Romance Your Brand: The Foreword

This is the foreword for Romance Your Brand, which releases on December 24.

For years, I’ve said I don’t want to write a non-fiction book. Obviously, I’m a liar.

I love to talk about writing and publishing. I love speaking to others, in groups large and small. Workshops? Yes please—as an attendee or as the presenter, I’m not picky. And then there’s Twitter, and Facebook, and my every-so-often threads on the state of publishing as I see it.

But deep down, I know those thoughts are transient. There’s a lot of moving parts in publishing. A lot of advice that is old before the ink fades.

And yet…

A few years ago, I gave the following text as a luncheon address in the suburbs of Boston, at the annual conference of the New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America. It’s about watching my mother do desktop publishing from our kitchen table in the 1980s.

There is some advice which stands the test of time. This book is my offering in that regard. Time will tell if it’s solid or not. I hope some of it is useful to you, and you take that and do something great with it. The rest, feel free to discard. Most of the time, I’m flying by the seat of my pants anyway.

* * *

Three things I want you to know right off the top.

1. I’m nervous, and that’s okay. Joanna Bourne reminded me that this is a good thing—it’s my body preparing me for the hordes to advance with pitchforks.

2. Should that happen, I’ll just turn it into my next Vikings in Space adventure, so that’s all good, too.

3. Everything I know, I learned from those that came before me. I would be lost without this community. And when I remind myself of that, I’m not nervous any more.

It’s an honour to be asked to give this lunch talk, and I was thrilled to be asked. The committee has truly done an outstanding job organizing this conference. The quality of the workshops has blown me away. So like, no pressure, Zoe. But this is my first keynote-type address! And I want to get it right. 

Just like when you sit down to start a new writing project, the possibilities are endless but also overwhelming—do I share something poignant? Go for the funny? Be motivational?

The thing is, when you’re handed a microphone, and you’re a bit of a maverick like I am, you start to think… is this the only time I’ll ever get to do this? I have to say all the things!

I still feel like my eight-year-old self, that eager little girl who has discovered a love of novels. I was raised by a single mom, and we didn’t have a lot of money. I got to buy two new books at the Scholastic Book Fair each year, and the rest of the time we bought books by the bag-full at yard sales. I went to the library every week and signed out ten books at a time, and when I returned them, I stood at the counter and talked the librarian’s ear off about my favourites. That is still who I am in so many ways.

My mother taught me a lot—about readers and publishing, about money and running a small business. She was a journalist, and wrote about parenting and family life for newspapers and magazines. And after she had her third child, my brother, she struck out on her own, and started an independent parenting magazine, because she kept writing articles no editor wanted to print. Radical articles about attachment parenting and breastfeeding. In the early 1980s, that just didn’t sell.

But deep down, my mom knew there was a market for that. She wanted to read that kind of magazine, and even though it was scary, she was willing to bet there were others who did, too.

She didn’t have the internet. She had trade shows and word of mouth. Her newsletter sign-up form was a clipboard and instead of MailChimp or Aweber, she used child labour, and had me and my sister collate the magazines into bins for the post office. Most five-year-olds don’t know that Canadian postal codes go from A on the east coast to V on the west coast, but I did.

That was my first lesson learned in publishing.

My second was that mailing lists and fanbases grow one name at a time. That there’s no real short cut, and the most valuable names are the ones that are scratched onto a clipboard list after a real conversation.

Today we’ve got the internet. And we have online forms instead of clipboards. But it is still authentic interactions that build a true fanbase—reading an amazing book or meeting an author online or at an event like last night’s book signing, and something just clicks.

And when I finished my first romance novel, thirty years after watching my mother forge her own path, deep down I knew I would find readers with it, for it, directly. I knew indie publishing was for me.

When I started to write this speech, I racked my brain—what is the nugget of truth that I want you to take away? What can I dig out of my experiences in the wild west of indie publishing and share with you that’s both actionable and easy to digest? How can I inspire you to take that brave step to do something new and exciting, that might make all the difference?

And I came up with a few ideas. But the problem is, the ideas I came up with seem to contradict each other.

That’s often how it is in publishing. 

We are told it’s a marathon, not a sprint, but then when an opportunity drops in our lap, we need to write like the wind for two weeks flat-out on the off-chance that this might be our big break.

