Saddle Up for Tarnished Marketing

I’m no expert on book marketing, though I did receive some attention when I ventured some opinions a while ago – maybe the spectator sees more of the game. I have recently observed an interesting marketing phenomenon in the book world and feel moved to write on the subject again, as I think there are lessons for us all, out there on the prairie…

The western is a niche genre, at least in book form, with limited opportunities for exposure to the public. Few bookshops actually stock them for instance. In the UK, long-established publisher Robert Hale is pretty much the only game in town, publishing several Black Horse Westerns (BHWs) a month in hardback form, the vast majority of which go to public libraries. Like academic books, these are priced highly and built to last. Libraries treat them as a generic commodity, not bothering to shelve them in alpha order. Taking all this into account – no high-street distribution, high prices, many titles produced, publisher with a tiny marketing budget, indifferent distribution network – it is difficult for an individual title to stand out and start notching up retail sales.

The Tarnished Star, as by Jack Martin is an exception. As I write it is at the top of Amazon’s western chart, having also topped their pre-order list. According to the publisher, ‘More than one thousand copies of Gary’s title were pre-ordered while five other BHWs scheduled for simultaneous June publication were virtually ignored.’ The book has been bought, reviewed, and talked about on both sides of the Atlantic. Why has this happened? I suggest that diligent and creative use of the internet, particularly its social media side, has made the difference.

The author, real name Gary Dobbs, is active on a number of forums and mailing lists where the specialist interest in western fiction is pursued. His blog, The Tainted Archive, is updated every day and has an extensive following. Gary initiated ‘Wild West Monday’, a bit of consumer activism involving fans of this particular form or escapist fiction questioning bookshops and libraries about their failure to deliver the goods. This in turn has created publicity in the traditional print and broadcast media…

It is a good case study of how online media in themselves don’t have magic powers – it’s not enough just to have, say, web pages and Facebook presence, you need to work them continuously, like a poacher baiting his traps. This is what Gary has done. The man himself (being typically generous with his time) emailed a comment for this post:

I started the Tainted Archive, thinking it would help me publicise my book and I make no excuse for that – I’m a writer and want people to read my work. An unread book is merely wasted paper. But I didn’t expect it to do so well – I think that I have a level of self belief that is above the average and that comes across when I talk about my work. When Tarnished Star was accepted I had achieved a life long ambition and I got excited and somehow, I’m not sure how, I transferred that excitement into my blog. I’m still excited – don’t forget Arkansas Smith next March. [Note deftly inserted plug! – R.] First and foremost though I work bloody hard on the blog and the books.

Some of this ‘bloody hard’ work generates a cluster of communication surrounding the book itself. In effect the ‘product’ of the book is enhanced by an expanding cloud of online messages, including for example this blog post. This creates interest, goodwill, and (pardon the overused term) viral marketing, like word of mouth but with keyboards and pixels instead of mouths.

Of course, the book itself has to be good or else the ‘cloud’ would be nothing more than vapour. It is good, and, importantly from a marketing perspective, has what Gary calls a ‘major selling point’,1 that it ‘could have come from the 50’s and 60’s
That simple idea is ideally suited to the meme-fuelled world of online social marketing; when the idea encounters people with a latent desire (ie folks who think ‘hmm yes, it would be nice to read a good old fashioned western’) it latches on to them like a benign virus and hey presto, Gary gets another Amazon sale. A bit of an oversimplification, but you see what I mean…

Although this won’t make Gary into the next J.K.Rowling, there are parallels between the mini-phenomenon of The Tarnished Star and the macro-franchise-superstorm of Harry Potter. Marketing thinker John Grant elaborates a ‘brand molecule’ of Harry Potter, which as well as the books and films includes things like the J.K. Rowling ‘rags to riches’ story, stunts like the midnight releases, and the press stories about the Potter books getting kids to read. One could construct a similar molecule around Gary’s book, with things like the Wild West Mondays campaign, Gary’s personal story (he’s an actor who has been in Doctor Who and Larkrise; he drives a cab), his websites, the wider world of westerns and so on.

