SPS-326: Six Figures in Her First Year – with Nora Phoenix
With support from an ex-spouse, Nora Phoenix was able to leap into the void and begin a full-time writing career. Now she regularly tops the best-seller charts, all while spending very little on advertising.
- Mark’s experience at London Book Fair
- Jumping directly into full-time writing
- The importance of picking a sub-genre and sticking with it at the start of a writing career
- On the sensitivities in the male-male romance genre
- Writing fast with dictation
- Writing out of order and using Scrivener to keep track of things
- Marketing strategies including a newsletter list and a Facebook group
- How Nora’s success has not be driven by advertising
- Making more money selling German translations that selling in the US
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
SPS LIVE: Click here to get your tickets for the live event in June 2022 while they last
MERCH: Check out our new 2022 hoodies and t-shirts in the SPF Store.
SPS-326: Six Figures in Her First Year - with Nora Phoenix
Narrator: On this edition of The Self-Publishing Show.
Nora Phoenix: You can approach it in a number of different ways, but one is, and it's not how I prefer to think about it, but if you are a straight woman, then the male is the person you are attracted to about reading. So what is sexier than reading a male/female romance? Well, it's a male/male romance because now you have twice the guys.
Narrator: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie bestseller Mark Dawson, and first-time author James Blatch, as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello, and welcome to The Self-Publishing Show, with me James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: I'll tell you what Mark Dawson, it's quite nice, I've had to turn my air-conditioning off because of noise levels. We're at the point where I need my air-conditioning on. It's April the 11th.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, it's nice here as well. You hear in the background here right now, we have some work on the barn progressing. So they're actually-
James Blatch: Changes.
Mark Dawson: ... changing it at the moment. So they're cutting through paving slab. So that noise you can hear in the background is-
James Blatch: Ooh, is it all sparky. You should get your slow-motion camera out and do some footage.
Mark Dawson: I should have done that about a year ago.
James Blatch: No, the sparks, when they cut the paving slabs.
Mark Dawson: Oh, I see. I don't think it is sparks. No, I think it's stone they're cutting so probably not that sparky.
James Blatch: Welcome to Stone Cutting Podcast Weekly.
Mark Dawson: It is noisy.
James Blatch: Yeah, it is noisy. I can hear that. Okay. Well we can talk over it. Well, here we go.
We are about to hear from somebody who understands how to write in a subgenre and get it right, and deal with the trials and tribulations, particularly in romance. There is no more political genre than romance I would say, from having observed the writing world over the last few years, it can be very political in certain areas. And that's quite an interesting aspect to the conversation today. But understanding your subgenre, servicing readers-
Mark Dawson: Excuse me?
James Blatch: Sounds rude, servicing readers' expectations. Such an important part of it. And by the way, I've just recorded an interview with somebody who writes cosy mystery and it's absolutely spot on, on those aspects as well. So that's coming up with Benedict Brown probably next week or the week after. Meanwhile, let us talk about the show.
Now we're not going to announce it today, but I know we're close to having our schedule done for the two day conference we're going to hold in June. Ticket sales have started to go like this, suddenly, because I think people, getting a little bit closer, knowing that we're going to have to cap it at some point for space in the hall. But we will have some for the next few weeks, I imagine. That's selfpublishingformula.com/spslive, Self Publishing Show Live, that stands for. Grab your seat and come and join us in London. And we're going to have a few drinks in the evening, have some fun. Hopefully in some nice warm June weather, although June isn't always nice and warm.
Mark Dawson: Hmm. Well, we'll see, won't we?
James Blatch: We'll see.
Mark Dawson: And-
James Blatch: Right. Go on.
Mark Dawson: ... we did mention this beforehand, but I was in London on Thursday. Speaking of publishing shows, I went to The London Book Fair on Thursday. So I normally would go Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, but just because of the way it lined up this year, it was the kids' Easter holidays, so we were on holiday for the first part of the week and Amazon asked me to go on the Thursday. So I got up very early Thursday morning, a very small station in Suffolk, and got into London. And I said to my wife, Lucy, afterwards, that I didn't eat anything. I had nothing to eat all day until eleven o'clock at night, because it was just one of those-
James Blatch: What, you just forgot to eat?
Mark Dawson: ... I forgot to eat, because it was just... you know what it's like, it was... So I kind of got it on the train, and it was all kind of going... Connections were quite close together so I didn't have time to stop to grab anything. Got into London, then I was at the fair, I had meetings lined up, I spoke on the Amazon stand at two o'clock and then I think I was probably speaking to authors for two or three hours after that. Left about five, rushed for the train, got home and then realised I had two cups of coffee and that was it. So I had a Greggs sausage roll at Ipswich station at about eleven o'clock.
James Blatch: Can't go wrong.
Mark Dawson: Living the dream. But it was, it was really good day.
James Blatch: Was it? What was the show like? Was it busy?
Mark Dawson: Well, Thursdays are always quiet, as you will remember from when we've been together. So compared to how the show is on the Monday and the Tuesday, or the Tuesday, Wednesday, would've been quieter, but even so in speaking to people who were there all three days, they thought it was about 30% down in terms of footfall, which looked about right to me. I thought the publishers, all of the publishers including the big ones, had spent much less on stands this year. So it was either a question of they spent less or they weren't able. I heard the organisers weren't offering quite the same packages this year because of COVID and stuff like that.
It felt quite small, some of the other halls were closed, the building where it was going on. It did feel more compact than normal. But it was still good fun. I did a panel with Rachel McLean, who is one of our speakers at the show, and with some fairly senior Amazon staff were there as well, from all of the European territories. So Darren Hardy from the UK, he'll be at the show, Frank Uler from Germany, who will also be at the show, and Andreas, and I don't remember his second name, who does Spain, Italy, and France, and he will also be at our show.
