Writing and Reading

Writing: Articles

The Mysteries of Marketing: A Personal Narrative

by Susan Wittig Albert

If my name were Patricia Cornwell or Sue Grafton or Janet Evanovich, I wouldn't be telling you this story. But it isn't, so I am. When your mystery series doesn't start off with a super-slam best-seller with strong Hollywood appeal, you have some choices. You can sit back and hope for the best, or you can do something to nudge things along. I nudged.

I write a series of mysteries featuring an herbalist named China Bayles, who left a successful career as a criminal defense attorney to open an herb shop called Thyme & Seasons in Pecan Springs, a small town in the hill country of Texas. China's best friend Ruby owns a New Age shop next door, and the two of them are partners in a new enterprise: a tea room called Thyme for Tea. The series began with the publication of Thyme of Death (Scribners, 1992); the ninth book has just been published (Mistletoe Man, Berkley Prime Crime, October 2000). Two more books are under contract, and I have a long list of possible titles in mind, all of them with an herbal flavor. (Maybe there's an advantage to not being Sue Grafton after all. I won't run out of titles when I've written 26 books.)

The first two books in the series were modest successes, in part because the Scribner hardcovers went into Prime Crime paperback editions a year after initial publication, which enlarged the readership substantially. In those two years, I made the usual bookstore appearances (armed with bookmarks and other give-aways), went to mystery conferences and library association meetings, and generally tried to follow the suggestions in Shameless Promotion for Brazen Hussies.

But it wasn't until the third book that I discovered the secret to promoting this series. My friend Marge Clark, the author of a successful self-published herbal cookbook, invited me to speak to her garden club. Timidly, I suggested that I might bring a few books to sell. "Sure thing," she said carelessly. "Better bring 40 hardcovers and a couple of boxes of paperbacks. These gals like to buy books." They certainly did. They enthusiastically applauded my talk, asked questions about herbs (most of which I managed to answer), and cleaned out my supply of books. In fact, they bought more books than I had ever sold at any bookstore signing. I was suddenly enlightened. There was a market for these herb-and-gardening mysteries, and dear Marge-an experienced back-of-the-room bookseller-had showed me where it was and how to reach it. She also suggested, quite tactfully, that even though my books were published by a big New York house, the publisher might not have a clue about how best to market them, other than putting ads in newspapers and sending me on book tour. Marge taught me a valuable lesson: I could behave as though my books were self-published and I was the only one responsible for marketing them. That way, anything my publisher did-printing advance reading copies (ARCs), funding promotional tours, placing ads in newspapers-was just frosting on the cake I was already baking for myself.

That was the beginning of a five-year odyssey during which I reinvented myself as a for-real herbalist and herbal bookseller. Sure, I had known quite a bit about herbs and gardening when I started writing the series, but now these herbal mysteries were making me look like an "expert." I decided to exploit the image. I began submitting herb and gardening magazine articles, accepted an invitation to serve on the board of directors of the International Herb Association, and gave talks at herb conferences and garden shows, where I also rented a booth and sold books. My husband Bill, a full-time partner in these efforts, would load up our little Toyota and go with me to these events, where he manned the cash register while I shmoozed and signed.

One of the problems I experienced early in the series is that the bookstores (except the mystery bookstores, of course) didn't keep the books in stock. What's more, lots of my readers lived in small towns and rural areas, far from retail bookstores. To reach these people, Bill and I developed a mail-order bookstore called Thyme & Seasons Books, which enabled us to buy our own books for resale. I began publishing a 16-page herbal newsletter called China's Garden, which we advertised in about a dozen herb and gardening magazines. This subscription quarterly was also a catalog, eventually listing about 150 titles: the China Bayles mysteries, the Victorian mysteries that Bill and I write together under the name of Robin Paige, and about 125 small-press and self-published herbal titles, including three herb books I wrote myself. In addition to the mail-order marketing, we took our bookstore to at least half a dozen herb/garden shows a year, both in Texas and in other states, where we made new friends and picked up many new readers for both series. Talking to these readers also gave us a great deal of insight into what they liked about our books, and we began to take their expectations into account as we wrote.

Bill and I enjoyed the bookstore, but within four years it had grown to the point where it was taking too much of our time and we were finding the conference treks too demanding. (We were reluctant to hire help because we live in a rural area where reliable workers are hard to find, and we didn't want to become dependent on an employee who might leave us.) So in early 1999, I closed China's Garden. I continue to make presentations at herb conferences, but most of the time we work through another retailer to sell books at the conference. Thyme & Seasons Books is still in operation, but we have reduced its functions: we place mail-order ads, receive orders, and forward them to a retail bookstore for fulfillment. (Jan and Elmer Grape, of Mysteries and More, in Austin TX, worked with us until they retired; now we use the Hill Country Book Store in Georgetown, TX.) And like many other mystery authors, we mail out a newsletter about three times a year (unlike those of other authors, ours includes a book order form), and send postcards letting people know about the hardcover publications in both series.

When Bill and I closed the mail-order store, I expanded my efforts to reach readers by using other media. The magazine Country Living Gardener asked me to write a column called "Herbal Thymes." I began two other columns for The Herb Companion and contributed essays on plant history and lore to the NPR radio show, "The Cultivated Gardener." I have begun an experiment in newspaper syndication, offering a column called "The Mysteries of Herbs." And Women.com invited me to write a series of short on-line herbal mysteries for the Country Living Gardener web site, featuring China and Ruby, of course.

In fact, the Internet has now become the focus of much of our marketing effort. On our web site, we have lots of herbal information to entice drop-ins, updates on the China Bayles and the Robin Paige books for fans, and plenty of special features: a "round table" where people can exchange messages; recipes from the tea room and monthly tea parties; a journal about our writing and gardening life; and personal photos. We have a raffle a couple of times a year (we give away copies of the first hardcover printing of Thyme of Death, which we purchased as remainders) and are always looking for ways to personally engage our readers.

Bill and I share a common philosophy about our work. We believe that writing is a business, that smart marketing is integral to it, and that authors-especially start-up and mid-list authors-need to become smart marketers, the sooner the better. Part of this is choosing a project that has an identifiable and accessible market; another part is accepting the idea that writing books is only part of the author's job: selling is our responsibility, as well. We also believe that marketing is an investment in the series, just as research and writing are, and that the key to success lies in making a consistent, long-term effort that will build on itself and create even more new opportunities. We've changed our strategies with the times and the circumstances (Bill and I aren't enthusiastic about carrying boxes of books now as much as we did eight years ago), but we still have the same basic commitment: we want people to know about the books we write, and if they can't find those books in their local bookstores, we're glad to make them available. We realize that not everybody shares this activist philosophy, of course: one author who heard about Thyme & Seasons Books grumpily characterized it as "hucksterism." But it fits us. And we're excited about the ways it's evolving. Who knows what new marketing media will come along in the next ten years?

Susan Wittig Albert's latest China Bayles mystery is entitled Mistletoe Man. Under the pseudonym of Robin Paige, she and her husband Bill Albert also write a series of Victorian mysteries. Look for Death at Whitechapel, available now.

Copyright 2000 Susan Wittig Albert. All rights reserved.

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Last updated: 01/14/01