Me in ObfeldenToday’s post is the first of three parts by the fabulous Martha Kennedy as she struggles with the weird world of marketing a novel. Many of us have trod this path and even more will be treading it soon. Each of us has a story (or many stories) to tell about the perils of publishing in a market that’s been reinventing itself continuously for decades.

This is for all of us who have written books, are thinking about writing a book, or are attempting to market a book in a world where none of the old rules apply.

I write literary historical fiction, so everything I have to say is from that perspective. People who write different things, in other genres for different audiences are likely to have their own stories about this process. My novels (so far) all are set in the rather dim past in Switzerland. I suspect the ONLY genre less appealing to publishers than historical fiction might be poetry.

But that’s okay.

Before I submit a manuscript, I hire a professional editor. Then, I scrupulously follow the requirements of each agency to which I submit my project. There is really nothing more any writer can do. I write well. I know this because my work has won awards. And, strangely enough, I’m OK with the system as it is. It hasn’t worked for me, but I understand why. Here’s what I’ve learned.


You can be the best writer in the world. Ever. Objectively the best. Yet it does not mean your work will sell to a publisher, get printed, or distributed to the public. On the flip side, you can be a not-so-good writer and wind up with a bestseller.

To detail the whole long road of what it takes to get your work commercially published these days, you have to know from the get-go that it might actually be (oh my god!) a crap-shoot.

It’s an inscrutable equation that leads to a bestseller. The right story. The right voice. The right time. Taken objectively, Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” is not a great work of art. It is, as Brown himself says, “An entertaining story.” A manipulative page-turner with a provocative, captivating theme. It was exactly right for the moment it was published. Dan Brown is a good writer, but a lot of what propelled his book into the stratosphere, was luck.

Another historical novel that’s not great literature (or even good literature, or good writing) is New York Times bestseller, “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.” The author, Jennifer Chiaraverini, had a solid following based on the Elm Creek Quilts series and the book hit the market exactly as the United States elected its first Black president. There is much wrong with the book, including plagiarism, yet many people (not me) found it to be likable and readable.

This advice for authors about the advantages of being nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award is telling:

Being nominated for a Goodreads Choice Awards is the result of several factors:

A book needs to have gained traction on Goodreads with people rating and adding the book to their shelves. As always, getting your book into the hands (and e-readers) of as many people as possible is key. Goodreads has many tools to help authors and publishers promote their books to readers. These include our giveaways program, targeted advertising, Ask the Author, editorial interviews, and more.

Keep the moment going by sparking discussion about your book through Ask the Author.
Consider advertising the book on Goodreads to keep reminding people about the book (and mention existing ratings/reviews to reinforce how readers are loving it).

Write a really, really good book!

Writing a really good book is at the bottom of this list for a reason.


More important than your book is a query letter that stimulates literary agents to salivate while imagining the big bucks they’re going to get when they sell your book to a publisher. And maybe Hollywood.

Books have been written on how to write a query letter. I have written successful ones, I think. Honestly, I’m not sure if my letters were great or the person on the other end of the message liked the idea, or their boss said, “Hey, if you get a query for a book about leprosy in the 13th century, ask for the manuscript.” I have no way to know. Regardless, there are a few basics that apply:

  • It must be grammatically perfect. No typos (if you can swing it; I’m incapable).
  • It should be written with a degree of panache. You need to generate some excitement.
  • I learned to study my audience and followed instructions, skills every writer needs.

Love them or hate them, selling your book is a lot easier if you have one. That being said, agents are (in my experience) petty little gods and goddesses who deign to recognize the work of writers who they regard as fools.

Why do I have such a cynical view? Experience. I’ve queried hundreds of agents. Pretty much universally, I have gotten little but arrogance and rudeness in return. Lucky for me, I think it’s funny.

72-The Bros Path Cover Promo

The world-shattering tumult of the Protestant Reformation enters the Schneebeli household when Rudolf Schneebeli is born two months early and dies a few minutes later — without being baptized.

Named for the well trodden track linking the Schneebeli farmhouse to the old Lunkhofen castle, The Brothers Path is set in a Swiss village near Zürich, between 1524 and 1531.

It chronicles the lives of the six Schneebeli brothers, Heinrich, Hannes, Peter, Conrad, Thomann and Andreas. Each brother navigates his own path through, around or directly into the deadly drama of the Protestant reformation.

Two hundred years after the events recounted in The Brothers’ Path, thousands of immigrants, mostly Mennonites and Amish, left Switzerland for America seeking the safety and freedom they could not find at home. If the novel teaches a “lesson” it would to remind us why immigrants to America have always been adamant about separating church and state.

The Brothers Path on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback.

Come back next Saturday for part II of “So you want to be a writer.”

To learn more about Martha’s historical fiction, go to Historical Fiction by Martha Kennedy. Her daily blog is Where’s the Windmill? 

