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Save the Cat!® – The New Bible for Self-Publishing

Writer Sharon Page

Writer Sharon Page

Our thanks to the wonderful Sharon Page, the USA Today bestselling author of 15 books of historical romance. She is the two-time consecutive winner of the RT BOOKreviews Reviewers’ Choice award, and a double nominee this year for her 2011 releases Engaged in Sin and Blood Wicked. She is also a two-time consecutive winner of the National Readers’ Choice Award (for romance fiction). Sharon is a frequent workshop presenter at Romance Writers of America and Romantic Times conferences. Her educational background is in product design, working many years for a structural engineering firm before turning to writing. Her current self-published release is Sinful. In Spring 2012, she will be releasing Escape with a Rogue, the first book in the Regency Prison Break series. Her website is www.SharonPage.com.

Cover of "Blood Wicked"

Cover of “Blood Wicked”

I’m a USA Today bestselling author of 15 books for three publishers and I am branching out into self-publishing. For those who haven’t heard about the rise of self-publishing, it involves selling books yourself on sites including Amazon, Smashwords, B&N, etc., in digital and print, for a royalty rate of up to 70%. Many published authors are taking the plunge: either exclusively self-publishing, or combining it with their work contracted with major New York houses.

Why is self-publishing so cool? I believe it is because suddenly authors can take control of their careers. Authors now have another viable, author-friendly, flexible publisher: themselves. We have a distribution network we can tap, checks that come monthly, and we can schedule our own book releases. This is the first time in years I have seen so much excitement, drive, and enthusiasm amongst novel writers. You can write hard, get your product out there (immediately), and see if you can make money.

Personally I still love working with a skilled editor and having another enthusiastic voice involved in my work. But I also think it is great to self-publish to keep your name out there and have another income stream. So how can you do it and succeed?

This is where Save the Cat!® is my bible for self-publishing. When you put up your book, here is what you “get” to describe your story and make it stand out:

*A cover and a title
*A short description (under 400 characters)
*A long description (4000 characters)

The logline as explained by Blake Snyder? That becomes your 400-character short description. And it can be the first paragraph of your long description. This is where you must narrow in on what the hooks are of your story… and of your genre. Once again, your logline is your key piece of marketing.  It must do everything explained in STC!: it must tell you which “guy” you are rooting for; it must give the reader a mental picture of what the story could be; and it identifies the audience (thriller, romantic comedy, sexy historical romance, etc.).

Don’t forget irony, which is really important here. I think the irony gives you the “narrative drive” of the story, which is so critical to the logline. Narrative drive in romance is the plot framework you are hanging the romance on.

Cover for "Engaged in Sin"

Cover for “Engaged in Sin”

I write historical romance, so what is an irony in historical romance?  Here is an example from my latest book Engaged in Sin (this one was published by Dell in November):

A blinded duke falls in love with the courtesan sent by friends to give him ‘sexual healing’, but she is hiding a secret—she is wrongfully accused of murder.

The irony: a duke’s love means a life of happiness, ease, and luxury for the courtesan on the run, but she can’t accept it under false pretenses. The plot of the book is right there in the irony. Love must grow, truths must be revealed, a murder must be solved.

I mentioned getting the hooks of your genre, but first I want to point out the importance of the killer title:

We “get” fairy tale tropes and they are popular, which is why you see romances titled To Tame a Beast (Beauty and the Beast), or Mine ’Til Midnight (Cinderella). Titled men are popular in historical romances, so you get The Duke and I, How to Marry a Marquis, or If You Give a Girl a Viscount.

Harlequin has romance titles in their series that make people laugh—or cringe—but they work to get the “high concept” of the story right in the title. We may make fun of The Billionaire’s Secret Baby Christmas, but we can ‘see’ what the story is about, i.e., what story we are buying.

In self-publishing, as with all publishing, you want to get that hook right in the title. Engaged in Sin is one of my favorite titles that I developed—it is playful, it promises a marriage, and the story is about a hero and heroine who have sex first and fall in love after. My next self-published book, the first in my “Regency Prison Break” series, is called Escape with a Rogue. It’s about a prison break out, a heroine in the run with a prisoner, and romance, of course, is escapism reading.

