Dark and paranormal romance author Kitty Thomas discusses negative attitudes toward the romance genre (including her own before she came to love it), whether writing to a formula is as easy as all that, why she thinks sex scenes are the most difficult thing to write, the heartbreaking nature of publishing, and more.
Kitty Thomas (@kitty_thomas) writes dark stories that play with power and have unconventional happily-ever-afters. She also writes some quirky paranormal romance. She began publishing in early 2010 with her bestselling Comfort Food and is considered one of the original authors of the dark romance subgenre.
KRISTEN TSETSI: What did you like to read when you first got into book reading, and how did you veer into reading—and then writing—romance, whether paranormal or, as a few of your novels are, darker?
KITTY THOMAS: I used to love the Goosebumps books as a kid. I wanted to be RL Stine. I was a snob about romance for the longest time, even in my Goosebumps days. Even in 8th grade, romance novels weren’t “real books.” I have no idea why. I guess internalized misogyny, which is really fancy talk for… the culture disrespects it because it disrespects the feminine. I picked up on that even though nobody sat me down and told me they weren’t real books. There was just this sneering derision about them. And a lot of eye rolling around Harlequin novels.
And I certainly don’t want to crap on Harlequin novels, but romance is so much bigger than one publisher, and yet they were all lumped in together as one thing.
As a side note, I was also a snob about Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I didn’t realize it was poking fun at itself and such a smartly written show). Ultimately I became a romance author because I couldn’t find the TV remote to change the channel and got sucked in to the Buffy and Spike drama. (I think it was a rerun of season 4.) I was beyond upset that Buffy and Spike didn’t end up together. I mean it was A. Thing. with me.
So when Buffy and Spike didn’t end up together (I know, spoiler, but the show is SO old. You know, Old Yeller dies at the end, too), I ended up writing fanfic to soothe my battered soul over it. Then I realized that I actually DO like romance and that maybe the love story is all I really care about, after all. (Now romance is all I really read: paranormals, dark, romcoms, sometimes alien/sci-fi.)
So I started reading paranormal romance and then writing it. But Pauline Reage’s Story of O was what inspired Comfort Food, my first darker book. It just made me mad that all these erotic books had to moralize, and the couple couldn’t be together in the end because it was “wrong.” Screw that. When you’re an island unto yourself, who cares what society thinks?
What does paranormal romance (PNR) offer that traditional, human-on-human romance doesn’t, both to the writer and the reader?
I think PNR filled the gap for bodice rippers when those started disappearing off the shelves. Publishers decided that because of sexism bodice rippers were no longer socially acceptable. I totally love when an organization makes a blanket decision about what women shouldn’t be allowed to read because it’s sexist. Ummm, did they not pause to self-reflect and consider that maybe policing women’s fantasies and acting as though we can’t handle our own reading choices wasn’t itself sexist?
It’s not as though these books were written by and for men. They were written by and for women, and then roundly rejected by mostly male-led publishing companies.
Of course now there is dark romance, so in some ways that’s the new bodice ripper. But people still do like their vampires and werewolves.
What do you think the new trend (if that’s the right word) in romance might be? Or, maybe, what would you like it to be, if you could choose?
Well, one new trend I notice popping up is reverse harems. This is where you have a story with one heroine and multiple males. But it’s not a triangle. It’s not like she’s going to “pick one.” It’s “Why not have all of them?” And it’s not two guys and a girl. That’s menage. This is usually three or four, sometimes five males who are all in a relationship with the heroine. Though honestly I think three is the perfect number for these books. After that it starts to get unwieldy. Usually this is also a paranormal romance.
A common trope is werewolves who all share the same fated mate, though I’ve seen it done other ways. I’ve also seen it done without the paranormal element. I’ve got one called The Proposal in my dark wedding duet. The heroine has decided she’s tired of men stringing her along and wasting her time when she wants to get married and have kids, so she starts rotational dating. She’s chosen to remain celibate and just date a man harem until somebody gives her a ring.
