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How To Improve Your Publishing Business With Comparable Authors, With Orna Ross And Dan Parsons: Foundational Self-Publishing Podcast

How to Improve Your Publishing Business With Comparable Authors, With Orna Ross and Dan Parsons: Foundational Self-Publishing Podcast

In today’s episode, Orna Ross and Dan Parsons discuss the importance of comparable authors and how understanding them can help you reach more readers and sell more books. When many authors write their first book, they don’t consider where it will be shelved or categorized by retailers. Nor do they consider the financial consequences of its tone and packaging. As business-minded creatives, however, we need to consider how our books compare to others in our genre, niche, and microniche.

Dartfrog BooksThis podcast is brought to you by specialist sponsor Dartfrog Books. ALLi Partner Member DartFrog Books provides indie authors with opportunities for bookstore placement and promotion to more than 27,000 book clubs. Their self-publishing, hybrid,  traditional, and single-service publishing platforms are designed to engage authors of all types, at every stage of their journey. We'd like to thank Dartfrog for their support of this podcast.

And, if you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.

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Show Notes

About the Hosts

Orna Ross writes and publishes historical fiction, inspirational poetry and nonfiction guides for authors. She is director of the Alliance of Independent Authors.

Dan Parsons writes the Creative Business series for authors, bestselling fantasy and horror novels (under Daniel Parsons), and a weekly blog for The Self-Publishing Formula. While pursuing his author career, he has worked for three traditional publishers, managed two bookstores and listened to an unhealthy number of podcasts. Now he manages ALLi’s book production schedule.

Read the Transcript: Comparable Authors

Orna Ross: Hello everyone. We are live. This is the Alliance of Independent Authors' Foundational Podcast. I'm here with a new host. Hi, Dan. This is Dan Parsons, who has recently joined the ALLi team as our Publication Production Manager. So, we're delighted to have Dan on board, both on the team and here on the podcast.

Hello to everybody wherever you are, do let us know where you're zooming in from, in the comments.

We are going to be talking tonight about comparable authors, comparable titles, and why they're important, what we even mean, how they're used in our marketing and in other ways in our author businesses.

This is a core concept. This is something that every indie author needs to get their head around. So, we hope we'll be able to help and, as ever, if you have questions, as I said, just pop them into the chat and we will try to get to them before the end of the show.

So, let's dive straight in, Dan. Tell us, first, though, before we do, what you're up to, because of course we are writers and publishers ourselves, and it's important that we hold each other accountable, but also that we share what we're doing.

So, what are you doing?

Dan Parsons: I'm Dan Parsons. For anyone who doesn't know me, I write non-fiction under Dan Parsons and fiction under Daniel Parsons. At the moment, with my non-fiction pen name, I'm working on a book called, Write a Book, which is actually a book that helps authors to finish their first book, because I remember when I first started, I think I wrote six books that never made it to the final chapter, and then I started again. So, this is all about pushing through to the end, and I've got to edit that over the next month.

Orna Ross: Fantastic. I have to say, it's a super important topic. You are not alone with your six, and there are some people who never, ever get to the publishing stage because well, it's all covered in your book. We won't talk about that now.

Tonight, it's comparable authors, but there are really good reasons as to why that doesn't happen, and it's very overcome-able, if that's a word, so great topic.

Me, I'm focusing on fiction in a tiny way. I will be focusing more on fiction later in the year, but still, as you know because we're working on them together, still got a lot of non-fiction projects. Speaking of finishing energy, getting them across the line, not so much at the writing stage, some of them, but some of them at the publishing stage, just getting them through, up, out, and marketed. So of course, all those books will be available to our ALLi members, and downloadable.

We're working on a guide to podcasting for authors actually, that's just come out, and we are also working on an updated edition of our reviews, and various other things.

Okay. So, comparable authors, comparable titles. First of all, what are we talking about? What are comparables?

What are comparable authors/titles?

Dan Parsons: Comparable authors are typically any authors that would be shelved in a book shop, or on an E-retailer next to you in this invisible bookstore.

So, you would think that two thriller authors would be comparable if they write very similar books. So, you can use one thriller author in your market research and your marketing, and all of this stuff. In the same way, comparable titles are a lot like that, where one book can be comparable to another book.

The distinction between the two terms is that comparable titles would be the individual books, and they'll always be a match, but with comparable authors, an author who has a title, their titles might match with your title, but they may not be a comparable author because they might also write in other genres. So, knowing the distinction between the two is quite important when, like I said about doing the market research, and trying to create your own branding around your books and your author brand. You want to make sure that you get the alignment correct with comparable authors and titles.

