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The Kings of the Castle All Owe It to One Queen

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by Kelly Peterson, Director of Digital Strategy, Independent Publishers Group

Kelly Peterson

How Naleighna Kai and her marketing fellowship, NK’s Tribe Called Success, lift others up by working together marketing their titles.

There’s an old phrase about conversations: “If you can’t get through the front door, try the window.” When I think about that phrase, I think of one person: Naleighna Kai and her marketing fellowship, NK’s Tribe Called Success.

Naleighna Kai has worked for top New York publishers, where her books did well, and she took the opportunity to lift others up by working together marketing their titles. That sprang into the Cavalcade of Authors with events that gave fans the chance to meet authors. No matter how the author published—whether with the Big Five, an independent publisher, or an author publishing their own work—there was a place for them at the Cavalcade.

The real magic to NK’s Tribe Called Success, though, is in cross-marketing. When Naleighna switched to indie publishing, she started with her own work, then moved into publishing more authors and content. When I met Naleighna, she told me about her “secret sauce”: short-term, 99-cent anthologies with a lot of authors.

“Everyone brings their audience,” she said. “When everyone teases the stories at the same time, readers see it all over. And then they want to buy it. But making it only available for a short period of time … well, that’s urgent. And they want it even more.”

Naleighna’s enthusiasm had me totally on board. She did several anthologies that way, and every one sold well. Romance authors started bundling with regularity, though, and what was once a sure-fire hit didn’t sell like it used to. Naleighna started pulling apart the process to see what worked best.

She coordinated two anthologies, Sugar and Spice, a fun, short-lived combo volume that did well, and then allowed the authors to republish on their own. Instead of two weeks, they lasted six months. But something clicked with that group. This new Tribe—this fellowship of friends and writers who loved working together—dreamed even bigger. What about something that lasts?

These authors weren’t novices; they had written for Kensington, St. Martins, Harlequin, and Simon & Schuster. But those big houses focus a lot of attention on their top authors, and midlist authors—especially authors of color—don’t always get enough publicity or advances to make a living writing books. These authors started publishing directly, but they longed for some of the infrastructure of the big houses. Their books still needed editing, marketing, and promotion, and some of them consulted with Naleighna. She knew a lot of industry people and had built relationships that helped authors who were published by the Big Five, thanks to Cavalcade. Eventually, there was a healthy mix of authors: new authors wanting to become professionals, and professional authors wanting to grow and help one another.

Naleighna wanted to create a bigger, more robust project that didn’t disappear after six months. She already had a Facebook group called Naleighna Kai’s Literary Café, where she entertained authors and readers alike. Then the Tribe was fully born. The Tribe was only by invitation, and every author went through a full process to ensure their work was the same high quality. They need to learn and to teach—to be writers who could also be developmental editors, content editors, and line editors. They created videos and classes for up-and-comers who showed potential. They honed their skills and built a future for dozens of authors. Naleighna had a perfect project for all of them.

Naleighna wanted to believe in love. She had heard about a woman who was killed in a club for just saying no to a man, and stories like this were wearing away at her soul. She wanted a world where women were respected by men who didn’t have to diminish a woman’s light in order to shine. And her idea was big. A castle filled with men with a purpose because of one man who mentored them all. When someone tried to assassinate him, these kings come back to root out the greed and violence that had polluted their home.

Naleighna put this idea out into her groups. Would people be interested in writing something like that? She immediately got 20 people signed up to write the stories and received lots of enthusiasm about the series.

USA Today, The New York Times, and other bestselling authors took this concept and each fleshed out a King of their own. They established certain rules: These were modern-day knights in shining armor, and they would follow traditional romance structure, including a happy ending and a separate couple in each book. They wouldn’t borrow plots from one another, so they were each fresh, but they had a through line and included appearances from other characters as they worked toward the conclusion.

They hired on J. L. Woodson, one of the most dynamic graphic designers in the industry, to create covers that would stand out. They set sales goals around the titles to gauge performance. They put it in NetGalley for reviews, and the readers were hooked, moving from book to book faster than this team could write them.

They met their first year goal for the Kings of the Castle series in a month. Authors were selling three to five times what they sold on a normal title, and being a Kings writer meant that their backlist started selling, as well. There were hiccups: the books came out faster than average readers could read, and the books were coming in twice as long as the goal length, and coming in right at deadline (or a little after). But the content was amazing, and the fans were loyal. The series came in at nine books, and there was one question on all the fans’ minds when it was over: What happens next?

Another concept, another series, and even more collaboration: The Knights of the Castle. As the Tribe writes the series, there have been struggles along the way. COVID-19 hit some authors; jobs became more demanding; and stress from isolation or essential work made it hard to have fun. For most partnerships, that would be a death knell for a project like this. A Tribe, though, can help one another. When someone needs to back out, there is someone who could fill in. Equally, the Tribe members took an active administrative role in the process so responsibilities didn’t fall to only one person. Naleighna picked the right authors at the right time, and even those who left had full hearts and became ambassadors for the projects. And what’s next for the Tribe? Of course, it has to be The Queens of the Castle.

Because when the door is shut, you go through the window—and you leave it open for others to come through, as well.

Kelly Peterson is director of digital strategy at Independent Publishers Group (IPG) and brings 20+ years of marketing and merchandising experience to her current role, helping major trade publishers, university presses, independent publishers, agents, and authors maximize their e-book sales and marketing efforts at the major retailers. Prior to IPG, she was the director of client services for INscribe Digital.

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