22 Nov Episode 186: #TheJoyofHolidayRomCom
We wanted to talk holiday writing—as in, writing ABOUT holidays, not writing during the holidays. So we went strolling through the holly-bedecked halls of the Internet—because, #dominantculture, holiday books as they appear without a more specific web search means Christmas books and specifically, the 250 page equivalent of a bonbon of a Lifetime Christmas movie. We found Natalie Cox, author of the debut romcom Mutts and Mistletoe. And then we found that Natalie Cox is also Betsy Tobin, author of five other novels, co-owner of a bookshop in North London and just generally appearing to live an authorial dream life.
So of course we invited her on to talk about not just holiday writing, but switching genres, the real meaning of “debut” and whether or not owning a bookstore in London is as much fun as it sounds like it would be. Links from the episode (which was itself as much fun as it sounds like it would be) follow.
As for writing DURING the holidays, if you’re a supporter, you can check out the Top 5 Hacks for Holiday Writing—and if you’re not, why not? Give yourself a little holiday giftie and us a little holiday boost clicking the button below to support the podcast you love, get weekly #WriterTopFives with actionable advice and occasional bonus #MiniSupporter podcasts for just $7 a month.
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LINKS FROM THE PODCAST
#AmReading (Watching, Listening)
Three Women, Lisa Taddeo
Beside Herself, Elizabeth LaBan
Our guest for this episode is Betsy Tobin.
This episode was sponsored by Author Accelerator, the book coaching program that helps you get your work DONE. Visit https://www.authoraccelerator.com/amwritingfor details, special offers and Jennie Nash’s Inside-Outline template.
If you enjoyed this episode, we suggest you check out Marginally, a podcast about writing, work and friendship.
The image in our podcast illustration is by TK
Transcript (We use an AI service for transcription, and while we do clean it up a bit, some errors are the price of admission here. We hope it’s still helpful.)
KJ: 00:02 Hey there listeners, it’s KJ. What with Jess starting in on a new project lately, we’ve been talking a lot about nonfiction and research. If that’s your kind of work, our sponsor, Author Accelerator can help and you don’t have to go all in with full on book coaching if you’re not ready. Check out their new four week long nonfiction framework program that will help you nail down your structure before you start to write, or after your writing and realizing, dang, this thing needs a backbone. Authors of self-help, how-to, and academic texts will find the shape of their books, create a working one page summary that helps reveal that shape at a glance, and develop a flexible table of contents to guide you through the drafting and revision process. You can find a lot more, including previews of much of the material, by going to authoraccelerator.com/nonfictionframework. Is it recording?
Jess: 01:00 Now it’s recording.
KJ: 01:01 Yay.
Jess: 01:02 Go ahead.
KJ: 01:03 This is the part where I stare blankly at the microphone and try to remember what I’m supposed to be doing.
Jess: 01:07 Alright, let’s start over.
KJ: 01:08 Awkward pause and I’m going to rustle some papers.
Jess: 01:11 Okay.
KJ: 01:11 Now, one, two, three. Hey, I’m KJ Dell’Antonia and this is #AmWriting. #AmWriting is our weekly podcast about writing all the things – fiction, nonfiction, book proposals, essays, pitches, and as we say every week, this is the podcast about getting the work done.
Sarina: 01:40 And I’m Sarina Bowen, the author of 30 plus romance novels. And you can find more of me at sarinabowen.com. I am KJ Dell’Antonia, author of a novel coming out next summer. Also of How To Be a Happier Parent, former lead editor of the Motherlode blog at the New York Times and all of the other things that I say every week. And our usual cohost, Jess Lahey, is missing this week. Sarina and I are soloing, but we have a guest. In fact, you could argue that we have three guests. We are going to talk today with Betsy Tobin, who is the author of five books of literary fiction/mystery/I’m not even quite sure how to describe it. Natalie Cox, the author of a new romcom, which is called Mutts and Mistletoe, it’s a holiday theme and it is incredibly fun. And the co-owner of the Ink@84 bookstore bar cafe in North London. Conveniently, however, all of these guests are wrapped up into the same person. It’s just going to make it much easier to ask questions.
Sarina: 02:52 Of course. So welcome, Betsy.
Betsy: 02:54 Gosh, with an intro like that it’s going to be hard not to disappoint. I’ll do my best. I’ll do my best to be three people in one. Thank you very much. And also 30 books, my goodness. Respect, Sarina. That’s amazing, respect.
KJ: 03:08 So I’m going to just own it all for our listeners (as we do every week) which is that originally we thought, you know what would be really fun? It’d be fun to talk to somebody who wrote a book with a holiday theme. Because have you ever written a book with a holiday theme?
