In this episode, we are joined by New York Times and USA Today best-selling author Jenn Sterling, writing as J. Sterling, whose latest series, Fun for the Holidays, features holiday romances for every season. Check out her latest instalment, The Thanksgiving Hookup!
Jenn is also the author of dozens of books across several series, and is the author of sports romances, celebrity romances, new adult romances, and many more. We had a great conversation with Jenn about all things romance writing, marketing, advice from friend and fellow author Colleen Hoover, and how the independent publishing world has changed since she first published in 2011.
We spoke to Jenn about her writing career, how she has written and published books for almost twelve years, how much indie publishing has changed, how marketing for indie publishers has evolved, TikTok and its many uses (as well as how fun of an app it is), and, of course, lots of talk about sports! We had a fun, frank, and inspiring conversation with Jenn, and can’t wait for you to listen to this episode!
In this episode:
- Jenn tells us how she got started writing after getting fired from her job, and how she went from one novel to many, many more, starting in 2011 just as indie publishing was building momentum
- We talk about the introduction of multiple self-publishing programs and advertising, and how that changed the self-publishing landscape, shifting away from word-of-mouth and book blogging
- Jenn talks about her writing process and her release schedule, and how she manages her writing career
- She tells us about her exciting current trope-filled novella series, Fun for the Holidays, which features 12 books inspired by 12 major holidays
- We also talk about Jenn’s sports romance titles and her love of baseball in particular, and what inspired her to write these books
- Jenn talks more about her other sub-genres, and what draws her to them
- We talk about TikTok and BookTok, how fun it is, and how Jenn uses it – as well as the reality of earnings and book sales garnered from TikTok virality
- We hear about Jenn’s writer community, including authors Claire Contreras, Colleen Hoover, and more
- Jenn discusses the reality of advertising, marketing, and readership changes, and how it’s very important that indie authors talk more about these aspects of their work
- And much more!
Mentioned in this episode:
The Perfect Game by J. Sterling
Slammed by Colleen Hoover
J. Sterling is a New York Times and USA Today best-selling author whose goal is to write stories that you can get lost in. She wants you to end my books with a smile on your face and a happy heart. If you can forget about the real world while you’re reading and fall in love with her characters, then she’s done her job. A lot of what she writes has real life aspects in it, but that’s what makes the stories so relatable – the fact that they could happen to anyone… and have!
Jenn lives in California with her only son, Blake. If you can’t find her sitting behind a computer screen, then there’s a good chance she’s sitting in the bleachers of a baseball stadium watching him play. She loves traveling to new places, meeting her readers and living life with the Real Jack Carter. ♡
Transcription by www.speechpad.com
Rachel: 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 Laura, Kobo Writing Life’s author engagement manager.
Rachel: And I’m Rachel, the promotions specialist for Kobo Writing Life.
Laura: On today’s podcast, we talked to romance author J. Sterling, a New York Times and USA TODAY best-selling author whose goal is to write stories that you can get lost in.
Rachel: We had such a fun and just, like, frankly honest conversation with J. Sterling, also known as Jenn, about her writing career and how much indie publishing has changed since she first published over 10 years ago. We also talked about marketing and how marketing for indies has evolved. We talked about TikTok and how much we love the app and how wild the algorithm is. And we also had a lovely bonding moment about our mutual love of former L.A. Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays player, Russell Martin. It was a really fun conversation. We learned a lot about the evolution of indie publishing, and we hope you enjoy.
Laura: We are joined today by author J. Sterling, also known as Jenn. Jenn, thank you so much for joining us.
Jenn: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.
Laura: We are very excited to have you. Can you kick us off just by telling us a little bit about yourself?
Jenn: That’s so funny. I’m like, “Oh, nobody’s asked that question in so long.” So, my name is Jenn. I’ve been writing and self-publishing for the last 12 years. I think…I don’t know. My math is bad. No, 12 is right. I’ve self-published my first book in 2011. I did that after getting fired from my job, which was awful. And aside from that, it’s like the nonstop grind, right? Like, the nonstop self-publishing grind. That’s what I feel like my whole life…
Laura: Nonstop grind.
Jenn: …has been for the last 12 years; the greatest, most exciting and most heartbreaking journey ever.
Laura: Now, would you be able to tell us a little bit about that journey, kind of, how you decided to indie publish your first book and what that process has been like for you?
Jenn: Yeah, definitely. So, I’d had an idea for my first book in my head for years, right? It’s very typical. I feel like a lot of people, kind of, have the same story. Like, so many of us, I feel like, were inspired by a dream, and that’s exactly how my first book was, like, inspired by a dream. And I never thought that I wanted to write. I never considered myself a writer. I did blog. I was like a mommy blogger for a long time. But even then, I was like, “I’m not a writer.” I’m just a verbal, mouth person. I just, you know, a stream of consciousness.
When I was getting fired from my job, I literally went out and bought a laptop the next day, because it’s very interesting the way timing is and how things happen. But that story started calling to me, like, nonstop in my head, and I felt very pulled to it. And I was like, “I can’t write a book while I have, like, a full-time job, and I’m a mom,” right? And I was just like, “I can’t do that.” And then I got fired and I was like, “Oh, well, that’s great because I really want to write this book,” right?
So, that’s, kind of, how actually writing the book went. To be fair, I had no idea how to write a book, no idea what I was doing, and I did it anyway. And then I was like, “Okay, what now? I have this finished product,” that was so bad. I mean, the story is so great, but it was just written so poorly but you don’t know any better because it’s so personal to you and you just don’t know. Well, I just didn’t know because I’m dumb.
