Journalism professor and romance author Sara Whitney joins us on the podcast this week to discuss her journey to publishing and why she recently took her catalogue wide. We discussed her experiences with NaNoWriMo, why she’s so passionate about great romance, and her hottest TV takes as a former television critic.
- Sara explains how she balances writing with her full time job as a college professor, and how her background in journalism prepared her to write fiction
- She discusses the pros and limitations of National Novel Writing Month, and how participating helped her to create a habit of daily writing
- She also talks about she passionately defends romance as a genre and what it means to her
- Sara tell us about launching a new alien romance series under the pen name Andi Amato, and the process of publishing a very different genre
- She also explains why she decided to take her books wide, and the steps she has taken for a successful “wide” launch
- Sara also talks about her days as a television critic, and how this experience impacts her writing
Sara Whitney writes sassy contemporary romance that’s always sunny with a chance of sizzle. A finalist for the RWA© Vivian© and Golden Heart© awards, Sara worked as a print journalist and film critic before she earned her Ph.D. and landed in academia. She’s a good pinball player, a great baker, and an expert at shouting her TV opinions to anyone who’ll listen. Sara lives in Illinois surrounded by books, cats, and half-empty coffee cups.
Joni: Hey, writers. You’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life” podcast where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Joni, author engagement specialist at Kobo Writing Life.
Rachel: And I’m Rachel, author engagement coordinator at Kobo Writing Life.
Joni: In today’s podcast, we’re talking to Sara Whitney, who is a contemporary romance author and academic. She worked as a print journalist and film critic before she earned her Ph.D. and now she teaches journalism while writing. We loved her.
Rachel: We had such a blast talking to Sara. We talked to her about her journey to becoming a romance writer and how she balances writing with her career as a professor and as a journalist. We talked to her about how she kind of switches between author brain and journalist brain and the challenges that that causes. Sara is launching a new pen name, so we talked to her about switching genres and launching that pen name. And because she works as a film critic and television critic, of course, I had to ask her about her favorite TV hot takes and how kind of watching so much film and television throughout her career, as both a journalist and academic, has influenced her writing. And it was just such a great fun conversation, and we’re really excited to share it with everyone.
Joni: Yeah, and she’s recently come wide, so go check out her books on Kobo. We’ll include links as always, enjoy.
Rachel: All right. We are joined by the lovely Sara Whitney today. Sara, thank you so much for being here.
Sara: Oh, thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be on.
Rachel: Can you start us off just by telling our readers a little bit about yourself?
Sara: Sure. Well, I am Sara Whitney. I write hot contemporary romance, rom-com that sort of straddles that line. I’m one of those with the illustrated covers where you’re not quite sure, is this a romance? Is it rom-com? Is it a happy ending? What’s the heat level? So, yeah, I’m out there confusing readers with my, you know, delightful books. But my romances are happily ever afters, open door, high heat, a lot of fun. Low angst, high banter, that kind of writing. So, I write as a nighttime occupation because I do have a day job. So, I am somebody who is juggling quite a few other things as well. So, that means that my progress isn’t always what I want it to be, or I get pulled into other directions often, but it is the thing I enjoy the most when I get to sit down on my computer to be able to write a new chapter, is the thing that brings me the most joy. So, that’s what I’m out here trying to do every day, maybe not every day, every day that I can.
Joni: Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to publishing in your writing journey?
Sara: Sure. Sure. Well, I feel like this is going to be the answer that everybody on your podcast gives. I was a reader, all my life I’ve been a reader and I’ve loved books. And after a certain point, I think most readers say to themselves, “I wonder if I could do that?” You know, and so you sit down and you try it and you don’t get taken very seriously, or you get a million great ideas for the first chapter. And then you wander away from them and don’t ever circle back. But for me, it was National Novel Writing Month that, in 2013, I did my first book, it was a paranormal, it was terrible. And in 2014, I did a contemporary romance that became book two in my series. So, I think the practice of sitting down and getting into the habit of working until it’s done, that was a very useful thing that I picked up with NaNoWriMo. And then from there, I did the usual route of, “Oh, I want to find a publisher, I want to be traditionally published. I need to find an agent, I’m going to query a million people.” And I queried for about a six-month period, I didn’t have any luck. Okay, fine. I still had a lot to learn. And then I finaled in the Golden Hearts, the Romance Writers of America, Golden Heart awards in 2019. And that is the award that existed for pre-published authors for authors who hadn’t published yet.
And being selected as a finalist in contemporary romance for the Golden Heart Awards in 2019 kind of gave me the push I needed to just publish myself. It was external validation, and it was somebody else telling me, “Yeah, this was good. We enjoyed this, this is not something you’re doing that’s going to be embarrassing for you and your family. You’re going to have to live in a cave out of shame for the rest of your life if you try to publish it.” So, I thought, “Well, you know, if I’m a finalist there somebody liked it.” So, I self-published, and I actually did a prequel novella first. And then I did a whole other book as the first book in the series. And then my actual finalist book became the second book in the series, three if you count the prequel novella. So, it was the external validation, I think, that gave me that push, plus, my network of author friends who were self-pubbed and were so happy, were so just thriving, and had so much great advice about finding an editor, finding a cover designer. How do you market? What kind of graphics work? Where do you go to publicize your work? I couldn’t have done it without that author community network that I made locally, nationally through RWA, and elsewhere. So, yeah, it was a lot of things that got me to where I am but I’m grateful. The traditional publishing route is so fantastic for so many of my friends, and the indie publishing route has been amazing for others of my friends. So, I’m so delighted to be on that journey, too.
Rachel: That’s great. I didn’t know that you were a NaNoWriMo success story. I love that. And with NaNo coming up, do you have any tips, anything that people should do?
