Gay romance fiction

Open Water: competing with your colleagues is for sharks and jellyfish

by Damon Suede


We all swim in the same sea, but no two authors, books, careers are alike. Every romance author occupies a specific space on the virtual bookshelf, and yet promotional strategy for genre fiction starts to look awfully generic. In a crowded, cutthroat market, promo is hard work and the idea of competition is hardwired into our monkey minds. Our primate urge to claim and expand our turf can get…tricky.

For a lot of authors, promotion doesn’t come naturally. Most newbies get boilerplate marketing advice that wastes time and energy they could spend developing their craft and living their lives. Old-school “push” promo models hard-sell relentlessly, harangue existing audiences, and bully readers into book purchases.

Hard sell sucks, and most promo does too. Books are bought, not sold.

Thankfully, in the past couple of years book promotion has started to slough off old, bad habits. Fresher “pull” marketing strategies have made great gains in popularity: cooperative, collaborative promo that builds trust and enthusiasm certain that readers know their own minds. These new strategies flout conventional wisdom about why and how promo works.

We all need to sell books and reach readers in a positive, mindful way, but we’ve all seen authors and publishers bait-and-switch their way onto to-be-read piles, praying like hell no one notices shoddy editing, false advertising, and crappy craft. But for any would-be grifters, you can only run a scam in a crowded field of fresh meat. Newsflash: genre readers spot those frauds and dispense swift Darwinian justice.

Bottom line: you can only fool someone once, but they’ll distrust you forever.

Don’t believe me? Check out the last year of publishing shenanigans. In some quarters, the recent slo-mo implosion of the e-publishing bubble has laid waste to a lot of hacks and hucksters. Back when everyone was desperate for anything they could pop on their Kindle, publishing became a Pirates Cove operating just offshore of polite enterprise. Then the pros showed up, cleaned up, and the swashbuckling era ended for anyone who didn’t want to roll up their sleeves and behave like grown-ups and professionals.

In the world of MBAs and corporate consultants, a pair of lauded business professors named W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne wrote a bestselling, much-praised book called Blue Ocean Strategy that turns the conventional cutthroat logic on its ear.

According to them, most businesses operate in blood-soaked “red” oceans of ruthless competition for limited customers and resources. Big fish dominate, little fish yield, and the hierarchies and rules are clearly defined. Businesses that experience explosive growth and success do so in uncharted “blue” oceans which are uncrowded by competitors and teeming with fresh customers.

INSET QUOTE  “To win in the future, companies must stop competing with each other…Cutthroat competition turns the red ocean bloody. Blue oceans, in contrast, are defined by untapped market space, demand creation, and the opportunity for highly profitable growth.” Blue Ocean Strategy - W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne

The logic is brutal and simple. Red oceans appeal to risk-averse folks because the limits, terrain, and patterns are old news to everyone who operates within that area. In contrast, blue oceans expand the margins of an industry, redefining market expectations and creating new rules.

Blue ocean strategy creates additional value through innovation and creativity, changing the rules and sidestepping the cutthroat tactics of the tried-and-true red ocean. Of course, the authors don’t suggest it’s the only strategy, but it is the smartest way to create swift, significant growth in a crowded market. (Not that we’d know anything about that, right?)

Kim and Mauborgne argue that Blue Ocean-ers make their competitors irrelevant with what they call value innovation, i.e. being better and more accessible than your competitors. By analyzing the market, savvy entrepreneurs strike out in fresh directions leaving the slowniks to squabble over the chum with the other predators. Offer something new and phenomenal, and the market comes to you.

Red oceans are familiar and fan-packed. Squabbling over the same square acre of blood-soaked water will put you on the map with existing fans of a genre, but it will also fritter away the majority of your resources on getting your signal heard above the noise. You spend most of your time avoiding the sociopathic sharks and passive-aggressive jellyfish who see you as canned tuna. By contrast, the vasty deep of blue ocean markets are underserved and eager for innovation.

As professional authors, do we need to know how to navigate the gory waters of red oceans and duke it out with the sharks when we must? Obviously… but the real rewards are off the edge of the market map. As my grandfather used to say, “Never ask someone to buy anything, because they can say no.” Instead, you create something that people want to buy and then make sure the right people come looking for it.

Rather than bashing other people competing for the same market share, Kim and Mauborgne urge savvy businesses to create value innovation….literally rewriting the market by mixing things up and making yourself the best fish in the sea.

