Two’s company, three’s a crowd … but six can be a good marketing strategy, says Simon Whaley.
It doesn’t matter whether we’re traditionally published or self-published, when it comes to marketing most of us are pretty much on our own. It’s a little ironic that traditional publishers usually allocate the biggest marketing budgets to those already- famous authors who have cost them significant sums of money in advance payments, which those said publishers then need to recoup: hence the bigger marketing budget.
But in the business of writing, pooling resources and knowledge with fellow writers can be a useful move. Eighteen years ago, a group of crime writers did just that, creating Murder Squad. Today, their collaborative approach to marketing is still going strong.
Murder Squad was the idea of Margaret Murphy, who now writes as Ashley Dyer, and whose latest book, Splinter in the Blood is out now in hardback. Back in 2000, she was disappointed that her good reviews failed to generate the sales others felt she deserved, so she decided to take action. She and six other crime writers, all based in the north of England, joined forces to share the promotion of each others’ books.
There have been some changes in membership since its formation, but today’s Squaddies include some popular names in crime writing; Ann Cleeves, Martin Edwards, Kate Ellis, Chris Simms, Cath Staincliffe and Margaret. This collaborative effort enables them to take a three-pronged approach to marketing: as a group, as individuals, and on behalf of each other.
As the group’s members has changed over time, so has the way they market themselves.
‘When we started,’ advises Ann Cleeves, whose latest Vera Stanhope novel is The Seagull, ‘we used traditional marketing techniques: booklets and posters. Now, most promotion is done through social media. Because most of us are on Twitter, we can support each other’s events by pointing our own readers towards them. It all helps to build an audience!’
But they were also one of the first to adopt new technologies, as Margaret explains. ‘It’s important to keep pace with developing technology and make best use of what’s available. So right from the start, we set up a website – when many authors didn’t even have an online presence. We have individual social media platforms, but also a Murder Squad website and Twitter account, and we all retweet and share fellow Squaddies’ news and events.’
Sharing other writers’ work is also a great way of building a relationship with readers. Social media followers are quickly turned off by repeated posts of Buy my book!, but readers are far more likely to engage with writers who share other writers’ book news, along with other useful snippets of information.
Take a look at @_murdersquad’s Twitter feed (www.twitter.com/_murdersquad) and you’ll see it’s not just about the Squaddie’s promoting their books. They share reviews of each others’ work, details of events and appearances the Squaddies are involved with, as well as some great forensic facts (check out the hashtag #ForensicFactsFriday).
Their website (www.murdersquad.co.uk) acts as a portal, allowing people access to them individually, or as a group. ‘We have a bookings system,’ Margaret explains, ‘which allows journalists, events organisers, and even publishers access to everyone in the Squad, and because we share this information, we achieve the best match of talents and interests to any inquiries.’
The front page of the website promotes each Squaddie’s latest book with equal prominence, and then links to a dedicated page on the site for each author. From there journalists, readers and publishers can access the author’s own individual website, blog and other social media platforms.
An active events page details all the bookings the Squaddies are involved with, both individually, and collectively, with links to help people get in touch and make a booking enquiry directly with the relevant event organisers. Another benefit is that anyone looking to book them can immediately see their availability, both as a group and individually.
The joy of this collaborative approach is that it’s not just the marketing side of their writing business that benefits. ‘Many of us have become friends,’ explains Ann. ‘Publishing is a complex business and networking can be tricky. We share opportunities and information.’
Margaret agrees. ‘The support – both moral and practical – of others is crucial. It may be something as simple as bolstering a Squaddie who has taken a knock, right up to a situation which leads to exciting opportunities. I remember a query from a TV producer, looking for a strong female protagonist. Ann circulated the information to the Squad, and Cath Staincliffe’s highly successful Blue Murder TV series came out of it.’
Fellow Squaddie, Martin Edwards, author of the Lake District Mysteries, including The Dungeon House, remembers how some interesting opportunities have arisen from this collaborative approach. ‘Over the years we have produced an audio CD of readings, contributed to an ‘Inside Out’ TV programme, and produced several anthologies. Some of the stories have been shortlisted or even won awards.’
Margaret clarifies that the Squaddies actually achieved a Crime Writers’ Association first with one of the anthologies to which Martin referred. ‘The Best Eaten Cold anthology won TWO Short Story Dagger Awards – the first and only time in the CWA’s history that it has split the award. A recent anthology, Starlings and Other Stories brought Murder Squad and some friends together in a joint venture with a landscape photographer to produce twelve stories inspired by his photographs. You have to be prepared to consider each proposal or approach as an opportunity.’
One reason why this approach works well is because all six authors write within the same broad genre: crime. There’s a good chance that the readers of one Squaddie member may like the work of another member. However, even though they write within the same genre, there’s still a broad mix of styles within the group too.
Chris Simms, whose latest DC Sean Blake mystery, Loose Tongues, is published in June, suggests that other writers thinking of doing something similar should consider having this variety of styles within the group.
‘I’d try and make sure you have a mix of writing styles within the genre. Within Murder Squad you can find more traditional mystery novels, grittier contemporary fare, historical whodunnits, thrillers and psychological suspense. I think this makes for more interesting panel discussions at festivals or library events.’
And that variety helps when it comes to marketing. The group is often approached by literary festivals and libraries for panel discussions, and working as one group makes it easier for these event organisers to book several writers at the same time. While individual writers can offer themselves for panel discussions, Murder Squad can offer event organisers the entire panel. Yet they can also offer the variety of writing styles within their genre too. This immediately adds interest to a potential panel discussion and makes organisers’ lives easier.
There’s also the added bonus that the Squaddies already know each other, and are friends, so the dynamics between them is much better than when a handful of authors who may not know each other well are brought together on stage. And if you’re nervous about doing such events, doing the first few with friends by your side can turn them from anxious appointments into enjoyable moments, something that will only enhance the audience experience.
Kate Ellis, whose latest book is The Mechanical Devil, agrees. ’It’s great to do events together,’ she says, ‘and the website provides a way for bookshops and libraries to contact us if they want us to appear, either individually or as a group.’
Creating a support network like this is not just about sharing social media posts and going off to literary festivals together. It’s about pooling knowledge, experience and skills. Like most things in life, you reap what you sow and therefore the more you put into such a group, the more you will benefit.
Everyone needs to play their part, as Margaret explains. ‘Everyone in the group must be prepared to contribute expertise, knowledge, or contacts. An important aspect of Murder Squad since its inception is the respect we have for each other, a generosity of spirit, and a willingness to share good fortune to the benefit of all.’
It could be argued that Murder Squad has come of age, now it’s reached its eighteenth birthday. It illustrates how writers banding together can form a long-lasting partnership with mutual benefits, particularly when it comes to marketing.
So if you think such a collaborative approach could work well for you, here are a few steps you might wish to take:
• Approach writers who write in the same genre as you, but in different styles and sub-genres. (Eg. Romance includes historical, contemporary, erotic, paranormal, young adult and even romantic suspense.)
• Connect with writers in a similar geographical area. It can open up group opportunities, particularly at local libraries and smaller literary festivals in your region.
• Create a catchy name for your group, buy the domain name, set up a simple website, and consider Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts that you all have access to and share.
• Get together frequently, to get to know each other better, support each other, and share in each others’ successes.
• Consider creating anthologies of your work, to offer readers a taster, in one volume, of what you all have to offer. It could broaden your readership.
Once established, you never know what opportunities may arise. Teamwork really can make a difference to sales. So what have you got to lose? As Ann Cleaves says, ‘Go for it!’