From Stay-at-Home Mom to NYT Bestseller in 30 Months
A First-Hand Perspective on the Digital Revolution in the Romance Publishing Industry
(This paper was originally shared at the “Reading for Pleasure: Romance in the International Marketplace” conference at Williams College on Saturday, April 22nd 2017.)
My name is Katy Regnery, and I have published 30 romance novels since September 2013 – lucky 31 will be out on Monday, April 24th! I have hit the USA Today bestsellers list five times and the New York Times E-Book bestsellers list once.
To explain the trajectory of my career, I need to start at the beginning…
In 1994, I graduated with a B.A. from Kenyon College, a school well-known for its English department (where I took no English courses, my to my mother’s dismay!)
From 1995-2004, I worked primarily as an office manager for financial and entertainment companies in NYC and Fairfield County, CT.
When I had my first child in 2004, I stopped working and became a full-time, stay-at-home-mother.
By January 2012, my children were both in school, but I found myself a little lost. I didn’t want to go back into the work force as an office and facilities manager, but I didn’t have a good plan for the looming question of “What Comes Next?”
At the urging of a friend, I looked at the local Continuing Ed catalog, and decided to take a class on Short Story Writing. I’d never done any fiction writing and the extent of my writing from 2004-2012 was confined to e-mails and thank you notes. I didn’t know how to format a short story. I didn’t know to double-space it or to use a 12 pt font when writing. I didn’t even understand point-of-view. All of my stories were “head-hoppers.” I told instead of showed. It was bliss and agony to take that class – there was so much to learn. But I confess, I embraced it. Wildly.
In September 2012, I started writing my first novel, By Proxy, which I completed just before Christmas 2012. It required months of edits and re-writes, and caused many tears of frustration, but by February 2013 I started shopping it.
Over a dozen agents turned it (and me) down. <Cue tears – LOL!>
I changed tactics and submitted it to small publishers instead because they didn’t require formal representation.
By March 2013, I had three offers for By Proxy from small publishers, and I selected the one I felt was most promising.
They, in turn, offered me FIVE ADDITIONAL CONTRACTS for future books in a contemporary romance series anchored by By Proxy.
I was flattered…and signed them.
(NOTE: THIS WAS A HUGE, GIGANTIC, ENORMOUS FRESHMAN MISTAKE, PEOPLE. HUGE. MASSIVE. ERROR.)
Mind you, I’d never seen a cover, never seen the way this publisher edited their books, and – most importantly – I had no idea how they planned to sell and market my books. That they advised me strenuously, upon signing those contracts, to start building a social media presence should have tipped me off that I’d be doing the mother lode of marketing on my own. But it didn’t. Folks, I was very, very green. And I was about to learn some very hard, very painful lessons.
At the time, I had no social media “presence.” I had a Facebook page to communicate with friends; I maybe had 200 contacts there. I had no accounts on Twitter, Goodreads or Instagram. I set myself a goal: 5,000 Facebook followers and 10,000 Twitter followers + no message, comment or post unacknowledged. Six months later, in September 2013 when my first book was released, I had 10,000 Twitter followers and 5,000 Facebook followers.
It takes a lot of time to build up an organic audience, however – “organic,” meaning I didn’t buy followers or friends. From March – September 2012, I was probably on social media (primarily Twitter and Facebook) for about six hours a day…posting, commenting, connecting, being genuine, being available. Making friends, meeting people, giving away books, learning about the business of publishing. And, mind you, this was in addition to writing eight to ten hours a day to meet my contracts, and still momming two smallish children.
My first book, By Proxy, Heart of Montana #1, was published on September 27, 2013 and five more Heart of Montana books followed over the course of the next year (the final book, What Were You Expecting? was published in September 2014.)
