The View from My Niche

Sandra ParshallSandra Parshall is the Agatha Award-winning author of the Rachel Goddard mysteries. Her fifth book, Bleeding Through, came out earlier this month. In this latest entry in the series, Rachel and her sister fall victim to a vicious stalker, while Rachel’s fiancé, Deputy Tom Bridger, hunts down a young law student’s killer. Sandra lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two cats. For more information about her books, visit

I cringe inwardly every time I hear the term “niche writer.” When it’s applied to me, I add gritted teeth to the cringe.

What it means is “You don’t sell a lot of books and you never will because your work appeals to only a small number of readers.”

Promotional strategy for reaching those readers has been debated on the Kindle Boards;topic=75563.0 and reams have been written about it on writers’ blogs and other internet venues. Writing about “how to reach your niche audience” may be a writing niche in itself.

But I think the very term niche writer is nonsense. So is regional writer, which means pretty much the same thing.  The idea behind these labels is that certain subjects, certain parts of the U.S. (or the world), and/or certain writing styles will always have a tiny audience.

For example, a mystery series about an aging sheriff in the wilds of Wyoming won’t find many readers. Oh, but wait – Craig Johnson’s Longmire books have been filmed for TV and the latest one is on the New York Times bestseller list. So that’s not a good example of a niche series. Let’s look elsewhere.

How about books set in the backwoods of Appalachia, featuring a rural sheriff and a mountain woman who claims she can see dead people and foretell the future? On second thought, that’s not a good example either, since Sharyn McCrumb has made the bestseller lists with novels of that description.

Moving on… A series about a former cop living in a cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula lacks wide appeal, right? Only readers who live there would be interested. Unless, of course, the books are written by Steve Hamilton.

But here’s a series that no U.S. editor would touch: a small town full of quirky characters, a cop with a French name, stories set not only in Canada, but in French Canada – Quebec. Everybody knows that U.S. audiences will not read mysteries set in Canada. And French Canada? Forget it, Louise Penny. You don’t stand a chance at a successful writing career because there’s simply no audience outside Quebec for your work.

When Louise comes to her senses and stops trying to find a New York publisher, she might try Poisoned Pen Press. They’ve taken a chance on a lot of Bleeding Through“niche” authors. The Poisoned Pen Posse includes writers like Betty Webb, whose reporter protagonist works in Arizona; Ann Littlewood, whose lead character is a zookeeper; Bernadette Pajer, who has the audacity to build stories around an electrical engineer in early 20th century San Francisco; Jeffrey Siger, who writes about a police chief on the island of Mykonos. (Where?) Then there’s me, with my veterinarian and deputy sheriff protagonists in the mountains of southwestern Virginia – way too far off the beaten track (or the interstate) to interest many readers. So why do I get fan e-mails from Australia, Canada, and Britain?

An author is a niche writer only until he or she begins to find an audience. I’m reminded of the now-famous story Tony Hillerman used to tell about the agent who read his first southwestern mystery and told him it would never sell unless he got rid of “all that Indian stuff.” Fortunately, readers proved, as they have again and again, that they are much more adventurous than most publishers give them credit for. They’re curious about different places and cultures. They want to visit Navaho reservations and villages in Quebec, and they’ll go along happily on an imaginary excursion to the desert of Arizona, the mountains of Appalachia and, yes, an island off the coast of Greece.

You won’t find my books on bestseller lists, but  since my first novel came out in 2006 I’ve met a lot of readers and interacted online with many more who have no trouble connecting with my rural mountain setting or my characters. I can say with absolute certainty that most of the avid readers out there are smart and knowledgeable, and they like books that will give them a new perspective, along with an entertaining mystery. That’s the kind of book I try to write – and if it’s a niche, it’s one I’m quite happy to be in.