Well bitches, this is the motherlode of write ups! I launched A Game of Hearts and Heists a spicy sapphic fantasy romance on the 10th of February 2023 and I promised to share everything that I’d done to create this new pen name.
Goal: create a financially sustainable fiction pen name that gives me the opportunity to have fun writing and create books that are ‘cannot put down, hangover inducing’
Subgoals: surpass 33 preorders, give out over 100 ARCs, keep production costs as low as possible
TLDR Take Aways
- Hate to say it, but mindset IS everything
- Infrastructure is key
- You need more time than you think
- TikTok works
- You have to talk about your excitement
Why Did I Do It?
Originally, I wanted Ruby to be a secret name so I could explore fiction in secret with no one watching. I wanted to be completely free of judgement. What I realised later is that I actually didn’t give a toss about the books being secret, what I needed was to give myself permission to write what I wanted and keep the creation bit just to myself.
In other words, self-judgement was the issue.
Once I’d finished writing the book, I was completely disconnected from the creativity part and saw it as a product so being judged was no longer an issue.
Secondly, all the books I’d written were either nonfiction or YA and Ruby does not do YA so I wanted to keep this fiction completely separate.
I also wanted to see if I could start again. My first fiction series didn’t do well, and I wanted the chance to find the best of both worlds, a genre that I wanted to write in that made me happy, that also had hungry readers.
The biggest shift for me was no longer looking at what I was writing just from the point of view of art. My goal was fun. I wanted to write the most fun thing I could while delivering it into a market that had the potential to sell and that I knew I could deliver what readers wanted.
Starting Again Takes a Long Time
I definitely underestimated how much time everything took. I ended up spending a LOT of hours in the evenings working just to keep up. And realistically this contributed to me spending the month prior to launch sick as a dog.
The mailing list and website set up took the longest amount of time. So god forbid I ever did this again, I’d factor more time in.
What Did I Do?
- Bought and read K-Lytics reports on fantasy romance market.
- Spent a considerable amount of time on Amazon only this time (as I knew I wanted to write for KU). Otherwise I’d have been all over the other stores.
- Looked over time at what was trending.
- Read many many books both that were fantasy romance and also others that were sapphic.
- Picked out common tropes, book lengths, style of writing / pace / snark etc, brand colours and read reviews of lots of books
- Collected a large quantity of comp books and authors – keeping them categorised by straight FR or sapphic books.
My conclusion was heavy on the romance, slightly lighter or at least make the fantasy more accessible. Ensure that the book was pacey, hooky and filled with quotable moments and phrases. The book needed to be voicey, just over into the darker side of romance though I personally knew I wasn’t going to touch non-con or dub-con. Around 3-400 pages. Keep the plot simple and accessible.
I decided to marry my favourite trope Enemies to Lovers with a heist and that would be the two main plot threads.
I also decided to make the books episodic standalones. While this isn’t common in fantasy romance, it is becoming more common and I was burned out from my first series and wanted the accomplishment from completing and moving on each time. This also gave me more wiggle room to create a universe and seed other connected series.
By this point, I also had a lot of data on how long drafting took me, I knew how to outline sufficiently that I could write quickly through a book and how long everything would take. I knew it would be three weeks for a first draft and about the same for the edit.
I have a beta reader that can turn a book around in a couple of days.
I knew that I wrote best in sprints and using Ohwrite.co website with other writers who needed to get large quantities of words down.
I decided to only have one beta reader. I’ve written enough books now I know what I’m doing and I didn’t want to be listening to dozens of conflicting opinions. I also asked my beta to highlight quotes she thought would be quotable on social media.
Website, Mailing List and Autoresponders
I was resolute on the fact that this time, I would not publish a book without a reader magnet, mailing list and autoresponder sequence in place. I also wanted a website. I was determined to have the basics set up.
This business set up was definitely the longest most mentally taxing part (for me personally). I don’t enjoy technical fuckery and intricate websiting.
So, knowing that, the website and mailing list were minimum viable options.
