Writing and Reading

Writing: Articles

Finding Your Niche and Filling It:
Tips for Marketing Your Mystery

by Susan Wittig Albert

For nearly ten years, I've been creating mysteries that are aimed for a niche market: the herb/gardening market. I didn't start out with this market in mind, because when I began writing adult mysteries in 1991, I had the idea that if you wrote a good book, your readers would find you, without much effort on your part (an idea I've long since abandoned). I simply created a character (an ex-attorney named China Bayles who buys a shop called Thyme & Seasons Herbs), put her in a regional setting (the Hill Country of central Texas), and gave her adventures herbal titles: Thyme of Death, Rosemary Remembered, Chile Death, Lavender Lies, and so on.

After the third book was published, however, I discovered my market. From that time on, I have relied on my publisher to market the books to a national audience of mystery readers, but I have developed a number of marketing strategies designed to appeal especially to readers who enjoy gardening, cooking, and herbs. I developed a subscription newsletter called China's Garden, began to write articles for gardening and herb magazines, accepted speaking engagements at herb conferences, and generally "invented" myself (to use a currently popular word) as an expert in my field. This new "career" as an herbalist was both enjoyable and rewarding: I met a great many interesting people, learned more about herbs and gardening, and broadened my experience in ways I hadn't expected.

If you're thinking about creating a mystery series with "niche" appeal, here are some ideas for you to consider.

  1. Design your mystery with a market in mind. If you believe that true artists create independently of a market, you'll probably discard this idea as too commercial. If you're concerned about the marketability of your mystery, you'll give it serious thought. Designing a product to a market means determining which audience you want to reach and creating a product (your mystery) that will appeal to them. I recently read a manuscript of a first book in a series featuring a sleuth who owns a tea room-obviously designed for readers who enjoy a good cup of tea with their mysteries (and who doesn't?) Remember: you're not giving up the mystery market, so you'll also have to pay attention to writing a good mystery. You're adding a special market to broaden the sales potential of your book.

  2. Know your market. You don't have to be over 60 to write a book that will appeal to senior readers. But you'll write more convincingly if you understand the way seniors feel and know their special problems, challenges, and interests-as Carolyn Hart does in her Henry O series. A tip: study other print products targeted at your market to help you find marketing and story ideas. Another idea: join a large organization in your targeted market and gain access to its activities and mailing lists. For example, to market the China Bayles series, I joined several herb organizations, subscribed to herb and garden publications, and attended herb-related events. I used the organization's mailing list and asked people to sign my guest book. This exposure to readers also gave me more ideas for marketing-and more story ideas, as well.

  3. Think of your setting as a possible market. A regional setting interests readers who live in that region, people who have traveled there, and people who would like to live there. (I get many letters from readers who tell me that they live in New York, but their hearts are in Texas.) Jean Hager does a good job of using Cherokee life in Oklahoma to attract readers who are interested in the region. Sharyn McCrumb uses Appalachian culture and mythology to draw readers to her Ballad series. Tip: try marketing your regional mystery through gift shops that focus on regional interests.

  4. Create visibility for yourself and your series. You work hard to make yourself visible as a mystery writer-doing signings, sending notices about your work to fanzines, etc. Try similar strategies in your target market. For instance, I sent review copies of my first China Bayles mystery to The Herb Companion (circulation 300,000) and The Business of Herbs (which goes to 2000 herb business owners). Over the next couple of years, the books were reviewed in Horticulture and Fine Gardening. Now, I write columns on herbs for Country Living Gardener and contribute essays on plant lore to the NPR radio show, "The Cultivated Gardener." I take advantage of every opportunity to get the word out.

  5. Advertise in publications read by people who might like your books. All of us are familiar with ads in the mystery magazines. But how about placing an ad in a magazine that is targeted at your market? Sometimes you can entice your publisher to do this for you. But it may be worth doing, even if you have to pay for it yourself. Tip: paid advertising usually results in editorial attention, as well. Be sure that the magazine gets review copies of your books.

  6. Market your books through non-traditional outlets. People buy books from sources other than bookstores! A series about an outdoor-adventure sleuth might sell well in sports shops, or a cat/dog series could be marketed through pet stores. (Carole Nelson Douglas's Midnight Louie makes regular appearances in national pet chains.) Once you become familiar with your target readers, you will also find ways to sell directly to them. For instance, you might take a booth at an event that attracts people interested in your niche. For five years, my husband Bill and I operated a mail-order bookstore that specialized in herb and gardening titles-and our own books too, of course. We were able to sell books to readers who never saw the inside of a mystery bookstore.

  7. Develop related spin-off products that you can market yourself. If you're the entrepreneurial type, this strategy may appeal to you. For instance, if your mystery series involves cooking, you could market a cookbook; if your protagonist is a quilter, a book of quilt patterns. (Earlene Fowler, who writes books with quilt-pattern titles, may or may not be interested in this idea.) From 1994-1999, I marketed an herbal newsletter (first developed as a give-away promotion item) and wrote several inexpensive self-published booklets on herbs (sold at herb and garden shows) that were not just profitable but also attracted new readers to the China Bayles series.

  8. Use the Internet. The Internet offers a great many ideas for reaching a target market. In addition to creating your own web site, you can participate in email discussions, post on bulletin boards, join chat rooms, and post reviews of non-mystery books in your target market. Contribute to related web sites. (For instance, I write on-line gardening mysteries for Women.com. and post articles about herbs on a half-dozen other sites.) Be creative about ways to bring your books to the attention of potential readers outside the mystery market.

  9. Don't let others discourage you. If the idea of niche marketing appeals to you, go for it. Don't be discouraged by others-like the author who sniffed that my pro-active marketing methods were "hucksterism." A few decades ago, writers rarely became involved in marketing. But that has changed, along with everything else in the book business, and we're all facing the challenge of learning new ways to present our work to readers.

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