Sara: I am somebody who… NaNo was very much, you really kind of have to write every day, or else you’re going to fall behind, and you’re going to have panic in your stomach, and it’s going to get worse. And so I don’t think that’s healthy for everybody, I don’t think “Write every day,” is great advice for everybody. Some people need it, some people thrive with that. I am not somebody who does because if I don’t write every day then I feel terrible and I get into a spiral look, “I didn’t do it, I have to do twice as much today.” So, NaNo really kind of needs you to do that because the word count is so ambitious to get 50,000 in a month, and not just any month but November with the holidays and travel, and, you know, just everything that’s going on there. It’s a tough month to do that. And so my advice is, be kind to yourself, do what you can. And again, this is advice that I think probably you’ll get from a lot of writers and editors both, but you have to have something to edit. So, get something down so you can make it better.
Sometimes you just have to get the characters across the room, sometimes you just have to get the characters in the car, and you can polish and you can shine it up and make it the best way of getting across the room that you can later. But for right now, just get them across the room so you can get moving to whatever it is that you’re trying to do with that chapter. I tend to get bogged down in those kinds of, I gotta make it perfect before I can move on. And boy, sometimes just push forward and you can come back later. And also, if you like gamification, NaNo is great because it has the charts and the graphs, and you can keep track of your word count. And if you’re somebody who’s visually driven, I think that’s how it tricked me into finishing my first novels because I could see the progress. And that was so cool for me. So, don’t be afraid to embrace all the functionality of the website because it will be that little carrot and stick to keep you moving. And that can be really helpful, especially if you’ve not done it before and you need some kind of external kick to get you going.
Rachel: And we do NaNo every year as a team. And last year was my first year and I am a highly competitive person to a fault. So, all the little badges really kept me going. I was just wondering, did you go into NaNo with an outline? Do you outline your books before you start, or do you just kind of pants your way through it?
Sara: Definitely, I’m a pantser. The beautiful thing about romance, of course, is that you know what the end is. And so the surprise for me, in every book, every single book is how I get there. You know, typically I’m somebody who knows how they meet, I know how they … what is going to be the inciting incident that kicks off the journey they’re going to take together, and then, obviously, we’re going to have a happily ever after in the end, but everything else I might have ideas here or there. So, I might be somebody who has five points on an outline, and that’s really it. And to get to there, it’s gonna take some detours. So, hats off to my author friends who have the whole board with the colourful sticky notes and they know exactly what each scene is gonna … I don’t understand your brains. How do you do that? That’s incredible. And I will say some of the best advice I got in my writing career was, you don’t have to do that. My author friend, Bria Quinlan, joke sometimes that we should do a writing workshop for pantsers, for people who do not plot. And the writing workshop is going to be wrapping everybody, it’s a cuddly blanket and lighting a candle and saying, “Shh, it’s okay, you don’t have to plot. Just do what you’re doing, it’s gonna be okay.” Because I do think so much of writing advice is, how to do an outline if you’re a pantser, how to come up with a plot of your pantser. Yeah, that’s great if your brain works that way, and if it helps you, wonderful. But if you’ve been writing books, or if you are struggling with the idea of, “Oh my god, I have to know what happens in every chapter before I sit down and write the first word in my book.” That’s going to get in your way.
So, don’t listen to that conventional wisdom that says, “I gotta have the outline, I gotta have everything, you know, knocked out, laid out just perfect before you dive in.” Sometimes you just have to go. And if that is how your writing brain works, there is nothing wrong with that. Most of my books are pretty sketchy. I have, you know, six or seven chapters or ideas that I know I need to get to. And then it is a little bit of a meander, and sometimes it is a little bit of nip and tuck to go back before I can go forward to make sure everything is still working together but it is the only way that I can do it. So, I think that’s one of the nice things about writing is you can listen to all the advice in the world, but you also have to know when to walk away from it and sort of forge your own path because things work for me that don’t work for you and vice versa. So, that’s…exchanging advice and sharing is so great, but it is also so great when you can say, “That’s cool. I’m glad that works for you. I’m gonna keep doing me.”
Rachel: Yeah. I think if there’s anything this podcast has taught us is that there’s no one way because everyone we’ve talked to does it differently. And it’s working for a lot of different people in a lot of ways. So, there you go. You said that you have a day job also, how do you manage writing and doing your full-time work?
Sara: Some weeks are easier than others. So, I am a college professor, which means I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule. And I have summers where I don’t typically teach in the summer, and on breaks. So, I am a very, very lucky woman, because I do have chunks of time that I can devote to writing in and around any kind of prep I’m doing for the next semester, for the upcoming school year. Beyond that, nights and weekends, it is a lot of time away from family and friends, it does require a little bit of kind of sectioning off chunks to do it. And it takes, I think… I don’t want to say it takes more discipline, that’s not the case at all, but it is just a little bit harder because it does cut into… I’m a big TV person, it cuts into TV time, sometimes. It is hard to, you know, make it all work when you have things you’re trying to keep up on workwise, pop culture-wise, friend and family-wise, and then, oh my god, I have this deadline in two weeks. So, I’m a night owl. I joke that my witching hour is between 11:00 and 2:00 a.m. Like, that is when I do my best writing, it’s quiet, it’s dark, emails aren’t coming in, people aren’t calling, nobody’s calling to reach me about my car’s extended warranty. Like there’s no distractions, which is amazing. So, sometimes it cuts into sleep, sometimes I am a little more coffee-dependent in the morning because I’ve had a good writing night. But that’s how it works, and that’s how I get it done. And then I crash after I finish a manuscript and then it’s kind of on to the next one.
Rachel: I just kind of want to go back just a little bit because you said you have a day job, and then you were a reader and you started writing romance. Did you always want to be a writer, or was that something that just kind of came to you while you were reading?
