The One Thing You Should Do Before Starting to Write a Book

how to research the market for your book

I walked into my local Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago and took a big huff of that bookstore smell. Ahhhh. Instant destressor. Do you do that too? Feel that release of tension when you walk into a bookstore or library and smell that distinct book-y smell? It’s almost as if there’s a scent to the words and paper that can’t be explained by science. (But it actually can be!)

I still get that feeling every single time I walk in any bookstore or library. And then I feel a thrill of possibility. Of knowing that spread out before me is the knowledge of the world’s greatest thinkers throughout time, bound in a portable, shareable form. And it can be mine for $19.95.

That’s why I’m convinced that a bookstore visit is a cure for all of life’s ailments. Feeling uninspired? Browse the stacks of your favorite genre or category. Overwhelmed with how much you have to do? Breathe in that bookstore air and remember why it’s worth it. Tired? Have a coffee and a seat and escape into another world. And that’s not even getting into the nonfiction shelves, where you can find advice on how to handle nearly every one of life’s struggles.

A bookstore visit is also the very first thing I prescribe to anyone who’s thinking about writing a book. Go, get thee to the bookstore, and send word of what you uncover, I say! Usually in a less Shakespearean way. But sometimes in an even more Shakespearean way.

And what should you do once you’ve walked into that temple of tomes? Well, it just so happens that I have some suggestions for you:

1. Breathe in that bookstore smell. Sigh it out happily. You are now nourished for the journey.

2. Beeline for the bestseller shelves, as well as any front tables with new releases and featured titles. What’s new out there? What’s popular these days? What’s the overall composition of the book market? What are the big hits in both fiction and nonfiction?

3. Head to the shelves for your category/genre (the shelves where your book would be place on publication). Do an ocular assessment: what’s face out on the shelf? What’s prominently displayed? What are the category killers (those books that sell and sell, no matter how long ago they were released)? For books that are not facing out, what spines are jumping out to you? Why?

4. Start pulling down books. Find a handful of books that are similar to yours and sit down with them. How is the packaging of the book positioning it? Look at everything from the format (paperback or hardcover?) to the title, to subtitle, to cover art, to fonts, to paper, to back cover copy, to endorsements, to the author bio. Every single detail on a book’s package is a clue about how to position and market yourself and your book, so soak it all up.

5. Home in on the author bio. What does it say? What doesn’t it say? Who is the author, and why are they the person who’s writing this book? Write down the name of several authors who have a current, successful book out (check the Amazon ranking to get a sense of sales). When you get home, stalk them shamelessly. What did their path to authorship look like? What’s their background, education, and credentials? What else do they do aside from write books? What’s their online presence like?

If the book came out recently, do a deep dive into how the author is marketing his/her book. Are they doing tons of interviews or hosting giveaway contests on their websites? Are they on a book tour or rallying their fans through social media? How are readers responding? Look at online reviews (on both Amazon and Goodreads), as well as any online interactions with fans.

6. Read the acknowledgments. Who’s the literary agent on the book? Who’s the editor? Who’s the publisher? Who else was involved in the making of the book? Research every one of those people, too. What other books have they done? How big or small are they in terms of market share in your category? What are they doing on their own channels to promote the book? How successful are their books overall?

7. Buy the ones that you most admire (or, at the very least, check them out from your local library!). Then read them cover-to-cover. And when I say cover-to-cover, I mean cover-to-cover. Every last word. Read the copyright page to see when it was published; to see if special permissions were needed for certain things; to see who photographed it; to see how it’s being categorized by the Library of Congress. Read every last word of the book itself, even if it’s a cookbook. Note the format, structure, tone, content. Read it multiple times if you have to, until you’ve soaked it up and can feel the vibe of it in your bones.

Then keep this stack of books prominently displayed in your workspace (unless you just borrowed them from the library…in that case, please return them before the fines become felonious!). And when you get discouraged, sit down with these old friends and remember that they were once deep in the struggle too. But right now, they’re quietly chanting: keep going, keep going.

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9 thoughts on “The One Thing You Should Do Before Starting to Write a Book

  1. Are you writing a book, Maria? I find your writing interesting and fun to read. I like your practical advice, too. I totally agree with your research methods. My small, rural Missouri town used to have a bookstore. Unfortunately, I have to drive an hour to a Hastings and further to a Barnes & Noble.

    1. Ha, I am definitely not writing a book! I’ll leave that to my much more talented authors. And oh no, I can’t imagine life without a bookstore nearby. Are your local libraries well-stocked at least?

      Thanks for reading, Amy!

  2. This is one of your finest posts, Maria. I’ve seen some similar suggestions in Writer’s Digest, but they were never this detailed.

    You have, however, overlooked the one enduring question about bookstores: Why is there no dust? Specifically, why are the top edges of the pages always clean?

    1. Thank you so much, Tom! (And I’m sorry for the shamefully late reply on this!)

      The good news is that I’ve dispatched my forensic book team to investigate this missing-dust case. We’ll get to the bottom of it.

    2. At Barnes and Noble at least we dust the shelves after closing, though really that just seemed to move it around lol. Plus even books that no one is taking off the shelves get moved around when employees are shelving books so there isn’t always enough time for dust to settle (:

      I’m not sure if this was sarcastic or not lmao. But I answered anyway.

      1. Haha, thanks for coming to my rescue on this, Katie, because obviously I have no idea how they keep them so dust-free. Thanks for keeping our bookstores clean and happy!

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