How can you establish a creative routine that enables you to write the books you want to write without burning out? How can you balance a sustainable work ethic as an author as well as spending time away from the desk. LA Witt talks about her strategies.
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L.A. Witt is the author of nearly 200 romance novels and novellas, and today we’re talking about her book for authors, Writing Faster for the Win.
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.
- Writing in multiple subgenres
- Tips for utilizing your space and time for writing effectively
- Discovering your sustainable word count
- Using brackets and placeholders to write faster
- Trusting your story intuition
- The toll burnout takes on your health and tips to avoid it
- Managing a massive backlist and multiple streams of income
- Switching from KU to wide and how to ramp up sales
Transcript of Interview with L.A. Witt
Joanna: L.A. Witt is the author of nearly 200 romance novels and novellas, and today we’re talking about her book for authors, Writing Faster for the Win. So welcome to the show, Lori.
LA: Thanks for having me.
Joanna: It’s great to have you on the show. So first up—
Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and publishing.
LA: I mean, I’m kind of the cliche writer who’s been writing since I could hold a pen up right. I always wanted to write stories when I was a kid and was learning for years and years. Then I kind of fell backwards into writing romance and into publishing because my husband was in the military, we got sent to Japan, and there are no jobs there. I couldn’t work. I said, what am I going to do?
And he said, well, when we got married, you said you always wanted to take some time off and try writing full time—like six months, twelve months to see if I could pull it off—and he said, now you have three years.
Joanna: No pressure!
LA: But that was the deal. He said, I have three years, don’t worry about getting a job, don’t worry about finding some kind of other hustle. He said, just focus on writing.
We agreed that if I could get a part-time income going that I didn’t have to get a full-time job when we went back to the US. I mean, I had just gotten out of nine years of customer service, so that was some serious motivation.
It happened that NaNoWriMo was like right around that time. I think we moved in October, so NaNoWriMo was the next month. I just said, okay, well, I’m going to do NaNoWriMo to get into the groove.
And I thought, well, if I’m going to plot something in two weeks, a romance is probably—I don’t want to say simpler, as in like, oh, they’re just simple, ridiculous—but they are simpler than epic fantasy, which is what I was writing at the time. So I threw one together and wrote it, and it was like, this is actually a lot of fun, I’m going to do it again. That was 2008, and it just never stopped.
Joanna: Wow. Okay, so that’s interesting. You’re right about epic fantasy. Obviously, they’re much longer books, but also multiple characters.
Do you now write epic fantasy? Or have you stuck with romance?
LA: I’ve stuck with romance and also romantic suspense, but I do still write fantasy. I have one that I’m working on on the side, it’s just not where I want it to be yet.
But I really enjoyed writing romance. Like when I got into it, I was like, this is actually a lot of fun. Then I, again, stumbled into writing gay romance, and that turned out to be even more fun. So I just said, well, I’m gonna keep doing this. 15 years and 200 books later…
How many subgenres in romance do you write in?
So you mentioned there the gay romance, but what else do you have?
LA: I’ve written suspense, science fiction, steampunk. I did a modern retelling of The Little Mermaid. I’ve kind of gone all over the place. I, again, sort of accidentally started writing hockey romance, and now I write a lot of hockey romance. I’ve written some historical. I’ve done everything from ancient Roman historical to a thriller set in the in prohibition era in New York. So I’m kind of all over the place.
Joanna: Well, I think that’s really cool. I mean, even thriller, like I’m in thriller, but there’s tons and tons of subgenres underneath. I think that’s really important, especially when you have as many books as you do. It’s like, okay, so you don’t just write the same book over and over again. There might be some similar tropes, but there’s so many variations within the genres.
LA: You got to change it up sometimes.
I mean, I wrote a really dark suspense novel back in, I guess it was 2018. I had been doing a deep dive researching the Incel community, and that was an awful experience, but I was like, I’m gonna get the book out of it. So writing the book, it was just really dark and awful to write.
When it was over, I was like, I need to write something fluffy, and I turned around and wrote an asexual, gay romantic comedy, just to do something different, just as like a palate cleanser.
Joanna: Yeah, I love that. Actually, I mean, talking about writing faster, I feel like you do have a lot more leeway to write in so many different subgenres when you write faster. So you said in the book, you write around 80,000 words a month, which is just incredible, just ridiculous to me. This year, I’ve written over 100,000 words in the whole year. That pretty much is what I do.
LA: It’s also like when people talk about the word counts, I always want to caution that, yes, I write 5000 words a day, but I don’t have kids. I don’t have a full-time job outside of writing. My husband has his own thing. We both have our own hobbies and stuff. The only thing I really do outside the house is go to hockey games. So it’s a matter of I have a lot more time than somebody who has three kids and a day job.