We’re told they want unique voices, something fresh, but also familiar and recognizable.

We’re told write the story of your heart. And write to market. [Bree Bridges, one of the two writers behind the Kit Rocha duo, has solved this one for us. She says, “write the most commercial story of your heart”, and that’s exactly right. That’s what we should do. Figuring out how is a whole other thing.]

We’re told to take chances and invest in ourselves, but the money should always flow towards the author.

We’re told not to give up, but also to consider starting over. 

The truth is, writing is hard, and publishing is a brutal business—and not always a meritocracy. To survive, and thrive, you need to be tough. You need to believe in yourself and trust your gut. You need to see through smoke and mirrors. You need to shut out all the noise, and find your own path. 

But it’s just not that simple, because that takes resources and support. You need a solid platform in life in order to get a really good leap. I know that. 

I struggle with the reality that there are a lot of asterisks on good advice. Mental health, physical health, financial stability, access to opportunities—they all factor into our ability to do what someone else has done. Publishing is a weird formula nobody has ever quite figured out, and privilege weighs heavy. 

Success takes a lot of hard work. But it also has something to do with the position you start from. And privilege is often called luck.

I grew up poor. That’s a disadvantage. But my mother was a trailblazer in indie publishing, long before the internet. That was major advantage for me. I learned some lessons as a child that made me look at traditional publishing through a very different lens.

It is tempting for me to tell people, this is what you should do. But the reality is, I don’t know if it is. 

So now, with some asterisks firmly in place, let’s get to some possibly good advice.

* * *

We come to conferences like NECRWA because we recognize that this entire enterprise is hard, and we want to be professionals. We want to get it right. Writing, publishing, networking…there is a lot to what we do. Of course it starts and ends on the page, with characters who become real to us and stories we’re desperate to tell. But we know that the business of publishing is bigger than just creating compelling stories, and we know that a lot of it will feel like walking a tightrope.

We all struggle with balance. If you’re one of those people who find it a challenge to switch between wearing your author hat and your marketing hat and your publishing hat or your contract-negotiating hat. Maybe even your mom or wife or roommate or daughter hat. Figuring out how to keep writing when we’re pulled in all different directions…or how to look up from the page long enough to stake a claim in the ever-growing romance market…it’s hard.

As I said, when I first agreed to speak to you, I thought, I want to talk about stepping outside of your comfort zone

I know that the lessons I’ve learned definitely point me in that direction – stepping outside my own comfort zone has been when my career has leapt forward. 

But after the high of a new release that’s done well, there’s an inevitable crash that follows. Not enough people talk about this—all books become backlist.

All sales slide. And riding that rollercoaster can be disorienting.

The real lesson I’ve learned is that balance is the key, and I don’t mean that like some kind of Zen thing. Real balance is a wobbly, dangerous gymnastics feat that requires fearlessness and a laser-like focus locked on an unmoving point in the distance.

You need to take risks, and you need to play it safe. 

Not at the same time. 

What I’ve learned is that publishing is a zig-zagging kind of industry. Opportunities here and there, left and right, sometimes zinging past so quickly we miss them. Don’t worry about that. There will be another opportunity. But if you are too rigid, you will miss more than the flexible person over there who’s just hooked a new deal. And if you are too flexible, you’ll lag behind your goal-oriented friend over here who’s writing book eight in a solid-but-slow-earning series.

The most common question I get asked by other authors is, “How do I brand my book? How do I brand this new series? I have this great idea, how do I make it a hit?”

And the honest answer is, “I have no idea.”

Truthfully? I don’t know how to make my next series a hit.

And if you’re thinking, whoa, Zoe, this is not the way to give a keynote address, you might be right.

But I’ll tell you how I weather that unknown.

My biggest advantage when I started publishing was that I knew it would be hard. That I knew the path would be bumpy and there would be failures and missteps along the way, and I just needed to keep my eyes on the prize, in the distance.

I was lucky to find a professional community just this chapter, full of women with diverse experiences and an eagerness to share the lessons they’d learned. When someone shares their journey, pay attention. There’s so much there for us to learn from each other. 

