September 21, 2011

Why Murphy’s Oil Soap is Not Like a Novel

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 8:56 pm

The other day I went to clean my kitchen table and I noticed a sticker on my bottle of Murphy’s.

“Derived from 98% Natural Ingredients” it said.

I’m not sure what this sticker was supposed to make me feel–or rather, I am pretty sure. I was supposed to feel like I was putting good, organic stuff down on the table (which my kids *are* willing to lick if a particularly appetizing tidbit falls off their fork). I was supposed to feel like I was doing my part for a greener planet.

I was supposed to feel like Murphy’s Oil Soap was something I wanted to buy.

What’s the problem with that? Well, first of all, none of it is true. “Natural” is a totally unregulated, if not meaningless, term. Cyanide is natural. So is uranium. That doesn’t mean I want them in my kitchen.

Second of all, between 98% and 100% lies a lot of space. If 2% of the ingredients *aren’t* natural, isn’t that an awful lot of unnatural muck I might be cleaning with? 2% of, say, red dye is a lot. Or cyanide.

But we don’t have to critique the oil soap advertizing industry. What matters for my purposes is the connection I saw to books.

I think that the oil soap people are trying to get us to buy Murphy’s by saying stuff that seems good, whether it’s really true or substantive or not, and I think that we writers are sometimes put in a similar position.

We all have to market these days. That is a given. (Except when it’s not–and kudos to self publishing pioneer, MJ Rose, for saying so).

But assuming that those of us without MJ’s confidence (or following) do plan to market in some way, shape, or form, how do we keep from promising something more than 98% naturally derived ingredients?

Well, there are a few things I figure we don’t want to do.

  • Don’t send around a mass newsletter that masquerades as personal. You know the ones–they lead with a Hi [first name]! But if you’re not on a first name basis with the person who’s sending, you know it’s fake. Actually you know it’s fake for other reasons–the content is clearly intended for a mass mailing. I’m not saying don’t send a newsletter–some people write terrific ones. I’m saying if you do have a newsletter, be genuine about it. Open with something like “Hi Readers & Prospective Readers” and go on to say, “There’s a time for personal emails and a time for announcements. This will be an announcement…”
  • Don’t put people on your email list without asking them first. ‘Nuff said. My addy has been harvested by dozens of people. In general, I’m glad to receive the updates and posts. But I still think it’s more polite to ask. (Maybe it wasn’t ’nuff said :)
  • Once you have an email list, be careful what you use it for. If people get too many announcements and updates–no matter how dazzling–they’re going to become inured to seeing your name. So be careful. Maybe that awesome review in your hometown paper made you sing (I know it would me). But if a starred review from PW comes in next, that might be the one you want to send word of. On the other hand, it might not. So my final ‘don’t’ before turning to something more uplifting is–
  • Don’t fall prey to the marketing machine. You know the one. It prioritizes things like starred PW reviews. And of course these are terrific things indeed–imagining one can make me see stars. But if what really tickles your fancy is seeing your photo in your hometown paper–the place where no one in high school was exactly voting you most likely to succeed–then share news of that.
  • Oh, and here’s one more don’t. Don’t feel badly if you do or have done some of these things. First, they may work for you, based upon the readership you’ve built up or the particular ways in which you implement them. And second–who hasn’t hit the send button in an ecstatic burst when that first reader anointed you with 5 stars (who cares that it was Aunt Sally)? By the time my book is out, it will have been about 14 years since I started writing seriously. Watch me bug you with every word of praise *my* Aunt Sally offers :)

In my next post I’m going to focus on some ‘do’s’ of marketing. But I want to close with something less grim than the mistakes we writers sometimes fall prey to in our attempt to navigate through these woods. And it’s actually pretty simple.

Be true to yourself when you go to market your book. Speak in your genuine voice–that’s what readers want to hear, why they’ll be reading your book. If a strategy makes you uncomfortable, avoid it. If it’s not you, it will likely not work. And there are plenty of things to do that are you and will communicate to people that you have wonderful, wonderful news.

In the end, that’s what marketing is really all about.

Sharing some wonderful news.


  1. These are great tips Jenny. I also wrote up a post about Social Media and what the new generation of authors are doing with it. Some of it is very inventive and clever. Some is… well… spam on a different medium.

    Whatever road you choose for marketing, I think it needs to be on a personal level. My hope is that six months from now I’ll be able to write about all my marketing successes.

    Another great post! :)

    Comment by Thomas A. Knight — September 21, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

  2. You always make me laugh. You see the world so clearly! 98% Natural!

    And thank you for your insights – as I am embarking on the wild world of marketing my own work :P

    I need all the wisdom I can get!

    Comment by Connie J Jasperson — September 21, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

  3. Although I’m in a totally different stage of the process (marketing is a long way off), this post still has a lot of common sense advice that I think all of us should keep in mind, just in terms of daily etiquette. No one likes the insincerity of marketers pretending to be our “friends” when it’s clear they don’t know anything about us individually, and they don’t care. I think you’re spot on that the best marketing strategy is to use your own writing voice and don’t barrage people with every single positive review you receive. When I finally get to the point of worrying about marketing my work, I’ll definitely keep those points in mind. Thanks for the post, Jenny!