Theorist of online culture Nicholas Negroponte suggested back in 1998 that ‘All things digital get bigger and smaller at the same time…We’ll see a rise in huge corporations, airplanes, hotels and newspaper chains in parallel with growth in mom-and-pop companies, private planes, homespun inns, and newsletters written about interests most of did not even know humans have’. I guess the Tarnished Star marketing story shows how, at the ‘small is beautiful’ end of the spectrum, possibilities exist for individuals and small companies to carve out niches for themselves, if they are skilful in operating in social media world.

Does this have any relevance to the wider world of marketing, or is it just an interesting occurrence in the margins (and another one of Roy’s unexpected hobbies)? I’d argue that it does, as any organisation that markets itself can usefully pay attention to
– vigorously using all channels to communicate
– being interesting and having a personality
– communicating simple propositions that are easy to remember and pass on
– communicating what it stands for.

Much more importantly, organisations are made up of individuals, each of whom can be empowered to do ‘Dobbsian’ marketing, even if only for self-interested promotion of themselves or their own patch. For instance, my team’s job is marketing our university, and we do what we can. But if a handful of people in departments across the University were willing and able to undertake the kind of vigorous, relentless micromarketing that The Tarnished Star has had – playing all the angles on a daily basis, taking opportunities for guerilla marketing as they occur – we would be doing even better than we are.

Perhaps the secret is not so much having theories and policies about social marketing (like the 20-page Twitter policy produced recently by a Government department) as simply having a go, and getting our hands dirty – ‘tarnished marketing’ on the new frontier.


In a draft of this piece, I lazily referred to this as a ‘unique selling point’,
making thoughtless use of an overused marketing term. Respected Western author Chap O’Keefe rightly pulled me up on this, pointing out that Black Horse ‘titles now run into thousands and with few exceptions most of them have had this same allegedly “unique selling point”‘, which is absolutely correct. I think this illustrates my point – Tarnished Star has achieved disproportionate attention despite not being unique. Back to Post
  • 13 thoughts on “Saddle Up for Tarnished Marketing

    1. The internet truly is a wonderful tool – the most revolutionary in terms of making yourself known that there has ever been. I am honoured to be the subject of this piece. And to stick with the viral marketing – The Tarnished Star by Jack Martin is available now. Arkansas Smith will see publication March 2010

    2. Besides being a friend of Gary’s, I’m also a marketing writer for a software company that caters to professional services firms. Although our software has a large market share and is considered very innovative, the marketing approach up until recently has been a decidely traditional one ( using hard copy materials and for the most part keeping the Web site static). Thankfully that is now changing. I found your article fascinating and will be sharing it with my managment. I’d like to add that The Tarnished Star does deserve all the attention it is getting – it’s traditional, yes, but also deftly written and a page turner.

    3. My publisher, too, believes in the power of the Internet. Dan Snow, with Unlimited Publishing, makes a strong case for online marketing. Roy’s comments add substance to the ideas of Dan and make a compelling argument. Obviously Gary’s success is the proof. It is obvious that getting the word out is critical to success. My own work has been received with really great comments from readers, but it is mostly people who know me. Even with an Internet presence, it’s still slow because of both time and energy required after a full day of Internet and writing and research. Thanks for the article … priceless!

    4. I’m hoping it’ll work for me. I don’t do the Facebook stuff, and I probably stood, but I do extensive blogging and a fair amount of forum work. I just can’t afford the time to do more, though, and that’s likely to be a problem for me.

    5. Anywhere you can get your book in front of people is great for exposure. Social marketing takes time, but in the end the benefits outweigh the time spent. Gary does this very well. I’m glad to see that people are noticing his books.


      Bobby Nash

    6. Roy, I hope this won’t look like I’m getting into a habit of “pulling you up” ! It isn’t meant that way. The quote about Gary’s thousand pre-order sales actually comes from the current online Black Horse Extra, not the book’s publisher, Robert Hale Ltd. Hale seldom make any public comment whatsoever about their westerns, and this is partly why we have the BH Extra, which has its home at a URL Hale flatly refused to register themselves several times — All this, of course, adds further weight to the message you give us in your post.

