How can you hook readers into your story by using universal human desires and motivations? How can you write what you love, run your author business your way, and still maintain the ambition for a 7-figure author business? Theodora Taylor gives her thoughts in this interview.
In the intro, self-publishing predictions for the 2020s [ALLi]; The Unexpected Road to an Unconventional Life [Books and Travel]; Craft and business of writing limited-time bundle available now! [Storybundle.com/writing]
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Theodora Taylor is the best-selling author of over 50 books across contemporary, sci-fi, shifter, and interracial romance. She’s also the author of 7 Figure Fiction: How to Use Universal Fantasy to Sell Your Books to Anyone, under T. Taylor.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- From traditional publishing to indie — and discovering the joy of being a one-person independent business as an author
- Why romance authors are always ahead of the curve
- What are universal fantasies and how are they different from tropes?
- Your market may be bigger than you think
- Consistency and time as the pillars of a successful author career
- Embracing our author ambition
- Creating assets that bring in multiple streams of income for the long term
You can find Theodora Taylor at 7FigureFiction.com and on Twitter @Theodorawrites
Transcript of Interview with Theodora Taylor
Joanna: Theodora Taylor is the best-selling author of over 50 books across contemporary, sci-fi, shifter, and interracial romance. She’s also the author of 7 Figure Fiction: How to Use Universal Fantasy to Sell Your Books to Anyone, under T. Taylor. Welcome Theodora.
Theodora: Thank you for having me, Joanna.
Joanna: I’m excited to talk to you about this. I bought the book, I think it was last year. And I was like, ‘This is amazing. I want everyone to read this.’
Tell us a bit more about you and your writing journey, and also how you transitioned from traditional to indie publishing.
Theodora: The short version is that I was a writer. I spent two years pouring my heart and soul into a book, a women’s fiction novel. And it sold in a somewhat splashy deal to a traditional publisher. And the movie rights sold before it was published, and it was really kind of set up to do great things, and then it just flopped.
The movie deal went away. Everything went away. I had a contract to write a second book. I spent another two years writing that, and promoting the first book, doing things like signings and readings, and all that kind of stuff they used to have before indie really kind of changed what releasing a book was.
I wrote a second book. I sent it to my editor. She sent me back this scathing letter, with all the things that were wrong with the book. It was really crushing. I called my best friend, and I said, ‘Oh, she hated everything except for the sex scenes. I might as well become a romance writer.’
But then that became, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe I should become a romance writer.’ So I did my first of what I could now consider many, many experiments throughout my writing career.
My agent said, ‘Okay, we’re going to send this around to other publishers.’ I did have a contract for a non-fiction book at that point, but it wasn’t due till February, so of course, you can’t start it ahead of time. You got to push that to the last minute.
I decided that I’d write a book, a romance novel, while she was shopping the novel, the second book, under my real name.
And by the time she sold it and I got paid from the publisher who had picked up the second book, I had written four indie books, and paid way more money than the advance that I was getting.
It was, oh, this is where I belong. It was really one of those wonderful things, because, at that point in my writing career, I thought I had hit rock bottom, that I was a complete failure, that basically, my career was over. Theodora Taylor kind of introduced me to this new side of writing.
I liked being Theodora Taylor, one-person business, way more than I liked working with a traditional publisher.
So I went with Theodora Taylor. I did do two books for Harlequin, but that taught me that I really prefer to be a indie publisher.
Joanna: It’s so great to hear that you enjoy being a one-person business. And we’re going to come back to that.
You said, ‘I might as well be a romance writer,’ which is just one of those comments that people say when they don’t understand what the romance genre is like, and how incredible the business people are in the romance genre.
How can we change this stigma of romance, and make people understand how important the genre is?
Theodora: I wish you could see me right now, because I nodded along with every thing you said. I absolutely did view it in a dismissive way. I think that’s because I did not understand how much work this is, and how important it is, what an important role we serve in the reading community.
It’s one of those difficult things, because we know that we provide escape, we provide a way for people to explore some of their fantasies that they might not want to explore in real life. We provide all of these things to our readers, and our readers really, really love us for it.
But the perception of romance by people who aren’t, unfortunately, in the romance community can be dismissive, in some cases, insulting. I wish that more people were into romance, because it teaches you important lessons about loving and being loved.