So, I started researching online, like, what do you do if you want to publish a book. This was like in 2010. So, at that point, I felt like there were very few self-published authors, and it very much had a stigma of, if you self-publish, you’re a failure because you couldn’t get a publishing deal. Like, you’re a loser. So, I was like, “Oh, well, then obviously I’m going to get a publishing deal because I am not a loser.” So, I sent out a bunch of queries and did that. And I got, you know, tons of rejections. And if one person wanted to read a whole chapter, they were just like, “Yeah, we’re going to pass,” right? And I remember thinking, “Okay, if I get one more rejection, if I get one more rejection, I’m just going to accept the fact that I have failed, and I’m going to self-publish.” I mean, that’s really where my mindset was.
So, then I started looking into how to self-publish, and how you do that, and what you do, and how you do it. And to me, it was the best decision ever. I mean, self-publishing for me is I feel like I’m controlling like a lot of other authors are, and so I kind of like having a say in things that you don’t get a say in a traditionally published deal. So, that’s how that started. That was a very long-winded story. I’m sorry. I hope people are still listening.
Rachel: Please don’t apologize. Everybody tunes in to listen to our guests, not us speak. So, please, long answers are the best. But just talking about, like, amazing timing, getting into indie pub in 2011, 2012, right, when it was taking off, like, that is incredible timing.
Jenn: Oh, it was. And I had no idea. Like, I just had no idea. I had no idea what I was in for. I had no idea what I was getting into. You know, I feel very, very lucky and fortunate that I got into it in a time before there was ads, before Kindle Unlimited existed, because it felt like such a more genuine time and such a more… I can’t think of the right word because I’m not a writer. It just wasn’t this inflated… I don’t know. It just was better. Sorry. Sorry, everyone. I feel like it was a better time than it is now in a way.
Rachel: Well, just, kind of, continuing off that, are there really big changes? Obviously, there have been huge changes in indie publishing from 2012 till now. Are there any that you think have really affected how the industry works?
Jenn: Yeah, 100%. Kindle Unlimited being introduced just really, really changed the game. And then all of a sudden, the introduction of advertising, right? Facebook ads, Amazon ads. These ads really change things as well. You know, I really enjoyed it before ads when it was word of mouth, when it felt like it was an actual community. And it doesn’t feel like that anymore. It felt small and it doesn’t feel small. It felt like when the people were blogging because they love the books and they were recommending books that they loved, it was because they love these books. And now, I mean, if you even see any of those kinds of posts anymore, you know, they’re all affiliate links, and it’s not because they’re passionate about anything.
Also, I think there’s just so many books being released on a daily basis, that it just is a very, kind of, overwhelming, oversaturated industry right now. How do you pick one book and love it so much that you talk about it for three weeks like they used to? It’s almost like, gosh, that just doesn’t happen anymore.
Laura: With, like you were saying, there’s tons of books being released all the time. Do you feel pressure to release more often because of that?
Jenn: I personally don’t because I know I’m very comfortable with what kind of writer I am. And I know that I am not a rapid-release writer, and I know plenty of people who are, and they literally are like, “You have to release every six weeks to be in this algorithm, to be in this, to do…” And it works for them, right? They’re making millions, millions of dollars, and I am not. I would love to. I’m not making that money, and I’m also not willing to do that. I’m not willing to do things that I feel like, gosh, I’m just not that kind of storyteller. I am not that kind of… You know, I don’t have that many ideas because I just don’t make up willy-nilly stories and release them. Like, everything feels very personal to me, which, you know, from a business standpoint, might not be the greatest thing. But from an artist standpoint, that’s just how I feel. And I don’t feel that pressure because I don’t want to play that game.
And that’s kind of what it boils down to for me is that I know what kind of writer I am. I know how often releasing is comfortable for me without feeling like I’m forcing things. And I want to make that work for me. And that also needs to be okay. We need to be able to be authors, again, that can release two to three books a year and make a living off that. Like, why isn’t that okay? Why do we have to release eight books a year? Like, that’s insane. And how is that sustainable? For me, that’s the one thing that I always look at too. Like, if I try to become this, I could not sustain that long-term. And I want to write long-term.
Rachel: And I think it’s so interesting that we’re talking about like, you know, releasing, you know, two to three books, four books a year being like casual. Whereas if you’re looking at traditional publishing, you’re lucky if you’re releasing a book every three to four years. It’s so interesting, I don’t want to say, like, the standards for indie publishing but just, like, how prolific so many indie authors are. And like, all that being said, you know, you said you are a slower writer, but you still have quite a big backlist. So, how many books do you release a year?
Jenn: So, I really am consistently, like, a three-book releaser, right? For me, three full-length books is, like, that’s really pushing it. I’m writing the whole time and releasing. And, you know, with the exception of last year and this year where I sat down and finally took the time to write these 12 holiday novellas that I wanted to write for years. Like, I’ve had this idea since, like, 2013, like, oh, my gosh, I want to write a book for every holiday, but how am I ever going to be able to do that, right? How am I ever going to get ahead? How do these people write and get ahead when I felt like I’m always writing, releasing, writing, releasing? I didn’t know how to get ahead, and I really had to take the time to do that.
So, last year I released seven books, but they’re short, right? They’re not seven 80,000-word books. I could never do…I could never do that. So, it was seven books. And this year, there’s going to be five, and they’re about 30,000 words each. So, for me, they’re short but they are super fun, complete, trope-filled romance stories. They’re all standalones. So, right now, I finished writing them and I was like, “Wow, I do not have a single idea in my head right now of what to write next.” I mean, I’m like, “I think those books broke me a little bit,” but I feel okay with that. And I feel like maybe three years ago, I would have really been freaking out like, “What are you doing? You cannot take a break. Like, force it. Force inspiration. Force a plot. Force a book.” And I don’t feel like that anymore. Like, I just don’t… Well, I don’t feel like that today, and I don’t want to force anything.
Rachel: I think there’s something to be said to, kind of, knowing how you write and where your inspiration comes from. And, like you said, you don’t want to force the story because then it’s not going to feel authentic and that goes against your brand.
