Friday, December 14, 2012


Barbara Vey (right) and author Cathy Maxwell
Not too many years ago Barbara Vey was afraid to step outside her own door.  She was depressed and suffered from agoraphobia, a fear of public places.  Her only escape from the demons that haunted her was in the romance novels she read by the dozens.  Until one day, Barbara says, “romance saved my life.”

In the back of one of her books was an ad for an upcoming “cruise with the authors”.  Barbara had often written or emailed her favorite authors.  Now, she realized, they would have nowhere to go if she wanted to talk to them at length about the stories and characters she loved so much.  They’d all be on a boat in the middle of the ocean!  It was fate—she had to go. 
That bolt of lightning changed Barbara Vey’s life and gave us the talented and vivacious writer of Publisher’s Weekly’s Beyond Her Book blog.  Barbara was the guest speaker at the Virginia Romance Writers meeting December 8, during which she spoke to both her background and the subject of Building Reader Loyalty.

Onboard that fateful cruise, Barbara quickly came out of her shell, trouncing all comers in the trivia contests and making connections among both authors and other fans.  This, after all, was her community, a family of people who all shared the same love of reading and romance.  She was having lunch one day with paranormal romance author Marjorie Liu, when an executive from Publisher’s Weekly stopped by the table.  Thinking she was a publisher, Barbara shared what she thought was wrong with publishing from a reader’s perspective.  Rather than being offended, the exec offered her a job.

Today, Barbara’s blog attracts thousands of readers (a figure of 24,000-plus/day was mentioned in connection with the annual anniversary blog week), many of whom are those very authors she admires so much.  She still blogs today as she always has—from a reader’s perspective.  Her advice to authors is simple, straightforward and down-to-earth, as you might expect from someone who lives and works in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Much of her advice we’ve heard before, having to do with forming a connection with your readers.  Barbara is a big fan of social media, with an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, a website and the blog.  Like others before her, she recommends forming that connection before you publish, by being active as a commenter on blogs you like, blogging yourself, and making sure you have your own website and other social networking accounts.  Barbara tempered this advice with a caution:  do not use social networking simply as a sales tool.  If the only thing you ever say is “buy my book” or “I just won this contest”, people will begin to avoid you.

We’ve also heard references to author “branding” before, but Barbara distilled her advice down to one very simple precept:  keep your promises to your readers.  If they’ve come to expect an exciting story from you in the past, with lots of adventure and lusty romance, make sure you give it to them again next time.  The setting might be different, the characters and the plot should be different, but the essence of who you are as a writer shouldn’t change.  Many a writer has survived changing sub-genres because they manage to keep that promise to their readers no matter what kind of story they’re telling.

From my experience, determining what it is that you can promise every time, no matter what kind of story you’re writing, is not easy.  Maybe that’s where your critique partner comes in, especially one of long standing.  What is it that she expects of you, no matter what?  Does he know when you haven’t delivered?  

That core of who you are as a writer is the essence of your “brand” and your promise to your readers.  If you keep your promise, you build loyalty, which carries over, no matter what kind of book you write.

Finally, one of Barbara’s points had me thinking for quite some time, wondering whether it may be something we’re missing in SFR.  She surveyed her blog readers once and found that one of the statements they agreed most with was:  I want to read a series in which the characters feel like members of my family.


Now this shouldn’t be a foreign concept for us.  After all, our screen counterparts do feel like members of our family—the crews of the Enterprise, the Serenity, or the Galactica, the teams of FRINGE or DOCTOR WHO and so on.  A few of our iconic novels feature families (Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, Linnea Sinclair’s Dock Five series, Susan Grant’s early novels) to whom we get rather attached.  But are we encouraged to take these folks in, to make them our own?

Leaving aside the whole issue of whether our own problematic real-life families should be replaced by idealized fictional ones (there was a time in my youth when that would have been very appealing), it seems to me most SFR features very independent heroes and heroines.  They’re alone, far from home and the comforts of friends and family.  Many of them are orphans or outcasts.  They can barely be persuaded to fall in love with each other, much less reach out to anyone else.
This makes them very prickly protagonists. Fine, as far as it goes, but not so good if we’re hoping to attract a wider audience.  Contrast them, for example, with the typical historical or contemporary heroine, surrounded by friends and family as she stalks what may often be a grumpy hero.  He is always tamed and drawn into the warm circle. (Or vice versa.  It does happen sometimes.)  Only in romantic suspense would you have the loners we have in SFR, due to their tragic or mysterious circumstances.  But by the end of the novel, the lovers resolve their external conflict and find their way back to some kind of community welcome.  Our heroes and heroines most often fly off into the infinite stars--together, but often alone.

What do y’all say?  Am I reading the wrong SFR?  Or is this even a point we need to worry about?

In the meantime, thanks to Barbara Vey for joining us at VRW last week and for giving us all lots to think about.  (Thanks, too, Barbara, for allowing me to use the photo which I shamelessly stole from your blog.  Can we consider this an extension of the Tweet this Post rules?)   

Check out Barbara’s blog at 

Attention All Published Authors

The Virginia Romance Writers Chapter of the Romance Writers of America® is pleased to announce the 18th Annual HOLT Medallion Competition for the best romantic fiction of 2012. Entries will be received now through January 31, 2013.  For the first time this year, self-published works will also be considered. 