Categories: #Writing, Author, Guest Blogger, Humor, Publishing

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24 replies

  1. I really enjoyed reading this! I’m a new author currently focusing on romance and erotica, and I have to say even after a rough total 36+ hours reading about marketing I just don’t know what to do. Everyone wants to keep their trade secrets to themselves and so all I see are a series of vague ad nauseum lists of advice. It is really hard to tell what is just not working or what is not working because your unlucky. The worst part is so much of the advice is for non-fiction authors and is focused on building an audience before you have anything to build an audience with. So many people push email lists without saying how to get people to your email lists, or to blog before teaching you how to blog. I can’t even afford a new laptop, but I spend 18 hours a day on my mother’s struggling to find new ways to push my work because all my retail and research jobs aren’t giving me hours. My point is marketing is the single hardest thing to figure out as an author because you can do an excellent job and get no results for no good reason. People could download 5k copies of your book when its free, and only ten review even if you get tons of emails saying your book was great….and you see no benefit from it. I feel like we need better focus on marketing in the fiction writing community because it really is a problem people are just left to sink or swim.


    • I agree. I don’t have an answer. Neither does anyone right now. You do the best you can, but nothing guarantees results or even a reading by an agent or publisher. The only formulas don’t work these days and I’m not sure what does. You might want to check our Martha’s blog directly since this is a subject she deals with frequently as she tries to market her books.

      Maybe as time goes on and the markets settle down and the pace of change in publishing gets less dizzying, there will be more answers, more solutions. For now, don’t quit writing and do the best you can. I wish I had more help to offer.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Martha, I love Historical novels, although sometimes I have a hard time finishing them. I’m rereading Kristian Lavransdatter Vol ll right now. I know it’s fiction but the writing style is wonderful and translated well. Did books like that inspire you to write? I must say your video was very entertaining. It made me want to read the book even more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a really good question. I never thought about whether books inspired me to write. I don’t think so, though I was a very avid reader for most of my life. I think (and this sounds strange, I know) I was “born” a writer. I wrote stories before I could read. I scribbled stuff on paper with a crayon and gave it to my dad to read to me. I guess he made up good stories. 😉 There are some writers who inspired me, definitely; as a girl I really loved Louisa May Alcott and wanted to be “Jo,” but it was always more about how to BE than about writing. The last historical novel I read was probably Lonesome Dove back when it first came out! Mostly I read history (naturally) and books about hiking, nature, science.

      I’m really happy you like the video — it’s my first attempt at something like that.

      I just wrote a piece about inspiration on the IndieBRAG site if you want to read it.


      • I have always thought that writing — the talent for it and the need/desire to do it — is a gift. You can improve how well you use it, but if it’s not there, you will never be a writer … and probably, you won’t want to. I know it’s not a popular opinion these days, but artistic talent is not something you can “learn.” You got it … or you don’t got it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I agree completely. A person with the talent has to master the kraft in order to express original ideas well. Without the talent, a person might learn the kraft but so what? That’s what I learned in the writing workshop I dropped out of. It isn’t about narrative arc. It’s something inscrutable that might express itself through a narrative arc. But…yeah. Like when I was teaching it was “teach the four sentence types.” I thought, “No one sits down to write and says, ‘Which of the four sentence types should I use?'” And so I retired early… 😉


          • I have never taken a writing course. Or participated in a seminar. I learned whatever I know by reading and figuring out how writers I admire construct their stories. They don’t teach grammar in the New York public schools, so I’m grammar-deficient. Luckily, I’ve got a good ear dialogue … which doesn’t require grammar. Now if ONLY there was some way to learn to proofread.

            I spent more than 40 years writing for a living. I got really good at paring down text to a bare minimum. It serves me well in blogging. Succinct works online.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I like succinct. I like the process of editing down to 1000 words, but it isn’t always easy. My stragedy is to look at what I’ve written and ask, “Does anyone really need to know that?” My best writing teacher (only?) was Truman Capote — definitely a minimalist. Proofreading is difficult because I read and see the sense in a sentence without looking at the words — and, also, an E can look like a 3 to me, an F like a 5, an f like a t, a p like a q…. But I have been getting better at it.


              • You just reminded me why I mostly read by listening. Our eyes get tricky as we age … and my fingers often type one word while my brain is thinking something different … often a homonym. Which is particularly embarrassing because it makes me look stupid. I really DO know the difference between “right” and “write,” but oddly, my fingers don’t. There must be wee tiny brains in my fingertips, because they do their own thing.

                I learn little bits from everyone I read. I see something I like, say “oh, I see, good idea” and sort of file it for reference. Even if I can’t remember that I filed it, the stored stuff in those lost files boils to the surface anyhow. Sometimes.

                Liked by 1 person

      • You remind me of Truman Capote and Harper Lee who wrote as children! Yes, you were born a writer! I loved the book POPE JOAN and one about Manhattan in Colonial times. (I can’t remember the titles of all the books I read. I’m an avid reader! Thanks for the link!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Where's the Windmill? and commented:
    Marilyn has generously allowed me to “guest blog.” This is the first of a three-part series on my experiences in publishing.


  4. I totally agree with you that you can have the best written book but it will go nowhere without the proper marketing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting Martha. I am too lazy to write a book myself, and would not have the talent, but love reading books. I will be back on this sometime with a blog after reading Saviour and the brothers. Mr. Swiss has a family book, written by one of this uncles, tracing the story of the Gerbers. A group of them were “alttäufer” and emigrated to Pennsylvania. I will read up on what actually happened and who they were and will probably blog about it. The whole background story concerning Zwingli was so interesting, especially being half sort of Swiss – perhaps a bit more, and living in Zürich for 2 years opposite the Zwinglikirche in Kreis 3. Mr. Swiss would actually be Swiss reform church, although he does not often pay them a visit. Our kids were christened reform church.

    Liked by 1 person

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