Jenn: Right. And that’s exactly the thing. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being a business writer, and there’s nothing wrong with being an artistic writer. There’s nothing wrong with obviously trying to meld the two and have the best of both worlds, which, you know, but I know a lot of people who really are business writers and that really works well for them. And like I said, I mean, they’re making a lot of money and, like, that’s their whole goal. And, yes, of course I want to make a lot of money, but I also just don’t want to kill myself doing it. And there are certain things I’m comfortable doing and certain things I’m just not comfortable doing.
You know, this industry can very much feel like a game, and there are things I don’t want to play because I just don’t feel like, “Hey, I don’t want to have to do, you know, this checklist of 1 through 20 to sell a book.” Like, I just don’t feel like that’s necessary. And it’s just not what I want to be. It’s also not, like, the precedent I want to set. So, like, oh, hey, if I do 1 through 20 for this book, I’m going to have to do that for every book going forward. Do you know what I mean? I never think, kind of, short-term. I think, hey, if I start doing this, this is going to be what I have to do forever. And so I don’t want to do things I’m not comfortable with even if they work for other people.
Laura: And the thing with being indie is that you’re doing all 20 of those checklists every time.
Jenn: Yes. I mean, a lot of my friends have a staff but, like, I don’t have anyone. I have zero help. And, I mean, like, no help. So, yeah, I mean, all that stuff is on your shoulders. I wouldn’t know how to give up the help anyway. I wouldn’t know what to ask somebody to help me with that I feel like, “Oh, I could just do that on my own. It’s just quicker.” I struggle with that part definitely.
Laura: You’re definitely not the first person to tell us that.
Jenn: That’s good.
Laura: So, we also wanted to talk to you about your different subgenres. So, you write a lot of sports romance. We’re both big sports fans. What inspired you to get into that genre specifically?
Jenn: So, I definitely, like, write baseball romance because it’s what I know. I’ve dated so many baseball players. No, I mean, I’ve dated baseball…my son’s a baseball player but I played softball for 12 years. Like, baseball has just, kind of, always been… It’s the sport that I know the most intimately, so it’s the one that I feel very comfortable writing about. And, you know, like, if you told me to go write a basketball book, I’d be like, “I literally know nothing about basketball.”
So, I don’t like to write things I don’t know anything about. And we’re talking like I know baseball intimately, like I know the mentality intimately. I know baseball players’ thought processes intimately. So, it’s more than just like being familiar with the plays and how to play baseball. It’s not that.
So, when I went to write “The Perfect Game,” which is inspired by this guy that I dated in college, it just made the most sense to include baseball into the story. And then going forward, when I wrote their son, it was another series of college baseball players. So, for me, the third book in that series was the most important story for me to tell because I just get tired of reading… Well, first of all, I get tired of reading really bad baseball romance because I know baseball so well. I get so mad when I’m reading something and I’m like, “That’s not how it works. Like, that’s not true. That doesn’t happen. Have you done any research? What are you doing?” I get so upset.
But I also get upset just pretending, like, every single person who plays baseball gets drafted. Like, it’s just not true. And I have a son who didn’t get drafted. I mean, he’s playing professional baseball now, but he didn’t get drafted because the draft season was COVID. So, it was really important for me to write a book about what happens when you don’t get drafted and what we do to these boys. You know, you’ve built them up this whole time for years on, “Hey, the end goal is to get drafted. That’s the end goal.” Nobody talks about, well, what happens when you don’t? You just, kind of, leave them behind, and they struggle, and they flounder a little because this one thing they’ve been working for their whole life, they don’t have anymore. So, I’m really proud of that book and that story. And it’s still a happy story even though readers were really mad that he didn’t get drafted. And I was like, “Well, everyone doesn’t get drafted. Welcome to my books. They’re realistic romance.”
Rachel: I have a follow-up question about the… Actually I have two follow-up questions about the baseball of it all. One, how do you find it balancing, like, telling the story you want to tell and the character development with making the baseball aspect accessible to folks who don’t know the game intimately? And then my second question, which is arguably more important, who is your major league baseball team?
Jenn: Well, I am born and raised in Southern California, so I am a Dodger fan. I am Dodgers through and through. I was literally born and raised on Dodger Stadium. So, this girl bleeds blue forever and ever and ever. And when my favorite players get traded, I don’t follow a player. I stay with the team. Like, once you’ve left the Dodgers, I’m sorry, you’re gone. Bye. Bye, Justin Turner. Bye, Corey Seager. Like, I’m so sorry you guys are all gone, but have fun on your new team. I don’t follow players. And my boyfriend always is like, “That’s just so weird. Why don’t we follow the player?” I was like, “No, because they’re not on my team anymore.” Okay, so the Dodgers.
And then the other question, which is really interesting because Brazil bought “The Perfect Game” and all my baseball books and they love it and they don’t have baseball there. So, that was really fun. I went on, like, a big book tour there with Tarryn Fisher. We went together and, you know, readers were just like, “I want to see baseball now. I want to watch a baseball game now. I want to whatever. I don’t even know this sport.”
So, I think for me writing this…you know, the baseball part is such an integral part of the guy character because it’s his dream. So, I find it, kind of…I don’t find it difficult because if you think about your other characters and you write them with a job, I mean, baseball is his job. So, you put it in there, and I try and write it in a way that is not too overwhelming that you’re like, “What the heck is this girl even talking about?” You know, like, “I don’t know anything about baseball. What does this even mean?” You know, you don’t want to inundate with the sport. I just, kind of, maybe sprinkle, sprinkle the baseball jargon in there. But, yeah, I don’t know if that answered the question because now I feel broken. And now I’m just thinking about the Dodgers.
Rachel: No, I think you answered the question, and I think it’s important to strike a balance because, like you said, you need it to be realistic. You can’t have everybody just, like, slamming grand slams all game because no one’s going to believe that. And also Dodgers is a perfectly acceptable answer. Thank you.
Jenn: Well, it is the only answer.