James Blatch: Oh great.
Mark Dawson: So they'll all be there, so a good chance to meet Amazonians from the different stores. But yeah, it was good, a good session talking about what we do to find readers and then lots of interesting questions from authors afterwards. And just a good chance to see people again who I hadn't seen for a couple of years.
I met my audiobook publishers, who I've done some pretty big deals with over the last 18 months and I'd never seen them other than on Zoom. So it was quite nice to sit down and actually shake their hands and get to know them a little bit better. You can't really, you can't really beat that. Zoom is fine, but-
James Blatch: Yeah.
Mark Dawson: ... you know, it's not quite the same.
James Blatch: No, there's definitely a place of being in the same room as people. And again, the interview I've just recorded actually, a few minutes ago with Benedict Brown, he said going to our conference was the pivotal moment in his career, the inspiration he got from it from sitting in the room and thinking, "I can do this." So yeah, for all stages. Oh, good.
Well, I'm pleased you had a good day. I was up in the Highlands of Scotland, so I'm afraid I missed the LBF this year. I know a few people got together saw Elaine Bateman and others and John, I think, got themselves into a room at some point. Sounds-
Mark Dawson: Okay.
James Blatch: ... sounds wrong. Got themselves into a bar with a few others.
Mark Dawson: You're all over the place today. Yeah, there was an ALLi 10th anniversary party on the Wednesday. I think it was probably what she was referring to. And yeah, I had a good chat with Elaine.
James Blatch: Yeah, good.
Mark Dawson: So it was nice to meet her. She's actually coming down to stay with us.
James Blatch: Oh, is she?
Mark Dawson: And Craig Martel are coming down, when Craig does his trip around the UK-
James Blatch: Yes.
Mark Dawson: ... quite soon, actually.
James Blatch: Yes, I'm going to have dinner with them in Cambridge.
Mark Dawson: He's coming to have dinner with us in Salisbury.
James Blatch: Oh, thanks for the invite.
Mark Dawson: Well, you've invited if you want, but you know.
James Blatch: Well, it's no good now. I wouldn't go if you invited me now.
Mark Dawson: Well, that's good because you're not invited. Yeah, so that would be, that would be fun. And then I think he's off to... Either before or after Madrid. I can't quite remember if that's... Is it before or after? You don't know.
James Blatch: It's before Madrid.
Mark Dawson: Ah right, okay.
James Blatch: Madrid's in June, this is in May, end of May I think-
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: ... isn't it?
Mark Dawson: Yeah, that's right.
James Blatch: Yes. I'm trying to persuade you to come to Madrid.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. There may be a late, last minute decision, potentially. We'll see. I mean, it would be quite nice.
James Blatch: Yeah, be very nice I think. Good, okay. So my second book's on preorder, which you told me to do last time.
Mark Dawson: Good. How many preorders you had?
James Blatch: I haven't counted. I think I got to a hundred in my first blast.
Mark Dawson: That's good. Yeah, good.
James Blatch: So we'll try and... But my email, I think... Oh, actually I think I may have mentioned this already. I combined my email with my competition winner results and I did notice that the open rates were a bit lower. And I think for some of those keywords just goes... You know, it's the email spam catching, we know this from SPF as well, and Hello Books, it's more militant now than it ever has been and getting emails through to inboxes is more difficult, more challenging. It's worth spending some time on that. We could actually even do a podcast interview with somebody who's a specialist in this area.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: So competition winners, that sort of thing, it's the sort of thing people write in spam to try and get you to open an email. So you might be doing a genuine competition, but some of those words will just mean that the email doesn't get as widely read. But anyway, yes, I'm in the process now just of making some reader suggested changes, but the book's pretty much ready to go.
I think that's all our preamble. I haven't got anything to preamble about. Have you?
Mark Dawson: I could preamble for hours, but no, probably... I know you've got to dash off so I can-
James Blatch: On the preamble front, did I tell you I sat in on the Sell More Books Show?
Mark Dawson: You did.
James Blatch: Brian does a very structured preamble, like a series of stories. They've always done that, I think him and Jim started this years ago on that and it felt very different from our free-flowing banter. But I'm not saying one's wrong, one's right.
Mark Dawson: Horses for courses, I suppose. Whatever you fancy there'll be a podcast catering for you. Oh, I should say, the Six Figure podcast, which is one... I don't listen to many these days, but that would be one I do listen to with Joe Lallo, oh God. I'm going to remember now.
James Blatch: Yeah. Three of them.
Mark Dawson: Yes. Lindsay Buroker and Andrea... Second name eludes me at the moment, sorry, Andrea, which is very bad of me. But I know they've had a really good podcast for a couple of years now, maybe more than that. And they're just winding it up and I think their last one is this week. So that would be one I would recommend, even if you haven't listened to them, just going back to listen to the back catalogue would be quite valuable. One that I have enjoyed, so sad to see them going, but there's loads now, plenty of alternatives to fill your eardrums-
James Blatch: Yeah.
Mark Dawson: ... if you've had enough of us blathering on about anything other than publishing.
James Blatch: Okay. Well, we don't do that very often. And we are going to talk about writing and publishing now with Nora Phoenix. Nora Phoenix writes male/male romance, and she understands the world in which she writes, which is such an important thing. She's also quite an inspiration in the way that she's found her niche and made it work. And so let's hear from Nora.
Nora Phoenix, welcome to The Self-Publishing Show. Lovely to have you here. We've got lots to talk about. You've been tremendously successful in your writing. So let's start there. Let's start with your writing.
I've read a little bit of background that you've sent to me, but for people who perhaps don't know you, how did you go from nine-to-fiver to very successful self-published author?
