How Not to Write, Market and Sell a Supernatural Romance Novel
by John Fram
In the heat of the Texas summer, I found myself ringing up groceries and sacking groceries and sometimes, when I absolutely couldn’t avoid it, pushing grocery carts in from the grocery store’s parking lot. That was my career. I had dropped out of school the year before to spend more time with my writing even though the only publications I held to my name were three reviews on a small (but well-respected!) video game site and first place in my community college’s short fiction contest. One day while bagging groceries, I realized that my very gay, very avant-garde debut novel would take years to finish, would make me no money when I did, and if I wasn’t careful, I could spend the rest of my life working at a grocery store. I might die of heatstroke and someone would find me when they cleared the carts out of the searing metal corrals in the parking lot.
I was making $11.90 an hour and, if I was lucky, I worked 35 hours a week. My partner Chad made something absurdly low, like $7.90, for, hopefully, 30 hours a week. We squeaked by. Our rent was $450 a month, electricity around $150 in the summer, $80 for the iPhone we shared, $45 for Internet, $50 went toward the student loans I was paying back, $15 for XBOX Live, $10 for Netflix. I can’t remember how many times that automatic Netflix deduction knocked our bank balance into the negatives.
Savings? What savings?
When I was given a week off from work, without warning, and with no way to pay for it, I needed to think of something.
I figured that if I sat down and really worked I could hammer out a novel in a week. Tons of people wrote one in a month, so why couldn’t I, with all this free time, do it in a quarter of the time? Georges Simenon wrote them in 10 or 11 days, a chapter a time, and his books were actually good.
The book I had in mind would not be very good. It would be better than everyone else’s books but it wouldn’t be very good. I was aiming for broad market appeal, shameless pandering to middlebrow tastes and prose more meretriciously sentimental than a whore on wharf. The book would be fast and it would be short. It would be published under a penname. It would help me to get by. It would become a surprise bestseller, even a solid midlist success, and it would allow me to pursue my serious work while I churned out similar books — a series, a saga! — every couple of months.
Michael Connelly said something to the effect that “the genre the publishing industry is most capable of selling is the thriller.” I had also heard from a friend that Harlequin Romance doesn’t require an author to have an agent to submit a book. The same friend told me also that Harlequin paid somewhere from $5K to $10K for a book. Five thousand dollars! I could get almost halfway out of debt with that much! Think of how my credit score would thank me.
I couldn’t imagine myself writing a traditional Harlequin romance like the ones that lined my great-grandmother’s nursing home, but a romantic thriller sounded tenable. All I needed was a leading woman, a man who would trigger some crisis the two of them would need to solve, and then, maybe, a decent villain. Somewhere along the way I could shovel in a few love scenes and have them discover their true feelings for one another etc., but really it would be about their high-risk, high-chills adventure, which I would drag out for as long as possible.
I wanted one extra twist. The supernatural was still hot. The last Twilight movie had yet to premiere, and I figured that there were plenty of teenage girls and teenage-girls-at-heart fiending for a mysterious un-human nightmare to destroy their lives and sweep them off their feet.
Vampires, though, were out, I was sure of that. Werewolves were the obvious alternative, and I’d always found them more interesting anyway (though not for the same reasons, I don’t think, as my target audience). And werewolves come pre-installed with such an easy story premise! You get a violent past, a kryptonite-style weakness, an inescapable lunar time limit. Plus, werewolves are always being hunted, so there’s your villain. This thing practically writes itself.
And what if Harlequin didn’t accept it? Anyone with eyes could see that the self-published ebook market was forming an obvious bubble, but I figured that if I acted quickly enough I could still ride that train before it jumped the tracks. I could be quick, I was sure of that.
