My book Awash with Summer Roses has gone through many cover revisions. Being artsy and having your own vision of how something should be can be a real pain when it comes to marketing. If there's one thing I've learned since writing books, it's that "art" books and actual "marketable" books are not necessarily the same. This is true for all kinds of art, not just books.
Some people stumble into making a product that ends up being extremely marketable due to their own interests. If you adore vampire romances, read a ton, and decide to write one, you've made a seriously marketable book. There's a huge audience for this kind of thing so the demand is high even though many people will argue the market is oversaturated. Better to be in high demand with potential oversaturation than to write something with little to no demand.
But is it better? That depends on your goals. If you want to make art for the sake of making art, whether that's books, music, or something else entirely, please do. Creating art is insanely cathartic. However, if you want to create commercial art, marketable art, realize it isn't the same as just creating whatever is in your head--unless you're already a lover of a popular market like I said about the vampire romance deal. If that's the case, the art and the commercial art are the same for you. Lucky!
Even if you write a commercial book that has a huge market, you still have to do the work of marketing, but it falls into place a lot easier. How do I know this? Well, I've been publishing books since May 2015 now. It has been a crazy journey. Let me tell you about it.
The first book I published was The Hidden Lights, the first book in The Soul Seer Saga. I did everything, wrote the story, formatted the eBook, drew the book cover, all of it. I have two people in my life very good at editing. One is a star at conceptual/story editing while the other is picky about grammar. Both of them are very supportive, and I would not be where I am today if I didn't have all their help. THANK YOU, SHELBY AND TIFFANY. I LOVE YOU GUYS. Anyway, I was really proud of this book, okay? It was the first time I could say I had a book open to the rest of the world, a huge work of art.
Well, I didn't know what to expect after that. I had no idea about marketing. Other than the handful of family and friends who bought the book, it tanked. It was disappointing. Not gonna lie. I'm a realist so I didn't expect it to just take off or anything, but I also had no idea how to give it its best fighting chance so it just kinda sat there in limbo.
So I wrote the next book.
The Soul Seer Saga is a moshpit of genres and ideas, and I still don't know what kind of people I should try to market it to. The genre I keep coming back to is dystopian, since that was perhaps my biggest inspiration for the book, but it has paranormal elements, new adult aged characters, action/adventure, fantasy, a character study. It's a series that'll end up being nine books long when it's finished, and it doesn't deal with the tropes and things people expect in a dystopian story, at least not right away. It's not like the Hunger Games or The Maze Runner where people are thrust into dangerous games for their lives. And at the same time it is, but you wouldn't know it until much later. I dreamed up The Soul Seer Saga because of my love of dystopian fiction, which is a popular genre, but I didn't strictly adhere to the formula.
Because I like weird books the most, books that are just a little outside of the norm or VERY outside of it. And I like MANY different things, so my "art" ends up including a lot of different ideas. For instance, I'm an avid fan of Japanese media, and it has a very different flavor from American media, which I also like. But if I mix the two, I'm potentially alienating people. Yeah, marketing is rough, and I think about it all the time now. Along with my love for the "weird," I like indie things the most. Indie video games, indie movies, you name it. In many ways, they have the most heart. And what else? Often a much smaller audience. Because they aren't commercial art.
But Kestra, look at things like Undertale and Homestuck. They made it big. Yes, indeed! There will always be exceptions and there will always be times when a certain kind of art just resonates with people and gets passed along because of it. Undertale and Homestuck are niche, underground, indie, but they cast a wide net because they resonated with a lot of people.
There are also indies, in books especially since that's the thing I know most about, that have made it huge too, but not because they made something weird that just happened to resonate with a bunch of people. Elisa S. Amore is one such example. The lady is amazing. Why? She dreamed up a story that she immediately recognized as something that would jive with lovers of Hush, Hush, Twilight, and other young adult paranormal romances that easily seep over to adults. She wrote the commercial books in the Touched Saga, she identified her market, and she went for it (proper investing included, for marketing and ads as well as book covers, editing, everything). And she succeeded. Check out her blog post about the conception of the Touched Saga. It's quite interesting.