Orna Ross: Yeah, and it's a little bit, I was going to say tricky, and tricky is not quite the right word, it's a process of learning. At first, you have a sense and an idea of who your comps are. So, people talk about comps for short, meaning comp titles, sometimes comp authors.

Some authors, I've noticed, are very good at this, and then a lot struggle with it. One of the reasons why people struggle with it a lot is they think it's about authors that they like, and sometimes people that they would like to be compared to, but actually it's about the authors that you share a readership with.

So again, as ever, if you make it very reader focused in terms of, when you're thinking about who you are comparing yourself to; you share a readership with that author for this particular brand of books, or you share a readership on that particular title.

Then you need to ask yourself why; what is it that you have in common with this author?

The other thing to say about our comps is that we're not comparing ourselves to people who are very new in the business or who have not been heard of, we are comparing ourselves to people who are popular, because what we're trying to do is get some of the readership that they have interested in our books. So, part of the process, that's not everything that we're doing here at all, but it does make sense to take that in when you're doing all the work that it takes to get your comps right.

So, you need to ask yourself, in what ways am I like this other author that I share this readership with? What is it about their books that would appeal to my readers, and vice versa? You're looking for that quality that says, we are a match. That's why it's a learning process, there are various ways of going about it, and we'll talk about those in a moment, but all the time, you're looking at the feedback that you're getting, and honing that list, if you like. You will come up against some people who are gold for you, and you'll find others that you thought would be gold, who are, you know, bronze or worse.

So, first of all you have an idea about who it is and then you take a look. So yeah, any more to add to that before we move on?

Dan Parsons: Yeah. We've obviously talked about the categorization of these books; you also need to think about the branding. So, it's the packaging and the tone of the writing, and all that type of thing.

So, you could have two books that are fantasy, but then high fantasy has a very different tone to middle grade fantasy, whether you're talking to adult readers or child readers. So, everyone would like to be compared to Lord of the Rings, for example, if they're a fantasy author, but your comp type may be more like Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, because even though they're both fantasy, they may not be both comparable to your book, because the tone and the packaging, and the way that you do everything around the marketing is very different for those two, even though they're quite close in terms of the fantasy genre.

Orna Ross: Yeah, absolutely. And in traditional publishing, it's called positioning.

We have somebody here who's come through as Facebook user, actually if you just click on your Stream Yard access, you'll be able to tell us who you are, but this user says, “it's good to hear the term comparable being used, not competitive for comps. Its positioning in the marketplace, not a competition.”

Absolutely. That is just so important, and I think indie authors are very aware of that, and far less likely to feel competitive towards other writers in their genre, and much more likely to either collaborate with them or to see them as a source of information, and more.

So, we always talk about comparables and not competitors, because it's not a race. We're not athletes, there's room for, if somebody loves a book, then they'll love another book like that. That's just the way it goes. So, that's why comps work.

Dan Parsons: I was just saying that I completely agree that, yeah, it is very much a collaborative. There's a strong correlation between the authors who work with their comp authors and the authors who are very successful in their genre, because it's all about, particularly with the algorithms that are involved with retailers, if authors recommend similar authors and things like that, then they tend to, and we'll probably go into this a little bit more in-depth later on, but they tend to show up in each other's fan groups and on the pages of each other's websites and all that type of stuff, and it just pushes both of them because each other's fans get to encounter their own books.

So, I think that people who collaborate tend to do better in general.

Orna Ross: There's no doubt about that. I see it, as well, as a growing trend in the indie community, and more and more, I think, authors are becoming conscious of their own power to move the needle and to work together to do that.

How can we use comparable authors to market and position our books?

So, we're just seeing more and more joint projects and collaborations of all kinds, and it's really great to see. I think we're only really beginning to touch off what is possible there. So, I think what you've just said is just so important to take on board, that those who do this, do well.

So, talk to us a little bit about how we might use our comp authors for market research, and production, distribution, various other decisions that we have to make.

Dan Parsons: Yeah. Okay. So, one of the earliest things, that you may not actually think about if you're a first-time author, but when you've written two/three books, you start to think about the commercial aspects of the book, rather than just your creative intent and fulfilling your muse, and all that type of stuff.

So, a lot of authors after writing the book of their heart, they go on to think, how can I now either position my book in a way that makes more money, or how can I write another book that is potentially in a slightly different genre, and it will do a lot better commercially.

