Boutique businesses are on the rise in the digital age. What does ’boutique’ mean? Essentially, small is now big. Instead of people relying solely on a handful of major brands, the marketplace has shifted from the macro to the micro.
Yes, plenty of people still pick up a Brad Thor in the airport. Just like plenty of people go over to Home Goods, TJ Maxx or Kirklands to buy home decor. But there are probably just as many heading to Etsy (and similar sites) to buy one-of-a-kind decor from independent creators.
***Same for books.
While mega stores hold certain advantages, they also have just as many disadvantages. Namely, they have to stock enough variety to appeal to as many customers as possible.
The idea that ‘Small is the New Big’ isn’t particularly new. Seth Godin wrote a book on this in 2006, and I also mention this in my social media/branding book Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World. Yes, that book is evergreen, meaning it still works today. The digital landscape changes daily but humans never do.
***Go read Shakespeare or look up some ex on social media.
The reason the market shifted was because, when Web 2.0 took off, it opened up the entire world to consumers. This can be good and bad. Yay for more choices! But soooo many CHOICES!
The Days of the Mega Author Titans
Many of us, when we started writing, all wanted to be the next INSERT NAME OF MEGA AUTHOR HERE. Now, do I think the mega-authors we currently have are going to up and vanish?
Of course not.
Readers will still buy James Patterson, Stephen King, J.D. Robb, J.K. Rowling (Robert Galbraith), and so on and so forth.
This said, I don’t believe any NEW mega-authors will replace them, simply because we’ve fundamentally shifted our buying patterns. The Big Six (NYC and global conglomerates) simply did not adjust to the changes in the digital world quickly enough to survive. Most of them have folded or changed their focus (I.e. solely non-fiction/more streaming content).
The Mega Author business model worked pre-digital age for very practical reasons. First, the public relied on a very limited number of gatekeepers to tell them what was worth their time. We relied on what we saw on shelves, on television talk shows, in the newspapers, etc.
Remember Oprah’s Book Club?
Before Amazon, novelists had a horrific failure rate, namely because—unlike non-fiction authors—it was virtually impossible to build a brand (fan following) before the book became available for sale.
How It Worked
This meant that, NY would release a new author’s book, and, if the stars happened to align just right and the book actually SOLD, then the author would get another book deal and a larger print run. Repeat process until you have a winner.
Sadly, only 1 out of 10 traditionally published authors ever published a second book. Yes, the failure rate was staggering.
Check out this post if you’re curious how traditional publishing worked.
Once a member of the ‘old guard’ of big name authors was ready to retire, NYC would ‘promote’ a mid-list best-selling author. Because traditional publishing was tethered so closely to bookstores (Borders and B&N in particular), they could somewhat artificially promote the next ‘big deal’ by giving the author a much larger print run and by increasing distribution.
Translation? Borders or Barnes & Noble would order MUCH larger shipments of the book and, in cooperation with NYC, arrange optimal placement.
The thought was, if potential readers kept seeing the same books in checkout lines, at Walmart, Sam’s, grocery stores, drug stores, that eventually they’d buy. This would prime the proverbial pump and…
VOILA! The next NYTBSA!
It worked very imperfectly, but before a digital marketplace, this was the best they could do.
Eventually, the reading public just assumed if it was a big name author, the book was good. Not saying their books weren’t good, but there were plenty of authors who had books just as high of quality if not better.
And, again, no shade on any of the franchise authors, because readers like them. What I am saying is Robert Ludlum (who passed March 2001) and Tom Clancy (who passed October 2013) are still hitting the best-seller lists.
These authors’ NAMES are franchises and their books still sell in high enough volume to make the best-selling lists…even though the original authors are no longer among the living.
No young blood is coming in to take their places.
Boutique Business is Booming
Suffice to say, the mega-authors we have now are, in my POV, the last of their kind, and for very practical reasons. First, we no longer only have a handful of gatekeepers telling us what’s worth reading.
Secondly, with over a million self-published books being added every year, the sheer VOLUME of choices is enough to make our (the consumer’s) head explode.
When everything is a choice, then nothing is a choice.
Also, writers can curate content for a highly specific audience. Take any slice of society and an author can build a niche around that. Feel free to write about NYC socialites, but remember that Mississippi housewives who run a Voodoo shop to work out their middle-age angst could trend as well.
I am being silly, but not.
There will always be tribes of people who want to be represented. Drive a Harley? Keep snakes as pets? Volunteer as a docent at the art museum? Drive a Harley when not collecting snakes or volunteering at the art museum?
If you can dream it, it can be a niche.
The megastore model, in general, is struggling to survive. Big box stores have ridiculous overhead and their profits are always tied to a physical product (meaning they’re also tied to the cost of petroleum and vulnerable to supply chain issues).
