In this article, self-published author Jan Ruth discusses writing and publishing within the romance genre; what works, what doesn't and what you can do to grow your readership.
When does a contemporary romance become something else? When I first started writing and submitting manuscripts in the traditional way some thirty years ago, it was either a romance or it wasn’t. The definitions were very clear, but incredibly restrictive. Although I think it’s a huge step forward to have the freedom of being a cross-genre writer, I must admit I’m sometimes baffled by the many sub-divisions in the romance slot and it seems they’re constantly evolving. Just for fun, I had a look at the top five most er… unusual genres in romance.
At number five then, Amish Romance. This one speaks for itself, but who, other than the Amish community, would read them?
Number four was interesting; Nascar Romance. This is where the hero is a driver and all the action is car related; nothing too odd about that, but number three had me cringing - The Personification of Death. As the title may suggest, these novels feature a romantic interlude with the Grim Reaper himself.
Number two was plain old Romantic Suspense, but number one on the list…Centaur Romance! Okay, I like horses, but really? The piece said it was nothing to do with My Little Pony, but you’ll love it if you’re a horse lover and like sex with hairy men...
Maybe my fiction is more conventional than I thought! But I did get to wondering if my work could allude to any of these trends. Now, the Nascar thing I can understand a little, since my male character did the first thing that any working class hero coming into a lot of money might do - buy a fast car; and the Romantic Suspense speaks for itself and is extremely relevant to perhaps White Horizon and Dark Water. The Grim Reaper does indeed show himself to one of the characters but you may or may not be relieved to learn there is no skeletal sex scene. No, I’m sticking with dramatic-romance. Or is it romantic-drama? It could be even be the new kid on the block in Australia: rural-romance. There again, it could be romantic-suspense...
More to the point, does it actually matter?
I didn’t set out to write a specific genre. I wrote the book I wanted to read; the book I was driven to write. Mature characters and a central love theme but mostly about the complications of family relationships set against a Welsh backdrop, and usually featuring horses and dogs (characters in their own right with names and backstories). The landscape is important to me and I write about difficult subjects, but there’s humour too. I also write from the male perspective a lot, and this overall combination - which today would be considered pretty run of the mill in the self-publishing world - was my stumbling block all those years ago when I attempted to become published through the traditional routes. The lines were rigidly drawn. Agents were interested, publishers were not. I was even asked if I could ‘make it more like chick-lit’.
It’s a common enough story with independent authors today and the market has opened up considerably to those books which cross several boundaries. If it’s well-written and edited (vital) it will hopefully find its natural niche. But that’s not the full story. Self-publishing is about far more than writing the book. How to find those readers? By self-publishing you are effectively turning yourself into a small business. Sooner or later, you will need to remove the emotional tie with your work and take a hard critical, commercial look.
I made every mistake under the sun.
My book covers were far too subtle. I think I did this because I wanted to avoid attracting those romance readers who were drawn to sentiment, sex or chick-lit as the common denominator. But a snowy tree didn’t excite, intrigue or above all, it didn’t tell the reader what to expect inside. In the old days before the Internet, readers would browse bookshops with clear indications of genre, everything carefully ordered on the shelves and easy to find. The Internet; the platform for most self-published works, is a completely different marketplace. The attention span for clicking on a sales link, is mere seconds. Your book may be the next global blockbuster but it won’t ever be discovered because no one will look inside if the cover does not invite them to do so.
I needed professional help, so I contacted JD Smith Design. Together, we came up with a Jan Ruth brand for the three books I had on my virtual shelf. I’d avoided faces and characters because I didn’t personally like them on book covers, but this is where an emotional decision can affect your work. I write about relationships; I needed to get this across without a sugary, young or overly sexual feel. I think the covers are eye-catching as a tiny thumbnail, and above all they represent my blended genre. The Celtic font and style of titling - which acknowledges my Welsh settings - remains constant across the books and we’re now developing a look for the sequels.
Changing the book covers was a major turning point for me. I began to receive compliments. The quality of the cover imagery told readers all they needed to know in those vital few seconds. The paperback versions were accepted into shops and libraries. I began to build a readership. Social networking offers opportunities to get in touch with your readers in a unique way and to ascertain what works and what doesn’t work so well. I learnt that my core readers were predominantly women but not always, and they were usually over the age of thirty-five. No great revelation you might think but the information is ascertained from global data; and it’s ultimately satisfying that my books have found a global audience despite, or maybe because of being firmly rooted in my small corner of Snowdonia, North Wales, UK.
And I like to think that a book I wrote thirty years ago, shunned by publishers because it had a male voice and was too literary for romance readers has been given the ultimate kiss of life; a readership.
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