The universe that Penny has created, the “Pennyverse,” is hugely popular with readers but also with writers. After several authors expressed interest in writing in her worlds, Penny opened it up and created the collaborative universe Smartypants Romance. In this episode you’ll learn:
- How she got started, moving from the biotech world to becoming such a prolific indie author
- Why authenticity is so important in writing
- The origins of Smartypants Romance and everything an author needs to know about opening up their own universe
- Her charity work with books and what drives her to keep writing
- And much more!
Penny Reid is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author of the Winston Brothers and Knitting in the City series. She used to spend her days writing federal grant proposals as a biomedical researcher, but now she writes kissing books. Penny is an obsessive knitter and manages the #OwnVoices-focused mentorship incubator / publishing imprint, Smartypants Romance. She lives in Seattle Washington with her husband, three kids, and dog named Hazel.
Tara runs Kobo Writing Life (KWL), Kobo’s independent publishing platform. As a subject matter expert in all aspects of indie publishing, her aim is to make KWL the greatest and most user-friendly self-publishing platform available and always looking for ways for indies to reach a new audience of readers.
Transcription by www.speechpad.com
Tara: 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 Tara and I’m the director of Kobo Writing Life.
Rachel: And I’m Rachel, the promotion specialist at Kobo Writing Life. This week on the podcast we are showcasing a recent live interview that we hosted with Penny Reid. We hosted it on our KWL Facebook and YouTube pages. And Tara sat down with Penny to chat about how Penny got started in indie publishing, moving from the biotech world, and becoming such a prolific indie author. And talks about the origins of Penny’s Smartypants Romance universe. And she shared everything an author needs to know about opening up their own universe. We hope you enjoy it.
Tara: Hi, everyone. Welcome to a another live Q&A with Kobo Writing Life. I’m really happy to be here today. My name is Tara Cremin, and I’m the director of Kobo Writing Life, which is Kobo’s independent publishing platform, if you weren’t aware. I hope it’s starting to look like summer wherever you are in the world. Be sure to let us know in the comments where you’re tuning in from. It very abruptly became summer here in Toronto, which I’m all for, because it was a very long winter. So it is nice and sunny. I am really happy to be talking to Penny Reid today. Welcome, Penny, thank you for joining us.
Penny: Thank you so much for having me.
Tara: Is it nice and warm where you are?
Penny: I’m in Seattle. So warm is relative. It’s about 60 degrees…
Tara: Can you see the sky?
Penny: Yes, I can. I can see the sky. So there you go.
Tara: Wonderful. So do let us know if you have any questions, let us know in the comments. And feel free to drop them in throughout the chat and I’ll pull them. And take advantage while we have the wonderful Penny Reid here with us. So in case you’re not familiar, Penny is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today best-selling author of the Winston Brothers series, and Knitting in the City series. You always have some of my most favorite covers, they really jump out on the website. So I really love seeing them.
And I wanted to just start off by saying congrats on your latest release, Ten Ways to Seduce Your Bestfriend. I really loved the premise. So it was like a fake best friend relationship online leading to real romance. And I was kind of looking at some of that, as I’m doing some research. And my favorite review described it as an all-consuming, unconventional, and wonderfully heady slow-burn romance. So I wanted to ask, was it fun to write a… it’s kind of like a longer standalone. Was this a sort of kind of like different book for you to write? Then that must have been fun.
Penny: It was a different book. This is the first time I’ve written a book not in a series. And I have no plans to write about any of the other characters in the book. So it was an unusual experience. And it wouldn’t end, meaning that I had plotted it out that it would be about 90,000 to 110,000 words. It ended up being 154,000. And maybe that’s why it’s not in a series because it’s all in one book. So there you go. But no, it was different. The story behind the book was…or the impetus for the book was I had been told by a number of my author friends that I needed to have a presence on TikTok, you know, just because you got to move with the changing times, right?
And it just, to me, it was like, “Oh, no, another social media platform I have to learn and figure out how to navigate.” And as I started watching, as one does, TikTok compilation videos on YouTube, and I just thought it was awesome. After I started to understand the culture and what’s behind it, I just thought it was so much fun. The challenge videos in particular. And I stumbled across this challenge video for kiss your secret crush. And I was like, “This is a romance stuff. This is like a meet-cute. This is a romance novel, all these challenges.”
And so I went ahead and I layered them against the backdrop of a teacher, a woman in STEM, who has her own social media channels where she promulgates women in STEM, and science experiments, and engineering experiments, etc., etc. And then of course, you have Byron who is a reclusive author who is not based on me. But it was a lot of fun to write, and using TikTok as a background. And as I wrote the book, I fell in love with TikTok as a platform, and now it takes up a lot of my time, too much of my time watching all the videos. People are so funny. I think it’s what I love about… I’m sorry, you didn’t ask me this, but what I came to love about TikTok is how humorous, and joyful, and funny, and willing to share everybody is, and it’s just a…I think it’s a wonderful platform, especially if you curate your feed to only, like, funny videos.
Tara: You’re selling it to me. I haven’t jumped on yet just for the lack of self-control within how long I could spend on it. I know myself already, and I’m like, “I don’t know if I need to go down that other rabbit hole,” but you’re really selling me on it.
Penny: Set a timer. Set a timer for just, like, 15 minutes, otherwise you’ll look up and be like, “Oh, my God, it’s four hours.” No, that’s not right, not four hours. I think maybe 45 minutes. And I was completely stunned that I had been on there for 45 minutes, because it’s so enjoyable.