This is where you can use comp authors because you can look at authors on, say for example, Amazon, or there are other ranks on them. I think Kobo is similar in that respect, where you can look at comp titles or potentially a load of titles by a comp author, and work out an average of how successful their books are doing based on their rank, because you can generally tell which books are selling better than others. And there are various tools online that can tell you roughly, and they're fairly accurate when I've looked at them, how many copies they're selling per day based on their rank.

So, you can look at comp titles to the ones that you want to write and see, is this a book that is going to potentially sell enough copies per day to make me money and generate revenue for the business that I could do this full-time or, you know, just grow the hobby in a way that gives me access to more resources. So that's just one way.

There's also the categorization. So often, when you're setting up a book on an E-retailer, you are not always entirely sure where your book should fit in terms of categories, and it's similar with library systems where you don't necessarily know what your book is. You know that you like it, and you like that particular genre, but you don't know the specific terms that the publishing industry uses for those books.

So, if you look at comp titles where you think, right, this book is very much like mine, you can see the words that are used in their copy and on their book pages and things, to try and find out exactly where your book is positioned, or where you may need to position a project in order for it to achieve the results that you want.

So, there are quite a few different ways, it's just all about reaching audiences. And if you're going down the route of, how can I find a niche? Very often, you can look at different genres and things to find out which books are in short supply in certain areas based on their genre and go, actually, I'm going to compare my book more to those if it straddles two genres, so that you can fill a niche and potentially gain a bigger audience.

Orna Ross: Yeah. These subcategories can be really useful, and I think when we're thinking about comp authors, it's really useful to get granular, and go quite niche. So, the inclination sometimes is to go as wide as possible, thinking you're going to hit more people that way, but actually it works better the other way around.

So, if you find your list and you make your list, and then you just look at the subcategories that they turn up in, so not just the major categories, that could be a really useful thing to know. You will discover categories you didn't even know existed, and that aren't there as an option for you when you're signing up, and that you can get included in by writing to the retailers.

So, all of that is really useful. It's very much a research journey too, especially at the beginning. One author leads to another, and you learn things about your work, I think. Certainly, that was my experience when I first started doing this. You learn things about your own positioning in the marketplace, that it's very difficult for you to learn any other way, certainly very difficult for you to understand as the writer of the book.

So, you have to, in some way, as a writer, if you're going to also be a publisher, which you are as an indie author, if you're also going to be the publisher of the work, you have to have some way to get outside yourself, to get outside your own sense of what the book is about, and of course we can use our teams and critique groups, and our creative writing friends, and so on, to help us with that to some degree, but I found it a very useful and very educational experience to get really stuck into, at a granular level, the sub-categorization of comparable authors.

When you start reading their descriptions, and another thing is to start reading their reviews, and to highlight the mood words, the emotion carriers in the reviews; that can be a really good way of finding out what it is that readers liked about these books, and, you know, are these qualities that you have in your books, and then compare them to the mood and emotion words that arise in your reviews. Again, a really educational thing to do with your comps.

Dan Parsons: I actually find, on that topic of finding the mood, it works with blurbs and also the reviews, what you can actually do, and this is just a practical tip, is say you're writing a book like The Martian, for example, by Andy Weir, you could copy and paste 50 of his top reviews from any of the websites into a tool like Word Cloud, and then find what words actually crop up quite a lot and have a high density rate across all of those reviews, to actually get a consensus of what readers are talking about that they really enjoyed or hated. Then you can shape your own books based on that research.

Orna Ross: Super tip. Love it. Word Cloud, yes, very good.

How do comparable authors affect the KU vs Wide approach to self-publishing?

Orna Ross: Can we talk a little bit about KU versus Wide when it comes to comp authors, is there any sort of distinction to talk about? Well, first of all, I should say that we, in general, promote non-exclusivity in ALLi, but there are certain times when going exclusive does make sense, and of course, you are indie authors so you're going to make up your own mind as to when that might be. I'm not going to go into the whole exclusivity thing now, but just, is it relevant, do you think, Dan, for the KU vs Wide debate?

Dan Parsons: Yeah, a hundred percent.

So, what you can actually do, just obviously sticking on Amazon because of the KU aspect, you can look at the bestseller charts of different subcategories, because typically in a subcategory, they are, on the whole, your comp titles. If you look down them, you can see how many are actually in KU, and if there's a high proportion of KU books in that particular subcategory, then you know that your comp titles tend to do better in KU rather than wide.

I found this with one of my fiction titles when I was considering moving it wide from KU originally. It's a zombie book, and I found that, I think it was 85% of the top hundred zombie books were in KU, and then when I actually spoke to some of the reps on the wide retailers, they said that it's a trend, that they'd like to be able to push zombie books on the other retailers, but there just isn't the demand there because a lot of people who read zombie books tend to be KU users.