Joanna: Me too. I’m also child-free.
LA: You have your podcast and things going. Most of the days, it’s just me and my cats for several hours. And over time, it used to take me like 10-12 hours to write 5000 words, but over the course of 15 years, I can start writing at noon and be done by four.
Joanna: Okay, well, then that is the interesting thing — it used to take you 10-12 hours to do those words, and now it doesn’t.
Let’s get into the tips because you do have some practicalities. It’s not just magic that you do these words.
What are your tips on the practicality side, the space and the time to write?
LA: The biggest thing with the space and time is to decide, ‘this is my space, and this is my time,’ and you have to guard it.
If you tell your partner, I need from 7pm to 8pm as my writing time, that needs to be set in stone. Unless there’s blood, leave me alone. You have to put that firm boundary down and just say, “This is my time, and I need to be able to write.”
Or if you have writing time and somebody’s like, “Hey, can we go out and get drinks?” Like yeah, once in a while, that’s fine, but if you find that you’re always going and doing something else during your writing time, you’re not going to get any writing done.
So you have to kind of treat it like a job, but just treat it as something that’s important and isn’t overly negotiable. That has to be with yourself too, not just other people.
I have to tell myself, yeah, I’d really like to just sit in my studio and paint today, but I really need to write my words. Or I want to goof off on YouTube for a few hours watching hockey highlights, but I really need to write.
Joanna: I think, like you said, it’s about yourself more than anything. Look, there are always things we could be doing, and there are always things that might seem more “important” in inverted commas, but if these things happen every day, then the words never happened then.
LA: It’s very, very easy, you know. It becomes a form of procrastination, and it snowballs. I put it off today, I’ll do it tomorrow, and suddenly tomorrow is six months from now, and you still haven’t written anything. For me, 5000 words a day is a comfortable, sustainable pace.
I always tell people, the way you find your pace is to take a few days and just write lazy. Just knock out some words, don’t really push it. Do a few days and see how many words you do on those days.
Then take a few days, and just pedal to the floor, write as much as you can. Push it as hard as you can. And when you’re done, look and see what the difference is. For me, if I’m lazy, I can write 2000-3000. If I’m really pushing it, I can write 10,000. So for me, the comfortable sustainable pace is 5000. It’s enough that I have to push it, but it’s not going to burn me out.
Joanna: We should emphasize that this is different for everyone. So for me, 2000 is a pretty big day.
LA: That’s perfectly valid. I know people who 1000 words is their absolute limit for the day. That’s fine because you don’t want to write 10,000 words a day and then burn yourself out and not write anything for six months.
Joanna: You can do that. I mean —
I call myself a binge writer. I do blocks of pushing really hard.
Like I did recently for my Writing the Shadow book, and that was really hardcore. Like you said there about pushing yourself, I mean, some days I just felt so dizzy because I was really pushing it. It wasn’t necessarily number of words, but it was just the intensity of writing.
Now, I probably won’t write anything for a couple of months while I do some launching and stuff like that. So that’s just two very different perspectives.
LA: Yeah, exactly. It’s mostly a matter of not burning yourself out. Like if you’re doing it to the point you’ve burned out and you can’t do it, or like I’ve just talked about in my book, where your health implodes. It’s really hard to claw your way back from that.
Joanna: We’ll come back to your health. But let’s go back to when you said it used to take you like 10 to 12 hours, and now it takes you a couple hours. So what are the main things that changed, in terms of—
How did you get the same words in less time?
Like what happened?
LA: I think part of it is I just stopped screwing around. Because it was really easy to write 100 words, and then go spend 10 minutes or half an hour arguing with somebody on Facebook. You know, there was a lot of I’m gonna write a little, and then I’m gonna slack off and drag. So part of it was just discipline.
The other part I think was also finding my voice and finding my groove. It doesn’t take me as long to write a scene because I’m just more comfortable. I don’t second guess myself as much. I’m much more comfortable with the idea of, okay, I’m going to write this, and if, for example, it feels like the pacing is off while I’m writing it, I just tell myself I’m going to fix it when I go to edit it, it’s fine.
Half the time I go to read it, the pacing is actually fine. It just feels off while I’m writing it. So part of it is just developing that confidence to say, I’m just going to push through, and I’ll fix it later. You know, not that I’m going to just throw garbage at the page. I try to write well, right out of the gate, but I’m not as much of a perfectionist in the drafting phase to the point that it cripples me, and I can’t write.
