Being a writer qualifies you to do a ton of jobs, but to hear many of us talk, academia is basically the only option. Not to knock tenure-track jobs — I’d love to have one, because they’re sweet as hell and come with fun luxuries like health insurance — but they’re also not the be-all-end-all. Maybe you don’t have a book yet (no tenure for you, bro!) or you don’t want to put yourself through the adjunct ringer. Maybe you just don’t want to teach. What do you do then?
I once went to an AWP panel for writers who wanted to survive outside of academia. I was advised to marry rich. Seriously. This advice was offered with only nominal sarcasm and it was literally the best option the panel came up with.
So I’m offering this interview series as an alternative and an antidote. Odd Jobs will profile writers making a living outside of the university system. Hopefully one of or more these jobs will excite and inspire you. And if you’re a writer who isn’t in academia, please shoot me an email. I wanna talk!
For the inaugural edition of Odd Jobs, I spoke with Ruthie Luhnow, a full-time romance author based in the Pacific Northwest. Ruthie majored in creative writing during undergrad. Now, she supports herself by writing and publishing romance novels online. Ruthie and I spoke via Facebook messenger over the course of several sessions. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you describe your job in a nutshell?
I self-publish gay romance novels on Amazon! I’m a full-time author.
What’s your favorite thing about it?
Almost everything, really. I still can’t believe I’m actually supporting myself doing this full-time. I am writing stories I love and care about, and I enjoy having a flexible schedule (though I still have routines to make sure I’m actually … you know, getting work done).
The people I’ve met are some of the best parts about this though — I thought writing would be kind of lonely, but I’ve made some incredible friends that I talk to daily.
That’s awesome! Can you talk a bit about your daily routine?
So after a lot of trial and error, I’ve found that I’m usually most productive in the morning, and when I work at a coffee shop. So usually I will get up, have breakfast, then head to a coffee shop that’s a few blocks from my house. I’ll spend a little bit of time checking various sites like my author Facebook, my sales/recent reviews (I don’t actually read the reviews, I just kind of check if there’s more posted), and things like that.
I’ve also found that I work best in “sprints.” So I’ll set a timer for usually about twenty minutes, write, then take a five minute break. I do that as many times as I need to reach whatever word goal I have for the day…. Right now, I’m just getting started on my next book, so I usually only get one thousand to two thousand [words] a day written in the beginning. When I have a solid idea of where the plot is going, I average between three thousand and five thousand on a good day.
You just released a book last week and you’re already getting started on a new one. Sounds like the production schedule is really fast.
Haha, definitely. It’s a pretty breakneck pace. I try not to go longer than eight weeks between a release, though this last book took nine weeks. Romance readers are so voracious that releasing consistently is important to keep up momentum, especially when you’re still becoming an established name in the genre.
You mentioned that you’re still working to establish yourself. How long have you been doing this and what got you started?
I started pursuing this as a career in the summer of 2016 (so last year). I had a friend who was publishing in this genre and they gave me a lot of information about it and it sounded like something I might be good at. I spent the first few months doing a ton of market research — I was reading five to six gay romance novels a week as well as reading forums and online communities with other indie authors. I published my first book in December 2016 (took me about 2.5 months to write), and just released my fifth book last week.
What drew you to the gay romance subgenre specifically?
A small part of it was commercial viability — this was a subgenre that would allow me to support myself full-time if I were successful and was easier to break into than other subgenres. It was kind of the perfect confluence of viability and personal interest — I’ve wanted to write queer stories for a long time, and suddenly I found that there was a market for it.
For me personally, too, as a queer writer, I’ve been able to write about characters who have similar struggles to what I’ve faced — coming out, finding a label that fits — as well as some of the joys of being queer: finding an amazing community, being a more authentic version of myself, etc.
The queer romance novels you write all feature guy-guy couples (also referred to as m/m). Does this subgenre differ in terms of tropes or reader expectations from stories featuring two women (f/f) or a man and a woman (m/f)?
I haven’t read a ton of f/f romance, or m/f romance for that matter, so I can’t speak with total authority…. I think over all though, the romance expectations hold true: no cheating, happily ever after ending, etc., regardless of who is falling in love. You can find popular tropes — enemies to lovers, billionaires, friends to lovers, road trips, May/December — across all those genres.
Something I’ve noticed and appreciated about your work is that safe sex and explicit consent feature pretty prominently.
In m/m there is definitely a huge demand for informed consent, safer sex, and also I’ve found readers respond really well to discussion of social issues. I recently included a non-binary character and had a few reviewers point this out and say they appreciated the representation, which really meant a lot to me.
I assume, given that you’re self-publishing, that you’re also responsible for cover design and marketing. How do you go about designing and marketing your work?
Covers are a huge part of whether or not a book will do well. Doing things “to-market” is a huge part of being successful in indie publishing. It’s not about reinventing the wheel, it’s about discovering why people like what they like and giving them variations on that. Which is why tropes are so effective in writing.
You see tropes in literary fiction, too. I mean, I don’t think people want to admit that but literary fiction can be trope-y.
Ha, yes! Tropes are the best! My best selling book by far can be boiled down to a handful of very popular tropes. I like to think it’s a thoughtful take on those tropes, but at its core it’s an out-for-you college sports romance.
People are more likely to buy something that’s a “known quantity”—for instance, if they see “sports romance” it gives them a sense of whether or not they’re likely to enjoy that book.
So basically you have to get over being “artsy” and “different.” I think that’s how I got to the point where I could be successful. I stopped trying to be “literary” and “not like other romance writers” and just embraced the genre for all that it is. And sometimes it’s super corny and mushy and over the top and I kind of love it.
You mentioned that you got into indie-romance because you have a friend who also writes it. Can you talk a little about your fellow writers? What’s the community like?
The community is by far the best part of writing. I think some people think this industry is very cutthroat, and it’s possible that it is in other genres, but the m/m community is, for the most part, incredibly warm and accepting. I have friends across all ages/genders/orientations/nationalities and people are so willing to share knowledge and support and enthusiasm. My friend always says “a rising tide raises all boats” and we’ve really found that to be true. Networking has been an essential part of my success.
We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of indie publishing. What would you say the biggest risk is?
You really have to be willing to do what the market wants and let go of what you think the market should want. It’s highly possible to spend months and months chipping away at a novel that’s your passion project and your absolute baby and then have it sell one copy and get terrible reviews. There’s a lot of emotional investment, which can be hard…. Like with anything creative, there’s this feeling of “what if no one else cares about this thing I think is important.”
Okay, final question: What advice would you give to someone looking to get into indie publishing, whether it be romance or some other genre?
DO. YOUR. RESEARCH. Success is possible, but it is not easy. I see tons of people who think they don’t need to listen to veteran publishers, who think they know better/know everything already. This is just like any job — it requires a lot of work and a lot of market savvy in addition to writing ability. You have to be willing to approach this with an open mind, ready to learn and listen, as with any new skill. There is a huge amount of information about all of this on the Internet, but not all of it is good advice. It will take time and patience. For instance, I spent a good six months just researching before I actually started publishing.
Also, I think it comes from the heart. You can’t disrespect your readers. All of the successful authors I know are also avid readers of the subgenre they write in.