An Interview with USA Today Bestselling Romance Writer Caroline Lee

Caroline Lee is what George R.R. Martin once described as a "gardener author"; she delights in creating interesting and lovable characters, and allowing them to lead their own stories. Often they draw the story along to completely unexpectedand wonderful!places. She considers a story a success if she can re-read it and sigh dreamily... and she wishes the same for you. 

A love of historical romance prompted Caroline to pursue her degrees in social history; her master's degree is in Comparative World History, which is the study of themes across history (for instance, "domestication of animals throughout the world," or "childhood through history"). Her theme? You guessed it: Marriage throughout world history. Her favorite focus was periods of history that brought two disparate peoples together to marry, like marriage in the Levant during the Kingdom of Jerusalem, or marriage between convicts in colonial New South Wales. She hopes that she's able to bring this love of history
and this history of loveto her novels. 

Her books have been #1 bestsellers in several genres, reached the USA Today bestsellers list, and are available in e-book and paperback formats. 

Caroline is living her own little Happily Ever After with her husband and children in North Carolina.

Interview by BWG Member Carol L. Wright


Bethlehem Writers Group: Your books are historical romances. What enticed you to write about the past? How do you make them historically accurate?

Caroline Lee: I have a master’s degree in Comparative World History, which is the study of history by themes. Basically, social history is studying the lives people led, rather than the events which governed those lives. I focused on women’s history and marriage across the world and throughout history. That really comes in handy when writing romances!

Historical romance is actually why I majored in social history. I’ve been reading them since about third grade, and have always loved them. See, historical fiction is applied social history, and historical romance is (in my opinion) the best kind of historical fiction, because it always ends Happily Ever After. So you could say that loving historical romance turned me on to historical fiction, which got me into studying social history! Anyhow, the idea that “people are people, no matter when they lived” has been a part of my psyche for a very long time.

As to how I make my books historically accurate: my Googe-fu is strong! I have research books, of course, but we have so much information available to us now, thanks to the internet. Need a map of St. Louis in 1883? Done. Need to know how much a yard of wool cost west of the Mississippi in 1875? No problem! Google is awesome.


BWG: How would you describe the readers your work would most appeal to?

CL: I write “sweet” romances, which mean that I leave out the sex (but not necessarily the desire). This means that my audience is all ages, and all walks of life. I would say that my stories would appeal to readers who like connecting deeply with characters who are normal, everyday people.


BWG: Tell us about your first book. Did you pursue traditional publication, or were you planning to self-publish from the start?

CL: My first published book was Sullivan’s Ridge, and it was independent (self-published) completely by accident. I didn’t even realize that there was a name for what I was doing—I just wanted to put it online to share it with everyone, aaaand I’m a big fan of Amazon, so it was my obvious choice. To my surprise, I made some money off of it, so I tried it again and again. I have pursued traditionally publication since then, but turned down the offered contract because there were greater benefits for me remaining independent. I’d be happy to discuss the pros/cons of indie/traditional with anyone, but I can only speak about the romance industry.


BWG: Didn’t you start using your pen name after the first novel? How did that come about? How did you choose your pseudonym? Was it fun creating a new identity?

CL: I published that first book under my real name…but it turns out that there was already a romance novelist out there with that name, which burned me a little. I kept my last name, but chose “Caroline” because I am a Carolina girl. I will admit that when you’re just starting with a pen name, it’d be easier to keep your first name and change your last one, but I’ve since become very comfortable. It’s an easy way to differentiate my writing life from my real life. And yes, Caroline is a very different person—specifically in my online presence—than I am in real life.


BWG: You have great book covers. How do you handle such things as editing or cover design? What
resources are most helpful to you in producing a professional look and quality?

CL: I have an amazing cover designer (Erin Dameron-Hill of EDHdesigns). I’m convinced that I owe 60% of my success to her! I’ve gone through quite a few editors, but have settled on someone (a proofreader) who understands the quirks of my writing style, and can make suggestions without trying to change my writing style. Before the book is proofed, my critique partners act as content editors, and my beta readers also help. I believe that a professional cover is the most important aspect of getting readers (although how you define a “good” cover varies, of course), and a professional editing job is the most important aspect of keeping readers.


BWG: Do you publish e-books or hard copies or both? Why did you decide to go that route?

CL: I sell mostly Kindle copies (see below). Most of my books are available in paperback, but most of those are purchased by fans who’ve already read them in e-book format and now want a keepsake. I also sell plenty at conferences, conventions, and book signings.


BWG: What have you learned about the process of independent publishing as you’ve moved forward? What pitfalls have you learned to avoid?

CL: Indie publishing is just as difficult as traditional publishing. These days you’re going to do about the same amount of work in writing, revising, and promoting your book; indie isn’t the “easy” route OR the “harder” route. The hurdles are different, but the work is the same. And indie publishing, while you make more per sale, isn’t the quick trip to the bank. Without the power of a publishing house to sell your books to established fans, you have to build your fan base yourself. Since I’m a big proponent for indie publishing, and the freedom (income, schedule, creative) it provides, I hate it when people view it as the lesser option, and assume that people only self-publish because they can’t get a traditional contract. As I said earlier, I could talk about this forever!


BWG: What distribution channels have you used? Which ones have proven to be the best options for your work?

CL: This is a loaded question. J Amazon is the biggest seller of books and e-books. Off the top of my head, Kindle books accounted for 40% of all books sales in the U.S. in 2013. Not just Amazon books; Amazon Kindle books! So they’re the biggest distributor (which makes sense, because they’re the biggest distributor of everything). They also offer a significant incentive to authors to only sell their books there: Kindle Unlimited. KU readers can pay $10/month, and have unlimited access to “borrow” e-books in this program, and the author gets paid per page read. The amount an author makes on the book per “borrow” is usually less than s/he would make if the book was purchased, but those page reads really add up. I am part of KU (meaning I sell my books exclusively on Amazon), and I would say those borrows/page reads account for 30-60% of my income. Some months much more!