I could go on about this forever, but I’m a rambler, so I’ll stop myself right there. I’ll just say I wish that more people did understand romance and what it really brings to the table, as far as the reading experience goes.
Joanna: I also think, in terms of the indie community, the romance writers, and of course, the erotica writers, have been well ahead of most of the rest of the genres.
Theodora: Yes. We’re early adopters, not that it matters, but we make so much money. It’s one of these things that, too, so easily that some people so easily dismiss us. It’s infuriating. Just infuriating.
Joanna: Totally. And look, to be fair, I remember back in 2010-ish, I also was quite dismissive of romance writers. Then I met some, and I realized that they were the smartest business people around, and it completely changed my perception. I do think that is changing over time.
Obviously, you’re one of those very smart business people. Let’s get into the book, 7 Figure Fiction. You talk about universal fantasy, which I think needs explaining because some people might think that’s kind of elves and things.
What do you mean by ‘universal fantasy?’
Theodora: Thank you for giving me that opportunity. Because one of the biggest misconceptions are people saying, ‘Oh, can people who don’t write fantasy…’ I really did not understand about the fantasy genre before I wrote this book, or I might have called it something else.
Universal fantasy is basically those fantasies that we have, I would call it universally. But it doesn’t have to be completely universal. It just has to be a fantasy that a lot of other people share.
There’s some, like, big, big, big fantasies that everybody from a 3-year-old to a 70-year-old, or an older adult share. Those are fantasies like people appreciating you, being seen, getting attention. Those are kind of universal fantasies. Having somebody who’s really worthy fall in love with you, things like that. Those are universal fantasies.
Joanna: How is that different to tropes? We talk about tropes a lot more in the fiction space.
Give us some examples of a trope compared to a universal fantasy.
Theodora: The difference between tropes and universal fantasies is that trope is the umbrella, and universal fantasy is what makes that trope so, so, so delicious. A great example that I just watched with my own kids is ‘Turning Red.’ I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie, or if it’s released in the UK.
Joanna: No, I haven’t seen it yet.
Theodora: It’s the latest Disney cartoon. And it’s this great mother-daughter film. When we say, ‘Oh, hey, it’s a mother-daughter film,’ what do we mean by that? It could be anything. That’s a huge trope, mother-daughter stuff.
We could all name a mother-daughter film, a mother-daughter book, a mother-daughter television show. So, what do we mean with ‘Turning Red?’ What did ‘Turning Red’ do for the mother-daughter trope that…what universal fantasies made this mother-daughter film really land with audiences?
We have universal fantasies within ‘Turning Red,’ like learning your parents’ secret, helping your mother in some way, proving yourself as an adult, which, my middle schooler, my middle school person in my house is always trying to get us to give her more responsibility, to treat her like a fellow adult, even though she’s 12.
So, that kind of idea that you get to make your own choices, that you do have what it takes to make your own decisions. That’s a universal fantasy for a lot of us.
Another one that I really loved from that film was making your mother see you as an adult, getting to decide for yourself, and freedom from your mother.
What that film is ultimately about is someone getting the freedom to live life on her terms.
There are a lot of mother-daughter films that have these universal fantasies, but this is what made ‘Turning Red,’ these particular fantasies, were what made ‘Turning Red’ a particularly great mother-daughter film.
Joanna: Let’s unpack that more, because I think, and I wish you’d used another word as well, because, again, fantasy in the romance genre can mean kind of sexual fantasy. And that’s not what you’re talking about at all.
To me, it’s almost like a psychological, emotional aspect of story that make each of us go, ‘Yes, I feel something about that.’ Some of those things, you were saying, obviously, I have a mother, it’s Mother’s Day here in the UK yesterday. And there are the good mother-daughter things and the difficult mother-daughter things that are kind of inevitable.
But just to pick, let’s pick another genre, to help people. I write action-adventure thrillers, and I watch a lot of those types of movies as well, a sort of Lara Croft thing.
So, an example of a trope might be finding an ancient relic in a tomb, right? That makes all the action-adventure people go, ‘Yay, let’s find a relic in a tomb.’
