Business Musings: One Thing Versus Many (Niche Marketing Part Two)
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This summer, we have finally decided to revamp a number of things about our business. Dean and I started WMG Publishing over 13 years ago, and based it on the traditional publishing model. Back then, we didn’t see that traditional publishing would make itself mostly irrelevant. We figured traditional publishing and self-publishing would exist side-by-side.
That’s not how the last decade went. At WMG, we’ve made a lot of changes to adapt to the new ways of doing things, but not enough changes.
We’ve been talking about overhauling the company for a number of years now, and this spring, we finally decided that we would revamp throughout the rest of the year. (Those of you who follow what we do will see a lot of gradual changes. Some will be visible, and others won’t.)
One thing we’ve been doing right is niche marketing, but we’re really going to focus on it moving forward. That’s one reason why I’m writing the series on niche marketing, which I started last week. I’m talking to myself and my team, but I’m also exploring what’s available.
Niche marketing is a really simple concept. You market your products to a specific, well-defined audience. That audience might be very small, but it can be loyal.
It can also be built into a larger audience, brick by tiny brick.
While the concept is simple, the execution often isn’t. We will be applying the principles of marketing here and we will be looking at a variety of ways to think about what we, as writers and business people, do.
So much of what I see about niche marketing doesn’t apply to writers who have a publishing business. The gurus who tout niche marketing want you to create a product or a business that can fit into a particular niche. They assume that whatever you’re doing is one thing, and they want that one thing to fit into some sideways niche where no one else (or hardly anyone else) works.
For example, Dean just took me to the Pinkbox Doughnuts that opened not far from our place. I’d been avoiding the local chain because they didn’t have vegan doughnuts, or at least, they didn’t when we moved to Vegas.
They do now. Their new place, just off Fremont, is very in-your-face, like their other stores, apparently. They have merchandise, from t-shirts to socks to coffee mugs to blankets to water bottles.
But their main product is doughnuts, and every bit of their merch focuses on doughnuts. Not just any doughnut, mind you. Doughnuts that they define this way:
We’re a fun modern-day twist on your old-fashioned classic doughnut shop. Pinkbox strives on being creative and always remaining committed to making outrageous, fun and fresh doughnuts every day.
They’re a very Las Vegas place. Their original niche—in a town filled with chain doughnut shops and some really great doughnut places (like Ronald’s)—was to be creative and irreverent. They make their usual staples, but they also make holiday doughnuts—a whole bunch of them. And they cater, and they’ll make special doughnuts for your wedding or event if you want them to.
Pinkbox served a niche—outrageous Las Vegas-branded doughnuts—and has taken over the town. One of my favorite (but weird) doughnut places closed because Pinkbox was moving into the neighborhood. (And I don’t mind because, honestly, Pinkbox is better.)
Whoever works in their marketing department has a great eye for an opportunity. They’ve paired with our local sports teams to make branded doughnuts, and those doughnuts are for sale at concessions stands inside the local stadiums.
This is perfect niche marketing. It allowed the business to grow from one store to ten in eleven years.
Niche: creative doughnuts marketed in the Las Vegas way, in Barbie Pink packaging.
But…here’s the rub.
Writing and a publishing business do not operate that way. Usually.
I say “usually” because that’s not entirely true. Throughout the early years of indie publishing, hundreds of writers operated exactly that way. They scouted the Amazon bestseller lists, noted that—say, vampire romances were doing well, and that no one was writing werewolf romances. So they pioneered werewolf romances.
Most of these writers are gone. Many of them burned out. A lot of them got trapped in a scam from a romance ebook site that promised bigger returns until it became clear that the site was a Ponzi scheme that collapsed in on itself.
But I digress.
Good writers, writers who care about their readers, don’t operate that way. Our business is complicated, because we’re creating art and entertainment. That means this: if we follow our muses, we’re creating what we want to create. What we want to create becomes what some readers want to read. (Not all readers. Not even all of our readers. I’ll get to that.)
It’s really hard to market a writer’s work on the brand-name level. Traditional publishers rarely did it and when they did do it, they didn’t do it well. Writers work piecemeal, which means that if one traditional publisher didn’t want the work, the only way that they could control the writer was through a contract essentially getting the writer to agree not to publish anything else.
Over the decades, writers pushed back at being controlled, and changed the contracts. Those writers might not have been able to sell their side projects to their main publisher, but smaller niche (yep, I said it) publishers stepped in.
