The Five-and-a-Half Rules of Market Research

Before you can publish your book, you will need to figure out where it belongs in the book universe. Unless you are inventing an entirely new class of books, yours will fall within an existing category. Booksellers, marketing teams, publicists, and, most of all, customers, all want to know how your book compares to others already on the market.

We are talking here about doing market research. If you follow these five-and-a-half rules, you will be able to position your book clearly within the book universe, in order for everyone to know where yours fits.


1. Know Thyself

Inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is the famous phrase translated “know thyself.” To the ancient Greeks and Romans this meant being fully self aware, having an unvarnished appraisal of who you are, your station in society, what you can do, your moral values and character. Authors are wise to start their marketing research by focusing on knowing themselves. You need to take a good look in the mirror, know why you wrote your book, know why you want to publish it, and know what you hope to get out of publishing it. In practical marketing terms, it also means having a clear picture of your brand and the platform that can serve as the springboard for successfully promoting your book. Do you have a presence on social media? How many followers do you have on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn? Do you regularly write and publish blog posts? Do you participate in podcasts, broadcast TV, or radio programs? Do you publish a column in a local or syndicated paper, or magazine? Those are examples of how authors build a platform. Knowing who you are and what type of platform you have are a crucial starting point in doing market research. The “you” who wrote the book and the “you” that the book introduces needs to connect with customers, otherwise they won’t buy your book.

2. Know Your Competition

News flash—you’re not the first person to write a book like this. Yes, your book is unique to you, because you wrote it. And perhaps what you wrote about is also unique to you (e.g., it is a memoir, or you are presenting some groundbreaking new idea). But other books either cover the same ground or are very similar to your book. That similarity dictates what books share space on bookstore shelves. To help everyone better understand your book—that is, not just customers, but also the media, booksellers, and so forth—you have to distinguish it from those similar books. That process starts with you learning about all the books that are like yours, by browsing and taking notes online or walking through a bookstore. With this knowledge you will be better able to  explain how your book is both like and unlike those other titles.

3. Know Your Audience

One of the first questions the public asks about a book is, “Who is this for?” It is easy to assume that by the time an author has written a book, he or she will have identified the audience of the book. Who are the intended readers that will naturally gravitate to this book? Unfortunately, authors sometimes never clearly identify their audience. Or they may only start to think about their audience once they complete the manuscript. Knowing your audience should start with a brief description of the ideal reader before you write the first words in the manuscript. Factors may include demographics (e..g, gender, age, race, socio-economic circumstances, educational attainment, profession/career/industry), geographic location, religious inclinations, hobbies, leisure activities, and so forth. The more clearly you can identify your audience, the smarter you will be about writing and editing the book, about choosing an image and designing your jacket cover, about whether to include an index, about the marketing strategy you create, and so forth.

4. Know Your Marketplace

 Customers purchase books in all sorts of venues through all imaginable channels of sale. Some prefer print, others electronic, books. Knowing your marketplace means being aware of the types of products that sell, as well as the most likely places where your target audience is going to purchase your book. Do your readers like to browse and touch books before they buy? Then educate yourself on bricks-and-mortar stores. Investigate the pattern of a customer’s trip through the bookstore. Where do they walk on by and where do they stop and stand? Do they touch and pull out books or just eye them over? When they pull a book off the shelf, what is their process of looking at it? Look at the front first, then back, or vice versa? Do they open up the book? If so, to what page or section—title page, TOC, first chapter, last chapter, index?


Knowing the marketplace also encompasses being aware of price points. Choosing the right retail price can entice customers to pick up your book; price it too high and customers will put it back on the shelf. Finding the right “heft” factor—where the look, feel, weight, and price all add up to a customer concluding that the book is worth the price—represents the sweet spot for setting the price of your book. Knowing the marketplace is also important for deciding what formats of your book to produce and how many copies of the different formats to print. Do most of the books similar to yours come in hardcover, paperback, or both? Is the trim size a standard 6” x 9”, 5.5” x 8.5”, or something more unusual? Answering these questions about the marketplace will help you discern where your book fits in that space. 

5. Know Your Booksellers

Last, but not least, you most definitely should know your booksellers. Frequent your local bookstore and become acquainted with the owner, the manager, and the staff. Then if you show up one day and ask about them hosting a book signing for your book, they will already know who you are and will probably want to put on an event for you. Beyond the local store, do some research on what’s important to booksellers, how they think, how they run their business, what’s attractive to them, where they make the majority of their money, how they evaluate whether to stock new titles and how many to order initially. If you can put yourself in their shoes, you will be better equipped to speak their language and be able to convince them to sell your book. Because, unless you plan to hand sell all your books directly to customers through your business, at conferences, or on the street, booksellers are absolutely crucial to your success.

5.5. Know What You Don't Know

Being smart is great. Being wise puts smarts to work in the best possible way. While you need to know all these things to do effective market research, don’t forget to season the process and the outcome with humility. Remember to be humble about what you think you know. Not only do you position yourself to gain further insights by approaching your conclusions with humility. But also you invite input from others who may actually know a thing or two that you don’t. This is a half-rule, because it should be the overarching rule guiding the entire market research process.

You will benefit and everyone involved in publishing your book will appreciate how well you prepared your market research, if you follow these rules. 


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