Amazingly this actually works, but as she upgrades her man harem she doesn’t realize she’s dating three men who all know each other and have decided to just share her, like forever.
I don’t think I have to explain why this sort of thing is a fantasy for women. LOL! I trust the intelligence of your readers to work it out. Though the interesting thing is reverse harems aren’t erotica. They may have sex in them, but they are romance where by the end there is a functioning and happy polyandrous unit, so it’s not just about the sex. It’s also about the feelings.
You write “unconventional HEAs.” An article in BookRiot discusses whether a novel can be called a “romance” if it isn’t HEA (that is, if it doesn’t have a Happily Ever After ending, usually including a wedding and a pregnancy) or, at the very least, HFN (Happy For Now, which means there’s no marriage or baby). What are some unconventional HEAs?
I think there are a lot fewer “marriage and babies” romances now. Because more and more people are realizing you can be happy forever but not have babies. Or not have a wedding.
Not everybody wants the same things, and what makes an HEA is if the characters are happy in the end. As for “happy for now,” I mean, not to be morbid, but nobody lives forever, so theoretically no matter how happy the book ends, those characters would be separated by death at some point. Unless they’re vampires, but even they can be killed.
I always wonder what happens to the Disney princesses after the wedding. I’m just sayin’.
Happy or sad is just where you end the story.
You’ve written a number of captive women, most notably in your bestselling novel Comfort Food. What is it about the captive/captor scenario that so appeals to readers?
I think it’s honestly that the world feels like it’s burning down around us and in most of these types of books you’ve basically got this rich dude giving the heroine pleasure and basically demanding she give in to her own pleasure, and he’s taking care of everything. I mean sure, she’s his captive, but she doesn’t have to worry about the rest of the big bad world. There is a real comfort in that. She only has to worry about him. Plus in dark romance he’s usually hot and insanely protective. Like, a lot of these guys will kill anyone who is a threat to her—though of course who will protect her from him? That’s the conundrum and a lot of the tension.
I think women are so shamed for their own pleasure that this is that “permission” some feel they need to get in touch with their own sexual desire. It’s so strange to me that the activity that literally keeps the species going is so shrouded with weirdness and shame. But, as I said, people are gonna people. What can you do?
When women were crowding bookstores to get copies of EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, the press said the books appealed to “bored housewives” (which makes the women sound silly or desperate). The Fifty Shades series was also dubbed “mommy porn,” which Jackie Collins said was a label that degraded women—and Collins herself was told by romance novelist Barbara Cartland that her writing was “filthy and disgusting.”
There’s something about explicit (or kinky, in EL James’s case) sex in romantic fiction that invites judgment that demeans its female readers and writers, even when—as in Collins’s novels, or as in your recently-released novel Valkyrie—the female characters are presented as powerful.
You’ve been publishing in the genre in one way or another since 2008. Have you seen any changes in attitudes in that time?
I want to say yes, but not really LOL. Honestly anybody who had an issue with romance or sexy books still has it unless they read those books. People are notoriously unwilling to actually try these books they have such condescension for. There’s more than a little bit of misogyny in that. I get it if alien males with two (insert male anatomy term of choice here) or reverse harems or fated mates werewolf love is a little too adventurous for some readers, but there’s plenty of office rom-coms too. We’ll be gentle and just ease you into it.
The people who read romance may not openly admit to it because of the judgment, but they’re not going to stop reading what they love. And honestly romance is such a great genre whether it’s sweet or dark or spicy or funny or has vampires. It’s really a shame that more people don’t give it a try. There is so much amazing writing in this genre now. And it’s not just women reading it. A lot of men are secretly reading romance. I was surprised to learn just how many male readers I have. I mean I write some super hot sex so there’s that.
A writer on a website I came across recently characterizes romance as “easy to write because romance books usually follow a pretty simple formula.” I wonder how “easy” it is to write to a formula, and how “easy” it can really be to write either traditional or dark romance, considering they both incorporate sex scenes, about which you recently tweeted, “I hate writing sex scenes. They are so unnecessarily difficult.” I suppose my question is twofold: is it easy to write to a formula, and what makes sex scenes so difficult?