Nora Phoenix: Well, thank you, first of all, for having me. My story is, I think, a bit extraordinary. I think a lot of people do go from a normal nine-to-five job and then slowly transition into writing. I started out writing full-time, basically because it was a sink or swim moment.
I've been writing since I think I was a teenager. I still have those stories. They're super adorable and cute and really naive. You read them now and you go like, "Oh my gosh, it's so sweet." But I never really thought it was a viable career option. I mean, that's what the high school counsellors tell you, right? Being an author is not an option. It doesn't pay the bills.
And so I did something more practical, had a career, got married. We moved from the Netherlands to Germany, then from Germany to the U.S., and then I got divorced. And that was one of those moments where I was like, "Okay, I either have to take a full-time job to support myself and my son or I'm going to write full-time."
With full support of my ex-husband, who by the way is amazing, I decided to jump into writing. And he said I'm going to pay you basically the equivalent of a full-time salary for two years and that's going to be your chance to make it. So it took me two years, actually it took me a year of preparing and writing, and within one year of publishing my first book, I had made my first $100,000 in sales and I was able to support myself and go back to my ex-husband and say thank you very much for your support, I no longer need it.
James Blatch: Wow. Okay. Let me unpack some of that. I'm a year into having self-published my first book and I think I've made about 5,000 pounds.
How on earth did you manage to do that commercial success so quickly?
Nora Phoenix: I think a lot of it had to do with preparation. I started my journey at the end of 2016, I didn't publish my first book until October of 2017, and that whole period in between I did nothing but write and research and do more research and write. And so by the time I did publish my first book, I had three books ready to be published and I had basically written an entire launch plan and I followed it to the letter.
I know this is not something that will work for everybody. I'm a super-organised person, I'm very methodical. I have one of those type A personalities of getting shit done. And so this is what worked for me, but I really, I made a plan and I followed it. And that to me really is the core of my success is not just trying, but doing. I did Yoda, you know? Do or do not; there is no trying. That was it.
James Blatch: We always love a Star Wars reference.
You write spicy romance, it's exclusively male/male.
Nora Phoenix: Yes.
James Blatch: So male homosexual, I get confused in my language. Two dudes, basically. That's what you write.
Nora Phoenix: Two or three, yeah.
James Blatch: Oh, three.
Nora Phoenix: The more the better.
James Blatch: Well, it is 2022.
Nora Phoenix: Yeah. It's gay romance, also referred to as male/male romance, because technically gay romance is a broader category, it can also be lesbian romance. But male/male romance, yes, in its broadest sense. That's for now exclusively what I write.
James Blatch: Why choose male/male romance? It's something just that you wanted to write and you enjoy it obviously?
Nora Phoenix: I came across it right as I was making the plans to go writing full-time, and so obviously you have to pick a genre and one of the things I learned in my research is that you have to pick one subgenre and stick with it, at least in the beginning, so that you build a clear brand.
I was a little burned out on most male/female romances, which I've read since I was a teenager. I came across this genre, I did my research, it was at the time a very viable genre, very underserved, where there was a lot of room for growth. And so I jumped on it. And I genuinely love it. I still do.
James Blatch: So it was quite a commercial decision as well.
Nora Phoenix: Yes, yes.
James Blatch: So obviously, I mean, the biggest selling authors on the planet tend to be, I guess, trad romance, contemporary romance authors. So that is a big viable genre.
Within romance you saw this as an area that you could specialise in that could have growth potential, and you were right.
Nora Phoenix: Contemporary romance in itself, if you write just contemporary romance, that is... I mean, it's a huge genre. It is so hard to break into because the competition is just absolutely killing. So I wanted a smaller niche where I was more able to, not so much have an easier time, but just where you're really focused on, "Okay, this is the market I will be serving." And I think that's really paid off.
James Blatch: In terms of the tropes for story and plot and so on, is it broadly the same as if you were writing a contemporary romance or did you have to research this particular subgenre and hit those expectations?
Nora Phoenix: There's a lot of similarities, there's also some sensitivities because you are writing queer stories, you are writing LGBT+ stories. And so you absolutely have to do research and make sure you get some of the details right, and definitely some of the sensitivities.
I always mention protected sex is a very important example, which you don't come across as much in male/female romance. Which is a huge issue within gay romance, is using condoms or however you want to... It's not the most sexy thing, but it matters in this genre, especially with so many having a history of the community dying in the eighties of AIDS. That trauma is still there so you have to be very careful to be sensitive in that area.
James Blatch: How did you get yourself so well-genned on this? Did you simply read into the subgenre? Did you talk to other authors?
Nora Phoenix: I talked to a lot of authors. I read a lot of M/M romances, also tried to read a lot of gay fiction written by gay men. The difference is that within M/M romance the majority of the authors is female. Not all, there's plenty of male authors, or non-binary, but the majority of the authors is female as is our readership.
I definitely wanted to look beyond that and do research. So I read a lot of nonfiction books just to get a good idea of the history, Stonewall, the uprisings, the history of the queer community, definitely the AIDS epidemic. And other than that, just question a lot of gay friends that I have. How does this work? How do you do this? How do you see this? So that's been really important.
James Blatch: Is the readership predominantly gay men or is it wider than that?
Nora Phoenix: No, funny enough, predominantly straight women.
James Blatch: Wow, okay.
Nora Phoenix: I think it's becoming more diverse, but initially most of our readership was absolutely straight female. I want to say it's probably 85, 15% right now, 85% women, 15% male. It's just women read romance-
James Blatch: Yeah.
Nora Phoenix: ... and this is just one other subgenre for them. You can approach it in a number of different ways, but one is, and it's not how I prefer to think about it, but if you are a straight woman, then the male is the person you are attracted to about reading. So what is sexier than reading a male/female romance? Well, it's a male/male romance because now you have twice the guys.
