Read Part I
Read Part II
Read Part III
Read Part IV
This Session Covers:
* Ideal Series Elements
* Publicity * Positioning
* Branding * Leveraging Success
JMS: This is session five already. What’s with the domino picture?
VM: Each domino represents a book in a series. If you knock one over, it tends to fall forward knocking over the dominoes in front of it. That’s both an opportunity and a problem. And that’s our topic for today.
JMS: It’s nice to be back in your office. I love the farm but it’s nice to get into Tulsa and do some shopping.
VM: How did the cow emergency turn out?
JMS: No problem. The vet wanted me there in case there were problems with the delivery but there were no complications.
VM: Good. Did you happen to read Elizabeth’s interview the other day?
JMS: I did and I think you were a little taken with her. She’s quite a woman.
VM: She is even more impressive in person than she is in the story. And she can sure ride a horse.
JMS: Well, I can only make her just so real in a novel. When you interview her in person, you get a much better picture of her.
VM: Did you know she had her nose broken on two different occasions?
JMS: You noticed, did you now?
VM: It was hard to miss it being right in the middle of her face. It thought it gave her character.
JMS: A character with character. That’s good.
VM: So why didn’t you mention her broken nose in “When God Answers”?
JMS: I did but the editor took it out. She said that women didn't read romances to vicariously have broken noses.
VM: Or to be fat. Did you ever read a romance that had a plus-size heroine?
JMS: There was a whole romance line years ago for plus-size heroines. But the subject is a little indelicate to mention. Romance authors try to offer the reader a dream heroine to vicariously identify with. We are not after a harsh reality.
VM: So how do you feel she did? In the interview, that is.
JMS: I think she did well. She’s very smart. I didn’t expect less from her. Though I do get a little nervous when she goes out on her own.
VM: She doesn’t want a sequel to “When God Answers”.
JMS: Well, that’s good because she’s not going to get one. The publisher wants a six book series. That’s what we are going to cover today, right.
VM: That’s the idea. I hope you’ve been coming up with some good ideas.
JMS: I have plenty of ideas. But now you have me thinking about ‘marketing vitamins’ and your four requirements of the ideal series. These considerations complicate planning a series.
VM: That’s true but when you’re planning a series it’s very important to have a firm foundation because you are going to build a six book series on top of it.
JMS: Only if the books sell. If not all the work that went into planning the six books will have been for nothing. It’s a higher order of risk.
VM: I agree to an extent but having a viable series outline helps in selling the first book to the publisher. So if you have the right plan and you’ve incorporated a full measure of ‘marketing vitamins’, then the books should be well positioned to sell to readers. Readers represent your second market which ultimately controls your destiny.
JMS: Let’s review your four points.
VM: The first is, ‘forward and backward compatibility’. And this means that the books can be read in any order and that there is no preferred order. No reader will have an advantage over any other reader simply because of the order in which she reads the books.
JMS: Well, this will eliminate the multi-generational family saga.
VM: I’m sure it will leave out a lot of traditional series approaches. You are going to have to be more creative if you want to create the ideal series.
JMS: But what if I want to write a family saga that spans over one hundred years?
VM: Then that’s what you write. You just won’t be writing to the ideal series format. I’m not telling you what to write. What I am trying to do is stack the deck in your favor. I’d like you to do the things that will enable you to become more successful, more quickly. That is from a marketing POV. Marketing begins before you write the first word.
JMS: What makes your ‘series’ the ideal series?
VM: My series is ideal from a marketing point of view. It is setup from the very beginning to provide maximum marketing potential. I say ‘potential’ because you still have to write great stories that the public will like. We can gage how readers will like your story, in part, by the ‘rewards-per-page’ score you get. With good pre-marketing planning, if you get a hit, a really popular first book, then we will be in a position to leverage your success in all directions without the usual series limitations.
JMS: What do you mean by ‘all directions’? That sounds like technical marketing jargon.
VM: I mean the series will be open ended. The next book does not have to be the next book in a linear sequence. The next theme does not have to follow the last theme. There is no limit to the number of books that can be in the series. That’s open ended. It will even be possible to bring in other authors to add to the series. You’ll have to talk to your agent and see if there is any value in doing this. But the point is, if you write a big hit, I’d like to be able to run with it and make the most of your success.