Joanna: Yeah, in fact, you have a whole chapter on brackets and placeholders, which I love.
Can you explain how you use brackets and placeholders to get the draft done, and then the process of fixing them up later?
LA: Basically, I use it for things where I either like, for example, I’m writing a scene with a hockey team, and I just don’t feel like going through naming all the players yet. I’ll just put them in brackets.
It’ll be square bracket, player one, square bracket, player two. And that way, I could just get the scene written without sitting there going, okay, what do I name this guy? What do I name that guy? Because sometimes there’s, you know, the teams have like 20 some odd people on them. It just slows me down to have to stop and name everybody who’s walking into a conversation. So I’ll just put them in brackets and deal with it later.
Or if I’m writing a scene, and I’m mentioning like a feature of a character, and I’m like, I can’t remember if this guy’s got brown or blue eyes. I’ll just put blue eyes in brackets, and then come back and check it later. That way, I don’t have to stop what I’m doing, and go check my character sheet, and be like, okay, yeah, this guy’s got blue eyes. So that way, I don’t lose my momentum on a scene, and I can just keep plowing through it.
Or, if I’ve got a guy, for example—again, a hockey player, because I write a lot of hockey—pulling up in a sports car, I’m probably not going to just say it’s a fancy sports car, I’m gonna say what kind of car it is. But I’ll just put it in brackets because I don’t feel like looking up what a hockey player of his caliber can probably afford. So again, I just deal with it later.
When I wrote my historical, there would often be phrases that I didn’t know, was this slang used back then? Was this a word that they would have known? Was this something they would have been familiar with?
So I’ll just put it in brackets, and then when I’m done with that scene, or done with that chapter, I’ll just go through and do a CTRL F to look for square brackets, and just replace them as I go.
It sounds time-consuming, but honestly, it’s faster to just go through and sweep them up later than to stop and break by momentum every time I hit something I can’t remember or I don’t want to deal with you.
Joanna: That’s very interesting. I have some questions coming off that. The first one is, so that really sounds like you do plot first, and then character. A lot of people always think, oh, well, you must do your character sheet first, and you must have all the names.
So explain how your process works.
LA: Well, I do my main characters first. Like I have everything about them.
Sometimes I’ll have the idea for the story first, but usually, I start with the characters and go from there.
So my main characters, I know them very well. But again, like I might be bringing in a bunch of hockey players. Like they’re in the locker room, and somebody walks in and says something and walks out, I might not have figured out who that is yet. So it’s more of the secondary characters.
I just finished a book, actually yesterday, where a significant issue with one character is his ex. The ex was just a big problem for him. And for the life of me, I could not come up with a name for the ex. I just couldn’t think of a name.
So I wrote the entire book with that ex in brackets, it would just be ‘brackets ex’. And I figured, I’ll just think of a name when I’m done. I was completely done with the book before the guy finally got a name.
I don’t do that with my main characters, the main characters do get all their details up front. I just might be in the swing of a scene and be like, wait, does he have blue eyes or brown eyes? Just like some detail won’t quite click. Or has he been on the team for five years or six years?
I just can’t remember off top my head, so I’ll just put it in brackets and deal with it later. That way I also make sure that I don’t have continuity errors because I’ll put it in brackets even if I’m pretty sure, but I’ll double-check it just to be absolutely sure.
Joanna: Then the other thing on naming because, in terms of fiction, I’ve got maybe 25 or something at the moment, and I already come up against times when I default to certain names. I don’t know, that’s what’s in my head.
When you get to 200+ books, how are you naming characters?
Or how many Bobs have you got, and all of this kind of thing? Like how are you naming people?
LA: I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m just going to reuse names, especially if it’s a name I like. I think I have like five or six Scotts, I think I have two Marks or two Julians now.
But with that many books, you’re just gonna end up reusing first names from time to time. I make sure I don’t reuse the first name and last name together. And if it’s two hockey books in a row, I’m gonna make sure their names are different. Also, at least with hockey, you tend to have a lot of Swedish, Russian, Canadian and various other players on the team, so gives you a few more options to mix it up.
I have websites I go to that just list common names for whatever era, so I’ll just kind of look through that. Sometimes a name will come to me, I’ll just have a name right off the bat that I want to use. But most of the time, it’s like, okay, what name haven’t I used, at least in the last 20 books?
Joanna: I write a lot of multi-national books, so I often will go look for actors of a certain age from a certain country, and then combine first names and last names to try and get something more original. But it’s like you said, if they’re a bit more mono-cultural, their names probably are quite similar in Canadian hockey teams.