The problem was, however, by October 2013, I was incredibly dissatisfied with my publisher’s marketing strategy. Aside from a $100, 10-15 stop blog tour upon the release of a new book, they offered no marketing. I’m serious. There was none. They would publish the books onto Amazon and Smashwords and the rest – all sales and marketing outside of a useless little blog tour – was up to me. Think about this for a moment! These were $3.99 books by a totally unknown author. Yes, I had friends on social media, but not because they liked my books; presumably (I mean, I guess) because they liked me. But expecting any number of them to shell out money for a book was a little unrealistic. Don’t get me wrong…I was pushing the books hard on social media (we’re talking 8-12 posts a day on Twitter and another 4-6 on Facebook – and that’s an INSANE amount of content to create, people – believe me!) I was gifting the books via Amazon (paying for them out of my own pocket in an attempt to boost my rank), giving them away for free to bloggers and on LibraryThing in the hope that they’d be reviewed. Man, I was doing everything I could to get readers to take a chance on a new author. But the books weren’t selling. I could see it and it made me crazy.
Especially because my friend from Twitter, Penny Reid, had put a book, Neanderthal Seeks Human (epic), on the Amazon free list for a few days and she’d had 10,000 downloads and was starting to see her book reviewed on bigger and bigger blogs.
I begged my published to do the same: to offer By Proxy for free for three days just to “get it out there.” They flatly refused. I begged them to offer it for $0.99. They refused again.
Turns out that fierce, intense frustration is a great motivator for me. I got off the phone with my publisher, sat down in a huff and began writing my own book for the free list. It took 28 days to complete and is titled After We Break. I published it in January 2014 on Amazon and Smashwords with the sole purpose of offering it for free. Luckily, I managed to get a BookBub ad in February 2014.
By April 2014, it had been downloaded over 60,000 times.
But believe it or not? There was little-to-no affect on my Heart of Montana books (which numbered three at this point.) Readers weren’t rolling over to my other books and I still had three more to be released. I was still at the very beginning of building my audience.
In the spring of 2014, I wrote the remaining two books as quickly as I could to finish out my contracts.
I also wanted to keep up with my indie publishing, so I wrote The Vixen and the Vet for an anthology and simultaneously published it indie. It sold less than 100 copies the first week, an indication that those 60,000 downloads were doing very little for me.
In May 2014, I went to the NECRWA Conference where I met Bella Andre in person.
Bella Andre is a goddess.
A remarkable businesswoman.
An immensely talented writer.
A selfless mentor.
She is also regarded as one of the true indie romance trailblazers, she’s hit USA Today over 30 times, and at a dimly-lit hotel bar outside of Boston, she was kind enough to sit down with me and ask about my future plans. I told her my story. I shared my frustration.
Her advice was brilliant, but actually pretty simple:
She told me to try writing a 5-book series. She said to write fast and publish fast. She said that by book #3, I’d start to feel momentum. By book #5, I’d start to make money. And then – when book #5 was out for a couple of weeks, she said to offer book #1 for free. If the books were good, readers would download #1 for free, then roll on through the ensuing four.
I spent the rest of the evening mapping out my future.
Five weeks later, in June 2014, I published Breaking Up With Barrett, The English Brothers #1. Two weeks later, in July 2014, I published Falling for Fitz, The English Brothers #2. My sales were tepid. I published book #3 in September, book #4 in October and book #5 in December, after which I changed the price on Breaking Up With Barrett to $0.00 and managed to obtain a BookBub ad for Dec 18.
From Dec 19, 2014, through the end of Jan 2015, I made well over a thousand dollars a day. (OMG! OMG! OMG!)
Readers were loving the series, so I decided to write more books, renamed the series “Blueberry Lane,” and there are now FIFTEEN books available. (Including one releasing this week!) I have 25 total books planned for the series, deployed in six separate, self-contained sub-series, by the end of 2019.
To date, the Blueberry Lane books have been downloaded just shy of 800,000 times and the series has grossed over half a million dollars in royalties.
Now…remember the Heart of Montana? Those original six contracts? Remember how unhappy I was with their strategy because they wouldn’t offer By Proxy for free? To date, my royalties on those books have been $13,000.
Let’s back up a little because in the spring of 2014, I had written The Vixen and the Vet for an anthology and published it indie while finishing up my small-pub contracts. And I should mention here that after my initial rejection (Jan-Feb 2013) I had never again pursued an agent. But The Vixen and the Vet, a “Beauty and the Beast” reimagining, was getting some nice attention by the summer of 2014. A slow, but steady burn. Good reviews. Bigger and bigger bloggers reading and reviewing it. In August 2014, I contacted a prominent New York agent via email, sent him the book and asked if he’d be interested in reading it. I was shocked when he wrote me back two weeks later.
