An Experiment in Genre

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When I was 22 and fresh out of college, I got a job as a copywriter with Fawcett Books, one of the top three paperback houses of the time. They published several lines of romances that sold very well and paid well, too, for what seemed to me not too  much effort–much less effort than waiting tables at night, as I did to supplement my meager publishing pay. From childhood I’d been determined to become a writer, not of pulp but of the sort of novels I myself admired. But I knew that writers need either a private income or a day job. Lacking the former, I would need the latter–and what better day job for a writer than writing? I had a college buddy who also worked at Fawcett; we talked it over and decided to experiment by writing a paperback romance on spec. We had an obvious “in” with the editor; if we produced a novel up to her standards, we knew she’d buy it.

Romance novelWe read a few of the bestselling romances, analyzed the formula, and set about constructing one of our own, hashing out a plot, then writing alternate chapters.  But it was harder going than we’d expected, largely because neither of us had any real interest in the genre. And after a few weeks, our experiment came to an abrupt end when my writing buddy’s wife decided she didn’t like the idea of us collaborating.

I tell you this story by way of introducing my guest today, C.S. Lakin, indie author of 14 novels and conductor of a far more successful writing experiment.  A short while ago, I ran across a fascinating blog post about an experiment she did to test the importance of genre in marketing self-published fiction.  Her results surprised me; I think they surprised a lot of longtime writers.  As a former agent, I was particularly pleased to see a path for writers to support themselves and more by taking smart advantage of the opportunities in the self-pub market. What she did should replicable, too, by writers who are good, fast, and savvy, which makes it all the more interesting. Here is her own account of that experiment.

 

           Writing to Genre without Selling Out

                        Blog post by C. S. Lakin

 

 CS-LakinWriters who love to write fiction often eschew the idea of crafting a novel or novella solely to target a specific audience—especially if the primary goal is to sell a lot of books in order to make money. To many, putting money-making or the goal to top the best-seller lists ahead of writing “genuinely” or “from the heart” is a sellout, a compromise. It shows lack of scruples or integrity. It paints the writer as a cheap, spineless hack just out to make a buck. At least, that’s how some purists feel.

Aren’t we novelists supposed to be holding up the flame of truth and quality to shine in the world? Isn’t writing to a specific best-selling genre a sacrifice of quality and an affront to our muse? Good questions.

For years (decades) I wrote novels based on ideas I was passionate about. I created stories with deep, rich themes, and spent endless hours honing my craft in order to write the best, most compelling books I could.

And I wrote many of them, in numerous genres, but always honoring the purist’s oath, which might go something like “First, do not compromise.” I felt if I were to compromise my integrity by writing something just to sell big, I would bring shame to myself and my writing profession.

 “It’s Fine for Other Writers to Sellout . . .”

 Sure, I knew plenty of wonderful writers who wrote just to make money. They sometimes wrote books or magazine articles they didn’t like in order to get those checks and pay their bills. They had families to support. I didn’t judge them. In fact, I wholeheartedly supported what they were doing.

 But it wasn’t for me. I wanted to write books that meant something, that moved hearts, that changed lives. And I’m glad I spent those twenty-plus years writing beautiful novels that indeed did mean something, move hearts, and change lives. I’m very proud of those books.

 What Did I Do Wrong?

 But they’ve never really made me any money. Why? At first I thought it was just bad luck. And then bad marketing. I did everything my successful friends said to do. I build a huge online presence and engaged in social media. I paid for publicists and marketers and did blog tours.

 But even though I spent a fortune in time and money, nothing paid off. I joined the hundreds of thousands of authors who lament they just can’t get discovered. My novels won awards and got terrific reviews, but they didn’t sell.

 It Was Time I Faced the Truth

 I didn’t want to admit the truth to myself, so spent two years contacting successful indie authors, inviting them to share their stories on my blog Live Write Thrive, asked them endless questions. Finally the truth glared at me in the face.

 What truth? That genre matters. I had to admit that although my books were getting terrific reviews and winning awards, they were not strict genre novels—in fact many of my books were a bit experimental and couldn’t be easily categorized.

 With indie publishing, authors like me have been able to publish our “unusual” or “different” novels and find readers. Some do make that break into best-sellerdom, but not many. When I took a look at my author friends who were making easily five figures each month, often off one title, or would release a book and it would hit the best-seller lists off the bat, I paid close attention to what genre they were writing in. And that revealed the key.