I can say with full confidence that if you are a Twilight Saga fan, you will adore the Touched Saga. That proves how commercial the Touched Saga is, because what did I say about vampire romances earlier? Yeah, well the Touched Saga is about angels of death, but it's paranormal and the romance, potential love triangle that isn't really a love triangle because the one guy is obviously the one, as well as other details that make people love the Twilight Saga, are included in this story. Is it a copycat story then? Definitely not.
This use of tropes is what keeps a story familiar. It's what makes up the different genres. That's why someone who loves sci-fi will go from one sci-fi to the next because they love the elements that make it sci-fi. They want the familiar but given to them in a brand new way all over again. Genre fiction, friends. It's an indie author's money-making playground if done right. That's not to say that anything is guaranteed, but we're talking about probability. You write commercial art, you market it effectively, your chances of succeeding are significantly higher than the person writing a mashup of genres they love but really don't have audiences that intersect, or the person writing the weird book that is just their own mind and heartfelt art. Exceptions exist, but if you're playing the money game, I wouldn't count on them.
The Soul Seer Saga was made from my heart with hardly thinking about a market. It shows. It's my worst selling series to date. I revamped it some, giving it new covers that at least looked a lot more age appropriate than my previous digital painting cartoony style. I used stock photos and tried to make them fit a little more into an action/adventure dystopian vibe. The biggest problem with the series is that I have no idea where to market it, and so it continues to sit. I could always push for the dystopian market. I could tweak the covers and the blurbs to match, but the story is still what it is. And I don't see a big market for it, so I let it sit. (I hate going into debt. If I've done the research and I don't see something paying off, I don't take the chance.)
Here's the new cover for The Hidden Lights.
I started asking myself these marketing questions when The Soul Seer Saga fell flat. Then the universe aligned for me. Shelby told me about Bookbub. I signed up because I love books and Bookbub has good deals, and then I found Open Minds by Susan Kaye Quinn. I read the book, loved it, found out Susan was indie and very open about talking about this author gig, and joined a Facebook group that taught me so flipping much. It was called For Love or Money, the same name as a book Susan wrote for authors, and it was about the very thing I'm talking about. Do you write your books for your own love or for the commercial world? The For Love or Money Facebook group has been disbanded because Susan wanted to get back to her writer's life and managing a group takes a lot of time especially with how big it grew, but she still writes VERY helpful blog posts I recommend checking out.
Even with all these great resources, I was stubborn. And I have a habit of getting lost in my art. I started writing a book called Awash with Summer Roses when I had an IDEA about marketing and commercial books, but I still went off the rails and just wrote the book I wanted to read, the book I wanted to write. So I let it be, but I also put it on the backburner while I worked on a penname, Felicity Kross. I decided I wanted to write books that would sell because I was willing to put in the work to be an author. I proved that to myself. And more than any other job in this world, I want writing to be the thing to sustain me. It's a work I find fulfilling. Something fulfilling is far more important to me than being rich. So I set a goal: I want writing to equal a good day job so I'm not constantly watching money but not necessarily something where I'm, like, going on expensive vacations every year.
First off, I decided the indie route was still the way for me. I'm a control freak, I can be in charge of my business, and I can release books as often as I choose. I don't have to wait for a traditional publisher to pick me up, go through all they go through, and then only publish a book a year. It was just a personal decision I made that I don't think will ever change. As nice as it would be to have one of my books in a physical store, it's not something I need. I need to be in charge of my art (first indication that I still wasn't in the money mindset, though I was trying to be).
I looked at popular books that were selling, and, surprise, surprise, I saw paranormal romance. I figured I could write something like that. So I started doing my research and read popular books in the genre. Sadly, things aren't always so cut and dry even when you go through Amazon and pick out specific categories. Many authors will put their book into as many categories as possible, so it takes even more digging and research than I realized at first. I ended up gravitating toward young adult paranormal romances (A Shade of Vampire, The Vampire's Gift, Touched: The Caress of Fate, Vampire Girl etc.) because, let's face it, I'm a young adult fiction addict and covers talk. I naturally, subconsciously, went for them. I was, however, convinced, that I would be writing adult paranormal romance, because of things being placed in strange places and because of the nature of these books having potential to crossover to adults etc. I dreamed up Undying Love.
