Born in Long Island, New York, have lived in New Jersey, Connecticut, Arizona, California, and Oklahoma. Lived three years in Italy and Germany while in USAF.(Air Police: K-9 section). Now live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Married after whirlwind romance to same wife for over 30 years. Currently run my own real estate school in Oklahoma. Like to study foreign languages for a few months just to see how they work. Also like Latin and giving speeches. I’ve taught Philosophy, Advertising, Property Management, and many real estate subjects at the University, Community College, and Technical School level. Now writing non-fiction book on the Romance genre. I was trained to be a philosopher and history teacher but have worked mostly in advertising, marketing, and real estate.
This conversation covers: * Story Location * Merchandising * Concept of 'marginality' * ‘Marketing vitamins’ * “Ah Ha” experiences
JMS: Here we go agin. Would you believe that we're already on session three? By the way, how did you like our farm pond?
VM: It’s beautiful. But we should disclose that that picture was taken last autumn and not today. Is Jack really going to build you a writing studio with a view of the pond?
JMS: He promised that if I ever got a book published, he’d build me a studio just like the one a friend of ours has. Our friend is a commercial artist and has a beatiful studio.
VM: As I understand it, the studio will be a round building with floor to ceiling windows facing the pond.
JMS: Yes, and it will have a bath room, kitchenette, hot tub, book shelves for over a thousand books and a state-of-the-art sound system.
VM: And it will be a full hundred yards away from the house. So going there will be like going to work at a regular job.
JMS: That’s part of the idea. Construction starts in the spring. I’m still selecting carpets, tiles, colors and appliances.
VM: Then I think you better make some real progress with your writing. I mean, with a professional studio, which would be the envy of most writers, it would be helpful to produce some professional results.
JMS: That’s why you’re here. According to Jack, you’re going to tell me how to derive the most profit from my writing.
VM: Yes, but you need to know this: marketing your book begins before you write the first word.
JMS: And you’re going to teach me how to do that, right?
VM: Yes, we will start to cover that today. You’ve already read my workbook on “Rewarding the Reader” and you’ve read my post on creating the ideal series, correct?
JMS: Yes, and I have some questions about the post.
VM: Good. I hope you have some story ideas that might meet the ideal criteria for a great series.
JMS: I don’t think I can meet all the criteria. I’m not sure any writer can.
VM: I’m not sure either but that’s inherent when you postulate an ideal system. The goal will be to come as close to the ideal as possible.
JMS: What do we cover first?
VM: Let’s talk about your book, “When God Answers”. It takes place in west Texas in 1876.
JMS: Mostly in Texas. The story is part ‘wagon train’ and part ‘cattle drive’ and part the coming death of the ‘old west’. The story ends in New Mexico.
VM: I’ve looked at a map and your story action gets within about a hundred miles of the Palo Duro Canyon state park. This canyon is only second in size to the Grand Canyon. Did you know that over three million people have seen the productions at the outdoor theater in the park? This three million includes me and my wife.
JMS: I’ve also been there with Jack. It’s spectacular. But I had no idea that so many people have been to the plays.
VM: I was surprised myself when I looked-up the figures. Anyone that has been to Palo Duro Canyon will remember the experience.
VM: A lot of the action in your book could have taken place in and around the canyon. This would allow the publisher to put a picture of the canyon on the cover. I estimate that millions of people are alive today who have been to Palo Duro State Park. Many of these people would have an interest in reading your book, if part of the story action took place in the canyon area.
Many of these park visitors and playgoers would like to relive their experience of the area by reading about it. Especially the history of the area before the park came into being. The park gift shop would likely sell the book. Bookstores in the area would also likely carry the book. They might even sell “When God Answers” all year round. The local newspapers and magazines would likely give the book publicity. You could have all these potential customers and publicity by changing the location of your story a few hundred miles.
JMS: Are you saying that when I plan a story I should be thinking about the location and how some locations have a very strong marketing appeal.
VM: Absolutely, if I was building a product like a new mouse trap, I’d be thinking about who would likely buy it and how to best market it. A writer is often only thinking in terms of getting an editor to buy her story. This is important -- don’t get me wrong. However, a writer also has a second sale to make and that is to her readers.
When creating the story, you should be thinking of doing things that will make the book more saleable to the reading public.
JMS: But I’m an artiste! I can’t compromise my art with crass considerations like making money. NOT!
VM: I was worried there for a minute. So you get the idea? I’d like for you to merchandise your plot to make it the most marketable.
JMS: What do you mean by ‘merchandise’? Isn’t that the same as marketing?
