After Writing 24 Books for New York Publishers, Cheryl Holt Adds 24 More by Self-publishing
This amazing, inspiring author success story needs to be shared throughout the indie publishing community.
I was very fortunate to interview Cheryl Holt, who had written 24 books for New York publishers and then successfully transitioned to self-publishing.
You can hear Cheryl’s story straight from her, and there is much that you can learn from her answers to my questions.
(1) What have you done to help market your self-published books? Was this a viable option when you were traditionally published?
When I wrote for the NY companies, I was “just” a paperback romance writer, so I got very little marketing assistance from my publishers. The biggest thing they did for me was to always buy me an ad in a romance trade magazine, Romantic Times, when I had a book released. Otherwise, I was pretty much on my own as far as handling any marketing. So from the very beginning, I had to devise my own marketing strategies, and I’ve continued to use those old tried-and-true ones as well as latching on to new ones that technology has made available.
I market my self-published books in exactly the same way that I marketed my books that were published by the NY companies. My biggest marketing tool, and the one I spend the most time on, is growing my mailing list. I started my mailing list with my very first release, and I constantly work on it. I have sign-up forms posted all over my web site, and I run contests several times a year, where I give away autographed print copies of my novels as the prize. The entrants’ email addresses are added to my mailing list. I work on the list constantly; I work on it everyday. The number one way to sell something (in any field) is through direct marketing to your dedicated customer base. So I keep track of my readers, and when I need to notify readers about a new release, that’s where I start. They’re loyal and voracious, and they’ve been very kind to me in sticking with me through all my career ups and downs. I’m always so grateful to them, and they’re the first to hear about everything that’s happening with me and my books.
There have been changes to my marketing that have come over the years. I have a Facebook fan page, and a Twitter account, but I don’t use them for personal postings. I simply post about my books, what’s coming, and what’s happening. I’ve always had a web page, ever since it became a “thing” that people could have (around 1999). I’m meticulous about keeping it updated. My readers like to know what’s coming next and when it’s coming, so I try to make it easy for them to log on and quickly see what’s happening. If you’d like to take a peek, the URL is www.cherylholt.com.
When I have a book coming, (in the month before the release date) I do a ton of promo to get myself noticed. I do blog tours at the big romance reader sites, I run contest giveaways, I do interviews, I buy banner ads, I buy spot ads, I do reader promotion at reader sites. I’ve even hosted Facebook parties with lots of guest authors and prize giveaways.
The main problem for self-published authors is that we’re being buried by a wave of content that’s swept over all of us. So it’s a hundred times harder to get noticed than it was ten years ago. There are so many books out there now, and even with my name recognition and dedicated fan base, it’s an enormous and exhausting challenge to get people to notice that I have a book coming.
For example, this was the first year since 2005 that I didn’t produce a book trailer for my new series. The web is so overloaded with video content that it’s just about impossible to justify the expense of creating a book trailer. Even with expanded distribution by a video company, any video is thrown into a sea of millions of other videos. So I’ve stopped doing them.
But otherwise, each and every year, I do more promo. It’s a constant battle to stay ahead of the game, and that hasn’t changed with self-publishing. I’m doing more and different types of promo, and I’m using more intense marketing than ever before.
(2) What advice would you offer new authors who are just learning the self-publishing ropes?
My biggest advice would be to read all about self-publishing and to learn as much as you can about it before you jump into it. And once you get going, keep reading and keep learning. The publishing industry—both on the NY end of it and in the self-publishing world—is changing so fast, and you have to keep up, or you’ll get crushed in the wave of what’s happening.
I heartily advise people to join a writer’s group (both a local one and a national one). At the local one, you can hang with other writers once a month and listen to how they’re working and adapting to this strange, new world we’re in. There are also big national groups you can join in various genres, such as Romance Writers of America or Sisters in Crime. You’ll get a monthly newsletter that contains articles about markets, trends, and changes.
If you can afford it, try to attend a big national writer’s conference. They’re always held once a year. Take all the classes and chat with other writers so you can absorb some of what they’ve figured out.