I set up a new website: rubyroe.co.uk and linked it to mailerlite in order to collect email addresses. I used very few plugins. A redirect one so that I can create easylinks like rubyroe.co.uk/signup which is a memorable sign up link.
Dropped a theme over the wordpress site. Created a books page, an about page, a contact form, and the homepage. That’s it.
I had to set up a new mailerlite account as you can only have one website per account (or that’s what I seemed to find). I created a pop up form for the website and an embedded form. You can see the embedded form here. I’m paying the lowest level of account at $10 a month.
I joined one promo list builder through BookQueendom.
On the mailing list, I re-read Tammi Labrecque’s books Newsletter Ninja and created a set of 5 autoresponders that were also minimum viable. Just a handful in order to get going. A couple of days before the book launched, I added a 6th email as the preorder for book 2 had gone live and I wanted to make sure even if I forgot to send a main email, the autoresponders would remember for me.
One of the best things I did was to include the sign up link in the back of the ARC copy. I did this by accident, just trying to be organised. At the time of sending out the ARCs I hadn’t actually finished the reader magnets or the autoresponders but I didn’t think anything of it, assuming no one would sign up. I was wrong and a good portion of ARC readers signed up, meaning I had to scramble with the reader magnets and autoresponders.
I decided to run with two reader magnets. A warm one and a cold one.
The warm reader magnet was for the back of the book. A bonus ‘spicy’ scene and engagement for those who love the HEA. I have seen lots of romance authors doing this so I knew it was a good strategy.
The cold reader magnet was a prequel showing the meet cute and how the couple became enemies in the first place and ended up around 16,000 words. I also started promoting this on social media. And my intention is to use this to list build going forward as I ran out of time prior to the launch.
I created a Bundle Page in bookfunnel for existing readers as there were also some other digital only goodies – book lists etc that I created and gave away in the autoresponder sequence. This is a handy page as I am now including a link to it as standard at the bottom of all emails so readers can always find the goodies.
Branding and Platform
I worked with my sister to create a logo and branding palette. She chose the colours based on the mood and emotions I wanted my fiction to evoke, and then created two versions of the Ruby Roe logo, one for books and spines and one more decorative version. I decided my phrase or statement would be: sapphic, sex and sarcasm.
I then installed the branding palette into Canva so I had easy access to all the colours for social media asset creation.
I very intentionally made the decision to only have one social media platform for this name. I did not want to have to produce content for all the different socials. I did, however, go and claim my Facebook and Instagram handles should there be a need for them later. But I left Twitter because I’m not even going there.
So the only platform I use for this pen name is TikTok. The reason for that is a) it’s the friendliest space for queer people and b) it’s booming and really booming for spicy romance.
I spent time on TikTok looking at what others did as both readers and authors. I trained the platform in about 5 days to show me what I wanted by constantly searching for that type of content.
I made a content plan for TikTok with ideas of what to post every day for a month running up to the book launch.
I made it, and then promptly ignored it, finding that just by spending time on the platform, I came up with better ideas on the fly. A lot of TikTok is led by the sound choices you make and there’s no way to predict that in advance.
I did, however, have a couple of days where I would batch drafts and store them for the days I was tired.
The goal was to hit 1000 followers as fast as possible so that I could get the link in the profile. I started using TikTok on the 3rd January and I hit 1000 in about three and a half weeks by posting once daily, sometimes twice.
I would also make a point to comment on 2-4 other people’s TikToks everyday and I replied to every comment on my own profile. That did become difficult when I had a couple of posts get close to and over 10k views and the comments tipped into the hundreds. But I did what I could.
By the time I launched, 5 weeks after starting TikTok I’d amassed 1229 followers.
The linktree link I used in my profile had 28 clicks in its first week. Note that I did nothing to promote that link other than sticking it there. This also isn’t enough clicks to explain the number of physical preorders I had. Given the attrition rate of clicks to purchases authors typically see. Which leads me to think TikTok users are used to seeing books and then independently going to find and download or purchase books themselves.
It’s also why I would try and stick the cover of my book in as many videos as possible – even when it was just me talking.
