-scale digital features that can set a title apart and drive reader engagement. The digital ecosystem also frees publishers up to experiment with form. Full Fathom Five Digital is developing a choose-your-path genre ebook, which is a book/game hybrid that makes inventive use of clickable page-turns. Sometimes formal freedom is simply a matter of finding a work that separates more naturally into a series of novellas rather than full novels or shorter chapters.
  4. Invest repeatedly in small experiments, then scale up where you can.
    Ebook production budgets usually offer room to experiment with a title, series or group of titles that aren’t as closely tied to a concrete selling point. We published the first book in a series this February, Soul Crossed by Lisa Gail Green, that has no definitive target age. In some respects the paranormal aspects are middle-grade in tone, but a streak of violence one character later develops (he’s meant to embody the Antichrist) brings the reading level up to at least ages thirteen and above. Many print publishers would justifiably see this as a schizophrenic approach to a target audience, and bookstores might balk. But the digital space leaves room for such multivalent narratives to flourish—in this case, among New Adult readers looking for that perfect simple-in-tone novel, adult readers who love YA fiction and younger readers ready for a more ‘heavy’ commercial fantasy that isn’t a contemporary novel about contemporary issues.
  5. Mine the familiar for something fresh.
    There’s no shame, and potentially great reward, in acquiring books and series that are unquestionably iterations of similar books and series. Sylvia Day’s Bared to You came hot on the heels of Fifty Shades of Grey at a time when readers were begging for more content that felt identical to the series they loved—featuring a woman who falls in love with a powerful, controlling billionaire. Full Fathom Five Digital has found great traction with AD Marrow’s Chaos and Moonlight, a vampire series not unlike other paranormal romances of its genre. Wherever there is a best-seller, there is an audience ready and waiting for the next variation on the same theme.

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