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A Low-Cost System for Marketing Novels Is Not a Work of Fiction

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PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 1996

by Judith Appelbaum and Florence Janovic, Sensible Solutions


Judith Appelbaum

The very same people who know that target marketing works for nonfiction are often surprised when we report that it works for fiction too. “How do you identify the people likely to be interested in a novel?” they always ask, and “How do you reach them without spending huge sums of money?”

As an old joke goes — carefully. You start by pinpointing markets in terms of professional, geographical, historical, avocational, and gender interests — to name just a few possibilities. Then, with some imagination, diligent research, and an intelligently active author, you tell the people in those markets how your book relates to things they care about and how they can easily get it.

To decide what directions to go in, you need to ask 10 Leading Questions. The answers will help you launch your fiction, no matter what the subject. Most of the examples that follow are from the experiences of Sensible Solutions clients and PMA-List subscribers.


10 Leading Questions for Targeting Fiction Readers

1) What subjects are important in the book?

Does the story feature families, addiction, angels, terrorism, or tourism? By searching in an encyclopedia of associations, in Gale’s and Bacon’s
directories of periodicals, and on the Web, you’ll find groups of people already interested in whatever your book is about. Dale Smith’s new novel for young readers — What the Parrot Told Alice — teaches kids about wildlife conservation, so it’s a natural for bird enthusiasts and environmental activists. With Deer Creek Publishing’s marketing campaign still in its early stages, results so far include a laudatory two-page review in Bird Talk that generated orders for 80 books almost immediately; sales of 200 copies at an American Federation of Aviculture Convention, where pet shop owners who figure to become steady customers were among the buyers; a premium deal with the World Parrot Trust; and good leads for premium sales to two major conservation groups.

2) What geographical areas does the book relate to and depict?

Because people love to read about places they inhabit and visit, it’s relatively easy to generate publicity and sales in the neighborhood, city,
county, state, or country where the action in a novel takes place. The more you can narrow the locale, the better. There’s nothing like hometown pride. Geographic targeting also works if you focus on where your press is and where your author comes from. Saybrook, a Dallas publishing house, released The Dark Path to the River, a first novel by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman. The author was raised in Dallas, and the book made the bestseller list in The Dallas Morning News. As the author did readings at the local university and independent bookstores and got coverage in area papers, Dark Path not only stayed on the list, it got to #1.

3) What do the protagonists do?

The central character of James Halperin’s speculative novel, The Truth Machine, is a computer whiz. What better place to look for like-minded
readers than the Web? Even before the pub date, Halperin put material from and about his story on his Ivy Press site, and after Ballantine bought rights and published its edition, the Random House site featured it too. Every month, several thousand visitors to the site are a source of praise, sales, and word-of-mouth momentum. Typical comments are: “I will definitely buy the book.” “I work at Waldenbooks and will be recommending it.” “I will definitely purchase it.” And from another bookseller, “Will recommend it to my customers and managers.”

4) Whose comments will send powerful signals to people who will like this book and talk it up?

For Flight Path — Jan Blais’s novel about the post deregulation struggle to balance airline safety with profitability — Highpoint Press used the author’s professional connections to get blurbs from aviation experts and writers. Pre-pub praise included comments from the former director of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, the author of The President’s Plane Is Missing, and a senior captain for a major airline who chairs a national airline accident investigation committee.

5) Does the novel fit into a category that has well-developed sales and publicity networks?

Is it, for instance, science fiction, romance, mystery, Jewish, Christian, gay, feminist, or literary? Routes to feminists — to take just one
example — include more than 175 bookstores; a publication, Feminist Bookstore News, in which you can advertise and which sells its mailing list on labels for a modest fee; and at least 60,000 academics involved with Women’s Studies courses, who can be reached via lists available from the College Marketing Group. (For more information on the education market, keep reading.)

6) Are there courses that could use the novel as required or supplementary reading?

From grad school to preschool, teachers often assign fiction in the classroom, which can mean sizable bulk sales for years. The Tomato Enterprises editions of Patty Reed’s Doll and Sallie Fox: The Story of a Pioneer Girl sell to elementary-school teachers through educational catalogs (including home-schooling catalogs) and gatherings of teachers and schoo librarians, as well as through trade and special-interest channels. Publisher Dorothy Kupcha Leland, who also sells a teacher’s guide, cheerfully reports: “If the teachers know about the books, they want them.”

7) Is there a news peg for the story?

Rape Awareness Week gave Walking Bridge Press a handle for getting media interested in Cherry Love by Marcella Chester, a story about date rape. To date, results of the Press’s target marketing campaign, which emphasizes the newsworthy and nonfiction aspects of Cherry Love, include a scheduled mention in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association; an invitation to speak to volunteers at the Mayo Foundation; a feature story in the local newspaper; and appearances at the Chamber of Commerce and other organizations — all of which continue to build word-of-mouth enthusiasm.

8) Whom can the author attract?

When John Daniel & Company published Lightning in July — Ann L. McLaughlin’s poignant novel about two gifted young polio victims who fall in love — her schedule included a reading at the National Rehabilitation Hospital. For The Balancing Pole, about a woman who suffers from manic-depressive psychosis, McLaughlin read at a support group meeting for manic-depressives. And for all three of her novels (the latest, Sunset at Rosalie, is a story of the Deep South), she drew crowds to schools, libraries, universities, writers’ groups, book clubs, and bookstores — partly through personalized mailings to her own lengthy list.

9) What channels, besides bookstores, reach people interested in this story?

Consider non-book stores, non-book wholesalers, book clubs, other publishers in the United States and abroad that might buy rights, catalogs that focus on your story’s subject, plus associations, institutions, and corporations. And don’t be afraid to go where no book has gone before! Diana Brown got a jewelry-store chain to showcase her novel, The Emerald Necklace, during May — emeralds being the birthstone for that month.

10) How can publicity and sales in target markets lead to a novel’s entire audience?

While target markets are sometimes central to a story, they can also seem pretty peripheral. But because they can be activated by a publisher with less than a gazillion dollars to spend on any given title, and because the ripple effects from them are usually strong, they’re great places to start. When things are humming in your target markets, be sure to tell media and booksellers about the good review, the successful public appearance, the local sales spurt — whatever is happening that shows that your book’s bandwagon is rolling. Those who are already involved will be energized by your successes; those who aren’t yet involved will take notice. And you’ll prove, once again, that target marketing for fiction in fact works very well!


Judith Appelbaum and Florence Janovic are Managing Directors of Sensible Solutions, Inc., the New York City book marketing firm, and co-authors of A Full and Friendly Guide to Boosting Your Book’s Sales for publishers and authors (Pushcart Press). Appelbaum is also the author of How to Get Happily Published, now in its fourth edition from HarperCollins, with 450,000 copies sold.

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