There are publishing companies, such as Writer’s Digest Books, that publish tons of “how to” books about writing, publishing, and book marketing, particularly e-book, self-published marketing. Start buying them and reading them.
Go out on the web and find some good blog sites (how about Chris McMullen’s blog?!) and other sites where authors provide guidance and advice. If you’re a tech dummy, as I am, find companies that can help you figure out how to format and publish on your own. I always use BookBaby to format and distribute my novels. I met them in the vendor’s room at a national writer’s conference, when I was first trying to figure out how I could start publishing my own books. I had no idea how to do that, and it seemed really complicated. I’m not much of a computer person, and all the processes seemed beyond my ability to figure out. At one on-line site, I was told to read their 85-page formatting manual before I tried to post anything! It was all so bewildering.
When I talked to the Book Baby book rep, he said, “We can do all that for you.” I about fainted. It had never occurred to me that there were companies out there that could provide exactly the sort of services I needed.
There are all kinds of companies now that help authors get their books published. When I first started writing novels, the web wasn’t a “thing” yet. I lived in a little town in rural Oregon, and I staggered around for years, trying to figure out how to start. It’s so much easier now to get information. Join a writer’s group! Attend regularly! Find several good blog sites, read them religiously, and absorb every bit of advice that’s offered! Read books about marketing and trends! Do some research and find companies that can help you. Read, read, read. Learn, learn, learn.
That’s always the best advice. Learn—and get smarter and better.
(3) When you made the switch from writing for NY publishers to self-publishing, what changes (if any) did you make to your writing?
I started writing manuscripts in the late 1990s, and my first books were published in 2000. For a decade, I wrote for various NY publishers, and I was a genre paperback writer. When I started out, paperbacks were really long. I’m dating myself, but do you remember books like SHOGUN? They were massive in length. So my first novels were really long, but “book length” was a factor that changed significantly in the decade that I wrote for those NY companies. And that’s precipitated the biggest changes to my current writing.
Book length is measured by word count, and my early novels were around 110,000 words. But starting about 2004, the price of paper shot up dramatically, so the NY publishers responded by shortening the length of books that they published. This caused a significant abbreviation of the size of novels, but it also caused authors to adopt major stylistic changes in our writing as we had to be able to tell much more story in a much shorter span of pages. Authors had to cut descriptive prose and tell the story using more dialogue. This brought us fast, fleet stories that were much easier (quicker) to read, but for many readers, they’ve gotten much less satisfying.
My early paperbacks were around 110,000 words, and when I finished writing for those NY companies a decade later, my books had to be between 80,000 and 85,000 words. That’s a considerable drop in book length, which brought about significant changes stylistically, so my early NY-published books are very different from the later ones.
I liked writing longer novels, and my biggest NY sales came in the beginning of my career when books were much longer and I was able to write long, emotional stories. I’m great at using emotion and drama, and I feel like I’m better at a longer length—and that my readers enjoy a deeper, more satisfying emotional story. So I’ve gone back to writing long books. With my self-publishing of e-books, I don’t have to worry about the price of paper or of page length. I’m typically writing books that are 120,000 words now, and my readers seem to really enjoy the longer length. I’m able to give them a “bigger”, more involved story with more in-depth characters and interesting plots.
My longest books, the ones I’ve published on my own, have been my biggest sellers in my career.
Cheryl Holt’s Story: The Transition from NY Publishers to Self-publishing
BookBaby author Cheryl Holt made a name for herself, as well as a respectable living, writing historical romance novels, first for a dedicated paperback publisher, then for several big mass market publishers. Her books did well, though Holt often had to come to terms with market forces beyond her control, that didn’t light her creative fire.
Holt had started writing as a young mother in her 40s. At home with small children, she wanted something to do, something that earned some money. She landed on novel writing. “I was clueless about how the money worked, or how the business worked,” she admits. Inspired by stars like John Grisham, she drew on her legal training to craft her first books. Her forays into suspense didn’t pan out, so she decided to look elsewhere.