I challenge them to write a romance anyone would actually care to read. Romance readers are intelligent and very discerning. So the people of that website can name the time and place they want to complete this little challenge and stop running their mouths about it.
As for sex scenes, that’s the most difficult thing in the world to write in my opinion. There are only so many different ways you can describe sex, and you want to keep it fresh. Maybe it’s “comparatively” easy in the first book or two, but come talk to me after you’ve written over 30 of these “easy” books. What a jackwagon.
Also it’s not enough to just have tab A going into slot B. There has to be sexual tension and chemistry. The reader has to desperately want these two characters to get into bed. And there has to be emotional satisfaction to the joining. It’s about their feelings and emotions, not just body parts rubbing against other body parts. Even in erotica the best sex scenes have that psychological component, which is why kink is probably so popular. There’s so much psychology around that kind of trust game.
You said once upon a time, “I think our society needs to deal with the issue of ‘thought crime.’ When we’re so tied up inside we can’t even think a thought without freaking out, it’s a bad sign.”
In an article I wrote—and interviewed you for—about pen names, you explained that you decided to use a pen name in part because of your family’s religious background. Do you experience any kind of emotional or psychological push-and-pull with your decision to use a pen name, a fight between, “I should be able to attach myself to this openly because there’s nothing wrong with it” and “But society is the way it is…”?
I’m a pretty private person. My family knows what I write, they just don’t read it. Though I do read some of my “safe scenes” to my parents. I don’t think it would matter what genre I wrote. I could be making Giant Panda coloring books for third graders, and I would still want a division between real life me and author me.
Besides, you do sort of “become” your pen name. In a way it feels as much my real identity as anything.
Many of your books have hundreds—in some cases thousands—of reader reviews on Goodreads, and it’s generally understood that a book might get a single reader review for every 70-100 books sold. Most self-published authors (and many traditionally published authors) don’t have those numbers. Do you feel as successful as other self-published authors would probably think you are?
I really, really don’t. I’m not sure what it would take for me to feel successful, but I’m not there yet.
How did your early books get the attention they did? How did Comfort Food become your bestselling book?
Amazon algorithms were much more favorable back then. The world of ebook publishing has changed a lot since I started. Early on I was riding the wave of early adopters and people trying to load up their kindles. Now having a book or two out? It’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely to get a huge result out of the gate.
With regards to Comfort Food, I sent it to just a few book bloggers (back when that was a much bigger thing and there were several bloggers who had hundreds and hundreds of reader comments) and then they just sort of took it from there amongst themselves. I really didn’t do a lot for Comfort Food’s marketing. I had no plans at that time to even market the Kitty name much. It was just a book of my heart I had to write.
It was just luck. It was a totally new genre that didn’t exist at the time. There was no such thing as dark romance when I wrote Comfort Food. As other books in the same genre started to show up (many, but obviously not all) inspired in some way by Comfort Food, or inspired by a book that was inspired by Comfort Food, it just became a thing.
In conversation with me, you’ve said that more writers can absolutely make a decent living writing fiction, even if they think they can’t. What would it take?
I definitely think it’s possible, though it does feel like it gets harder and harder.
I think one thing it takes for most is a big backlist and marketing savvy. If you build it, they won’t come. You can write the most brilliant book in the world, but unless some lightning strikes you, you’ve got to be able to get it in front of the right readers at the right time, and that can be daunting and exhausting.
But while I think it’s really difficult, it’s not as impossible as many proclaim. Maybe I have a skewed author friend base, but I’m author friends with at least seven, and possibly more, indie romance authors literally making a million dollars or more a year. Now that’s revenue, not profit, but it’s still from selling romance novels as self-published authors. I’m nowhere near those heights, but if I personally know that many indies making that kind of money, you gotta think it can’t be that impossible to make a basic living.
But it’s definitely not overnight, and it’s a ridiculous amount of work. And this industry will break your heart. I think the better question isn’t “can it be done,” but “are you willing to deal with how hard and painful it’s going to be,” because I don’t know a single author who isn’t having some sort of behind-the-scenes crisis (well, I take that back, I do know one or two, but they are rare), even the really successful ones.