The three most useful conversations I had before I published my first book were:

1. A wide-ranging comparison of debut book sales in the first month. Wide-ranging is really important here because some people will have amazing launches—and there are some good lessons there, too—I’ll get to that in the second point. But the biggest takeaway I learned before I published anything was that most likely, my first book would sell somewhere between twenty and a hundred copies in it’s release month. I sold forty.

2. How series can make all the difference when marketing genre fiction. Again, there are exceptions to this, standalone books that soar. But the consensus among the experienced authors I talked to, who had the careers I wanted, was that their bread and butter sales came from an extended series. Five or more books in a common world, each one about a different couple. And for most of them, those series came later in their career, after they’d have some trial and error of launching and pitching and promoting their books. Some people nail all of that on their first go, and have a debut success. These people almost always have paid attention to the lessons that others have learned through trial and error. (I paid attention, but still didn’t have success out of the gate. That’s okay, I was expecting that).

3. The best book you’ll write is way down the road. I remember this conversation really clearly. The question was, “What’s the best book you’ve written?” – and while a lot of the authors I looked to as mentors did have answers along the lines of, “I really liked this book, it’s my favourite to date,” almost all of them shared the mindset that their BEST book was yet to come. That kind of thinking is really conducive to forward momentum. And in genre fiction, where a successful author will write ten, twenty, thirty or more novels in their career, it’s almost essential.

The corollary of all three of those points, while not necessarily spoken out loud, became cautionary tales I internalized.

1. Don’t expect success out of the gate; just write the book and move forward.

2. Don’t give up on a series because of weak sales; the series will eventually drive better sales.

3. Don’t get caught up in how awesome your first book is; the next ones will be even better.

I don’t believe in trying to write hits. I believe in writing about the characters that clamour loud in my head, the stories that make me zing with excitement on the inside. I believe in writing them as well as I can, and bleeding blood onto the page in the process.

In front of you today are some of my books. I chose these novels because they are representative of the path I took to success. It was bumpy and it was uneven. But it was also, at all times, quite clear to me.

What I want to talk to you about today is a couple of things, and they all loop back to this question of how do I do this? How do I figure out my path to success?

The answer really is two-fold:

First, you push yourself out of your comfort zone, and you find something that sizzles in your bloodstream. 

Second, you come up with a five year plan that allows for some flexibility, and you stick to it. Commit to yourself and commit to that project that makes your heart leap.

And when I say a five-year plan, I mean this in a rolling, revising general kind of way. When I was practicing this talk, my assistant asked me where I’m at in my five-year plan. I stopped and looked at her, and said, “Day one. Always, day one.”

Now, if I’ve done this correctly, right about now, I’m tweeting about this talk. If you’re on Twitter, check me out, I’m @zoeyorkwrites. I tweeted a picture of a chalkboard, and there’s a big circle in one corner of it. That’s your comfort zone.

And way on the other side is a dot, with an arrow pointing to it. Where the magic happens, reads the caption.

Your comfort zone over here.

Where the magic happens way over there.

What exactly that means for you is going to be different than what it means for the author sitting next to you. Everyone’s path is different; when to hit publish, when to start a new series, when to start over… nobody can tell you what the right next step for you might be, except for you. And right now, I hope you’re starting to get a kernel of an idea. It might scare you.

Hopefully it scares you! That’ll tell you that you’re on the right track. Trust that idea. Let it drag you out of your comfort zone and magic will happen.

I know this is easier said than done. Trust me when I say, I’ve been there.

Like a lot of authors, the first book that I started writing is in a trunk somewhere. Mine is a digital trunk called Google Drive, and there it shall languish forever. It’s terrible. It was followed by many more failed first chapters, first acts, standalone scenes. I spent a lot of time and energy writing a story I knew deep down inside, one that was near and dear to my heart.

I want you to think about your own first stories. The ones in the trunk, and the ones you’ve finished. For me, those books were reflection pieces, in a way. The first one I actually finished, What Once Was Perfect, is one of the books I shared with you today.

I love that book. It’s the book of my heart in so many ways. It is also completely inside my comfort zone.

A Viking’s Peace is another passion project, that’s really my happy place as a writer. Totally inside my comfort zone.

