Building a Career Map: The Category Route

This article first appeared in the January 2012 issue of the Romance Writers Report


These days, there are as many career possibilities available to authors right now as there are authors willing to pursue them.  And while much is out of our hands when it comes to publishing and sales, one thing writers can do is create a solid career plan.  Just like following a plot in writing, using a career plan certainly doesn’t mean being locked into a single direction.  Instead, it’s a map that makes the possibilities and options clear.

Some factors that are important in creating your plan are to know what you want to write (even if it’s more than one thing). Do you write long or short, hot or not, what sub-genre? Which published authors most reflect the kind of books you’d like to write? And one of the most often forgotten components to a good career plan is to know what you want from a publisher. What do you want them to bring to the table in helping build your career?

I began writing in 2002, before the ebook explosion, and well before self-publishing was considered a viable career choice. At that time, the options I saw were to write either single title or category books. Although I love to read both types of romance, I looked at the careers of some of my favorite authors, writers such as Nora Roberts, Jennifer Crusie, Carly Philips, Jayne Ann Krentz and Vicki Lewis Thompson, all of whom started their careers writing for Harlequin. But the main reason I chose to write for Harlequin was for their oft-quoted motto: “We build careers.”

And they are serious about it. Even before an author sells to them, Harlequin offers career guidance. The community at the eHarlequin website is huge, providing insights into the various lines, writing tips and most of all support. There are editor-judged contests with the purpose of discovering new authors, and established authors regularly share advice, writing how-to’s and encouragement to hopeful Harlequin writers. Harlequin has a strong presence at the RWA conferences, both national and local, and the editors are often chapter contest judges.

Since my first book, Double Dare, was released by Harlequin in 2007, I’ve written 15 more books for Blaze their Blaze line. Part of the reason I’ve been able to sell so many books is due to my incredible editor, who not only encourages me to continually push my skill set, but also has faith that I can tackle whatever challenges she gives me. With her guidance every book has been a building block on my way to reach my career goals. Rather than hem me in, these building blocks offered me directions and choices. Like a map that made the most of my career possibilities and helped me prepare for opportunities to grow and expand my writing repertoire.

Curious about the career-building partnership between editors and their authors, I asked two Harlequin editors and several of their authors for insight.

  • What do you look for when helping build an author’s career? 

Patience Bloom – Senior Editor, Harlequin Romantic Suspense: “I look for how prolific, original, skilled, savvy and adaptable she is. These are lethal weapons when building a career in writing romance. For an author who is near the beginning it’s important to write the best book possible and repeat over and over again, as often as possible.”

Brenda Chin – Senior Editor, Harlequin Blaze: “We’re always building our authors’ careers, although not all go at the same pace, or even, sometimes, in the same direction.  I take my cues from the author – is she asking to do more, is she accomplishing what she attempts, is she coming up with new, innovative ideas that will push her—and the series—forward? Or is she moving a little slower, making sure she has a solid foundation before taking the next step?  Both approaches are absolutely acceptable.  There is no cookie-cutter model for guiding an author’s career, just as there’s no cookie-cutter approach to writing a great book.”

This is something Brenda and I discussed early in my career. One of my goals was to create solid name recognition and build a strong readership as quickly as I could. She suggested that I write connecting stories, and also had me contribute to a couple of theme-based miniseries. Then I focused on length, going from writing a 60,000-word Blaze to a 30,000-word, then 20,000-word novellas and finally a 10,000-word on-line read. Just recently, I finished Undercover Operatives, my first trilogy. On target with my goals, each of these books pushed my skill set and forced me to embrace something new, while still building my name and readership.

This focus on each individual author’s strengths and building them at a comfortable pace is just one of the reasons the editors at Harlequin are so vital in building a strong career. As Intrigue and Blaze author, Julie Miller (ICE LAKE, 1/12) shared: “Getting matched up with the right editor at Harlequin can really take your career to the next level. The right editor becomes your champion. The editor who “gets” your writing, knows your strengths, knows where you can be pushed and where you need to be cautious, will be on the lookout for opportunities for you within the company.”

  • What are your expectations of the author, besides ‘writing the best book they can’?

Brenda Chin: “We expect an author to get better with each new book, to try new things, build new skills. In this competitive market, authors who are content to write what they know without trying to stretch often find that the world has moved on and their stories are no longer relevant. It’s like that quote from Will Rogers, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

Patience Bloom: “I expect authors to be smart about their work and about the business. Authors should be aware of/read other great stories out there and know what the market wants while still remaining true to self. You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing, but awareness is important. Also, at the very least, I expect that the author knows that I want her to succeed and that everything I do is for this to happen.”

When asked about the advice she received, Superromance author Sarah Mayberry (ALL THEY NEED, 11/11 Superromance) said: “When I was first published, I asked the Australian marketing manager for Mills and Boon if she had any advice for a new writer. She was pretty succinct: “Write lots of books as quickly as you can. The more books you have out there, the more people will know you and the bigger your following.” The second piece of advice came from my editor. She told me to concentrate on one line and to build a reputation within that line, rather than attempting to be published across multiple lines all at once. Again, this made good sense to me and it’s been advice I’ve followed to the best of my ability ever since.”