Tara: It’s funny that like…because you’ve probably watched 100 videos in 5 minutes, but then this is a longer book. So it’s kind of interesting that it’s like the contrast between a quick snippet on TikTok, and then an immersive novel.
Penny: That’s true, I hadn’t thought about it that way. That’s true. I guess I just really had a lot to stay…or those particular characters had a lot to say about their own experiences and background. And Winni the teacher, the STEM teacher, she is, of course, a product of the current interesting situation we find ourselves in the United States with student debt. And so she needs a side hustle, as a lot of teachers do. So a lot of teachers in the United States don’t just…they’re not just teachers, but they also need to find another income source so that they can also pay off their student loans. And it’s just interesting to me…or I guess it was interesting to Winni, I should say, how much we ask of our teachers, and then pay them so little. And so that was something that was explored in the book. And I like to not take a stand either way, I just think it’s fascinating. But it was a fun book to write. And hopefully it was a fun book to read.
Tara: Nice. Well, yeah, the reviews coming through seem to be like everyone really enjoyed it. I’m curious, did you use BookTok in your marketing for it? Or had you already been doing that with your other books, or is this kind of what led into it? How are you finding BookTok?
Penny: I don’t use BookTok for marketing. I think that…
Tara: So you didn’t listen to people when they said you need to be on BookTok. You just wrote a book about it.
Penny: I do every once in a while, maybe like once a month, I’ll post something just because I’ll have the opportunity. And also, it’s just something that seems fun to me. I do do this one thing on TikTok, which is I tell…when a book releases, I’ll tell three secrets about the book. It’s, you know, three secrets. So I did that for Beard in Hiding, which was released in November, and then Homecoming King, which was released in December, and then Ten Trends, which was released back in April. So I do that, but I maybe have like eight videos.
My most popular video is… I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was up at 3 a.m. plotting a book, my december release, which is the second book in the Three Kings series, it’s a holiday series. And I was eating potato chips. And it was 3 o’clock in the morning. And I was just staring into space. And I’m like, “This is a TikTok video.” So I filmed it. And it’s just me eating potato chips and plotting a book, and it’s authentic. And I think that’s also what I like about TikTok is that the more authentic the video, it seems like the better it does. Maybe that’s why I connect with it so much. And I think it has something like 50,000 views, or something…. So yeah, I just love how subversive and quirky it is as a platform. I love it.
Tara: Nice. I really like the idea of three secrets to a book too. It’s kind of like something unique just for this audience. I think that’s cute.
Penny: Yeah, I was thinking to myself… well, actually, what happened was I had read a really good book, and I wish that I could have a conversation with the author about it and ask some questions, as one does. And so I just thought to myself, what would I want in a video about a particular book? And, you know, three secrets seemed like something I as a reader would also enjoy.
Tara: Nice. Cool. Well, let’s leave TikTok as it is for a second. And I’m kind of curious for you to tell us about your background, because you kind of came from an interesting background, maybe unconventional for somebody to go into romance writing. So yeah, could you tell the viewers a little bit how you got started in your publishing career?
Penny: Sure. What’s interesting about writing romance is I think there’s this…and I’m gonna go on a limb here and say I think there’s this misconception that a lot of individuals not within the romance community, or writing romance, or reading romance have this perception that romance writers come from one particular background. And I especially have learned this lesson…not lesson, but this…I’ve just found it interesting that, as I started Smartypants Romance, which I will probably talk about later, in all of the case individuals who write romance come from all different backgrounds. My background was in biomedical research, I was the chief operating officer of a pediatric epidemiology center. And I wrote grant proposals, federal grant proposals as well, to foundations and non-profits. And we ran a large data coordinating center in pediatric epidemiology. So rare diseases was my focus, as well as type 1 diabetes.
And I had a friend who worked there, who was a voracious reader of romance novels, and she was a PhD. And she was awesome. And she, however, at the time, back in I think 2011, 2012, maybe… because search ability on all the various platforms wasn’t excellent, or maybe she just didn’t have a lot of time, she struggled to find books about individuals that were like her that she could relate to, which, basically, to be quite honest, was book-smart, but kind of socially inept. So really, that’s the way to put it. I put myself in that category, so I could relate. And then she knew that I wrote books that I never published, just because I like to write for fun.
Tara: Oh, I didn’t know that, that you were writing before publishing them.
Penny: Oh, yeah, I’ve been writing since I was…since I could actually read because it’s just so…I mean, when you have all of these stories within you, you know, just ideas, and you fall asleep, telling yourself stories. So she knew that I wrote. And so we had a bet. I think I’ve told this story a million times, which is we had a bet that she’d take me out to dinner at this really nice restaurant if I wrote her a romance novel about somebody like her. Again, I’m sure that there were plenty out there, but she just maybe didn’t have the time or inclination to hunt them down. And so I did, I wrote a book, it’s called “Neanderthal Seeks Human.” And it’s about a woman who is incredibly book-smart, but incredibly socially inept, and what that’s like, just to kind of stumbled through the world with putting your foot in your mouth. And I won the bet. She took me out to dinner.
Tara: Nice, nice. That dinner must have tasted great.
