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Making a Comeback in the Digital Age

Kath here. It’s such a thrill to be able to introduce one of the most courageous writers that I know, and a dear friend, historical romance novelist Elena Greene [1]. Like most professional writers, Elena suffered ups and downs with a bit of sideways thrown in for good measure throughout her decade-long career writing Regency-set romances. Things didn’t look so great when en masse and seemingly overnight romance publishers left the genre of category historical romances behind for good. Elena was one of many orphaned authors struggling to regain a foothold in an industry saturated with historical romance authors.

But as we know, digital publishing was right around the corner, and Elena had the foresight to make astute decisions that put her right back on the bestseller lists, and she did this all while overcoming a personal hardship. It’s the kind of writing success story that I love. I knew you would too, so I asked Elena to guest post with us on how she was able to revive her career by capitalizing on the new digital paradigm, and sell more books than she did when she was traditionally published. Happily for us, she obliged. Enjoy!

In September of 2005, my writing career looked quite promising.  Having sold five traditional Regencies (short romances set in the era of Jane Austen), I was enjoying the debut of my sixth.  Lady Dearing’s Masquerade [2] was a Signet Super Regency, longer and more sensual than the usual traditional Regency, a stepping stone toward my goal of writing longer historical romances. I had a great relationship with my editor and Lady Dearing’s Masquerade was garnering great reviews.

However, the writing was on the wall for the traditional Regency genre. Both the Signet and Zebra lines closed soon after. My editor moved to another publishing house. My agent and I could not see eye to eye on which project I should tackle next. For the next few years I struggled, trying different projects but losing my confidence on the way.  Finally, in 2008, I decided to part ways with my agent. My enthusiasm for writing rebounded and I finally knew which story I had to tell next.

I had about 50,000 words written by January of 2009, when things fell apart again. My husband suffered a sudden and severe stroke, due to a dissection of his left carotid artery, which left him paralyzed on the right side and unable to speak, read or write. For the following two years, I was too busy caring for him and our school age children to do more than miss my writing. Fortunately, he made good progress.  Though still unable to work, he became independent enough that I once again had some time for writing.

As I emerged from my caregiver’s fog, I discovered that digital publishing had taken off. Authors I knew were doing well reissuing their backlist romances on Kindle, Nook and other readers. Encouraged by their success, I decided to reissue Lady Dearing’s Masquerade, since it was my best work to date. I did the formatting myself, since I knew some HTML and wanted to cut costs. Knowing a good cover was important, I commissioned a gorgeous one from Hot Damn Designs [3]. And my strategy paid off when Lady Dearing’s Masquerade hit the Kindle bestseller lists [4] in October.

I have now earned more on Lady Dearing’s Masquerade [5] than I did the first time around.  I expect my other and more recent reissues to do well too. Without this income, I’d be seeking a part-time job at this point.  Instead, I’ve been able to get back to my interrupted work-in-progress and I’m very happy about that!

Another boon of self-publishing my backlist is that I’m rebuilding my fan base. Family responsibilities still don’t allow me time to do a great deal of promotion, but the pace of digital publishing is on my side. Unlike many genre fiction books, e-books have a nice long shelf life. One doesn’t have to do a blast of promotion in attempt to maximize sales that critical first month. One can try things, experiment, tinker. One can change covers, rewrite blurbs, refine tags used for searches. Readers are out there trolling for inexpensive reads in their favorite genres.  With an attractive cover and good, descriptive metadata, books can sell themselves. They also sell each other, through excerpts and embedded bookstore links.

This is not to say I haven’t done any additional promotion. I blog with the Risky Regencies [6] and maintain a modest Facebook page [7]. I’ve done some giveaways, posted on the various relevant message boards, forums and Facebook groups. I’ve done it gradually, trying something new every week or so. I am just now starting to think about trying some paid advertising. Being on a limited budget, I am glad I can reinvest gradually, building on earlier successes.

Judging by my sales reports and the increasing flow of emails and Facebook messages, I’m continuing to reach new readers with each promotional effort. Some of them are asking when my next book will be out.  That’s powerful motivator.

I haven’t yet decided what to do with my work-in-progress once it is finished.  I still see a lot of benefits to traditional publishing. For instance, it is harder to profitably self-publish print books, and many romance readers still prefer that format. That is important to me.

I’m also aware of some of the challenges involved in selling to traditional publishers. Romance editors, quite rightly, seek books that will appeal to a broad segment of readers and these often draw on popular tropes. Recent historical romance trends are for heroes to be dukes and heroines to be sexually experienced (wicked widows, courtesans and the like). My current work in progress features a Waterloo veteran turned balloonist and a village schoolteacher. Will it be a hard sell? I don’t know, but I love these characters. Writing their story is making me very happy and I know there are readers out there who will buy it, whether it is traditionally published or not.

So the digital age has created new options. All of us want to write books that will sell, but we have greater freedom to pursue ideas that may not fit traditional publishing lines. Indie authors can profit from niche readerships. Some prolific authors are successfully mixing traditional and indie publishing. Now more than ever, we can all follow this bit of advice from Jennifer Crusie: “Stop worrying about the industry which you have no control over anyway and go write your good book.” Isn’t that what it’s all about?