LA: Yeah, exactly. And there’s times where, like Anna Zabo and I, we’re co-writing the On the Board series, and at the very, very beginning of the first book, I had my character make an offhand comment about two players. I just threw some names out there. I threw a Russian name and a Swedish name out there, and I was like, okay, they’re just going to be other players.
Well, then Anna got to their chapter and said, I’m gonna make them kind of major characters. Well, those characters ended up getting the next book. It was just two throwaway names, and then they ended up being the main characters of the next book.
Joanna: That’s interesting. So you also said in the book,
“I’m a vague, flexible outliner, who rarely writes exactly what I’ve outlined.”
Talk a bit about your outlining process.
LA: Basically, I make sure that I’ve got the inciting incident. How do things get started? How do the two characters, or three characters, end up in each other’s orbits?
If it’s suspense, obviously, you need to figure out the suspense plot. What is the crime or what is the the thrilling thing that’s happening? And I tend to figure out the main beats throughout, like the big twists and the big revelations. I tend to just get a fairly vague timeline of what’s going to happen, mostly because I write out a sequence, so I need to know what happens before something else. I just need a timeline.
A lot of times while I’m writing, like, I skip ahead to chapter 18, and realize, oh, hey, if this is going to happen in chapter 18, I need to have X, Y, and Z happened first. So I’ll skip back and put those in and some other chapters. So I tend to have a solid outline, but then I just keep adding to it as I go. Or sometimes I’ll realize, wait, I don’t actually need these scenes, and I’ll just cut them and refer to them in passing.
So I tend to change it a lot. My rule is that if the characters in the outline disagree, the characters always win. Because sometimes I’ve realized as I’ve gotten to know the characters more, I’m like this scene that I’ve got planned, that’s not how they would do things.
Or this plot twist, that’s not how it would happen with these characters. So the outline will change to fit the characters. I just have learned to not try to shoehorn a story into the outline, if that makes sense.
Joanna: So is that just a like a document, like a couple of pages on a document?
LA: It’s actually an Excel file because I keep track of word counts. I don’t write in one document, like each chapter is its own document on a Word file. So I have a spreadsheet where I keep track of the word counts in each chapter, and each chapter has a line describing what happens here.
That actually makes it really easy to update the outline because I can just move things up and down on Excel. It probably doesn’t work for a lot of people, but it works for me.
Joanna: Absolutely. And yeah, it definitely wouldn’t work for me. What I did enjoy was hearing that you write out of order because I also do that. I feel like some people think that’s odd—and I’m a discovery writer, so I don’t plot.
Talk about how you write out of order and then weave everything together later.
LA: I usually will at least start with chapter one. Like when I start writing, I’ll at least start with opening chapter because that gives me a feel for the characters and gets things going.
Sometimes, it’s not so much that I hit a wall, but I’ll hit a scene where I’m like, I’m not quite ready to write this one yet. I don’t have a feel for this scene, but there’s also a scene later in the book that’s really nagging at me, and I really, really want to write it. So I’ll just jump ahead and write that one because then that one shuts up.
A lot of times as I skip ahead and write other scenes, I’ll start to figure out what it was in the earlier chapter that was making me stall. I think I’m a little bit of a discovery writer, in that sense. Yeah, I have an idea of what’s going to happen, but when I jump ahead to chapter 20, and I start exploring this situation with the characters, suddenly I’m like, oh, now I see what was missing in chapter four. Then I go back and write chapter four, and it works.
Joanna: Yeah, I mean, I think about that as a sort of story intuition. It sounds like you’ve kind of combined the outlining, with the intuition, with the confidence in your voice.
So how do you think—because, I mean, you’ve obviously got this at this point in your career, and I definitely feel like I’m there too—but there’ll be people listening who are like, I don’t even know how I would trust that.
How can authors lean into trusting that confidence and find their voice, and lean into that intuition?
LA: I would say just try it. I mean, for me, I stumbled into it.
I was working on a book, there was a scene that was nagging at me, I jumped ahead, and I was like, you know what, this is actually kind of a fun way to do it. But a lot of times, it’s just that you just try it, because the worst that happens is you have to go back and rewrite something.
Like, nobody’s gonna come and take your book away, nobody’s gonna say you can never publish this book. You know, the absolute worst-case scenario is you have to go back and fix it.
I think when you learn to be confident in your ability to go back and fix it, it gives you a lot of freedom. It opens up a lot of doors to be able to just be like, I have no idea if this scene is going to work, I have no idea if writing out a sequence is going to work, I have no idea if just winging it is going to work.
When I wrote my historical, it’s a historical romantic suspense, and it was a pretty complex layered plot, and I only outlined it about halfway through. Then I hit a wall when I was outlining it. I just didn’t know where to go.