American and Nocturne author Trish Milburn (The Cowboy’s Secret Son, 1/12 American) added; “My editor, Johanna Raisanen, is very good at pointing out things in my books that I need to change to make them better. She was able to identify the type of story I’m good at writing and match it up with the type of characters and settings I like to write.”

  • Do you have a template or checklist you like to follow in guiding the author?

Patience Bloom: “I don’t have a template just because of how wildly different my authors are from each other. I tend to ask them what they want and we go from there. It’s important to know the author’s/publisher’s limitations and work from this point. If she writes two books a year, we make these two books flourish.”

Brenda Chin: “There is no template for editors to use in guiding an author’s career. It’s more about gauging what the author is ready for and taking advantage of opportunities when they arise.”

Sometimes those opportunities have fabulous payoffs, as in the case of Blaze author Leslie Kelly (IT HAPPENED ONE CHRISTMAS, 12/11 Blaze) “Since my book SLOW HANDS was chosen to represent the Blaze line in Harlequin’s 65th Anniversary giveaway, I have seen tremendous growth in sales of all my e-format titles. Harlequin’s recognizable brand and their strong promotional push for this project, as well as subsequent free e-book giveaways, have offered a great boost to all their authors.”

  • What do you do when the author’s sales numbers aren’t meeting expectations?

Brenda Chin: “There are several things an editor can do to boost an author’s sales. We might consider asking the author to make a few adjustments (i.e. write this kind of story instead of that one) or put her in a bestselling themed miniseries (like Blaze’s Wrong Bed). In extreme cases, we’ve changed an author’s pseudonym, giving her a ‘clean slate’ and allowing her to make a few adjustments to what she was doing before and build up a whole new readership. However, there have been instances where nothing has worked. And in cases like that, there’s nothing to be done but look for opportunities for that author within other Harlequin series. Most series have totally different readerships. A bestselling author in one series can’t always take that success to another series. And an author who’s challenged in one line might find incredible success with another. That’s just the way of it.”

Patience Bloom: “I tend to encourage a going-back-to-the-drawing-board. Sometimes the packaging is less than wonderful or the series didn’t appeal to readers. A fresh idea or a special project can turn these sales around. If the readers just don’t respond to an author’s writing repeatedly over time, you have to have a difficult conversation. I’ve seen it happen that an author’s work will perform poorly in one line, but brilliantly in another. There have also been times when I’ve realized I’m not the right editor for an author—not because I’m mean or lazy—but I know this person needs a different editor to guide her career. It can be ego-bruising but I’m happier that I was right in these instances.”

I think there’s a powerful message in Harlequin’s willingness to find the right line for their authors. Or, in the case of Blaze author Cara Summers (SEXY SILENT NIGHTS, 12/11 Blaze), helping them change pseudonyms: “My editors told me that because my sales figures were low, they wanted me to change my name. It really meant starting over. Any following I had as Carolyn Andrews would be over. But so would all the damaging sales figures. In so many ways, that name change really helped me to become the writer I am today. I will forever appreciate Harlequin’s and my editors’ loyalty to me. The name change was their way of giving me a second chance because they believed in my books. As Cara Summers, I’ve refined my voice–or perhaps strengthened it. She writes lighter books than Carolyn Andrews–sexier books–and I always think of her as being much younger.”

  • What do you see as career turning points for your authors, the points you see as the right time to help push them to the next level? 

Patience Bloom: “I tend to see a growth spurt when an author publishes frequently and uses the best hook possible in an inventive way—along with “voice” of course! Also, word of mouth can be fabulous and many authors have become overnight sensations due to their own PR machines. In house, we tend to talk about certain books endlessly. There are still some that I can’t get out of my head and I tend to mention them over and over again.”

Brenda Chin: “There really aren’t many career turning points, as far as the work is concern. It’s more about the author’s attitude toward what she’s doing. If she’s writing faster (and better) than I can keep up with, we need to look for other opportunities. However, if she’s struggling, we don’t push her. It’s more important to write a good book than a fast one. Every author has her own pace, her own strengths and her own expectations. All we do is guide her along the way.”

That guidance often opens doors much wider than an author could do on their own. As Blaze author Rhonda Nelson (THE PHOENIX, 1/12 Blaze) says: “I am eternally thankful to my brilliant editor, Brenda Chin, for suggesting the Men Out of Uniform series. The series has done well and has helped build reader recognition much faster than I could have expected with multiple stand-alone books. Readers love a series and will come back for the characters time and again.”

Julie Miller summarized it best when she said, “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that writing for Harlequin is like working on an assembly line where you’re just a cog in the wheel, filling up slot space. Get with the right editor(s), deliver the goods, and watch the opportunities to expand sales and elevate your career happen.”

The help doesn’t stop once you sell to Harlequin, nor is it limited to editorial advice. The Digital Team offers regular webinars to help authors increase their visibility, covering everything from websites to social networking. They really are serious about building careers at Harlequin.

The career options in publishing are wide open right now. New opportunities and direction for savvy authors are happening every day. Building a career with Harlequin is just one of the many choices available, and definitely won’t fit everyone’s career plan. But for me, it’s the perfect choice.