Sex Ed That Sells: S.L. Jennings's Indie Success
A targeted marketing plan propels self-published paranormal romance to the top
Jennings's advice to indie authors is to hone their craft and resist publishing before the book is ready.When author S.L. Jennings self-published her first paranormal romance, Dark Light, in 2012, it gained very little exposure. “But I didn’t care,” she says. Writing and publishing the book alone “was a huge accomplishment.” She had found her calling. Her persistence has paid off, as the New York Times-bestselling author recently released her fifth book, Taint—billed as a “sexual education novel”—which hit the Kindle Top 100 list for contemporary romance and garnered positive reviews from the industry and fans alike. “I am floored at the amount of attention Taint has received,” Jennings says. “It really has been an amazing thing to experience.”
As a stay-at-home mother of three, Jennings says she had never given much thought to being an author. But she knew something was missing from her life and part of her felt unfulfilled—even though her schedule was busy with friends and family. Having been an avid reader and writer of short stories and poetry in grade school, she decided to give writing another try. “When I finally decided to pen my first novel, it all just made sense,” Jennings says. “It was my Oprah Aha! moment.” Instead of pursuing a traditional publisher, she decided to go the self-publishing route—and hasn’t looked back.
Taint stars celebrity sex-consultant Justice Drake—a character inspired by Jennings’s love of “mindless reality television.” For a small fortune, the alpha-male Drake teaches rich and famous married women how to keep the spark alive in the bedroom—and “how to keep their cheating husband’s eyes, and hands, from wandering,” says Jennings. Written from Drake’s point of view, the plot thickens as Drake, comfortable in his role as an anonymous sex therapist, realizes he’s falling for one of his apprentices. “My goal for Taint was to take a taboo subject, dress it in trashy lingerie, then romanticize it.” She admits the novel is edgier than a typical boy-meets-girl romance, but wanted to provide her readers with something different—and with a male narrator she believes the book will appeal to both men and women. “Isn’t that what we should crave in books? Being seduced by the unexpected?” she asks.Jennings published simultaneously across the Kindle, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and iTunes platforms. “I want to make my books as accessible as possible,” she explains. For Taint’s cover design, she worked closely with Regina Wamba of Mae I Design and Photography. “We definitely wanted to do something eye-catching that could live up to the title and blurb,” Jennings says. “When I found model Mike Thurston, I knew he was Justice Drake.” The final cover design features a smoldering and shirtless Thurston-as-Drake with the tagline “Class is in session.” Her use of Thurston’s image on the cover appears to have been a hit with readers, with many of them voicing their approval in reviews.
Jennings took a more targeted publicity approach for Taint than her previous titles. Her blog tour and cover reveal were handled by the blog Angie’s Dreamy Reads, however she admits she scaled back on some areas of publicity she’d explored in the past. Jennings had noticed that extensive promotional tours (giveaways, character profiles, and interviews, for example) didn’t necessarily translate to book sales—even though they were a lot of fun.
“While I did have a blog tour [for Taint], it was solely for review and promo posts,” Jennings says. She also used Twitter (where she has almost 7,000 followers) Facebook (where she has almost 15,000 likes), and Instagram to get the word out. The feedback was encouraging with sites like Love N. Books, TrueStory, and TotallyBooked weighing in with favorable reviews. “I really wanted this book to speak for itself,” Jennings says of her publicity strategy.
Jennings is now represented by literary agent Rebecca Friedman of RF Literary Agency. Friedman contacted her after reading Fear of Falling—which had just hit number 14 on the New York Times e-book bestseller list (just three spots below Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn). “She's been a huge supporter of mine, and we are really in sync when it comes to the future of my career,” Jennings says of her agent.
Her advice to other indie authors is to hone their craft and to resist being hasty and publishing before the book is ready. “Take time to nurture and perfect your manuscript until you are certain it is the very best it can be,” she says. She also thinks it’s key for authors to identify their target audience and be ready to promote the book extensively to make readers aware it—something Jennings knows can be tough, as well as time consuming. “Between writing, promoting, and traveling for signings, sometimes you miss out on the little things at home with the family.” She’s learned to make an effort to carve out more family time, which has helped restore her work-life balance.
As for the self-publishing industry, Jennings is enthusiastic and acknowledges it has opened doors for her and many other writers—although she worries about the market getting saturated. With thousands of new e-books being published daily, she notes that it’s easy for indie authors to get lost in the shuffle. As for traditional publishers, she says she’d love to see them take more risks on unconventional novels. “People want variety on the shelves of their favorite bookstores,” she says. “Readers are changing. Writers are changing. And I definitely feel that publishing is due for a change, too.”
No matter how the industry is changing, however, Jennings notes that a passion for reading and writing is what’s important. “Read–or write—what you love,” she says. “No matter how it’s published.”