Sara: Well, I say I’m a professor, I’m actually a professor of journalism. So, professionally, before I got my Ph.D., I was a journalist. So, I have always been a writer, yes. I have not always been a fiction writer, I’ve not always been a writer who got to play with language in quite the same way that I do here. Journalistic writing is…it’s a whole other art form, and it’s challenging, and it’s so rewarding, but it’s a different kind of challenging and rewarding than fiction writing. And so to be able to exercise both of those parts of my brain, to still be teaching journalism, and then to get to at night sit down and actually spin stories and find ways to provide happy endings or provide bright, upbeat outcomes for things when you don’t always get that in the journalistic setting. That has been such a great duality for me. So, yeah, I have always, always wanted to be a writer. The kind of writing I wanted to do has shifted over the years, and I still love journalism and that kind of storytelling. But unlocking this part of my storytelling brain has been fabulous. But, yeah, I’m a people pleaser, and so in school, when my teachers would write on my papers like, “You’re such a good writer, you have such a good voice, you should consider this.” “Okay, yeah, cool. Yeah, I can do that.” So that, for eight-year-old me, was really, really rewarding, and I think probably shaped me a little bit. And, “Okay, yeah. I am good with words. I can do this.” So, yep, lifelong reader, lifelong writer.
Rachel: Do you ever have a hard time kind of switching between the journalist brain and the romance writer brain?
Sara: Sometimes, yes, there are times when I am writing or critiquing journalistic writing, I think, “Oh, that’s a little over the top, you might, ooh, dial that back a little bit. That’s probably a little too florid for what you’re trying to do here.” And then, I mean, just mechanically speaking, the rules of commas. I’m going to say something that probably is going to get half of your listeners to turn off the podcast and I apologize, but journalistic writing does not use the Oxford comma. The Associated Press Stylebook does not want that serial comma. And so to go back and forth, to teach every day to get the comma out, “Guys, you got to get the commas out. Nope, nope, nope.” And then to sit down at night, and remember, “Okay, this is Chicago Manual style I’m doing, this is…” So, it’s so silly, but fiddly things like that, tiny little rules does require almost a full stop and reverse 180 to try to even write that properly.
But, yeah, the detail, the types of things you emphasize or de-emphasize in one versus the other, I just feel like it fires different parts of my brain to do both. And so it’s nice, it makes me feel it’s nice to exercise both of those sets of muscles because I do think I’m more nimble. And so if I have reason to do more of a descriptive storytelling passage, on my day job side of things, I have the skill set for that, and it’s pretty well exercised. And then likewise, with novels, when I’ve had the opportunity to include something that touches on my day job, it’s very easy for me to slip into that kind of writing and storytelling mode. I haven’t yet written a professor character. Someday I will probably but it also feels a little close. I don’t know how I feel about that because it is so close to home, it might be kind of… I watched “The Chair” on Netflix when it premiered, which is about…
Rachel: I need to watch that. It sounds really good.
Sara: It’s so good, but it’s so uncomfy if you’re in that profession. And so I kind of feel like that, I’m not sure I’d want to live with a character who’s that similar to what I do. The escapism of exploring other kinds of lives, and jobs, and existences, that’s so fun for me so I think I’d prefer to keep that going for a little bit.
Rachel: Do your students know about your books? Do you talk to them about them?
Sara: I don’t… No. I don’t say, “Hey, everyone. These are my books. I write as Sara Whitney.” But I don’t hide it, I put it on my personal social media on occasion. You know, I’m not secretive, and if they find out, that’s great. And some of them actually… so I teach a class on media race and gender. It’s one of my favorite classes, and it’s just looking at how different forms of pop culture approach historically excluded and marginalized groups. And one of the things I do is a little section on romance novels because I think there’s so much to be said, and so much education to be done about why do so many people have a knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh, romance? That’s not serious. That’s not real literature. That’s not… Aren’t you ever going to write a real book?” “Oh, you only read romance? Well, that’s okay because you read other things, too.” You know, that kind of attitude, oh, it is infuriating. And so I take the opportunity in one unit to say, “Let’s talk about the socialized attitudes that we all have. Why has society made us think that this is the case when we don’t feel that way about other genres, fiction, sci-fi, mysteries, you know, fantasy?”
And so I wonder sometimes if they think, “Why is she so passionate about talking romance novels?” But I don’t use that opportunity to say I also write, but certainly, if it comes up, or if students ask, or if they get pointed about… you know, I had a student say once, “I just can’t imagine writing a romance novel, just seems like it’s just like a lonely woman alone in her room at night with her cats.” And I was like, “First of all, how dare you? Did you have a camera in my room last night? Second of all, that’s a pretty harsh stereotype. And let’s talk about why you feel that way.” So, I just try to lovingly untangle some of those preconceived notions. And the biggest glow for me at the end of a semester comes in course evals when I have a student say, “And by the way, I started reading romance. I love them. It’s the escape I need in the school year.” And I’m just like, fist-pump, “Yeah, I got one.” And so, that was a long way to answer your question. But no, I don’t publicize it in class, but I certainly don’t hide it on my social media profiles for my day job, my non-pen name person. So, if it comes up, it comes up and I will happily discuss it with students. But it’s not like I’m sticking my author bio on my door or anything like that so people see it as they pass by.
Joni: It sounds like a really interesting course to take, actually. It must be hard teaching journalism in today’s world where journalism is changing so rapidly, I can’t even imagine.
Sara: Yeah, it’s tough in a lot of ways. One is because of the rapid platform changes and the way journalism itself is being presented and the different skills students need to master… This is not a journalism podcast, so I could go on about this for half an hour. But the rock bottom skills you need, the verification, how do you present information in a way that’s clear, concise, and informative for people? That stays the same no matter what the platforms are. But, yes, I also see journalists killing it on TikTok. That’s incredible. And so that’s a skill set that I think students need to be aware of and need to be able to adapt those fundamentals. But also, the political side of things makes it difficult to…you know, journalism and the politics that is entangled in it, and how do we report on this or that? It has been an interesting few years to be a professor in this area and to have discussions that include students from all walks of life into the conversation without turning anybody off too terribly much, but still talking about, again, those fundamentals that have to be upheld. So, yeah, it has been, it’s been an interesting few years.