Penny: It was so good. I had lots of champagne, and the wine, and the steak, and the lobster. Just like everything. Because it was seven months of writing this book, but you know, I had a really good time when I wrote it. And then I just saved it on my computer. And that was that. And then a couple months later, she went to her book club to read it. So I went ahead and I put it up online, self-published it. Put a pen name… Penny Reid is a pen name, I think it’s hilarious. It’s a pun. Nobody gets it. It’s not funny to anybody but me. So there you go.
Tara: I know, I don’t get it.
Penny: A Penny Reid. So … moving on from that. Again, it’s my shame. And then I created a cover, and I put it up, and I put it up for free. And then three days later when I checked, or a couple days later when I checked, 8000 people had downloaded it, and it was completely bizarre. It was such a bizarre year to watch individuals read this book and enjoy it.
Tara: What year was this?
Penny: This was 2013. So it was a different landscape, it was the Wild West.
Tara: Totally, no rules.
Penny: No rules. And yeah, so then the next book came out in the fall. And then the next book came out in the spring. And it was a hobby for me for a while. And I really enjoyed myself. But then when I got pregnant with my third, we just decided it made more sense for me to write instead of going to the office every day. So that’s what I do now.
Tara: Nice. Did you have…obviously, you have like financial goals before you can do it full-time. But was it hitting out what you wanted to read? Like, how did you know you were ready to take that step? Because I feel like that can be quite scary.
Penny: Yes, it can be quite scary from two fronts. The first front, of course, is when something becomes your job, and you lose a little bit of joy in the process. And I had been able to weather the storm of criticism of my books and their strangeness. And because I thought to myself, “Well, this is just for fun, and people can like it or not like it.” So that’s fine, you know. And then you don’t have to necessarily build an author brand, or think about a business plan, or budgets, and advertising, and hiring individuals who are experts in their field, or whatever it is. It’s just for fun. So that, I think, was actually the scariest part for me, is flipping that switch in my head and having it changed from something that I did for enjoyment to something I did for work. The financial part was less scary, just because I had been doing it for a number of years at that point, and was making quite a bit more with my books than I was for my day job.
Tara: Oh, awesome. So no brainer then, you’re like, “Why would I…?”
Penny: Yeah, that part was a no brainer. And again, it was the Wild West. I think that there were not nearly as many individuals doing it as there are now. People were still trying to figure it out. Everything was very new. There was a lot of joy around the process. And I don’t know that necessarily that is the case. Now it’s much more of a machine, it’s much more of a business. The people involved who have been able to sustain themselves in independent publishing tend to be business focused and minded. And back then, it was just, you know, a bunch of us crazy kids, you know, writing the stories that we used to tell ourselves as we went to sleep.
Tara: Nice. So what would you say, like, what was a good piece of advice that you would have for authors if they were trying to look at starting the business now? I know it’s, like you said, very different. But what helped you in shifting your mindset to this is now your brand and business?
Penny: Well, twofold. Don’t let yourself become overwhelmed by all the steps. So now there’s a lot more steps, there’s a lot more possible steps than there were back in the old days of the Wild West. So don’t let yourself become overwhelmed by steps. If you just dedicate an hour a day to writing, and an hour a day to getting something done on the business side, then in three months, you are going to have a business, and you’re gonna have at least 30% of the book. So it’s like any process, whether that process is going to school and getting a degree, it’s just a little bit every day, and breaking it into smaller pieces. So from a business perspective, that’s what I would say.
But from a creative person’s perspective, because there’s truly those two sides, from a creative person’s perspective, it’s never about…the question, I think, new authors ask themselves, that is the wrong question, in my opinion, and this is just my opinion, is whether or not a book is any good. “Is this book good? You know, I don’t want to publish it, because it’s not any good.” And that’s where I spent all my teen years, and all of my 20s was at, you know, “I don’t want to publish these books that I’ve written, they’re no good.” And when I published “Neanderthal Seeks Human,” I had the same thought, you know, “Nobody’s gonna want to read this.” And what I discovered is, the beauty of the internet, and the beauty of self-publishing is that you can reach niche audiences. And it’s not whether or not the book is good. It’s how do you reach your audience? What can you do to reach people who are gonna love this book just as much as you do. For me, I find it exhausting to write a book that I don’t love, because I’m going to have to read it 200,000 times when I edit it. And that is just completely exhausting.
So only writing books that I love and trusting that there’s an audience out there who’s going to love them as much as I do. If you can find that balance, and not worrying necessarily… The people who don’t like your book aren’t your audience, if you can tell yourself that, that it’s just not a good fit for them and that’s okay. Go to the greatest novels of our time, you know, and go read some one-star reviews of those great novels, and you’ll see that even the best story isn’t for everybody.
Tara: No, I love that. I think that’s really good advice to have, especially with…if you’re kind of doing the editing process yourself, or even with other people, I’m sure it can be very tempting to just keep fixing or poking around a book as an excuse of not really…. I say myself as a master, like just time delayer or complicate. So yeah, I wonder like…that must be really hard to just be like, “It’s done as much as it can be done, and it’s ready.”