 Maybe It’s Just Luck

 I thought they were just luckier than me. I thought perhaps they were doing something special with their marketing and author platform that I wasn’t. But when I interviewed them all, I found out the truth. They were not. Many had little author platform. Some (yikes!) had none. I mean—no website, no social media, no previous novels out, no name, nada. Huh?

 What I did see was that these hugely successful authors were writing to a specific genre, and often a niche genre. What do I mean by that? I mean a subgenre that has a particular readership—one that is very large and one that has few (compared to other main genres) books available for sale. What I was seeing was a manifestation of the old economics “supply and demand” rule.

 But could that really be true? Could an unknown author write a novel with no author platform for one of these subgenres and sell big, with no additional effort other than putting her book up on Amazon, carefully using the same kind of description, cover, etc.?

 I was dying to find out.

 My Genre Experiment

 So, here’s what I did, in a nutshell (I plan to write an entire ebook soon on this experiment/method called From Idea to Selling in Three Months, so others writers can do this too!):

  • I picked the subgenre I was told “sells itself” without any author platform
  • I came up with a pen name so I would be an unknown, unpublished author
  • I chose one novel to deconstruct. [NOTE PLEASE: I did not plagiarize or copy the plot, writing, or tried to mimic this author. I just deconstructed the structure. If you don’t know what that involves, buy my book when it comes out!]
  • After deconstructing the novel, I plotted and constructed mine
  • I hired the same cover designer to brand my look for my series
  • While writing the novel, I copied and pasted 30 Amazon descriptions of books in this genre in order to create my own in the same style and fashion [NOTE: this was a genre I had never even read, so had no clue how this differed from the genres I already wrote in]
  • I got a couple of well-known author friends and a reviewer for the Examiner to read in advance and write me reviews/endorsements, so I’d have something to put in the book and on the Amazon page
  • I did set up tweets (not as my pen name but via my real Twitter account) to get some exposure
  • I set up a Facebook page for the author, but did nothing to promote it. Even now it has maybe 25 likes. So no big influence there
  • I hired an assistant to find bloggers and reviewers, but only had three people blog about the novel when it was released

 So, essentially, as far as author platform goes, I did almost nothing to build or prepare for this book release. I felt I should do a minimal amount of promoting, just as many of my successful author friends do when releasing a new book. And of course, their subsequent books sell very well too, since they have, inadvertently, build a bit of author platform just from the sales and buzz of the earlier novels released.

 My Results

 Lakin's ExperimentThe novel has only been out a month. Within the first two weeks, the book jumped to paid #247 on Amazon, and hit the top-ten genre lists: Historicals, Historical Westerns, Western Romance. My genre is Historical Western Romance (and more specifically sweet Western—meaning no sex or heat).

 In those two weeks, the book sold more than 1,500 copies at full price ($3.99 US), while all the top twenty on the lists were sale priced. I wanted to start out the gate with the novel regularly priced and not discounted, based on Mark Coker’s research (Smashwords) that $3.99 sells better than any other price. I also wanted to imply “quality” because it is a long, rich, quality book.

 My novel has been on the genre lists’ top 100 ever since, selling about 30-50 books a day. Way more than I ever made on any of my other dozen novels. Here’s the interesting thing. I made $3,600 or so in three weeks. I was told by writers of that specific subgenre that they make about $3k a month off each book. Which is what it looks like I’m making. Why? Supply and demand.

 One author sold 80,000 copies of her first novel, with no Internet presence, website, or author platform. She still doesn’t have a website, and her books are all selling in the tens of thousands. Is she a terrific writer, better than anyone else out there? No. She writes good books for the genre, as do the others who are selling well.

 Genre Isn’t the Only Factor

 I can’t emphasize enough that first and foremost an author has to write a terrific book. And it now looks to me that a terrific book in one genre just may sell a whole lot more than a terrific book in another genre. Authors who lament that their “terrific” book (if it indeed is one) is not selling, may need to consider genre. Maybe they might even want to try their own genre experiment.

 My novel has been getting mostly 5-star reviews, and what pleases me most is when reviewers say I wrote a book that perfectly reflects the genre. I did my homework and it paid off. The strict genres I’ve noted sell well in addition to romance, romance, and more romance are paranormal, thrillers, and mystery (and YA versions of all those).

 I don’t read or particularly like romance, but the RWA (Romance Writers of America) recently noted statistics showing that 40 percent of ALL ebooks sold are romance. And I actually had a blast writing this novel, with two more in the series slated to come out in 2014. I love Lonesome Dove and always wanted to try my hand at Westerns.

