What do 85% of the bestsellers on Amazon’s Top 100 Satires list have in common?
If you’ve read my previous post, you might have answered “they’re actually romances”. And you’d be right.
But there’s something else those books have in common: they were all published by indie authors.
In this post, I want to take a look at how hard it is to break into genres like romance and satire, and what could be done to make things fairer for authors, and less confusing for readers.
How hard is it to break in to romance?
Say you’re a budding novelist, and want to break into the top 100 books of a particular genre.
How hard would it be to do so in, say, satire vs. romance? Or satire vs. the most competitive subcategory, contemporary romance?
The number #100 book in the satire category on the day of data collection was, unsurprisingly, a romance.
Why do I feel so confident in describing it as a romance and not a satire? Because the word ‘satire’ appeared just twice in the book’s listing: both times in its categories. Notably, it did far better in these satire-related categories than in its third categorisation (‘romance anthologies’, another inappropriate category considering it is a single book with a single story!) The word ‘romance’ or its variations, however, appeared eleven times in the description. And don’t just take the author’s word for it – readers didn’t appear to pick up any satirical vibes either: 53 reviews mentioned ‘romance’, and 25 ‘romantic’, yet none mentioned satire or satirical.
The author of this particular book had not just one, but four books on the satire list.
And in case you think this author must be highly unusual, they were far from the only author with four or more romance novels in the top 100 satire list. In fact, one, whose name I recalled from the last time I checked this list back in 2019, had twelve.
Think about that: all of the best satire authors put together, living and dead, took up just 15% of the satire bestseller list, while one romance author alone accounted for 12%.
This particular book had a sales ranking of around #25,000 – which, according to the Kindle Best Seller Calculator, equates to 11 books sold per day. That’s outstanding.
But how does it compare to the #100 book in Contemporary Romance?
It was ranked #425 across all books sold, selling 210 books a day.
In other words, to crack the top 100 in Contemporary Romance, that same book would have had to sell almost twenty times as many copies.
The #100 Romance book was ranked even higher, at #209. That translates to 483 books per day.
In other words, to crack the top 100 in Romance, that book would have to sell almost fifty times as many copies.
Is it any wonder romance authors might prefer to try their luck in satire, even if it doesn’t describe their work at all?
It isn’t just authors who are struggling to get their books seen that mislabel them. As I mentioned, the author of the #100 book in satire at the time I checked had four books in the top 100 – two of which made it to the top fifty. And the number one book in satire wasn’t just number one in satire, but number one in all three of its displayed categories – and number #8 across all of Amazon. That translates to 3,744 books sold per day.
No satire can hope to compete with that. The audience simply isn’t there for satirical novels. The highest-ranked actual satire on the satire list is selling less than one book a day. Meanwhile, by the early 1980s, more than a quarter of all paperbacks published were romance novels, and by the early 1990s, they comprised close to half of all mass market paperbacks sold in the US. Incredibly, more than half of Harlequin’s customers purchased 30 novels every month. Even in the 2000s, a quarter of all American adults read at least one romance novel per year, and 60% of female readers of romance read at least one romance novel every two days.
Of the fifteen authors of satires on the satire list, none had more than one book make it to the top 100. That’s right, even George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut couldn’t compete with the romance invasion.
Yet, the fully half of romance authors on the same list had more than one novel in the top 100 satires. The 85 romance novels on this list were penned by just 34 authors. Only seventeen romance authors had just one novel on the list. The vast majority of romance authors who listed their novels as ‘satires’ had more than one of their books make it to the top 100 satires.
So, what can we learn from these superstars who are so successful, they’re beating satirists in their own category?
Publish. A lot.
Just four of the 34 romance authors on the list had titles that appeared original to each of their books. The vast majority seemed to treat naming novels as a sort of ‘mad libs’ fill-in-the-gap type exercise. The same was true of their cookie-cutter cover design recipes: take one stock image of a semi-naked muscular man, whack the title in a scripty or red-hot font over the top, and call it done. Only a few varied from this pattern with cutesy clipart.
There are, of course, two arguments to be made in favour of such an approach. One artistic, one practical.
From a marketing point of view, it’s certainly true that consistent branding can be a very good thing indeed. Readers of paperback and hardcover novels like their books to match up and display nicely on a shelf. And readers of electronic books aren’t so different – we like covers that are aesthetically pleasing when viewed as a series on our ereader. In fact, I’ve even used Calibre software in the past to alter the covers of some of my favourite series, to ensure their covers are all from the same illustrator or designer.