What heartbreak have you seen the industry cause?
There’s the normal “book release failure,” where an author does everything right but their readers just don’t show up for it even though they’ve cultivated a large fanbase over a long period of time. Depending on how much the book meant to the author or how much they need to eat food like a normal carbon-based life form, this can feel like a crushing betrayal. And some quit over it.
Or they’re not making enough money to pay the rent or mortgage in general. They got successful enough to make this their full-time living, and they may have to quit writing because it’s really not just a straight line up where every release gets better and better, and they’re stressed out from an endless grueling release schedule and don’t have it in them to write another book.
Or a book gets pulled from a store. Or there is a publishing issue. I recently heard of an author who was in KU [Kindle Unlimited] and her books were pirated, and now she’s in trouble for breaking contract terms even though it’s not her fault someone else is stealing from her.
The variations of insanity and heartbreak that come with this business are too numerous to name. And it isn’t just the newbie authors. Authors who have been publishing over a decade. Authors making so much money you would think they’ve “arrived.”
And that doesn’t count the personal tragedies that happen that derail an author’s career. This business is brutal, and most readers seem to think authors will just write no matter what because we “love it so much.”
We may love it, but it’s way too much work to do all that’s necessary to take it to market just for “love” (even for a romantic like a romance author). So when the financial rewards disappear, many will quit publishing. Writing isn’t a hobby for those publishing, but many even hardcore readers deep down think we could or should “get a real job” and still keep giving them books on the side. LOL. No.
There is no point at which writing and publishing becomes a pain-free affair, but there are so many authors having a crisis, on the edge of quitting, or having officially quit. So I wouldn’t envy them.
What are all the things you do to make money as a professional self-published author? I know you have a newsletter and website and social media to maintain—how often do you tend to those things? Are you responsible for your own website management and updates? Do you have a book editor? You have a graphic designer—what’s your level of involvement in that process? Etcetera.
It depends on where I am in the process of a book. There’s the writing, obviously, and editing. It can take hundreds of hours just to write a rough draft. I also hire out for cover art and teaser graphics. I bring in people for cross promotion (other authors, but also book bloggers in a book tour). I schedule and set up some paid promos like Bookbubs when I can get them, and others, like Red Feather Romance.
When I do audio I have to coordinate with the audio production people to get it cast and then, when it’s done, listen to the final proofs to approve it. Then I have to set that up with ACX [the Audible platform for independent authors].
When it’s time to release I have to set up the paperback and hardcover. For paperback I use KDP, and for hardcover I use Lightning Source [Ingram]. And then I set up the ebook on about six different platforms.
I wish I had a PA [personal assistant] but I’m not at the place where I can afford to bring someone on, or maybe I’m just a control freak. Plus I feel like the time it takes to get stuff together, is it really going to be less time if a PA does it? Maybe. I don’t know.
My original website design and setup I had a web developer do, but I do most of the updates. I do a little bit of social media daily, though I don’t know how much good that really does anymore. I send out a newsletter once a week, usually, but sometimes bi-monthly, and every day during release week where I do newsletter-exclusive giveaways.
My cover artist and I work together on the concept, but really I prefer to give her a basic idea and let her run with it, like with the Valkyrie cover. I used to do my own interior formatting, but now I use Vellum, so it’s much faster these days.
There are also a million different ways to market a book that up until this point I haven’t had time to explore, but I’m moving away from writing to work on marketing my backlist. I may not be writing anything new for a very long time. I have a backlist of over 35 titles that really needs more marketing attention, and it doesn’t make any kind of financial sense to stay on the new release treadmill with all the stress and uncertainty of relying on the Amazon algorithms as well as enough people to buy during release week to get word of mouth going.
There aren’t enough hours available within the laws of physics to do all that one could/should do to truly promote a book and backlist and write new material and edit it and get all the stuff set up for release week. There really probably needs to be five of me. I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but as a career this business is incredibly involved and difficult.