But the emotional side of it might be good overcoming evil, like Indiana Jones beating the Nazis to the Ark of the Covenant. Is that another example, or have I got that wrong?
Theodora: I think action-adventure is so interesting, because a lot of action-adventures, like you say, is about finding the thing that will solve everything, right. And really, the fantasy there is you are the one who solves everything by finding the thing.
I talk a lot about characters being avatars for the reader, but that your avatar finds this thing, and solves some problem. Some big problem.
Joanna: I like the characters are avatars for the reader. And of course, I write my character, Morgan Sierra, as my alter ego.
What we’re saying is that I want to save the world, and thus I write a character who saves the world.
Theodora: Who can save the world. Yes. But I guess with further breakdowns it’s always great to go over real examples, because what will saving the world do for you? What will it do for your character? What fantasy will it complete, if you will?
So if you save the world and that means that your father is proud of you, finally…
Joanna: Oh, no. I’m going to cry!
Theodora: Right. That’s a fantasy that saving the world realizes. Saving the world, it’s a trope. But within that saving the world trope, you can put in a lot of universal fantasies that will make that trope way better.
I think we’ve all watched action-adventure films where it’s like, ‘Oh, we must get the thing. Car chase, car chase, car chase. There is an obstacle to getting the thing. Car chase, car chase, car chase.’ And we found the thing, and the credits are rolling, and we feel nothing.
Whereas an action film where some big evil is overcome, like seeing Nazis melt, their face melt, that’s very satisfying for a lot of people, right? And so, it’s just kind of like, I didn’t just vanquish an enemy. I vanquished the Nazis, in this kind of roundabout way.
Vanquishing a huge enemy, that’s a huge universal butter to do it that well, where it’s just like, oh, I melted their faces. We all remember how these particular Nazis died. And what’s interesting is, throughout our movie history, lots and lots of Nazis have been killed, but we all remember how those particular Nazis died.
So I think they did a really good job of not only tapping in to that universal fantasy of really vanquishing a big enemy, but having them die horribly.
Joanna: What I love about your book, because there’s a lot of writing books, but I do feel like you have tapped into this emotional side of things that I definitely struggle with, as in I’m much happier writing plot and theme and setting.
Joanna: Okay, well, that’s interesting. Because I kind of thought, well, maybe you’re just naturally empathetic. How did you learn to see these universal fantasies behind the tropes?
Is there something you did, or have you just literally gone deeper and deeper for years?
Theodora: One of the most wonderful fan notes that I get from authors is, this is all stuff I’d knew. It feels like you broke something, that you turned on a light in a room I didn’t know I had. I knew this. I just didn’t know I’d know this.
It’s making writing easier, because I think in the back of our minds, a lot of us are just kind of like, ‘Okay, I’m writing a good plot. I’m writing a good trope, all the elements are there. But there’s something missing.
There’s a disconnect with audience, or I don’t know that an audience is going to like this.’ So, in the book, I explain what happened. I paid for a really expensive…not really expensive. It’s worth every penny. But, for me, at the time, where I was as an author, I paid for what I felt was an expensive class. And I realized that I would have to advertise this to an audience beyond my original target audience.
I write interracial romance, so my target audience is a pretty easy audience to pick out. It’s Black women who are either in interracial relationships or want to read interracial romance.
But in this case, I went through the Facebook settings. And this, it was really bad. They don’t even have an author in my genre that I could target.
They only had these huge, mostly traditional authors that you could target. And so, we’re getting all this advice for this class. And I just realized that, oh, I had to figure out why people like the book.
I was trying to advertise on a universal level. As opposed to, hey, target audience, this is a book you like, interracial romance. This is an interracial romance book. You will probably like this book.
Once I realized, oh, there are universal fantasy elements to every novel, or every piece of entertainment that works, or has a lot of love, that appeals to audience.
When I figured that out, it was easier to write books, it was easier to market my books. And it was easier to connect with an audience when I thought about it in terms of, oh, you’re telling a story around a fire.
What will keep that audience engaged? What will make that audience come to the fire when you say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a story about so and so?’ Because there’s a difference between calling an audience to the fire with ‘Oh, hey, I’ve got…’ if we’re, like, say we’re cavemen, ‘Oh, hey, I’ve got a story about today’s hunt.’
