Contemporary romance author Barbara Freethy is an Amazon KDP Bestselling Author of All Time with a total now of 12 million books sold in multiple languages. She’s a master of thrilling mysteries, romantic suspense and heart-warming romance.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today in The Joys of Binge Reading Barbara talks about the enjoyment she gets from being able to switch between the more chilling thrillers she writes to her charming love stories, and she also talks about the advantage of having a good head for business in today’s publishing environment – perhaps more important today than it ever has been in the past for an author to be able to understand the business of publishing.
We’ve got a free book giveaway to mark St Valentine’s Day: author Ashley Emma, an award-winning USA Today bestselling author of over 15 hugely popular Amish romances. She’s got four of them to give away on her website – so check them out today.
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Introducing Barbara Freethy, best-selling romance author
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to the show notes in The Joys of Binge Reading.com for important mentions.
And now, here’s Barbara.
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there Barbara and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Barbara Freethy: Thanks so much for having me.
Jenny Wheeler: You started out with a very sound career in trad publishing, but in the early days of the indie revolution you were one of the ones who jumped ship, and your success has been remarkable. Within a few years you had sold 5 million eBooks and become an Amazon KDP bestselling author of all time. That was a few years ago. Have you got any idea how many books you’ve sold now?
Barbara Freethy: I think adding them all up, because I was traditionally published before I went indie, I probably have about 12 million books sold worldwide, and in many different languages now too, so that’s very exciting for me.
Jenny Wheeler: That is fantastic. It goes without saying that you write highly entertaining and addictive books, but even so, how do you account for that brilliant success?
Barbara Freethy: It’s really hard to account for the success. There are a lot of factors that have gone into it. Publishing on a regular basis, being consistent with what I write, and meeting the reader’s expectations has been helpful for me. There are a lot of different factors.
I put a lot of time in, but then a lot of authors put a lot of time in, so I don’t do anything that much differently. I’ve got a good head for business, the business of publishing as well as for the writing, and that’s been helpful in my pursuit of an indie career.
Romantic suspense and contemporary romance chosen genres
Jenny Wheeler: You write in the genres of romantic suspense and contemporary romance. Those are your main focuses and you are firmly established in that as a reigning queen in that area. You’ve got two and maybe even three series running at the moment. The Callaways, which was your earlier one, was highly successful. Are you still doing books on that one as well?
Barbara Freethy: No, I have not done a Callaway book in about two years, but I do think there will be another spin off from the Callaways, another Callaway cousin family, although I did spin off my Callaway’s into my Whisper Lake series. That begins with one of the cousins starting a summer camp up in the mountains of Colorado, which is where the fictional town of Whisper Lake is located.
So, I have that Whisper Lake series, which is heart-warming, charming romance with all the feels, and then an ongoing Off The Grid: FBI romantic suspense series which traces a group of agents who met at Quantico during training. There is an overarching mystery in the first five books and the books after that are fairly standalone but many of the characters will appear throughout the series.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve definitely got that skill of writing series or linked books down to a fine art. I loved the earlier Lightning Strikes Trilogy. That was one I adored. At the moment we’re particularly talking about Risky Bargain, which is number 10 in the FBI series, and If We Never Met which is number five in the Whisper Lake series.
Rom emotional heart-warming family stories to suspense
You do this thing of almost double tagging – one of the romantic suspense and then one of the contemporary romance. Is that how it goes? You almost counterpoint.
Barbara Freethy: Yes. Sometimes I’ll do two in a row and sometimes I’ll do every other. I will say that my voice is very much the same in both series. One has more suspense within the plot, but I write a lot about families and friends. A lot of the themes that I write in contemporary romance are the same themes I write in romantic suspense. It’s just heavier on the mystery and the suspense element.
It’s a nice break to go back and forth because Whisper Lake is a little bit more family and romance oriented – heart-warming, emotional stories, which I really love, and then the FBI is a little bit more heart pounding, on the run, suspenseful, twisting, surprise kind of stories. It’s fun to go back and forth. But a lot of my readers seem to be reading both series and are enjoying it, so I think the voice comes through anyway. It’s just a little bit of variation.
Jenny Wheeler: Does it feel different when you’re writing them? Is one of them going to be in a beach house and the other you’re in the city?
Barbara Freethy: It feels different because the FBI suspense books are a little bit more heavily researched. There is so much to do with technology and crime and investigation and that sort of thing. Those are more difficult in terms of that, but with the contemporary romance, to try and keep it as fresh and interesting and innovative as I can is always the challenge. I have written a lot of books in that vein, so I really try hard to make sure they’re all unique and it doesn’t feel like you’ve read the story before.
Ideas that develop along with the unfolding story
Jenny Wheeler: Also, you do keep them light on the sex. They’re very much emotional stories.
Barbara Freethy: Yes. There is usually some sex but it’s minimal and it’s a very small portion of the book. I do emphasize more of the emotional, romantic link. There is some sex on the page but certainly, compared to a lot of steamy books, not as much. I’m a little bit light is probably a good word.