    Comment by Becca — September 21, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

  4. Jenny, you have a wonderful way of putting things into perspective and stating them clearly. No wonder you do so well. I’ve found over the years that “common sense” is not so common. Yet you seem to have an abundance.

    Well said.

    Comment by mountainmama — September 22, 2011 @ 4:49 am

  5. You’re 100% natural — with only the good stuff, I might add! :)

    Comment by Judy — September 22, 2011 @ 6:53 am

  6. Jenny,

    Great post.

    Comment by Sandy — September 22, 2011 @ 7:31 am

  7. D’oh, NOW you tell me… :)

    Comment by Savvy — September 22, 2011 @ 8:02 am

  8. I never thought about that leftover 2 or 3%! I do not like getting a mass-produced email, and it’s very easy to tell. And I certainly don’t like being added to a list without being asked. Good reminders!

    Comment by Karen S. Elliott — September 22, 2011 @ 8:04 am

  9. Great ideas and tips, Jenny


    Comment by Arthur Levine — September 22, 2011 @ 8:11 am

  10. Hi, Jenny,

    Your list of don’t are good common sense suggestions. I never liked the smell of Murphy’s Soap! According to Dr. Oz there’s arsenic in apple juice–apparently it occurs naturally. For those of us who write and feel we need to promote because we’re essentially unknown, I agree it’s a mistake to push too hard and make untrue or inappropriate claims.

    Jacqueline Seewald

    Comment by Jacqueline Seewald — September 22, 2011 @ 8:55 am

  11. Unfortunately, you’re right about readers getting too many announcements and updates. If it’s all “me, me, me” even your most loyal fan base hits the delete button. Perhaps the trick is to always offer interesting content along with the PR.

    Comment by Sara — September 22, 2011 @ 9:24 am

  12. You guys all offer your own great tips and perspectives on what works and what doesn’t–we should do a joint post, pooling ideas!

    Comment by jenny — September 22, 2011 @ 10:21 am

  13. Hey Jenny. I especially appreciate your advice to keep it real (i.e. authentic).


    Comment by Juanita Wilson — September 22, 2011 @ 10:30 am

  14. Wonderful advice, Jenny. So true. I always feel guilty when I update my family, and I ask them if it becomes too much to let me know. :)

    Comment by Collette Scott — September 22, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

  15. Wonderful post! I love how it gets to the down and dirty of real time promotion and marketing. Maybe you could use some of that 98% natural Murphy’s Oil soap.

    Comment by Karyne — September 22, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

  16. Great blog, Jenny – and it’s so true! I hardly even see the many, many emails I get about book releases now, although I certainly notice a picture on Facebook of someone holding up their first print copy of a novel. Speaking of which, looking forward to the day I see Cover of Snow in that Facebook pic….

    Comment by Alison DeLuca — September 22, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

  17. Jenny, great tips. No one wants to get spammed about books and even in forums on Facebook there is just too much read this, read this. It’s a hard world out there, but manners count. I think more and more people are just turned off by even the slightest hint of marketing. DELETE. Not what a writer wants. Be polite. Don’t assume. Ask?

    Comment by JLOakley — September 22, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

  18. I liked this post, and I’m just a reader. I do think writers are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to promotion. I like to hear what writers are doing, (and when their books are coming out), but I can get tired of hearing the same info or just being “sold.” I think common sense and authenticity will win me over at all times, and I truly suffer from book-aholia, which is fine. It’s not fattening.

    Comment by Lil Gluckstern — September 22, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

  19. It’s not fattening, but is it catching, Lil ;)

    OK, all your comments continue to be wise…and great. Thomas, Connie, Sandy, Becca, Judy, Karyne, Janet, Savvy, Mountain, Sara, Jacquie, Alison, Juanita, Karen, and Arthur–great to see you here.

    But I do have a scold for dear Lil: No one is “just” a reader!! Readers are the kings and queens of the world! I am always so happy when you come to the blog.

    Comment by jenny — September 22, 2011 @ 5:35 pm

  20. Hi Jenny – I got your post in my google alerts – thanks. This article might be of interest –

    And I do have a marketing company so authors can stick to doing what we are supposed to – write -and the marketing folks at the company can help do the rest. It’s not PR or social media – its real advertising and a lot of great writers and publishers use us. We’re the first company like this – started in 2005 and 70% repeat biz.

    Comment by M.J. Rose — September 22, 2011 @ 11:08 pm

  21. Good advice, Jenny. For most of us, promotion doesn’t come easily, and finding a reasonable way to do it and still be yourself is a challenge. You seem to have found your way to be genuine; when I read your stuff, it’s kind of like a welcoming smile. Thanks.

    Comment by Ellis Vidler — September 23, 2011 @ 7:35 am

  22. Great post. I was so pleased almost seven years ago when I got a relatively big name agent because I believed she would get me a deal with a big publisher allowing me to just write. Never wanted to do the business. When she announced that she was no longer promoting horror, I was almost back to square one, and marketing/self-promotion has been the biggest obstacle I’ve had to overcome.

    Glad I was just a couple of comments below M.J. Rose, as well. Will look into AuthorBuzz.

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    Comment by Paul Dail — September 28, 2011 @ 9:37 am

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