By Mary Gillgannon
I know how picky readers can be, but I never realized it would affect me until I was analyzing the sales of my indie published books. I have twelve books available, and sales of those titles vary widely, and always have. Some of my books I’m lucky to sell five a month. Others sell several times that. The books that sell well are the same ones each month. Even though I have other titles in the same sub-genre, there is very little carryover to them.
I started to think about what qualities my better-selling books share and realized that they all have alpha heroes and intense conflict between the hero and the heroine. (An alpha hero is an old-fashioned, macho, larger-than-life, domineering male.) When I was first published, I got plenty of criticism from my critique group, reviewers and sometimes readers for my ultra-masculine heroes and conflict-ridden storylines. (As one reader put it, “If I wanted to experience a couple fighting all the time, I could have just stayed with my first husband.”) Because of that, and also because I wanted to explore different types of characters, I started to write books with more external conflict and more complex and subtle heroes.
Those books were never as popular as my earlier ones. Initially, I blamed my declining sales on the fact that historical romances in general were in a slump. But now the sub-genre seem to be doing well, and I can no longer ignore the cold hard figures of my sales reports. There is a definite type of book that appeals to my readers.
It’s pretty frustrating. Like the writers I mentioned above, I don’t want to write the same story over and over. And it doesn’t help that lots of successful writers write books with beta heroes who don’t clash dramatically with the heroine. Why does it work for them and not for me? Maybe it’s my voice or writing style. Or that I get so deep into my heroes’ viewpoints that if I make them too nice they come off as wimpy.
At the same time, knowing what appeals to “my” readers is useful. I’m planning extensive rewrites of the last two of my backlist books this summer, and now I have a clear direction. I need to make my heroes more forceful and larger-than-life, and increase the conflict between the hero and heroine.
The irony is that I’m rewriting these books because I wasn’t happy with the way they turned out the first time, mostly due to editorial input. Now, once again, I can’t simply “follow my muse” as I revise them. It would be foolish to ignore what my readers apparently want. But I’m not about to give up on writing different types of stories. Maybe if I keep exploring I’ll find a new formula that will attract new fans. And even if that doesn’t happen, I have to keep growing as a writer or it wouldn’t be any fun. And I’m at the point in my life where fun is more important than selling books.