Sarina: 03:27 Undeveloped, but barely.
KJ: 03:29 Right, but barely. I’ve written many an essay with the holiday theme, and many a gift guide with a holiday theme, many a freelance thing, but I’ve not done a book. So that was our original thought. So we, we sort of went looking around to see who would be interesting and came across Natalie Cox’s debut romcom author of Mutts and Mistletoe. And reached out to her only to discover that she is scarcely a debut author at all. So while I hope to get to the use of the holiday and the trope and the fun that is all involved in that, we really want to start with, Betsy, get us to this point. Walk us through if you don’t mind.
Betsy: 04:17 How did I start writing?
KJ: 04:19 Yeah, how did you start writing? Let’s start there.
Betsy: 04:23 My very first foray into writing was that I took an evening class in journalism and the teacher told me that my style was too literary. And he really sort of slightly took the wind out of my sails. I was in my mid-twenties and I thought this might be a great career. So I went and did an autobiographical essay writing course and the very first exercise that that teacher set was to write a brief story about your life that incorporated a lie and try to make the juncture between the lie and the truth totally seamless. And I thought that was a really fantastic exercise.
KJ: 05:19 That is an interesting exercise. And one I’ve never heard.
Betsy: 05:23 Yeah. I mean, one that it would never have occurred to me to write fiction. And I didn’t really grow up in a family where there were any kind of artists or people working in creative industries. We were kind of quite rational type people. And I thought I was going to have a career in a rational kind of occupation. And I don’t think I would’ve had the courage to write fiction until he set this exercise. And immediately I just found it incredibly liberating, because you could make it all up. And to be honest, that was it, I mean I just never looked back from there. I started writing short fiction. I went and did an MFA. I did work briefly when I first moved to London as a reporter. Eventually I was really rubbish at it. I wasn’t thick-skinned enough.
Betsy: 06:13 And I knew it was just a matter of time before I kind of was able to get myself in a position to write fiction. So that’s kind of how it happened. I thought initially I would write plays and scripts. But I struggled early on with the pacing of longer format prose fiction. I wrote a lot of short stories and it was a mystery to me how you pace a novel and then suddenly I kind of cracked it in one go where I wrote something and I looked at it and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is not a short story. This is a novel.’ And I remember, cause I left the first, like eight or nine pages lying on my desk and my husband kind of wandered by and read it and he sort of came to me and he said, ‘You know, what is this?’ And I said, ‘I’m not sure, but I think it’s a novel.’ And he said, ‘I think it’s a novel, too.’ And that was my first book, Bone House, which did very well. It sold in the U.S., and the UK, and abroad, and was optioned for film.
KJ: 07:13 And that was what, about 2008?
Betsy: 07:16 Gosh, no, it was published in more like 2000.
KJ: 07:23 I was on Amazon and saw probably what is the latest edition.
Betsy: 07:27 That could be, yeah. And I kind of never looked back from there. It did well. I mean it wasn’t a bestseller. I’ve never had what I would say was a huge rating success. I’ve had critical successes. That book was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize, unfortunately up against Zadie Smith, who has since gone on to glittering careers.
Betsy: 07:50 But yeah, it kind of put me on the map as a writer. It got me an agent. I wrote another historical novel after that. Then I wrote a third book was mythic/historical. I kind of turned to myth and I looked at the Norse body of literature.
KJ: 08:11 How much time is it taking?
Betsy: 08:12 So for literary fiction, I would say three years for me. That’s definitely what it takes for me to write a novel. And you need about a year where the idea is bubbling along and gestating. And also those novels were very heavily researched, all of them actually. So it took quite a long time to be able to start writing. Although research is something that I use all the way through the writing process. I’m a great fan of using it as a kickstarter for creativity. Anytime somebody comes to me saying they’ve got writer’s block that’s probably my single biggest tip is just, you know, plunge yourself into some research on the background of what you’re writing. And it’s those tiny details that you uncover that will kickstart your creativity and get you going again. So yeah, I eventually wrote five novels.
KJ: 09:08 And the fifth one was a bit of a departure too…
Betsy: 09:11 That was a comic novel. It was the first thing I’d written based on my own kind of personal history a little bit…
KJ: 09:22 So that one is called Things We Couldn’t Explain.
Betsy: 09:26 That one’s called Things We Couldn’t Explain. When I first started writing in the UK, I’d only lived over here for about five years and I didn’t feel comfortable writing about contemporary Britain. And equally, I was starting to feel a little bit out of touch with the U.S. So I ended up setting my first novel in the distant past. And I felt like that was a middle ground where my readership and I would be on the same sort of footing. We’d all be kind of equally unfamiliar with the terrain.