You'd think after what I read, I would have been wise enough to go with vampires for this "commercial" series of mine. The whole reason I made a penname was so I could become a brand. My name, Kestra Pingree, is kind of sporadic. I'm a Vocaloid addict, singer in harmonicblend, anime/manga fanatic, young adult fiction reader, artist with no specific art style, sometimes composer, the list goes on. You probably never know what to expect from me. I just got where my heart takes me. My penname would be a solid, a constant. You would know what to expect from Felicity Kross. That was the idea. That penname would be reserved for adult paranormal romance only.
Back to Undying Love. I had this big idea that involved angels and demons (turns out those are two of the least popular things to deal with in paranormal romance ;P). I went crazy in my plotting because I love building worlds. I made up this whole parallel world where angels and demons exist, immortals that have magical access to the mortal world in the form of mirror shards that have since been constructed into a full mirror called the Peacekeeper. In this immortal world, Ilenima, there's a higher and lower level like Heaven and Hell. I built a big-ass timeline because I'm dealing with immortals that have lived years and years and wrote this entire history that led the story to present day, and I made my most complicated story to date.
Remember, this was supposed to be a "romance." The story still is a romance, but I went heavyhanded on the fantasy aspect. And it definitely turned into a young adult story. A young adult paranormal romance. I was also supposed to be appealing to an audience in favor of a straight romance. Arsen turned out to be bi, Tasia's godmother is bi, and Cassius is gay (for only three examples). It's LGBTQ rich and will become more so later in the series. So, I took elements of this commercial idea I thought I was researching adequately, but still went off and made a story straight from my heart.
Does all of this make Undying Love unmarketable? No. Young adult paranormal LGBTQ romance is a decently sized genre, but I gave it a terrible launch because I was so determined to put it into the adult paranormal (straight) romance category that I didn't look at all the ways it didn't fit. I marketed it to the wrong people. But it still had my best launch, even with the brand new penname, because I put an effort into it. I spent the money, which I never did for The Soul Seer Saga. Undying Love even made me money, but it was nowhere near where I wanted it to be, and as I said, there were many issues with who I was actually marketing too versus who the story would actually appeal to.
I kept trudging forward, pretty much oblivious to my mistake. I had a novella I wrote to build a newsletter following, I had the first book in the series released, and I had the second book up for pre-order. I thought I could write these 120,000-word books faster than I could, had to push back the pre-order date, lost pre-order privileges with Amazon, and killed myself and Shelby in order to finish the second book in three months, and it miraculously turned out. I'm very proud of that book, but I will never deal with such unrealistic deadlines again. I was selling some books. I was way further ahead than I was with The Soul Seer Saga. And I needed a break. I went back to finish Awash with Summer Roses.
I published Awash with Summer Roses next, fully intent on giving it a good launch. I marketed it wrong AGAIN. I decided I'd market Awash with Summer Roses to young adult contemporary romance readers, which fits fine, but my cover did not communicate that at all. Tiffany pointed out it looked like a murder mystery. I look at it now and I think paranormal romance, of the vampire variety. I'm stubborn, so I kept the cover anyway and did my launch. Gosh darn, it launched well, the best to that point. I spent money upfront, willing to lose money on this book. And you know what? I did lose money on this book. My cover wasn't up to par, neither was my blurb. I couldn't keep it afloat, Amazon couldn't keep it afloat, because it was sending mixed messages with the cover, the blurb, yep.
I changed the cover to try and pick it back up. That worked out decently except I was using Facebook ads and bidding prices that were too high for clicks. The book wasn't priced high enough. This equals losing money. Awash with Summer Roses is a standalone. That also usually equals losing money in most cases. BUT I COULD GET IT TO SELL. That's the important thing here. I learned that some of my books are marketable and can make money if I do it wisely. The letdown? They weren't even coming close to the kind of money I needed to make to reach my goal of making the wage of a good day job. And they were still weird.
