One of the more powerful tools in an author’s arsenal is the act of finding your niche. What fandom has taught me about this, though, is that it is not defined the way most people think it is.
For instance, a particular fandom might be considered a niche, especially if it is small. Hot Fuzz, the fandom that dragged me back into fanfiction in 2007, is incredibly small and despite the ongoing popularity of the movie could be considered a very “niche fandom.” But I would hesitate to define it as “writer’s niche.”
A niche is something specific to you, as a writer. In fandom, you will find writers who travel from fandom to fandom and bring their fanbase with them, because their niche isn’t the fandom itself but their writing. They may be known for over-the-top romance tropes, or delicately balanced prose, or for a specific type of trope itself. Xanthe, the originator of the the “D/s universe”, brought a lot of people from SGA into NCIS due to the world-building in her stories; Speranza is justly famous for carrying her fanbase through The Sentinel, Due South, SGA, and up to Person of Interest due to her engaging characterizations and wonderful plots. There are certainly others I could use as examples, especially given the number of popular writers who migrated to the mega-fandoms such as Sherlock, Supernatural, and Marvel.
The point to make here is that having a genre (romance, sf, horror, etc.) and a category (M/M romance, political thriller, psychological horror) is not having a niche, any more than writing Destiel in SPN is a niche.
Back to my example of Hot Fuzz, which is kind-of niche-like in appearance. My first splash into the fandom was a mary-sue long!fic that got me some criticism from the BNFs of good taste and propriety, and while that stung, I was hardly abashed. I marched forth into stories that always pushed the boundaries of the characters as perceived by fans. If everyone assumed Nicholas Angel was bi, I made it my mission to write a version who identified as straight. If Danny Butterman was generally written as provincially closed-minded/inexperienced about homosexuality, I wrote him as a very promiscuous gay man. My niche became the practice of challenging perceptions by writing characters as believably “out of character” as possible. This continued in Life on Mars (UK), where I was constantly challenged to write the canonically close-minded machismo asshole Gene Hunt as a life-long queer, or (in one memorable, or perhaps forgettable, occasion) as a gigolo pimped out by a night club owner. Likewise, my most notable work in the Avengers fandom is a multi-shipping story that tried to realistically portray Steve Rogers (Captain America) as an active and unapologetic gay man of the 1930s, as opposed to the more general slash fanon of him at the time as (at best) a repressed queer. My most popular SPN fic is one where I have Castiel top Dean, which was written during a time in the fandom when that was very rare.
A niche can be a style of writing as well. Obstinatrix writes possibly some of the most gorgeous, poetic prose I’ve ever been privileged to read, and I really don’t care if she started writing Hockey RPF, I’d read it. Wolfsbanepunch writes Teen Wolf inspired poetry that I adore, and I don’t even watch the show (I keep hoping they will migrate over to writing Clint/Coulson inspired poetry, but so far that’s a no-go. WOE!). TheWordButler has created an entire lawyer!AU for the Avengers that is both meticulous and epic, and while you could say that her niche is “lawyer!AU” I think it is more accurate to say her niche is “complex contemporary romance set in a fandom world,” and that would travel even if she suddenly jumped ship and started writing in Hot Fuzz (one can dream) or Lord of the Rings. Tawg’s stories, which I’ve followed over the years from Hot Fuzz to Avengers, have a bleeding edge of angst to them that is always a gut punch that you can’t help but admire, even when the premise is the crackiest of fluffy crack!fic.
I am pretty sure no fans have followed me from one fandom from the other just because of my stories (I’m usually slow to migrate anyway) but if they have, they know what to expect. That particular brand of not-crack boundary pushing is intrinsic to my nature, and can be found in my original fiction in the form of characters who on the surface level fit a particular trope but actually don’t. In Dawn in the Orchard, Gary is the typical “talented but down on his luck musician” who moves back to his small hometown from Chicago and gets into a romance with a local in-the-closet business owner, Chuck. The expected trope is that the big-city homosexual helps the repressed small-town queer come to terms with his gayness as they fall in love, but my flip is that Chuck is on the whole much more well adjusted as a person, despite being in the closet, while Gary suffers from crippling stage fright and insecurity related in part to internalized shame about his sexuality.
A niche can be a cage, though, and I’ve seen some writers get slammed for trying to do “new things” outside of reader expectations. It’s the reason that mainstream authors often turn to pen names when branching into completely different genres, which has a dual purpose: 1) not disappointing current fans by giving them a type of story they weren’t expecting and do not like; and 2) not scaring off potential fans who might like the new thing but won’t give it a try because they identify the author with a genre they do not enjoy. Some fanfic authors turn to new usernames every time they jump fandoms for the same reasons (one reason Archive of Our Own allows writers to have psueds associated with their primary username).
The way to avoid that cage is to consciously break it every now and again, not drastically but enough to let readers know that you can do other things. Being known for a niche is a great marketing tool, but it needs to work in the service to your brand, not tie you down to expectations that become onerous over time. Just be aware of it, and make decisions based on your goals and not out of panic.
Over the last ten years I’ve seen fandom and genre fiction open up in a lot of ways, allowing writers to cross genres and categories successfully, but they have usually done so by capitalizing on their niche. A good way to know if you understand your niche is to try and describe it in less than 20 words. Mine, as discussed above, can be distilled down as: “pushing character boundaries and reader expectations beyond the standard canon/fanon/trope being written about.”
Give it a try. What’s your niche?