I’ve had enough conversations with publishers, agents, editors, and writers over the last few decades to know that for fiction releases—and genre fiction releases in particular—to have any chance at being commercially successful, those novels need to be familiar but unique.
Sounds like a contradiction, right? But it makes perfect sense.
Regardless of whether you’re writing a historical fantasy, a science fiction epic, or a YA coming-of-age tale, you need to write a story that is familiar enough to be embraced by a specific audience but unique enough to stand apart from other comparable new releases.
In other words, the savvy indie writer needs to feature elements that readers expect—like an HEA (happy ever after) ending for romance readers, a focus on grand-scale world-building in fantasy, relentless pacing in thrillers, etc.
That general familiarity, however, desperately needs a unique element to ultimately succeed. You need to differentiate your book from the countless self-published novels that are being released every day in the United States.
Just to put things in perspective, in 2018 (according to Publishers Weekly) the total number of print and e-books self-published in America was 1.68 million—and that number doesn’t include books released by Amazon’s Kindle division! Think about that for a moment—approximately 5,000 titles being released every day!
The sad reality is that the vast majority of these releases—I’ve seen reports between 93% and 95%—sell less than 100 copies.
You do not want to be in this group!
So, how do you ensure that your novel is considered familiar but not too formulaic or predictable? How do you ensure that jaded reviewers like myself don’t describe your release as uninspired, rehashed, or derivative?
There are a variety of ways to accomplish this: an innovative lead character, a new take on an old mythos, a visionary culture or world… An interesting experiment is to identify cliches or stereotypes in your genre and turn them upside down. What if the Chosen One in adventure fantasy sagas wasn’t a young white boy from a farming community? What if the detective in police procedurals wasn’t an emotionally brutalized alcoholic on the verge of a breakdown? What if the lovers featured in a romance weren’t young and attractive? There are countless ways to tweak a storyline—regardless of category—to make it more unique, and interesting.
Examples of familiar but unique self-published release are everywhere.
Spirit of the Bayonet by Ted Russ (which was just released in February) is a perfect illustration. The novel is familiar—easily identified as a science fiction thriller—but Russ brings the uniqueness with a deeply philosophical and profoundly moving storyline that incorporates the Japanese philosophy of Bushido.
When is Sylvia Wallace? (2019) by Brad Anderson is another excellent example. A breakneck-paced time travel thriller, Anderson pulls in science fiction readers with the premise— two adventurers attempt to find a deputy U.S. marshal lost in the future—and then reveals a jaw-dropping, and unique, twist: Earth in the near future is radically and irrevocably altered.
Timing needs to be mentioned here as well. Many self-published novels find success not necessarily because of the unique quality of the narrative but because of the uniqueness—or newness—of the type of storyline. In other words, they’re filling a void in a category that isn’t being satisfactorily serviced through traditional publishing.
Andy Weir’s The Martian is a great example here. Although Weir’s chronicle of an astronaut stranded on Mars wasn’t wildly unique, it was a solid story that was released when adventure science fiction was at an ebb and filled a much-needed void.
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James is another good example. While the writing wasn’t exactly stellar, the story filled a void and was thus unique in its way—erotica wasn’t exactly mainstream at the time—and the story resonated with millions of readers.
This is your challenge—to make your story familiar but unique. Ask yourself these two questions: Does my novel have a clear and identifiable readership, and does it differentiate itself from all of the other titles being released? If you answered “yes” for both questions, you’ve got a storyline with potential!
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program. Readers of this blog are offered a $50 discount on a BlueInk review by using the “key code” Allen. (This in no way guarantees a review by Allen.)