Rachel: Well, I mean, I’m a Blue Jays fan because we’re up here in Toronto but…
Jenn: You know my favorite player is Russell Martin.
Rachel: I love Russell Martin.
Jenn: And my son got to meet him when he was playing in Quebec. He met Russell Martin, and it was during Book Bonanza. So, I was in the middle of a book signing, and Blake is sending me pictures of him and Russell Martin, and I’m like screaming, trying to sign books, but I’m like, “It’s Russell. Oh, my God.” It was the greatest day ever.
Rachel: We can just sit and talk about all this the entire time but unfortunately, this is a writing podcast.
Jenn: Okay, sorry.
Rachel: No, no, no, I’m sorry because all I want to do is talk baseball now, even though it’s the off season.
Rachel: So, I’m going to steer it away from baseball quickly before we get too off track.
Jenn: Back to writing…
Rachel: I guess. I do love Russell Martin though. So, outside of sports romance, you also have books across a whole bunch of different subgenres within romance. Do you have a favorite romance subgenre to write in?
Jenn: I really do enjoy writing like new adult, but I feel like every kind of college book I write has been like a sports romance. So, I like writing the college age stories, and I think it’s because, A, I’m super immature and, B, I’m super immature. I think it’s so funny because I’ve only written… I was a single mom for so long and I’ve only written like one single mom book or one book really where they even talk about kids. And I think it’s just like, “God, I’m just really not interested in writing about that part of life.” And I don’t know why. I don’t know why. But at some point, I have to grow up. So, I’m sure at some… Maybe when I’m 80, I’ll be like, “Oh, I’m ready to write about 30-year-olds.” Like, I don’t know.
I really had fun writing these holiday books, and every single one is a different trope in the… Right? So, that was really, really, really fun. That made writing fun again. Those stories are so fun. I’m actually really proud that I wrote 12 stories in 2 years. Like, it just was a big goal for me, and I did it. And they’re so cute, I can’t stand it. Like, the covers are adorable, and they’re all coming out in audiobook. And I’ve strayed from your question. I like writing 20-year-olds. I don’t know why.
Laura: We actually wanted to ask about the “Fun for the Holiday’s” books too. So, where did the inspiration for those come from? Because that’s a really fun idea.
Jenn: It’s like a brilliant idea. I wish they would sell like it was a brilliant idea. It was just something I had years and years and years ago. I was like, “Hey, at some point, I really want to write a book for every holiday. I really want to write, like, a holiday book for a whole year.” And you know, it evolved because I was like, “Oh, am I going to introduce subcharacters in a story and that’ll be who the next book is about?” And then I was like, “God, that sounds like a lot of work.” So, I was just like, “I don’t think I want to make it that difficult on me.” And it really was just, kind of, taking the time to actually sit down and get ahead.
So, I mean, last year, I wrote seven, or the year before that. I wrote seven books. Yes, because I only released one book in 2020, and then I spent the rest of the time or 2021, I don’t know, whatever, but I spent the rest of the year writing seven books that we’re going to release the following year. And so that was a lot for me. That was a lot. I think I wrote seven books in, like, eight months. Then last year, I wrote the remaining five. This was something that I’ve always wanted to do, and at first, I was like, “Oh, I’m going to make him really sexy. I’m going to call him Hot for the Holidays, right?” And then I was like, but, “I don’t write like that. Like, I don’t want to write like these really sexy, kind of, erotic books. I don’t write. That’s not how I write.” And I was like, “I want to write fun stories.” And so I was like, “Oh, they’re going to be ‘Fun For the Holidays,’ ” and that just, kind of, changed and just made it… It’s just they’re so fun. They made writing fun again. It’s exactly what I needed because I was just starting to feel just weighed down by everything after so many years, right? Like, you get tired. You get tired of the grind, especially if you feel like, “Hey, it’s kind of really not working like something that was working before. Like, oh, it doesn’t feel like it’s working anymore.” It’s really easy to feel, kind of, like, frustrated or dejected, and these made writing very fun. So, I’m very proud of them. The end.
Rachel: Well, I have a follow-up, so not quite the end. Did you run into any challenges? Because it’s 12 books, so one for a month. Did you run into any challenges finding a holiday for any of the months?
Jenn: Yeah, instead of doing, like, a holiday, I would choose a season, right? So, instead of like… Well, like for June, the one that’s coming up, I was like, “Oh, okay, the holiday in June is Father’s Day.” And I was like, “I don’t want to write it like a single father book.” See, like, I hate it. I hate parents. Just kidding. But I just was like, “I just don’t want to write that.” So, I was like, “Oh, what else is in June?” And I’m like, “Oh, June brides, like June weddings.” You know, the big thing is June weddings. So, the book coming out in June is called “Don’t Marry Him,” and it’s like a wedding theme.
And then in May, it was Mother’s Day, right? So, same thing. I was like, “I’m not writing a freaking single mom book. Like, I just don’t want to do it.” So, I did spring. So, some of them are spring, summer, and fall. And then the rest really are, like, kind of holidays. Like August, there’s no holiday, right? So, I have a grumpy sunshine romance that’s coming out in August, and it’s called “Flirting with Sunshine.” So, I did that kind of a thing if there wasn’t like a specific holiday.
Rachel: And I love that you continued with your ethos of you’re going to write what you want. You’re not going to force yourself to write a story that just doesn’t feel like it’s something you want to write. I think that is great.
Jenn: Thank you.
Laura: I think that’s really important because I think readers can tell when you’re forcing it, and you want that book to really have, like, quality for sure. You can really tell when an author is trying to force themselves to write something that they don’t enjoy just to sell something.