Works published in 2012 will compete in the following categories: Historical; Mainstream/Single Title Contemporary; Long Contemporary; Short Contemporary; Paranormal/Time Travel/Futuristic/Fantasy; Romantic Suspense; Extra Spicy/Erotic; Long Inspirational; Short Inspirational; Novel with Strong Romantic Elements; Romance Novella.  Bonus categories (must enter in other categories to be considered): Best First Book and Best First Book by a Virginia Author.   

For further details click here

Cheers, Donna


  1. That was very interesting!! Thank you.

  2. You raise an interesting question, Donna. I need to give that some thought, but I think you're on to something that "loner characters" are pretty much the norm in SFR. Maybe because they're almost always extraordinary characters in extraordinary settings that they seldom have a support circle.

    Great story about Barbara Vey overcoming her phobias via a love of books. I bet she was a truly inspirational speaker.

  3. I just found (and love) this blog. So first, hello.

    This is a very interesting post. I wonder if perhaps authors sometimes sacrifice these kinds of relationships in SFR because of the time spent on world building. In homespun romances, for instance, a lot of space is taken up with relationships other than the primary couple, and this builds word count. Maybe SFR writers are so involved in creating the worlds, that there is a temptation to overshare. After all that work, showing off the new reality is sometimes pushed to the forefront and that takes time and space. The challenge here could be to allow the world to be a backdrop instead of another character, and to build relationships within that context.

    Or, you know, maybe I'm over analyzing, and we just like loners.

    Great post.

  4. What an inspiring example! I've not had to overcome a phobia, but I've had to push myself to socialize. I've always been incredibly shy, but social media has really given me confidence - it's let me step into a worldwide community but kind of hide myself behind a pot plant in the corner until I felt brave enough to step out. :P
    One thing I was told early on was I MUST be on Twitter to promote, but I have to admit it's mostly used to socialize and network, which I think is as it should be. There's nothing I hate more in a stream than nonstop 'buy my book!'
    Ah, more contests. I'm not sure I'm going to put Keir in for any more.

  5. Welcome to Spacefreighters, Merinda! Glad you found us. :)

    I don't think you're overanalyzing. I think maybe we do tend to focus on worldbuilding, tech, politicals, social issues or conflicts instead of building influential supporting characters. Definitely something to give more thought to.

    Pippa, I'm with you. The internet and social networking has given this introvert an avenue to express ideas, thoughts, preferences and feelings without being talked over or shouted down. I especially love FB, but have more of a struggle with Twitter.

  6. Thanks for the welcome!

    Pippa, I have a FB account, but I only ever signed on once and I have no idea what the password is. Twitter terrifies me. It looks like a gibberish of @'s and #'s to me. I am determined to try both. Possibly next week. ;)

    Laurie, it's almost a tradition to have at least one of your main characters alone and hesitant to form new attachments. A strong, independent character that still has deep and meaningful relationships of various types isn't the norm in the genre. This is absolutely something I'll keep in mind from now on.

  7. Welcome, Merinda! Yes, Barbara was quite the inspirational speaker. I'd urge everyone to check her out in her own blog space.

    I agree that the worldbuilding takes more word count than some other romance subgenres, but I think perhaps we haven't given enough thought to COMMUNITY building sometimes. Think about some of our best SF worlds--they were communities, too. Maybe we need to do better with that.

  8. Hi Merinda,
    You can always reset a password, but I have to admit at first I was very resistant to Facebook. My husband got talked into it by a couple of workmates, and once my sister found out, she directed some of MY old school friends to HIS account. After a while it ended up I was using his account more than he was, so I finally got my own. Then I met a couple of truly amazing people - both authors - who gave me such a confidence boost that I don't think I'd be here without them.
    I had the same problem with Twitter. A friend persuaded me to sign up but it made no sense, until someone else took me through Hootsuite. This allows you to see multiple streams so you can see conversations. It does take time (and sometimes someone holding your virtual hand) to learn these things.
    Laurie - I loved FB. It was a huge starting point for me. But increasingly the changes on there make it harder to get found by readers, and I find socializing and networking on Twitter far more productive and enjoyable, as well as more immediate. Last week I put out a call for help on my WIP, and not only got a load of help (as well as having fun) but was able to jump straight back into the conversation 8 hours later after sleeping. Although our SFR Brigade group on FB is also great for that, but sometimes the answers come more slowly. There are times when the only reason I stick with FB is because our group is so active, and there are some people I couldn't keep in touch with any other way.

  9. Donna, your post prompted so much reflection on my part that I decided to do a spin off post!

    I agree about the appeal of community building. That's a good tag, too, the extent to which an SFR's characters belong to a community of sorts.

    Quite a few stories take place on a space station or use space station settings in some way. That'd be a neat way to incorporate community building into this subgenre.

    The possibilities are there. The challenge is getting the stories written and also marketed effectively.

  10. Two really great ideas in this post; first about social media and how it can bridge that gap between authors and readers. As a newly published author, I have been having such a great time using social media to connect both with readers and other authors, and I have learned so much from both groups.

    It does seem like there is a focus on the loner characters within SFR, usually because the focus is on two main characters and their relationship. Bringing a family into the mix, or other characters who are like family, has been something I have tried to incorporate within my series so that there are side stories going on around the main relationship focus. I do like to read stories that have the family element mixed in a bit more to add additional perspectives to the story.

  11. @Heather, I agree that our settings allow for all sorts of community-building. You'd think we'd do more of it. And great post over at TGE--we have to stop meeting like this! :)

    @Welcome, Corinne! Thanks for joining us.


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