James Blatch: Yeah. Or maybe three.
Nora Phoenix: Or maybe three. The more the better. But for some readers, that is how they ended up, and for me it's more about the dynamic. I'm not dissing male/female romance at all because I still read it and I've always loved it. But at some point I did get a little tired of some of the dynamic. It's gotten better in the last couple of years, but sometimes the dynamic was a little too much, oh, alpha male and she's the innocent librarian virgin. That gets a little tiresome.
I want to see a woman kick ass and just be a strong independent person on her own. And that is a dynamic that you see much more in male/male romance because you have two guys. You don't have that built-in power imbalance that you have in male/female romances. Which is interesting to me.
James Blatch: That's intriguing, isn't it?
Nora Phoenix: Yeah.
James Blatch: Because there is... It's also the set of assumptions that start with male/female-
Nora Phoenix: Yes.
James Blatch: ... which just aren't there with two men. And I guess there's a balance, in what you are talking about here, about being more adventurous and doing things differently, the balance is, as we know, some readers are nitty about what they expect out of the book and you must probably I expect get some notes from readers sometimes saying, because that's why a lot of readers pick up the same author over and over again because they-
Nora Phoenix: Yes.
James Blatch: ... they know what they're going to get.
So you have to be a bit careful don't you in how adventurous you are.
Nora Phoenix: Yes. I am lucky in the sense that I have established a readership that is quite accepting of me trying some different things within M/M romance. Not all authors can get away with that. I think if you are a little bigger, you have a little more playroom. If you are starting out, I always tell beginning authors don't do it.
You've got to find, even within M/M romance, you've got to find that sweet spot and release a number of books there so that readers get to know you and know what to expect. I think I'm more known for very deep character development, which is absolutely one of my key points in all of my books, so readers expect that regardless of the details of the story.
I've done some romantic suspense last year, which was a lot of fun to write. I wrote a whole series set in the White House, with a whole terrorist plot underneath in seven books. That was so much fun to write and the readers loved it. So I have some playroom there, yeah.
James Blatch: Let's talk about your writing process. I'm always intrigued by... Everyone has a different writing process.
Now I'm assuming from what you said earlier, you are quite organised and methodical about your writing?
Nora Phoenix: Yes.
James Blatch: Okay. Outline that then.
Nora Phoenix: I started with, when I started writing I started with plotting, and I would plot everything out on the index cards and do Save the Cat, and do this method and that method. And then I started writing and I would inevitably get hopelessly stuck or bored, because to me plotting in so much detail kind of felt like I've already written the book. There was no surprise anymore. I didn't hold my own attention. And so I read this book called Story Trumps Structure, and that was one of those books where I was like, "Wow, like eye opener. This is how I want to write."
What I do is I develop a core plot, just the core idea of the tension, the conflict between the two characters. Why are they not together, what's keeping them apart? It is a romance after all. And then I develop the characters, and then I just start to write. And a lot of it is really knowing the character, what would he logically do next? He is faced with this situation, what is his next step? And that just requires really knowing your character.
I always compare it with Jack Reacher. I love Jack Reacher, I love the books. If you've read a number of Jack Reacher books, you know how he is going to react in any given situation. He's smart, he'll analyse. He's also a big guy he's pretty keen to fight. So that's how well you need to know your characters, so that you know in this situation, this guy would use his hands, this guy would use his brain, this guy would just shut up and be quiet, this is a fighter. That's how I write is very organically from the situation.
I do dictate, I'm an incredibly fast writer. I always feel like I have to apologise for that, but I am.
James Blatch: Tell us how fast.
Nora Phoenix: On a good day I'll hit 7,000-8,000 words a day. So usually I release every five weeks, give or take, five to six weeks. I dictate a lot. It's easier on my wrists. I like writing, physically writing, better. But my body can't keep up at that speed. So the dictating helps.
When I dictate I do plot out the scenes a little in advance, so I know what's going to happen in that scene, but we're talking literally about five sentences, "Okay, this is what needs to happen." And then I start dictating.
James Blatch: Do you dictate where you are there in your office or do you walk around?
Nora Phoenix: I sit down. I work obviously with Dragon, like everybody else. I'm a dedicated Mac user, but I had to buy a PC just for Dragon because the Mac version sucked so badly.
So I have this one laptop that I only use to dictate and everything else I do on my Mac. But I dictate straight into a microphone and it's transcribed as I dictate. I've tried everything else, it didn't work for me. The walking around? My brain doesn't like that.
James Blatch: Okay.
Nora Phoenix: I can't multitask.
James Blatch: I know some people do that.
Nora Phoenix: Yep.
James Blatch: We've had Kevin J. Anderson on the show before.
Nora Phoenix: I know.
James Blatch: He's a big walker and talker. But, yeah. And it does also make you look slightly insane to other people, but that's okay.
Nora Phoenix: I don't care much about that-
James Blatch: No, no.
Nora Phoenix: ... but, you know.
James Blatch: Okay. So you do your dictation and just in terms of that process, do you then get the text yourself and go through that, or do you have an assistant who tidies that up for you?
Nora Phoenix: I've tried different things. I usually go through it myself now because I reread it a few times anyway. My writing process is basically that I dictate maybe two, three days, and then I have to rewrite, reread what I've written and then I fix it as I go along. Dictation is funny. You have some spectacular mistakes, some are incredibly funny. Also because clearly English isn't my first language, and I do have a bit of an accent, which Dragon doesn't always like. So it is quite stubborn in mishearing some of my words and we've had fun with that, yes.
My editor laughs her ass off at times.
James Blatch: ... I was going to say, you've got still a slight Dutch-
Nora Phoenix: I do.