KJ: 10:00 I had never thought of that. Although, you know, Sarina sets her books kind of around here and somewhere else that she’s lived. And the novel that I’ve got coming out is set where I grew up and I’m just now doing one for living around here. And I’ve lived here for about 10 years and I had the same thought. Can I really? You know, I ended up writing about a newcomer to the area because that felt better. People don’t really talk about that, how hard it is.
Betsy: 10:27 You have to feel comfortable in the skin of your novel. And then the setting is the skin. And if you’re not comfortable sitting in the skin of it, you just won’t approach it with confidence. I wrote a lot about identity and displacement in my literary fiction for years. That was kind of a theme that just cropped up over, and over, and over. My fourth novel, Crimson China, was about illegal Chinese migrants living in the UK and I think it is because I was a displaced person. And so I was struggling with that sense of identity and belonging and what happens to your sense of identity when you’re taken out of the place of your birth and taken away from your family, and your friends, and the culture that you know. So that was a really big theme for me. And the novel that is set in Ohio was the only thing I’d ever written that was really tapped into my own background. So it was quite close to my heart, actually. So this segues deeply into the holiday issue, because that fifth novel came out in November. And the publisher I was with at the time was very, very big on digital publishing. It was sort of the heyday of digital and digital has come off the boil a bit since then in more recent years. But at the time, she was convinced that there was a lot of money to be made with eBooks. She did a lot of other much, much more commercial fiction and I watched her commercial fiction authors soar right past me in the digital charts that November, December, particularly with the holiday books. While my book kind of languished somewhere in the high tens of thousands in the rankings.
KJ: 12:23 Tell me when this was.
Betsy: 12:25 This would have been probably about five, six years ago.
KJ: 12:32 Right. I think Things We Couldn’t Explain was 2014. So you already have sort of a fun commercial read, but it’s just not doing what you hoped it would do.
Betsy: 12:47 No, and what I would say is My first impulse for writing a holiday book was envy. I absolutely, you know, had envy of watching all of these holiday books, many of which frankly, I read some, I wasn’t very impressed. My daughter and I were big fans of romcom. She’s in her kind of mid twenties. We looked at each other and we said, ‘We could do this, we could do so much better.’ And of course it’s not, it’s deceptively difficult to get it right. And we were far too overconfident, but that said, we did sit down and we came up with a concept which was the doggy, the canine rom-com concept. And we set out to do it and I wrote it. She helped me with some of the plotting. She’s a great sort of reality check for me as a writer. She sees through the holes in everything, really – plot, character, theme. So I use her as a sounding board a lot for my writing.
KJ: 13:52 How old is your daughter?
Betsy: 13:52 She’s in her mid twenties now
KJ: 13:57 As is the main character in Mutts and Mistletoe.
Betsy: 14:00 Yes, exactly. So yeah, so we sat down to that and then I wrote about 50 pages of it. And then I got very interested in the idea of opening the bookshop and I shelved that book and really for the next three years did nothing but find and open the shop, which really sucked up kinda 200% of my energy. And when the shop was up and running for I would say two and a half years probably, I was ready to go back to writing. And I went back to this 50 pages that I had written, which really I had just done on a lark. It was nothing more than a lark. And I honestly thought I would probably self-publish it myself, digitally only. And I mentioned it to my agent. I have a wonderful UK agent who I’m very loyal to, I’ve been with from the beginning. And she said, ‘Show it to me.’ And I knew she didn’t really handle that sort of material normally, but I sent it to her and the agency read it, they all loved it. They were like, ‘You must write this.’ So I did. I wrote that over the next say year, it probably didn’t take me more than about another six to nine months to finish. And that was how Mutts was born. It’s done really well, it won romantic comedy of the year here in the UK, and it’s sold all over really, all over Europe, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia. I never dreamed that it would be as successful as it’s been.
Betsy: 15:57 You know, literary fiction is incredibly laborious. You agonize over every word, every sentence, every phrasing. You know, Mutts and Mistletoe, you’re basically trying to get all the elements that you normally tackle as a writer – story, character, setting. But you’re basically also just trying to make it really funny. And so it’s just such a laugh, you know, I just giggle all the way through writing this stuff. And you look at every page and you think, how can I make this more funny and what would be funnier, and that’s really the challenge is kind of just keeping the jokes coming. I don’t think you have a joke in every paragraph, but you just have to put your funny hat on and just wear it while you’re writing. And it’s a joy to be honest, compared to the other form.