On Monday afternoon I laid across my queen-sized bed with a spiral-bound notebook and an hour later had a functioning plot. My protagonist, Vanessa, while glumly browsing the meat department of her grocery store, would be interrupted by a handsome stranger named Christopher. He would bag her groceries for her at the check-out and they’d wind up sleeping together (though she wasn’t the sort of girl who normally did that sort of thing). The next day they would be attacked by a man with a gun and there would be a narrow escape and Christopher would take Vanessa to an abandoned, foreclosed house (a detail ripped from the headlines) to hide out. While there he would explain how he was not just any werewolf but the last werewolf ever. His family has been hunted to extinction by the family of the crazy man with the gun and now Vanessa had been dragged into the whole hot mess. Somehow (I don’t remember how; that outline’s mid-section would suffer monstrous damage once the writing actually began), after jumping through a couple hoops, Vanessa would be taken hostage by the villain and Christopher would rescue her and in the scuffle Vanessa would shoot the villain with his own gun (and with the world’s final remaining silver bullet). Easy as pie.
Harlequin Nocturne, the publisher’s line of supernatural romance, wanted 70,000 words. That meant I would need to produce 11,666 words every day from Tuesday through Sunday. That’s not a lot when you’re not going to give the prose any real attention. It would be hard, of course, but I’d do it. I’d be all over it.
By Tuesday night I still hadn’t gotten Vanessa out of the grocery store. I wanted cigarettes, hard liquor, a gun, crystal meth.
Bad prose is not so much bad as unfocused. I have just discovered this. I have also discovered that constructing a plot, any plot, is difficult, what with how you have to draw up characters and invent some scenery and move them around and do it all in a way that isn’t obvious or boring.
I have learned the meaning of self-loathing, and it is writing a sentence that you know is sloppy and starting another sentence. I feel like I am harming not just my (future) reputation but also harming the English language as a whole. I am contributing to the white noise of publishing. I am pouring out more words to distract readers from the things that are actually worth reading.
What am I doing? Some day I will die. Some day every reader will die and I will have on my last conscience the fact that there are readers out there who wasted what little time they had on this awful book.
In January, the pit of the Texas winter, I sent out The Last of His Kind to Breathless Press, Loose Id, and to Ellora’s Cave. In August I had sent the first 50 pages of the incomplete manuscript to Harlequin, and in October I received a form rejection, so now I was sticking to smaller presses. I figured that modest ebook sales from one these houses, even if they only amounted to a couple of hundred dollars, would be progress.
Six months past my initial goal I had a book totaling 55,840 words. There was a thrill to the heft of its 219 pages. My boyfriend seemed a little staggered at the sight of it. Over and over he said, “You wrote a book!” I tried to explain that it’s wasn’t very good, but he wouldn’t listen.
The fact is that there are a few things I’m proud of in the novel. Maybe not a lot of things, and maybe not a lot of pride, but the ending, for one, is tightly constructed. And Vanessa’s sister and brother-in-law are decently cast and provide a grounding dose of realism when foiled against Vanessa’s almost self-destructive willingness to abandon her comfortable life for the sake of a hypersexual supernatural being (also, if you’re curious as to how I, a gay man, came up with a lingo that would make the book’s sex scenes compelling to women: lesbian erotica).
Christopher, the wolf, is blatant wish fulfillment and can go fuck himself. He’s muscled, dangerous, with a big dick while also being, when the plot demands it, a sensitive sadsack. Men like him are never good people and ideally the book would betray this fact a little more readily. But whenever I tried to make the man realistic, I felt the novel’s fantasy begin to break, so I dialed it back. I don’t show how he would probably be an extremely jealous, controlling, cripplingly insecure person.
It’s Luther, the villain, whom I’m most proud of. He, like Christopher, has a boring, involved backstory but it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is the way Luther is a violent, deranged, well-dressed speed freak hunting Christopher with an obsession that borders on the sexual. Also, the hallucination sequence near the end of the book where he is visited by an eroticized version of his dead mother is one of the coolest things I’ve ever written. Many times I considered abandoning the novel and starting it over from Luther’s perspective — make him a little more sympathetic, bring out the dark side of Christopher that was there all along, either cut Vanessa or cast her in a less flattering light, give Luther a damaged love interest to tag along with him and you have a much better (but still not terribly original) book.