He’d read it, he’d loved it, we set up a call and he asked what he could do for me.
Now remember, Bella Andre was a HUGE inspiration to me. And in 2012, she had signed a print-only deal with Harlequin for her Sullivan series. It was…groundbreaking. And I sort of wondered if I couldn’t get in on the traditional print-only game too.
I asked the agent if he would consider pitching The Vixen and the Vet to some traditional publishers, but by 2014, traditional publishers had started getting burned by acquiring indie books that had already enjoyed successful e-book sales. They wanted to work with indie authors, but they wanted fresh material. The agent, who didn’t sign me, said that I needed a high-concept series/collection idea to sell with The Vixen and the Vet as the series/collection anchor.
“Okay,” said I. “I will come up with a collection for you.”
Because The Vixen and the Vet was a fairytale reimagining, I came up with a four-book fairytale collection, he pitched it to a BIG New York publisher, and they…
The exact words of the acquiring editor were: We’ve gotten other proposals for modern day romantic retellings of fairy tales over the years, and I’ve never gotten support for them from sales and marketing. I don’t think I’d get strong support here either.
And I gotta tell you, friends…that felt all wrong.
Listen, I keep my finger on the pulse of pop culture…I love TV, and I knew the popularity of shows like ONCE UPON AND TIME and GRIMM was strong and rising. I was looking forward to taking my son to see the movie INTO THE WOODS on the big screen and everyone was buzzing about the live-action version of CINDERELLA, coming in 2015. Fairytales were just starting to heat up. I was certain that publisher was wrong to pass.
And…I was frustrated.
The agent asked if I wanted him to pitch to other publishers, but – and I’ll be really honest here — I said no for two reasons: one, because my feelings were hurt. I loved the concept. I was really excited about writing more fairytales, and the rejection stung. But maybe even more importantly, I didn’t want to work with another publisher who didn’t share my vision.
So, I decided to write and self-publish them myself.
To date, I have published 5 novels in my modern fairytale collection, and I have 3 novellas and 1 final, full-length novel planned.
Since June 2014, my fairytales have been downloaded almost 200,000 times and the collection has grossed $170,000 in royalties to date.
So…yes, I started my career with a small publisher. But once I met my contracts, I wrote twenty-two books for myself and self-published them all.
Some things I want you to know:
I have never worked with a big New York publisher.
I have never worked with an agent, aside from one small deal – a New York agent sold the foreign rights of The Vixen and the Vet to Turkey for me.
Speaking of foreign rights, however, I do them myself now. Earlier this year, I was approached on Facebook by an indie Brazilian translator, negotiated my own contract and sold the Portuguese rights to The Vixen and the Vet to her. It was the #1 bestselling ebook in Brazil for two weeks in March 2017, according to Vela, and is still hanging out in the top 100.
An added bonus? The other 4 fairytales were picked up by a publishing house in Sao Paulo, who also contacted me over Facebook. I negotiated that contract too, and I insisted that the indie translator of The Vixen and the Vet was offered right-of-first-refusal to translate the rest. So she’ll get that work if she wants it. Know why? Because what I learned from Bella was that indies take care of other indies whenever they can. And frankly, I think it’s pretty awesome.
I love being indie. I love price jockeying on a whim. I love changing my covers to market. I choose all of my own cover art from stock. I have final approval on my editing and formatting. I choose the tone and reach of my PR campaigns and how I market each of my books. I can change the title, the backmatter, the buy-links – anything – in five minutes and have it re-uploaded to my vendors in ten. I can add a blurb from a friend’s book to help promote her. I can pull a book if it needs further editing. I am constantly tweaking my books.
They are all under my control…and the reality is that no one – no editor or publisher on the face of this good earth – will love my books the same way I do. They are babies born from my brain, and every decision I make for them is made from my heart, with their best interests at the fore.