That’s how Stephen King’s Dark Tower series started. Other writers did similar things. Or they used open pen names, like Nora Roberts did for her J.D. Robb series.
What traditional publishers were trying to control was the wild creativity of their writers. That wild creativity made marketing hard. If we writers all wrote the same book—or the same type of book—over and over again, the marketing is easy.
For decades, the large mass of people out there believed Stephen King wrote only horror, Nora Roberts wrote only contemporary romance, and John Grisham wrote only legal thrillers.
None of that is true; all of it caused their traditional publishers’ marketing departments to lose their minds more than once.
Because marketing “voice” is hard. Anything Stephen King writes is linked to everything else he writes by his voice and his sensibilities. The same with Nora Roberts and John Grisham.
But here’s the other part about art and entertainment. Sometimes the creative doesn’t hit the mark. They might be trying a new thing and their reach exceeded their grasp. A beloved side project isn’t as “good” as the other work. Realize, now, that “good” is always subjective.
Some of that subjectivity comes with expectations. So if you expect a John Grisham book to be filled with high-stakes legal mumbo jumbo and you end up reading Playing For Pizza or Bleachers or Calico Joe, all of which are sports books—and worse, American sports books about American sports (like American football), you’ll be disappointed. You’ll tell your friends that the books “aren’t as good” as his other books, which you read because they’re legal thrillers.
When traditional publishing succeeded at marketing, especially when they were truly innovative back in the 1950s and 60s, they succeeded because they marketed a product. One book. Like Catcher in the Rye or To Kill A Mockingbird.
It helped that the writers of those two books decided the massive marketing and attention wasn’t what they wanted, and they refused to give traditional publishers any new products. Or is that really what happened? Maybe the traditional publishers refused to take anything that wasn’t just like Catcher in the Rye or To Kill A Mockingbird. Maybe there was a lot of fighting and wrangling and difficulty that I don’t know about.
If I had to put money on a scenario, the second one is the one I’d choose.
As a business owner and marketer, I understand traditional publishing’s point of view. It’s easier to market a book by J.D. Salinger that’s “just like” Catcher in the Rye. Then putting by the author of the bestselling novel Catcher in the Rye on the cover doesn’t mess with expectations. It sets them.
That’s why marketing series books is easier than marketing three random books by the same author. Yes, the three random books have the same voice, but they might not have the same tone. They might not provide the same reading experience at all. The reading experience of an elegiac book about American football is nothing like having a poor first-year lawyer take on the mob.
If we writers wrote the same story over and over again, but with touches and different characters, maybe setting one book in New York and another in Los Angeles, and bringing the cities in as characters in and of themselves, then the marketing is as easy as the marketing of outrageous, fun, and creative doughnuts.
If you click through on Pinkbox’s offerings for the week of June 26, you’ll see holiday doughnuts for the Fourth of July (including a doughnut that looks like a hotdog. Seriously). You’ll find some sports doughnuts, and some doughnuts designed to look like the poop emoji. (Yes, really.) You’ll also find some “OG Classics” like a maple bar or a plain cake doughnut.
But here’s the thing: they’re all doughnuts. Made from some special recipe that Pinkbox put together, but they’re all Pinkbox doughnuts.
They’re as similar as the next book in a long-running series. They’re predictable. Sure, the holiday doughnuts are those one-off side stories set in the same universe that offer the same thrill but with a fun twist, but they’re still doughnuts.
Books by the same author will never be like a doughnut shop filled with doughnuts and nothing else. Never.
Not one of us is built that way. That’s why writers burn out when they write version after version of werewolf romances. It gets boring after a while. There’s no challenge left.
We write many things. Which means we must market many things from the same store. Our store. We may market doughnuts and steak and airplanes. We might market cats and chairs. We produce many different things, and they each require their own marketing plan.
Their own niche, as it were.
So…how do we writers do that type of marketing? I hinted at it last week when I talked about my newsletters. I have different newsletters for different pen names and series, as well as an overall newsletter.
A lot of you pushed back at that very idea, claiming you didn’t have time to do more than one newsletter, but you segment. And you probably lose a ton of potential newsletter subscribers who don’t understand that, and don’t want non-targeted email, which they would call spam.
Those folks don’t sign up at all.