Refusing to downsize was one of many reasons that retailers like Barnes & Noble cut their metaphorical throats. For those who want to know more, I suggest my post, Barnes & Noble SOLD: Goliath has Fallen & What This Means for Writers.
But, one business’s problem is another’s opportunity. One thing I mention over and over in my book is that we really don’t have to cultivate an overly huge fan following to make a really great living.
Tech guru Kevin Kelly stated all a creator needed was 1000 ‘true fans’. ‘True fans’ are the super fan. They preorder books, buy everything we write, give our books as GIFTS. The super fan (and y’all know you are one) will stop strangers in a store to recommend a favorite author.
Boutique is all about the super fans!
This was why I predicted over ten years ago, that the book business would go boutique. We (readers) simply cannot keep up with all the books being published. There are no traditional gatekeepers.
In the ‘old days’ an agent might have passed on a perfectly AMAZING vampire book because they already had maxxed out the number of vampire books they were willing to release.
This was GREAT because anyone with a vampire book was only competing against a small and finite number of other vampire books. The downside was that their book might have been BETTER than the books already slotted, just they came along too late. Meaning readers missed out on a lot of great books.
Now? That vampire book could possibly be competing against a 1,000 or even 10,000 other vampire books. Pluses and minuses to everything.
Boutique Author Model
Just as physical bookstores had/have limitations, digital bookstores do as well. Namely, discoverability is a nightmare. This is why building an author brand is absolutely critical.
Unlike 20 years ago, we don’t have to make everyone a fan. We don’t even, say, have to make everyone who loves romance a fan. It’s possible to cultivate a fan for your one-of-a-kind romance. Your followers might love sassy sweet romances set in New Hampshire that focus on people who quilt, or hike, or drive an Uber.
With the entire WORLD as our ‘audience’ it is now possible to drill down and become a micro-niche. I am no longer selling science-fiction, I am selling dark comedy science-fiction set in Floridian retirement communities.
This makes that 1000 fans more than doable. And, with Amazon’s improving algorithms and metadata, it’s only getting better.
Keys to Book Boutique
What are some keys to going boutique in the book biz? First, forget trying to sell everyone. Everyone is simply not doable. When envisioning your brand, what are ways you can drill down into the micro and identify YOUR unique reader?
We are going to talk A LOT about how to do this in my upcoming class Spilling the TEA: Blogging for Authors. Blogs are wonderful for not only defining our audience, but then connecting with them and cultivating long-lasting relationships that will translate into sales.
People buy from who they know, trust and LIKE, and blogs are perfect for all three.
***The reason I recommend a blog is WE OWN IT. Unless we don’t pay our web host, all the love we give our blog will keep paying dividends. Twitter could flitter, Facebook could Meta OUT, InstaGram could InstaSCRAM, but blogs remain.
Aside from social media and cultivating that audience, the next key is to write a lot of books. Series are BIG. I find a writer I enjoy and very literally read everything they’ve written or will write in the future.
Series are boutique GOLD.
We have become a culture addicted to binging. I am even back working on my own fiction (been ghost writing for the past couple years). But, to be able to produce enough fiction to keep fans happy (or as close to happy as possible) series need to be planned. Yes, even the pantsers.
To minimize revisions, I have a great class coming up this Thursday, Bring on the BINGE: How to Plot & Write a Series. Class comes with a recording, FYI.
I cannot overstate just how beneficial it is to put in some initial planning. Even understanding the different TYPES of series can go a LONG way.
I had a writer who did my “Write Stuff Special” (where I look at your first 20 pages) and she was cutting WAY TOO MUCH. I ended up doing an intervention and calling her.
***She thought she had one kind of series when actually she had something totally different. The LAST thing she needed to do was cut.
If we think of boutique book business like boutiques in general, what comes to mind? Small, curated, unique, personal, higher quality, specialized, one-of-a-kind, niche, etc. We, as authors, can do all these things with our brand and our books.
Just Make the RIGHT People Happy
Don’t get me wrong, it does bug me that I will likely never be the next INSERT MEGA AUTHOR HERE. But the crazy thing is that the authors who are doing well—like CRAZY well—are superstars among their people. Their fans buy everything they write.
And, if you look to the common denominators that make them so successful it’s really because they a) defined their niche b) built a following c) they continue to serve new books to their dedicated readers.
A couple of my favorites?
James Lovegrove combines two niches into ONE highly unique fandom. In his Cthulu Casebook series, he blends those of us who love Sherlock Holmes with those of us who also like H.P. Lovecraft. It’s Sherlock Holmes meets Elder God horror. I own the entire series. Is it a SERIOUSLY fringe combination? Sure! But Lovegrove dominates it with people like me who love all things clever, dark and weird.
Our own Maria Grace does a fantastic job with ‘gas lamp’ fantasy. Her Jane Austen’s Dragons series is wonderful!