Jenn: Yeah, but sometimes I just don’t think readers care. Do you know what I mean? That’s what I think is, like, kind of a problem for us because we assume our reader cares, and I just don’t think that they do. And I don’t necessarily think that they should. Like, there’s a lot of stuff that I feel like authors put onto readers like, “Oh, you should care that this person is a bad person. You should care that this,” and I’m like, “They don’t care, and you can’t tell them what to care about.” Like, it’s not their responsibility to care about that, but people get very worked up. Do you have Erin Condren pins?
Laura: Yeah, I do.
Jenn: Do you have Erin Condren pens?
Laura: I’m a big planner person.
Jenn: I just like the colors.
Laura: I love that. We also wanted to talk to you about TikTok a little bit because we noticed you’re very active on TikTok. So, can you tell us about how that platform fits into your marketing?
Jenn: Okay. So, I’m obsessed with TikTok, A, because I’m clearly on, like, the good side of it. It’s very fun for me. It’s very happy. I am not on anything that’s awful on TikTok. So, I have huge success with my videos that do not go to a single book reader. I have multiple videos that are over a million views, multiple videos that are just well over 100, 500,000 views, like a lot. They do not go to a single person who reads books. They go to angry men who yell at me in the comments or older women who think my boyfriend’s super hot, right? But they don’t go to book readers, and I just don’t know why. I don’t know what’s happened, but I just don’t care. I just keep making them. It’s also fun. I like to argue with the people in the comments because mostly it’s men just saying horrible things. And so it’s just kind of fun to fight back with them a little bit, but I do wish that it would go to people who actually bought books.
There is one of my videos, literally one that went viral, that went to book readers. And, holy crap, what a difference it made in my earnings. I mean, it was a huge jump in my daily earnings for 10 days, right? It’s not that long, but that’s how I know if it’s going to readers or just normal people, because when it really does go to people who buy books, it really makes a difference in your bottom line. So, it would have been nice if like… My biggest one is that 4.2 million views of my boyfriend dressed in a super hot suit, and it just went to women. Girls were like, “Does he have a brother? He’s super hot. Can I date him? Is this really your boyfriend? Tell him I’ll be his fake girlfriend.” I’m like, “It’s for a book.” It’s just TikTok hates me, I guess.
Rachel: The TikTok algorithm is wild.
Jenn: It’s wild. I mean, even with the hashtags, it just, like, doesn’t care. I was talking Kandi Steiner. She’s like, “Jenn, you have to put these hashtags on your video.” And I was like, “Kandi, I’m not dumb. Like, they’re on the video.” And she was like, “Oh, gosh, well, then I just don’t know.” I mean, it is just serving to anyone except a book reader, which is unfortunate but does not deter me because I’m having fun and that’s the thing. I think if TikTok stopped being fun, I wouldn’t do it anymore. I also like to talk to other authors on TikTok. I really like to do author advice because I’ve been around for so long, and there seems like there’s a lot of newer authors on TikTok. But it is wild to see BookTok blow up these books and get people publishing deals and just the power of BookTok when it is a pop. It’s magic. It’s magic, honestly. It’s insane. And good for all of them. That was supposed to happen for them, so good for them. I’m supposed to anger the male race.
Rachel: Well, someone’s got to do it, Jenn. Someone’s got to do it.
Jenn: It’s called male or race. I’m a super smart writer.
Rachel: I kind of wanted to talk to you about BookTok, because it is wild what it can do for backlist titles, indie titles. And I’m just curious how you think the advent of BookTok has changed the indie approach to marketing in general.
Jenn: I feel like there’s a lot of really young authors on there, like very young, like 20, like babies that are on there, and I think that they are figuring out what works on TikTok and just using it to their advantage. I mean, some of that success, I’m just like, “Oh, my gosh, this girl, this is their first book that they’ve ever written. She’s like 12 years old and she’s now a bajillionaire.” Like, that is insane to me.
But the worst part is, I don’t care because it’s the truth, some of the books are really bad. They’re really bad. They’re really bad. And I’m like, “Cool. So, this is the kind of crap that you’re, like, blowing up and telling everybody is the greatest thing you’ve ever read, and it’s so bad.” So, that’s something that…I mean, that’s frustrating, right? You want good books, entertaining books, at least there’s some, even if they’re kind of bad, you’re like, “Oh, I get why this was enjoyable. Like this wasn’t written super great but, wow, the story is really like…this was a really enjoyable story. I get why everybody really liked it.”
And then there’s a flip side of that where it’s like, “This is really bad, and I don’t understand what’s happening.” That’s everywhere. Without BookTok, that’s, you know, the bestseller charts. Reading is very subjective. And you don’t know who’s blowing up BookTok. Like, I feel like it’s a very young, very vocal group, right?
Rachel: It’s the new word of mouth.
Laura: I was just going to say that.
Jenn: Yeah, but it’s also like, “But who? How old are they? Who has the biggest influence? You know, are they very young, so their style is whatever?” I do find it extremely interesting. I mean, I love that people… Obviously, we can talk about Colleen all day because she’s a total anomaly, right? And she always has been. Since the day she published her first book, “Slammed,” what has happened for Colleen has been unlike what has happened to anybody, right? And, you know, people are just like, “Oh my god, I love ‘It Ends With Us,’ or anything with ‘It Ends With Us.’ ” And I’m like, “Do you realize, like, that book is 2016? Like, that’s when that came out.” That’s so long ago, but that’s the power of BookTok. To me, it’s just insane. That level is just insane. You take a book that’s six years old and make her write a sequel that she was never going to write, you know? I mean, that’s awesome.
Rachel: The shock that I just had that 2016 was six years ago is real.
Jenn: I mean, now it’s seven years ago, right? I’m so bad at math, but that’s crazy.
Rachel: It’s wild. And what I always find so interesting about BookTok and just TikTok in general, and like I mentioned, the algorithm, because the books that I will see on TikTok are wildly different than what Laura will see on TikTok, because we both read and are interested in different things. So, I think just how that app works will forever blow my mind.