I considered abandoning The Last of his Kind so many times. I would write a mystery about a murdered astrologist called His Dark Orbit and it would be so much more fun and just as commercial. Or a serial killer thriller in the Texas countryside: Silence of the Lambs meets No Country for Old Men. Or a pulpy science-fiction odyssey. Or something else. Anything else.
I learned how to use a typewriter while working on the book’s first draft. I drooled over IBM Selectrics but never could afford one. An electrical Olivetti Lettera disappeared en route from Colorado into the bowels of the FedEx transit system but was recovered at the last minute (it was broken when it arrived). Next came an electric Smith Corona and then a manual Olympia DeLuxe. Between these last two machines I finished the manuscript’s final harrowing scenes of threatened rape and gun shots to the throat and insultingly ravishing sex. I was amazed at how hammering the Olympia’s keys for two hours destroyed my triceps.
I trimmed over 15,000 words between drafts one and two. I had no idea that a piece could be so improved after it had been written. I marked up each page by hand in blue Sharpie pen and then retyped the whole thing, from line one, into a new document.
Gone were a good four ancillary scenes, and everything that remained was heavily truncated. I ratcheted down the flowery descriptions of minutiae and cut out almost all of Vanessa’s interminable internal dialogue. To my surprise the book took on a relatively consistent momentum.
Not quite enough momentum, though. Breathless Press and Ellora’s Cave both sent me form rejection emails. I was briefly heartened by Loose Id’s much more considered declining which gently pointed out all of the faults I was keenly aware of (the actual romance between Christopher and Vanessa is rushed and tacked-on, the narrative is, even after so much revision, still shown rather than told), but they don’t offer to look at it again should I fix these issues. They call the writing “strong,” whatever that means.
My boyfriend never got past the first ten pages. I really don’t blame him.
In April I uploaded the book onto Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform. By then I had put enough distance between the manuscript and myself to lose all interest in it. I knew that I wasn’t about to rewrite it or fix any of its problems, and I knew also that the chances of even a semi-professional outlet picking it up were slim to none. I had no interest in it but I still wanted it to make me money, which I suspect is how most self-publishing authors feel.
On Creative Commons I ran a search for “full moon” and browsed through four pages of werewolves that looked like they were sketched in the middle of a math class somewhere in the Midwest. I found a photo of a moon as seen through some trees and downloaded it. In Microsoft Paint I added the words “The Last of his Kind” in white block letters along the top of the frame and “By Alexandra Stewart.” Alexandra would have been my name had I been a girl. Stewart is my mother’s maiden name and my middle name.
I gave the book a title page and a copyright page and I put page breaks between the chapters. I set the book’s price as $2.99 USD and allowed Amazon to set its rates in the U.K., Germany, India, France, Spain, Japan, Portugal and Canada.
I clicked Save and Publish. I am told that the book will be available in 12 hours or less in English and in 48 hours or less in other languages. Does that mean that the book is going to be translated for me? This may surprise you, but I have no interest in seeing what Vanessa and Christopher sound like in automated Portuguese.
Initial sales were sluggish, which is to say nonexistent. To drive word-of-mouth sales I made the book free for a weekend. It was downloaded over a thousand times. That must mean something!
Every day I logged onto Amazon to check my downloaded copies. After the freebie promotion ended I saw a brief upward slope in my numbers before a precipitous drop.
I made it free again! Diminished returns. It moved some 300 copies.
In May, the book became number 55,000-something on Amazon, whatever that means, before falling back into the 700,000’s. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe these points are meant to be higher, like basketball, not golf. Amazon told me that I would need to pay them to make my book free for another five days, which sounded like a bad deal.
You have to get the word out about yourself somehow, and I sure as hell was not going to spend all day on Twitter spamming every post tagged #werewolf or #romance with a link to my Amazon page. Through Google I found a freelance publicist who offered a wide range of “virtual book tours,” all for very reasonable prices. I sent her $20.
Three days of no response later, I emailed Jan, the publicist: “Just wanting to make sure everything came through OK.” She responded to say that it had and seemed almost to be chastising me for bothering her so soon: “I sometimes take a week or more to get to my confirmations, especially during busy times (like now).”