James Blatch: ... twang there, which may-
Nora Phoenix: It's still there.
James Blatch: ... may work. Yeah. It's not gone yet. Yes, talking about typos. I got an email this week from someone who listens to the show, praise me for my self-defecating humour. And I thought self-defecating. I've never been called that before. Isn't everybody self-defecating? Anyway, yes.
Nora Phoenix: That's funny because that's literally the mistake my editor found, is that somewhere I had said shit instead of sit, which was also quite unfortunate. And I was like, whoops.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Nora Phoenix: That's not what I meant to say.
James Blatch: Have a shit.
Nora Phoenix: Have a shit, yeah, exactly.
James Blatch: Okay, so you go through your words yourself and then at that point are you in Word or Scrivener or how do you operate?
Nora Phoenix: I use Scrivener. I love Scrivener.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Nora Phoenix: Absolutely, because I do write out of order. Sometimes I have a very strong idea for the end scene, how I want things to end, or for an emotional climax that I want to work towards. So I regularly dictate out of order, and with Scrivener that's just so easy because you can just swap things around and figure out what order you want it in.
James Blatch: And then the editing process, do you have a regular editor yourself? Copy and proof and?
Nora Phoenix: Yes. Yeah, funny enough, she's also Dutch. That didn't-
James Blatch: You found each other.
Nora Phoenix: ... I didn't plan it, but one of the benefits is that being Dutch we're quite direct and quite brusque at times. And she and I get along great because of that reason, because she's had some feedbacks at times where she would do that with others and they would feel a little bit offended. I don't have that. We're both Dutch, like, "Give it to me straight, I can take it." I want the critical feedback from my betas, from my editor. There's nothing for me to be gained by people being nice and telling me what I want to hear. That's not going to make the book better. So she and I work very well together. She's done the last, I don't know, 20 books of mine?
James Blatch: That's important for somebody who might catch something that you've forgotten that a character's forgotten, all that. So I know a lot of people who write a lot of series do rely on that external person.
Nora Phoenix: Yeah.
James Blatch: Let's talk about marketing then, which is obviously a really strong point of yours.
Did you have a background in marketing before you launched your writing career?
Nora Phoenix: Yes and no. I've worked in corporates and management for a long time, so you do pick up a lot there. And before I became a full-time writer, I was already blogging and I have published... I still laugh when I get the royalty statement, but I have published some books with traditional publishers, nonfiction. And my royalty is maybe... I think the last quarter was $2.53.
James Blatch: Okay.
Nora Phoenix: So clearly, clearly that's making me rich. But I learned a lot from that process and just picked up a lot of marketing along the way. It is something I enjoy, unlike a lot of others. I do generally like that idea of the business as well. I love the writing, but I like the marketing as well. So that's a plus.
James Blatch: What does your marketing landscape look like? Do you have a mailing list?
Nora Phoenix: I have a mailing list, which is about... Where am I at, 12,000, I think?
James Blatch: Okay.
Nora Phoenix: 12,000 at the moment. Which I build with freebies, bonus scenes, reader magnets, things like that. I think my main marketing is absolutely my email, which I send out a newsletter every Saturday, every week.
And I have a very active Facebook group, about 5,000 people in there, which I love. I genuinely love to hang out there, which makes it easy. I'm trying to build personal relationships with readers. That's really kind of my approach.
I don't run ads. On occasion, but I want to say, overall, if I spent 2% of my sales per year on ads, I would say that's about it, not much more.
James Blatch: Wow.
Nora Phoenix: Part of that is because it's really hard in M/M romance because we are very limited in what we can target, because Facebook, and rightly so, like this is not me complaining, but Facebook rightly identifies LGBT issues as very sensitive. There are people who may be secretly reading, or being part of closed groups on Facebook, who do not want to be targeted with M/M romance ads because maybe they're not out to their family. So there's a lot of sensitivities there, which I completely understand, but that does make the targeting on Facebook for us, very complicated. We have very limited options.
James Blatch: Yeah. So that's a surprise to me that you have so much success, and I was checking out some of your books and your rankings before we came on, and you're obviously flying, but that's not paid ads driven, which is pretty unusual in this day and age.
Nora Phoenix: It is. And the benefit obviously is that I know authors who make maybe three, four times as much as I in yearly sales, but their bottom line is a lot lower because they have to spend so much on marketing. I take home a lot of what I make, which that's a benefit. I think it's just really a different approach because from the start I didn't want to rely on ads.
I've done Mark's course, obviously. I've run Amazon ads. I do still do them on occasion, especially in other countries, France, Italy, Germany. But they're just not my main strategy. Also because Amazon keeps changing things and every time Amazon or Facebook changes however they run ads, people are fucked and have to start all over again. So I don't want that. It's a lot of energy that I don't want to invest in that, but in building the relationships with readers, and clearly that's paying off.
James Blatch: Yeah. On the recent revisions that you allude to that Facebook's made, they've just taken Royal Air Force away as an interest which is really, really annoying for me because it's such a big, big thing, but maybe for security reasons or whatever, I don't know. But anyway, it's gone.
Nora Phoenix: Yeah.
James Blatch: But yes, it changes all the time. You have to keep on top of that and have to... Yeah, so it's this whole world. But you don't need to do it.
So you've got your mailing list, you've got your 12 odd thousand people there, and then it's organic beyond that, I guess is it? Newsletter swaps, and you do free books and stuff?