So, it depends entirely on the genre, and lots of other genres are completely wide and you can sell wherever you are, and a lot of people do actually make more money being wide because they've got huge Apple, or Kobo, or Google fan bases. But there are particular genres, I think it's very similar with military sci-fi, where there are lots and lots of people that read in KU, and there are these whale readers who will read 40-50 books a year and for them, as a consumer, KU makes more sense than buying from Apple, or Kobo, or Google.

Orna Ross: Yeah, absolutely. And the thing is, there are some genres where we know this to be true, and you've named some of them, and also some of the romance genre, also very, very heavily saturated with KU, but it's worth testing, like everything, you might assume that KU is the place for you, or you might assume wide is the way to go for a particular book, and the only way to be sure is, as Dan said, to actually get stuck in and do the analysis and see.

Dan Parsons: And speak to the reps if you can.

Orna Ross: And speak to the reps, if you can, which isn't always easy.  The point, I think, is that our assumptions can lead us astray in this area, particularly at the earlier stages, and this is our foundational podcast. When you're starting out as a publisher in these early stages, you should question all your assumptions about everything in indie publishing, because it's very individual, and strange things happen, and you can't be sure, and each author is different. So, when you're learning, you definitely should question your own assumptions, I think particularly in this area,

Dan Parsons: Yeah. I think, just on that same theme at the moment, similarly to the whole KU vs Wide debate is formats, as well, because there are certain genres that, if you look at the comp titles, certain formats do a lot better.

So, like we said, the people who are doing well in KU tend to obviously do it with eBooks, whereas if you're wide and you distribute through Ingram, and places like that, there are some people who do very well with paperbacks, or even hardback and large print, especially with some of the, I can't remember what it's called now, sweet romance, because they tend to generally be older readers who prefer the large print because of eyesight issues and things like that.

So, you've got to take into consideration the reading habits of the people that are interacting with your comp titles, and then look at that as an opportunity for optimizing your distribution and where you'd also put your marketing dollars, because if you're going to push the fact that you've got an audio book or a large print, that could be a lot more effective based on your comp title research.

How can comparable authors benefit social media marketing and paid ads?

Orna Ross: Yeah, exactly. Really good.

So, we've talked about categorization, I think, and we've talked about distribution and metadata largely. So, let's talk a little bit about ads first and then organic social media, or the other way around.

You draw the distinction between the comparable authors strategies for authors and retailers, versus authors trying to reach their readers, can you just tease that one out for us?

Dan Parsons: Okay. When it comes to the social media and ads strategy, obviously you've got to define social media from the ad stuff, where social media is organic, so you're not paying for it, and then there's the ad strategy, which is the pay-per-click advertising and things like that.

I think what you're asking is about the sort of business to business, versus business to customer sort of experience. So, this ties into the whole collaboration ideas we were talking about earlier, where you can look at the authors around you who have the comp titles, or they are generally comp authors, and possibly collaborate with them in a business-to-business scenario, where, I mentioned earlier, that authors will recommend each other in their newsletters or on social media.

So, if you've done very good and accurate, and like you said, granular research in terms of this area, then you can go to very specific comp authors and then get them to recommend your books upon launch and get those early sales in that are extremely close in terms of targeting, so that the right readers are picking up your book.

Then the recommendation engines associated with the retailers will push to the correct people going forward, and that bump start that you get on this business-to-business strategy, because essentially, we are businesses, as authors, then you can set that up so that it succeeds and it stays with a longer term tail of sales after you're launched by getting those comp authors in and the recommendation momentum plowing along.

In terms of the readers, again, you're looking at your comp authors to see what they're doing to talk to their readers and how they generate engagement on social media, and things like that. So, you're not necessarily reaching out to those authors, you're just looking at how they engage with readers and then you can model your own behavior on what you've seen as successful, and what is maybe not successful and avoid those strategies.

Everyone talks about the cliche of buy my book, well that doesn't work for any reader, but then even the strategies that do work, they're quite nuanced depending on genre and tone and, you know, are you appealing to grandparents of children, if you're a children's author, because you don't want to be talking as if you're speaking to children on social media, when it's not really the children who are going to be buying your books, and you'd know that if you looked at your comp authors who are doing a very similar thing.