VM: No, not at all. Merchandising is part of marketing and a very important part in retail selling. Merchandising is about what items you choose to place in a given advertisement.
JMS: Like when Wal-Mart runs a newspaper ad and it has dozens of items in it for sale?
VM: Yes, a merchandiser has to select the items that will appear in the ad and also price the items.
JMS: Ok, I get that idea but I don’t have any items for sale in my book. I don’t see what you are getting at.
VM: Let me explain. I have two newspaper advertisements here for a furniture store. Do you see them and how they look alike?
JMS: Yes, they are full page ads and they show a lot of furniture items.
VM: Please look closely and tell me how many items are in each ad?
JMS: OK, there are fifteen items in each ad.
VM: Good. These two ads ran one week apart. The weather was good each day. I wrote every word in both of these ads. The showroom displays and salespeople were all the same. As far as I can determine the only difference between these two ads is the merchandise that is in them.
JMS: Let me look again. OK, I can see a few differences but the ads look mostly alike.
VM: That’s right. They are both the same kind of ad. Also all the artwork was drawn by the same artists. Look closley. Isn’t the artwork just about the same in both ads?
VM: Now here’s the point. One of these ads did $12,000 in sales on the day it ran. The other ad did $24,000 in sales on the day it ran. Can you tell me which ad did twice as much business as the other?
JMS: No way. I have no idea.
VM: Can you theorize which ad did the most business?
JMS: Yes, the one that had the lowest prices.
VM: No, actually the winning ad had higher prices. By that I mean, the profit margin on the winning ad was 40% while the losing ad was only 25%. Items were cheaper in the ad that did not do so well.
JMS: In that case, I have no idea why one of these ads did so much better than the other.
VM: The difference was the merchandise in the ads. One of the ads was merchandised by our professional merchandiser and the other ad was merchandised by me. Now which ad do you think did best? His ad or my ad?
JMS: I would say his ad because he was the professional and we should listen to professionals. You want to show me how important it is to listen to your marketing advice, right?
VM: Yes and no. No, it was actually my ad that did twice the business but yes I do want you to listen to my marketing advice.
JMS: Why did your ad do better and why did you know more than the professional merchandiser?
VM: Here’s why. We had different goals. My goal was to make the advertising look good by getting the most sales at the highest profit margin. The merchandiser’s goal was to use our advertising to get rid of his bad buying mistakes. The merchandiser is also the buyer of the furniture and when items don’t sell, the merchandiser is in trouble. The General Manager sees the ‘days in inventory’ for each item and when they go over ninety days, the merchandiser can be in big trouble. So what was this guy doing? He was putting items that did not sell on the showroom floor into the ads in the hope that they would sell at the lower prices that were featured in the ad.
JMS: And it didn’t work?
VM: No, it was a disaster. People walked by that merchandise on the showroom floor and the salespeople were not excited about showing it. The same thing happened in the ad: people 'walked' by the ad items and did not come into the store to buy.
JMS: So how did you get to merchandise the ad?
VM: I had to defend my advertising. I told the General Manager what was going on and that I wanted to merchandise the ad in a way to produce maximum sales volume. He liked that idea and gave me the OK. He did say this: “Just make sure that we have that stuff in stock.” Also, I was not allowed to set prices. Only the merchandiser could do that.
JMS: So how did you know what to run in the ad?
VM: I checked what was selling on the showroom floor. I also had a better mix of items than he did. He had lots of bedroom groups and dining room sets which made up only 20% of our business. He was short on soft goods like sofas and loveseats which were over 40% of our business. He even left some categories out of the ad. In order to sell something, you have to show people you have the item for sale. People who are looking for a recliner need to know you have recliners for sale. This was what we call an 'omnibus' ad which means it is supposed to have a little of everything we sell in it.
Anyway, by changing the mix of items and by covering more categories of items, I was able to double the sales volume. I could do this so often that, for the most part, our advertising department took over the merchandising of the ads. Of course, we were never allowed to set price points.
JMS: You mean you took over the merchandiser’s job?
VM: No, I didn’t do that. The merchandiser still went to market and bought the furniture and still would give us a list of items he wanted in the ad but we would make changes as needed to produce the best selling advertising.
JSM: Ok, so now I have an idea of what merchandising is and how important it is in the retail business. But what has this to do with writing a romance?
VM: I’m going to tell you now. Have you heard of the writer, Nevada Barr?
JMS: No, does she write romances?
VM: She writes mysteries. I’ve read all her mystery books. Do you know why?
JMS: You liked them.