“The romance companies back then used to find their new talent among moms who were at home and writing to earn a bit of extra money. They were essentially paperback mills who ran romance book clubs. They bought straight from the writer. ‘I’ll sell these romances,’ I told myself, ‘then I’ll go back.’”
Her seventh manuscript, a Regency-era romance, finally sold. Holt didn’t go back, but dug in, writing and editing steamy tales in the car, at soccer practices and swim lessons, whenever she had a few spare moments. She discovered something she never suspected: She could write really, really good love stories.
At the time, romances ran longer and readers devoured elaborate storylines. “When I was starting and reading, historical romances were just massive,” Holt recalls. “They had wild love stories, when the heroine was, say, taken to harem after being kidnapped by pirates. I’m not a particularly romantic person, but I got hooked on them. Romance readers have certain things they love, but I didn’t know what they were. I had no preconceived notions. Readers loved that.”
Holt’s unconventional takes on the genre led to her selling book after book to publishers. One of her early books sold out nationwide due to a hot cover that connected with fans, and soon she built herself a sizeable following. As tastes changed, Holt learned the hard way to adapt. By 2000, erotic romance was the rage, and Holt wrote what publishers asked for. But her readers longed for the sweeping romantic tales that had launched her career.
“Books were getting shorter, more erotic,” Holt says. “It was leaning toward pornographic really fast. I wasn’t into that. My sales were starting to fall. My hardcore fans kept asking why everything was vampires and erotica, instead of real love stories.”
Then 2008 hit, the economic downturn that kicked the legs out from under many mass publishers. Holt had a deal in place, but her publisher faced a daunting reality: the overwhelming majority of bookstores closed as the economy faltered, stores where her publishers had banked on selling Holt’s work. “They wrote me off as a loss,” she sighs.
Holt found herself unemployed, with a family and a mortgage in Los Angeles, one of many workers in their 50s looking for a job, any job. She was so discouraged, she thought she’d never bother with writing again, though writing had been her profession for years. “The recession cut a swath through the ranks of paperback writers,” she says. “I took it personally. The universe was telling me to go get a real job, but there were no jobs.”
Time passed, however, and Holt noticed that fans were still out there, hoping for new reads from their favorite authors. Kindle came onto the scene, and Holt began to reconsider. “I asked myself if I should start over. I was good. I was popular, but the companies didn’t really care. We writers were a dime a dozen in their eyes. There was no chance to go back that way.”
Self-publishing beckoned. The project management and production side of things still seemed daunting, however. Then, at a romance conference, she ran into some people from BookBaby, who helped her see how simple publishing her work independently could be.
After writing 24 novels for publishers, Holt has put out 24 of her own, letting her own interests and fan response determine when and how she publishes her work. An example: She gave her readers all three books in a trilogy at once, where a traditional publisher would have doled the books out over several years.
Like love, an independent career is not as easy as it seems at first. It takes work. Holt still struggles to find the right supporting team, and income isn’t what it once was during paperback publishing’s heyday. But Holt is glad she’s still able to write and reach readers, now on her own terms. “It’s a blessing to be on my own. My best sellers are ones that the publishers rejected,” she laughs. “My Lord Trent trilogy, for example, have been best-selling books of all.”
You can find out more about BookBaby and their recent Independent Authors Conference.
More about Novelist Cheryl Holt
CHERYL HOLT is a New York Times, USA Today, and Amazon “Top 100” bestselling author who has published forty-eight novels.
She’s also a lawyer and mom, and at age forty, with two babies at home, she started a new career as a commercial fiction writer. She’d hoped to be a suspense novelist, but couldn’t sell any of her manuscripts, so she ended up taking a detour into romance where she was stunned to discover that she has a knack for writing some of the world’s greatest love stories.
Her books have been released to wide acclaim, and she has won or been nominated for many national awards. She is considered to be one of the masters of the romance genre. For many years, she was hailed as “The Queen of Erotic Romance”, and she’s also revered as “The International Queen of Villains.” She is particularly proud to have been named “Best Storyteller of the Year” by the trade magazine Romantic Times BOOK Reviews.
She lives and writes in Hollywood, California, and she loves to hear from fans.