Welcome to my series of Author Q&As. For more info on Rapid Releasing a profitable series, check out my book Rapid Release: How to Write & Publish Fast for Profit.
Shanae Johnson is the pen name of a sweet romance author who rapid released a 5-book contemporary western series, The Brides of Purple Heart Ranch. In October 2018, at launch, she made the Top 100 of Western Romances. By December, she was steadily in the Top 50. Now, she’s in the Top 25 and holding strong.
Q. I am fascinated with your The Brides of Purple Heart Ranch series. I read how you came up with that idea, but for the benefit of our readers, can you expand on that a little? How did you come up with it? Do you have any background in military or cowboy life?
A. No background in the military other than a few uncles in the service. I’m pretty good at research. 🙂 I came up with the idea listening to the Kylitics report on Clean and Sweet romance. In the report, Alex said that Military, Western, and Mail Order Brides were the hot subgenres in clean and sweet romance. So I put all three together.
Q. Yes, I think it’s a perfect combo for a romance series. Mail Order Brides in contemporary. Brilliant. What kind of research did you do?
A. I went to google and researched basic military stuff -basically military for dummies. I asked a few friends on Facebook who had a military background. And then I researched rehabilitation ranches.
Q. I love your premise… a zoning requirement that the men have to be married to stay on a rehab ranch so they all have to find a bride. I kind of laugh because I am on City Council and that sounds illegal. Ha ha. But brilliant.
A. Beautiful thing about romance is not many readers care to research. They want the escape.
Q. Precisely! How did you plan your series? Characters, tropes, etc.?
A. Gave each soldier a wound. Then gave each couple a trope.
Q. Oh wow. A wound. That sounds, I dunno, so emotional. How do you get to that place with your characters?
A. These were physical wounds for the guys. They all were injured in the same explosion overseas.
Q. But emotional as well?
A. The first hero lost his leg. The second hero had shrapnel in his heart. Third guy lost his arm. Fourth guy had scars on his face from the explosion. And last guy scars on his back. And yes, emotional as well. Each of them believed their wounds would keep love from their lives
Q. Tell me a bit about your TV background. How has it helped you in your writing?
A. I understand series writing. I think of chapters like segments before a commercial break. The job of a TV writer is to keep the viewer in their seat during that 2 minute break. So you have to make the end of each segment or chapter compelling enough for them to stay seated. We call those “buttons”. The end of chapter breaks are called buttons. You can think of them like the marks at the end of a sentence. You rarely want a period, which is a full stop. Ellipses are good because they continue the story.
Q. Not literally, right? But some sort of story question?
A. An exclamation point is like a bang. Yes, not literally.
Q. So is ! good?
A. Yes. It should make you gasp and turn the page.
Q. Oh, I see so you want either a ! or a …
A. Or a dash. Which is an interruption.
Q. How long did you work in TV? Ha ha, I just interrupted you…
A. About 15 years or so. Until last year I was still teaching screenwriting. Before that I’ve worked for National Geographic Television, the Discovery Channel, the Black Family Channel.
Q. That is amazing. I can’t even imagine the depth of storytelling you are bringing to the table. I feel like I should just give up and go home. Well, not really, but that is really amazing.
A. No! Never give up. Success finds those who persevere. I made $20 my first month.
Q. Yes, I read about that! You said, “I earned about $2 (on that first day of publishing) in 2015. I earned over $300 Jan 22nd of 2019.” Tell me about that first month, just so we gain some perspective here. 🙂
A. I wrote a story that inspired me in December 2014. It was MMF (male male female). I wrote it after reading a story by one of my favorite authors. She decided she wouldn’t write anymore, but it fascinated me and I needed more. So I wrote that and published it. And it didn’t sell because there wasn’t an audience for that kind of story. Which was why that author only wrote one.
The second book was more to market and did well. It was a fairytale retelling of Cinderella but recast as a single mom. That did well because it had an audience.
Q. An audience for fairytale retellings?
A. Yep. that did well because it had a defined audience
Q. And then you did PNR (paranormal) after that, or…?
A. Yup. So, erotic romance, then fairytale retelling, then PNR. I was all over the place.
Q. How did PNR do?
A. Just okay. My fans were looking for erotic romance, then contemporary fairytale, and then PNR. Recipe for disaster. With sweet, I just write sweet. Western is doing well. But now I’m about to switch to royal romance. I’m a little nervous my fans won’t follow. But I have more western romance lined up.
Q. Yeah, I saw your royal cover. Cute. You design your covers?
A. Pretty much. I had a friend help me with the border and the blocks for that one.
Q. Why royal?
A. I blame the Hallmark Channel.
Q. Ha ha ha. As in…?
A.. There were a ton of royal romance movies on in the fall
Q. You liked them AND realized there was a market for them? Or did you just need to get your royal fix?
A. No. The market isn’t so big for them. I just got an idea and ran with it. I also figured there might be more interest with Harry and Meghan.
Q. Isn’t self-publishing terrific? Idea one day and series the next. 🙂 Ah, yes, I see that tie-in.
Q. Can you tell me your expense and revenue for your series?
A. I did all the western romance covers myself and only paid for the images and the font. My books are short so editing costs less than $100 because I have a long relationship with my editor. Ads is where I spend money.
Q. Nice! Short as in how many words…?
A. 30K for the westerns. 40K for the royal.
Q. Tell me about your ads. What have you found to be good investments…and duds?
A. You have to test. Period. You have to test for each book. Period. No getting around it. What worked last month on that book might not work next month on a different book, or maybe even the same book.
Q. FB? AMS?
A. I started a $5 per day FB ad on the first book in the western series. Once I got steady sales from it -after testing for a month- I moved onto AMS.
Q. Which you have at 99c right?
A. Yup. Easier to get new readers at that price point. All the subsequent books are full price. I also view the first book in a series as a loss leader.
Q. I can see that, especially for a series that has all the buttons. 🙂 Okay, talk to me for a minute about craft. 30k novellas. What is the secret sauce to writing a good story arc for that length?
A. KISS -keep it simple stupid. I love the romance beats. Follow that outline, hit all the beats, and you’ve got yourself a story.
Q. Are you thinking of a particular method?
A. Gwen Hayes’ Romancing the beat.
Q. Nice! Thank you! Have you written longer books before?
A. Yes. But I always let the book dictate it’s length. I don’t write by word count. I write by beats. That’s what’s most important. Structure, not length
Q. I just wondered if you have found a marked difference?
Q. Sometimes getting to 50k feels like a slog past 30k. So you don’t mark your books as novellas?
A. Nope. They’re books 🙂
Q. Ha ha, as they are. 🙂 Okay, last question. Can you please finish with a bang…and give me any parting advice you’d have for someone wanting to level up in the publishing business?
A. Pay attention before you pay someone else. You will always be the master of your books. You will be their champion first and last. Learn the techniques to make them succeed.
Q. Love that! Thank you so much for your time! Congrats on your success!!!!