 You Don’t Have to “Sellout” to “Sell Big”

 I don’t think writers should “sellout” and write something they don’t want to write just to make money, but hopefully I’ve given you food for thought. And it does feel nice to be able to pay the bills. Surely there is some big-selling genre you can tailor your writing to and even find enjoyment in the process.

 Barbara here again, with a special bonus. As I read Susanne’s guest post, a few questions presented themselves.  I posed them to her, and her answers are below.

Q:  Your genre for the experimental novel was an historical one. How much research did you have to invest to write this book?

A: I spent a couple of long weeks doing the research. I’d never written a historical before and the thought intimidated me, since I really dislike seeing historical errors in manuscripts or novels and know the author has a burden to be as accurate as possible. But since I had lived on the Front Range for a few years, I had a personal feel and experience of the locale at least. I contacted the curator of the Greeley Museum and was given a five-page list of bibliography that I drew from. I ordered a dozen or so books on the history of the town and region and took a lot of notes. I really had a lot of fun doing this and asked a lot of questions.

Q: As you had little or no platform and no publisher working for you on the experimental novel, how do you think so many readers discovered and continue to discover your book? (The more specific you can be on this point, the happier I’ll be. “Buzz” alone, though surely a factor,  doesn’t edify.)

detectiveA: I don’t think buzz really had much to do with it, if at all. The author I modeled after said she, as well as the other authors she knows who write in this subgenre, put her book out and it went right to the top of the genre charts and sold nearly 100,000 copies in the first year. She didn’t do any marketing or promotion. As I said in my post, there is a supply and demand at work, so I’m assuming readers of this genre go online and search for new books. I do believe, though the best way to be discovered on Amazon is for your book to come up in the top twenty (best to be in the top six so it shows at the top) when search words are typed in. I was careful to put in a lot of keywords in my product page and choose the keywords that readers would use to search for a book like this. Contrary to what Amazon recommends, I feel putting in the genres as keywords is crucial. Readers looking for a historical western romance are going to type those words in the search bar, not words like Colorado or horse vet or something obscure. Amazon feels people search by interests and would type in “strong female lead” or “grief.” To prove my point, before I even sold one book, the book came up on the top ten in lists (for the genres Western and historical Westerns) under new releases tab on the first day. I’m sure if readers were online looking for a new historical western and clicked on new releases, that’s how they found my book. The key is to be up at the top of the lists. The author I mentioned kept her book at 99 cents the whole year, never raising the price. Back a couple of years ago many thought that was the way to go, modeling after Amanda Hocking’s success. I notice usually all but about three on the top twenty of these genres on any given day are priced between 99 cents and 2.99. So that’s something for me to consider. I’ve sold nearly 4,000 copies in six weeks at 3.99. I did put the book on sale last week for a promo at 1.99 to see what would happen and the book jumped back up the lists. So I have to decide if I want to sell tens of thousands of copies to say I have a best seller or whether I want to make more money and sell less. I haven’t decided yet. I know I got off topic here, but feel the whole trick to selling is to be noticed, and this is the way you get noticed.

3. You say that you’ve invested a lot of time in building a platform for your other books with disappointing results; yet the book tailored to a carefully chosen genre sold extremely well without any platform. Given that time is a writer’s capital, what value do you now place on platform-building for writers?

I think platform is essential. Being a writer is all about connecting to your fans and readers. I don’t know whether extreme effort to blog and promote a book will pay off in terms of sales compared to the time spent, but to me the marketing and promo is important along with social networking. But I hear a lot of authors say similar things that I’ve said—that they’ve tried everything to promote their book and they are not getting sales. In contrast, many of my clients releasing good first-time novels in the big-selling genres often sell big right out the gate with no name or platform. I like the idea that I can write a book and get good sales right away while I continue to build a reputation. I do believe that writing book after (great) book is the way to keep sales going and draw in new readers. That is advice I’ve heard for years from every quarter. And really, if someone wants to be a writer, they should keep writing.

Susanne, thanks so much for this thought-provoking post. Readers, your reactions?

  Bio: C. S. Lakin is the author of fourteen novels and while she writes two novels a year, she works as a freelance writing coach and copyeditor, specializing in manuscript critiques. She offers deep, free instruction for writers on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive and provides critique services via Critique My Manuscript

 Her novel, Colorado Promise, is written under her pen name Charlene Whitman (nickname Charlie), and you can buy her “experiment” here!