Rachel: I would love to talk about this more, but we should probably focus on writing. But I’m curious about how you use TikTok to market books because we saw that you do a little bit of that?
Sara: I do. So, I think like a lot of people, I’m still figuring it out. I feel like I’m still groping a little bit for what is the right everything, you know, what is the right tone? What is the right frequency? What is the right consistency, etc., etc.? So, right now, I’m just using it to sort of mention my books and talk about them. So, people who are out there on TikTok, who are kind of just looking for, “Who’s a new-to-me author I could discover?” to put it out there with hashtags and with trends and things like that so folks can just find me. There’s a lot of…the absolute biggest challenge as an author, and this isn’t just TikTok this is everywhere, is cutting through the clutter, because there are so many of us, and there’s so many good authors out there. And it’s just so hard to rise above the noise to wave at some new reader and say, “Hey, I’m here, you might like this. You want to give this a try?” And so I’m hoping TikTok is going to help me do that. When I started posting pretty regularly, I did see a little bump in sales. We’re not talking Ruby Dixon here, nothing like that, but I do think there was a little bit of a visibility boost. So, I wish I had a better answer, but I’m seeing what some of the bigger authors on the platform do and follow them and try to do that.
I also have a social media manager for TikTok who is the daughter of a friend of mine, who is very in touch with the youth culture. And so she’s the one who will nudge me and say, “Hey, you should do this sound. Hey, you should get on this right now.” And so that’s been great. Someone who has her finger on a kind of different pulse on TikTok than what I typically see, I know our For You pages are pretty different, but she keeps me up to speed with what the kids are doing. And that helps me find, you know, interesting sounds to use. So, I don’t know. Ask me again in six months, and I may have a whole different answer, I may have, you know, found some groove that has really started crushing it and I may have completely changed my trajectory of how I’m doing it. But I like jumping on the books that people are talking about. I like jumping on the popular sounds. And I also I’m somebody who likes slice-of-life content as well. I like sharing with readers. I like being myself with readers. And so I’m not someone who’s fiercely private about the behind-the-curtain side of things. So, I do like posting about process and how has my day gone, and what has been a success, or… Boy, that sounds really fun on my TikTok page, doesn’t it? Yeah. But I’m trying a lot of things and we’ll see what sticks.
Rachel: What’s your TikTok handles if people want to find you?
Sara: It’s Author Sara, so Author Sara, S-A-R-A, and I’m also on there as Sara Whitney, there’s more of us but I nabbed the Author Sara handle. So, that’s where I am.
Rachel: Nice. And just kind of jumping off of that and talking about trends that have emerged on TikTok, you are launching a new pen name in a different genre, in a genre that exploded on TikTok.
Sara: I am.
Rachel: Do want kind of tell us about that process?
Sara: I am. So, I’m Sara Whitney in my contemporary romance, but I am starting a new pen name as Andi Amato, which is going to be alien romance. So, I’ve mentioned Ruby Dixon, her “Ice Planet Barbarians” series, has been just…I mean, good for Ruby. I am so thrilled to see people like that, just absolutely, sort of…people find her out of nowhere and are so excited to share and talk about it. So, I mentioned that my first NaNoWriMo was a paranormal, that was terrible. I was a baby writer, I had no idea how to do it. I’ve learned a lot since then. And I started thinking, “Where would I like to…?” This actually came about because an author friend challenged me. I was kind of stuck the summer, I wasn’t writing much, I wasn’t moving forward. And this friend said, “I bet you can’t knock out an alien romance in like, you know, three weeks. I bet you can’t just knock out a little novella.” And I was like, “Oh, bet.” And so I sat down to write it. And then it turned into a 60,000-word first book in a trilogy. And I thought, “Oh, this is not. Oh, no, I have contemporary romance I have to write. I can’t, I can’t do this.” But aliens were the thing that were fun this summer, they were the thing that were keeping me going. And so I’ve had to switch up a little bit because of deadlines, and due dates, and things like that. I’m pivoting back to the next Sara Whitney book because I do need to finish that for editing. And then I want to hit the aliens again hard.
So, unfortunately, I’ve had to stop that momentum there and shift around again. But I will say, I don’t know why I am a woman with a day job and a pen name. And now I have a second pen name, and that’s a whole other set of, you know, social media platforms to handle, a whole other newsletter and subscribers to grow and communicate with, and I didn’t need the challenge. I didn’t need this, but I also didn’t want to do it under the same pen name, obviously, because I don’t want to confuse people. People who read aliens don’t always read contemporary and vice versa. Although I have found… I talked to my newsletter subscribers for Sara Whitney, and I said, “Hey y’all, tell me what other genres you read. I’m really curious.” And aliens were really high up there for the people who answered, which surprised me a little bit. But I actually sat down and tried to puzzle this through. I’m wondering if it’s because it is usually contemporary heroines in alien setting. And so it’s not… you know, I have a lot less crossover with historical romance, because maybe the heroine and the sentiments are a little different when you go regency versus, you know, today’s woman in a romance novel setting. And so maybe aliens are because it’s contemporary romance heroine plucked up into a spaceship, I have no idea. But I’m going to try to juggle both of those.
The advice I got from science fiction romance writer was rapid release is the way to go with those, that readers are especially voracious in alien and that kind of genre. And so what you want to do is you don’t want to put a book out and then have six months in between, you want to go as fast as you can. So, that’s another reason that I was like, “Ooh, I probably better wait until I have more of a backlog to start releasing,” because I had planned for September release for that first book. But I’m just going to sit on my alien romance books like a mother hen on her eggs and I’m going to let them, you know, cook and finish up and then just hopefully hit it hard early next year, is my plan there, so. But it’s tough, you know, finding the time to do the one pen name was hard enough and now I’ve added the second one, but it’s so fun. I’m going to make it work for me because it is just so fun. It does let you kind of unleash… Sara Whitney wouldn’t do that but Andi Amato would. You know, that’s not what the Whitney vibe is but I can do a little more of that in the Andi book. So, that’s been a lot of fun. Yeah, just even the chance to do the graphics and the visual branding of aliens and sci-fi has been just super cool.