For authors, this search for blue oceans speaks to the concrete issues of finding readers and claiming shelfspace within your genre and niche.

"Value innovation is the cornerstone of blue ocean strategy….instead of focusing on beating the competition, you focus on making the competition irrelevant by creating a leap in value for buyers and your company, thereby opening up new and uncontested market space.” Blue Ocean Strategy - W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne

Seeking bluer waters doesn’t have to mean striking out blindly in a random direction with eyes shut and fingers crossed. Kim and Mauborgne urge creative entrepreneurs to examine their value within the market. As an exercise, they point to four areas of potential in a four actions framework closely resembling SWOT analysis. I reconfigured Kim and Mauborgne’s framework to make it directly applicable for authors as follows:

  • How can you drastically exceed the expectations of your genre/niche? (Strength)

  • What cliches and habits within your genre/niche could you discard? (Weakness)

  • What exceptional innovation or appeal can you offer to your genre/niche for the first time? (Opportunities)

  • What areas of your genre/niche would benefit from streamlining and simplification? (Threats)

Answer those four questions, and you’ll have a pretty clear chart pointing you in the directions of the right uncharted waters.

In Whitecollar Management-land™, some naysayers have criticized Blue Ocean Strategy for using mushy, subjective definitions and oversimplifying the grim realities of business. A few corporate wonks have taken Professors Kim and Mauborgne to task because:

  • Their strategy simplifies and repackages hoary truths about marketing.

  • Metaphors don’t have practical value and shouldn’t dictate operations and expenses.

  • Blue ocean strategy doesn’t work for standardized products and narrow-focus industries which cannot diversify.

  • Uncertainty about a new market can starve a business before they see results.

  • Businesses often succeed by destroying competitors.

For corporate America that may be true, but for romance authors, these criticisms actually prove why blue ocean is exactly the direction we should be swimming. We need time-tested truths about marketing! We trade in metaphors! We must diversify. We live in a state of uncertainty about the publishing market!

Except genre authors never need to destroy our competitors because publishing is not a zero-sum game. We share readers and they share us.

No author is McDonalds or Coca-Cola. We cannot crank out product mechanically for every taste. The entire entertainment industry and by extension publishing is in the business of creating new audiences out of complete skeptics. In publishing (and entertainment as a whole) this explains the boom and bust cycles of trend-chasing, and also the breakout bestsellers that define our industry. Every game-changing bestseller in history (c.f. Gone with the Wind, Valley of the Dolls, The Vampire Lestat, Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, The Da Vinci Code, Twilight) exploded into being when a weird outlier hooked a group of nonreaders.

Ironically, the more we see our colleagues as competition, the more we treat publishing as a zero-sum game with a limited market, the more we doom our careers to squabbling over scraps that fall from someone else’s table rather than claiming our own place and accessing our readers. Rather than duking it out over a small strata of folks who want to watch what the entire world wants to watch, we strengthen our careers by diversifying. Instead of trying to appeal to every reader, we need to be engaging our readers.

INSET QUOTE “In red oceans, the industry boundaries are defined and accepted, and the competitive rules of the game are known. In blue oceans, competition is irrelevant because the rules of the game are waiting to be set.” Blue Ocean Strategy - W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne

Don’t be a shark or a jellyfish! If you want significant success, leave behind the blood-soaked red oceans already contested by your colleagues and strike out for unexplored blue oceans. Provide exceptional, unexpected value and your readers will notice. Explosive bestsellers and legions of fans exist out in the untested blue waters beyond everyone’s comfort zone. Scary? Absolutely…but essential for anyone wanting to move beyond hardscrabble hand-sell into market-defining triumphs.

Remember, the goal is to get past the market clichés and accepted wisdom that clog your corner of the bookstore. Taking a long hard look at the waters your colleagues have been treading will point you in useful and inspiring directions creatively and professionally. Where will your readers be waiting for you if you’re brave enough to go find them? Where do you want the genre to go and how can you get it there?

Exploring and innovating our genres should be job one for all of us. Collaborating and celebrating our colleagues can unleash unbelievable opportunities. Expanding the reach of the romance genre is a win-win-win-win for every single person who ever picked up a book with a Happily Ever After because it makes the audience better, the books better, the publishers better, and the authors better.

Grab a suit and come on in! The water is amazing.

A professional development article for writers by M/M author Damon Suede

Copyright 2015. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

Originally published as a lecture for Romance University

If you wish to republish this article, just drop me a line.