Nora Phoenix: I don't do a lot of newsletter swaps. I think the difference with M/M compared to some other genres is that we're... I think we're getting bigger, but we were quite a small niche and we have a lot of readers who only read M/M, or occasionally read M/F romance but mostly M/M. So we're all trying to get our readers from the same pool of readers, which also means that Amazon ads aren't as effective because who are you going to target? All the other M/M authors. But it's such a small group. It's getting bigger now, but most readers-
James Blatch: So you're well known in the group, that's primarily-
Nora Phoenix: Yes, yes. I'm not the top, I'm not the top. But I'm definitely inching there and pretty well known, also because I do send out the weekly newsletter, which is one of the most known ones. I do a lot of promo for other authors in my newsletter. I have a website every Saturday where I release weekly deals as I call it. So some hot new releases in M/M romance that I pick myself, 99 cent deals and freebees. I do that for free.
Other authors can send me their books that they know they're going to have on sale, and I will list them. That is just something I do for the community just to get our books out there. Obviously my biggest goal is to grow M/M romance as a genre, is to get more readers. And we are growing, the genre is absolutely growing in numbers, which I'm really excited to see.
James Blatch: Do you get Kindle daily deals and Kindle monthly deal offers as well? Or is there the same hesitancy over the sensitivity of emailing somebody and getting them in trouble type thing?
Nora Phoenix: So, funny enough, I do get them outside of the U.S. Right now I have two of my books are 99 cents for the whole month on Amazon France. I have two that will be, I think next month, in Italy. My translations, not my English, but my translations. Amazon here has offered me some deals that were just not interesting for me.
I don't know what I have to do to get a BookBub deal? Maybe sacrifice a goat in some ritual way? I don't know, but I've had one and I've applied, I think by now, 350 times if not more. I have an Excel sheet. So I've now stopped, I've decided that that is not a good use of my time. I've had one BookBub deal and that was on a stand-alone, sadly. It paid off, but not that much. So I don't know about that. They don't want me, I guess.
James Blatch: They're tough to get.
Nora Phoenix: Oh yeah.
James Blatch: I've had two in Fuse Books, and yes, I got turned down with my own book last month.
Nora Phoenix: You feel the sting, right?
James Blatch: Yeah, I feel the sting. But whenever we talk to them, and they are lovely people, and they just say-
Nora Phoenix: Well they are.
James Blatch: ... just keep applying, just keep applying. You kind of know it's a lottery, but what I do is I plan a promotion for a book, I apply for BookBub, wait until I get the reject, and then go ahead with all the other stuff that I can do in those five days of whatever.
I'm guessing from what you're saying, that you are exclusive are you, mainly?
Nora Phoenix: Yes, I am. I'm Kindle Unlimited, yeah. A lot of beginning authors ask, I think it's one of the most asked questions, do I need to be in KU or not? I always say, "You got to go where your genre is." Most of my genre, I want to say probably 90%, is in KU. All you have to do is go to the top hundred in gay romance and look at the books. The majority will be in KU with a few exceptions who are mostly trad pubbed. So it makes no sense to be not in KU.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Nora Phoenix: Which is also a problem for BookBub.
James Blatch: Yes.
Nora Phoenix: They prefer obviously books that are wide. So there's that. It just doesn't make sense for me to pull a book just to get a BookBub deal, like that's not worth it.
James Blatch: Yeah. Yes, and of course if the rest of your books are in KU, the read through is not really necessarily going to work if they've started on Kobo or whatever, yeah.
Okay, so let's talk about your translations then. So you mentioned that. Is Dutch one of them? You mentioned French and Italian, I think.
Nora Phoenix: I am translating one of my own books in Dutch, because as much as I love my country, obviously the Netherlands, it's super-small and it's not really viable to spend a lot of money on Dutch translations because there's only the Dutch and the northern part of Belgium that can read it.
But I figured I'd give it a try by translating one of my own books and see how that does. Germany has been incredibly successful for me. I actually got started on that thanks to Mark, who I think in one of the podcasts or something, he mentioned that he was going into translations. And I was like, "Huh, that's interesting."
I've lived in Germany for a couple of years. I can't translate, I'm not that fluent, but I am pretty fluent in German. And so I approached somebody that he recommended, they translated one stand-alone that did well, and then a series that did really well. And after that, I was like, "Okay, this is something I need to invest heavily in." And so I did, and I got a little lucky there because I was ahead of the curve, all the other M/M authors weren't there yet.
And because I speak German, it was easier for me to promote them, to hang out in German groups, I did a couple of interviews and podcasts and video interviews like this with German readers, which... If you hear me speak German, every German can hear immediately that I'm not German, like I have a very strong Dutch accent. But they like it, so there's that.
James Blatch: I've spent a bit of time on the border between Germany and Holland. And a friend of mine is German lives in Groningen now, I think, in Netherlands.
Nora Phoenix: Beautiful city.
James Blatch: Yes, lovely city. I've always wondered about the crossover in language because Dutch sounds very different to me.
Nora Phoenix: Oh yeah.
James Blatch: Is it Germanic sort of broadly? But could you understand someone, if you were just normally brought up in Netherlands and not taught German, could you understand someone speaking German?
Nora Phoenix: Yes.
James Blatch: Okay.
Nora Phoenix: I grew up very close to the German border. So as a child, obviously I didn't speak German, but Saturdays, a lot of Germans would come to the market, the farmer's market in my town. They would speak their dialect of German, we would speak our dialect of Dutch, we could perfectly understand each other. I want to say about 60%.
The fun part obviously is the words that are not the same, where you have to be really, really careful because they mean something opposite. I've made some hilarious mistakes there. I can laugh about it, like it doesn't bother me. The only way to learn another language is by speaking it and by just going out there and saying it. And that means that every now and then you say stupid stuff and people laugh at you and you've just got to shrug it off and go like, "Well, I speak more languages than the rest, so at least I'm trying."
James Blatch: Immersing yourself in it.
Nora Phoenix: Yeah.
James Blatch: So the translation's going well.