Jenn: Yes, even if you’re not liking it. Like, even if you try and curate your content of like, “Hey, I really want my videos to go to book readers. So, I’m not going to view things that aren’t book related, right, although I can’t follow that rule because I just don’t want to,” but I’m like, “Oh, I’m not going to like things that don’t go…” They don’t care. Like it or not, they know that you watched it. They know that you watched it again. They know that you went to that person’s profile. So, I think that’s why they keep… I don’t know. I guess that’s why they serve it to just normal people because I think I watch a lot of just normal TikToks, even though I don’t like them. The majority of the things I like are book-related. I think they know I don’t really care, right? Because like, I don’t want…like, I can’t just watch nothing but book content unless it’s about me, which it never is.
Laura: So, you mentioned a little bit about using BookTok to, kind of, talk to other writers. How has the indie author community, kind of, changed for you over the years? Do you have authors that you work with pretty closely and kind of commiserate with, I guess?
Jenn: I mean, I feel like it’s the people who I’ve been in this the longest with, right? So, the friends that I made at the very beginning, like Tarryn Fisher, Jillian Dodd, Colleen Hoover, you know, all of the player contreras, like all of these people are still very much my very good friends and people that I would…Abbi Glines, right, that I would trust the most. If we need to commiserate, yeah, I know exactly who I could talk to about a certain issue, right? Like, I’m not going to go commiserate with Colleen because Colleen will be like, “Well, Jenn, I don’t know. I’ve never run an ad in my life.” So, like, you know, she’s not going to be the one that you’re going to talk to about that.
But, yes, I mean, I feel like I obviously like and have met so many new authors who are just good people, who are genuine people, who don’t want things to be handed to them. I don’t appreciate people who don’t work hard for stuff. That’s just kind of across the board in general. But I feel like the people that I surround myself with have been there for a very long time. I feel like I look back and I’m like, “Oh, it’s just kind of all really the same people have been there because we kind of just went through it and are friends like genuinely friends.”
Rachel: We always hear such wonderful things about the indie author community and how willing most indie authors are to share things that work and things that didn’t work for them. And I find kind of pun intended indie authors are like an open book.
Jenn: Right. I mean, yes and no. I would definitely agree with that to a point. I feel like, when it comes to money and dollars spent on ads, that they are not willing to be as transparent and get offended if you say, “Hey, I know you’re spending $4,000 a day on ads,” then they get upset like, “Oh, you think that’s the only reason I’m successful.” And it’s like, “I didn’t even say that. Like, no, but you’ve obviously built a fan base. You have a book that people like, but you also are spending 4,000 a day on ads.” People don’t talk about that stuff. They don’t. So, unless you’re very good friends with somebody and get them kind of one on one, they will give you specific numbers, but I feel like as far as the open book goes, I feel like they are very willing to share things to an extent, and I understand that because I’m willing to share things to an extent, right, where I don’t want to feel like, “Hey, I’m not going to give you every single thing I’ve ever done because I had to work hard for all this information, or I had to work hard to learn all of this, but also what works for me isn’t going to work for you. Because if one thing worked for everyone, we would all be doing it.” And it isn’t, that isn’t the case. And I had something else to say, but I have no idea. I’m sure it had to do with money and ads, but anytime I talk about that, I tend to get in trouble.
Rachel: Well, then on that note, I’m going to shift gears away from ads and money, but I am going to come to you for advice because you’ve been on the USA TODAY bestseller list and the New York Times bestseller list. And I’m just so curious, how do you keep the momentum going after you hit a list? How do you just keep that traction going with readers?
Jenn: Well, I mean, that’s really interesting because I would love to know that answer as well. Hitting the USA bestseller list was a total surprise. It was something I didn’t plan for, and I didn’t even know I hit it. A girlfriend of mine had to call me and she was like, “Jenn, ‘The Perfect Game’ hit the USA TODAY bestseller list, blah, blah, blah.” I was like, “Huh, what? It did? I had no idea.”
New York Times I very much planned for. I was like, “I want to hit the New York Times. I’m going to hit it with this book with 10 years later. I’m going to plan.” And I just knew, I knew in my gut, this book is going to hit it. I want to hit it. I did and then I was like, “Okay, cool.” Like, literally, I was like, “All right. Okay, I did it. I don’t care anymore.” And I genuinely, when I tell you I don’t care about hitting lists, I don’t care about hitting lists, because it didn’t do anything for me. There was such a misconception of, “Hey, Jenn, once you hit New York Times, you are going to have a million foreign deals. That book is going to sell, and it didn’t.” Literally nothing happened, so I felt very disillusioned by that.
And it’s very interesting after being in this business for so long and having success for so many years without having to do much of anything. I didn’t advertise. It very much was word of mouth, but I do find myself now, kind of, in this position of where have all of those readers gone. So, it’s not about keeping momentum for me to keep writing. As long as I have an idea, I’m going to write. I don’t necessarily always know where to find an audience, and I don’t want to spend $100,000 a month on ads. I don’t want to do that.
So, I’m kind of in the part where I feel like I’m not sure where everyone is. I wish I had more readers. I don’t necessarily know what to do to find more readers, but I’m just going to keep doing something until something works. I mean, that really is where I’m at. It would be a lie to be like, “Oh, I built this fan base, and they have gone nowhere. They followed me forever,” because that’s just not true. I mean, it’s not, and I’m not a liar.
So, it’s just that reader base that I had in 2012, ’13, ’14, ’15. In 2016, I probably started to see a little bit of a shift, and it’s probably very much been down since about 2017. And, yeah, I don’t really know what to do. I don’t know where they are. I don’t know what to do. It’s a horrible answer to your question, but it’s very honest, and I feel like we don’t talk about that, or we talk about it in hushed tones, in corners where no one else can hear.
Rachel: I mean, like, I appreciate the honesty. And I feel like so much of indie publishing is, kind of, throwing something at the wall and seeing if it works. And sometimes it’ll work for x amount of years and then the wall changes.