Penny: Yes, and to give yourself deadlines, and hard and fast deadlines, and that’s why we set up pre-orders. We set up pre-orders so I’ll stop messing around with the book. But we have an editing team. So I have four content editors that I send it to, and then I send it off to copy line, and then we send it to three proofreaders. So we do have professional editors every step of the way. But I then receive it back and edit, and then send it, and receive it back and edit. And I have a tendency to just keep it and not want to give it to anybody. But I think that’s also a bit of a good sign that I think if you’re doing it right, if you’re writing stories that are meaningful to you, then putting your book out there is a bit like sending your kid to their first day of school. And just, “Oh, gosh, please be nice. Please be nice. Please only encounter nice children. And I hope everybody’s nice to you,” because there’s that…you’re putting a part of yourself out there. And then you got to switch on the business brain, and just ignore all the negative reviews, and just tell yourself that if people don’t like the book, then it just wasn’t a good fit for them.
Tara: Nice. So you went from writing the…kind of like getting started just on a whim, putting your books up to building this author brand and career. And then even to opening up your kind of universe, that it’s not even people like your book. They love your universe, the Pennyverse, and want to live in it, and tell their own stories in it. So can you maybe talk us a little bit through…maybe explaining author universe, and how you got into to wanting to open that up to other authors as well?
Penny: Sure. So I had been made aware of some Penny Reid fanfiction based on my books, which is interesting to me, and it felt very meta because I wrote fanfiction in my twenties.
Tara: What did you write fanfiction about?
Penny: I’m not telling. But I can tell you it was not “Twilight,” which seems to be very popular with a lot of romance authors. And I don’t say that in any kind of superior way. Just to give you a hint, it was not “Twilight.” And it was also not Draco Malfoy, Hermione Granger fanfic, which is a fanfic hole I have tumbled down recently, and highly recommend it to anybody who would like excellent romantic stories about characters that you already love. And I am somebody who will never speak ill of fanfic because I just think it’s such a great place for writers to hone their abilities and skills, and understand beats and pacing, and all of those things, you’re releasing a chapter at a time. Sometimes the chapters are very long, sometimes the chapters are very short. And that immediate feedback is like having a critique partner, but having access to thousands of critique partners all at once, and getting such critical, awesome feedback that usually you have to pay quite a lot of money for, especially as you move into the professional space.
So fanfic to me also is such a beautiful expression of fandom. It’s typically laced in joy, and hope, and dreams, and all of those things that I think make life worth living, right. So despair, and anger, and bias, and prejudice, those don’t make life worth living. I don’t know… Hopefully that’s not controversial. But love, and hope, and compassion, and dreams, that’s what makes life worth livinging. And that’s what fanfic is. And I just love it.
And so I saw that people were writing fanfic of Penny Reid books and characters. And I’m a firm believer in people should be paid for the work that they do. So I felt a little unsettled about the fact that people were putting their…even though I had done it and never had a problem with it, but that people were putting their work online and not getting remuneration for their work. But they were…I guess, in terms of the feedback that they were getting from their readers, that’s a form of remuneration. And I went to my reader group and I asked, “Hey, if I opened up my world for other people to write in, is this something that you’d be interested in?” And I think, within hours, we had 1000 comments. I mean, it just was totally crazy. And I thought, “Okay, well, this is something I need to think about.” But at the time, we had just come off of CopyGate. I don’t know if everybody remembers that. There was a group of mostly independent romance authors who put together the anthology to fight trademark…I have to be very careful with my words here, alleged trademark bulling, there we go.
And so I was feeling a little righteous at the time. And that propelled me forward into what is now Smartypants Romance. And I thought to myself, “How can I leverage this particular idea that I have,” which is to allow authors to write in my universe in such a way that would hopefully lift…do the most good, and leverage my, at the time, popularity in order to promote other authors who needed it in a way that not necessarily all people do. So what we did was we decided to prioritize our own voice as authors. And so in our initial submission form, in all of our submission forms, we make this clear, and also on the website and our mission statement. First and foremost, we prioritize Own Voices authors telling stories that are reflective of their own experience, and also from a group that is typically marginalized within the United States. And then after that, we prioritize diverse stories responsibly told, which means not just sensitivity readers, but then also having some sort of inspiration for the story of real person, somebody who can comment on their own lived experience. And that’s what we did. And so Smartypants Romance is an imprint where all the stories are considered canon, which means that they’re factual within my universe. They’re accepted as factual. We have a big wiki that has all the world details in it.
Tara: Well, I was gonna ask about that, yeah, about how you keep track of it. So there is a Pennyverse wiki?
Penny: There is a Pennyverse wiki, and it’s not public-facing. Because it has a lot…
Tara: Oh, okay. So I can’t browse it.
Penny: No, you can’t browse it. But it does have a lot of sensitive information in terms of spoilers for future books of mine. So that individuals who are writing within the universe can look things up, and understand the timeline, and what’s planned, and what happened. And every character is listed, and every character has their own page, and every business has their own page, and every location described has their own page. And what we do is all of the royalties that come in that don’t go to the author, so our cut, so to speak, gets reinvested back into the authors via audio books, or conference attendance, or scholarships to attend craft writing seminars, or one-on-one if the person is amenable, or we think it’s necessary one-on-one coaching with a craft mentor. And then we also provide the author’s mentorship from, “This is how you find an editor. And this is how you go through the process of getting your books edited. This how you interact with social media. And this is the best way for each of the platforms.” And one of our areas in which don’t do so great is that I don’t actually advertise my books, I don’t do paid advertising.
Tara: I know, that’s always fascinated me that you don’t.
Penny: Well, I don’t, and I should. And so that’s something that, you know, we need to focus more on and figure out so that we can actually mentor or provide insight to our authors. So that is an area where we fail, is I don’t do Facebook…
Tara: I mean, you haven’t needed to as well is the other side. So I don’t know if you would really call that a failure.