My confirmation email arrived six days later. It informed me that Jan had been feeling “’under the weather’” (her quotes) for the last few weeks and has been a bit behind. I am told that I will be getting a plan for my virtual book tour “soon.”
After six days I am sent a copy of the information that I sent Jan when I signed up for the tour two weeks earlier. I confirmed that all of the information is correct. The tour is scheduled for June 4th through 17th.
On June 4th I received an email from Jan telling me that all of my virtual tour “stops” are in place for June 11th through the 20th.
On June 10th I sent Jan an email saying that I still hadn’t received any questions for the interviews that are scheduled to run in the coming week. In reply, I am sent an automated response from Jan; she’s on vacation until the 16th and will have limited Internet access.
The interview questions never arrived. For the following 10 days I am featured on “Erotica for All,” “Full Moon Bites,” and “Coffee Beans and Love Scenes.” Several of the book’s scheduled stops fail to materialize.
On the 17th Jan emailed to apologize for any mishaps that may have occurred while she was gone. It’s very confusing to keep up with multiple emails just from her phone, apparently, and due to “stress-induced health issues” in the week leading up the vacation, some things “may have fallen through the cracks.” In a PS, she asked me to please keep all business-related emails to her business email address, not her personal address. She knew it sounded “nit-picky”, but “I am under doctor’s orders to keep my stress levels manageable and keeping organized helps me to do that. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to throw in the towel with everything and I really don’t want it to have to come to that. Thanks for understanding.” I wasn’t sure I had more than the one address for her.
The missing posts appeared in the next week, and the week after that, I saw two reviews for my book appear on its Amazon page. They were both four star reviews and both have been copy-pasted from the blogs that reviewed the book during its tour. FortheLoveofFilmandNovels.com said that it is “definitely a suspenseful film.” And Andrea J Guy from TheCertifiableWenches was really excited to learn that Christopher was a werewolf because “she’s getting pretty tired of vampires.”
Congratulations, John. You paid money for good criticism.
If The Last of His Kind was going to become a breakout franchise in this modern age, it was going to need a lively fan base, and the first stop for any fan would inevitably be the author’s website. At a friend’s recommendation I opted to create a Tumblr blog for Alexandra Stewart rather than a full site, for simplicity’s sake.
I made two posts. The first was the book’s “hook” summary, as seen on its Amazon page, complete with my cover art, and the second was my About the Author. “Alexandra Stewart is a native of Washington State who now lives in Texas with her husband and four dogs. The Last of His Kind is her first novel. She can be reached at Alexandrastewartauthor (at) gmail (dot) com.”
That’s a real email address that I set up for Alexandra. It’s supposed to funnel all of the email it receives into my personal email account, but I just checked it and found 32 Google Plus updates I’d never seen (I forgot Alexandra was on Google Plus), a “s e CU r e” business proposition and someone promising to write posts for my blog “Absolutley free.”
Alexandra has her own author photo, which I found by running a Google image search for “woman turned away from camera”. When I found her on the first page of results I downloaded her picture without looking at the page she came from. I don’t want to know who she is.
I just did my taxes. The Last of His Kind made me $42.49 in the U.S. (and India) and $20.80 in Europe. After the $19.99 for my virtual book tour (which led to no noticeable increase in sales), the book made me a total of $43.40. If we are to estimate that I worked on LoHK for at least 10 hours a week — and doesn’t that seem low? Don’t you remember, John, those mornings when you would wake up at 5:00 a.m. and work until you had to go to your day job at one in the afternoon? — that means I invested about 240 hours into the book. According to the free market, I am worth $0.18 an hour as a writer.
After a short break, the book is now back on Amazon. I made it free for another weekend and it was downloaded 707 times. A friend of mine says that he’s going to proofread it for me (for free!) and when he’s done, I’m curious to see how many more copies a cleaned-up manuscript will sell. You don’t need to tell me that I’m a bad proofreader. ReadingontheWildSide already told me (and anyone else who read her review) that without the book’s errors in spelling and tense it would be “perfect.”
Support The Billfold