Jenn: Exactly. Yeah. I mean, and I’ve never given up. I’ve never been, “Hey, I’m just going to…” I don’t know. I have tried so many things and I’m like, “Gosh, none of this stuff really seems to be working for me.” So, this year I’ve taken a deep breath, and I’m just going to let go. I felt like the last few years, I’ve really been trying to force everything, participating in the ad game the way other people have, and that doesn’t work for me. Force feeding my books down reader’s throats, it just doesn’t work for me. And just forcing things in general just doesn’t seem to work for me. So, I’m not going to do that this year, and I’ll let you know what happens.
Laura: You mentioned seeing less readers. Do you think part of it is, kind of, like the market being oversaturated? There’s so many books being released, that authors don’t know what to read or are reading different kinds of books that they haven’t before.
Jenn: Yeah, I think the oversaturation of the market, the constant releases, that there are just so many books being released every single day. I do also think a lot of those really fanatical, passionate readers, I think that they’re not there anymore. I feel like a lot of people… Just kind of a lot of authors that used to write with me in 2012 aren’t writing books anymore, right? Authors have kind of gone away, readers have gone away. I’m sure you get burnt out. Like, I get burnt out on romance. I can’t read romance right now.
I think that maybe there was a time… You know, maybe people went through a period of time for three years when they could do nothing but read and maybe they’re not in that anymore. I think it ebbs and flows. And, once again, I mean, not to mention Kindle Unlimited again, but that completely has changed…that has changed a major portion of readership and how people choose to read. If it’s not in KU, they’re not going to read it. That’s a big thing.
Rachel: And I also think if you compare what things we had vying for our attention in 2012 versus now, the advent of streaming and podcasts has taken a lot of our attention to other places. So, I think that the competition for authors doesn’t necessarily lie with other authors. It also lies with just everything vying for everybody’s attention and the fact that our attention spans are now built for one-minute videos on TikTok.
Jenn: No, I’m sorry. I’m only built for 15 seconds. If I see that your video is one minute, I’m like, “One minute? What are you going to talk to about for one minute?” Thank God they invented the scrolling because I’m scrolling in captions, otherwise I… And the three-minute videos? What are you going to tell me for three minutes? But if I ever make a three-minute video, please listen to the whole thing.
Rachel: It’s the three minutes, and then it ends up being a part one. That just really gets me.
Jenn: I know, right? But TikTok has really made our attention span 15 seconds. Like, it has made it, “Oh, my god, get to the point. Get my attention. Get to the point. Go away.” It’s crazy but you’re right. With Netflix being so popular, and Hulu, and all these really great shows that come on that you can binge, it definitely makes competition for… Yeah, I mean, I’m guilty of that where I’m like, “Oh, I would much rather be watching this than reading this,” right? So, I get it.
I just think that we’re an everchanging society, and our readers are changing. And the business is always going to change. And, you know, I feel like if you’re writing because you love it, you’re not going to stop. You could take some breaks, but you’re not going to stop. And I think breaks are healthy. And that’s one thing as self-published authors. I think that we do not give ourselves… We fear taking a break means you can never come back, and I think that nothing is more untrue than that.
Rachel: I’m going to come in here with a really hard hitting question now. As you’ve mentioned, publishing is ever changing, and the market is ever changing. Do you think that there is a piece of evergreen advice or one thing that you’ve learned that has remained consistent throughout?
Jenn: I know that, for me, it really has been kind of what we talked…you know, circling back to the beginning of our conversation of being like, “What kind of writer am I? What do I enjoy doing? What is pushing the boundaries for me in terms of how many books can I write and release in a year?” and being consistent. So, you know, for me, I knew, hey, I’m never going to write erotic books because I really don’t like writing sexy. So, I’m not going to do that.
Just not being something that you’re not. And then that way, without even knowing it, you’re being consistent to a brand that you may not have even known that you were developing. And people want to know what to expect from you when they’re reading your books. I think that’s the biggest thing for me is just being secure in the writer I am and not feeling bad, not feeling bad about, “Hey, you know what? I release three books a year.” It’s more, “How do I make that work for me? How do I make writing three books a year work?” instead of, “Oh, my God,” you know, you’re not doing enough. You’re not being enough, that it never being enough. It needs to just be okay. Whatever kind of writer you are is okay, and don’t let anybody else make you feel differently.
Laura: You’ve written a bunch of different subgenres. Is there one that you haven’t touched before that you really want to try?
Jenn: So, I do have like this witch trilogy that has been plotted out for years. And it’s funny whenever it kind of comes into my head, I’m like, “Oh, this is a great idea.” And I go and I open up the file and I’m like, “I already wrote this idea.” So, it’s very consistent in my head. I’m very consistent, but I’m not pulled to write it yet. So, I do think at some point I really would like to write that, it just doesn’t feel like the right time for me. I’m very big in not forcing things. So, it’s not calling to me, but it simmers in my head. So, I would like to do that.
Like, I kind of mentioned before, I get really freaking bored of romance. I get bored writing it. I get bored reading it. I really get bored reading it. There’s just only so much that we can do, and I just get tired of it. So, I really like, you know, some thrillers, some little cozy mysteries. And I always think like, “God, I wish I was smart enough to write a romantic thriller or a thriller,” and I always just think that I’m too dumb to write those kinds of books because they seem so smart and you have to plot things out. And I’m a really bad plotter. So, I wish that I would challenge myself to kind of dig deep and to maybe write some kind of a thriller because I think I would really enjoy that. It just seems very challenging, and I just think that I’m too dumb.
Rachel: I think you should do it. I think you should do it.
Jenn: I’m not dumb but it’s the plotting. It’s the plotting.
Rachel: So, here’s the thing. You can just barf out a first draft and then include your red herrings and clues throughout in the edits.
