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L.J. Shen Q&A: The Secrets of Her Success

If there’s something we all hope for in regard to our books, it’s a good launch (and consistent sales afterwards, of course). So when people in the SPF Facebook community discovered that one author had managed to secure 1400 Amazon reviews within a month of her book’s release… well, needless to say everyone was blown away!

The author in question? L.J. Shen. For those who don’t already know her, Leigh is an international bestselling (indie) author of Contemporary Romance and New Adult novels. We reached out to her to find out the secrets to her success!

Do you tailor each new release for the current climate or do you have one formula that you stick to for all your launches?

I write eight months ahead of schedule, so I definitely don’t tailor my releases to cater to whatever people want to read right now. Having said that, I am lucky enough to be writing in a genre that is very popular (romance), and I usually stick to familiar tropes that I enjoy reading myself (boss-employee, age gap, single dad).

It is never a calculated decision to “write a single dad story” or mimic someone else’s results or work. On the contrary, I usually find that when a book “explodes”, there’s a trail of very similar books popping out like mushrooms after the rain, weeks and months after, but they never do as well. So I always try and write what I love and what moves me the most.

Formula—there are definitely some things all my books have in common. Strong alpha males. Romance as the primary genre. I tend to write about the wealthy. I love banter, angst, and having my main character exhibit the maximum range of emotions. Other than those key factors, I don’t have a formula. Everything goes. My September release, Dirty Headlines, was a workplace rom-com set in New York, while my January release, The Kiss Thief, was a darker, dub-con, mafia read with a heavy feel to it. I’m a huge believer in writing what works for YOU at that moment in time. I think readers want to be moved and wowed by a writer, and they do not want a rehash of the last book they’ve read from you.

How do you get your Facebook group to be so engaged all the time? They practically sell your books for you!

I spend a good amount of time on social media. I usually start my morning by checking emails and answering readers on Facebook and Instagram. I also check social media last thing before I go to bed. I never leave a post in my group unanswered. It is very important for me to give my readers the time of the day and to engage with them. I don’t feel that my time is more valuable than theirs.

There’s no calculated strategy behind my teasers or posts. I’m just very passionate about my work and my WIPs as I write them. I love sharing my excitement with my readers. I definitely think I got lucky in the sense that I wrote a series that worked really well for me (Sinners of Saint), and now that I’m writing the spin-off series for the characters’ children (All Saints High), readers already feel invested in the characters. They know the kids, their personalities, what they look like, their quirks and traits. Therefore, it is easier to get excited about something you are familiar with easier than a total standalone you know very little about.

I definitely feel that writing in a world that works for you is a good plan, as long as you continue coming up with original, thought-provoking ideas for the characters.

What’s your release schedule, i.e. how many books do you release per year?

I usually release three full-length books a year. This year, I am shooting for four but I’m not sure I’ll get there. I have two books written and ready to be published, but I believe in pacing myself. I don’t want to cannibalize on my own audience and it actually takes me five full months of work to produce a good, well-written, well-edited book. Therefore, releasing more than 3-4 a year is simply not sustainable for me as a writer, although I know many authors who release more often and that works well for them.

Alternately, I know authors who release once a year and hit #1 without even announcing their release. I think every author is different, and the expectations our readers have from us are different. I am definitely very grateful that my readers understand that it takes me a “long time” (in romance/indie time) to produce a novel.

Did you find instant success with your debut book? If not, when did you start getting good traction and did you do anything to make that change happen?

Success is a very subjective thing. I had absolutely no expectations. I didn’t know what I was doing. I released wide but only on Amazon—because I simply wasn’t aware there were other platforms. I was ridiculously uninformed. I only had one friend in the industry, who writes MM books. Before my first rank, she suggested I enroll my $3.99 book into KU. I said, okay, sure, I have no idea what I’m doing anyway, I just found out that there were PR agencies, Facebook ads, and a bunch of stuff I didn’t do and had no intention of doing. So, I rolled it into KU and I think it peaked at #300 in the store, which I personally saw as a success. I believe it’s still important to see it as a success, because as long as people read you—you are successful. I think using that as my parameter of success keeps me at ease.

Prior to the self-publishing era, some established authors could only dream of making a living out of writing, let alone earn some of the salaries people in this industry make. They had to work part-time or full-time, then come home and write. This was the mentality I came into this career with, and this is the mentality I still have.

After my first book (Tyed), I took close to a year to write my second book, Sparrow. This time, I did use a PR company (Enticing Book Journey), I released straight into KU, and I set aside a very modest ad budget (and I do mean extremely modest, I know a lot of people who spend that amount a day on one platform during release month).

Sparrow hit #12 in the store. I think it was after Sparrow’s release that things started really picking up for me in terms of my career. I was more prepared for this release, and the main things I’ve changed were releasing straight into KU (which I don’t think by any means EVERYONE should do. It really depends on your long-term goal, short-term goal, and personal preferences. This is something I highly suggest people research, because it is difficult to move from wide to KU and from KU to wide). I also used a PR company (I still do that), and by that time I’d opened a reading group so I was able to communicate with my readers better.