About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including SUSPICION and HINDSIGHT; my next novel is slated to appear early in 2013 with Viking. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school, www.nextlevelworkshop.com.
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47 Responses to An Experiment in Genre

  1. Jill McCaw says:

    Well that _is_ interesting. And thought provoking indeed. As I’m looking at doing something similar in erotic romance genre it gives me hope that I’m on the right track. I hadn’t conceptualised these ideas, just chosen a genre I knew I could write well and got stuck in. (All in the hope of keeping me sane during rewrites of my “real” book.)
    I’ll let you know how that works out.

    • Please do; I’d be interested to hear how it works out. Honestly, I’m tempted to try Susanne’s experiment myself. Time’s the problem, as usual. I’m not nearly as fast as she is.

  2. Eleanor Rogan says:

    Great interview. Interesting to learn about her decision to write her books with the genre in mind. I can understand why this could be so successful. I think that publishers have found that readers like to follow a certain type of book, thus the books by Silva, Nora Roberts, etc are so successful. So informative. Thank you.

  3. Ev Bishop says:

    Thank you so much for alerting me to Susanne Lakin’s (a.k.a. C.S. Lakin, a.k.a. Charlene Whitman :D ) original post on her fascinating experiment at http://www.thebookdesigner.comTheBookDesigner.com, then inviting her/hosting this follow up on your blog.

    Very thought-provoking, inspiring stuff. I’m finding it more confusing than ever to try to figure out the “right” direction to take with my writing these days. . . . This helps. Sort of. (No, actually it does. A lot.) ;)

  4. This was fascinating. I had no idea that historical Westerns were so popular. I also found it interesting that Susanne feels so good about this decision even though she once would have considered this move “selling out.”

  5. Fran Baker says:

    What a fascinating experiment! I changed genres (contemporary to historical, specifically Regency) and have sold steadily in my new one. But not quite as successfully in the financial sense. Good going, “Charlene”. And thanks, Barbara, for bringing this to light.

  6. Judy Koot says:

    Thanks for sharing this interesting experiment!
    I have thought about doing something like that myself many times, but there were always other stories I’d rather tell.
    If time wasn’t an issue, it would be fun to try something like this…

  7. Ruth Cooke says:

    I am so stoked to attempt this! (And I’m definitely interested in the e-book, when it comes out). I write fantasy romance for a niche audience (lesbians), and really don’t see my books being traditionally published.

    I honestly don’t think things have changed as much as we think they have. Bulk sales of romance novels, especially, have always been big. What’s changed with e-pubbing is the ability of the author to self-pub, and therefore get more of the royalties.

    • Ruth, I’m interested in the ebook, too, and have asked Susanne to let me know when it comes out. I’ll post the news here, so if you’re not already subscribed to the blog, that might be a good idea.

      Agree with you on the fact that genre books selling well isn’t new. Oldtimers may remember the racks of “penny-dreadful” super-cheap paperbacks on racks in bus stations…Actually, I’m not sure I remember that, not having taken many busses–maybe a collective memory? In any case, there was always an appetite for inexpensive pulp fiction, and self-publishing is rediscovering and feeding that market.

  8. I’m impressed, this was a real eye-opener for me! And it explains so much. I’ve had a book with what is a reasonable success in terms of customer reviews (29 in one year, and most are 5 and 4 star reviews), yet this was never followed by sales because the book is decidedly cross-genre and non-conformist!

    Yet I should have known better (I’m a trained economist, Columbia U. graduate). One ought to produce for the market…not for oneself! At least, if the objective is to sell. Like Lakin, I’ve always wanted to write books about things I was passionate about, I mean to infuse them with meaning. Big laugh. The meaning may well be there, but if no one’s reading, what’s the point?

    Thanks for sharing. If I may, I’d like to refer to this in my blog. It’s the sort of information that can be very useful to many other frustrated authors who don’t understand why they aren’t reaching out to their readers!

    • Claude, you’re very welcome to refer to this blog and link to it as well. I think Susanne’s right on the money about the importance of genre…but also the importance of writing a really good book in whatever genre it is. As a writing teacher, I’ve found that writers are generally pretty weak at assessing how good they really are. Sometimes the best ones are excessively self-critical, while the weaker writers take refuge in saying that no one fully understands their work. If a writer is working hard over years, and still not selling, not finding an agent, not finding readers for self-published work—I think he/she should consider going back to the basics: taking some writing courses, hiring a professional editor, doing whatever can be done to work on the craft.

      Because, you know, I ultimately don’t believe that “Writers ought to produce for the market, not themselves.” It’s fine to write genre pulp if the stuff sells–it’s a good way to make a living. But if writers don’t write from the deepest part of themselves about their deepest fears, aspirations, obsessions, we lose the best part of them.

