Today’s guest post is an excerpt from the new book Get the Word Out: Write a Book That Makes a Difference by Anne Janzer (@AnneJanzer).
Write what you know. Stay in your lane. Find your niche.
On the one hand, everyone tells you to think bigger, but then they also seem to be saying the opposite: think smaller.
The advice to write for a niche makes sense. It’s much easier to market books when they address discrete audiences or solve specific problems. When you can clearly describe the value you provide, whether as an author or in your career, people will know how to refer you to others.
But this advice is tough to hear and act on. For me, the word niche summons an image of a small nook in a wall that might hold a single vase. It is, by definition, restrictive and confining. No one wants to crawl into a tiny box and commit to spending their career there. (That sounds boring!) You have grander ambitions for your book.
At its heart, “finding your niche” is about positioning yourself and your book in the eyes of others. You do need to differentiate your book from the thousands of others on your topic. If you’re building a career around your book, be able to explain your specific take on the subject. If you’re building a broader author career, over time you will differentiate yourself as well.
First, you are not a book
Your book will consume much of your time and energy and become a major part of your public identity. Decisions about the book can quickly turn into decisions about yourself, your time, your career, your life.
Whew—that’s a lot of pressure for one book!
First, let’s get some perspective. Your book doesn’t necessarily define you. You may write several books and you will do other things. Your life’s work may change directions. Thus, choosing a well-defined focus for your book does not limit you. I’ve interviewed many authors who started in one area, only to discover that their readers drew them into entirely different, but adjacent, topics. Some people and careers cannot be contained in metaphorical boxes.
Most of all, telling a person to stick to a niche sounds an awful lot like the dismissive “Stay in your lane.” No one wants to hear that. Let’s pick a fresh metaphor to position your book.
Ditch the niche and pick a pond
If you look out the window of a plane flying over northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, the ground beneath you reflects the sky. It appears to be as much water as land. This part of the country is dotted with lakes and ponds of all sizes. (Minnesota’s nickname, “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” is actually an understatement.) Many are connected by rivers, streams, or tiny waterways that traverse swampy areas.
As a teenager at summer camp, I once took a five-day canoe trip during which we had to portage only once. (Portage is a lovely word borrowed from the French for schlepping canoes and baggage over land. It’s much less glamorous than it sounds.) We traveled on connected waterways, from the tiniest of streams to a widening river and large chain of lakes.
I bring this up to expand on the common saying: It’s good to be a big fish in a small pond. Ponds come in many sizes, and types: prairie potholes, vernal pools, and kettle holes are a few of the types. Some are small enough to swim across quickly, others cover many acres. Some people refer to the Atlantic Ocean as “the pond.” Moreover, many are part of a larger system, connected via wetlands, creeks, streams, and rivers. So yes, as an author, you can be a big fish in a small pond—but choose your pond wisely.
Your book can begin by filling a specific pond and work its way to a broader ecosystem of lakes. When you write a book that all the fish in one pond love, a few of those fish will swim to an adjacent pond and tell their friends. Maybe word will reach the open ocean.
When Marie Kondo wrote The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, she wasn’t writing for everyone. She was trying to reach people who had way too much stuff in their lives and were willing to go through the wrenching act of discarding most of it. That’s a very specific subject for a finite audience, originally in Japan. The book found a larger readership worldwide, and now she has a Netflix special.
As an author, you will want to choose one or two ponds for the book you are planning to write. The size of your pond depends, in part, on who you are, your subject matter, and the people you hope to reach.
Back to the water metaphor, it takes a different set of skills and equipment to swim in a small fishing hole compared with the vast Pacific Ocean. The same is true for your book. Survey your own abilities as well as the market you hope to reach. How big a fish are you? Authors with a large existing following can choose larger markets, akin to a giant lake or fast-moving river. A well-established publisher can give you access to a larger pond, though most major publishing houses are looking for books addressing large audiences.
Your personal ponds
Picking your pond may require time and careful consideration. You are an eyewitness to the wide variety of interests and experiences that constitute your life. Perhaps you see the nuances of your subject area and want to explore them. Or perhaps the pond you want to swim in is nowhere near your current path. That’s what happened to Kristi Dosh when she found herself practicing corporate law. Her author pond was elsewhere.
Kristi was a lifelong sports fan with a particular passion for baseball. She wrote an article for her law school’s legal journal about collective bargaining in Major League Baseball. When she started practicing corporate law, specializing in commercial real estate finance and tax credits, a partner at her firm passed her journal article to a friend with a sports publication. With that, she began blogging about baseball in her spare time, now with a business perspective.