Daniel Arenson’s Earthrise series is a super fun science fiction for those who simply want to enjoy a great adventures with memorable characters.
When we get over into romance, fantasy, science fiction, I am certain we can add many more authors to this list. Some even have earned the titles of New York Times BSA or USA Today BSA, but they achieved these titles in a non-traditional way.
All I’m saying is the old method of write a book, get an agent, pray, pay your dues, one day hopefully hit mega-author status is pretty much a thing of the past. We’ll still have our ‘TITANS’ but they’ll dominate niches first and foremost.
In the End…
If an Amazon movie or Netflix series breaks these authors out into the mainstream, then AWESOME. Yes, that is possible. It does happen. It’s simply the process has almost reversed. Instead of writing a book we hope EVERYONE will enjoy (or at least everyone in that genre), we can start out more grassroots.
Once we find our fans then cultivate from there? Who knows how big it can go? But, the good news at least is that, with the boutique book approach, it is A LOT more doable to find and convert that core 1,000 people than to try and make EVERYONE love our work.
What are your thoughts about boutique?
Does it make all this ‘writing for a living’ seem more doable? Is it a relief that we really only need to focus on converting 1,000 true fans instead of marketing to everyone? Can you think of some of your favorite writers who dominate their niche?
Do you think I am wrong and we will continue to have mega-authors the same as we always have? Hey, this is just my opinion so let me know if you see it differently. I believe we’ll have big name authors, just they’re going to get there VERY differently than in the past. But what do you think?
I love hearing from you! And I like to reward those who chime in!
What do you WIN? For the month of MAY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice.
The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
***All classes come with a FREE recording
Bring on the BINGE: How to Plot & Write a Series
Thursday, May 26, 2022 7-9:30 P.M. NYC Time
For more information, SIGN UP HERE.
Spilling the TEA: Blogging for Authors
TUESDAY, May 31st, 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 10:00 P.M. EST.
Use code New25 for $25 off Sign up HERE
The Art of Character: Writing Characters for a SERIES
Thursday, June 2nd 7:00-10:00 P.M. NYC Time
For more information, SIGN UP HERE.
Practice Your Pitch: Master the Log-Line
Thursday, June 9th, 7:00-9:00 P.M. NYC Time. This is a TWO-HOUR INTERACTIVE WORKSHOP!
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I have the hardest time niching down although I think I am getting better at it. As of now, I have niched down to gardening and historical fiction. Not that they actually go together. How do I boutique that?
Write novels about people in times past who worked in gardens, created gardens, loved gardens…
There are a LOT of ways to do it. There are a lot of species of flowers that have gone extinct or nearly extinct. For instance, there are preservationists who travel all around the world to collect what I believe are called ‘heritage blooms’ (roses in particular). There is a lot that could be done with that. I have a unique way of showing you HOW to craft this boutique nice so I am obviously limited here. The trick is to make it unique in and of itself or a highly unique combination of elements that create a constellation that is YOU, your author brand.
Still working on getting my first 100 fans. 1,000 seems like rainbows and unicorns.
Part of the problem is that I wrote and published in too many genres. And here I am writing in the FOURTH one. But I have so many ideas…squirrel!
If I could land on a genre, I would definitely write a series or four. I LOVE reading them, so I know they could be the proverbial golden ticket.
Enjoyed this blog
Post. The 1,000 true fans idea is interesting.
Writing a series: Awesome! Eventually setting your first love as a free download: bummer. Jazzing out when someone buys the rest of the novels in one fell swoop: PRICELESS.
I’m querying for the first time in my life and getting rejection letters don’t bother me (part of the journey) but being an impatient control freak does. Thanks Kristen, for adding your weight to the self publishing plate. The traditional seem incredibly slow at best and at worst impenetrable.
Great post, Kristen. This is so timely. I’m very interested in seeing how publishing changes in the next few years. Your predictions have always been spot on.
Another interesting post.
Offer guidance on how to connect with adult readers who respect language and like crime fiction, but yawn at zombies, romance, sci-fi, blond jockeys on dragons, and every other pidgeon-hole genre that plays fast and loose with the known laws of physics, and I’ll be all ears.
It CAN be done. I have my ways 😉 .
This is exactly what I needed explained to me. Thank you for another perfectly timed post!
I think you are 100% correct, Kristen. With SO many authors and books out there, we are much better off finding our smaller niche market and cultivating that. And, as you say, if the stars align and something else breaks out of it, then great. Wonderful post!! I’d be honored for you to critique the first 20 pages of my new WIP!! Thank you for all your great advice!
Let me put up another round of “The Write Stuff.” I only allow for ten slots to keep me from DYING. I’ll email you when it is live.
I opened another round since I am pretty much finished on other things. It’s HERE.
Thanks, Kristen. Love your posts. Always great insights and encouraging ideas for the struggling writer of today.