Here is another great example: My author friend Teresa Morgan has broken into publishing via self-publishing. She writes “Sheikh books.” Previously, the only market was Harlequin. She decided to do it herself and now ranks at the top of the genre on Amazon. Her newest release is Sheikh with Benefits; her previous one was Handcuffed to the Sheikh. The hook is clearly stated. The reader knows what the book is about and the titles let the reader know that she will be getting an updated, edgier, sexier tone.

I also add key words to the title. My Amazon page for my current self-published release reads: Sinful (A Risque Regency novella), to say: this is exactly what you are buying.

What can you do with your product description—the rest of your 4000 characters?

Here you can use the Promise of the Premise. In this description, I include a short excerpt from the story, just a few paragraphs that show the Promise of the Premise. This is where you also want to know the “hooks” of your genre. In historical romance, we want to see the arrogant duke humbled by love. Or the sexually voracious rake tamed by love. Or the blinded, reclusive man healed. In Engaged in Sin, which has a blind duke hero and a courtesan heroine, the promise of the premise is the heroine’s seduction of the hero, but it is also the ways in which she heals and helps him.  So the plot includes a scene where she helps the duke shave, and one where she takes him outside in a storm to learn that rain can give scope to his world.

A short excerpt can show how your book will deliver on expectations, and should show how you give them a twist of your own.

This is just a start. Basically, I find everything in Save the Cat! applies brilliantly to the brave new world of self-publishing, and it is my “go-to” bible for story development.

Check out our other novel-writing blog posts.

Jessica Brody will consult on your novel and analyze your beat sheet according to the Save the Cat!® principles. Learn More>>

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About the Author

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There Are 27 Comments

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  1. Kate Douglas says:

    Great post, Sharon. And as one of your readers I can honestly say, what you do with all your romantic fiction, you do amazingly well! Love the ideas you’ve presented here, and like you, I’m also enjoying the freedom of self-publishing along with my traditionally published books. It’s a whole new world for the author.

  2. PJ Sharon says:

    Great information, Sharon. As a newly self-published author, this is all very helpful. I’m going back to review my tag line and description for my upcoming third release, Savage Cinderella. Thanks for the tips!

  3. This is all excellent advice, Sharon. I never thought of adding key words to my titles. I shall do so right away.

  4. Dani Harper says:

    Thanks for writing this! It gave me a new outlook on titling, and other great information.

  5. Sharon Page says:

    Thank you Kate. I know you’ve been having great success with both traditional and self-published books. The ability to have 2 streams going is fantastic. I just realized I will have 4 releases out this year, and I had 4 last year, due to blending the 2 publishing streams. Really helps to build a career, and the ability to cross-market is so exciting.

  6. Sharon Page says:

    Thanks so much. It definitely sounds like you have a “killer title”. I’m really intrigued by “Savage Cinderella”!

  7. Sharon Page says:

    Thank you, Maureen.
    My friend Teresa Morgan first mentioned this to me. So I checked books in my genre and discovered those with key words in the title seemed to be selling well.

  8. Sharon Page says:

    I am very thrilled to have been invited to blog here, as I use Save the Cat when I am developing a story all the time. I also love how Blake explains that it is hard work and revision that makes a story knock it out of the park.

    I’m using Save the Cat right now as I prepare a new proposal for NY. It helped me tighten my logline, which took me in a new, and infinitely better, direction for the story. Having ideas like the “Promise of the Premise” at my fingertips made me sit down and think “How can I SELL this premise to an editor?”

    I’m excited about the proposal. Off it will go to my agent, the wonderful Jessica Faust of BookEnds, then I’m hoping it will wow editors.

  9. Dear Sharon,

    I’m so excited for you! And what a thrill it was for me to be avidly reading your wonderful article and see the name of my book there! Fist bump, girl. I wish you all the success in the world. And thanks for being so generous and sharing your self-pubbing tips here. Blake would be so proud to know he’s helped you on your writing journey.