And I said, you know what, I’m going to just dive into writing it, and I’m going to just hope that the rest of the story kind of reveals itself while I’m writing the part I’ve already outlined. And it did. It’s actually, of all the books I’ve written, it’s probably easily in my top five favorites.
And I was writing that completely like blind, as far as the second half of the book, because I just hit a wall outlining it.
I think there was a time when I would have said, I can’t finish this until I finished outlining it. Over the years, I’ve realized that I trust myself enough to know that I will come up with a way to finish the story. I don’t know what it is yet, I have no idea, but it’ll come. And it did.
Joanna: Yeah, I have a lot of things on my wall, and one of the things I have is, “Trust emergence,” which is at some point, these things do emerge.
They might come from some research, they might come from something else we’re reading, or we’re watching a TV show. You just don’t know where it’s gonna come from, but—
You just have to trust that your story brain, your story intuition, is going to help you.
LA: It’s sort of like if you’re writing a conversation with your character, and one of them says something and all of a sudden the whole book falls together.
I’ve had that happen before. Like, oh, that was the missing piece. I’ve gone to sometimes friends or co-writers, Anna Zabo, one my one of my co-writers, I’ve frequently gone to them and said, “I am completely lost with this book. Like there’s something missing, and I can’t find it.” And I’ll just kind of give them a summary of what I’m doing. And they’ll say, “Well, what about X, Y, and Z?” and then whole thing just falls together.
You know, sometimes getting some outside help helps, having a beta or a co-writer or somebody that you can ask.
But also just trusting yourself, having that intuition that you’ve done it before, you can do it again.
Since the pandemic I taught myself to paint, and during that time, one thing I’ve learned and I’ve seen in a lot of tutorials, is that every painting goes through the ugly stage. Like there’s always a point where it just looks awful, and you just look at it and go, I’ve made a complete mess of this.
You have to learn to push through and trust the process, and it’ll get past that phase. I think books do the same thing. They hit a point where it’s like, “What in the world am I doing? I’ve completely warped this entire plot. Nothing’s working,” and you just have to trust the process and push through.
And if it doesn’t work, that’s what editing is for.
Joanna: Exactly. Or you just have to take a step back. I mean, because I’m discovery, I often find that around 25,000 words, I go, “I don’t even know what is going on.”
And I have to kind of print out what I have and read it, and then I’ll be like, “Oh, look at all these open questions. Now I know how to carry on.”
And as soon as you know the next tiny step, then the rest kind of sorts itself out, doesn’t it? I know some people listening are like, but how do you know that this is gonna happen? It’s like, well, you just kind of have to trust that it will.
LA: Yeah, and I do the same thing. Usually for me, it’s about 40%. I’ll print it all out, and then it’s like, oh, right, there’s this piece, and now it all works.
And every single time, like, I know a lot of writers have that fear that they’re not going to do it. They’re afraid to trust the process.
And I’m like, I’m almost 200 books deep in my career, and every single book, I still hit the point of, I have made a complete mess of this, and it’s a disaster, and there’s no salvaging it. Every single book. And every time, eventually it does come together. Some take more work than others.
I just released a book last month that took me five years and three complete drafts to finally get it right. And actually, that was one where I asked Anna Zabo, and they found the missing piece for me. But it just took a long time.
My editor and I went round and round with it, and it just didn’t want to work, and then it finally did. They all get there eventually. Even after all this time, it still happens. Every book, I still think I’ve completely destroyed this thing, and then I never do.
Joanna: Yeah, there’s something salvageable, even if it takes too long. But I did want to come back, so earlier you did talk about burnout, and you do talk about this in the book. And of course, being prolific is only one measure of success, but your health is far more important.
Tell us about that burnout period. How are you managing things now?
LA: Basically, what happened is, it was back in 2014, I found myself—this was when I was still working predominantly with publishers—I had deadlines stacked on deadlines, and I had a bunch of stuff I was working on with co-writers, and I just hit a wall.
I was like, I cannot keep going. I am burned out. The tank is empty. I mean, it was like getting hit with this really horrible depression where you can’t even move. And I was like, I’m just done. I can’t do this.
I want to say it was in like April, when this happened, it was like March or April. But I still had deadlines through the end of August, and I think that was like five books, and the only way I was going to get past them was to get through them. That meant that I hit that wall, but I still had to finish five books. And I did.
It just happened that I finished the last book, and then I went to a big conference, and I got the con-crud there because it was huge, I think it was the RWA conference in 2014. It turned into pneumonia almost immediately, and I had pneumonia off and on for about four months. I couldn’t function, couldn’t write, which then, of course, meant all my other deadlines started snowballing because I couldn’t keep up with them. Finally, just my health pretty much just imploded.