Joni: I think it’s one of the things I love most about indie, is that you really can go crazy with your imagination and say, “Well, you know what? Like, just because this is the box I’ve been in so far, it doesn’t mean anything. Like, you can go and do whatever you like.”
Sara: You can be so nimble. That’s what I like, too, is that you can… This is my observation of traditional publishing, of course, from mostly an outsider perspective, but sometimes it feels like turning a yacht, and it takes so long to get somebody going in a different direction or to go from conception to publishing. But indie, I mean, if I wanted to publish that alien book, the one that I have ready to go, for the most part, I could do it next week, probably. I shouldn’t, but I could. But, you know, it’s just the freedom to do that is, nobody should give me that kind of power, oh my god, but I got it so I can do that easily, which I kind of love. You know, I wasn’t sure which way I wanted to go as I was doing NaNo and thinking about my first books and things like that. And I’m so glad I ended up in this situation because it is calling the shots, it’s nice. It’s nice to be the boss. Of course, it’s terrible if you’re indecisive, on the indecisive side like me, and it’s a little, “Oh, should I… maybe. What about this? I don’t…” And trad publishing, I think would have been a little bit more, “Here’s what we’re gonna do.” And that might have been good for me, but I’ve learned a lot about myself, and my decision-making, and how to access the information I need to make those decisions. And I think it’s just kind of made me a better person, in general, in terms of navigating life. You know, I’ve learned a lot growing my own business, and that applies to a lot of areas of life. So, yeah. If you think about publishing, do it, I think you’re gonna grow a lot.
Joni: And speaking of huge indie publisher decisions, you recently went wide with your books. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Sara: Yeah. I always wanted to be a wide author, but after probably five or six months with the novella, and the three books in my series out, I just felt like I wasn’t, like I said, breaking through the clutter, breaking through the noise because there’s so many, so many options out there, so many reading options. So I thought, “Well, maybe if I go into KU, it will help people take a chance on a new author because it’s a little less risk to dive into a book in KU because you can return it if it’s not working for you.” I thought, “Well, maybe I can, you know, grow an audience that way and gain a little attention there.” And for a while, I did. I don’t know what the pandemic did for reading, but I do feel like I had some wild fluctuations last year as I was in there. And toward the end of the winter, I felt like, you know, I think I haven’t popped off the way I kind of hoped I would in KU. So, since long-term, I want to be a wide author anyway, let’s just do it. It might be slower growth, but my mantra has become, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I don’t have to sprint across the finish line, I’m in this for the long haul. My books are going to be out there for years and years and years. I can be patient with growth. And so that’s when I decided to go wide and to just kind of do the baby steps. And it was scary because I don’t get a lot of traction, or I haven’t gotten a lot of traction in the other non-800-pound gorilla Amazon platforms. And so I would dearly love to find an audience elsewhere. And I have friends who’ve been doing this for longer.
I think I got in… I published my first book in 2019. And, you know, the best time to start publishing was six years ago, the second-best time is today, right? You know, as soon as you can do it, is the best time to do it. So, do I wish I’d gotten in in 2013? Of course, I do. I think that that ability to plant roots like that, then would have been amazing. But I didn’t, and that’s fine. And I will just keep trucking and keep publishing. And I do think as people find me, word of mouth is so powerful. I think readers listen to other readers, and that’s fantastic. Other authors I… when an author recommends a book, I’m just like, “Yep, go, go. Tell me more. Tell me more.” So, that’s what I’m hoping is going to happen for me. It’s slow, but steady catch on. But it is a little scary to take that leap and to see, you know, middling sales here and there. But I also… and I had my first BookBub Featured Deal in August, and that helped immensely. I think that was a big, I don’t want to say a gamble because BookBub Featured Deals, they’re the number one way that an author can sort of jump on to reader radars. And so that absolutely kick-started sales of the books down the line. And I am hoping I have more pre-orders for my book that’s going to be out in January than I have for any other books in my series. So, that gives me a lot of hope that it is just a matter of just being lucky enough or being right place at right time to catch eyeballs and to get some downloads and for people to…
Of course, the other thing is, I don’t know about you, but my e-reader is stuffed with books that I’ve picked up that I haven’t had a chance to read. But the downside of writing is you don’t get to read as much because the reading time, a lot of times, that’s what goes for me. I don’t get to read as much when I’m writing. That’s the thing that I have to sacrifice. So, a blessing on all the readers who downloaded my book when it was free, please find me on your e-reader now, please, when you’re scrolling through looking for what to read this weekend. Oh, yeah, I did this. So, that’s the challenge now I think is continuing to find those new people in these new platforms and hope that my covers speak to them, my blurbs speak to them, I hope that I get friends recommending them to other friends who like this kind of book. But patience, I know it’s patience and I have to remind myself of that all the time. Just be patient. It’s, your books are there, people will come.
Joni: Yeah, that’s a great, great thing to remember when you go wide because you’re right, it is, things are going to drop off a little bit because nobody knows you yet on these platforms, but…
Sara: Thank you for the “yet.” I appreciate that.
Joni: It will happen. Yeah, we have a lot of authors who have gone wide and not gone back. And it’ll be worth it in the long run, for sure.
Sara: I hope so.
Joni: And yes, I have an e-reader full of books that I am going to read, and I know Rachel does, too.
Rachel: Absolutely the same with me.
Sara: Absolute favorite authors whose newest releases I haven’t read yet. And it’s just… yeah, those weekends that when you can steal away and are just like, “I’m gonna knock out three of these, let’s do this.”
Joni: Absolutely. Is there anything that you did before you went wide to prepare your readers and prepare your audience for, “By the way, I’m edging out of KU now.”?