Versus saying to the audience, ‘I’ve got a story about today’s hunt, in which our greatest warrior would have died if not for the efforts of our weakest warrior.’
Then all the people are coming to the fire to hear this story, because you’ve just given them some universal fantasy. It’s like, ‘Wait, the strongest warrior almost died, and he would have died if not for the weakest warrior intervening, and I’m weak in some way.’ The weak person turns out to be the hero.
This has just tapped into a universal fantasy. Yes, I will come listen to your story around the fire.’ So, that’s what universal fantasy is.
Joanna: I read the book on Kindle, and I’ve bought a hard copy. People listening, if you feel this way, I feel like I need to read it over and over again. Because I totally get what you’re saying, and yet I cannot figure out, in my own books, what they are and what I need.
And, because we write the books we need and we watch the things that satisfy us in some way. So, I think it’s almost like know yourself, but also know your reader. And
I want to come back on the interracial romance thing, because I love that you basically discovered that your audience is not just people in mixed-race marriages or whatever. It’s also just people who like stories. ‘Bridgerton’ is a great example. Have you seen the latest series of ‘Bridgerton?’
Theodora: I’m watching it right now. I’m on episode four.
Joanna: It’s so good.
Theodora: I’m very upset right now. I think I’m meant to be, but I’m going to keep on going, even though I’m upset at things that have happened in episode four. That’s all.
Joanna: What’s so funny is my husband’s far more romantic than I am. But we ended up yesterday, we binge-watched five hours because we couldn’t stop watching, because we were like, ‘No, stop doing that. No, stop doing that.’
Just incredible storytelling, but of course, ‘Bridgerton,’ if people don’t know, people listening, it is an entirely multiracial cast. It’s really quite super diverse. We’re there for the story, not the differences between people.
And of course, that is important as well. But I love that you went, you know what? It’s not just about this thing. It could be much, much bigger.
So often, we get trapped in demographics. ‘Women between 45 and 65 like this type of book.’ And it’s not true, right? Readers cross much more diversity.
Theodora: I always say both are true. Women between 40 and 55 really like your book about witches, middle-aged witches. They just love it, right? But at the same time, maybe women who are younger than that will love your book about middle-aged witches because A, it’s about women overcoming something society have put up on them.
Or maybe they’ll be interested because something happens on a universal level that speaks to a fantasy within themselves and the like.
Really, what this book is saying is that your audience is much bigger than you think it is.
I think one of the things people do is they’ll say something like, ‘I write romance, so men won’t be interested in it. This person won’t be interested in it, this person won’t be interested in it.’
In actuality, if you say, ‘I write about werewolves. And these big things are happening in their village, within their path. And there’s intrigue, and there’s this, this and this universal fantasy, then a lot of different…’ It opens up your audience, and it says to your audience, ‘Yes, this is for me.’
But at the same time, one of the things that ‘Bridgerton’ does so well is they’re saying, ‘If you’ve ever wanted to take part in a regency romance, all of you are represented in this regency romance,’ which is something I had not seen before.
They obviously understand that representation does matter. But they also know that everyone will watch, because we’re all in it for this fantastic story that kind of appeals to us on a universal level.
Joanna: Yes. I actually think ‘Bridgerton’ is hugely important. And in fact, talking of books and acceptance, I live in Bath, in the southwest of England, where ‘Bridgerton’ is filmed. A lot of it is filmed here.
Theodora: Oh, wow.
Joanna: Because we have all the Georgian architecture. But what’s so funny, it’s a very literary town, and they’re quite snobby, really, about books. But the local bookstore, the window is full of Julia Quinn’s ‘Bridgerton’ books.
Theodora: Of course. And it’s so interesting with that kind of stuff, because the show’s kind of like, ‘Oh, towns like to be represented. They’re probably very proud that it’s their town in this movie.’ A lot more people will pick that up, because it’s that.
Joanna: Exactly. It’s really funny.
I want to change tack a little bit, because I wanted to come back on the business side. You mentioned in the beginning that you enjoy being a one-person business. What I love is that the book is called ‘7 Figure Fiction.’ And your confidence just jumps off the page. I love it.