      By the way, the logo you use, of a silhouetted rider on a horse, is the Black Horse Extra logo, not the publisher’s Black Horse Western logo. Hale’s BHW logo is riderless. By coincidence, I am running the graphic’s history in the Hoofprints section of the next edition of the Extra. By way of preview, and because I think it has a little relevance, here it is now:

      “We’ve been asked to explain the difference and the similarity between the BH Extra logo and Robert Hale Ltd’s Black Horse Western logo. BH Extra is produced independently of Hale Publishing whose website is at and includes a western section. The difference in branding is intended to reflect this while doing “extra” to promote the BHW books. The BHE logo is not a copy of the BHW one, which first appeared in 1986. It was in use 24 years earlier and was created – on a kitchen table! – by a staff member of a now long-defunct UK company, Micron Publications Ltd. A logo was required for a new, companion series of pocket comic-books to Western Adventure Library, to be called Cowboy Adventure Library. The editor – who was also an all-hours scriptwriter, art assistant and much else in the manner of the era’s backstreet publishing – traced the figure of a horse and rider from a Micron book on to Bristol board, tidied it up and filled in the outline in Indian ink to produce a silhouette. This was reproduced in yellow within a black triangle on the CAL covers. It also appeared, in its simpler form, in the cross-advertising that appeared twice a month on the back covers of WAL books.”

    7. As Bobby Nash says in his comment, ‘Social marketing takes time, but in the end the benefits outweigh the time spent.’
      I agree, but in more ways than one.
      My current promo (same publisher as Gary) is leading me (on a smaller scale) into the social media world.
      And what a wonderful experience that can be.
      Taking a ‘unique selling point’ about my forthcoming book, namely a pair of Newfoundlands dogs, I posted a piece about the breed on my blog, including one article about ‘Sergeant’ Gander, the mascot of the Canadian Royal Rifles – a brave canine that was awarded the dog equivalent of the Victoria Cross for its gallant service during the Battle of Lye Mun on Hong Kong Island in December 1941.
      The information for my article, I sourced from the internet.
      Yesterday I received an email from a gentleman in Canada whose father served with the Royal Rifles at Lye Mun and knew Gander personally.
      He described the Newfoundland to me – its history, its behaviour, and detailed its exploits in that battle and the events which led to its death.
      By the time I had finished reading, I had tears in my eyes.
      Social marketing is rewarding in book sales, but sometimes the returns can be far more heart-warming.
      Margaret Muir

    8. Margaret Muir, like Gary, deserves every success with her book, THE CONDOR’S FEATHER. I understand Marg sent out more than 200 emails, using three different mailboxes, using different subject headings, and spreading the postings over a couple of days. If the “payment” for all this was money alone, Marg reckons she would be lucky to be earning 10 cents an hour! But, as she tells us here, there are fortunately other rewards.
      Sadly, many writers do not possess Gary’s and Marg’s enviable energy to go along with their enthusiasm for their craft. Gary once told me he gets by on four hours sleep a night! I also know — and have known over the space of more than 40 years — many excellent writers who have no publicist skills, nor want to cultivate them. They want to be WRITERS. I’ve met several of this kind, online, through the work I do on the quarterly Black Horse Extra. Strangely, in a world where specialization has become the norm, the publishing industry seems to have come to expect its authors to make a large contribution to the marketing of books. In turn, that takes away time that might be spent on their “real” job of writing.

    9. Great to get so many commentson this post, here and elsewhere. Good points made about the internet as community – I think the divide between readers and writers has broken down somewhat with these new opportinities to communicate and create. This must be specially valuable in a genre such as the western, which doesn’t (correct me if I’m wrong) benefit from publisher-funded signing tours, or fan-organised events similar to science fiction conventions. I can empathise with the ‘excellent writers who have no publicist skills, nor want to cultivate them’ – there is no moral imperative for people to become part-time publicists alongside everything else they have to do. However I feel in many fioelds, including my own, it is becoming a pragmatic necessity.

    10. ‘Dobbsian marketing’ – I love it. Gary, you have arrived – you’ll be in a dictionary sometime soon! A very interesting and timely article. Writers write – so I guess we’ll have to write our advertising spiel as well. I’m surprised that more effort hasn’t been put into promoting the western connection by approaching the many Country & Western and Line-Dancing groups – not on a par with Sci-fi conventions but worth a shot.
      Nik Morton, writing as Ross Morton for Hale westerns

    11. Interesting idea about c&w. I’ve been to some writing-oriented sf conventions (as opposed to the media ones with actors and costumes) and they’re great – writers interacting with fans, loads of books getting sold, readings, new writers getting better known, beer, and brilliant atmosphere. It would be fantastic for something like that to happen on a western theme.

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