Preliminary Research

Finding out what people want before you write your book

There are many reasons why you would want to write a book: … to make money … to get your ideas across to a large audience … to establish your expertise in a particular field … to promote or support your products or services … to enhance your CV … and so on.

Whatever your reasons, you will want your book to be read. This means that you have to write the kind of book that fulfils the needs of your audience. But what do your readers want?

To suss this out, you should analyse of the top five to ten books on the topic you are going to write about. Begin by drawing up a checklist of queries that need answering.

What to research

Naturally, the questions will vary depending on the knowledge you have already of the market, the kind of book you will write (fiction or non-fiction), and its genre. Here are a few suggestions:

[1] Length … the longest, shortest and average lengths in print-length; the page count of an e-book varies depending on how the reader sets the size of the font in his reader, so make sure you get the number of pages of the printed book or its equivalence if it has not been printed.

[2] Style … the writing style or styles used — formal, technical, conversational, colloquial etc; make a note of any stylistic features common to the books you are analysing.

[3] Target audience … age range, gender, educational level and reading age, levels of expertise etc; some of these factors would be obvious from the writing style and the genre itself.

Another thing you need to look out for is themes or issues that appear in the five to ten books you are analysing. In non-fiction, for example, certain topics are always covered in books on particular subjects and these topics are therefore likely to be the kinds of material readers of these books always expect.

The genre or subject area of your proposed book will suggest a host of other questions. In a non-fiction book, for example, you might like to know what are the particular topics in a subject area that have been dealt with at length by other writers and what are the topics you on which you can offer new insights.

Obtaining and recording the answers to all your queries will help you write the kind of book your audience want to read.

Recording with MS Excel

But first you need to list all your queries and set up some sort of system that enables you to record the answers you discover during your research.

I use Excel to record the information I gather as I find it very useful when making comparisons.

I write the titles and authors of the books across the top row; this is my list of books for analysis. And I record the various features I am researching (eg, length, writing style and so on) down the left-most column.

Then, as I gather information, I record it in the appropriate cell. For example, if the printed length of a particular book is 120 pages long, I enter 120 in the cell where the ‘Printed length’ row intersects the column for that particular book.

This method has the advantage that it enables me to compare an individual attribute (eg, length) of the different books by reading a row across the page.

So where do you go to gather this information? The short answer is Amazon.

Amazon has about 70% of the worldwide market in e-books, perhaps even 80% according to some estimates. If you confine your research to Amazon you are unlikely to be missing too much (with some exceptions). You’ll also find that plenty of information is available.

Researching on Amazon

Go to Go to Kindle Store and then to Kindle-eBooks. Now search on your topic, genre or category. A list of books with covers and very brief descriptions will appear.

At the top right of the list you will find a ‘Sort by’ box with a drop-down list. Make sure it is set to ‘Sort by Relevance’. If not, you can change it easily by clicking the little down-arrow and picking ‘Sort by Relevance’.

The books on the list will be ranked, from the most important on down, on a combination of the sales and reviews they are generating.

Amazon updates its book rankings hourly so this list will change a bit from hour to hour as fresh reviews are posted and Amazon sells the books.

You need to choose the first five to ten books for analysis. Record the titles and authors in Excel across the top row as mentioned above.

Click on the book covers to go to the main sales page for each book in turn. Read the Book Descriptions closely and copy and paste them to the Excel spreadsheet and save the file in your hard disc. The cells will expand a bit but you can limit their width. And you can reduce the descriptions to key words and phrases in order to save space. Now you can read and compare the descriptions side by side.

Further down the sales pages you’ll find About the Author. These ‘bios’ are not much good at this stage but you might like to record them in a separate spreadsheet as they could prove useful when you are writing your own About the Author for Amazon.

The next section going down is the Product Details. This contains the Print Length of the book which you should record in your Excel spreadsheet.

The product details section also contains the book’s Amazon Best Sellers Rank. Record this also and leave a blank row underneath it. We’ll discuss this in a minute.

Further down you’ll find Customer Reviews. Read these as they can give a good insight into who is reading particular books and what they like or dislike most about them. You can record these details also using key words and phrases.

Now go to Look Inside by clicking on the cover shown at the top of the page. First off, check out the Table of Contents (TOC). This will give you an excellent insight into the book and, as you cannot copy and paste from Look Inside, you will need to copy it manually.

I like to copy the full TOC (chapter headings and sub-heads) into a separate spreadsheet. I then copy and paste the chapter headings into my main Excel spreadsheet. As all the TOCs will be in the same row it is easy to compare the contents of the different books.

With Look Inside you can read several pages of the text. This allows you to examine the writer’s style. Note the styles in your spreadsheet so you can compare them across a single row.

Amazon Best Sellers Rank

The Amazon Best Sellers calculation is based on the sales of all books on Amazon. It is updated hourly to reflect recent and historical sales of every item sold on Amazon.

Amazon also ranks its sales by various categories. In addition it publishes lists of the top 100 paid Kindle e-books and the top 100 free downloads.

The one thing that Amazon does not publish is actual sales of individual books, whether printed or electronic. Yet it would be nice to know the daily sales of the five or ten books you are analysing so you can work out the revenues you can expect for your writing efforts.

Estimates vary as to how the overall Amazon Best Sellers Rank translates into actual daily sales. A loose consensus, based on surveys of authors, is that an overall ranking that is:

  • lower than 40,000 means a book is selling less than one copy a day
  • between 8,500 and 40,000 – less than 10 books a day
  • between 3,000 and 8,500 – 10 to 30 books a day
  • between 2,000 to 3,000 – 30 to 55 books a day
  • between 1,000 and 2,000 – 55 to 100 books a day
  • between 200 and 1000 – 100 to 350 books a day
  • between 80 and 200 – 350 to 550 books a day
  • between 65 and 80 – 550 to 650 books a day
  • between 20 and 65 – 650 to 1,100 books a day
  • between 10 and 20 – 1,100 to 2,000 books a day
  • between 5 and 10 – 2,000 to 3,500 books a day
  • between 1 to 5 – 3,500+ books a day

You can use this table to convert the ranking of each book you are analysing into the range in which its daily sales fall. However you have to bear in mind that the table reflects estimates by writers, that it has not been issued by Amazon, and that as a guideline it is continuously fluctuating. However it may give you an idea as to the revenues the books you are analysing may be generating on Amazon.

Other sources

There are plenty of other sources of information on e-books.

Writers’ websites: Many writers who publish an e-book have a website, either a specific website for a particular book (such as a sales page for the book) or a website for themselves as an author on which they promote themselves and the books they have written.

You won’t find a link to these websites from Amazon. But if you google the title of a book and/or the name of its author you’ll probably be able to find the related site (provided it exists, which is likely).

The information you find on these sites may quite illuminating. The sales pages of particular books can give valuable hints of what’s in a book, which you can record in keyword form in your analysis spreadsheet.

The sales pages can also provide a good idea of the sort of sales patter your potential audience prefers (provided the book is successful). You should copy, paste and save these materials in MS Word for reference when you come to write the copy for your own sales page.

Other e-book sellers: 20 to 30 percent of the e-book market is accounted for by online sellers other than Amazon. There are dozens of them.

These retailers include Barnes & Noble eBooks, Sony Reader Store, Random House eBooks, and BooksOnBoard, which sell all types of books.

There are also more specialised online sellers such as eHarlequin eBook Store (for steamy romances), Taylor & Francis eBookstore (academic and professional subjects), and Cambridge eBookstore (for professionals and students) among others.

However you should be able to get sufficient information from Amazon unless you know that a particular type of book (eg, an academic tome) does better on one of these sites.

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