  9. Crane Hana says:

    Good post, Barbara. I have a similar story.

    I didn’t so much sell out as indulge in another genre. After 20+ years of writing science fiction and fantasy (a couple of contest kudos, negligible agent interest, and only short story publication), I switched gears and wrote original fiction in the same vein as my male/male erotic romance fan fiction. That book sold within two months of my initial query.

    The really fun thing? I got to write a big, sprawling space opera and a gritty erotic romance at the same time. I got to introduce my huge SF&F universe – without completely censoring the stuff I’d probably have to cut with a Big Five SF&F imprint. I’d still love to write mainstream fantasy at some point, but I feel at home in the erotic romance genre.

  10. July says:

    Fascinating, and I can’t wait for the e-course! Sign me up. : )

    In the meantime, I’m curious about how one finds these underserved and especially viable niches? I’ve also always focused on writing something unique, and now I wonder if perhaps I missed part of the equation.

    • July—great question! I’m hoping Susanne will drop by and see it.

    • C. S. Lakin says:

      July, I’ve been asked that a lot and I don’t know the answer. One person said they go on Goodreads’ forums and have noticed conversations in which readers complain there aren’t enough books or only old ones. She mentioned, for example, native and tribal romance. Maybe by going on Amazon and Goodreads forums discussing genres you might like to write, you could ask.

  11. Like all of the great articles here, this post provides food for thought. Thanks to Barbara for posting this, and a huge thank you C.S. Lakin for sharing. Congrats on your success. I think that this type of “experiment” is likely to be far more successful if you have excellent writing chops (which, from the book’s sample, I can see you do), and as Barbara mentioned, it doesn’t hurt that you write quickly. As a writer who sees shiny ideas in many different genres, I find this method intriguing. Thanks again for sharing your story.

    • I guess for writers this is the best of times and the worst of times…at any rate they’re interesting times!

    • C. S. Lakin says:

      Thanks so much. And thanks, all, for the comments. The book continues to sell 30-50 copies a day, and I’m experimenting with pricing and layered promos to see the connection between getting high in the rankings and continued sales. Will report on that in a couple of months!

      • July says:

        Do you think you’ll write another in the same genre, or are you finished with your experiment?

        Either way, thank you again for sharing so generously about it — this was fascinating to read about.

        • C. S. Lakin says:

          I am going to write two more books this year in the series. And then I’ll see if I want to do more or start a new series. If these all sell well, I’ll keep writing in this genre. I’ve written thirteen other novels in other genres and at this point would like to make money so my husband can retire!

  12. What I find most interesting – not to say astounding – about this article is how very carefully Lakin still avoids mentioning and thus giving credit to Debra Holland, the author whose book served as inspiration for her own and whose very specific branding Lakin used for the look of her cover. To say that “Colorado Promise” was launched without a platform is incorrect; it was launched with the help of somebody else’s platform.

    The lack of generosity and the lack of respect for a fellow author evident in this article goes against everything I’ve experienced both in the romance community and the self-publishing community.

    • C. S. Lakin says:

      Hi Sandra, well, I didn’t launch on anyone else’s platform. That is a misunderstanding of what platform is. Thousands of writers throughout the decades have written romance novels to formula; this is nothing new. Writers do it now a lot. I did not copy any author’s work or leverage or steal their spotlight by pretending to be them, which is implied in your comment. Platform is individual.Sure, like many other authors in many genres, I studied some books, one in particular, but I used others, to understand the structure of the genre. I did use a cover designer that did many authors’ covers in this genre, not just that one author’s. So I feel you are off the mark here, and the professionals in this industry, in many capacities, have made very positive comments about my experiment. If you would read my novel, you would see it is completely unique and original , with my own voice and style. I did not plagarize or steal anything. You are welcome, for example, to study and deconstruct any of my novels, and find success by doing so. I teach my editing clients to do this–to study books in the genre they are trying to write. The author I mention in the post, whom I know, has no issue with what I did and in fact told me she wholeheartedly supported my writing venture. I in turn have directed many people to her and helped promote her books. So I am sorry you take issue with this, but I think you may be misunderstanding this whole business of targeting genre, which is an established and very accepted thing to do as a writer.

      • Susanne, if you read through my comment, you’ll find that at no point do I say you plagiarised Debra’s book. I also have very good understanding of “targeting genre” for not only do I happen to write genre fiction, but I also happen to have a PhD in literature and one of my fields of research is genre literature.