In one scenario, for instance, my readers were all upset because one of my heroes had developed a crush on the heroine when she was 16 and he was 23. He didn’t make a move on her until they were both older, but my readers were creeped-out by a 23-year-old man fantasizing about a 16-year-old girl. I read the reviews. I saw how my audience felt. And I was sorry for alienating even one of my readers. So, what did I do? I opened the manuscript, changed the ages to 18 and 25, and republished the book. You know what? THEY. LOVED. IT. They felt heard. They knew I cared. And that’s the truth, friends. I do care. I listen to my audience. I write to my audience. Books are art, sure…but writing is my job. And I am constantly on a hunt for the happy medium between the craft and the cash.
I do not have a business degree. I did not take any college courses on how to be an indie author. I learned in the trenches, self-taught and self-marketed, grateful for the kindness of those who trailblazed for the rest of us. I do not have an assistant in my professional life nor a nanny in my personal one. I’m a full-time writer and a full-time wife and mother. I do have two great editing teams (First Person Editing for my fairytales and Scribe for my Blueberry Lane series). I have a terrific formatter (Cassie Mae), a top-notch social media-focused publicist (Heather Roberts) and a cover designer (Marianne Nowicki) that just about reads my mind at this point. They’re a carefully-curated group. I stand on their shoulders and I am profoundly grateful for them.
Five years ago, I had no Twitter or Facebook followers. Today I have 14,000 Twitter followers and 21,000 Facebook followers. How did that happen? Well, I’ll be honest: I love social media. It’s like this huge, awesome cocktail party, and someone’s always got a cold martini waiting. I love talking to people, learning about them, meeting new friends and sharing our mutual love of romance. If you can’t be genuine on social media? Limit your time. Me? I have to limit my time ON social media because I love it so much, I’d hang out all day and I wouldn’t get anything else done! I mean, I’ll be going to the bathroom at 2am and take my phone with me to the toilet so I can write back to my European fans (…while I’m a-peein’. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) I love Facebook. I love Twitter. I love the friends and relationships I’ve made. For me, social media was, and still is, an organic relationship. That’s lucky for me, I guess, because I still spend 3-4 hours a day hanging out there.
Likely because of my strong social media presence, my readership is 90-95% e-book readers who have found me via a web-based recommendation…though I do sell some audiobooks (which I contracted exclusively to indie narrators and producers for royalty shares) and print books, though most of my print book sales are “trophy sales” which means that readers read and re-read my books electronically, but keep the paperbacks pristine. They’re trophies. Keepsakes. For connecting. Not for reading.
Speaking of paperbacks, and bearing in mind that Bella Andre, who negotiated the first, significant, print-only deal with Harlequin, was a huge influence on me, I couldn’t let go of the dream of seeing my books in Barnes & Noble. In the fall of 2015, I was still trying to figure out how to sell my print-rights. Some good luck hooked me up with MidPoint Trade, and in the spring of 2016, I inked a deal with Spencerhill Press, a wholly owned subsidiary of Midpoint Trade. I drafted the conditions of that deal myself so that my e-rights would ALWAYS be protected and stay with me. Spencerhill’s paperback roster now includes: Amy Harmon, BT Urruela, KL Grayson, LB Simmons, Carly Phillips, Christie Caldwell and Melissa Foster. There are good things ahead for them.
As for sales and marketing…I am always selling. I still respond to every email, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram post personally. Last year, I spent $22,000 in Facebook ads; this year, I’ve already spent $6,000. I study market trends on a weekly basis. I study rankings. I keep track of releases and watch their initial swell. I know what sells. I know who’s popular on KU versus wide release. I know the KU darlings who are making the big monthly bonuses and the authors who are trying to do wide releases for listing and still nab some of the KU new release wave the week after. I cross-promote with other indies and I know how leverage those relationships for our mutual interest. This business changes hour to hour, friends; it’s hard to keep on top of it, but I sure do try.
I could go on and on, but twenty minutes is probably up, so I’ll end here with two final thoughts:
One, most of my books are available for foreign deals if any of you are interested (NEVER STOP SELLING! LOL!)
And two, I don’t have an advanced degree like most of you. But, self-publishing has been a massive part of my life for the past four and a half years…I’ve had a hands-on education, and I’m glad to share any of it with you.
Thank you so much for inviting me here today.