JMS: I like that. What’s point number two?
VM: I hope you actually know what point two is. Don’t you?
JMS: Yes, I do. I’m just asking you as a talking point.
VM: Good. Point two is, ‘Open-ended Expandability’.
VM: There is no natural end to the number of books that can be in the series. If the series is popular it can expand forever.
JMS: Can’t all series essentially do that?
VM: In a way but it is artificial and less satisfying. For example, first the author marries off the three sisters. That’s one series. Then the three younger brothers get married off. That’s series two. Then three female cousins get married off. That’s series three. You get the idea.
JMS: Actually, I think I would get sick of writing about that same family year after year, decade after decade.
VM: You’d also have to keep track of a lot of facts and dates and names. Which gets us to point three: ‘Action simultaneity’.
JMS: That’s a hard one.
VM: Yes, and it will be hard to accomplish but the payoffs are very large. ‘Action simultaneity’ means that all the actions in all the many books in the series happen within the same time span. Other than the core material or what I call the ‘central hub’, what happens in one book should not effect what happens in the other books. This is very helpful if multiple authors are engaged in writing the series. It is also a blessing for the single author who will not have to keep track of a million facts concerning what happened in the other books in the series.
JMS: It’s just hard to imagine how to do this.
VM: Let’s say I’m writing a series about a great Civil War battle. It takes place over several days and involves tens of thousands of soldiers. The ‘central hub’ will be the top generals involved, the dates, the weather, and the outcome. Perhaps a number of other factors will join the ‘hub’ like news coming from Washington or some other important event that actually took place.
JMS: What do you mean by news from Washington?
VM: Let’s say that Lincoln issues his Emancipation Proclamation over the days of the action and some of the troops hear about it. This could appear in every story or in just selected stories depending on the individual plots. The idea is to provide the author with lots of strands to make use of in crafting the individual stories.
JMS: Like providing a cook with extra ingredients she can choose to use or not use.
VM: Yes. Each book will be like a different meal served to the same customers in the same restaurant. There will be a commonality in quality and ambiance but there will still be a substantial variety in the menu choices – the individual book titles.
JMS: How’s that again?
VM: All the action. in all the books. happens during the same time span but the battlefield is huge. One story could be about a doctor in a field hospital for the North. Another story could be about a reconnaissance troop scouting enemy territory. A third story might feature sharpshooting snipers and how they were hated by the ordinary troops on both sides of the war.
JMS: You could have a father and son fighting for different sides. You could even have a story about black soldiers fighting for the South being captured by black soldiers fighting for the North.
VM: You get the idea which brings us to point four, ‘Loyalty & Emotional Attachment to a central hub’.
JMS: That is a rather complicated concept.
VM: It’s needed because of the nature of the first three points. Much of the strength of a good series happens when the reader forms an emotional attachment for the characters. The reader wants to know what happens to these characters in the future and, if the series is long enough, what happens to the characters’ children and grand children.
JMS: That’s the strength of the family saga. It extends for generations.
VM: Right. The emotional attachment to a ‘central hub’ is an attempt to duplicate the sense of continuation you get in a sequential series.
VM: By creating an element that partakes in every story to which the reader can become emotionally attached. This would be about the hardest component to create. In the Civil War story it could be the battle itself and the great cause that battle represented to the participants. Some scenes could be identical in each book. These could involve news of deaths or failures and how this emotionally effects the commanders.
JMS: Wouldn’t these reports create events which would time-date the action? I mean, the next author in the series would not be able to have that information available if her action happens before the report came in to the command center.
VM: That’s a very good point. The common events, that could be used in all the books, should be outside of use by authors of the individual books. For example, say the report comes in that everyone in “F” troop has been killed in an ambush. No other author would be allowed to use this information in any way in her book. All this information does is add emotional impact to the narrative. That’s why it would help if these reports were historically correct. That is, if there really was an “F” troop that was ambushed. The Civil War buffs would love this. Just don’t make the ambush critical in one of the individual book stories.
JMS: I can see where this will be the hardest part. Tell me again, what’s the big advantage of achieving ‘action simultaneity’ in the ideal series?