KJ: 16:56 But you also have a really strong structure.
Betsy: 17:02 I think you have to absolutely. You have to adhere, with all writing. You have to play by the rules. I mean, there’s meta fiction and some writers can bend the rules, but for most readers we need to have the elements. You have to have your ducks in line, you have to have a strong story, you have to have a strong starting proposition with a protagonist that has a problem or a need, and they’re gonna they have to have an arc. All the rules adhere, there’s no bending of the rules for any of this stuff. You can’t take shortcuts. And I know this because I’ve tried to do things in a more freestyle manner and where it all just didn’t work because you didn’t follow the rules. And I think even a seasoned writer can fall at that hurdle if you don’t pay attention. I think character is totally the single biggest driver of making compelling read. I think characters drive all good stories. And yeah, you have to have a kind of structure, ideally a kind of three act structure, and you have to have a character who learns or grows or changes. I’m a great believer in happy endings. You know, I think audiences want those.
KJ: 18:43 Well, you have those things very cleanly. Many writers have those things but have a lot of noise around them. And in your case, I think you found them very cleanly and it made me wonder if you had a structure that you sort of wrote around or if that just came naturally to you.
Betsy: 19:05 I’m not a great one for planning out all the story in advance, I guess the phrase a pants writer.
Sarina: 19:17 Oh yes, we use that phrase.
Betsy: 19:19 I think I probably am a pants writer. It’s not necessarily something I recommend. What I would say is that as much as I’m somebody who doesn’t plan everything in advance, I’m utterly meticulous about writing and rewriting. And to be honest, most of my published work, most pages have been edited a hundred times.
KJ: 19:51 Wow.
Sarina: 19:51 Wow.
Betsy: 19:52 Yeah. And I know that sounds obsessive, but that’s the sort of writer I am.
KJ: 19:57 No, it sounds great. I’m a noisy writer to use the metaphor or whatever that I was just using, which is there tends to be a lot of stuff around my bones and I need to have less stuff around my bones. And it’s kinda reassuring to hear that you’re peeling stuff away as opposed to never putting it down, which certainly sounds like a simpler way to do it to me. But unfortunately I can’t get there.
Betsy: 20:19 I mean, I think it means that you won’t produce work as fast if you’re that fastidious. And I think in commercial fiction the industry demands a certain pace of writers. And I think I’m not able to meet that pace. I’m sure my publishers would say that. But that’s just me. I’m afraid I just can’t not do it the way I want to do it. And I’m not prepared to put a sentence out until it’s perfect.
Sarina: 20:47 One thing you said about characters really stuck with me. Because a few minutes ago you were saying you have to really turn on the funny and you know, be funny on every page if you’re writing a comedy. But that’s so much harder if you don’t have a character who can give that to you through all of her flaws and misperceptions of the world, then you just have to spontaneously be funny. Whereas if you have a character who is really set in her ways, then the comedy is easier to find because it’s…
Betsy: 21:20 Absolutely, it has to be character driven. All the comedy has to be character driven and situation driven. It’s not like you’re making jokes leap off the page in and of themselves. You’re pulling the comic material out of your characters and what’s happening to them. It’s like you’re birthing it.
Sarina: 21:38 I had a couple of questions for you about this book specifically. So one is, did you ever just get sick of Christmas, you know, when you were editing the hundredth time in August or whatever where you’re just like, ‘Ugh’?
Betsy: 21:54 I dunno, I mean, I think one of the things – my character is this kind of Scrooge-like character and part of her journey is that she has to learn to love Christmas. So I was able to kind of feed both sides of that debate. It’s a book that serves both Christmas lovers and Christmas haters, I think. For that reason. So it was quite amusing to kind of look at the dark side of the holidays. It amused me anyway. To be honest, Christmas became a setting, right? So, yes, it has fantastic comic potential. It has all these iconic tropes and symbols. But really what it was, was a setting and that’s how you have to approach it was that you’re going to set your novel in a biscuit factory. There’s going to be all kinds of comedy that flows from the shop floor. In that way, Christmas was the biscuit factory setting for this. There are writers who make their career out of holiday books. Gosh, more power to them. They’re the ones that you should probably be putting that question to are the ones that are writing them year, after year, after year. I’m not writing a holiday book at the moment. I wouldn’t rule one out again though, cause I didn’t even plumb all the depths of the comic possibilities for Christmas with that first one. I think it’s rich terrain for comedy, so I could see me going back to it.