As her audience grew, the sports editor at Forbes invited her to become a contributor, and she expanded from baseball to all sports. She noticed that the posts about college sports were getting the most views and responses. She says, “People were reading. They were leaving comments. They were emailing me. My social media was growing. I was getting opportunities to be interviewed on TV and radio.”
She’d found her pond. A series of posts on football in the various conferences eventually led her to writing about college football and her book Saturday Millionaires: How Winning Football Builds Winning Colleges.
“But wait,” you might say, “I thought that baseball was her passion?” Well, the market fed her passion. “It’s amazing how much more you enjoy a subject when it’s getting attention and you’re getting positive feedback,” she explains.
The shift to the business of college sports was pivotal for her. But Kristi didn’t make that decision until she had received validation from the market.
Today, Kristi is a publicist who coaches authors and entrepreneurs as they carve out their distinct positioning. She believes that people try to force themselves into a category or space too early in their writing careers. “I think people get stuck trying to develop a niche from the day they decide to blog. You’ve got to give it a space to develop and figure out not only what you enjoy and have the expertise for, but what people want to hear more about. Where is there a gap in your marketplace for your knowledge?”
Your book’s ponds
The book you write may belong in one or more discrete ponds. Even if you believe it has wide appeal, it’s useful to focus on a few distinct market segments while writing, so that you can clearly meet the needs of a well-defined group of people who will spread your ideas. To practice servant authorship, identify discrete groups you hope to serve.
How do you pick a pond? Try zooming in along the following dimensions: subject, audience/market, and unique lens. Experiment with combining these factors to find the ponds that best fit you and your book.
If you want to write about a huge idea, it’s often easiest to get your arms around a smaller subject that represents the idea. Aldo Leopold, one of America’s most important wildlife conservationists, wrote about the environment around his own Wisconsin farm in A Sand County Almanac. He wrote of wilderness as a concept, starting with his precise location. He used the subject as the jumping-off point for essays and thoughts on man’s responsibility to nature, and in doing so became an influential voice in wilderness conversation and the environmental movement.
A narrow subject doesn’t mean the theme is insignificant. A tightly focused subject may contribute a unique perspective on a wider issue.
Audience or market
My bookshelf has three distinct books on the topic of public speaking:
- Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking by Poornima Vijayashanker and Karen Catlin
- From Page to Stage: Inspiration, Tools, and Public Speaking Tips for Writers by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder
- Championing Science: Communicating Your Ideas to Decision Makers by Amy Aines and Roger Aines
They’re all about public speaking yet differ in their audiences and approach. The third adds another layer of subject refinement: not only is it for scientists, but it’s specifically about speaking and presenting to decision-makers. I have learned from each one.
Your unique lens
Is your perspective unique? Many big idea books fit this pattern, offering readers a fresh perspective on a large topic. The pond for a big idea book consists of people who are interested in that specific lens.
Books themselves can change ponds once they’re out in the world, while leading you to explore new waterways.
Writing a book may help you better define your career. That’s what happened for April Rinne as she set out to write Flux: Superpowers for Thriving in Constant Change.
April advises startups and governments dealing with the rapid pace of change. Her interests are wide ranging: she speaks and writes about inclusive business innovation, policy reform, sustainable development, and emerging markets. She has a law degree and a finance degree, and is also a certified yoga instructor. She loves global travel and relishes looking at the world from a fresh perspective; her website includes photos of April doing handstands on her travels around the globe.
Her book has become a unifying factor in her career. She says, “This is the first time that I actually can look at a book and a point of view as the container for everything else that I’ve done.”
Hers is a genuine big idea book that represents the intersection of her interests. Instead of a niche, she has a node. “In any network, the most powerful node is not the largest node. It’s the most connected one. If you can position yourself at the intersection of enough spokes, you can have a lot of exposure.”
Don’t worry about staying in your lane, but do pay attention to the networks that connect your audiences, your books, and your interests. Of course, which pond you choose depends on where your expertise lies. As you explore the ideas for your book, identify its possible ponds:
- Subject: What subject do you want to write about? Can you narrow the subject and still produce a substantial book?
- Market: How can you define the people who would be most interested? Is there a specific audience of readers you would particularly like to welcome? If so, what would they be looking for and how could you provide it?
- Lens: What’s unique about your lens on the world?
Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, check out Anne Janzer’s new book Get the Word Out: Write a Book That Makes a Difference.