VM: The big deal here is that the books are ‘equal’ and can be read in any order. No reader has an advantage over any other reader -- in terms of reading enjoyment -- by virtue of the order in which the books are read. This helps in writing the books but from a marketing point of view, the big advantage gained is that it makes all backlist books equally attractive. The reader then can pick from the backlist books a theme which most interests her.
JMS: You mean themes within the series?
VM: Yes, let’s say the central hub is a ‘marriage club’ in which one of the members gets married in each book. One of the stories could be a ‘marriage-of-convenience’, one could be a ‘baby-on-the-doorstep’, another story might be a ‘runaway-bride’ theme, or even a ‘stranded-in-a-cabin-with’ theme.
“In this way, a reader who likes the series idea, can select within the ‘series umbrella’ the popular theme that she likes the most. This will increase the odds of the reader buying the all important second book. Now given that the reader prefers the individual theme she has chosen as her second book, the odds are even higher that she will also enjoy the second book. This is a case of success building on success.
JMS: Is this what you call leveraging on your successes?
VM: Yes, leveraging is part of the total marketing package. What you would like is for every element of your series to act as an enhancer to increase the chance of selling other books. You’d also like to build a cumulative momentum so that each book doubles the odds of the reader buying the next book from the series. By writing the series to the ideal criteria, all the books in the series backlist become equally desirable as a choice – all things be equal.
JMS: Equally desirable? All things being equal?
VM: Yes from a marketing POV. In a sequential series readers may favor the newer books. They tend to read forward from the book they just read. If they are reading the latest book and there are five past books, they will be more likely to buy the immediate past book and not the second or third books. Now, if they could read the books in any order, regardless of the publishing sequence, then no one book would be favored over any other book and you would probably sell books about equally from the series backlist. Then by having popular themes, you could enjoy a competitive advantage over the old style sequential series where the books should be read in the order they were written.
JMS: Let me think. Suppose the reader likes the premise of my series, or as you would say the ‘central hub’ -- like the Frontier Hospital idea you wrote about. Within that series individual books would have popular themes like ‘hidden baby’. Is that right?
VM: Absolutely. One of the nurses coming from back East to work at the hospital could bring her daughter whose father is in the Army. He doesn’t know he has a child. Of course, the child and father meet at the hospital when he comes in wounded.
JMS: This will take a great deal of thought to make it work.
VM: That’s the challenge of any series. You have a bigger investment creating it – in time and creative energy – but it gives you lots of marketing leverage later, if it is a hit. It also allows you to use story elements over and over again. And as your knowledge base expands with each book you write, you should be able to write each additional book better and more quickly.
JMS: Tell me more about length?
VM: To sell a lot of books, in the shortest amount of time, I think you should plan to write a series of short novels. Somewhere between 170 pages and 220 pages.
JMS: What if my stories require move pages? What if the kind of book I want to write requires over 400 pages? The “Harry Potter” books are long books.
VM: That’s right the “Harry Potter” books were long and got longer. The last books were not very well written but by then it didn’t make any difference. The installed base of fans was hooked on reading the next book. And reading it as soon as possible. Anyway, I’m talking about the ideal here. If you must write long books, then do that. But let’s consider the advantage of short books first.
VM: Each book you write entitles you to a certain degree of publicity. It could get you a lot more publicity if you have an active and creative publicity program. But such powerful results take work and planning.
JMS: How do you mean?
VM: Well, take the major newspaper in a good size city. Most writers will think of this newspaper as being one medium for publicity. But it is really ten or twelve different media. You have to study the paper with publicity in mind. A book signing might be listed under “News you Can Use’ and “Coming Events.” A book signing might also appear in the Book Section, in “Announcements”, in City news, in the suburban section, in “People in the News”, in the Business News, and so on. The newspaper is actually many media with differentiated groups of readers.
JMS: Will the paper know to run you press release in all those sections?
VM: No, and they will not do it. That is your job. You need to submit the press release or ‘event notice’ to each and every section of the newspaper separately as if no other sections in the paper exited.
JMS: That’s one heck of a lot of work.
