New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Probst was just 12 when she started writing but it took many shaky starts before she became a mega-success in the romance genre with her novel The Marriage Bargain. Recent releases include new books in her Searching For series, including Searching for Beautiful and Searching for Always. Since starting off in the e-book format, Probst has offered her work through a variety of platforms, including print and audio. Despite being labeled an overnight sensation, she points out there is no such thing as immediate success and encourages indie authors to never give up.
Please describe your career arc and your successes.
I penned my first young adult romance at 12 years old. I received a business degree in college, got a respectable job in an office, and continued to write with the goal of being published. In my ’20s, I joined my local RWA (Romance Writers of America) chapter to learn more about both the craft and publishing. I continued to write five books that got very close but never hit the mark with a publisher. I was in my ‘30s when I wrote The Marriage Bargain—a book I loved with all my heart and soul, and I did numerous revisions in an effort to sell it. This book was rejected everywhere! I wanted to give up but finally reached out to a small digital publisher, Entangled, and they loved it. They published the book in February 2012 as the launch of a new imprint line, and the book exploded on the charts a few days later. It went on to spend 27 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and ended up in an auction where we sold the series to Simon & Schuster/Gallery.
I always laugh when people call me an overnight success. I remember so clearly how many times I wanted to quit because I was poor and tired, and couldn't seem to get anywhere, but I was a writer and knew I'd write no matter what happened. That's why I always encourage people to never give up.
Your work in contemporary romance, romantic suspense, and women’s fiction has been wildly popular. What is it about these genres that have been especially successful in the indie space?
Romance is a powerful, innovative genre and can offer readers tons of variety. There are no longer any limitations in the market about what sells and what doesn't. There are no gatekeepers in self-publishing, so stories go straight to readers for them to judge. Romance readers are also extremely loyal fans and many buy multiple books on a regular basis. Most romance reads are offered in e-books at reasonable prices.
In such a crowded market for romance in indie publishing, how do you distinguish yourself?
The story has to be amazing—I don't care how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers you have. If you don't write a great book, readers will not tell their friends and it won't go anywhere. You have to hone your voice too, because this is your unique stamp as a writer. In every blog post, Facebook post, and Twitter blurb I put out, readers recognize my voice. It's my trademark. We need to use these unique things to stand out.
Make sure you write more than one book. When The Marriage Bargain exploded, readers were disappointed I had no real backlist. I wrote nonstop and have now put out almost 20 more books in the past few years. You also have to be savvy at the business of writing. Network, be kind and polite, offer support. If you do too much, quality suffers. It's about quality—not quantity.
Lastly? Be patient. Sow the seeds and look long-term. Then if your book breaks out, you'll be ready.
You started off with an e-book format. How has that worked for you? What explains the popularity of e-books for delivery of books especially in the romance genre?
Yes, most of my initial books were only available in e-books. It was a time when the market had exploded and everyone was buying digital books. I think e-books are popular because they are convenient and also keep your reading choices quiet. It annoys me when people comment on my choice of reading matter. As a lover of romance, sometimes I find myself having to defend my genre, and get frustrated when people believe it's not “real” literature. Also, many e-books tend to be cheaper, giving readers tons of options.
What’s been the most pleasing or revelatory aspect of self-publishing for you?
I'm able to experiment with new genres and stories. For instance, I did a wonderful series with two other authors in the new adult genre called The Sex on the Beach series. It was fun to write in the younger, first-person POV. I also dove into my first paranormal book and currently have two more to write in that series. I enjoy writing novellas and the shorter format, so to be able to publish them in-between my bigger books is important to me. I'm also able to offer my readers more variety and consistent reads. The other part I love is having total control over everything, from my covers, to the blurbs, to how I want to write and market my story.
What has been the most difficult aspect of self-publishing?
Juggling all the work. I can't keep up with the many tasks it takes to self-publish and still be able to write the bigger books on a regular basis. So Cool Gus Publishing does all my formatting, covers, edits, copyedits, and helps me with all my marketing.
What steps have you taken to market your books once published?
I found my niche with blogging. I ran a popular mommy blog with three other authors that helped me reach a wide audience, and encouraged me to keep my stories sharp and entertaining. I did a lot of guest posts, read tons of books, and reached out to authors. It takes time. Overnight successes are more rare than we think. Usually there is a poor writer with a dozen rejected manuscripts under her bed, hoping to be read. Network. Play with book-bundling, writing series with other authors, anthologies, shorter stuff to keep your name out there in-between books.
Have a newsletter. Let me repeat—have a newsletter! These are your core readers. Watch what others do and pick the things that work for you.
Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelancer with a passion for books.