Penny: But as a new author coming up, it’s a good skill to have to work on your Facebook ads, to learn how to do the other kind of advertising that’s out there, and Google Ads. And that’s just something that we’ve never done. So I can teach them how to build an organic audience, but not necessarily a grab paying audience. So yeah, and then also developing relationships with retailers, which is something, hopefully, I don’t fail at.
Tara: No. Not at all.
Penny: But so we reinvest all that money back into the authors. And then we tried to, or prior to the pandemic, we were trying to do one big event a year. So this year, as it was back in 2018, it will be Book Bonanza in Dallas, Texas, which is beginning of July. And we’re gonna have a big extravaganza, and have as many of our authors who are gonna be signing are gonna be there at the event, and give readers a chance to meet them and connect personally with the authors. And then we have a Patreon account associated with Smartypants Romance, where we offer bonus content, and exclusive sneak peeks, and all of that kind of fun stuff.
Tara: Nice. It’s really amazing to go from, like some fan fiction to creating this whole, like Penny Reid University, basically, and like mentorship program. I mean, that’s kind of what you’re doing. Right? You’re kind of reinvesting in teaching. It’s incredible.
Penny: Well, and hopefully…well… I’ll keep that comment to myself. I never heard it called Penny Reid University. That’s really cute.
Tara: You can take that.
Penny: My business partner is very much going to tease me about that. She’ll probably watch this and be like, “Uh, Penny Reid…” No, I think it’s important then…for me, I find it important and I have a better ability to sleep at night when I feel like I’m doing something useful, something helpful. And when I used to work in biomedical research, that line was a very straight line, I could see from the work that I did a straight line to the good that it did, just because when we would audit the sites, and we would visit these kids, and we could see the research we were doing was making a difference in their lives. And for myself, I didn’t necessarily for me, and I’m only speaking for me, I couldn’t see that straight line from my own whatever…however my brain works, I couldn’t see that straight line between the books that I was writing, and the good that it was doing out in the world. It was much more nebulous for me.
And that’s not to say it is for everybody, or that it actually is, I’m just saying just for me it was. And I have to put all those asterisks in because I don’t want anybody to think I’m making generalizations. I’m truly just speaking for myself. And reader emails helped, reader emails that I would get really helped me see that, “Okay, well, I’m making a difference in this person’s life,” or, you know, I’m helping them laugh during a difficult time, or carrying them through time of grief, or helping them process the death of a loved one, or whatever. Or I have a character in the Winston Brothers series who has severe obsessive compulsive disorder. And I once received a note from a mother, and this is a real standout message for me, where she saw in the character signs that were also in her child. And because of the book she understood that her child had obsessive compulsive disorder, and immediately took them to receive help, meaning that she wouldn’t have…according to her, she wouldn’t have understood that’s what was going on. She just thought it was these irritating habits or traits.
So that always helps. But I wanted to see more of a straight line between the daily work that I did, and the good that was done. And watching these authors blossom and bloom, and talking to them and hearing them be so excited about their book where prior there was…especially with some of the Own Voices authors, there was a bit of distrust with publishing that, “This isn’t a space for me, nobody wants to read this book,” or, “I will never have the opportunity.” Being able to be part of that, just even a small part of that has been so incredibly gratifying, and exciting, and wonderful. And, again, hope, and joy, and compassion, and all the things that make life worth living.
Tara: And the reader response must speak for itself. Like I’m sure you just get really kind of overwhelmingly positive responses to these books in the universe.
Penny: We do. It’s been interesting to watch my readership embrace the authors, and these stories, and these books. But then, a lot…a byproduct of this that I did not expect is that sometimes individuals come to the Smartypants Romance books having never heard of me. And then they read a couple of Smartypants Romance books and they’re, “Who’s this Penny Reid lady?” You know, and sometimes they don’t like my books, which is also totally fine. But I just love that it’s taking on this life of its own. And it’s developing its own identity. And I think hopefully, at one point, we’d like to move from Penny Reid canon stories, away from the Pennyverse, and really just focus on the book, the story, and writing books that don’t have anything to do with Penny Reid. And helping authors, all authors in this way, regardless of whether or not they’re familiar with my backlist catalog or not. That’s a goal. We’ll see how that goes.
Tara: I love that. But I love the idea that they’re coming to a Smartypants Romance book not knowing any of your titles, I think that that’s probably just a really key indication of, like, how well formed that universe is, and the characters within it. That must be like a…I’m not gonna say a sideways compliment, but kind of, right? You know, that it’s like…well, you don’t even know that, like, this is so good, you’re not even aware of it.
Penny: Well, they are. I mean, the books, really, they’re amazing. All of these authors, all of these titles, they stand on their own, they truly do. And if all we did was give them just the mere spin of insight, and then they went off. But the thing is that the goal is not for them to write for us forever. We thought at the beginning of starting this that most people would want to do one and done. And we have had a couple of authors who came in write one story and then left. And that was the goal, was for people to go through the process of one book with us, or maybe two.
