Cult of Worlds

World of Warcraft

Recently on Google+, Nathan Housley pondered whether science fiction authors should stop thinking of science fiction fans as their target audience and focus on making fans of their secondary worlds.

Here's Nathan:
Between the current trends of science fiction marketing and that games audience link, I'm beginning to think that the future for science fiction writers is not to market to science fiction fans, but to market to those looking to be fans of their work. 
For instance, WoW did not create some 10 million MMO fans, it created 10 million WoW fans. Attempts by RIFT and Wildstar and similar MMOs never managed to tap into this audience, and the successful competitors like Final Fantasy 11/14, Lord of the Rings, etc. managed to tap into fans of their primary works.
So instead of trying to market to fantasy fans or Star Wars fans, the latter of which are perfectly content with Star Wars, perhaps the way forward is to increase a potential customer's interest in your work's experience. Sanderson's managed to do this with the various mysteries of the Cosmere, many of which have only been revealed in person and only hinted in his works.
Tradpub appears to sell the cult of the author. The cutting edge of indie is moving towards selling the cult of their worlds.
Is Nathan on to something here? Should science fiction authors forego marketing to science fiction fans as a category and target people who are seeking an escapist experience such as a particular author provides?

Possibly, though I'd need to see more specifically book-related data to be convinced. Taking Nathan's word that WoW built its popularity by targeting people who wanted to be Wow fans--which strikes me as somewhat tautological, but what do I know?--I just don't see game marketing mapping directly to books.

For one, there's a bit of marketing element confusion going on. WoW is not a product. It's a brand, whereas a book--or even a series of books--ins't a brand. It's a product. The author is the brand. That's why publishers, both trad and indie, focus their marketing efforts on authors much like Blizzard focuses its marketing on WoW.

That's also why bringing up Sanderson as an example strikes me as counterproductive to Nathan's argument. He's right that Brandon has built an impressive fictional multiverse, but if you ask the creator, he'll be the first to tell you that the Cosmere is product, and he's the brand. In fact, Sanderson is one of the main guys I learned author=brand from. And Tor certainly markets him in the traditional way.

A couple of nitpicks--one minor and one major: Star Wars might be an even worse example to cite than Brandon Sanderson. First, Star Wars fans are not perfectly content. In fact, there's a major revolt brewing in reaction to TFA, Rogue One, TLJ, and the upcoming Han Solo movie.

Second, and more importantly, indie authors like Nick Cole and Jason Anspach are making a fortune peeling off disaffected Star Wars fans. If you follow their recent blog posts and podcast appearances, they explain that they made their Galaxy's Edge project a smashing success by strategically targeting readers of particular SF subgenres.

That said, crafting a unique and memorable reading experience by which your fans can escape to a fully realized secondary world is an essential part of product differentiation. My fictional universe might not be as sprawling as Sanderson's, but my Soul Cycle has been compared favorably to his Cosmere.

What you as a science fiction author want to do is stake out a niche within a subcategory of SF. Choosing the right subgenre is a delicate balancing act. If your category is too narrow, there won't be enough money in it to support a career. Pick a niche that's too broad, and you'll have trouble standing out from the pack.

Once you've found your niche, give the fans in your category a fun and memorable experience that will turn them into your fans. It should be mentioned that, if you write science fiction, fans of your work will, by definition, be science fiction fans.

Finally, going out to the highways and hedgerows to find fans of your trademark experience runs counter to how Amazon's algorithm works. As Nick Cole warns, hand-selling your book to random people who have nothing--most significantly, no buying habits--in common other than a taste for your work is the best way to kill your career.

Why? Because even if you achieve a high volume of random sales, that very randomness confuses the hell out of the Amazon algorithm. Remember: Amazon is a search engine; the third biggest on the internet, in fact. Its search algorithm isn't designed to give you the exact results you want so much as suggest results you're likely to buy. It makes these suggestions by looking at your purchase history as well as the purchase histories of people who bought the same products you did.

See where this is going? The way forward, re: author marketing is to teach Amazon's algorithm to recommend your book to customers who've bought and liked similar books in the same tightly defined categories.

This requires a degree of writing to market preferences. On Amazon, you don't want to create something so new and original that there's nothing at all like it, because the algorithm won't know who to recommend it to.

I learned that lesson the hard way, which is why my first post-Soul Cycle project will be a mil-SF mecha series. You do want to put your unique twist on your books to make them memorable, so the new series will retain my 90s anime sensibilities.

In the meantime, the Soul Cycle rapidly draws toward completion. I invite you to pick up the first three books in my award-winning series so you'll be good to go when the fourth and final book hits.

Thanks again to Nathan for providing substantial food for thought.


  1. Thanks for taking this one out to the woodshed. I don't think that the idea at the heart that I'm working towards is dead--but the sweeping generalization certainly is. So, let me walk back my assertions to this one observation:

    I am currently seeing a trend of more immersive marketing by indie science fiction writers.

    And I will let the readers make of it what they may.

    1. No worries. Like I said on G+. There's a lot of smoke here, but there's some fire. I salute anyone who's up for brainstorming new indie marketing ideas.