The closer we got to launch, the more I posted. But at a minimum I would vary the content and try to post one book video and one non book video every day.
I also intentionally started a series of fictional sapphic heroine videos based on lesbian thirst traps I came across. I’d duet the videos and ‘react’ to them and then started labelling them episode 1 / 2/ 3 etc and very quickly I started getting tagged in videos.
For what it’s worth, the fucking Wednesday dancing video, while holding my book, was extremely worthwhile.
Useful website its https://snaptik.app/ this is where you can copy the link to a TikTok video and it will remove the tiktok watermarks, so you’re then able to post the videos on Instagram and not be penalised for the TikTok labels. And I used this multiple times.
Instagram Book Tours
At the time of this post, I don’t have the results from them yet.
NBB was free
Papermyths was $200
I discounted MTMC book tour because they required all paperback copies and while I’d printed enough to do it, the Royal Mail shut down international exports just as I was about to pay and ship out. I could have gone into Ingram Spark and individually printed and shipped books, but I’d already spent out printing the first lot, and didn’t want to budget to do that again.
I also spent a considerable amount of time on both Instagram and TikTok hunting for potential reviewers. To do this I would:
- Go to authors I knew in the genre and go through the list of people they followed.
- Use hashtags like #sapphicbooks and see who was posting.
- When I found a reviewer or media type review company I would look at their follow lists
I’d check to make sure they read fantasy and not just contemporary romance which is the predominant genre in sapphic literature and then I would slide into their DMs with a message. I also tried to make sure I knew their name. I’d check websites and information sections to make sure they took ARCs and I would be as polite as possible. When I found people on TikTok I’d have to check for email addresses or try them on Instagram as it’s harder to message people on that app when you don’t mutually follow each other.
I’ll be honest, this was gruelling work, and didn’t yield huge results, but it absolutely yielded some and some of those readers have already gone on to be hugely engaged.
I found that most TikTokers wanted physical copies. Most of the bigger instagram reviewers did, though some would accept ebooks. This is definitely a trend that’s increasing and there’s a considerable cost to indies – but more so those of us not on the US side of the pond. There are ways around it – ordering one copy to send directly to a reviewer in the Ingram portal if you change the print location. But it still amounted to around £12 per copy including postage. So this is a huge expense.
Kate Hennessy’s beautiful instagram photos can be found here: @katehennessyphotography
Pre Order Incentive
I ran a pre order incentive for anyone who preordered the book, whether in paperback, ebook or hardback, if they sent preorder proof to an email address, they’d receive goodies.
I also had a reader order it from the library which is a reminder to me to be more inclusive with that when talking about preorders.
The pre order incentive included: a sneak peek at chapters 1-3, the ability to sign up for the prequel, entry into a giveaway to receive a signed and personalised hardback, stickers, bookmarks, a Chance coin featured in the book itself, access to the playlist I listened to while writing and a Pinterest mood board for the book.
I saw an immediate increase in preorders everytime I promoted this incentive. Which I did through graphics on instagram, in my mailing list and through a couple of videos on TikTok.
I had the choice of either going overtly queer with the cover and sticking two women on the front or leaning into the fantasy romance style cover. Ultimately, because fantasy romance is the bigger genre, I chose to lean that way to appeal to the biggest segment of potential readers. Also I hate people on covers so it was an easy choice.
For the first time, I also paid extra to have under-the-cover art. Which also helped with TikTok videos.
I analysed all the big selling covers in the genre and checked the K-Lytics report to make sure I’d picked up on the ones that were popular and used these as comps for the cover design brief, ensuring that there were similar elements to place it as belonging in the genre.
Using tropes in marketing was a key factor. I used them in a variety of ways, from including them in the blurb to images on Instagram with the tropes, and in captions having the tropes appear in TikTok videos. It made it considerably easier to market too as you could point to a ‘thing’ and say if you like this you’ll love the book.
