Thursday, September 12, 2019

Marketing 101

Stanley - Thursday

For most writers I know, the marketing part of the writing business is the less enjoyable. Part of the reason lies in what I was told by our first editor, Claire Wachtel of HarperCollins. "Only half of marketing works," she said. "But we don't know which half."

And how true is that? For the most part, writers have a Facebook presence and perhaps a Twitter account. From what I hear, most have the same reaction as I do. It's hard work to keep material new and changing, particularly when you don't have any idea of whether the effort is bringing about any returns.

Writers also write blogs, as I'm doing here, but we don't really know if it sells books. Certainly Murder is Everywhere has a loyal following of some size, but after 3200 posts (we are nearly approaching nine years old) and nearly 4 million page views, we don't know how many books the effort has sold. Would we have been better off juggling burning sticks in Piccadilly Circus while whistling La Marseillaise, or doing a stationary mime act at Rockefeller Plaza in mid-winter, or standing on a street corner in Cape Town, reading the salacious parts of our novels? Who knows?

Most writers also do the rounds, going to bookshops to promote their newest creation. Usually the audience comprises friends, other writers, and a few stragglers who may have come in for the free wine and cheese. Occasionally audience is non-existent - a rather depressing occurrence. Certainly the return on investment for most of these events is negative. But we rationalise them by saying we do events in order to encourage the proprietor to hand sell our books long after we've left. And that is true. For myself, all I can say is that I'm willing to shell out the money to do some touring because I love meeting readers - even if they don't walk our with a book.

Sometimes, the publisher kicks in a title money to support such ventures, but rarely enough to cover all the costs - unless you are J K Rowling or James Patterson.

Recently, in order to avoid the costs of touring, some publishers are sending their authors on blog tours. Over a few weeks or so, a different blogger reviews your book or publishes n article you've written about the book. In this way travel costs are avoided and a greater audience reached. We want to go on more of these tours.

In the midst of all this marketing uncertainty, we found an idea that has worked very well. Six years ago we produced an e-book titled Detective Kubu Investigates. It is an anthology of some of our early short stories, plus an interview between two people who don't exist: Michael Stanley interviews Detective Kubu (and we've just made an audio recording of it). We put a price tag of $0.99 for the anthology. It has sold thousands of copies, and sales continue even to this day, six years after publication. In essence, it's an inexpensive sampler of our writing - hopefully (again no data) encouraging people to invest the $0.99 and then to buy the novels if they like what they read.

Encouraged by this, we've just published Detective Kubu Investigates 2 - another anthology of some of our later short stories. Again at $0.99 - at least until the end of the month when we'll raise the price  a bit (inflation you know!). To be totally transparent, the title is a bit of a stretch as only two of the stories feature Detective Kubu.

In the rather sad tale of Shoot to Kill, Kubu is asked to investigate the questionable death of a poacher in northern Botswana. Shooting a poacher is not unusual in Southern Africa. But at close range? When the poacher is heavily armed? It smacks of something very suspicious.

The Con tells the story of how Kubu's young daughter cons him into a wager he believes he cannot lose, which, of course, he does. The penalty for losing? Kubu has to cook a dinner for the family and some friends. Given that Kubu's culinary skills barely extend to boiling water, everyone is eager to see the results. But Kubu is a smart man and devises a devious work-around, which fails miserably due to the intervention by an unexpected intruder.

In The Case of the Missing Tuba, a tuba is the cause of two people getting married. Then it threatens to split the union apart - until it goes missing. The story may remind those of you in the UK of a certain age of the musical antics of Gerard Hoffnung and his Interplanetary Music Festivals.

We are often asked where we get our ideas. The answer is in lots of ways. Sometimes it’s something we see that strikes us as intriguing. Other times it's something we read that sparks an idea. But Parlor Game was different. It literally came to Michael in a dream. Maybe a nightmare. He woke with the whole thing fresh in his mind and wrote the first draft over a few hours. Where did those ideas come from? Deep in the subconscious? Scary, since in the dream, we were the protagonists...

The final story, Spirits, features constable Ixau, who made his first appearance in Dying to Live. We thought he deserved a reprise, so he takes the lead in this story. He's a Bushman policeman posted to an isolated town in the Kalahari, New Xade, where many of the Bushmen people from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve were resettled. The belief in witchcraft is deeply rooted in all the Botswana cultures. Like all beliefs, it can be exploited.

All we can hope is that the second version of our e-book is as successful as the first.

(Again for full disclosure, the original anthology elicited one of the worst reviews we've ever had - I'm sure it would have been -5 had that been available!)

Marketing for me is a never-ending chore - made more difficult because the scientist in me wants to see cause and effect, so I can know where to channel my energy. But I think that's a pipe dream.


  1. I have worked with probably over 100 mystery authors during my career, and the only one who is a consistent NYT bestseller is one who gets a TREMENDOUS amount of support from his publisher. It's rather discouraging. If *I* knew what sold books, I'd no doubt be rich as well...

  2. The idea of interviewing the detective must be PR gold!
    I'm trying out a few different ideas in 2020, no doubt I'll be blogging about the efficacy or lack of it, in the coming 12 months.