    Kieran :>)

  10. Everything said in this article is also true of Science Fiction and Fantasy mass market publishing. I had always wondered what was so special about Mass Market titles and cover images, and why some mass market titles get “dumps” (boxes of books set in front of the shelves) and others don’t.

    The answer is High Concept in the title and description. Once I had absorbed Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT! series, I was at another book convention where publishers were pushing their books with giveaways. I passed a “dump” and in one FLASH, just seeing it out of the corner of my eye, I came to finally understand High Concept all the way to my bone marrow. Sharon here is absolutely correct.

  11. Sharon Page says:

    Hi Kieran
    Thank you so much. It’s been terrific to see your success and I’ve loved every one of your titles, but If You Give a Girl a Viscount just blew me away. I have little kids and have read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and the premise that when you do, the mouse will ask for something else. It really stood out and made me laugh.

    And it will be great to see you at the RT convention, in flapper attire 🙂

  12. Hope Tarr says:

    Great post, Sharon. I am about to do the same with one of my back list Berkley/Jove single-title historical romances, TEMPTING. The book was already professionally edited by the publisher of course, but I couldn’t resist giving it a facelift based on my decade+ years of writing experience. 🙂 It will be out by February 14th (Valentine’s Day) and available across platforms with a pretty new cover. The audio book will be out with Audio Realms later in March.

    If someone would have told me even a year ago I’d be self-pubbing my work, I would have laughed. But a new digital day has indeed dawned and once the dust settles, I think we writers will be proved smart indeed to take hands on control of our works in the market place.

  13. Hope Tarr:
    I absolutely agree which is why some of my backlist is up, posted by me, but most is from a reprint publisher, Wildside Press, which is doing new titles in my old series (4 so far).

    I also belong to a group of mass market award winning writers who are self-publishing, Backlist eBooks, which I expect you’ve heard of. Writers gathering all kinds of publishing expertise.

  14. Sharon Page says:

    Hi Dani,
    Thanks so much. Now, I like to get a strong title, even if I know the publisher might change it. It helps me get my head around what the book is about. Blake mentions in Save the Cat that he has sometimes thought of the title first.

  15. Sharon Page says:

    Hi Jacqueline,
    Interesting comment about the book “dumps”. I was thinking about The Hunger Games, which is a title that really says what the book is about, but it seems to me like the book has been a slower build–i.e. it got interest, then word of mouth made it take off. Now, when I go into the bookstore, I see thousands of copies, literally piled up on the floor.
    Another book whose title caught me eye is Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel. I’m old enough to remember Clockwork Orange so it intrigued me and I thought was the perfect title for the steampunk genre.
    I really love the way Save the Cat makes these concepts so accessible, and so easy to remember.

  16. Sharon Page says:

    Hi Hope
    Great to hear you are self-pubbing your older books because they are fantastic. I loved Tempting and I am sure many, many readers want to get those books.
    It is also great that authors are finding they can exercise the subsidiary rights of self-published books, such as audio and foreign rights.

  17. Sharon Page says:

    Thanks for mentioning Backlist ebooks. I’ve heard of Indie romance loops, and other groups, but had not heard about this one.

  18. Great post and thanks for showing love to self-publishers. For years we’ve been seen as the bastard children. I’ve been doing it for two years, won several awards and love it! I don’t see going the traditional route anytime soon–and this coming from an author who was signed with TWO literary agents during my short career.

  19. Sharon Page says:

    Hi James
    Congratulations and thanks. The big change seemed to come when people realized real money could be made with self-publishing 🙂

  20. Bob Conder says:

    Thanks for the blog, it brings new hope to those who struggle.

  21. Sharon Page says:

    Hi Bob
    Thanks–sometimes the writing business always definitely seems like a struggle. What has amazed me talking to many authors who appeared to have these straight-line, upward reaching careers, is that their journey was more of a roller coaster 🙂 I know several who have “reinvented” themselves many times. So having more options as a writer is definitely a good thing.