        You write “I in turn have directed many people to her and helped promote her books.” Where??? Frankly, I have seen no evidence of this – neither here in this article, nor in the article on Joel Friedlander’s blog.

    • Hi Sandra,

      If I thought there was anything unfair in what Susanne did, I’d never have posted her piece; and while I respect your opinion, I don’t agree with it. No writer has an exclusive right to a genre, and most genre books are formulaic in plot. The look of the book is also a function of genre. I thought it was clever to hire an artist associated with successful books in the genre. She didn’t try to disguise her book or pass it off as someone else’s; she just tried to appeal to the same readership, which is perfectly legit. If anything, I think Susanne was generous in sharing the results of her experiment with other writers, who are free to do the same thing using her books as their models, if they choose.

      • Barbara, I’ve never said that any writer has exclusive rights to any one genre. I’ve also never said that she tried to disguise her book, but anybody who is familiar with the genre in question will see at a glance that she modelled the look of her cover on the covers of one specific author, namely Debra Holland. So given that this was also the author whose book Susanne Lakin deconstructed, it would have been only respectful to mention Debra by name in this article.

  13. Hi, Barbara,

    My name is Debra Holland, and I thought you might appreciate knowing this back story about your blog post by C.S. Lakin. I’m the author whose books C.S Lankin has used to tout her current philosophy about platform (most currently on your blog.) I have asked her to be honest about using my books, but she has REFUSED, even though she’s admitted to me that she used my books. Therefore her claim above that she has my wholehearted approval is FALSE. I initially wasn’t bothered by her claim until she refused my request for her to be honest about the author she used.

    I’m all for studying a specific author’s books or a certain line or even genre to learn how to become a better writer or more about a certain type of story. I’ve done it myself before and know many others who have.

    I’m bothered that C.S./Susanne saw an OLD blog post by me that said I sold as well as I did without promotion, which was true at the time. It’s NO LONGER true. I promote now. Nor did she Tweet as infrequently as she claimed. Go look at her Tweets. She did promote the book.

    What she did was capitalize on MY platform without giving me credit so she can set herself up as a guru and make money on a how-to book. Taking cover designs and other successful elements from best-selling authors’ books doesn’t bother me because it makes sense, and I’d be the first to tell you what to do to make your cover and your book a success.

    I’m bothered that C.S./Susanne mislead both me and my cover artist in her quest for information and imitation–information that I would have freely given and much is in The Indie Voice’s book, The Naked Truth About Self-Publishing (of which I’m a co-author) and in old blog posts of mine if she’d asked me for help.

    C.S./ Susanne contacted me to get my cover artist, Delle Jacobs, and LIED to her, presenting herself as my friend requesting covers just like mine. At the time, Delle only took the commission because she and I are close, and she thought she was doing a favor for me. Although Delle did make some differences in C.S’s cover, she made them more similar to mine because she thought C.S./Susanne had my permission.

    Although (without reading the book) I don’t think she plagiarized me, and also had a different plot, she did use some elements of Wild Montana Sky, in that a heroine is displaced from her life in the city–a common enough theme for any romance. There’s a love triangle–again not uncommon in romance. She also chose the same unusual occupation/desire for her heroine as one of mine–botanical illustrator. If you’re going to claim to de-construct another author’s work, be very careful not to do ANYTHING that could copy it.

    I’m bothered by the false claim that she’s done an experiment which proves that you can write a sweet Western historical romance and not do any promo and have success. There’s far more to writing in this subgenre then just using a platform, and she is (and will) mislead other authors with this misinformation. I offered to write a blog post WITH her that would give other authors more complete information about both the sweet genre AND how to dissect a book to learn, but not copy, from another author. She turned me down.

    I’m bothered that she says she doesn’t like romance or write romance (which I believe is the real reason she used a pen name, not for an experiment) but is going to write it anyway to make money. There’s NOTHING wrong with writing whatever you want or you think will be profitable. Just don’t put the genre down in a public forum.

    When she first posted on another blog, and it was brought to my attention, the Yahoo group, I was part of (which many big name authors are a part of) discussed the blog post for two days, with many people annoyed and disgusted with her. Only my request that they NOT go to the blog (nor start emailing all their author friends) and start posting angry comments prevented a flame war.

    I’ve quietly spoken to the head of Amazon Publishing (he’s a big fan of my books,) and emailed the president of RWA National, and the president of my local chapter. Because C.S./Susanne hasn’t (to my knowledge) plagiarized me, there’s nothing anyone can do at this point.) But there has been a universal negative reaction among authors to what she has done, which will only grow.