Sarina: 23:34 So then my other question involves just a really practical thing about about writing a holiday book. So my first published book, practically another lifetime ago, is a winter-themed cookbook and it is very winter-themed. The sales for that book (it’s 10 years old now) they look like a sign wave on the author portal. They peak right at Christmas and then they bucket in July. And I’m just curious if fiction is expected to do the same thing or not.
Betsy: 24:12 It absolutely does the same thing. But that’s the other beauty of writing seasonal stuff is that there’s a readily identifiable market for it, which is why publishers love it. And you know, your cookbook might have died a very quick death decades ago or years ago, had you not had that seasonal hook that brings it back and makes it relevant again in the marketplace each year. I’m a great believer in, you know, I don’t believe the world owes us a living as writers. And I think we have to write stuff that people want to read. So I’m sort of quite business minded as a writer. And and I think you need to do the publisher’s job for them a little bit when you want to sell a prospective title because you have to be able to identify what the market’s going to be. So yeah, I think whereas novels, (and I know this because I’m a book seller) the shelf life of a hardback is something like six weeks to three months. And after that they get sent back. And the shelf life of a paperback is 18 months. And after that, you know, unless you’re a bestseller, or a prize winner, or an evergreen your book will be gone. And you know, that’s just the reality. Whereas seasonal titles, actually, I think there is an upswing year after year for the best ones.
KJ: 25:49 So, wait. Do you put them in a box in the shop and put them aside or do you send them back and then get some new ones?
Betsy: 25:56 We send them back when we get new ones. We’re ruthless.
KJ: 26:00 Isn’t that funny – you’re both the author who’s like, ‘No, hold on to my book and the bookseller who’s like, ‘Nope, sorry.’
Betsy: 26:08 It’s awful. Authors don’t want to know how much gets sent back. I don’t know if the retail industry works quite the same way in the U.S. but books are one of the only areas of retail that are full sale or return or at least partial sale or return. You know, that doesn’t happen in the clothing industry, right? The stores don’t get to send the merchandise back if it doesn’t sell. And so yeah, we are ruthless about culling titles that languish on our shelves.
KJ: 26:42 Do you think that’s part of why you’re going back in for another romcom or do you think it has more to do with sort of where you are in life and what you want to write or is it some combination therein and that it would be hard to tease out?
Betsy: 26:55 I think it has to do with the fact that I have a two book deal with Orion in the UK and I’m contracted to produce another one. Also, I have the pressure of my agents saying to me, ‘Gosh, we have these 12 foreign publishers…’, So I was under pressure, both because I’m legally obliged to write one for Orion, but in fact Orion gave me the opportunity to segue into more comic literary fiction last year. And it was really my agent who said, ‘Gosh, you know, we’ve got these 12 publishers queued up.’ Mutts is only coming out for the first time in all those markets cause it took a year to translate it. So they’re the ones that are going to come knocking on our door in January or February saying, ‘Oh, what about the next one?’
KJ: 27:52 When was the decision made to write Mutts under a new name?
Betsy: 27:56 Do you mean Natalie?
KJ: 28:00 Yeah.
Betsy: 28:01 Right, sorry. Okay. At the point of sale for publication, the agents, I said to them, ‘What about my brand?’ And they said, ‘We’ll sell you as a debut.’ And that is what goes on in the industry. I don’t know that it’s the best thing. I don’t know necessarily that it did me any favors as an author, but publishers of course are always looking for debuts. There’s an absolute mystique in the industry about making the next big discovery. So it’s easier for agents to sell debuts. So I was sold as a debut romcom writer with the caveat that it was a pseudonym for someone who had written in another genre. So publishers at the point of bidding were told that I was an existing writer.
Betsy: 29:02 They weren’t told who I was, but I was sold as a debut. Does that make sense?
KJ: 29:10 Yes, it does. It’s a crazy system.
Betsy: 29:12 It is crazy indeed. So now I have fiendish social media cause I have social media under Betsy, and I have social media under Natalie, and I also do all the social media for the bookshop. So I’m constantly toggling between Facebook and Instagram and Twitter on all three accounts and kind of posting the wrong thing from the wrong account and getting into trouble. So that’s what ended up with, I don’t know how desirable it is for me as a writer. One thing I would say is that this has a different title in Britain than it does in the U.S. and that is something I will never repeat again because that was even more of a nightmare publishing two…
KJ: 29:56 What is it called in Britain?