From a practical point of view, cost can certainly be an issue. Unlike the satire authors, of whom 93% were traditionally published, all of the romance authors who listed their novels under satire appear to be independently published. Scamming the rankings, it seems, is just not something ‘respectable’ publishers – mainstream or romance-specific – want to be seen doing.
I understand all too well the struggle of indie authors to compete with the big publishers, both in terms of presentation and marketing. Thus, it might be unsurprising that indie romance authors would take shortcuts when it comes to cover design, and muck around with the categories a bit to gain rank.
But let’s not forget, we aren’t exactly talking about struggling indies here. The bestselling book in this category is selling around 3,744 books per day. Even if it only achieved such incredible sales for a single day, at Amazon’s lowest royalty rate, that comes to $5,539.
More than enough to pay a professional designer to really take some time and deliver something special.
Even the authors who only had one book in the top 100 seem to be adhering to the same strategy: more than half had a ‘mad-libs’ style fill-in-the-blank title, and all had cookie-cutter covers.
How hard is it to break into satire?
You might think, given the fact that satire is not in the top 10 competitive categories, that it would be easier to break into as a novice author than romance is. But when the category is dominated by romance novels – including highly successful ones – it is far more difficult than you might expect.
For starters, at present, only 15% of the slots on the top 100 list are actually occupied by satire authors. That cuts your chances dramatically.
Let’s take a look at those fifteen authors of true satires that did make it to the top 100:
None made it into the top 10. That’s right, all 10 of the top 10 ‘satires’ on the day I checked were romances, not satires.
Just seven – fewer than half – made it into the top fifty.
Four of the fifteen authors (or 27%) are dead.
Is being a bestselling satire author bad for your health?
Not at all. Well, probably not. But if you want to make it to the top 100 while you’re still alive, you’re not competing for one of fifteen slots. It’s more like one of eleven.
And what are your chances if you’re an indie?
Just one of those eleven living authors published their work independently. The rest are all published by big publishing houses, and have achieved BIG things. I’m talking NYT bestseller list, multiple millions of copies sold, big awards like the Pulitzer or Nobel, endorsements from Amazon, NPR, and the Boston Globe. Famous narrators for their audio books, film adaptations, anniversary editions.
So what can we indies learn from the sole independently published author who made it onto the top 100 satires list?
Basically, the recipe for success for indie satire authors is the same as for indie romance authors:
Publish. A lot.
The only indie book in the top 100 that was a satire was the first in a series, by an author who had ten titles to his name. Which, incidentally, is around how many books Kristine Kathryn Rusch of Discoverability claims an indie author needs to write before they can expect any success.
Identifying a problem is only the first step towards solving it. The next step is to propose a better way forward.
When I first became interested in online publishing, I must admit I was jealous of the vast sea of subgenres available to romance authors. While authors of satires and political humour like myself may find it difficult to find categories that accurately reflect the types of stories we tell, romance authors not only have access to extremely specific subcategories, but they also have a whole language – developed by the romance community, but adopted by major online retailers like Amazon – to filter books by character type, too – something unavailable in other genres.
But as I have come to get more of a handle on just how many books there are in romance than in any other genre, I am no longer jealous. I see just how much romance authors and more importantly readers need a vast array of subgenres to make sense of this enormous ocean of titles.
In fact, I think Amazon could do with adding more subgenres to romance.
We’re never going to have a situation where Amazon pays human beings to police which books belong in which genre. And to be honest, as an author and as a reader, I don’t want to live in a world where someone other than me gets to decide what category my books fall into. My measure of whether a book counts as ‘satire’ or ‘romance’ in this post is, admittedly, crude, looking only at explicit mention of these genres in the books’ listings. Even if you were to pay a bunch of English lit graduates to read each book, you’d still end up with disagreements. And that’s part of the beauty of literature.
In short, despite the concerns I’ve raised in this post, we don’t need more gatekeepers in the literary world. Romance authors, and indie authors in particular, know this better than anyone.
No More Genre Gerrymandering!
What we could do, however, is ensure that posting your book in a category it doesn’t belong to is no longer advantageous. If there were enough romance subcategories that all categories on Amazon were of roughly the same competitiveness, authors would use categories for their intended purpose – conveying to the reader what category a book falls into – rather than for what has apparently become their primary purpose for some authors – gaming the rankings.
We already have extremely fine breakdowns of subcategories when it comes to non-fiction works. It’s no coincidence that all ten of the ten least competitive categories on Amazon are non-fiction. The same needs to be done for romance – and any other genres that may come to invade other categories in search of ‘easy’ rankings in future.