Jenn: I think I need to read a few more books and be like, “Okay, how do they actually do this?” That’s the thing. I’m just like, “How do you write this?” Like, I feel like I very much know how to write a romance book. I don’t know how to write a different genre. That’s like as simple as I can put it. Writing romance is easy. Writing a different genre is not. I’m like, “But how? Like, how do you do this? How do I do it?” That’s where I’m stuck. Like, how? I’m going to figure it out though. I’m going to figure it out. I
Rachel: I look forward to reading it, personally.
Jenn: Okay, cool.
Laura: We will be on the lookout for the thriller.
Jenn: For the thriller. Yeah, I mean, I really would like to do… I don’t know. I don’t know. And then, you know, I think of young adult. Like, I freaking love YA books. I love young adult. I think I love them because they’re not centered around sex, right? And there’s something about YA books, and it’s not that they’re pure and wholesome. It’s not that. I just feel like they’re really enjoyable.
So, there is a part of young adult that very much calls to me, that I feel like, “Oh, I would like to do this.” I would like to maybe write some YA books, but then again, what kind? Like, what do I want to do? What do I want? Everything feels like such…anything outside of what I’ve already written feels like such a challenge. And that sounds so wimpy like, “Oh, what a quitter.” But it feels like a challenge I just don’t know how to navigate. That’s the thing. I’m a very logical person. So, I would want all the pieces in play, and I feel like I don’t even know the pieces. How do you do this?
Rachel: So, outside of other genre ideas simmering, are you working on anything right now?
Jenn: I totally am not. It is the first time ever that I am… I wrote those 12 holiday books, and I am totally burnt out. I have not a single idea in my brain. I feel like three years ago, I would have been really, really freaking out about that, and thinking that I was a loser and a failure. And right now, I feel like, no, you know what? For some reason, I need this. Like, for some reason, I need to not have an idea. I just don’t. It’s the first time ever that I’m not working on anything and that I have no idea what’s coming.
Rachel: Well, breaks are good. And you’re also working on releasing the last five books of your “Fun for the Holiday’s.”
Jenn: The last 5 books and 11 audio books. So, the audio books are coming out this whole entire year and five books. I know, so it’s not like I’m doing nothing. But whenever you’re not writing as a writer, you feel like you’re not working. So, I mean, if I’m not writing, I feel like, “Oh, I’m doing nothing,” even though that’s so not true, but it’s just kind of the way that it is. Writing is the only thing that feels like actual work.
Laura: If you’re not writing something, are you constantly feeling like, “Okay, now I need to push my backlist and kind of make sure that that’s selling as well”?
Jenn: Well, this is the first time that I haven’t been, you know, writing immediately after finishing something. So, yes, I am looking at my backlist, and there are things in the works, right? I’m going to do some alternate covers. I’m going to re-cover a book that has not really sold well with this cover. I just want a new, really pretty flowy, flowery, beautiful alternative-looking cover, but it’s going to be the new cover. So, I’m doing work like that, kind of looking at what can I do for the backlist? How can I revamp some things? What first in the series am I going to put free so I can breathe a little bit new life into things? So, yes, definitely.
And my bestselling books are expiring in the audio deal that I signed 11 years ago. So, I want to get them re-recorded because I have numerous complaints from readers and listeners who are just like, “The person who reads this book is so bad, Jenn.” And I’m like, “I know, I know.” It’s before we could do our own. And so I’m very excited about getting those redone. So, all of that stuff is currently in the works.
Rachel: But you feel like you’re doing nothing.
Laura: I was going to say that doesn’t seem like too much of a break. How can you feel like you’re not doing anything?
Jenn: Because if you’re not writing words as a writer, you feel like you’re not working. Like, it doesn’t matter if you have 10 hours of admin stuff to do and 50 emails to respond to. It’s like you could do all that stuff every single day, all day long and not write a word. And you’re like, “Well, I didn’t get any writing done today, so I’m not making progress.” You know what I mean? The writing is progress. The next book is getting ahead. Everything else is like, “Well, all this stuff has to be done anyway.” But I’m excited to hopefully fix some backlist stuff, and run a sale, and do a new cover, and just get some stuff going on things that maybe are old and sold really big, you know, eight years ago now. There’s a whole new slew of readers, maybe they’ve never read this. Maybe they don’t know who I am. How can I bring new readers to the brand? How can I get people to want to read my books and my series? I mean, that’s the constant, how do we get more readers?
Rachel: And speaking of finding your readers, that leads me to our final question for you, because I am cognizant of the fact that we had you for so long. Where can listeners find you online?
Jenn: You mean like my website or like wherever?
Rachel: Website, socials, drop them all.
Jenn: Oh, yeah. So, my website is j-sterling.com. I’m on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook @authorjsterling. You could find my books and my audio on Kobo of course. Click that button for Kobo Plus because I love it. Yeah, at libraries. Everywhere. Everywhere. I’m everywhere. I want to be everywhere. Coming to a big screen near you.
Rachel: Amazing, we love that.
Jenn: Coming to your house. Your home screen. I wish. I wish.
Rachel: Well, we will include links to everything except for maybe you showing up at our homes in our show notes. Jenn, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. This has been so much fun.
Laura: This is great.
Jenn: Thank you so much for having me, you guys. It’s been so great. I love your podcast. I love Kobo. I love everything that you guys are willing to do to help authors, and I think that’s just a really big deal to have contacts there, to be able to send an email, to be able to get a response and to feel like you care is a really big deal. So, thank you, guys, for everything that you guys do on your end.
Rachel: That means a lot to us.
Laura: Thank you.
Rachel: So, thank you very much. Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in picking up Jenn’s books or following her on TikTok, we will include links to her books and her socials in our show notes. If you are enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. 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’re following us on socials. We are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter, and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Laura: This episode was hosted by Laura Granger and Rachel Wharton with production by Terrence Abrahams. Editing is provided by Kelly Rowbotham. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker. And thanks to J. Sterling 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.