Betsy: 29:57 So in Britain, we have a really famous dog charity rescue charity, a nationwide adoption center called The Dog’s Trust. And their motto is ‘Dogs are for life, not just for Christmas.’ It’s very, very famous. It’s a famous enough charity that pretty much everyone knows that line dogs life. And so my editor from day one was determined to call it Not Just for Christmas. And of course it’s not a title that works at all well in the U.S., it doesn’t play in America. It’s not a title I wanted particularly, but it certainly works very well in this territory. I I was worried about it elsewhere and I was worried about the idea of books going out with different titles. The same book going out and it was a bit of a problem, I had kind of angry readers saying…
KJ: 30:56 I have as a reader, bought the same book twice.
Betsy: 30:58 Yes, exactly.
KJ: 31:00 Because I liked it so much one of the times and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s a different one.’
Betsy: 31:05 Yeah. I had irate readers kind of emailing me saying ‘Who would do that?’ And it didn’t help that Amazon in the U.S. had both editions up. Anyway, it was a nightmare. So that’s how I ended up as Natalie Cox. Gosh, Natalie was the name of my old dog, so that was a nod towards her. And Natalie’s three syllables and I knew I needed a really short three letter surname for the cover. So it was either Dicks or Cox. Fox was taken. I actually did try Fox. My publisher said there was some other writer publishing under that name. So yeah, that’s how I ended up with Natalie Cox.
KJ: 32:02 And the next one will be Natalie Cox.
Betsy: 32:03 Yes, this is a romcom under Natalie Cox, absolutely. And it also involves a very large dog. It’s a similar kind of book, similar voice, similar tone. It’s about a woman who’s fed up with her life, she’s got a list of problems, and she just wants to run away from it all until someone steals her identity. And then she wants her life back.
KJ: 32:28 Oh, that’s good.
Betsy: 32:34 So I’m busily beavering away at that at the moment. I’m hoping to deliver that in the spring. So we will see. I do like dogs, I’m a big dog fan. I definitely discovered that almost like Christmas, there’s almost an identifiable readership of people who want books about dogs.
KJ: 32:54 There absolutely is.
Sarina: 32:55 Yes, that is true. In fact, in 2017, one of my publishers said, ‘These are the pitches we want next from you. It has to be dogs, or Alaska, or cowboys.’
Betsy: 33:08 Oh my God, that is hilarious. All three of those are great!
KJ: 33:13 An Alaskan cowboy dog would just walk us straight.
Betsy: 33:19 Oh, I would love to write any of those, that sounds fantastic. So did you write that? Did you write that book back then?
Sarina: 33:37 No, I didn’t because I just didn’t want to. And it was also said to me like this, ‘This is what Walmart wants.’
Betsy: 33:47 Oh wow. Okay.
Sarina: 33:48 And I thought, you know what…I didn’t want to plan my life that way.
Betsy: 33:54 No, and I agree. While I did make that comment about not writing in a vacuum and understanding what the market is for your books, I don’t think you should let the tail wag the dog.
KJ: 34:06 Well, there’s a difference.
Sarina: 34:07 Yeah. There’s a difference between having an eye on it and letting it run your life. Also, you mentioned digital and so that made me curious. And as a bookseller, I bet this is something you keep an eye on, but is the digital sales ratio of your romcom higher than your literary fiction?
Betsy: 34:29 Well, I haven’t looked at the figures, but broadly I would say yes. I mean, the thing about digital is we have pretty good understanding of what digital reading habits are now. And they do tend to be in certain genres – so mystery and commercial women’s fiction, particularly romance, romance and mystery I’d say are probably two of the biggest consumers of digital. And you know, these are people who are super fans, they’re veracious readers, they’re constantly looking for new sources of supply, they need to source their books cheaply because they’re reading so much. So gosh, what was the question?
Sarina: 35:18 I was just curious. So I’m very familiar with this concept because I’m about 98% digital. Or actually, if I put audio in there it wouldn’t be 98 it would be more like 85. But also where is the line? So I have friends who do sort of book club women’s fiction who are running at about 50/50 digital. And I was just sort of thinking that your book also looks like that midpoint between something that would be strictly a romance and a commercial women’s fiction.
Betsy: 35:55 Well, what I would say in the U.S. for the Natalie Cox book, is that they have not pushed it digitally at all and they’ve priced it very, very high because I think they really want to shift paper copies. And so I’ve looked at my digital numbers and they’re incredibly low. I would say below 5%. I mean I think that this title has legs digitally and I assume that they will eventually tap into that and market it digitally and price it to sell digitally. But at the moment they’re still not doing that. In fact, I can’t see from here what the digital prices in the U.S. are.
