Holiday romance. There’s something about this genre that’s universally appealing. It stirs a gamut of emotions, as all good fiction does. Somewhere in the mix is melancholy. For me, there’s always a little bittersweet. But that’s eclipsed by satisfaction. By the emotional reward that comes from cozying up in front of a warm fire, against the backdrop of a softly glowing Christmas tree, imaging you’re the one falling in love this holiday season.
I wrote my first holiday romance, Candy for Christmas, only a few weeks ago. A few days ago it earned me a place on Amazon’s bestseller list — their Top 100 Books in a category.
‘Bestseller’ is a status all indie authors begin to covet soon after they start publishing. So why did Candy make the cut? Was it better than my other three books? No. They all rate 4.5 stars or above on Amazon. But Candy demonstrates the role that strategy, marketing and promotion play in creating a bestseller. There are plenty of blogs that outline methods to achieve this milestone, but this post focuses on leveraging the holiday romance genre to make the bestseller list.
As the book’s title indicates, the holiday I wrote about is Christmas. But this strategy is versatile because it will work with any major holiday. I’ve read romances about Valentine’s Day, Easter, Fourth of Joo-lye, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas — there are enough to sustain a writer for an entire year without writing anything else!
The idea also translates across countries. But keep in mind that some holidays are exclusive to a nation. Though I’m Australian and have never read an Australia Day romance. (Hm… file that for later.) I recommend avoiding religious holidays that don’t already have a strong commercial aspect.
When I wrote Candy, it was with a holiday marketing plan in mind. I had two goals — widen my subscriber base and hopefully generate follow on sales of my other books. Becoming an Amazon Bestseller was not a specific goal. It was a happy byproduct that I got to add to, then cross off, my Christmas list. Here was my plan:
- Write an appealing Christmas romance that enticed readers during the holiday season.
- Give it a great cover that screamed ‘Christmas’ and ‘Sexy’.
- Make it free, and market the hell out of it to get it in the hands of as many readers as possible, who would hopefully review it.
- Use it to expose my other books and increase sales.
- Generate new income and subscribers every Christmas, with minimal additional effort.
Over my next few blog posts, I will be discussing each stage in detail.
Writing a holiday romance
The idea of writing a Christmas romance occurred to me about a fortnight before Christmas. It’s too late, I thought, tempted to let the notion drift away as easily as it had come. But it didn’t feel like drifting.
A marketable idea: Ice hockey player vs figure skater plus hypothermia
I asked myself, If I were to write a Christmas romance, what would it be about? Well, they’d have to be snowed in and hypothermic, because those are my favourite Christmas tropes. But I’m always disappointed with how the hero and heroine reach that point. No car breakdowns here, please. No being lost in the blizzard. What’s an original way for them to get hypothermia? What about falling though pond ice? Ohh, my catnip radar pinged. So who falls through? And how? There are only two things that happen on pond ice, my brain told me. Hockey and ice skating. Ooh-ooh-ooh.
Here’s the synopsis of the story that emerged from that thought train:
Nolan Ducayne plays ice hockey for the Rangers and is the best defender in the league. Candice Levine is an Olympic gold medallist figure skater. They’re fiercely attracted to each other. There’s just one little problem. They’re at war over the pond ice that lies on the boundary between their properties.
Christmas has always been lonely for Candice but this year she plans to embrace the season. She’s even going to get a tree, which leads to a set of whole new problems with Nolan bloody Ducayne. The bane of her existence. He thinks he owns the ice. If only he wasn’t sin on skates.
When Nolan comes home and finds the ice princess trying to cut down a tree on his property, he can’t help but take advantage of the situation. It’s a pity Candy hates him, because she stirs every one of Nolan’s protective instincts. Not to mention the other things she stirs.
Hockey player versus ice skater. The battle lines are drawn. But when the pond ice breaks and Candy almost drowns in the freezing water, Nolan risks his life to save her. Hypothermic and trapped together by a blizzard, they’re forced to confront their feelings and negotiate a Christmas ceasefire. The only question is… how long will it last?
An original idea, or an old idea re-imagined, is critical in any story. Particularly in holiday romance where tropes are all too common. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since tropes sell books, but predictability won’t do you any favours. It’s less likely to garner positive reviews — which are vital for continued sales.
Give yourself plenty of lead time
With only a couple of weeks before the 25th, I sat down and wrote 15,000 words over 2.5 days (pros of small word counts). There’s no doubt that I started late. But it’s never too late until it’s too late. Nonetheless, I paid penalties:
- I went to press with a few typos. My finale edit occurred one day after publication date. I then updated the Kindle file.
- The Christmas sales period starts in earnest from mid-November. I suspect I missed out substantially by not publishing earlier than 19 December.
- I wanted the book to be free and there wasn’t enough time to arrange Kindle price-matching. The only other way to make it free was to enrol in KDP Select. This program requires 3-months exclusivity, so my distribution channels were limited to Amazon.
- Everything was a mad rush. This resulted in a more stressful Christmas (because, let’s face, this is the stressful holiday).
The moral of my story is that writing and marketing a holiday romance can be done last minute. But — to state the obvious — it’s not the best way.
If a story says it’s a Christmas romance, then Christmas should be integral in the plot and setting. Holiday romances blur the liminal spaces between the real and the imagined more so than romance at any other time, because of the symmetry between these worlds. The shared atmosphere of holiday spirit.
Shame on a ‘holiday romance’ that cheats its reader out of that immersion. It’s one of the major flaws in the genre, as USA Today Bestselling Author Lisa Plumley points out in an interview with Romance University.