VM: More than you think. Not only must you know who at the paper to send the notices to, you must also write the release in the exact format the paper uses. You may have to compose the same notice ten different times.
JMS: Who would do that? That’s way too much work.
VM: I did it all the time. I’d have my notices appearing all over the paper many times. After you do this once or twice and have the formats stored on your computer, the process will take less time each time you do it.
JMS: Why do I have to rewrite my basic press release? Isn’t that the job of the employees at the newspaper?
VM: They don’t have time. They always have deadlines but they never have enough time. If you give them a notice in the exact format the paper uses, then the copy does not have to be rewritten. All the staff has to do is ‘spec’ the copy with a red pen. If you do their job for them, your stuff will run time and time again. People seeing your notices all the time will think you have friends at the newspaper who give you favored treatment. They just don’t understand how the system works and you don’t particularly want them to anyway.
JMS: You’re going to do a full session on just publicity, aren’t you?
VM: Yes, I am. We will have that session in the future. I used to give six hour seminars on how to get publicity.
JMS: Good because I’d like to know as much about publicity as possible. This is something I could be doing myself.
VM: It would be one of the most powerful marketing skills you can ever develop. For now, as an assignment, study your local newspaper paper. Look for announcements of any kind. When you find one, write it down, cut it out, and keep it in a file.
When I did publicity, I might send ten letters to the newspaper’s different departments. All would be written in the exact format of the stories that have run before. The editor could use my copy without making any changes.
Also some special features are on different days of the week. One feature could come out on Wednesday, another on Saturday, and a third on Sunday. Your publicity goal should be having the most people see that you are having an event – like a book signing. That’s job #1. Next you’d like readers to notice and remember the title of your book. Then, if possible, you’d also like to ‘position’ yourself or the book in the reader’s mind.
JMS: What do you mean by ‘position’ myself or the book in the reader’s mind?
VM: Positioning is part of marketing. For example, years ago, Avis positioned itself as the number two rental agency and being number two, it tried harder to please the customer. Dove has positioned itself as ‘one- fourth cleansing cream’ and not just soap for as long as I can remember.
JMS: Isn’t that branding?
VM: The term ‘branding” is hot right now but I don’t like the term. It doesn’t imply any understanding of marketing. I see want-to-be romance writers getting all excited about branding themselves as authors and it’s a big mistake. It’s as if they were teenage girls hot to get a tattoo. My advice is to think ‘positioning’ and get an understanding of what the concept is all about before you make any moves. You’ve probably heard it said that “You only get one chance to make a first impression”, well, positioning is a little like that.
There is a great book on the topic by Ries and Trout called “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind”. It’s been in print for decades. Romance writers should at least read this book before they even think about branding themselves.
JMS: Ok, then give me an example of positing me and my book “When God Answers”.
VM: Let’s see. Suppose we decide that your writing is a new form of Christian fiction called “Christian Mystic Fiction”.
JMS: Christian mysticism?
VM: Yes, just for an example, say: “Christian Mystic Fiction – It Takes Inspiration Beyond the Ordinary!”
JMS: Am I that? Are there Christian mystics?
VM: Of course, there are Christian mystics but I’m not aware of any Christian Fiction Mystics writing today. You see it really helps if you are the first to position yourself in a give niche. Usually the first to position owns that position forever. I don’t think you are a mystic but you might be one by the time your series is ready to release its first book.
JMS: What makes a person a Christian mystic?
VM: A mystic is someone who has a direct awareness of God…actually the mystical experience is one in which the individual loses her ‘ego’ and becomes one with the whole, the Godhead, the force, the Absolute, or just God. What the experience is called depends on the religion. Now, since the individual has no ego during the experience, there is no way to describe the experience as being her own experience. There was no ‘I’ to experience the event. This is heady stuff. If you have a genuine mystic experience, you will never forget it. For many non-believers, a mystical experience, where they become one with the Absolute, is all they need to become believers.
JMS: If the experience is not ‘your’ experience – because your ego fell away – then how can you write about it?
VM: You really can’t use the normal language that was developed in an ‘ego’ world. Mystics have always resorted to poetry to describe the experience and what is so amazing is this: no matter what the culture or the year the experience happened, all this mystical poetry is alike. It’s just uncanny how Saint Teresa can sound like a zen mystic.