KJ: 36:38 It’s $14.99 I think. It’s quite high. And I just want to say it was super fun, I had a totally fun evening read. And I honestly wouldn’t have done it if I did not also want to read it.
Betsy: 37:31 You totally could’ve winged it.
KJ: 37:44 But I wanted to read it.
Betsy: 37:46 Thank you. You will be my one digital sale in America this week. Next week, when I look at my sales figures it will literally say two copies sold and you’ll be one of them. I think Putnam really wants…they’ve got a lot of physical copies out there and they want people to buy those. And that’s why it’s been priced the way it has. I assume that in years to come that part of their marketing plan…
KJ: 38:12 You know the worst part? I could’ve gotten the British edition for $3.99.
Betsy: 38:18 No, you’re not allowed to.
KJ: 38:20 I could, I could do it right now. I have buy with one click.
Betsy: 38:25 But I thought they weren’t allowed to. So there’s copyright constraints that prevent you from buying digitally.
KJ: 38:34 It’s priced in pounds.
Betsy: 38:37 Kindle should throw it out.
KJ: 38:39 Oh, you know what? I’m on the UK site cause I went to it from your website.
Sarina: 38:46 So when your new book comes out and there’s doing the still the whole paper push maybe you can get them to do a BookBub deal.
Betsy: 38:58 Yeah, absolutely. I’m certainly about to press my UK publisher on a BookBub deal because unlike the U.S. they aren’t bringing out another edition. They’re not pushing it into shops this Christmas. And it absolutely should be. They should be marketing it more aggressively in the UK. The U.S., I’ve just looked, they’ve got like 40,000 paper copies out in shops.
KJ: 39:21 And the kind of amazing thing is that because I knew we were interviewing you and I’ve been in one airport bookstores and one non-airport bookstore looking at the holiday. And to be honest, I didn’t see it. It wasn’t on the holiday.
Betsy: 39:35 Well that is disappointing. This is the ultra mass market addition though, so those are only certain types of outlets I assume in the U.S.
KJ: 39:44 I was primarily in airport bookstores. I was in one indie bookstore, the one owned by Ann Patchett, actually. Speaking of author bookstores.
Betsy: 39:53 She came and signed copies at my shop.
KJ: 39:56 Well, darn it, she needs to be stocking your book.
Betsy: 39:59 So last year, with the trade paperback, that was a book that definitely was in Barnes and Noble and some of the independents. This year, with this new mass market edition I don’t know which outlets stock these kinds of books that are priced at this very low price point, $7.99, I was very impressed with that. I assume it’s more supermarkets, Walmart, that sort of thing.
KJ: 40:30 The airports had a few, but they were big name.
Sarina: 40:34 Also, American airport bookstores hate romance. There’s nothing with even a whiff of romance in airport bookstores.
Betsy: 40:42 And to be honest, I would not have expected to be in the U.S. airport, actually. That’s sad, but I can live with that. There are 40,000 copies out there but they’re not in airports, but that’s okay. I’m okay with that. Maybe my people aren’t travelers, you know, maybe they’re not travelers.
KJ: 41:12 I have one last question, but it might be a long one. I’m sure it’s one that many of our listeners are wondering, ‘Wait, wait, do I want to run a bookstore?’ Sarina and I are always reminding each other that we don’t, in fact, want to run a bookstore. So tell us.
Betsy: 41:30 Well, what do I say about running a bookstore? It’s a little bit like owning a dog. I always liked owning a dog to having a perpetual toddler, you know, one that never grows up. With that level of commitment, and responsibility, and supervision. And I think running a small business, a customer facing business, it’s open seven days a week, trading 70 hours. Yeah, it’s the same sort of thing. It’s like having a perpetual toddler. It’s a lot of work. It’s very full on, I have a business partner. We don’t staff the shop, but we run it, we manage it ourselves from our laptops, mostly remotely. Although I certainly am in the shop. If I’m in London, I’m in the shop most days at least for a couple of hours to sort of oversee things. And it’s terrific fun. I can’t undersell that.
KJ: 42:19 That’s not what we wanted to hear.
Betsy: 42:20 I mean it is absolutely incredibly fun, but like any small businesses, it is a lot of hard work. And we are very much a DIY business. We do everything ourself. We do all our bookkeeping, we do all our social media, we do our website, we curate by hand. You know, we’re very hands-on for two people who aren’t physically there all the time. But I travel a fair amount and so I can run the business from my laptop pretty much wherever I go. And it works and our customers love it and they’re incredibly grateful that we’re there. So they’re happy to support us and are happy to pay full cover price. We never discount anything, we’re ruthless about that. I just turned away a customer this afternoon for a book by someone I really, really dislike. When he asked why we didn’t have it I said, ‘Because we didn’t buy it in, because we hate him.’ And I said, ‘I can order it for you, but can I just sell you something else?’ It’s done. So I talked him into buying something else. I said, ‘His ex wife’s book is out next year and it’s much worth the wait for that.’ He’s an odious you would think. That’s what you get to do when you run a bookshop. That’s a terrible thing, I shouldn’t be saying this.