But now we had to close it, we don’t use open submissions anymore, because we’re at capacity. And we have authors who have stayed. And that also feels like a huge compliment that they would continue to have trust in us to publish these books with them. So that’s wonderful. And also it’s a compliment to my readership too, for how they have embraced these authors and these stories. And I say this as often as I possibly can, I have the best readership in the world. They’re amazing, they’re just… And you know, it is a niche audience and I do have a niche audience. They’re a fanfic audience. They’re passionate about the content, and love to discuss it. And yeah, it’s just wonderful. I feel so blessed.
Tara: Nice. And have you been inspired by stories in your universe, like into your writing? Or was there anything that you were like, “Damn, I wish I did that.”
Penny: I don’t think. There was a story early on, a character that I had planned to write a book about. And when the author had asked if she could write the book about the character, I did some soul-searching, and then eventually did let the character go for the author. And that happened a second time. But that book never actually ended up getting written just because, you know, I don’t know if you know this, but there was a pandemic.
Penny: I know, right? And so, because of that, there was…you know, I think people had lots of plans in 2018 that didn’t happen in 2020. And I was exactly that way. I think I only published one book in 2020. So we all have to be gentle with ourselves, and give ourselves grace regarding what it is we can and cannot do. And I always tell them, “Who you were during a global pandemic is not who you are outside of it. So give yourself some breathing room and breathe.”
Tara: Nice. That is very good advice. Do you have any notes on sort of the more practical side of…I’m just gonna use some buzzwords, like, you know, opening up your IP, and like, you know, it’s really key to what people are saying about the creator economy. But if a writer is interested in potentially opening up their universe or writing for somebody else’s, I know there’s like legal things to consider. Any bits of advice from…like, on the practical side?
Penny: Yes, always start with a NDA, not because you can’t trust people, but because it spells out expectations. So having an NDA and then having a contract that has been written by a lawyer, and reviewed several times by several lawyers, ensuring that the language within both the NDA and the contract is not that confusing legalese, that it can be understood. Always starting with expectations clearly spelled out for both parties is essential. Because if you start with all these hearts, and flowers, and excitement, but you’re not communicating your actual expectations, you’re really just setting people up for failure. So having that first and foremost, spelling out expectations, I would say.
And then having hard and fast deadlines, and making sure that people…and again, this is part of communicating expectations, but holding to those, so being consistent. Being consistent with, “This is our deadline. If you can’t make it, that’s fine. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.” Or being honest about whether or not you can shift a book to another launch or to another event. And just being honest about what you are capable of. And setting up that NDA ahead of time, where it really says, “Hey, we’re gonna be doing this with a lot of trust. And this isn’t a process where we’re gonna then go appeal to social media because we’re upset. We’re doing this as a relationship between you and I.” That’s why that’s so essential.
Because sometimes you do have to deliver bad news, or not bad news, but sometimes you do have to deliver news that maybe author doesn’t want to hear as an indie publishing situation. If a book has been delayed too long, or if once the book is written, it is just not a good fit for the goals and the brand of your universe. That’s okay. It’s not always going to work out in life, and also in publishing, it’s not always going to work out. And that’s fine. But being honest about it, rather than trying to soften the blow, or sandwich it between compliments, just being really straightforward, I have found works best.
And then the other really practical thing that we do is we have running agendas with each of the authors. And so if they want to schedule a meeting with me, because they’re stuck in their story, or they have questions about the business side, or want to do like a cover consultation. So I design all of my own covers, except for I did not design the new “Knitting in the City.”
Tara: I didn’t know you designed all your own covers.
Penny: Yes, I do. The “Knitting in the City” covers was were designed by Staci Hart. And she’s awesome.
Tara: Yeah, those are great as well. Yeah, but your covers are so…yeah, like I mentioned at the beginning, some of my favorites. So hats off, that’s great you do your own.
Penny: Thanks. But like anything having to do with arts and crafts, it’s something that I design. So if it’s the cross stitch book covers of the Winston Brothers, or the ugly christmas sweaters of the Three Kings, or the Ten Trends. I did not do the illustration for Ten Trends, that was a stock illustration that I modified and morphed to my own needs. But the cover design itself with making it look like a phone and all of that, that was me. And I was told by a number of author friends, this is a weird cover. And that’s when I know I’m doing my job right. So we also do cover consultation for authors on their self-published titles, or creative consultation. So we have a running agenda of everything we’ve talked about, that’s in Google Docs. And every time we have a phone call, you’ll cross your fingers that I’m not in the car, and I can actually take the notes.
So barring that, we know every time we’ve had a phone call what we’ve talked about, what we decided, so that makes it much easier for the author when they’re trying to remember what perhaps we discussed, or a story element or what I said about something, social media, some advice for social media, it’s all in one place. And then for me, when I’m meeting with the authors, I can quickly review historically what we’ve talked about, and the authors can also put their latest questions at the top as a form of an agenda. And then I’m quickly brought back up to speed because when you’re balancing 30 different authors, it can feel overwhelming, but if you put those structures in at the very beginning, it becomes much more manageable.
Tara: Nice. And I’m sure that’s also very reassuring to the author to have those kinds of parameters or that support to like really, that you’re letting them do their own thing, but within kind of clear expectations and guidelines.
Penny: Yeah, I hope so. I feel like as whatever job I’ve ever worked that my least favorite jobs were always where there was a lot of chaos, and lack of clear communication and expectations. And so how can you know whether or not you’re succeeding if you don’t know what metric you’re being measured against. But something I do try to impress upon all of my authors is that I am not their boss, I’m their mentor. And so you’re not writing this book to make Penny Reid happy, or even Penny Reid readership happy, you’re always writing the book of your heart, the book that’s gonna make you happy. Because if they’re not writing a book from their voice, and their story that they want to tell, then they’re not establishing their author brand, and their author career, and then it’s disingenuous when they go to actually do that, because readers will want to then pick up their backlist. If it’s not reflected in the book that they’ve written for us, then they’re not gonna want to go ahead and continue with that author.