I would prefer to be independently wealthy and do it as a hobby.
If a traditional publisher approached you, would you be interested in signing with one?
No. I’m not really interested in that. I don’t publish to get “picked up” by someone else. Early indie sensation Amanda Hocking got a publishing deal, and I’m not sure traditional publishing did much at all for her. I think she might have done even better if she’d just stayed indie.
The idea that every indie is waiting to be picked by a big publisher isn’t at all accurate.
Is there one thing you see a lot of self-published authors doing wrong if their expectation is to sell books, and was there something you did wrong in your years of self-publishing that you can warn others not to do?
I’m not sure I’m one to judge because I have self-sabotaged in a thousand tiny ways. But I do think a lot of new authors weirdly try to market to other authors. I get authors are also writers, but we don’t have the same vast swaths of reading time that your typical target reader has.
I also think titles and descriptions, which is something else I’m still learning and tweaking. It took me forever to really get on board with the idea that the TITLE is not the art. It’s marketing. The title, the cover, the description, and in some ways the pricing, that’s all packaging and marketing, and you can’t be a precious snowflake artist about it. (Trust me, I’ve tried.)
I have had some of the stupidest descriptions on my books if I wanted to sell them. I swear. And unfortunately I have no one to blame for them but myself. Writing that description is very different from fiction writing, and the author is usually too close to the book. It can be difficult to see it from the angle the reader sees it. But normally, at least in romance, the description needs to focus on the trope because romance readers tend to read for the trope. Is it enemies-to-lovers? Forced proximity? Baby Daddy? Menage? Grumpy/Sunshine (cynical guy and hopelessly optimistic heroine)?
On the plus side, you can always go back and edit the description. Since my books sell online I don’t change the print edition, just the copy on the retailer websites.
Not too long ago, a writer on Twitter expressed sadness that her books weren’t selling. You responded in a tweet that it probably had something to do with her book covers, which you said looked self-published. This is the kind of thing many people might think, but not say. What prompted you to be honest with her?
It was the right thing to do. What if she has a beautiful book that no one will ever know about because her cover sucks? It’s like telling someone they have broccoli in their teeth at a party. It might embarrass them, but you did them a favor. I certainly didn’t tell the author to hurt her. It was from a genuine desire for her not to be floundering around with her homemade cover not understanding why nobody wanted the book.
Readers are very sensitive to homemade-looking covers. There are a very few authors who can do their own covers, but it would be wise for most authors not to assume they are among that rare breed. And for some reason when we make a graphic ourselves we just think it looks so much better than it does. It’s like the proud child with the stick figure drawing.
You gotta remember readers aren’t your parents. They just aren’t going to stick it on the fridge and coo over your artistic brilliance. They’ll just pass. And so many indies, particularly in the romance genre, have their cover art game on. Some of the most beautiful and professional covers I’ve seen have come out of the indie romance author community. And if you’re writing romance, that’s what you’re competing with. Forget the traditionally published covers, not that those aren’t good. Some of the indies are in a whole other league these days.
Seriously, romance authors are rocking it in all areas. People could drop a little of the snobbery and learn something. Nobody knows marketing like indie romance authors. And I’m not saying me. I am by far not the best at this. If I was, I’d probably be one of those million-dollar authors. But all the really innovative marketing and best cover art and some of the most creative and beautiful stories are coming out of this genre. So respect where respect is due.
What would you say to writers who secretly want to write adult romance, but who are afraid to because they’ve been taught, in one way or another, that it’s something to be ashamed of?
Well, I mean, there are a lot of people writing this, so it’s not like you’re some weirdo loner who lives a the end of the creepy lane. There’s power in numbers, and there are definitely numbers of people writing this. It certainly won’t keep you from getting invited to parties. Besides the dirty authors have all the cool parties, anyway.
Romance novels make people happy. They have a happily ever after. Why wouldn’t a writer want to create that?
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the post-Roe v. Wade novel The Age of the Child, called a novel “for right now” and “scathing social commentary.” She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.