Nora Phoenix: Yeah.
James Blatch: It's quite an expensive investment though, isn't it?
Nora Phoenix: Yes.
James Blatch: But you've got a great profit margin so you've got a bit of money to invest.
Nora Phoenix: Yeah. I've basically reinvested last year, everything into my translations. Obviously I made a profit, but a lot of my profit went into translations. In German, I'm all but caught up, we're finishing up on the last series and after that I'll be able to keep up with whatever I release in English. I made more money last year in Germany than I did in the U.S.
James Blatch: Wow.
Nora Phoenix: That's how well they're going. And that's obviously my German translations plus my English books in Germany, but combined, I made more money in Germany than I did in the U.S., which I wasn't expecting and that just absolutely blew me away. But I've had German releases that literally earned back on the preorders alone. So yeah, that's a no brainer in terms of investment.
James Blatch: And is this through KU, primarily in Germany?
Nora Phoenix: Yes. I do plan probably in a year or so to go wide, because that's a different market that you can access, but just to build a name I wanted to be a KU at first until all my books were released, and then I can decide to maybe circulate some of my series outside of KU, go wide. I'm not quite sure. I think it's Kobo that's quite big in Germany. So you have some more options there if you are not KU, but that's like in the future and the same is true for France and Italy. Down the line, absolutely want to go wide, but for now, KU is the way to go.
James Blatch: Yeah. So your community, you say it's a fairly small niche. You know each other basically?
Are there many M/M authors who you see popping up on Amazon doing well who you don't know? Or is it that small that it's a world that knows each other?
Nora Phoenix: If they're doing really well I usually know them. Obviously COVID has made things different. There's one big M/M romance, or I should say gay romance conference, every year in the U.S. That had to be cancelled once, and last year I didn't go because I wasn't in a place where it was safe for me to go. That's really where we meet each other in person and where we hang out. Most of us do know each other.
We've also unfortunately, but that's in every community, had some bad experiences with people who pretended to be something and someone they're not. And in our community, because we write gay romance, if you present yourself as a male, you'd better be a male because now you're claiming own voices and that's a very sensitive subject. So we've had a few that turned out to be not men.
That really rocks the community, and ever since, I think a lot of us have become a bit more careful in trying to figure out... You know, if somebody new enters the scene, somebody will get to know them and just want to see them, or do a Zoom, or we want to know that this is a real person. Unfortunately you have to be careful.
James Blatch: Does that sensitivity go across in heterosexual romance, like a man using a nom de plume, a female nom de plume? Which I think probably happens reasonably often.
Nora Phoenix: Yeah, I think there's quite a few men who use female pen names. I don't think it's as big a deal there. To me, I don't have a problem at all with pen names. I have a problem with lying. Obviously Nora Phoenix is a pen name, but I've never presented myself to be anything or anyone that I'm not. Even under my pen name I try to be as authentic and close to my real life person as possible.
But if you are a cis female and you present yourself as a gay male, that to me is very problematic. And we've had people who build up this whole online lie about this persona that they were and the guys that they were dating and the hookups that they had. Like I say, now you're claiming own voices, and I have a huge problem with that because you're pretending to be something and someone that you are not. That's lying.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Nora Phoenix: That's different than just saying, "Oh, I'm a guy, I know female names sound better in M/F romance, I'm going to take a female name," but I'm not presenting myself in a certain way. I'm not writing posts that say, "Oh, I'm a 54 year old woman with three kids." That's where you got to draw the line. You can't lie.
James Blatch: But then there's no sensitivity over what seems like a fairly normal situation of say a cis female writing gay male romance.
Nora Phoenix: Oh, but.
James Blatch: Do you get pushback from gay men saying-
Nora Phoenix: Oh.
James Blatch: I can see maybe you do.
Nora Phoenix: Now you've done it, now you've done it. This is a very hot topic that we circle through, I don't know, two, three times a year, where somebody will post something on Facebook or on Twitter being incredibly upset that cis straight females are writing M/M romance.
Now, a couple of things, I'm cis female, I'm not straight. So the straight part, I do have a problem with. You can't see if somebody is straight and you shouldn't assume, because not everybody is able to come out. I always say, "Look, you can't force people to come out just to defend why they are allowed to write something." But second, nobody asks Nicholas Sparks why he writes women. Nobody questions him on writing, I mean, The Notebook, that's... I'm not going to call it a romance because they die at the end, but let's call it a romance.
Nobody is questioning him about writing a lot of women and female main characters, and he is a guy. So why is there always that double standard that when women write something, it's a problem. I think there's some misogyny in there, and some of the criticism is absolutely right. Don't get me wrong. There are women who write male/male romance purely from a fetishizing point of view, which I have a problem with. Now you're kind of using a community for your own profit or your own, whatever, gratification. That is something else, but I'm writing romance. I'm writing love stories. That should not be exclusive to any gender or any sexual orientation. I don't think it matters, honestly.
James Blatch: So in your writing, you do try and earnestly depict realistic gay relationships between two men. The reason I'm getting at this, because the old sort of joke for men is that their idea of lesbians was presented to them by pornography when they were 18.
Nora Phoenix: Yes.
James Blatch: And that's what they think lesbians are. That's bit of a joke amongst my lesbian friends is, "You know that's not necessarily, James, they don't all come here with blonde hair wearing skimpy... That's not how it works."
Nora Phoenix: Yeah.
James Blatch: But is there an element of that with what you're writing? Because you are presenting mainly for straight women. There must be some fantastical element to this?
Nora Phoenix: Yes, look, first of all it's fiction and second of all it's romance. So is it realistic? I try to make the character development realistic. I try to make the setting realistic. There are always going to be elements that are not realistic, but that's in any romance. In all fairness, if you write a sex scene, obviously the first time they have sex it's going to be spectacular. Well, in real life we all know that's not quite the case, but you... I mean, and I've actually done it where it wasn't as spectacular, and that's part of the story.
