I’m an environmental engineer with an English lit degree, so I have the platform and the credentials, but here’s the problem: I live in South Dakota. The geographic middle of North America is less than 60 miles from here. People? Not so many.
I published my first book, Unreasonable Risk, a thriller about sabotage in an oil refinery, in 2006. My publisher advised me to set up two book signings a week for the first ten weeks, just to get my name out there. I smiled. There were three bookstores in Rapid City (two sold only used books), one in Hot Springs and one in Pierre. For a radius of 300 miles, that was it. In those days Facebook had just been opened to the world and Twitter, launched the month before my book was published, was in its infancy. Social media and its distant relative, on-line marketing, had not reached the Mount Rushmore state.
By the time I published the second in the series, Through Dark Spaces—you guessed it, a thriller again, this one about the environmental impacts of mining—I’d learned a thing or two. I did lots of guest blogs, radio interviews and giveaways, launched a website and dipped my toes into the Facebook waters. I also published e-versions of both books. But for me, the most sales resulted from niche marketing.
My books feature Hannah Morrison, a young environmental engineer who’s capable, intelligent and intuitive, and although she finds herself in jams pretty regularly, Hannah rarely needs to be rescued. Who, I thought, would like to read about a character like that? Duh: women engineers. So I did my research and bought an ad in the journal published by the Society of Women Engineers. Double duh: environmental engineers. They have journals, too. Though these ads weren’t as cheap as some on-line book marketing opportunities, they targeted a very specific audience. And they resulted not only in sales directly from the ads, but by word of mouth they brought in many secondary sales. I also used my local library’s searchable business database to send flyers about my book directly to mines all over the country with the request that they be posted on the change room bulletin boards. And what do you know! More sales.
I’m working on the third book in the series, as yet untitled (though I’d welcome any suggestions), this one set in the wild and absolutely crazy boom-town world of the Bakken Oilfields in western North Dakota. It concerns not only environmental issues surrounding the practice of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), but also the social issues that follow the enormous amount of money to be made from an oil boom, especially the issues of human trafficking and rape in a society where men outnumber women by nearly 50 to 1.
In addition to mainstream marketing, this time I’ll market not only to engineers, but to the rest of the oil and gas industry: companies that produce well casing, drill bits, compressors, pumps and drilling rigs; companies that build railcars and trucks specifically for oilfield applications; refineries and pipeline companies. I’ll send flyers to the mancamps in the Bakken—those guys have nothing to do but work, drink and watch TV, so why not give them the opportunity to read about the craziness of their own world? And I’ll also send flyers to bookstores and citizen groups in other parts of the country where fracking fields have been controversial, especially to eastern Pennsylvania and southern New York, where the Marcellus Shale has caused terrible friction between neighbors.
So my advice to other writers out there is this: if your protagonist has a specialty, whether she’s a psychologist, a cop, a hair stylist or a firefighter, mine that specialty. If you don’t know how to find out where to send your promotional material, ask your local librarian. She’ll know, or she’ll be able to direct you to somebody who does, because librarians are very capable heroes themselves.
Why does it work? Because people love to read about themselves, especially if you make them valiant, courageous. If you make mistakes in portraying your hero/heroine, you’ll hear from them, but for the most part they’ll thank you for giving their profession a protagonist worth reading about.
Karen E. Hall, an environmental engineer and writer, earned a B.A. in English Literature at the University of Minnesota and went back to school years later for degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering. She spent many years working in Minnesota’s oil industry as an environmental engineer. She left to start her own environmental consulting business—and to devote more time to writing. She’s published two thrillers, Unreasonable Risk and Through Dark Spaces, both featuring environmental engineer Hannah Morrison. Karen is currently finishing a novel about infertility and working on her third Hannah Morrison thriller.
Karen is also a member of the Pennington County Planning Commission where she works on issues of water protection. She and her husband Jeff Nelsen live outside Rapid City, in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
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