Sara: Newsletters. I’m somebody who does a twice a month newsletter for my subscribers, and I’ve had slow and steady growth on my newsletter subscribers as well. But I definitely gave them a heads up, “Hey, I’m leaving KU so if you want to get in there and read them, now is the time, don’t delay.” And I was…that’s the thing I was the most worried about was that I had grown my newsletter during the… oh gosh. Was I in KU for close to a year? I think it was, not quite a year. And so I was concerned that most of the subscribers I’d picked up in that time were KU, and they would be like, “See ya,” once they realized I was gone. And I did get one or two emails from subscribers when I sent out that initial blast saying, “You know, if you’re going to download them, download them now, they will stay on your Kindle for as long as you keep them there, even though I’ve gone from KU.” And I did get one or two people who emailed to say, “Okay, I’m not your fan anymore. If you’re not in KU, I’m not going to follow you.” And that’s fine, I get it, you know, everybody’s reading habits, everybody’s spending habits, they make the best choices for themselves. So, you know, that was the big one, was just communicating clearly in advance, grab this now, now’s the time if you are a KU person. And to remind them, I will still be available at that vendor, it’s just you’re gonna have to pay for it. But also, here’s my ARC team, if you want to get on my ARC team, that would be great. That’s a good way to do that if that’s how you would like to do. So, I am curious…when my next release is out, I’m curious to see how that kind of breaks down, if I have fewer sales. I don’t know what that’s gonna look like. I don’t know what kind of loss I actually had in terms of folks who are not going to follow me to the next one. But beyond that, you know, social media, graphic blasts and things like that just last chance, etc., etc. But also spinning it as “Hey, those of you who don’t have this kind of e-reader or don’t want to be on that platform for whatever reason, good news. I’m coming to Kobo. I’m coming to Apple. I’m going to Barnes & Noble. I’m going to be there.” So, yeah.
Joni: Yeah, I guess for every reader that you lose, you’re going to gain new ones and in new places as well, so.
Sara: That’s the hope. Yeah.
Joni: And how long have you been wide now?
Sara: I want to say I took my books out of KU in May, I think it was. So, it’s been, you know, almost half a year that I’ve been back to being wide. My third book, my most recent release in my series was always in KU. I was going to release it wide, and I was looking at the pre-orders for it at the time and thought, “This is silly, even to do it for a week wide, I don’t have any demand for it.” So, I went straight into KU with it. So, I was able to also say, “You know, this book has not been available elsewhere until now, so grab it.” And that worked to some degree, I think but, again, you know, it is slow but steady. So, there was a little bit of a push when I first went out into all the other platforms, but since then it has been just sort of incremental, it’s been very calm. The other retailers where I’m newly wide. I have always been a little slower for me, and that’s to be expected, I think. And the other thing is, I don’t advertise the way I probably should, that I don’t have Facebook ads that are really locked in and just absolutely crushing it, and I need to do more with that, I know. And that feels like part statistics and part witchcraft to make it work on Facebook. And I haven’t cracked either of those codes yet. I will, I’m going to get it. I know it. But that’s where I’m hoping I can find some alchemy of image and blurb, and then I can start targeting, you know, the readers in the other platforms to be able to specifically say, “Is this your preferred retailer?” “All right. Here’s an ad for you.” So, that’s what I’m hoping to do, but it is yet another thing on top of writing, on top of two pen names, on top of day job, on top of all of that, it’s just cracking the ad code is… Maybe this weekend, I’ll sit down and try it. Who knows? Let’s find out.
Joni: So what we need to do is lock you in for an interview in a year’s time and see how things are going, then. That would be really great.
Sara: Yes, and honestly, that kind of external deadline is good for me. Okay, I’m gonna have to talk to them again, in 2022, you got to get this done before then, I need that. It’s a deal.
Rachel: I’m gonna switch gears just a little bit here. So, we’ve talked about, you work as a journalist, you’re also a film critic, you write about TV. And I was just kind of wondering, as somebody who’s so immersed in that visual type of storytelling and looking at it critically, do you think that’s kind of changed or influenced how you approach writing and kind of what your books read like? Does that make sense?
Sara: Definitely. And I do think that sometimes I have a tendency to write almost screenplays, very dialogue-heavy. There are times I’ll look back at a chapter I wrote, and it is truly just back and forth. It’s banter. It’s conversation. And I think it’s a combination of consuming a lot of that kind of content of streaming of TV, of movies, and also just being the ridiculous extrovert that I am. Extroverts talk things out. And so I’m a big fan of the Write Better Faster workshop with Becca Syme, and she’s somebody who looks at the way your brain is wired and talks to you about how you can be more productive in your writing career. And one of the things she points out is that extroverts tend to have a lot of conversation and external processing in their characters, while introverts have a lot of characters mulling things over and a lot of internal dialogue paragraphs, but they don’t have a lot of external dialogue. And so I see myself doing that, I see myself having my characters just talk, talk, talk, but they don’t stop and think to themselves all that often.
So, I’ve learned that I need… One of my best beta readers is my friend, Jen, who is an introvert and who will say to me very gently, very lovingly, “They need to slow down and stop talking for a little bit and just sit with their emotions.” “Oh, yeah, you’re right. You’re right. You’re right.” And at the same time, when I read hers, there are times that I can say, “Can he tell her what he’s thinking? I think she needs to hear that.” So, yeah, I do think that the conversation is so fun for me and because it’s what I enjoy in the shows that I watch, I enjoy the rapid-fire banter, you know, the “Gilmore Girls,” “The West Wing,” that kind of back and forth that kind of sparky dialogue, I love that. But I get a little too caught up in it. That’s what I say if you’re doing NaNo, and you’re just writing and writing and writing, you can go back and fix it later. That’s what I always have to fix. I have to add the connective tissue around the back and forth, but I know that about myself and so I know I have to go back and look for it. So, it helps. Being able to self-diagnose like that is really good.