It took me four books to first write something that was a little outside my comfort zone. That book, Fall Out, is also at some your spots. That was my first Navy SEAL romance. I wrote it for the SEALs of Summer military romance superbundle. For those of you that take that copy home, I encourage you to read it—and notice how, at points, the story could be stronger. I’m the first to admit that book isn’t perfect. It was written on a deadline, with very high stakes. I had to make it into that boxed set; I knew in my heart it was a huge opportunity to reach new readers.

But I was definitely out of my comfort zone, and the writing was hard.

I was literally dragged through that book by Anne Marsh and Kimberly Troitte. I sent it to them in pieces when it was about three quarters done. I wasn’t in a good head space with my day job, and I thought the book was awful.

They told me they loved Drew and Annie.

For all its imperfectness, that book, written far outside my comfort zone, created two very memorable main characters, and their passion for one another was much stronger than what I’d previously written.

I stepped out of my comfort zone and magic happened. This is definitely true for a lot of writers, and I think there are a lot of reasons for it. We have to get creative in order to cope with stress and disorder, so when we step outside of what we know, what we’ve always done, we…try harder. We apply our craft more vigorously. We are more comfortable with the idea that we don’t know what we’re doing, really, so we’re way more open to feedback and instruction.

I wasn’t aware of any of this happening. I was scared and full of doubt.

When the SEALS of Summer bundle released, it soared to the top of the charts. That boxed set hit the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. And I got a huge injection of new readers who had fallen in love with Drew and Annie.

I desperately wanted to retreat to my comfort zone. The last thing I wanted to do was write another SEAL book.

I think that’s probably the pattern that most writers take. Write some safe projects, that appeal to our hearts and our loyal readers, and then take a risk. We can’t constantly be writing on that edge, because sometimes risks don’t pay off. Sometime we leap out of our comfort zone and land in muck.

But the day after SEALs of Summer hit the NYT list, I was laid-off from my job.

And let me tell you, there’s no bigger reality check about what you write and how you write than suddenly having writing shoved from a part-time passion to a full-time responsibility.

I gave myself six months to turn writing into a job that could replace my previous career.

I looked at my long-term plan for my series, and I looked at my brand.

I asked myself, what do I need to do here to appeal to my existing readers (some of them having been my readers for all of one week at this point)., and what can I write that won’t feel like tearing out my finger nails.

That’s how I came up with the idea for Pine Harbour. Small town romance, but with military heroes. The first novel I finished in that series is another one that I brought for some of you. Love in a Small Town was the first book I wrote with both commerciality and longevity in mind.

It was the first book I wrote with a piece of my heart and a lot of my brain.

Writing it was a joy, but also a job. 

Fall Fast and Prime Minister, which is written under my alter-ego’s name, Ainsley Booth. Every book I’ve written since has been written in a fundamentally different way, because I am now a fundamentally different writer. I am a commercial genre fiction writer in a way that I was not when I started. 

When I strictly wrote the books of my heart, that were safe inside my comfort zone…there is nothing wrong with those books. I love those books. But they’re commercially weaker.

And that’s the real lesson I’ve learned. That balance thing is so important. But it’s easy to say, and not so easy to do.

Writing and publishing often feels like we’re walking a balance beam. If we worry too much about where we are right now, if we let ourselves drop our gaze and stare at our toes, we’ll stumble.

Keep your eyes on the future. Think about where you want to be a year from now. Five years from now. What books do you want to have written? What series do you want to be known for? Set that plan in motion today.

Know that it will take you some time. Know that it will be scary, and there will be bumps in the road. That doesn’t matter. Because you are committed to that future you. You aren’t worried about your next step, you’ve got your gaze glued on the horizon. You’re already thinking about a five-year plan full of brave new steps.

And look around you. This is your squad. We can support each other with our experiences, our missteps and our successes. And we can remind each other that this is a long journey, and we are not alone.

* * *

I gave that speech in early 2017. What follows in the rest of Romance Your Brand is an updated version of a course I built in late 2015, delivered once in early 2016, and then put in a trunk because teaching a course is a hell of a lot of work, and I prefer to spend my time writing books.

I promised you the truth, didn’t I?

But as I said at the top of this foreword, I love to talk about writing and publishing—not just because I’m a data and process nerd, but because there’s nothing I love more than helping someone find the information they need to get to the next level of success.

If part of your five year plan is writing series, then hopefully this book is part of that information you need.