Tara: Yeah, no, I think that’s really key. I swear I’m not trying to get your fan fiction info out of you. But I am curious about if you were to write in a universe now, whose would you like to write in? Is there anyone that you’d jump into that you’re reading?
Penny: So like I said, I am reading Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger fanfic, which is delightful. I feel like I’m the last person on the face of the earth to read this. One fandom that I missed that I…just because we had so much going on at the time, was the Reylo, the Rey and Kylo Ren fandom.
Tara: Oh, yes. Of course.
Penny: And I haven’t read any of that fanfic. And I would love to. I would love to go back and read that, because I did ship them. I don’t care what the haters say. I’m…what is it? Reylo trash. I love them. I thought they were so great. And I love how human and flawed their story was. And I just love all of that. So judge me if you will, I don’t care. I’m Reylo trash.
Tara: No judgement.
Penny: No judgement. But I should go back. That’s something that I’d like to tackle next. I do tend to, unless it’s a book written in Smartypants Romance…especially since 2019, I haven’t read many contemporary romances, just because between the books that we publish, and then my own books, I just haven’t gotten a chance. So when I do want to read, for pleasure for relaxation, I tend to read a lot of fantasy or historical, something that takes me out of my element. And I can turn off that critical editor brain. But yeah, so Reylo, like maybe I’d write for Reylo.
Tara: I would read it. You have to do it now.
Penny: Now I have to do it.
Tara: You said it on the internet, so now it’s a thing.
Penny: I should actually write a very, very short Reylo fanfic that…it’s not a fanfic, actually. I published it as part of an anthology. It was a couple of years ago, the Australian wildfires. And I think it was right after the last movie came out. And I just enamored with that particular relationship, so I wrote a very short one shot, one scene. So that was Reylo inspired, I should say. It’s not fanfic, because that’s illegal to publish that. So it was Reylo heavily inspired. There we go.
Tara: Nice. I did want to ask you about that book, and that anthology. And then also the kind of latest anthology that you have at the moment, that you’ve participated in, the “Nightingale,” where it’s like 100% of the royalties are going to help relief efforts in the Ukraine. We saw a couple of other kind of indie authors doing similar work. And I so admire sort of the speed, and also just the gusto of what independent publishing can do when people kind of just come together for something like this. Is that something that you kind of…you know, you were talking about, like seeing the good that you’re doing, is that what inspires you to keep writing, and to keep writing independently in this way?
Penny: So those particular box sets, “Australia” and “Nightingale,” those were the brainchild of Skye Warren, who is an independent author and who’s brilliant. And she is the individual who organized both of those. She’s very socially responsibly focused and minded, and is interested in relieving suffering wherever she can. She’s a wonderful human, and she is an independent author, and she’s brilliant with ads. So I need to take her ads course. Anyway, so there we go. She’s everything I’m not. No, I’m just kidding. She’s fantastic. So those two particular anthologies were hers. And the only anthology that I ever organized was the Cocktails anthology. That was the one that I did. And I tend to fire more righteous than anything, I think, which is why I was so motivated to do that. And so subversive versus maybe with the cover. But what we do now is I had been writing one book a year for charity. And that’s something that you can do as an independent author. I don’t know necessarily that is possible. No, I think it probably is possible as traditionally published, it just might be a little more logistically difficult.
Tara: Yeah, I feel like the turnaround is probably a little like…or a lot slower, but not impossible to do.
Penny: No, no, not at all impossible. And also as a hybrid, perhaps, as a hybrid author, which would be part independently published and also part traditionally published, you could use your independent works to donate a book to charity. But one thing that we have been doing in lieu of that just because I’m not nearly as prolific as I used to be with the addition of Smartypants Romance, and then also with the addition of margaritas … every night with margarita. But we now organize box sets where we donate the box set. So we take previously written material, and we do a bundle of those books that are independently published. And then we publish those box sets and donate all of the money to charity. So last year, we were able to raise $55,000 for college track. This year, we just did a box set, and it was just last month, it was just in April. And so far, I think we’ve raised something like $15,000 for the bookworm box.
And so that’s something that we do now. And I like doing that because it’s not a big ask for the authors, and also helps the authors when you bundle these books, and you put it for sale at a low price. Lots of people will buy it and read it. And if they love the author’s writing, they’ll go on to buy another book by the author, or maybe it’s the beginning of the series. And so I like it that we’re doing tangible good, and raising money for these worthy causes. But then also, we’re helping independent authors in ways that are hopefully making a difference. Independent authors don’t have the same access to large-scale publicity, or PR, or placement as a lot of traditional houses, which makes sense because it all scales. And so hopefully it just makes a little bit of difference in their bottom line as well.
Tara: No, I love that. I love that kind of take the time to put those together. It could be very easy for you to not do some of the work you’re doing, you know, and I do admire that you’re taking the time to do that.
Penny: Oh, well, I have to be honest, it’s mostly…I have a team of two who I couldn’t do any of this without. One of my team members, Brooke, is the one who does most of the organization for that, and she’s just awesome. And again, I couldn’t do what I do without my team of two. So they’re amazing.