VM: Yes, but I like a lot of mystery writers who I think are better overall but Nevada Barr was a national park ranger for many years. Each of her mysteries takes place in a National Park. Not only that, she goes into the inner workings of the park and what it is like to work for the park service. By the way, I have not been as happy with her when she writes a second book about the same national park. You see, I want to learn about more parks.
JMS: What you’re saying then is that Nevada Barr gets her normal number of fans who like mysteries but she also gets fans who are mostly interested in reading about the various National Parks.
VM: Exactly. Another writer I really enjoy and who is on my auto-buy list is Donna Leon. She writes mysteries that take place in Venice, Italy. I’ve read all her books because I love Venice.
JMS: Are you saying you will buy a book simply because it takes place in Venice.
VM: Very often I will. But this brings up the concept of 'marginality'. Have you heard of it?
JMS: I’ve heard the word but I don’t know what it means in this case.
VM: OK. It’s something like this: say there are two items you are thinking of buying. You like them about equally well, that is, all things are mostly equal. However, there one feature, on the margin, that only one item has that is very important to you. That one feature, no matter how little, can tip a buying decision in a certain direction.
For example: I like to read Love Inspired romances. I went to eHarlequin to buy one and I had six choices for that month. All were acceptable but one book had the ocean, a sail boat, a gazebo, and a flower garden on the cover and it was part of a series called “Lighthouse Lane”. I’m a big fan of lighthouses. I collect little lighthouse replicas. These features, on the margin, were enough to tip my buying decision towards buying “The Doctor’s Perfect Match” by Irene Hannon.
JMS: I see. But if the same cover was on a Blaze romance, would you still have bought it?
VM: Probably not and also probably not if it were a paranormal novel. 'Marginality' comes into play when the buying decision is a close call.
JMS: As I get it, you want me to put items or features into my books so that on the margin the buying decision will go to my books and not to someone else's books?
VM: That’s right. But it's not so 'all or nothing'. Let’s say a buyer is considering six to ten books but she can afford just two of them, then there will be features, on the margin, which could tip the fan towards buying some books over the others.
JMS: I know you want me to think in terms of locations that have a big potential for selling books to people who have been to those locations or want to go to those locations in the future. Places like Palo Duro with its millions of visitors. But what are some more of those features?
VM: You can probably come up with many of them yourself. Think about those things that have a very strong natural appeal to segments of the population. Which of these can you incorporate into your story?
I call these marginal features ‘marketing vitamins’. Add as many of these as make sense given the nature of your story. Think of it as taking vitamins in real life. Vitamins are not your food and they are not your diet. They supplement your diet to keep you healthy. And that’s what I want to do for you: supplement the marketing power of the stories you write to make you economically healhy.
JMS: I like the idea of ‘marketing vitamins’. What other ‘marketing vitamins’ are there besides location?
VM: Events are good but they are not as easy to work into a story. Major events tend to become the story. I’m thinking of events like the Word Fairs that took place in the US. It is just inherently interesting to read how people in the past viewed what the future would be like. There have been many World Fairs in the US going back to 1853.
In any event, there are all kinds of events you can choose from as a writer. Always look for what events happened during the time span of your novel.
JMS: I like the idea of events.
VM: Events can be minor or even tangential. For example, your hero and heroine might have to get to Alaska form Texas. They just happen to be in San Francisco when the earthquake hits. This might only be one chapter or less of your novel but it could add a lot of excitement to your story. This is especially true if you are writing about things the reader has never heard about regarding the quake. Knowledgeable readers will be very interested if you have your hero and heroine in San Francisco on the day of the earthquake. They will wonder if you are going to include the earthquake in your book.
JMS: There could be many such events. Like the Chicago fire.
VM: Yes, also along these same lines you should strive to create “Ah Ha” experiences.
JMS: What’s an “Ah Ha” experience?
VM: That’s when you reveal something to readers that surprises them. Something that they never knew before People love the “Ah Ha” experience. Just make sure you get your facts right.
JMS: Do you have any examples so I can lock the concept into my mind?
VM: Here are a few off the top of my head.
Most deaths from the San Francisco earthquake were from fires because of broken gas lines and not falling buildings.
More people died of the Spanish Flu just after WWI than died in WWI.
The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire.
Most of the educated people in the ancient world thought the world was round.
Columbus was turned down over and over again by different countries because he had his math wrong about the size of the earth. The experts knew the earth was much larger than Columbus thought and those critics were right. The argument against Columbus was not over the earth being round; it was over the distances involved. If the new world had not been there, Columbus and all his men would have died. Columbus thought the earth was only one sixth its actual size. The experts back then were very close to the real sise of the earth.
JMS: Hold on. How many of these “Ah Ha” moments are there?
