Intent to Sell: Marketing the Genre Novel


Murder Must Advertise
Sponsored by Jeffrey Marks

Wisdom of a Chief Bottle Washer
by Natalie Thomas of Independent Spirit Publishing

Lee Meadows wrote "I suspect that the pioneering kind of work being done by our colleague Natalie Thomas will become the wave of the near future. Though she may not see its true value just yet, being author, publisher, editor and chief bottle washer, she and others just might be paving the way for us."

How kind of you! Thank you Lee!

Lee's right, it hasn't fully sunk in that there are more people watching me than I am aware of. Sometimes I do have an awareness of it and I feel sort of panicky. But mostly, I am living on adrenaline and I am a pioneer only by accident.

I've come up with an article (OK, I didn't intend for this to be an started off as a simple response to Lee's comments and it went out of control) that you can freely distribute to anyone who might be interested. Those who aren't interested should scroll now, because this turned out to be longer than I thought it would.

Wisdom of a Chief Bottle Washer

1. Fight for distribution. I have an account with a biggie, Baker & Taylor. I also have an account with It's made a difference. Most of my sales are from the Internet, where readers are paying full price for my books. However, having the big names for distribution gives my publishing company credibility. There IS a screening process, particularly with Baker & Taylor, so libraries and bookstores feel better about working with me. Sure, the discounts I have to give out are too high, but I find the name (B&T) worth the cost.

2. Take on an entrepreneurial spirit. I don't do what "everybody else" does. If it works for "everyone", we'd all be rich by following someone's step-by-step method. Besides, I CAN'T do what the publishing industry says to do. I don't have the resources. Each of us has the potential for finding readers who like what we write. Reaching those readers doesn't have to be through the typical publishing channels of conventions, booksignings, bookstores. Creative publicity, approaching people in a new way, and coming up with a fresh approach to marketing can overcome obstacles.

3. Go for broke, literally. I'm not saying everyone should do this. But if you know deep down in your heart that you have what it takes, you only get one shot at this life. Go for it. I paid for my first print run with a credit card. No one read the book before I published it, I honestly never expected that I'd make it this far. Turns out the book was riddled with errors and needs to be rewritten, but readers want this book--they want all of my books, including my embarrassingly amateur first novel. I had to start somewhere. And I had to be willing to be "bad". If I'd waited until I was good enough or wealthy enough or mature enough or experienced enough... I wouldn't be working on my fifth book today.

4. Crank them out. I didn't stop writing. I didn't wait until the first book started to sell before working on the next. I knew that being a one-book-wonder was not going to get me anywhere. Also, I had a burning desire to write a better book, to prove that I could be more polished, that I could be an author that people would respect. I wanted to prove to myself that being self published did not mean that I was inferior to those who had a publishing contract. All it meant was that I had to work harder. Without editors, copy writers, webmasters, agents, publicists.

5. Work hard. I was inspired by my failures. The more I failed, the more determined I was to work harder to beat the failure. I wanted to win! So I declared myself a winner who hadn't won yet. And I pushed even harder. My husband and I are very proud of the cover design of my newest book. It's the most professional looking by far and even has a fantastic quote on the front cover. How did that happen? Experience, hard work. We learned how to use the publishing and design software after many tedious hours. One of us (usually me) would entertain the kids while the other would tinker with the software. "If at first you don't succeed..."

6. Learn all you can about marketing. I studied marketing in college, it was my minor. It was also my best subject (an A student). I did worse in my major, which was German. No, I'm not fluent and I can't for the life of me figure out the importance of those classes to my life now. But anyway ... my point is that I have an education in marketing. Most of that education has actually come after college, via publishing newsgroups and reading up on the gurus (Dan Poytner, John Kremer). Oh and that "Swim with the Sharks" guy, whose name escapes me. The biggest thing I learned was to find my target market and learn how to give them what they want. Who likes my books? There's something for everybody in this world, we just have to find the people who want what we have to offer.

7. Get to know your target market and give them what they want. I used to hide behind my publishing name, thinking that I should look like a "real" author who has a press behind her. And I got nowhere. Turns out that I wasn't very interesting when I was trying to be like everyone else. I discovered that the people who were buying my books were those who read message boards or lists where I posted personal things about my life. I was chatting with friends, and being myself. When I finally realized that nearly all of my customers were people who were seeing personal glimpses of me either online or in person, it registered that what people wanted was for me to be real. My real life personality is similar to my fictional detectives Serena and Karyn. I'm sort of a mixture of the two. I didn't plan it that way, it evolved. But readers have discovered that if they like me, they like my books. So.... armed with that knowledge--that readers did NOT want a slick promotional campaign in which I am trying to be something I'm not, I went completely the other way. I put personal photos on my site, I added a chatty message board that I visit daily and have fun with, I have stopped kissing up to people. I'm not rude, but I speak my mind. I don't let people get away with snubbing me, and I stick up for myself. I'm not saying that YOU should let it all hang out. Maybe your target market doesn't want that from you. You need to learn who your target market is--who's buying your books and why? What do they want from you?

7. Promote others. "Cast your bread upon the waters and soon it will come back to you." I actively promote other authors. Someday, somewhere, I'm sure that it will benefit me. But meanwhile, it's the right thing to do--when I know something that might help someone else, I won't hold back. When I'm in a position to promote someone along with myself, why not? Helping someone else never works against me. Instead, it works for a mission bigger than myself. (And it has to be honest in order to work--I won't comment on someone's books until I've read them)

8. Improve the product. I invite readers to tell me if they find mistakes in my books or if there is something that they wish I'd done differently. Then I listen, and act on the suggestions that I agree with. I agree with about 90% of the comments I receive. I am sincerely grateful when readers tell me what they are thinking. It only works when I'm sincere. So if I feel peeved with someone, I don't say much. When someone helps me, I express my gratitude.

9. Think of yourself as a product. I have learned that, while I once thought that being a writer meant making up stories at home and living a relatively people-free life, I need to think of myself as a product. My image is on my books, on my site, in press kits. Natalie the product has to complement the image of my book series. As much as it feels strange and disassociating to view myself this way, the reality is that it's far too late to go back now. I wish I'd taken my parents up on that offer of getting braces put on my teeth way back when. When I'm feeling insecure, I tell myself that I'm marketing a product, just like marketing my books. I sure wouldn't put my books out there without strong copy and powerful review quotes. I need to present myself the same way, with confidence.

10. Be willing to scratch the whole thing. I have to be willing to say: "This is not working", "I've botched this", "I need to try something else", "I've humiliated myself beyond repair", "It's time to keep my mouth shut"... In other words, humility goes a long way. I will fall on my face sometimes, and I have to learn not to let that bother me. Nothing will happen without taking risks.

Natalie Thomas is the self-published author of four books in the Serena Wilcox mystery series.



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Kate Derie and Jeffrey Marks.