Halloween is spooky. Christmas is heartwarming. Valentine’s Day is romantic. Every other holiday has its own particular emotion and ambiance, too. Too many times, I’ve picked up a holiday romance, anticipating the sentiment and atmosphere of the season, only to come away with…a little holiday window dressing wrapped around an everyday story. And that’s it! As a reader, I’m disappointed.
Ask yourself this: If I remove the holiday from the romance, is the storyline the same? If the answer is yes, then you’re in the wrong genre.
In Candy for Christmas, key scenes included:
- getting a Christmas tree (twice)
- untangling the Christmas lights
- decorating the tree
- making Christmas Eve dinner
- exchanging gifts.
Specific Holiday elements included:
- scent: Nolan smells like pine and ice. Candy smells like peppermint
- snow: because the ideology of a ‘White Christmas’ is so strong
- music: ‘All I want for Christmas’ in particular
- food: a Christmas roast with pie for dessert and gingerbread Christmas-tree cookies
- gifts: one gift functioned as a metaphor that helped resolve conflict.
The key scenes were substantial. Critical for advancing the plot. Remove them, and Candy falls apart. The holiday elements added to the verisimilitude of Christmas.
Stop and think about what makes the season special, and above all, don’t write the holidays like they’re lip service.
A cover that says ‘Christmas’ and ‘Sexy’
Before I’d even typed a word, I commissioned the cover. I’ve worked with the same designer for all my books and it takes about a week to get the final product. Given my late start, I needed her to begin immediately.
I wanted the cover to do three things:
- clearly convey ‘Christmas’
- demonstrate intimacy took place under the reader’s gaze (many Christmas romances are ‘heartwarming’ or wholesome, not sexy)
- work well as a thumbnail and compel clicks.
I felt the right combination would include an embracing couple, a snowy landscape and cabin, and possibly a Christmas tree. But these are all common on holiday romance covers. How could I get this combination to stand out?
I checked Amazon’s Christmas Romance bestseller lists to see which covers were most enticing. There was one standout. Ariana Hawke’s Bear Home for Christmas. It caught my eye and was very similar to what I’d envisaged. When my designer came back with the cover for Candy, I paused. Were they too close?
In the end, I decided to use it for two reasons. The first reason was because Candy for Christmas is a contemporary/sports holiday romance and Bear Home for Christmas is a paranormal shifter holiday romance. The only common market element was the holidays. I considered the covers closely. The primary similarities are in composition — torsos at the top, setting in the middle and Christmas elements at the bottom — and colour — cool with warm focal points, the perfect winter palette. The differences outweighed the similarities: contemporary vs cursive font, male torso vs male/female clinch, bauble vs Christmas lights, highlighted cabin vs shadowed cabin, and obviously, no bear on Candy‘s cover.
Emulate what sells
The second and most important reason was because cover emulation is standard, and it’s standard for a reason.
“When I look at the bestseller lists for romance right now, three things really pop out,” Leslie Kelly says. “The man’s naked torso, the timeless clinch, and the warm and romantic setting.” — Publisher’s Weekly
Covers make promises to readers, which is why regencies look the same, suspenses look the same, erotica looks the same, holiday romances look the same. 50 Shades spawned the monochrome era in erotic romance covers. The cover elements in both Bear Home and Candy tell the read exactly what they can expect. The cool, bright colours also attract attention at thumbnail size.
Make it free
My intention with Candy was never to make money (directly). I wanted to give the novella away for free (it’s Christmas!), and leverage it to engage new readers. I recently began using Smashwords to distribute my books to various retailers, but I use Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing since I get a larger royalty by going direct. Currently, KDP does not allow an author to set a price lower than $0.99.
There are only two ways to make your books free on the largest global ebook retailer:
- set a lower price at another retailer and ask Amazon to price match (it’s at their discretion)
- enrol in the KDP Select program. You promise Amazon three months of exclusivity and in return have access to various promotional tools, including 5 days where you can drop the price to free.
I planned on the first strategy, but ended up resorting to the second because of time limitations. I had only a few days to get Smashwords to approve the book for distribution (in their premium catalogue), wait from them to distribute it and wait for the other retailers to approve and put it in their catalogues.
I thought it would only take a day, because that was the case with previous books. But it didn’t. After two days of waiting for approval for distribution, and after a book I submitted subsequently was approved and distributed before Candy, I gave up. (I suspect the other book was processed faster because it wan’t free.) I withdrew Candy from Smashwords and entered it into KDP Select. There was just no time to keep waiting, particularly since a two-day lead is required for a KDP free promotion (per Amazon’s rules).
It was a shame, because I’d already had almost 200 free downloads at Smashwords in 48 hours. To put that in context, a week ago I made Bare in the Bar free on Smashwords and it’s received 121 downloads in seven days. I didn’t realise the download rate for Candy was so good, as it was my first free Smashwords book, else I may have reconsidered. I can only attribute the difference in download rate to the appeal of holiday romance in the holiday season.
The book finally went free on Kindle on 23 December. But as of 28 December the price jumped up to the minimum 99-cents, and will remain there for the next three months.
In my next post I will continue this discussion, including the results of making the promotion free, the precise number of downloads for each day it was free compared to what promotion was conducted on each of these days, and how I resolved an issue where I went from no reviews over the first three days, to multiple daily reviews on the remaining free days, 26 and 27 December.
Indie romance writer and author of the Shifter Town series.