And the other thing I have a runner in my current series, I made up a fictional TV show that the characters all love and reference. Even just like a line of dialogue here and there in a book, but they’re all watching this sort of “Game of Thrones,” meets “Star Trek,” fantasy sci-fi time travel, “Opus” that they just mention in passing and it amuses me that is the… I have no idea if any readers out there are just like “Ah, she’s mentioning it again. That’s amazing.” It’s called “Barbarian Time Brigands.” And it’s a very popular show in my universe. And it just purely makes me happy. So, I think that’s… I really want to make pop culture references in my books, but I really don’t want to exclude people who don’t get them or date them too terribly. And there are… and, you know, my god, we live in a time where referencing a movie now or an actor now could end up with a “me too” situation in five years. So, I do think I’ve kind of steered away from heavy references to real people and events, and things like that. Even though I love the authenticity, I love making things that people can connect with, I’ve tried to move away from that a little bit so I’m not exclusionary, but I’m a pretty big nerd also. I mean, I really do like the geekier side of viewing watching, you know, comic books. I’m a big European-style board gamer. I love pinball, you know, those kinds of things. So, you see that flavor in there, but I try not to… I don’t want to exclude anybody so I’m trying to keep it a little bit common denominator with a little flavor of, “Oh man, she’s a nerd.”
Rachel: I love that though. Like staying away from real-world pop culture references and just kind of making up your own pop culture in your book. That’s so much fun. Have you ever thought about writing a screenplay just like for fun to see how it goes, see how it feels?
Sara: You know, honestly, no, I haven’t. And I don’t know if it’s because I feel less educated in that area. I feel like, as opposed to publishing where I can put a book on my platforms and have it available for sale, screenwriting takes place massive effort of money and connections that I don’t have. So, no, I think it would be a lot of fun, but at the same time, it’s a whole other arena. I can see maybe doing it for myself just as the challenge to see if I could, but I wouldn’t know what to do with it once I had it. And it does feel like that’s a whole other level of education I’d have to do for myself, but… Well, now you’ve got me thinking I should write a screenplay. Thanks a lot.
Rachel: Adding more to your plate.
Sara: Happy New Year. That’s right. When we’re back in 2022, ask me about my screenplay. But it is frustrating sometimes when… and this is not an uncommon complaint. When romance readers see some of the romcoms that are being made, it’s just like, there’s so much good content out there. Why isn’t Hollywood looking at the bestseller lists on the different book platforms because there’s so much good comedy, and romance, and heat, and chemistry out there on the pages? Just make those into movies. I’m dying for “The Hating Game” movie to come out. I’m hoping that it is as delightful as the book is. But I’m hoping that Hollywood is discovering more and more, “Oh, we have outlines, they exist, we can just take those books.” So, Hollywood, call us, romance writers would love to work with you.
Rachel: Just kind of staying on this trend of Hollywood, and TV, and like I’m also a very big TV person. And your bio states, and I believe this is a direct quote, that you are an expert at shouting your TV opinions at anyone who will listen. So, I have to know what is your hottest TV take?
Sara: Oh god.
Rachel: It doesn’t have to be controversial.
Sara: Like most people, I am in the middle of “Ted Lasso” season 2, and I am deeply conflicted. My hot take is that “Ted Lasso” should probably have been released as a binge. It should have been released all at once so people could get the whole experience because that’s how most people found season one. Season one rolled out very slowly in the national consciousness, and people came to it when it was all released. It had gone week by week, but nobody watched it live at the time because nobody was watching Apple TV. So, yeah, my hot take is they probably should have dumped all those episodes at once so people could have done the binge, like, they did with season one because that’s how we all kind of learned how to watch the show. And I think the pacing in some of the storylines probably would have played out a little better, and they would be a little less frustration with the way it’s going. I still am ride or die for that show. I still think it’s one of the best odes to kindness, forgiveness, and non-toxic masculinity on television right now. And I love it. But I do think, yeah, a faster rollout probably would have benefited the Jason Sudeikis “Opus” that is “Ted Lasso.” That’s the thing that’s on top of mine right now because the new episode dropped last night. And so I just watched it. So, that’s where I am.
Rachel: You’re making me feel very secure in my choice to wait and binge “Ted Lasso” until it’s all done. So, thank you.
Sara: Honestly, I give you my blessing. I think you’re probably going to have a better experience. And I would like to hear all about it when you do.
Rachel: I will find you online and I will let you know.
Sara: Please. But I did. my dissertation… Actually, I watched about 100 hours of TV for my dissertation. And so I come by my credentials of yelling about TV, honestly, by the way, that’s not nearly as fun as it sounds. Watch TV for your dissertation that will kill the joy you have in watching TV, for the record.
Sara: Yeah, when it becomes work like that. Yeah, you’re taking notes and you’re coding everything, and… you know, yeah, but it did the job.
Joni: Awesome. And we always like to finish this with some rapid-fire book questions about what you’ve been reading and what you like reading. So, I’m going to kick it off with, what is the last book that you read and loved?
Sara: I have been on a Kylie Scott binge. She does contemporary romance. She’s an Australian writer, and I just read, “Repeat,” was the book and it is about a woman who gets amnesia after an attack, where she suffers a brain injury. And she stumbles back into the tattoo parlor owned by her ex-boyfriend to say, “Do I know you?” And he’s just horrified because they had a terrible breakup. And he’s just like, his bloody heart is on the outside of his body because of her. And she comes back in, and she’s like, “I don’t remember anything.” Oh, it’s great. Oh, the drama. I don’t write that level of angst, but boy, I love it in the books that I read. So, yeah, Kylie Scott has been my go-to read the last month.
Joni: That sounds really good.
Rachel: Yeah. Next question. Is there a book or an author that made you fall in love with the romance genre?