If you’re having trouble with the whole newsletter idea, you’re going to hate this series.
Because the best way for all of us to market is to market on a very small level.
I’m going to use myself as an example because I have a lot of available product (and yes, I’m going to use that word) and because I have a lot of marketing opportunities.
My work includes:
- The Diving Series
- The Retrieval Artist Series
- Standalone novels like Traitors and Snipers
- Standalone novellas
- Standalone short stories
- The Fey Series
- Standalone novels like The White Mists of Power
- Mixed series of novellas, short stories and novels, like the Seavy County stories
- Standalone short story series like Winston & Ruby
- All standalone, like The Death of Davy Moss
- Standalone short stories and novellas
- The Sweet Young Things Series, which right now is one novel (Spree) and several short stories
- Standalone short stories, novelettes and novellas
- Standalone novels like The Devil’s Churn
- Standalone short stories and novellas
- Mostly short stories and novellas
- Mostly short stories and novellas
- This blog
- All of the writing/publishing books that came from this blog
- Random columns, articles, and essays that have been published since oh, about 1981 or so.
Tired yet? Don’t be, because I’m not done. There are a bunch of pen names, but the ones we’ll deal with here are:
- The Fates Series
- The Charming Series
- The Santa Series
- Short story series (right now anyway) like Imperia Encanto Adventures
- A few standalone short stories
- The Smokey Dalton Series
- Three other novel series that all began with the same book, Protectors
- A couple of short story series that will eventually become something else
Even more tired? Well, then consider this. There are editing projects as well. Both Kristine Grayson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch have edited. Rusch has done so since 1987.
All of these things. All of them can be niche marketed.
All of them have different audiences. Many of the audiences do not overlap.
I do a Kristine Kathryn Rusch newsletter that covers most of them, but I don’t bombard people, even though I could. That would probably mean some kind of newsletter to people every other day or maybe every week. I’m not going to do that.
I’m trying to get my Rusch website back on track so that I do let people know when everything is published. I used to do that. I need to do it more.
Note that I only have a few newsletters right now, but I’ll be doing more.
And for those of you who pushed back at doing more than one newsletter, here’s how I do it.
This month, my latest Diving novel, The Court-Martial of The Renegat Renegades appeared. I wrote a long update email about the novel and other things to my Kristine Kathryn Rusch newsletter and warned them that they might get another newsletter later in the month because of the Storybundle that I curated on writing. You can’t promote Storybundles ahead of time.
Then I wrote a different, shorter newsletter for the Diving list. I got into the weeds a bit, talking about that book and about future Diving projects only, things I did not discuss with the Rusch newsletter.
I did send a later newsletter to the Diving list only because a new Diving story just appeared in Asimov’s.
I have not, as yet, sent out any newsletters to my other lists for any reason this month.
Is that more work? Oh, maybe. But I doubt it.
For example, I haven’t published a new Nelscott book in years. I’ve updated the list a few times about some deal or a side project, but I haven’t written a Nelscott letter for a while now.
The same with some other lists. They’re not fallow, but they are quiet. I don’t bother people unless I need to.
Newsletters are just one technique. And I need to expand mine somewhat, just like I need to repair a bunch of websites, all of which will happen in 2023.
But there’s more active marketing. Figuring out how, say, my marketing for the existing Nelscott books should work. Or marketing the entire Retrieval Artist series this summer after a very successful BookBub this month.
You’ll note that I did not send any announcement of that Bookbub to any of my lists—at WMG’s request. They wanted to see how the Bookbub did with no promotion from us.
It did quite well.
But that Bookbub alone will revive outside interest in The Retrieval Artist series, interest that we can work on as a team, even if I don’t write another book for a year or so.
All of that will get discussed in the next few weeks as I talk about applying marketing principles to niche marketing.
Yes, it’s overwhelming.
Yes, it’s a lot.
But, OMG, is it fun.
Rather like poop emoji doughnuts.
The niche that is this weekly blog gets nudged every week when I release a new blog post. Sometimes there’s another nudge on Patreon that many of you don’t see.
That’s because I work to maintain financial support on the nonfiction blog, so I give it some of my very valuable time. I need the on-going financial support because otherwise I’d turn to the more lucrative fiction projects.
So…if you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.
If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.
Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynruschr4e to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: One Thing Versus Many: Niche Marketing Part Two,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2023 by Kristine K. Rusch