    I kept things quiet and low key because I thought she’d give up the idea of a self-help book and stop misleading authors. Now that I know that’s not the case, I’m sharing information. NOT because I want drama. That’s the last thing I want. But when I saw the false claims above, I had to break my public silence and respond.

    • Jana DeLeon says:

      I am so glad you finally responded to this travesty, Debra. Since I first read about this, I was disgusted.

      Here’s a thought – why doesn’t everyone who wants to be a real artist be themselves. Pretending to be someone else doesn’t make you an artist. It makes you a cheap, sweat-shop imitation.

      Readers may buy books (or not), but don’t expect most writers to have any respect for this “method” of fooling readers into buying your production line product. Those of us who’ve worked years to establish ourselves – our name, our work, our creativity – in the marketplace, won’t take kindly to someone attempting to piggyback on our hard earned success.

    • Hi Debra and Susanne,

      Debra, thanks for writing. I am sorry to hear that this blog post exacerbated hard feelings that I didn’t know existed. I’d read the comments on Joel Friedlander’s blog, but if this emerged then, I must have missed it.

      Nobody’s asked me for my opinion but hey, it’s my blog, and after 40 years in the business I figure I’ve earned a few. But this one comes from the heart. Life’s hard enough for writers without fighting among ourselves. Susanne acknowledges using Debra’s book as a model for the genre, which initially Debra took as a compliment–as any writer would, told the same thing. Debra has asked to be credited–a reasonable request. I don’t expect you two will be co-authoring books anytime soon, or riding off together under that big Montana sky, but maybe a gracious credit could be the basis for a mutually beneficial way of moving forward if and when Susanne publishes her how-to book.

      Thus endeth my contribution to world peace.

      What I found most interesting in Susanne’s experiment, and still do, is the issue of discoverability via genre. Since the post ran I’ve talked a lot with people who buy writers by genre, using Amazon’s lists to find them; so getting on those lists seems key. No, duh, you may be saying, but I’d never really thought of this before.

  14. C. S. Lakin says:

    Here’s what Debra wrote on The Book Designer in response to the post:
    A wonderful article. I have no idea if I was the author whose sweet historical Western romance you chose to deconstruct, and since I’m a huge self-publishing cheerleader, I won’t mind a bit if you did. I do know that when your book first hit the top 100 Western romance list and I saw your cover that I thought you copied the style of my New York Times bestselling Montana Sky Series covers–same font style and a beautiful setting rather than a clinch cover. Again, not something that bothers me. :) I think your cover is beautiful.

    When I self-published my first two books, Wild Montana Sky and Starry Montana Sky, in April 2011, I was stunned by how the books took off so quickly without any promotion on my part. I’d found two under served niches–Sweet AND Historical Western. Within a year, Wild Montana Sky hit the USA Today list–a huge shock for a previously unknown and unpublished (in fiction) author, who had a stack of rejections for this book.

    With the visible success of my sweet series, other authors started publishing their sweet books, proving what I’ve believed all along (and amiably argued with some editors about) that there are readers who will read any type of romance as long as it’s a good story AND there are readers who been wanting traditional (not sexy) romances but didn’t have much access to them.

    The important thing is to write the story that YOU want to tell, not just write for the market. It’s too hard to write a book in a genre or subgenre you don’t enjoy. Or maybe I should say, it’s too difficult to CONTINUE writing in a genre you don’t enjoy. Also, in this rapidly shifting publishing world, the popularity of certain genres or subgenres can change before your book is published.

    All the best, Debra

    A bit shocking to suddenly see such a vitriolic response in such contrast to the previous one. And when I joined RWA, I noted that many of the best-selling authors used pen names (some with multiple pen names), so that makes me think there is a reason they are not using their real name. Why do you think that might be?

    • Debra’s reply to your comment on Joel Friedlander’s blog? That was her being polite and giving you the benefit of doubt. And at the time, when this thing blew up on a Yahoo Group I’m on, and many authors (among them big-name, bestselling authors) expressed their dismay at what you were doing and the way you were handling the situation, she responded reasonably (not bitter, not angry) and asked that this was not turned into a flame war. She wanted to handle this privately with you.

      Her comment here? That was not vitriolic. That was putting the facts straight (still in a very polite way, btw).

  15. Perhaps, you should also post our email exchange after I left the above comment where you refused to go public with the truth AND refused a joint blog to further educate people about writing sweet and how to ethically (although I didn’t use that word at the time) deconstruct a book. After our emails is when I read your original post and the comments more carefully. I’d only skimmed them before I wrote the post, which was a mistake on my part. That’s when I became upset.