Awash with Summer Roses isn't pure contemporary romance. It has an underlying fantasy element in an otherwise real life kind of world. If people pay attention, I never mention anything in that world that actually has anything to do with the real world. I don't have any real cities in that book. They don't live in a real country, but I kept that all quiet because that wasn't the focus of my story. I wanted young adult contemporary romance readers to be able to enjoy it. It seems I did mostly okay on that. But I still did backward things. My female protagonist, Moriah, is a delinquent, a bad girl. My male protagonist, Avery, is BLIND and a good boy. How many young adult romances have a bad girl and a good boy where the bad girl gets reformed by the good boy? I can't think of one, to be honest. That sort of trope change could be received well or it could be hated. It's kind of a risk if you're trying to write a book that is completely commercial, but if your romance, in this case, still delivers on ROMANCE, you're probably good.
My new cover for Awash with Summer Roses was perfectly contemporary in nature and not of the steamy variety so it fit very well into young adult contemporary romance novels. You look at that cover and you think, young adult (maybe clean) contemporary romance. It was perfectly acceptable as long as I kept my blurb in the same contemporary romance style. However, when you do something like that to mask this strange element, my fantasy element, you throw readers through a loop. Some will hate it. Others will enjoy it.
Cool, now what? I killed Felicity. HAHA. I was bitter about Undying love being under a penname when Undying Love also ended up being something straight from my heart. That was more important to me than trying to pick Felicity back up and brand her as young adult paranormal LGBTQ romance or something along those lines. I moved Undying Love under my name and felt better about that, but what about my goal with money? Was I incapable of writing books that had a BIG audience, books that I'd be able to meet my financial goals with?
I went back to doing research. Tons of it. And I was thorough this time. I found steamy shifter romances (for adults obviously). Those books are huge. I gravitated toward them because of their insane popularity and because they still have that element of magic I'm addicted to. I figured if I needed to put myself inside of a box, that was the box I was going to put myself in. There was demand, there were enough elements I ideally liked that I should be happy writing them, and so I read. I read tons of those books, and I had my doubts.
Every book in that very specific category was sooooo formulaic. I was afraid of writing something potentially really sexy because I had no experience with it and didn't know if I'd be able to do it right and somehow keep this feeling of actual romance. Most of those books I read had next to no heart. It was all focused on the sexy, and that doesn't jive with me. I have no problem with sexy, but if you're going to call something romance, make it romance. I eventually found the authors in that genre who write what people want, make tons of money, and have that element of heart that I required. That was when I knew I could write this genre and succeed. I took the plunge.
I started with creating a world... because that's what I do, but I went in knowing my stories couldn't be heavyhanded on the fantasy because I was writing for an audience who wanted a steamy romance above all else. So, I made a world I was happy with, and I plotted a big series. They were all standalone books with an underlying plot. If you didn't want to read the first book, or didn't want to read on from one of the books, you could do that, because each book is about a single couple who gets their HEA (happily ever after) and that was a promise I made upfront. I made covers and blurbs so on point it was amazing. And it was finally easy, because the stories themselves were so tailored to this genre, the covers and blurbs couldn't be anything else.
I launched this shifter romance penname late last year and holy crap. I'm finally doing it. I'm well on the way to my goal.
But it's been rigorous. I've been pumping out quality books, one a month, for the past four months, and it takes all of my time. I've made a goal that I want to put twelve more books out (at the very least ten) for my penname by the end of the year, because then I believe I'll be hitting my goal, and I'll have a sizeable backlist I'll be able to advertise when I take breaks to write the books from my heart every now and then. 2018 is going to be an adventure.
You might have noticed that I've changed Awash with Summer Roses' cover again. Why? Didn't I just say the second cover was working well enough? I did, but it wasn't enough for me. If my penname, the thing that allows me to write for a living, is going to take big amounts of time away from the books under Kestra Pingree, then I might as well make those books exactly from my heart, and that second cover for Awash with Summer Roses wasn't. So I made a cover I was satisfied with, for my art, and there we have it. It fits the story much better, gives a romantic young adult magical realism vibe, which gives the book the most accurate classification I can give it.
Yes, I want my books to sell, that means readers after all, as well as my penname's, but I realize that will likely never be the case. Since my books are what they are, since my name is what it is, I'll just have to be me and market differently from my penname. Everyone has to find their own path. I'll just have to let my heart guide me. I have one penname for money. I have this one for love. That's really all there is to it in the end.