Who needs to hang it up?

by Michelle Gagnon

This is an ongoing discussion on one of the message boards I frequent, and I thought it was an interesting one. How long can a series continue before it sinks under its own weight?

When readers have latched on to a character or series, and whatever book follows in the progression is guaranteed to make the bestsellers’ lists, both publishers and authors are loathe to say Sayonara. But there are popular series out there that are starting to look a bit long in the tooth. And would those writers be better served by branching out into new territory? After all, if their name is established, wouldn’t most of their fan base follow them on whatever new venture they chose?

I’ll preface this by saying that I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I’m a huge
John Sandford fan, and if he were to suddenly announce that Lucas Davenport was vanishing into the ether, I would be disappointed. Same with Jack Reacher, but for different reasons. What I like about Sandford’s books is that he has managed to keep them freash and interesting by varying the plots: some are more like spy novels, other focus on heists or serial killers. Plus, Lucas Davenport is one of the rare series characters who has actually evolved. I liked him at the beginning, but by allowing him to age and learn from life experience, I’m far more invested in him than I would be otherwise.

Paradoxically, the opposite holds true for Jack Reacher. He never changes. Thirteen books in, he still travels with nothing but the clothing on his back and a fold up toothbrush. And apparently he’s discovered that mythical fountain of youth, since he can still destroy pretty much anyone in a fight regardless of the fact that he must be approaching fifty by now. And yet, I don’t care. (I will say, however, that I secretly hope Lee Child someday branches off into a side series featuring Frances Neagley. Particularly after Bad Luck and Trouble, I want to know more about her and that company she runs). It’s the reason the Law and Order franchise is so consistently successful: you know what to expect, and Child always delivers it. He has the added liberty of being able to take Reacher anywhere in the world, from small towns to metropolises, and there’s no reason for him not to be there since he’s not locked into a job, tied to anyone or anything.

Others, however, have not been as fortunate. There are series whose books I devoured for five, ten, even fifteen books. But they gradually devolved into something that was either implausible or just plain silly. How long can you maintain a love triangle that never gets resolved? And for series set in small towns, how are we supposed to swallow the fact that their homicide rate rivals Detroit’s? I loved Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series, but after six books it was starting to suffer from Cabot Cove Syndrome: how could so many terrible things happen in a rural Georgia county? Who would ever move there with that level of crime? Property values must have been in the basement after the third serial killer in as many years passed through. Moving the series to Atlanta and combining it with her other series revitalized it for me.

So let’s hear it: who needs to hang it up? And what series have defied the odds and held your interest?

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The Elusive Fifty Percent

by Michelle Gagnon

There’s an old adage in marketing: fifty percent of your advertising will work. The kicker is that you’ll probably never know which fifty percent.
Large companies spend a lot of time and money trying to figure out which of their campaigns succeeded through surveys. But the little people (myself included) don’t have access to that option.

Which leads me to this week’s conundrum: trying to figure out how to divide my marketing money for The Gatekeeper. I would hate to eliminate an effort that made a difference last time- the trouble is, I have no idea which aspect of my marketing campaign impacted sales.

In an effort to narrow it down, I asked for help from the MIRA marketing team. Was there anywhere in particular where Boneyard posted more sales? In the Northeast, perhaps, or even in specific stores and chains?

Nope, they said. At least, not as far as they could determine- the best information they had to go on (which, as we’ve discussed in earlier posts, is limited at best) came from Bookscan, and the numbers appeared to be divided equally nationwide.

For other products, there are more options. You could try online ads one month, then print ads the next: if your sales showed more of a bump in the first month, the next time around you could focus more energy online.

Unfortunately, authors don’t have that luxury. Our books have a very limited shelf life. At least with my publisher, the first six weeks count most. Just one month after The Gatekeeper’s release date, many of the copies will already have been taken off the shelves. Hardcovers and trade paperbacks hang in there a bit longer, but for all of us, the next wave of releases knock us off the front racks and back to the stacks (or, worse yet, to the remaindering pile).

Which means that all of my marketing efforts are focused on that six week window. Which results in a madcap book tour, and thousands of dollars scattered in a dozen different directions. Let’s call it the “buckshot” approach to book marketing – throw out everything you can afford in every direction imaginable, and keep your fingers crossed.

I know what didn’t work with my first book. A mass mailing to over a hundred bookstores, which cost a third of my budget and hours of time, most likely ended up in the trash/recycling bin at most of them. Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage illustrated this at a conference by holding up an enormous trash can filled to the brim with promotional materials from authors and publishers. All collected in ONE WEEK.
Obviously, the next time around I skipped that option.
Even ARCs end up in stacks in the booksellers’ backrooms, most never touched by a single staff member.

Advertising online has some advantages. On sites like Facebook, you pay per click – but whether or not those clicks actually turn into sales remains a big question mark. Some people even run strange programs to make fake clicks for these, meaning that it’s super important to invest in something like click guardian to keep your finances sound. It’s a bit of a minefield otherwise, and without the backing of a big agency individual authors can really risk a sizable amount of revenue just on making sure no one abuses those adverts on the platform. This is why some people choose to use some other method to utilize this system, with places like KlientBoost and other pay per click advertising agencies that could assist your business with pay per click marketing services.

The blog tour I did last time around had an added advantage in that it cost nothing but time- a lot of it, however. By the end of the thirty stop tour, I’d written more than 33,000 words, a full third of a book. And did that help sales? Impossible to know.

I doubt I’m alone in wondering if there might not be a better way. Now that the full burden of marketing has fallen on most authors’ shoulders, couldn’t publishers help by providing more feedback on where they see sales happening? Wouldn’t it behoove them to come up with a more accurate measure than Bookscan? If I knew, for example, that a significant chink of my sales were happening in Kroger’s stores in Arkansas, I’d make a personal effort to connect with those retailers.

Anyway, that’s my rant for the day. I’ve decided to create bookmarks, chapbooks, and magnets per usual- they don’t cost much, and are easy to pass out. I’ll probably do a more limited book tour this time around, and will focus my actual tour on visiting some stores I was forced to skip last year. Aside from that, I’m still at a loss, staring at my Boneyard marketing spreadsheet, wondering what else to include and what to cut. Any and all suggestions are welcome- what’s worked for you in the past? Has anything in particular compelled you to buy a book you might not have known about otherwise?

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