I had to take a step back, cancel some deadlines, and it took a good year to completely recover from that. I was still having health problems as a result, as late as 2022. Like it held on that long.
It was almost like having long COVID, except it was pneumonia. It was just this thing kept hanging on and hanging on, all because I pushed myself so hard that my immune system imploded. That was when I learned, you know, I have to balance it.
You have to take time off, or your body will take it for you.
Joanna: So how do you do that now?
LA: I force myself to take days off.
One of the reasons that I keep track of my word counts on my spreadsheet is if I sit down at my desk one day, and I’m like, I really don’t feel like working, I’ll look at my spreadsheet, and invariably it’s been a week since I took a day off. So I’ll take a day off and paint.
Honestly, it actually has helped that my husband and I, we have season tickets to the hockey team, which means that there’s at least 40 nights a year where I have to stop working by four, and we go out.
We get out of the house, get off the screen, go do something that’s not writing. That’s been a huge help for my mental health and balance, just forcing me to get off the computer and get out of the house.
Joanna: I think that —
Getting out of the house is the key.
I’m exactly the same. I know I’m a workaholic.
Joanna: In a different way to you. I mean, as in I do work all the time. And obviously there are lots of wonderful things about having kids and also wonderful things about being child-free, and I love being child-free.
But equally, there is, like you said, there’s no distraction. If you want to work all the time, you pretty much can.
LA: Exactly, and during the pandemic it was especially bad because I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t leave the house. We lived in rural Maine for the pandemic, and we didn’t have a social circle there. My husband was still working because he was essential, so I was pretty much home alone writing all the time. I had to be very, very mindful of not burning myself out during that time because I still remember what happened in 2014, and I didn’t want to do that again.
I have to be, like proactive about it. I can’t just be like, eh I think I’ll take a day off. I have to say, no, I’ve worked X number of days in a row, I’m done. Like, I just finished a book yesterday, and I was kind of on crunch time with it, so I worked several days in a row, and I’m actually taking this week off because we’ve got a hockey thing this weekend, but I’m going to take the next couple days and just paint and kind of goof off, just to recharge a bit.
Joanna: I do agree with you. You almost have to organize the time.
I have to schedule off time.
It can’t just be, oh, don’t work today. Because there’s always a thing. You know, I could always come into the office and do something.
LA: And it’s super easy to not realize. Like, I’ll say, well, I’ll just take a day off when I feel like it. There was like three or four years, where I would just hit a wall and be like, I can’t write today, I seriously can’t. I’d go look at my spreadsheet, and go, oh, it’s been 21 days since I took a day off. That’s probably the problem. It took me like a few years to learn to just not let it get to that point.
Joanna: Isn’t it interesting, because I presume you’re not a person of faith?
Joanna: I’m not either. And I feel that people go to church—obviously, this is nothing about the God side—this is about people who go to church have an active way to manage their time away from the desk.
LA: Oh, I agree. And also because I work at home, and because I don’t have kids, and for a long time, up until a couple years ago, my husband was military, so he was on a weird schedule, I could not tell you what day of the week it is.
For the last 15 years, I had no idea what day it is. So there’s no such thing as a weekend. It’s only been since my husband retired and is working a regular job that, oh, there’s a weekend. There’s two days off every week for normal people, and I’ve kind of been able to fall into that. But for a long time, I just didn’t have anything to signal to me like, oh, you could take today off, it’s Saturday.
Joanna: Yes, and then figure out something to do on that day off. I think that’s also a key. So I’m glad you took up painting, I tend to go walking, like walking is a big thing for me, but I have thought about some other things, too. So yeah, I find that really interesting.
Let’s just come to some business stuff because we could talk about this for ages. But I’m very interested because —
You have turned your books into multiple streams of income.
You’ve got direct sales on Payhip and Shopify, you’ve got translations, you’ve got large print. And I was thinking, oh my goodness, I struggle because I have 45-whatever books, but in loads and loads of different formats. I know how difficult it is to manage all of the backmatter, and all the stores, and all the stuff.
How do you manage updating such an enormous backlist?
LA: I mean, I can’t necessarily say I manage it well. Like I use Vellum for formatting, so it doesn’t take very long.
Earlier this year, when I decided to pull out of Kindle Unlimited, I decided that was also the time I was going to go and reformat everything and put new backmatter on everything.
That meant doing it for about 450 books because when you figure in all the translations and everything, it comes out to about 450. I just took a few days, and that was all I did. It was just put a book in vellum, put new backmatter on it. And it was the same backmatter in all of them. Then I went and uploaded them.