Orna Ross: Yeah, and again, assumptions. So, when we start off doing our social media, I think it's really important at the start, and this relates to comparable authors, but to everything, and looking at your comp authors can really help you here as Dan says, it's really important to experiment. It's really important to try things out in the spirit of play and enjoyment. I also, personally, this is a personal thing, I think it's very important that social media serves some function for yourself. So, for me, I use social media, sometimes just to drive production or to make other things happen.

If you're just doing social to try and see how everybody responds on there, and you've got nothing else underneath that, then I think you can really get a bit lost trying to follow different strategies that different people use or that you see working. You need to also make sure you've got one foot in your own camp and in your own reason for doing social.

So, I don't think, for example, if there's a particular platform that you don't like, I don't think you should do it. If you're not enjoying it, it's very, very difficult no matter what strategy you use, very difficult to be good at it, and it's certainly very difficult to sustain it.

So, social is something that it takes a while, again, to get to know what works for you and what works for your books. Comp authors, as Dan says, can be really, really useful in that journey. So, just because something doesn't work at first or because you're uncomfortable at first doesn't mean that it's not going to work ongoing, it might need tweaking, as Dan says, it's very nuanced. So, being alert to those nuances, and this refers back to what we were talking about earlier on in the show about the reviews, and the blurbs, the mood, the value. Whatever value you're offering the reader, whether it's non-fiction, poetry, or fiction, or whatever it is, underneath it all is that you're making them feel something; feel more informed, feel amused, feel entertained, feel good about themselves, feel uplifted, feel desperately sad and broken hearted, you know, some people love those books. Whatever it is they want to feel, you've got to learn what that underlying feeling is.

Social media is really good for that in terms of the conversations that you hear; you don't even have to join in just lurking and listening, and hearing how people discuss books is really useful. And I think you should get all that right before you invest in social media advertising. Well, certainly not all of it right, because you can never be a hundred percent, but you certainly should have confidence that you know what you're doing with your readers before you begin to put ads out.

So, Dan, do you want to talk a bit about comps and ads?

Dan Parsons: Yeah, I think you make a good point about doing the things that you like, because what you'll find is that, even within the realm of your comp authors, there's going to be differences in how they work.

The tone, as I said, might be quite similar across the range, but some people like Pinterest, some people like Instagram, you know, are you a visual person, do you like talking on podcasts, and all those sorts of things?

One of the big things that I found, because one of my previous non-fiction books, which is why I got into non-fiction, was on Twitter and how to grow an organic audience, and what I found is that the people who are very successful are consistent, and it's the same with YouTube. not just because they get better over time, which you naturally do at these things, but because of the algorithm of these different social media platforms. They tend to reward people who have been on the platform for a while, and the bigger you grow, the more it compounds.

So, you see very little success early on, but maybe two years down the line, you've got 50-60,000 followers and you're gaining 500 a day. Whereas that's not really possible from a standing start of zero. So, you've got to stick with something that you actually like. So, you can cherry pick the bits that you like that comp authors do, you don't have to do all of it.

Orna Ross: Absolutely. Is there anything in particular that you want to say before we sign out?

Comparable Author Resources

We have a few chosen resources that we'd like to recommend for you.

David Gaughran has a really good blog post this year; he did an update on it. It's called, How to Find Comp Authors.

We'll put the links to all of these in the show notes, but if you Google, How to Find Comp Authors by David Gaughran, I'm sure he is well known to you all, you will find it.

There's also a really good post on comp titles by Reedsy, partner member Reedsy, fantastic people who really put out just amazing blog posts, and this is one of those.

So, yeah, you can check that out, and if any of my patrons are listening, we did a comp author workshop in April this year. So, if you want to scroll through the workshops, you will find that there. We did the work there and then in the workshop, and it was really revealing, and very interesting for people to talk across genres, and people who are working in very widely different spheres, who learned a lot from each other.

So, anything you'd like to say before we sign off on this one about comp authors?

Dan Parsons: I think we've covered most of it.

One thing I will say is the importance of newsletter swaps, and I just wanted to end on that note, because I think newsletters are very important, and the comp author thing really ties into that, where if you can get other authors who are similar to you to recommend your books, that is one of the most powerful marketing activities you can possibly do.

Orna Ross: Fantastic. So, back to the author collaboration that we talked about at the beginning, so that's a nice circular ending for this.

We'll be back next month with another Foundational Advice podcast.

Thank you for being here, and we'll see you next time. Happy writing and publishing.


Author: Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy is an author, book editor, and journalist. He is also the Content and Communications Manager for the Alliance of Independent Authors, where he hosts and produces podcasts and keeps the blog updated. You can find more of his work at https://howardlovy.com/


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