I love reading confidence around business as well as writing. You said at the beginning that you had failure at the beginning.
How do authors get to this level of confidence that they can make a business work? How have you grown into that attitude, or did you always have that attitude?
Theodora: With authors, one of the main things they don’t give themselves is time. One of the things I really loved about your book is that you broke down how you entered the business, how you studied the business. Your book on non-fiction. And it was in how you transitioned into the business.
It wasn’t like, ‘I decided to become a writer. And then the next day, I just knew everything there was to become a writer.’
They’re often called ‘Baby Authors.’ They’ll ask me for advice that I feel is a matter of time. ‘How do you get all these people to read your book?’ and a lot of that is just learning to consistently turn out books, to develop the audience.
It’s kind of boring, because my best business advice is to do the business, and to learn, and to fail, and to just keep on going no matter what. Just keep going.
I don’t think that I’m particularly confident. I have learned what I’ve learned. And I just keep on going. That’s the main thing that I know, just statistically, if I keep on going, and I stay consistent, and by consistent, I mean, just put out.
Because I’m not that consistent of a writer, but I do try to put out a series every year, and things like that. So, if I keep on doing that, I will eventually reach my goal. I might do it sooner than projected. But eventually I will, if I just keep on going.
It’s interesting with the keep on going thing or the keep on swimming, means, because really, that’s the hardest part. I don’t know if you’ve ever been discouraged within your writing career. But the keep on going piece, it’s three words, but it’s the hardest part of this business.
I think every writer has woken up, and they’re supposed to write this book, and they suddenly suspect that they’ve forgotten how to write. Even though they’ve written 10 or 20 books, they’re just suspicious that they’re not a good writer, that this has somehow all been a fluke, and things like that.
And that’s hard with that, when you’re dealing with something like that, to keep on writing, and to put out books anyway, even if you’re not confident. So, again, I fall into another ramble, but that’s my point, keep on going.
Joanna: I love that. And I agree with you. Someone said to me the other day, ‘Well, you know a lot more than you realize that you know,’ because the longer you’re in this game.
We read so many books, we listen to people, and sometimes we don’t realize we know what we know, and we just take it for granted what we’re doing after so many years.
People look at us and say, ‘How do you do that?’ And it’s like, ‘Well, I just learned, like you will learn.’
Theodora: Right. I think the big thing is not valuing what we know. So, one of the things was on universal fantasy.
It was this kind of funny situation, because I had this group, back when I lived in California, a group of my fellow California writers, and I would meet in November or December, right before the big holiday break. And we would basically spend four days in a beach house, and we would say, ‘Okay, everybody has to teach something. They have to teach something that they know.’
This first year, I did one little class. And the second year, I was just like I don’t really have much that I know. And there were some big hitters coming to the conference, because we always invited people outside of our group to come, just teach us for an hour, one thing you know. Do one workshop. And I was like, ‘I do know how to sell books to people outside of my audience.’
And so, I presented it, and it was this kind of crazy thing, where it juggernauted in the RWA chapter which was just kind of like, ‘Could you come present that to us?’ And so I did. And then people kept on hearing it.
It’s this thing that I know, but I wouldn’t have necessarily put value on it until I started teaching other people this thing that I know. I think a lot of women in general do that. You’re good at business, but they don’t necessarily give themselves the credit.
Joanna: Absolutely. Really looking at what we know, and making sure we’re using that.
I also wanted to ask, back to the 7 Figure Fiction and you do say in the beginning of the book, ‘I’m not a seven figure author.’ But you’re a multi-six-figure author, as am I.
You clearly have this aspiration for seven figures, which I also do, and I love talking about ambition because people often shy away from it.
They won’t admit to it. But I actually think most authors have some kind of ambition.
Theodora: That’s the best thing about being an indie romance writer. It’s interesting, because I have a lot of friends who are outside this business, and so many of them are not okay with ambition.
If you’re ambitious, and you want to find another group of women who are also ambitious, it’s romance writers. It’s amazing.
Joanna: That’s really encouraging. I’m one of those women, but I don’t write romance. I think, in the thriller niches, a lot more traditionally-published authors, so it’s a bit different.