Putting them wide took a few weeks. I would basically pull like 20 or 25 books at a time from Kindle Unlimited, put those wide, then pull 20 or 25 more.
I’m still learning how to market wide because I’ve been in Kindle Unlimited for so long. It’s a whole new world.
— so I’m still learning how to do that. I just recently started doing direct sales. I’m still populating my Shopify store. It’s been mostly a matter of just doing all the logistics of the formatting, and uploading and listing everything. I haven’t really gotten to the marketing side of it yet. But no, I don’t have any assistance or anything like that. I do it all myself.
Joanna: Yeah, it’s serious RSI with all the clicking.
LA: Oh god. Yeah, I was dreaming about Vellum. When I was dreaming about Vellum, I was like, it’s time to take a couple days off.
Joanna: Yeah, I mean, I’ve been doing the Ingram Spark change to 40% discount, which is one of those, again, it was every single one of my books and all these different formats.
I had a thing every day, it was like, okay, this is the half an hour of Ingram updates section. I would just have to go and do that. And again, people are like why didn’t you just outsource this? I knew that at the same time, I wanted to check other things on the books. So I feel like that’s sometimes why we do it ourselves, and not just outsource.
Do you work with any assistants?
I guess you’ve mentioned a co-writer.
LA: I do have co-writers. I work with Cari Z and Anna Zabo pretty regularly. So we’ll split a lot of the labor. Like Anna does our formatting, I do our cover art, I list our stuff on my various accounts and handle the royalties. Then with Cari, I do the cover and the formatting, she does a ton of the editing. So we balance a lot of that stuff out.
But with my own stuff, most of the stuff I do is my own, I tend to do it all on my own. I hire editors, narrators, translators, but I do cover art and formatting on my own. All the all the administrative stuff I do on my own. Every time I’ve thought about hiring an assistant or someone, it honestly comes down to that it’s going to take me longer to train them than it does to do it myself.
Joanna: No, it’s really just that we have a control freakery problem!
LA: I have hired out for my website in the past, but I have to update my website so frequently, that I need to be able to update it myself. And obviously, no web designers are gonna let me do that. So I either need them to be on call 24/7, which is totally not reasonable, or I need access to it. So the solution is to do it myself.
Joanna: I’m the same. And I’ve certainly always said to people, you should do your own website, because like you say, we update lots of things regularly. So you need to know how to do that.
You said there that you came out of KU, but you’d been in that a very long time. And of course, that is a very personal decision. People listening, you make your own decision, but—
I’m interested in why you decided to come out of KU.
LA: The primary issue was that I saw a lot of people reporting that they’d had their accounts terminated for a lot of erroneous reasons.
Even the ones that were able to get their accounts restored, it took weeks to do it, and they lost a lot of money and algorithms. I just realized that I’ve had my account threatened so many times over violations that weren’t actually violations, that it was too big of a risk for me.
I’ve actually had them threaten to terminate my account before, and I was worried with as aggressive as they were getting about shutting down accounts, I just decided that it was time to get out and lower the risk. So over the course of about six or eight weeks, I pulled all but I think three titles off of Kindle Unlimited.
Joanna: I haven’t made that switch because I’ve never been in it, but from people I’ve heard from, it is a bit of a shock because, as you say, you have to learn how to do different ways of selling to different stores.
It’s not the same way of marketing, not the same income stream. So how have you adjusted to that?
What are your plans in terms of trying to ramp up sales elsewhere?
LA: Fortunately, I did already have a Draft2Digital account because I had been experimenting with moving a few titles wide.
I did have some titles that like were part of a multi-author series, where we all agreed to go wide. So I had a handful of books that were already out there. So I at least already had a hand in it. Then I got a Kobo account, I got a Google Play account, and I started just learning how to use those. I joined a bunch of groups on Facebook where people were talking about how to go wide.
Fortunately, translations do very well. At least in my genre, they do very well on Kobo and Tolino.
The drop in money from KU was almost completely canceled out by the increase in money from translations being sold wide.
So it ended up leveling out pretty quickly. I’m still learning how to market, like I’m starting to release books wide instead of on KU, and it’s just a learning curve. I’m still learning how to do direct sales, so.
Joanna: Yeah, well, aren’t we all?! That’s interesting.
What languages are doing well?
I mean, obviously German. You mentioned Tolino, which if people don’t know, is the German eBook reader. Any other languages doing well through Kobo?