  22. Susan Modregon says:

    Thanks for the suggestions. I have been thinking about self publishing to a degree now that with e-books you don’t have to buy a ton of books that may or may not sell and worry about delivery or whatever. And it used to be thought of that self publishing was selling yourself short cuz you couldn’t get a publisher. But now it’s more a choice. I’ve thought most about gathering a collection of verse. Song lyrics really. But I have no means of recording, so this would be a way to get them out. And they are the most ready. $10 per poem is so unappealing the conventional route. And I suspect self-publishing wouldn’t hold me back from doing more with them later. And if the book gained enough interest maybe some doors would open to recording. But who would buy a book with a bunch of verse? That’s not a story, I thought. Then I thought, yes it is. Every good song tells a story with a set up, midpoint; I even have a whiff of death in one off the top of my head. And the collection is a larger story.

    But I really liked your title suggestions with key words and fairy tale tropes. That gave me the best ideas. Before I thought why would somebody buy “Susan’s Collection of Lyrics and Poems” Who’s Susan? Who cares? And showing scenes like samples would work well here. I think the best title I thought of is…
    It’s a Bounty-full of Life~horrors, love, and faith.
    (A collection of relatable verse to today with fresh insight.)
    I think there’s some irony there if you detect what the title mirrors. Even the key words are separated by irony. But I wonder, how many pages would make a suitable book?

  23. Sharon Page says:

    Hi Susan,
    You are exactly right–now it is more of a choice. Now that it has been seen authors can be successful, the stigma has disappeared. I think you have a great idea to get your lyrics out–and you retain control over the rights. Self-publishing is a great venue for niche ideas that are hard to place somewhere else–where there is a readership, but publishers are wary beccause they aren’t sure on the size of the market.

  24. Melody Lopez says:

    look at how everyone has responded to this blog… way to go CAT NATION!


  25. karen packwood-goro says:

    WOW! Life can be odd sometimes! I have been reading Blake’s last two books in order to prepare me for really, finally and truthfully completing my screenplay which has been covered in dust for a couple of years. In those two years, I have been dreaming of having more time to write … well, this week , the page 75 whiff of death happened and I lost my job! So now I am homeless ( my job came with an apartment), jobless and almost penniless. Can I ‘storm the castle’ and become the writer I long to be? I have no idea but this blog about self-publishing ( I have a novel I would like to write too) and the latest one about marketing your screenplay have both inspired me and terrified me! Can I, little ol me, really do it?You give me hope Sharon. Wish me luck!

  26. Sharon Page says:

    Hi Karen,
    Wow, you have had some major shake ups in your life, and it is excellent that you have a take-charge attitude to this. I’ve worked contract a lot, where work came and went, but I’ve always had a bit of safety net. One thing I found working contract is that it is good to have money from lots of sources. Definitely get your screenplay out there so it can be working for you, get books up so they can be generating money. The self-publishing can start slowly, but it can build. If you can juggle that as well as getting in other work, that would be great. I do wish you the best of luck and really admire your great attitude.

  27. karen packwood-goro says:

    Thanks Sharon,
    I’m very excited by all the opportunities opening up for me but naturally dip in to fear too. I have huge trust in the positive power of the universe so I know that I will be okay, whatever happens. Thanks for your advice – it helps knowing there is a Cat community all working towards the same goals and following Blake’s ideology of being positive and generous to others.It’s going to be an interesting adventure. At the moment I live in Finland but will be returning to rural England to sit and write in a tiny summer house in my mother’s back garden — I’m going to enjoy seeing if I can make it from the middle of no-where to some where special! ( There’s a whole title, pitch and log line in all of this don’t you think!?)

    Blake was so positive about writer’s getting themselves into, and out of, trouble and approached it with a sense of glee in his book, so that’s the tone I’m going to take! I am gleefully jobless, gleefully homeless, gleefully almost penniless but gleefully aware of all the amazing support and love I have surrounding me and supporting me and gleefully opening myself up to the fact that I am now, officially, a gleeful writer!

    Thanks for replying and giving me some support. It’s greatly appreciated.