VM: Almost unlimited. People 'know' so much stuff that isn’t true that “Ah Ha” moments are not that hard to find. Nora Roberts will have occasional “Ah Ha’s” as will Lucy Gordon in her books that take place in Italy. Having “Ah Ha” moments is on my index of ‘rewards-per-page’.
JMS: How do I find these “Ah Ha” moments?
VM: You have to read the right kind of books. It also helps to visit locations and see if there are any local museums. Talk to people in the museums. They also love to give tourists “Ah Ha” moments.
JMS: So far we have locations and events. What else?
VM: There are also famous people or people who should have been famous. I don’t mean to involve them as major characters unless that is the kind of book you are writing. I mean use famous people as characters who just happened to be there when your story happens.
JMS: Do you have any examples here?
VM: Yes, in my book, “Three of Our Vampires Are Missing” I have the hero, who is thousands of years old and a vampire, go into a tavern in Paris where Benjamin Franklin and the philosopher David Hume are having dinner together. The hero, also a philosopher, has a conversation with these two famous men.
I knew from research that Franklin and Hume were in Paris at the same time, so I worked this fact into my story. Many famous Europeans made tours of the US in the 1800’s. Some were doing research and others were on lecture tours. It would add interest to a story if you had your characters be in a town when one of these famous people was also visiting. Research the tour of a famous person and learn what you can.
JMS: You’re mostly talking about historical romances here, right?
VM: Mostly. The famous person theory fits well with historical novels. They are long dead and won’t sue you. Readers love to encounter bits and pieces of history here and there. So give it to them. Reward your readers. Delight your readers. Surprise your readers. Always be trying to enhance the 'reading experience'.
JMS: Location, events, people…is there anything else?
VM: Another ‘marketing vitamin’ would be the effects of change. Did you know that at one time in US history, one of the biggest employers was the ice making and delivery business? It was way bigger than the automobile business is today in the number of people employed as a percentage of the working force. Everything was going well when the industry quickly ended within a short number of years. Why? Refrigeration was invented. Remember the “Ice Man Cometh”? How many men were employed to deliver ice to every home in American with an ice box? Couldn’t this economic disaster be worked into a novel that takes place during this period of change?
JMS: So now we have locations, events, people, and the effects of change. I assume events would include the suffrage movements.
VM: Indeed, I’m reading a book right now that uses the suffrage movement in an unexpected way. It was a kind of “Ah Ha” moment for me. In fact, the book had quite a few “Ah Ha” moments in it and I highly recommend it. It’s called “The Bartered Bride” by Erica Vetsch.
JMS: It sounds like Regency.
VM: It’s a little bit like a Regency romance but it actually takes place in the early 1900s. The location is on the Grate Lakes. Change is happening everywhere. On the roads there’s a mix of automobiles and horses. The author’s descriptions of things, like room interiors and clothing, are detailed and unique. The setting for the book is fascinating in itself. The writing is also excellent.
JMS: I’ll have to read it. Are there any more ‘marketing vitamins’ as you call them?
VM: Yes, another category of ‘marketing vitamins’ would be things people really like -- especially collectables.
VM: I’m thinking of things I like to collect, for example, the lighthouses I’ve already mentioned. I love lighthouses and so does my wife. We collect lighthouse items, plates, scale models, and we visit lighthouses when we can.
JMS: Yes, and you bought a book because it was part of a lighthouse series called “Lighthouse Lane”.
VM: I did. I also buy books with Venice on the cover and I will usually buy a romance that has a picture of Ayer’s Rock on the cover. I’m also a big fan of books that take place in Santa Fe. These are all things that a lot of people have a strong affinity for and, as such, they make good ‘marketing vitamins’. They can help sell your book.
JMS: And you say there are many more of these ‘marketing vitamins” to choose from?
VM: There are probably hundreds of more of them but they will most likely be combinations of the other categories we’ve already covered. I think you get the idea now.
JMS: Yes. You want me to ‘merchandise’ my stories so that they lots of “marketing vitamins’ in them. What’s next?
VM: Next we are going to cover the series and publicity. In the meantime, I’d like you to think of as many ‘marketing vitamins’ as you can.
JMS: Any ideas on this?
VM: Go to a really big magazine store. If there is a magazine for the topic, then there is a segment of the population you can attract by having that feature in the book. Think of attracting women first, of course, but please note that women also like a lot of things men like.
JMS: Like NASCAR?
VM: Yes. Think about spicing-up your story with ‘marketing vitamins’. You can do this without changing the nature of the story.
JMS: OK, until next time.
VM: Remember to do your homework. We are going to talk about the series next.