    I really have no intention of being drawn into an argument, although it may look as if that’s the case. :) I just want the truth from my point of view.

  16. C. S. Lakin says:

    Some bits from an email I sent Debra: “The joint post idea is cool…. If you do a blog post, I’d be glad to share some tips but it can’t be covered in a post or two, for sure.” Debra wrote: “I didn’t for a moment think you copied my story. I’m sure we have enough readers in common who would have jumped all over you if you had. I totally understand about having a different voice. …My idea was to do a blog on how to do a deconstruction of a book/author’s work. There is nothing wrong with that. I have friends who have done that with popular authors and it’s another way to learn the craft.” Just for the record …

    Debra, I am sad you now suddenly feel differently about my foray into writing in this genre. I just can’t justify responding further to the false and hurtful accusations, as it is unprofessional. I respect you as an author, and I have never put down the romance genre. I mentioned that I never read or wrote it before and so it was a learning curve for me. I used Cheyenne Amber quite extensively in my research, since it was set in Colorado and had a lot to do with Native American details, which is big in my novel (and not more than mentioned in yours).

    Does every author have to publicly mention the names of books and authors they have studied in order to write the books they have? Who did you study and emulate in order to write Montana Sky? Did you give them credit along the way, as the key to your success? How many writers actually do that, and do they really need to? I was influenced by many writers throughout my life, and they have informed my style. Yet, my style is unique. All anyone has to do is read one of your novels and my new novel to see they are world’s apart. Attempting to take some kind of legal action against another author for writing in the same genre doesn’t make the accuser look very good.

    I only wish you continued success in joy in your writing journey, as I have all along. And, as I said to you via email, I felt, and it was advised, not to mention your name so as to prevent hordes of writers from plagiarizing your books, thinking mistakenly that your specific book held some secret to big sales, which would be completely missing the point of writing to a genre. I won’t give any more comments on this matter since it will only create more problems for you, as it’s never wise to publicly attack anyone–it always backfires. I sincerely meant no harm and I wish you the best.

    • Mary says:

      Please just keep on writing as you did in Colorado Promise. I, like others, enjoy your writing which is refreshing. I wish you success both professionally and financially with future romance novels.

      As far as pricing, if the story is good, readers will pay $3.99 (Kindle download) I have paid more and never felt cheated when a book is a good one.

  17. > I have never put down the romance genre.

    Really? Ms. Lakin, you seem to have a selective memory. On Joel Friedlander’s blog on Dec. 18, you wrote:

    “I don’t read or particularly like romance.”

    You don’t like romance. You spelled it out right there in black-and-white. That certainly sounds like someone putting down the genre that so many of us love. Your attitude comes across as, “I don’t read romance and I don’t like it, but I’ll hold my nose and write it to make a buck.” That kind of condescension doesn’t go over well in the romance community.

    As I’ve always told my writing students, it’s best to be 100% true to your own voice, and write in the genre that you love most. Attempting to be a pale imitation of another author — especially in a genre you don’t even like — is no way to establish a long-term career as a novelist. You can’t fake your way to success.

    • Hi Shelly,

      As I wrote in my response to Debra Holland and C.S. Larkin, I think writers have enough problems in life without attacking each other. I hope C.S. Larkin and Debra Holland will work out their differences amicably–based on the issues and the people involved, that seems doable. Throwing fuel on the fire doesn’t seem to me productive–neither does rephrasing another writer’s words in the most incendiary words possible. You do it well, but you know, I think writers are like gun-owners — we should be selective about using our weapons.

    • Mary says:

      I have read plenty of romance novels and other books who I image authors were passionate about their story that were not good. I think this shows if you are a good writer, have a good imagination and research the story can result in an excellent novel even in areas you have less interest. As a romance novel reader, I was not at all insulted with Ms. Lakin’s comments about not liking romance. If Ms. Lakin continues to write as well as her first romance novel, I can see her succeed and will like this area even more due to financial gains. Good for her.

  18. I don’t agree that any successful romance writer writes “to a formula” there is NO formula and saying there is is offensive to romance authors. There is absolutely no formula.
    In all genre fiction there are tropes that you can choose to use or not use. Tropes aren’t a formula. They are brief ideas that you have to play with and interpret in your own way.

  19. There are also tropes in every genre not just romance. Even literary fiction has a few tropes, and I say that as someone with a masters degree with honors in English Literature and as a romance writer.

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