I did want to ask you, because I feel like your business, like my businesses, is a mature business, let’s say. We’ve been around a while. And I feel like there’s a step up between a multi-six-figure business and a seven-figure business.
Are you doing something different or planning to do something different, or is it, as you said earlier, is it just keep on keeping on?
What are you doing to take your author business to the next level?
Theodora: Okay, so this should come with a caveat. This is what I’m doing. This is not a suggestion for what other people should do.
I was very, very privileged last year to come to a precipice of the limits of what I could do with what I had, if you will. I made it to number 10 in the Amazon store, with a KU book. And so, I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m looking at all the other people who are around me right now, and they are spending serious, serious bank on ads.’
But here’s the other thing. I have two other books due in this series, and I really immediately need to be writing. And also, I am just more of a writer than I am an ad person, or something like that.
So I was just kind of like, you could do a huge spend on ads, and you could really level yourself up, because that’s literally the difference. Once you start getting into the really low numbers, there’s just a ton of action going on.
Or, you can really, really, really, really think about the organic ways that other non-KU authors reached that seven-figure platform, that might be more in line with how you do business.
The way I do business is that I write a book, I market a book for maybe a few days, and then I’m back to writing a book.
And almost nobody who’s really great at marketing would suggest that you do business that way, but that’s where I’m at.
I decided that I would need to, in order to hit my goals, is to go wide, first of all. Just be in more places, do more long-term investment, things like audiobooks, German, and basically have a lot of different income streams going.
And that’s been really interesting, because it’s the money I would have invested in ads, say, are now going into just making sure that I have money coming in from all these different places.
It really adds up. I’m really liking it. I’m not at my goal yet, but I’m doing pretty well so far this year. I think I’ll hit this goal, this seven-figure goal in one year.
To be clear, I have made seven figures over the course of my author career, but I think I’ll hit a seven-figure year in the next year or two, by making sure that my audiobook program is great, my German program is great, that I’m translating, that I’m doing all of these things to establish my author career, establish myself in other places.
I’m reading this book by my really good friend, Maggie Marr. It’s called Books to Film, and it’s a great guide that I’m excited to blurb, about how authors can get their books to film. And her main thing, like, the first thing she says is, ‘There is no one way to get your book to film.’ And then she proceeds to show you all the different ways that authors have gotten their books to film.
That’s how I feel about the whole seven-figure goal. There are authors who really just kill it on ads, and have hit seven-figures. And what’s interesting to me is some authors are just like, ‘Oh, man, I learned Facebook ads, and I became a seven-figure author.’ Some authors are like, ‘Oh, man, I just kill it on Amazon ads, and I became a seven-figure author.’
And then, I took this one author’s class, where she was just kind of like, ‘Well, I just figured the more income streams I have, the better. So I just really invested in self.’ I was like, ‘I think that’s the path I want to take.’ It’s whatever resonates with you.
Saying, ‘Oh, hey, I’m mostly a writer. I would rather be writing most of the time. That’s where I feel most comfortable.’ For me, having my writing in more places is going to work for me. But there are other authors who are just great at ads, have the attention span for ads, and stuff like that. And that’s where they should be.
So that’s why this is what I decided to do, versus who knows what whoever is listening to this should do. But really, think about it for yourself, and have a goal and have a plan. So, whatever plan you come up with is better than no plan, or just being like, ‘I hope one day.’
Joanna: I get that. That is brilliant. I’m actually thrilled you said that, because I talk about multiple streams of income, and basically, what you’re doing is creating assets that bring you money for the long term, rather than spending that money on ads.
So, assets, not ads is what you do, but you’re right. It’s up to the individual. So, as ever, this is just a discussion, rather than direct advice.
Theodora: Please don’t say Theodora and Joanna told you to do this.
Joanna: Exactly. This has been brilliant.
Where can people find you and your books, and everything you do online?
You can also find me on Facebook, or on Instagram, and TikTok. DM me if you have any questions. I’m always glad to hear from people. Thank you ahead of time if you get in contact.
Joanna: Brilliant. Thanks so much for your time, Theodora. That was great.
Theodora: Oh, thank you, Joanna. You do so much for the community, so I cannot express to you what an honor it was to be on the show. Thank you. Thank you so much for inviting me.
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Author: Joanna Penn