I hunted for Facebook reader groups specific to sapphic fiction and found a real mixed bag. Most of the groups didn’t get a huge amount of engagement and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend loads of time on the platform building up good karma as I’m not a huge fan of facebook. So I opted to ask for ARC readers in one specific lesfic group and that garnered a good response and review rate.
Though I had to manage reviewers through DMs on Facebook which meant keeping a list of people to contact on launch day etc.
Other Marketing Forms
IHeartSapphic is a sapphic website for readers and author services. They run a considerable number of free promotional opportunities for sapphic authors such as new release posts, author spotlights. I applied to be in their database and for the free opportunities as well as paying $40 for a month of promo
Applied to https://www.myqueersapphfic.com/ which is touted as the sapphic bookbub and if I get a place that’s $15. But at the time of writing, I hadn’t heard back.
I also applied to be in various book boxes, but one came back and wanted me to pay for the new cover. So I declined as I was trying to keep costs low.
I also worked with Jae who is a sapphic author and runs a lot of collaborations. I’m in her blind date with a book and book bingo campaigns. The blind date of which I ran a giveaway for a physical copy.
I reached out to a number of sapphic authors I knew, some of which proved more open to me engaging with them than others. Some offered help and advice and others the conversation just died.
Six days out from launch, I set up five AMS ads on the US and UK store, each one with only a small selection of targets. I’m not going to go into anymore detail because I’m not an ads expert and don’t want to give any miss information on this.
Papermyths booktour $200
Print copies £150 + £35 in shipping
Book Queendom $100
Outsourced caption writing £100
K-lytics report $37
($882 = £729) + £285 = £814
Mailerlite $10 ongoing a month
(at the time of recording)
ARC downloads: 101
Physical ARCs: 7
Ebook preorders: 174
Paperback preorders: 110
Hardback preorders: 34
Meaning the percentage of pre orders that were paperback was: 45%
Hate to say it, but TikTok. Every time I would post a TikTok I would see two digital pre orders within four hours or so. I obviously didn’t see the physical orders come through until later, but the quantity of physical orders was abnormal for my fiction. Most indies don’t see such a large portion of their pre orders as physical. I genuinely think the vast majority of those pre orders were from TikTok. TikTokers like to be able to hold physical copies of the books in the videos so this corresponds.
It’s also made me consider whether I priced correctly as ingram’s print costs are higher than KDP. I’d created the book to be for KU specifically so it did make me stumble a little to see so many physical orders. Until I see what happens with KU I can’t come to any firm conclusions. My gut hypothesises that TikTok is enabling me to access different readers. My suspicion is that this won’t cannibalise the potential KU page reads. But until it goes live and I get more data these are all just guesses.
Using tropes in marketing and baking those into the book really helped make the marketing feel considerably easier than it has been in the past. I knew exactly what the book was and I was able to describe it succinctly and quickly.
Having the experience in the industry that I have, I think this made it considerably easier. Although I was theoretically a new author, I’ve been publishing a long time and so while I had a lot of tasks to do, I did have a strategy and a plan and that made it a lot easier to execute as I wasn’t having to learn how to do everything as well as do it.
I made a conscious decision to target a big genre (fantasy romance) while nicheing myself into the LGBT end of it. So this required give and take on my part and I made very deliberate choices about tropes and branding and packaging in order to get as close to what I thought the market wanted as possible. I don’t think I could have landed this launch the way I did without the amount of market research I did.
What Didn’t Work?
Less didn’t work and more ran out of time. I wanted to be part of more mailing list builders. I missed out on Booksweeps by the skin of my teeth. And I ran out of energy to sift through Bookfunnel and Story Origin. But these are in my plans for post launch.
I found it a lot harder to garner reviewers than I’d anticipated as once you have an established audience that becomes significantly easier. If I were to do this again, I’d definitely have built TikTok for longer and built an audience for longer and used that platform to help build ARC readers. That said, between the tour, the FB groups and my existing mailing list, there were definitely enough options.
I ran out of time to set up a street team and honestly, the thought of managing it on top of everything else was a bit much. I don’t feel like not having one has impacted me. Though it could have helped to mushroom awareness and I will probably try and have one for book 2.