Tara: And the box sets is great for Kobo, because our readers just…they love a bundle. Particularly on Kobo, absolutely love it.
Penny: So we have one more coming out this year. We did a Beach Reads bundle last year. We’re doing Beach Reads bundle volume two this year, which will come out the first weekend in July, which in the States is July 4th weekend. And so people can look for that particular bundle on Kobo, we’ll have that bundle on Kobo.
Tara: Nice. And what else is coming up for you? What are you working on at the moment?
Penny: Oh, at the moment, I’m working on a book called “Pride and Dad Jokes.” I don’t think that this makes me at all rare and unique. But I have been somebody who’s always been in love with Jane Austen and her stories. And so I’m reading a series of Jane Austen re-tellings.
Tara: Oh, I love that.
Penny: Based in modern times, but with a gender swap, where Mr. Darcy is Ms. Darcy, and Elizabeth Bennett is Eli Bennett. And then each of the books will follow these characters. So that’s what I’m working on at present. But that book probably, I’m hopeful to finish it by the end of the summer, but I’m thinking that book, I’ll probably hold on to and not release until next year, probably a year from now. We’d like to pilot it, and try and use it to get into bookstores, and start a print division or a print arm in Smartypants Romance, and use it for that. So that’s my plan.
Tara: That’s very exciting. Well, the last thing that I wanted to touch on is that…so Kobo Writing Life turns 10 this year, so I wanted us to go back to 2012. I know we kind of talked about it a little bit. So 2012, if we get into our imaginary time machines, so Lena Dunham’s “Girls” was just being aired for the first time. And we all just met Adam Driver, and we were like, “Who’s this guy?” And then also on the big screen, we were graced with “Magic Mike,” they were just dancing. And that was the trend back in 2012. So I was just wondering, so what were you doing, and where in your author career were you?
Penny: Well, I had just attended in the spring of 2012 an art retreat up in New Hampshire called Squam Art Workshops. And when I was there, I had met a number…or I was placed in this cabin with a bunch of strangers who ultimately, lightly ended up inspiring each of the ladies in the Knitting in the City series. So teeny tiny things about them ended up being the inspiration. And there were seven women. And it inspired me because they were so wonderfully themselves, and professionals, and working…some of them worked outside the home, some of them worked inside the home. And they were amazing. And so I thought to myself, “Well, wouldn’t it be great…” And they all knit, that was the other fun thing. And so sitting around knitting, talking about global events, and I think not to bring everybody down, but I think the Ebola crisis was going on at that same time. And so talking about that, and different methods for vaccine delivery.
And so we were all just sitting around talking about those types of subjects. And somebody said, “I don’t understand why these kinds of female relationships aren’t represented in the media more,” not that they weren’t represented at all, but that they weren’t represented more. Because all of our conversations passed the Bechdel test. We… not once we were talking about more reflective of the men in our lives, we were just talking about our own hopes and dreams, and things that were important to us. And so that’s when I decided that if I did write a book series, it would be about women who knit. And so then I started writing “Neanderthal Seeks Human” shortly after that.
Tara: Nice, I love that. Do you still keep in touch with these knitters?
Penny: No, unfortunately. I think that once you meet and you have that magic, it’s difficult to recapture it. But for that short period of time, it was something really magical.
Tara: Nice. That’s wonderful. And did you bring your knitting, or were you just like, “I can’t believe I’m here and everyone is knitting and I didn’t bring anything.”
Penny: No, no. I did. I brought my knitting.
Tara: I’m rubbish. I can just do a scarf that can slowly get larger the longer I do it. So it’s about my area of expertise, but I do like the…I don’t know. It’s almost like meditative while you’re doing something like that.
Penny: It absolutely is. That is 100% the case. Yes, absolutely.
Tara: Nice. So where can people find out more about you, and about Smartypants also?
Penny: Oh, smartypantsromance.com is our website. Hopefully, we’re gonna be revamping it this year to make it a bit more modern. And then pennyreid.ninja is my website because pennyreid.com wasn’t available at the time. But actually I think we own pennyreid.com now. I think my husband got it for me for Christmas last year.
Tara: That’s a wonderful gift. “I got you your domain.”
Penny: It finally came up. But they’re pennyreid.com, or pennyreid.ninja for me. And then for Smartypants Romance, smartypantsromance.com.
Tara: Oh, nice. Well, thanks so much for chatting with us today. And thanks for everyone for joining. You can follow Penny on those websites, I love the dot-ninja, on either of those. Yeah, I’m excited to see what you have coming next, and to see the Smartypants Romance books being released too. So thanks so much.
Penny: And thank you, and thank you also to Kobo because you are all awesome. And as independent authors, I can’t say enough wonderful things about Kobo. So thanks, Kobo.
Tara: Thank you. All right, well, bye. We’ll see you guys again soon. Thanks again for tuning in.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you are interested in picking up Penny’s books, we will include links to those in the show notes. And if you are 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 at kobowritinglife.com. And be sure you are following us on socials. We are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter, and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Tara: This episode was hosted by Tara Cremin, and produced by Laura Granger and Rachel Wharton, with production assistance by Terrence Abrahams. Editing is provided by Kelly Robotham. And the theme music, as always, is composed by Tear Jerker. And thanks so much to Penny for being a guest. If you’re ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.