Sarina: 43:40 It’s hilarious.
KJ: 43:41 It’s hilarious. Yes, we’re all over this bookshop.
Betsy: 43:46 In fairness, that customer did look down and he spotted a slim volume by Niche and he said, ‘Well, if that’s your standard then you shouldn’t be stocking this either.’ Absolutely, we get to choose. It’s really fun owning the shop and it’s incredibly gratifying and it’s lovely not to be just facing a keyboard all day.
KJ: 44:14 And now you make it sound fun. That’s terrible, we didn’t need that. Well, this is a great segue into what we’ve been reading. So have you read anything good lately?
Betsy: 44:25 So I have just read this book and I’m going to forget the author. U.S. book called Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. So this book, my 28-year-old son, his girlfriend loaned me her copy. It was a bit of a sleeper success for us in the bookshop. It was published here by Bloomsbury, I’m not sure who published it in the U.S. and we didn’t really clock it initially on our radar in the shop until it started to kind of sell. I had all these kind of mid-30-year-old women coming in and sort of slyly purchasing it. It’s about women and sex and it’s a stunning piece of really in depth report where she surveyed hundreds of women and then chose three and followed them for literally years and moved to their home towns and told the story of their sexual history. And when my son’s girlfriend loaned it to me, she said, ‘Don’t read it on the Metro.’ And it’s very, very explicit. It’s incredibly gripping. And the stories are all true and it’s beautifully written. It’s written like a thriller. She cuts between the three stories very cleverly. And I thought it was a remarkable piece of work, actually. So yeah, definitely recommend it. And a lot of food for thought in terms of sexuality.
KJ: 46:17 How about you, Sarina?
Sarina: 46:18 Well, I wanted to keep with the holiday theme and I am acquainted with this author named Jana Aston, who writes what is very much an of-the-moment romance in the contemporary space right now. She writes kind of like billionaires and young women and it’s very snappy and also kind of romcom, but also probably quite dirty. She came out with three holiday novellas right now and they are brilliantly packaged. And I’m reading the first one right now. It’s called The Boss Who Stole Christmas.
Betsy: 46:57 And I bet they’re racing up the Kindle charts.
Sarina: 47:00 Yes. And I have to tell you the title of the second book because it makes my heart pitter-patter. It is so funny. It is called If You Give a Jerk a Gingerbread. Isn’t that impressive? And so I’m having a great time reading book one and I can’t wait to get to the jerk with the gingerbread.
KJ: 47:20 Well, as I’ve said multiple times, did really enjoy Mutts and Mistletoe. Super fun. Although you need to look for the paperback, not necessarily the Kindle edition. They probably won’t let me loan it to you. I also read Beside Herself by Elizabeth Labon. Elizabeth Labon is a Philly author who writes really, really place-centric commercial women’s fiction. And I love the cover of this book. It’s a coffee cup, like sort of spilling as it topples over. And it’s the story of a woman whose husband has an affair and who still loves him but wants to get back at him. And it’s a happy ending, romcom, very much fun read, especially if you’re a Philly person. And yeah, I enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed her previous books. So yeah, it was fun. I think it’s a good time of year. You know, I have a stack right now that is a combination of sort of more serious stuff and really, really light stuff because this is just such a rich time of year for book shopping.
Betsy: 48:25 Absolutely. And I think over the Christmas holidays, frankly, everybody wants the literary equivalent of a malteser way. I mean, you know, really, that feeds aside for all of us. And you know, there’s room for all those books on our shelves.
KJ: 48:44 Well, thank you so much for coming. This has been incredibly fun. We thought it would be fun when it was just going to be holiday, but when it turned into let’s talk about owning a bookstore and writing multiple books in multiple genres. We got super excited, so thank you.
Betsy: 49:00 Fantastic. Thank you so much for having me.
Sarina: 49:02 And until next week, everyone, keep your butt in the chair and your head in the game.
Jess: 49:14 This episode of #AmWriting with Jess and KJ was produced by Andrew Parilla. Our music, aptly titled unemployed Monday was written and performed by Max Cohen. Andrew and Max were paid for their services because everyone, even creatives should be paid.