JMS: Do you think I could do that?
VM: I have no idea. Off hand, I would not advise it. But you have gone pretty far down that road in having your characters talk to God and having Him answer back. The next step could be a mystical experience. But be careful. Orthodox believers, 'orthodox' meaning those of have the ‘right’ thoughts, are often hostile to mystics in all religions. I don’t think there would be a very big market segment for this type of fiction. However, I could be wrong.
JMS: I think you’re right. Actually, I may be too ‘edgy’ for my own good right now. Do you think what I need to be doing now is coming up with a position for myself as an author.
VM: Give it a lot of thought. Now, about positioning your book, “When God Answers”, perhaps we can use something like “When God Answers” – Inspiration that Speaks Directly to the Reader!” Something like that.
JMS: You’re filling my head with too many ideas. Is marketing always this complicated?
VM: Yes, marketing is everything you do in providing the product. When you are dealing with ‘everything’ it’s going to be complicated.
JMS: And you’d like the positioning statements to appear in every notice?
VM: Oh, yes. I’d like even little tiny notices in “What’s on Tap” to position if possible. However, never go beyond what the format allows. The paper probably won’t cut your copy. They just won’t run it in the first place.
JMS: Back to the series. You want me to write shorter novels so I can write more of them a year and each time one runs, I’ll have a chance to have ten to twelve notices in the newspaper about the book or about a book signing.
VM: Yes. Doing this is very important. By having two to four new books a year, you will be able to keep your name in front of the public. This is not a small thing. Consider that the newspaper has a circulation of 150,000. Each time your name appears you have the potential of 150,000 people seeing it. If your story runs five or six times,, in different places in the paper and on different days, then that ups the chances that someone will notice you and your book.
JMS: And that’s just one newspaper.
VM: Yes. There will be other newspapers as well. Like little newspapers, suburban papers, and local small town papers. There will be magazines, radio stations, and even broadcast TV stations as well as cable TV. There are dozens of potential publicity outlets in a town the size of Tulsa. Always be on the lookout for publicity outlets.
JMS: But can I find them all?
VM: I doubt it. But always be looking. Look for any notice in any medium that looks like something you could also employ. Get the address and put it on a list of addresses. It is possible that with a good well developed publicity plan, you could announce your new book to close to million people.
The important thing about a book signing is not the book signing itself; it’s the publicity the signing can bring you.
JMS: I never thought of a book signing that way. I always thought of it in terms of book sales at the signing. A successful signing might be one where twenty books are sold.
VM: That’s good too and important because you want the bookseller to be happy. What’s nice is that all the publicity you worked so hard to get will also bring more people to the book signing. So it's a WIN/WIN deal.
JMS: What other things generate publicity?
VM: A lot of things if you are willing to do some public speaking. You could give a talk at the library. This is like a PSA, pubic service announcement. These are very easy to get publicity for. You could also do a little seminar at the YMCA or other organization. This also has a high PSA value.
JMS: A seminar on what?
VM: Something you know about. How about “How to Get the Most Enjoyment from Reading Romances”. Make a topic up. How about, “Romances as a gateway to the classics”. With this talk you could speak to college classes and high schools students.
JMS: When am I going to have time to write?
VM: That’s a good question. I’m talking ideal situations here. I suggest that you arrange specific writing times which the family honors and that only a 911 type emergency can violate.
Always be creating the best product for others to market. As far as publicity goes, do that on what I call ‘garbage time’. If you’re reading the paper anyway, be looking for sections that carry announcements and collect these for future use. If you are at the doctor’s office, scan local or regional magazines for announcements. When in the library, look at the notices on the walls and read community newsletters that list events and seminars. Publicity is something that you build over time. You don’t have to do everything at once.
JMS: Having my own writing space is the idea behind the studio by the pond. What are we going to do next?
VM: I’d like you to outline a series that meets my four points so we can discuss it for an hour of so. Can you do that?
JMS: After all we've discussed, I sure hope I can. I may need more time.
VM: Take what time you need. I’d like to see some meat. Something that might actually fly and be of major interest to your publisher.
JMS: Very good. Until next time.