But usually that's where you romanticise, that's where you make something rosier and prettier than it is in real life because who wants to read about that? Who wants to read about disappointing sex going home and thinking, "Wow, that wasn't worth the lingerie," like nobody wants to read that. So that part, it is a romance, and you have to satisfy readers are looking for in a romance, which is that perfect picture. They all have to have a happy ending. We don't necessarily do the married with kids because it is M/M romance, but you have to have that happy ending. It has to wrap up perfectly. Real life is a lot messier than that. But I'm okay with that.
James Blatch: So it sounds like you have your hands full in navigating this world, but you've obviously done it very successfully and I can tell that you are... You know, you must be a reasonably leading voice, I'd imagine, amongst the authors in this community.
Nora Phoenix: Thank you. Well, it also helps that I'm an extrovert. I'm an introverted extrovert, or an extroverted introvert. I never know which way to put it, but I genuinely love talking about this, talking about writing and talking about M/M romance. I have a lot of fellow authors who are probably a lot more thoughtful than I am, but have some camera fear, so you won't hear them as much.
James Blatch: Yeah, fair enough. And you said it's very important, it's this brilliant bit of advice early on to find your wheelhouse and stick in it.
Nora Phoenix: Yes.
James Blatch: In almost every aspect of marketing that makes so much of a difference because it just makes a lot of what you're going to do subsequently, easier.
Nora Phoenix: Yes.
James Blatch: However, you've ridden that pony for a while now. Are you thinking that you might explore some other genres, subgenres?
Nora Phoenix: I might. I've not talked about this with anybody.
James Blatch: Exclusive.
Nora Phoenix: So you have an exclusive here. It's not getting tiresome, it's not. But writing in this genre does absolutely have limitations. And when I wrote romantic suspense last year, I really enjoyed writing the suspense part. So I am debating, over time maybe setting up a second pen name, and going into more a suspense direction. Nothing with M/M romance but just purely suspense. Hence my love for Jack Reacher.
James Blatch: Yes, there you go. We need a Dutch Reacher, don't we?
Nora Phoenix: I could give Dawson a run for his money, who knows?
James Blatch: Yeah. The Dutch Milton.
Nora Phoenix: That'd be fun right?
James Blatch: Johannes Milton.
Nora Phoenix: Yes.
James Blatch: Yes. Well, superb. Okay. Look, Nora, thank you so much. The time has whizzed by and I've really enjoyed talking to you. It's intriguing also to hear somebody doing as well as you are doing, not driven by paid ads. It's unusual. It's a kind of don't try this trick at home, really, because it probably won't work for most people. It doesn't work for me. I do need unfortunately, to shovel the money in, but I would love to be in a position where it was 2% and not 30 to 40% of my income going into ads.
Nora Phoenix: I bet. Well, if you want to hear more about how I do, you're welcome to reach out and I'm happy to share my strategies and how I approach this.
James Blatch: Superb, we'll do that. And now I must ask, are you a big Max Verstappen fan?
Nora Phoenix: I am.
James Blatch: Good.
Nora Phoenix: All the Dutch are. How can we not?
James Blatch: Of course they are. Well so are we. We're big Red Bull fans in my house. No one else has any clue what we're talking about, but.
Nora Phoenix: That's okay. That was a rather unfortunate win though.
James Blatch: It was-
Nora Phoenix: ... I have to admit that was... For the sport, that was not good.
James Blatch: ... It was not good.
Nora Phoenix: It was not good.
James Blatch: It'll never happen again like that.
Nora Phoenix: No.
James Blatch: It was extraordinary to watch it all unfold.
Nora Phoenix: Yes.
James Blatch: This is Formula 1 we're talking about and... There's been a bit of karma this weekend, hasn't there? Because Max retired just as he was about to snatch a podium place. Anyway, there you go. That's enough F1. What fun talking to you, Nora. Thank you so much indeed for joining us.
Nora Phoenix: Thanks for having me.
James Blatch: There you go. Nora Phoenix navigating the world of male/male romance, spicy romance. It was quite an interesting interview for me to do. I love being taken out of my comfort zone a little bit, but I do ask the questions I think they're in people's heads, and we talk about these subjects.
Mark Dawson: God, I haven't listened to this yet. I'm nervous now.
James Blatch: It's all fine. I really enjoyed talking to Nora. And I think we always hope there are takeaways from interviews, but that understanding the expectation from your genre, it's not a mechanical slavish thing that you copy the format that everyone else does. You just need to know what the general expectations are within that. That's where your creativity is. That's where your USP and stuff is. So I thought that was very important to understand that, and Nora does really, really well with that, so it was great to have her on the podcast today, and very eloquent about talking about it all.
Good, right. Well, I think I'm going to go into the sunshine with my son because it's Easter. Oh, I guess it's Easter everywhere. It's Easter here in the UK, but it's probably Easter everywhere. Never understood why Easter moves. But anyway, that's off topic for publishing.
Mark Dawson: It's up to Jesus.
James Blatch: Yeah. But it's based on fixed events, historical events. They didn't move, anyway.
Mark Dawson: No one's listening, James.
James Blatch: No one's listening at this point.
Mark Dawson: We're at the end of the interview. No one's listening to more waffle.
James Blatch: If you're listening and you know the answer, post into our community group. That's it. Thank you very much indeed to everyone behind the scenes. This week in particular this recording was very late before it goes out and we're causing chaos for the team who put this together. But thank you anyway, team. Thank you very much indeed, Mark, and our guest Nora Phoenix. All that remains for me to say is it's a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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