LA: French and German both do very well, for me. Italian doesn’t do as well, but I still have strong enough sales there that I have a translator who is always translating something for me. And just, over time, I have built up a back list in Italian. But French and German have definitely been my strongest, especially on Kobo.
Joanna: Okay, yes, because they have a strong partnership there in France. So it’s interesting.
We’re almost out of time, but romance is well known to be the niche where you can make the most money. A lot of the biggest earners come out of romance, but it’s also incredibly competitive.
New authors coming in are like, ‘well, you have 200 books, like how can I compete against you and all the other romance authors who’ve been doing this so long?’ So if people are coming in now and want to write romance, what are your recommendations now?
If you were just starting out in a competitive niche, what would you be doing?
LA: Particularly, I mean, I know more about the LGBT romance genre than the hetero-romance genre.
In LGBT, my biggest recommendation by far is to get involved in group projects. A lot of people are doing an anthologies, like the buy in anthologies. I haven’t done any of those, and I haven’t really had success with anthologies, so I’m not going to say I don’t recommend them, just that they haven’t worked for me.
There are a lot of people doing group projects, like shared universes, joint series. I did a series a few years ago, it was the Bolt Bruce series, where every book somehow related back to this coffee shop, and all the books in the series had coffee related titles.
I did one called Bluewater Bay about 10 years ago, where we had a town, and it was this little tiny town on the Washington State coast, and they were also filming a TV series there. So your book could just be part of the town, it could be part of the TV series, and I want to see we had like 15 authors involved in that one.
Whenever I’ve done group projects—like I’m actually doing one right now, I’m working on a hockey project—we always try to get in some big-name authors, but also some new authors, some midlisters.
We try and get everybody in and that way everybody’s marketing each other. You do tend to get a lot of reviews where people will say, “This is my first book by so and so,” or, “I’m a big fan of ‘insert popular author in the group,’ so now I’m gonna go read the rest of the series.”
That’s been the biggest thing I’ve seen because there’s a big vibe of the rising tide lifts all ships. So a lot of people will try and get a mix of new and established authors into a group project. Then everybody promotes each other.
I just did one a few months ago, it was The Carnival of Mysteries. It’s like this paranormal carnival series. I want to say there’s like 12 books in it by now, all across the board, new and old authors. It’s been a really good promotional thing, especially for the new people.
Joanna: I love that idea.
How do people find those opportunities?
Is it a case of going to conventions or joining Facebook groups? Or how do they find that kind of opportunity?
LA: There’s a lot of groups on Facebook, at least in my genre, they’ll have groups that are for authors within our genre, authors helping authors, things like that.
People will post, “Hey, I’m doing a group project,” or whatever. One of them annually puts up a thread that says if you’re willing to do a group project, or you’re hosting a group project, put it up here. We’ll all kind of communicate that way.
Sometimes an author will reach out and say—like when I started doing my hockey project, I went and found everybody I knew of who wrote hockey or who was into hockey, like an author who was into hockey, but maybe hadn’t written it, and said, “Would you be interested in joining this project?”
So sometimes it’s invites, sometimes it’s through groups. Publishers have done them. They’ll put up, and say, “Hey, we’re getting authors together for this group. Submit something if you want to.”
Sarina Bowen actually did one, I want to say it was like three years ago, with her True North series. She said she was allowing people to write within her True North world. So she just opened it up to submissions, and we would submit a synopsis and what we wanted to write. That was a huge series, I think there was actually four sub series. There was like a wine bar, a university, a hockey team. There was a bunch of authors in that. Then they ended up doing a second spin off of one of them. So I ended up submitting two books to that one. But that was just she opened it up and took submissions for it.
Join some email lists, join some groups, network with other authors.
People are very open, aren’t they, to helping others. We all started with nothing.
LA: In my genre, I’ve noticed there’s a lot of support for new authors. You know, a lot of authors are shy about meeting the people that are already established.
Then as soon as they start talking to people, they realize even those of us that have been around for a while, we’re still the ones who get starstruck by our own fans. We still can’t believe we’re doing this. We’ll go to conventions, and there’ll be on a panel with some of us that have been around for a while, and we’re like, we’re just authors just like you. We’re just readers, just like you. You know, it’s all good.
You start realizing there isn’t really this elitist, you know, ‘oh you’re below us, you can’t be part of our group.’ It isn’t as cliquey as some people are afraid it is. A lot of times if you just put it out there, “I would really love to do a group project. I would really love to do something like this,” people catch wind of that. But yeah, get involved in groups. Get involved in author groups within your genre, and you’ll find kind of your own community.
Where can people find you, and your books, and everything you do online?
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Lori. That was great.
LA: Thanks for having me.
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Author: Joanna Penn