      It's true that you definitely want to attract a diehard following who are fanatical about your world. Like Jeff Duntemann has pointed out, if you can build a tribe of 10k guys who'll show up on day one to buy anything you put out, no questions asked, you've got it made.

      The wrinkle in your plan is the fact that authors have to contend with a whole different distribution channel than game publishers, viz. Amazon. That means you've got to use their algorithm to find your 10k fans, and there are very specific ways of doing that.

  2. Another great Nick Cole* example is his Wyrd series, which is actually more of a framing device than a fully realized world. He sprinkles clues about what's really going on throughout the books in the form of actual links to URLs (one of which has a map to Wyrd America).

    * There's that name again. I'm starting to detect a trend.

    1. *That's highly meta of you, Jon. I approve :)

      Seriously, it's just now starting to dawn on folks in the industry--everybody from aspiring n00bs to New York big shots--that Nick and Jason are on to something earth-shattering.

      Having made my own inquiries, I'm pretty sure they've found the Holy Grail of Amazon publishing. Or the Spear of Destiny, perhaps.

      Since the early Wild West days of KDP, everybody said that they way to succeed was to build your digital bookshelf by grinding out novels. Each book you released was like a new chance to find the golden ticket. Play the law of large numbers, and eventually you'd get lucky.

      What everybody--even major indies like Hugh Howie and Joe Konrath--missed for years, and what Nick and Jason have finally figured out, is that Amazon's algorithm is primarily a sales tool. It doesn't want to give you the most precise results. It wants to sell you stuff. The first to figure out how it makes product suggestions would get the keys to the kingdom.

      It's becoming ever more apparent that Nick and Jason are holding the keys. Few realize how earth-shaking this is. I've talked to others and seen some of the effects myself. Old tried and true marketing tactics are now less effective or have stopped working entirely. Meanwhile, anybody who can get some of that Galaxy's Edge pixie dust to rub off on them sees a huge boost in sales--a sustained boost.

      Look at Wandrey, Fox, etc. There's a core group of Mil-SF authors forming around Jason and Nick who are poised to run the table indefinitely.

      The ramifications are huge. I'd go so far as to say that if you're any kind of SF writer, you'll have to follow Nick and Jason's model or reconcile yourself to a career of constant grinding on social media.

  3. Isn't that kind of splitting hairs? The fans who will like your fantastic worlds will likely be the science fiction fans. Yeah you might get some people on the fuzzy edges who aren't diehard scifi fans, but you aren't pulling in the Regency Romance readers no matter how nice your world is.

    1. Yes. That's my point. And you can make Amazon's algorithm deliver that fanbase to you practically overnight.

  4. Brian and Nathan.
    Good discussion let me throw in this idea:build an immersive world that tells a fun story that allow readers to escape from their daily lives for a brief tone.

    The trend is to fight the dreary no escapicism and bring back the sense of fun and wonder through escapist stories.
    That's what writers should aim for (and of course refined for the algorithms :) )


    1. Correct. Write the immersive world. Get the algorithm to deliver the fans.

  5. I thought the title said "Cult of Words" at first.

    There's little I can add except that the potential audience out there is growing with every converged industry and destroyed legacy property. You obviously can't rely on them to be your customers now, but with the amount of speculative action and adventure fans that are dissatisfied with other mediums it appears like there's a greater chance than ever for the market to grow.

    Overly optimistic, sure. But it is fun to think about.

    1. Don't know about you, but the most frustrating part of the whole pop culture collapse for me--even more than SJW convergence--is the huge number of people who are wasting once in a lifetime opportunities for no damn good reason.

      There's gold in them hills! Nuggets big as hen eggs lying right there on the ground. And folks are complaining they're too heavy.

  6. Brian and friends
    For proof of gold in thar hills
    Read this gem from the Penguin CEO's keynote at the Frankfurt book fair


    And at Mike Shatzkin's site he quotes the Simon and Schuster CEO's acknowledgement of the huge market self publishing represent but she's still clueless what to do next


  7. > which is why my first post-Soul Cycle project will be a mil-SF mecha series.

    Will it be set in the same universe as Anacyclosis?

    ah, another difficult to sell in niche. Still it maybe that mecha is just one of those genres that trad pub shied away from, since it seems that Indie published mecha series seem to do well.

    Apropos of nothing, I would wish Warbots would be published to Kindle. Warstriders got killed by it's tradpub, but has done well for the author on kindle.

    1. "Will it be set in the same universe as Anacyclosis?"

      Somebody read that!?

      My hat's off to you, sir. And the answer you have richly earned is yes.

  8. "I learned that lesson the hard way, which is why my first post-Soul Cycle project will be a mil-SF mecha series. You do want to put your unique twist on your books to make them memorable, so the new series will retain my 90s anime sensibilities."


    1. Now I know at least two readers are interested :)

  9. I am in drool part two mode. I grew up on all the 80s/90s stuff. More Shekels incoming.

    PS: Thanks for reminding me of Warstriders series.