That said, KU (and Amazon exclusivity) aren’t for all books or all genres. Sweet historical westerns do very well in KU…erotica (for instance) does not. “Going wide” is the term for making your books available on all vendors, and you can use distribution sites like Draft2Digital or Smashwords to enter the info once and then send it to Barnes&Noble, iBooks, Kobo, etc. Those channels take longer to make money than on Amazon (simply because the audience/user base is smaller), but authors who are wide believe that’s a worthwhile investment because it means all their eggs aren’t in one basket.


BWG: How did you go about promoting and marketing your books?

CL: I’m actually not the best one to ask about this. One of my goals for 2017 is to hire an assistant to help with promotion, because I’m too busy writing to market much. I would say that my most successful technique so far is to have a personal relationship with my fans (via social media and my newsletter), and to just let them know when a new book is available. But I want to get my books onto reviewers’ radars, and other ways to reach broader audiences.

The best thing that’s worked is getting my fans to buy the book when it comes out, which pushes the book up the Amazon charts, which allows others to find my work. So the trick is to figure out how to keep the book high up on the chart for as long as possible.


BWG: Are you a member of Romance Writers of America?  Do you go to writers’ conferences? What are the benefits
you’ve discovered from networking with other writers?

CL: I cannot speak highly enough of joining an organization (but of course y’all know that already, being a writing group). I get so much out of my local chapter mates—not just useful presentations, but support and friendship. In a broader sense, going to writing conferences is a fantastic way to not only learn stuff, but to meet other authors. I always research who will be attending the conference, so I can connect with them on social media ahead of time. Many times, meeting someone in person—especially if we “click”—has resulted in opportunity later on (cross-promotion, for instance).

My current contemporary series, River’s End Ranch, is a collaboration between five authors. We created a “world”—a tourist-destination ranch in the Idaho mountains—and each writes a book that publishes once every other week. We each only have to write a book once every ten weeks, but our readers get a new book every other week. A win-win for all of us, and our books stay high on the charts because of the interest. Anyhow, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if I hadn’t met the other authors at the Spring Fling Conference in Chicago last year. We all “clicked,” and two days later they offered me a spot in the fledgling project. Networking at conferences is great!


BWG: What percentage of your marketing is through social media? Do you know which media are most effective for you?

CL: Facebook. I live on Facebook. There might be better platforms out there, but one of the marketing tips that gets repeated is “do what’s comfortable for you.” I don’t like Pinterest, and I don’t understand Instagram, so I stay off of those, but I know Facebook inside and out. The other half of my ‘marketing’ (ways I reach my readers) is my newsletter. I have about 4000 subscribers, people who’ve signed up to receive updates from me, and have worked hard to give them good content that makes them want to open and read.


BWG: Many of us have heard of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) every November, but you have ANOWRIMO—Another Novel Writing Month. Could you tell us about that?

CL: Heh. Back in 2011 I got frustrated with NaNoWriMo, because it’s November. I mean, November is one of the busiest months of the year! But February? Nothing’s going on in February! So I started Another Novel-Writing Month. I proposed YeAnNoWriMonth (Yet Another Novel-Writing Month) in July, but no one went for that.

NaNo is 50k in 30 days (1666 words a day), but we’re more laid-back; AnNoWriMo is 30k in 28 days (a little over 1000/day). We have a Facebook group, and are very good about encouraging each other throughout the year. I’ve found that encouragement and accountability—knowing that someone else knows my goals—have been very useful in meeting those goals.


BWG: How do you keep your readers engaged so that they will continue to follow your series?

CL: I write engaging stories. I have a great high-concept series going right now. High concept means that you can (basically) describe it in one line, and that the listener instantly knows exactly what s/he will get if s/he buys your book. My Everland Ever After series is “a Fairy Tale town set in the Old West.” Bam! You know exactly what you’re getting, and my readers love these stories. They clamor for the next story, ask about repeating secondary characters, and are invested in my stories.


BWG: Congratulations on being a USA Today Bestseller. To what do you attribute that success?

CL: The Duke’s Desire boxset is a great group of stories! Nine full-length historical romances featuring a Duke, and we launched it across all platforms (all e-book retailers) at $0.99. These books had been published before, but readers love Dukes, and it sold really well. Of course, all nine of us promoted it to our audiences; even if my audience had read my story, they’d be interested in reading the other eight. That’s an example of a group project that happened because of connections I made with other authors, and a collection that was very specific and focused. We hit the USA Today Bestsellers’ list 8 days after publication, at #117. It’s an amazing feeling!


BWG: What are your future goals as a writer? What do you hope to do next?

CL: I measure my success as a writer by sales. I know that not everyone feels that way, but it’s a good, tangible way for me to keep score, and justify my career decisions. So I have a specific monetary goal for 2017, and another for 2018. I would like to hit the USAT Bestsellers’ list on my own one day, but hitting a list has always been a secondary goal for me. My five-year goal as a writer is to make enough money to allow my husband to quit his job and work from home.


BWG: Do you have any words of wisdom to share with aspiring writers?

CL: Write every day. In order to become a writer, you have to write. Take online courses, go see presentations. Read, read, read until you know your genre inside and out. Read “craft” books so you can identify beats and plot tropes, and then go back to your genre books and examine them. And write every day. Write until it becomes a habit, and not writing every day feels wrong. That’s the way to become a writer. Once you’re a writer in your head, your heart—once you start introducing yourself as a writer to strangers at cocktail parties—that’s when you’re official. And write. Every day.