Sara: Oh goodness. For Christmas every year, starting when I was a teenager, my mother got me the Regency Christmas anthologies that were available from… I don’t even remember what the… Avon maybe? But they were just like five Regency Christmas stories that I would get every year in a little paperback. And from the time I was 12 or 13, I imprinted on those like a baby duckling. And I remember one year she gave me one, and one of the novellas had a very, very mild sex scene, and I was just like, “Wait, you can do that in books? Oh my god.” So, truly, it was Regency romance and it was holiday anthologies that got me into romance as a reader. And then in the early aughts, when I was working on my dissertation, when I was in grad school, that became my escapist reading so Julia Quinn was a big… she was so hot, and, I mean, she’s still obviously like, “Bridgerton” killing it. But definitely, I have to take a brain break. Julia Quinn was my buddy. Amanda Quick, so I was very much a Regency romance writer. Do I have 10,000 words of a Regency romance on my hard drive? Yeah, I do. Is that ever gonna see the light of day? Absolutely not. I found contemporary romance pretty quickly. Julie James was probably one of the first contemporary romance authors I super loved. Christina Lauren, you know, the people who are still working today, “The Hating Game” just absolutely bowled me over but by then I was actively writing and looking at those books as “This is how they did it. What do I like about these? What are the tropes? What are the elements? What are the voice and the characters and all that?” So, at some point, it shifted into more academic study. I can still lose myself in a book, thankfully, I’ve not lost that ability. But there are times that I’m reading I have to step outside and be like, “Oh, I see what she’s doing. This is smart. I like this a lot.”
Joni: Do you have a favorite romance trope?
Sara: Oh gosh, all of them. Like most people, I almost could do the ones I don’t like better than I could do the ones I do like. But I love an “enemies to lovers” but as long as it’s not hateful. I don’t like the bully type, and so I’m pretty precise about my enemies to lovers. Julie James actually is one who has an “enemies to lovers” called…what is it? Is it “Practice Makes Perfect?” Well, now I feel terrible, it’s such a good book. But it’s an “enemies to lovers” and you slowly see why they’re enemies and it’s so, so good, it’s so good. But obviously, the “only one bed,” any time there’s any kind of forced proximity like that is so delicious because you know, you just know, you can eat it up, you know, the tension and the waiting for it to all come to a head and so good. “Friends to lovers,” I love that lived in, relaxed, and then things start to shift. That’s wonderful. Also, a makeover scene. Oh my god. I haven’t written a makeover scene and it is inexcusable. Because in a movie, give me a makeover scene set to peppy music and that’s literally all I ask for in a film is a makeover scene that’s real jaunty. And, you know, somebody sitting there not… “No, no, yes.” Like, that’s all I want. So, how have I not written a makeover scene? I don’t know. The only one that leaves me cold, I don’t love a secret baby, a secret pregnancy. That’s not really my thing. My books don’t typically have a lot of kids in them. I don’t have kids. I don’t know how to write them. I don’t particularly like to read them. I’m so sorry. Children are a blessing, but not in my romance novels. So, that’s the only one that would make me pause before picking up a book. But for the most part, I’m good with all of them. Give me a good trope. I love to see in the hands of a good storyteller, how do you twist that? How do you make it fresh? How do you make it interesting? You know, the dopamine hit of… Yeah, there it is. It’s so good.
Rachel: All right. And final question. Do you have a favorite book to film or TV adaptation?
Sara: Oh my gosh, I tell you, yeah, this romance. The “Bridget Jones’s Diary” book-to-film adaptation, so good. They made changes from the book, but that movie is good. It was so well done. It was such a pleasant surprise to see it translate so well. Just the spirit of it. And pretty much any “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation. I’m not hard to please with “Pride and Prejudice.” Colin Firth, Amazing. Amazing. Mr. Darcy, obviously, but Matthew Macfadyen, an amazing… Like, I love all the Darcy’s. Give me all your Darcy’s.
Rachel: I love Bridget Jones.
Sara: It had no right being that good. No right being as good as it was.
Joni: It’s fantastic. I actually listened to a podcast about the Bridget Jones Diary 2 book this morning. That was really fun. Sentimental garbage is the name… Recommend.
Rachel: Sounds really good.
Sara: Noted. Thank you.
Joni: It’s a great forecast. Awesome. And where can readers find you online or listeners? Where can everyone find you online?
Sara: Sure. So, I am Sara Whitney, at pretty much all the platforms it’s Sara without an H, thank my mother for that, and W-H-I-T-N-E-Y. So, I’m Sara Whitney author on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram. I’m Author Sara on TikTok. If you go to my website, which is sarawhitney.com, you can subscribe to my newsletter. I don’t overwhelm people with content, but I do like to send fun breezy updates, a lot of giveaways, and suggestions for things I’m reading and new releases and things like that. So, I need to get a little bit better about being on Facebook. I have a readers group Sara Whitney’s Sass Squad. As I see that out loud, that sounds like Sass Squad, maybe I should think about that. But it’s Sass Squad. So, that’s a fun place to be and I really am trying to figure out… The TikTok thing, so if you’re on there, definitely seek me out and I think that’s all the places. Yeah, that’s where I am.
Joni: Thank you. We’ll include all of those links. Thank you so much for doing this. This was really, really fun.
Sara: This was so fun. I would love to talk TV with all of y’all anytime, and books, obviously.
Rachel: Amazing. Okay, we’re gonna book you in for podcasts in a year’s time and chat about how it’s been. Thank you, again.
Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life” podcast. If you’re interested in picking up Sara’s books, we will include them in our show notes. If you’re enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, subscribe, tell your friends. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us @kobowritinglife.com. And you can follow us on socials we are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Joni: This episode was produced by Joni de Placido and Rachel Warden. Music is provided by Tear Jerker. Editing is by Kelly Robotham [SP]. And huge thanks to Sara Whitney for being our guest today.
Rachel: If you’re ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writing life. Until next time, happy writing.