What were your most effective strategies in spreading word about your books early on?

That’s a very good question, to which I don’t have an answer. First of all, I never really have a set strategy. That’s way too grownup for me. What I did—and still do—is observe and see what people react to more. And it’s not even intentional. I rely heavily on my instincts. For instance, I used to invest a lot of time scheduling posts on my author page. But then traction went down, and I noticed there was more interaction on Instagram. So, I switched gears and started posting more on that platform.

I’m usually not a huge fan of giving too much information about my books before they release. We’re working in a very fast-paced market, and you’re almost always bound to see something similar to what you wanted to write coming out before your product if you give too much info (for that reason, I also keep things very vague in my blurbs). I will drop into my reading group and share a line or tell people how excited I am for my current project, but I will not go into detail because I think most people want to open a book without prior knowledge what they’re getting into (or maybe it’s just me).

I think the important thing is making sure the buzz will create itself once your book is revealed. So I try to make sure my covers are eye-catching and unique. I started out with object covers (Tyed, Sparrow, Blood to Dust, Defy), and switched back to it with my last release (The Kiss Thief), which proved to work, but then sometimes I use men on covers too (Sinners of Saint series, Midnight Blue, Dirty Headlines, The End Zone). I will always try to make the covers really pretty, no matter what I publish.

I work hard on the blurb, and if I’m about to release a football rom-com, for instance, I’d talk to a friend who released a similar-themed book recently to get some pointers.

How much does branding (in your case badass alphas) relate to your book success?

I think having a specific brand is really important. I think you need to be consistent about a few things, but also keep your readers on their toes and not re-produce cookie cutters, or books of the same formula. I know my readers expect an alpha (not necessarily badass, just an alpha), and some banter, and a lot of emotions, so I make sure they get it with every single book, but I cannot and will not commit to a trope (enemies-to-lovers) or sub-genre (rom com, angsty, NA, YA, Contemporary).

Success is a very elusive thing. I think it comes in many forms and for various reasons. It definitely helps that I have a strong understanding of what readers want from me. But, historically, I don’t always give it to them. I don’t have consistent themes for my covers. I write many tropes. I write many sub-genres (YA, NA, contemporary, mafia, rom-com, football, MMA, politics, dub-con, one night stands, slow-burns, naïve heroines, feisty heroines, virgin heroines, heroes who fool around with everything that moves).

What it boils down to, I think, is that readers want two things:
1.     To be surprised
2.     Stick to whatever you did that worked for them.

Those two sound like they contradict each other, but not really.

Have you ever distributed wide, or is KU pivotal to your success?

I’ve never distributed wide.

I think KU is a tricky question for many authors. It’s really a question of what you want from your career and about long-term goals. I know many people who have the numbers to hit NYT and choose not to and release in KU. I also know many people who are just starting out and are slowly building a wide audience and are BOUND to hit lists. I know people who make 45% of their income from other platforms and have no desire to enroll into KU. I know people who used to hit lists and moved to KU thinking they were going to become ballers, but never quite captured the audience.

I started out in KU. I’ve never released wide. I know a good portion of my audience is a KU-based audience. For me, it makes sense to stay in KU. But I definitely cannot speak for other authors and experiences may vary.

An author I respect very much once told me something that really stuck with me—do whatever works for you at any given time, and if it stops working for you, switch it up.

How did you harvest your mailing list and Facebook followers – ads, or reader magnets?

I’m very adamant that my newsletter will remain completely organic. Unlike Likes to author page (which I don’t really see the point in anymore) and asking people to join to my reading group, I actually pay monthly for my newsletter, based on my number of subscribers. And a hefty amount each month, too (also, organic traction will ensure better open rate).

For that reason, I don’t advertise my NL or do giveaways to join it. I am happy to do giveaways and ask people to follow me on Amazon, FB and Bookbub (it costs me nothing), but I am very careful to avoid encouraging people who don’t want to be encouraged to sign up for things I am paying for (newsletter, text message alerts). So I just make sure those links are available on my Amazon page, Bookbub page and website and hope for the best. It’s a slow-burn strategy, but it works for me.

Ads—Facebook, AMS, Bookbub. I do advertise my books, but not as heavily as some people suspect. I think it is really important to build an organic audience, but also not to ignore them completely, essentially putting yourself in a disadvantaged position when everyone else is running ads after they release.

I see people spending a staggering amount of money on AMS and FB, and when you have a 20-book backlist and some moderate success, that’s great. But when you’re just starting out, I’m not sure this is what you should be focusing on.

I’ve always been a conservative spender (although the number has changed since Sparrow, in accordance with my new income). I think the best thing to invest in is making sure your audience is as organic and as responsive as it can be.

How many active ARC readers do you have?

Probably around 100, maybe a little less. I do send out ARCs to bloggers too, before I release, which ups this number.

What responsibilities do your street team have, and what do you offer them in return (if anything)?

Sharing teasers and buy links when I have a release.

I do send signed paperbacks to street team members who are very active. But I think keeping a team small and manageable (below 40 people is best, although I think 20 is the best number to have), is essential if you decide to have a street team.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.