Jenny Wheeler: In Risky Bargain you’ve got FBI agent Lucas Raines. He is drawn into this murky world of gaming where the boundary lines between real and virtual reality get fatally crossed. I was fascinated by that announcement of Mark Zuckerberg’s in the last 10 days about his metaverse, and I wondered if it was almost prophetic that you had seen the aspects of possible sinister crossings between virtual reality and the real world. Would you take any credit for having had that kind of foresight?
Barbara Freethy: I have no idea. I’m sure that this idea has been held before me. When I saw that, I thought it was interesting, but I really just had this idea which developed as I wrote it.
One of my friends has a teenager who is obsessed with gaming. I was kind of taking that idea to – you could almost make these gamers do anything if they believed it was virtual reality. That’s what happens in Risky Bargain. There’s this line between what’s real and what’s not real, and even the FBI agents have to start questioning if what they’re finding is real or if it’s not real.
With technology now almost anything we imagine could happen
That was the whole theme I was playing around with. It was very fun and it felt very forward facing, but it’s also like, anything is possible with our technology now. You can imagine almost anything being possible.
Jenny Wheeler: You would have had to have done a lot of research for that book and, as you mentioned, with the technological aspects of the others, because law enforcement these days is so closely enmeshed with technology. Have you got a particular hotline to do that research? Does that technology area come naturally to you?
Barbara Freethy: It does not come naturally to me, but I do have friends and I also have people that I can contact to get ideas for some of the technological advances. As I mentioned, my friend has a son who’s a gamer. She is also a writer and very technical so she helped me a bit with the gaming aspect.
But I’ve written so many books that I’ve long ago written everything I knew, so that advice that writers get to write what you know only lasted a few books. But I find it more entertaining for me as a writer to have to learn something new and then share it and expand on it in a story and go with, what if this was possible? Then it becomes a very fun, creative exercise.
Jenny Wheeler: One of the creepy and touching aspects of Risky Bargain is that some of the young gamers, not necessarily so young but people who are sucked into gaming, get to do things they believe are within the game and then they discover that they are not in the game. They have been used as a bit of a dupe. That was quite touching, some of the responses when they discovered they’d been conned.
The fine line between good and evil, reality and non reality
Barbara Freethy: That was what was so fascinating about writing that story. There is this fine line between everything – good and evil, reality and not reality. It was fun to play around with that in the story.
Jenny Wheeler: Have you ever seen any examples where this could happen in real life? Do you think it could really happen in real life?
Barbara Freethy: I think it could really happen in real life because of the way we’re so attached to the internet. People get sucked into things, and we have seen that people will believe almost anything depending on how it’s sold to them. So, yeah, I think a lot of things are possible, which is both scary and interesting. I wanted to explore that idea a little bit in a fictional world.
Jenny Wheeler: Whisper Lake is set in really different territory, because you assume the FBI ones are in an urban environment. Whisper Lake is off the highway, a Colorado mountain town, but you still have the technical aspect.
It opens in a humorous way. Kate is trying to recruit a date to take to a best friend’s wedding. The friend said you’ve got to bring someone, and so she goes online to a dating app and arranges to meet this blind date in a local cafe. Quite naturally, it could happen – she picks out the wrong guy, approaches the table and says, are you Daniel? He nods, and they get talking, and then after a short time, she realizes that it’s not the right person. Once again, you’ve got technology in there right at the beginning.
Barbara Freethy: Yes. I really liked that opening. It was so fun.
Jenny Wheeler: So did I.
Whisper Lake majors on emotional family stories
Barbara Freethy: I have adult children who also go on online dates, so I have a lot of fodder from their experiences for that kind of moment. It was funny because I think she does say, are you Danny? His name is Dante, so he doesn’t quite hear her in the bar and thinks that he’s also got a kind of a celebrity pass.
He assumes that she knows who he is and then realizes she doesn’t have any idea who he is, which is also entertaining for him because he’s used to people using him for a celebrity. It became a very fun opening scene, and then it goes on from there.
All of my Whisper Lake books are pretty emotional stories. There’s a lot about the families of the characters. In her case, she has a mom who has an old flame that suddenly appears. She’s trying to protect her mom, and there’s a little bit of mystery. I love to add mysteries to my books or a question or a puzzle or something for a reader to figure out. Even when they’re not suspense, there’s usually something making you want to know more.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right. The mom’s subplot – you were worried all the time that he was a con artist and was feeding her lines that she thought she remembered, but you were always a little bit worried that she didn’t really remember them. It was a bit of an autosuggestion situation set up.
Barbara Freethy: Right. I think it’s so interesting how many people reconnect with high school flames in their older years, sometimes even eighties, nineties. I wanted to explore that idea in this book.
Callaways a favorite Barbara Freethy series
This person comes back and you’re taken back to your own youth through this person, but is the person real, or is it part of a con? Is there something else going on? That was interesting. The mom wanted to feel like herself again and she could with this person who knew her when she was young. It’s a fun thing to read about.
Jenny Wheeler: Very interesting. We’ve mentioned the Callaways already. You have got two related series in the Callaways, haven’t you?
Barbara Freethy: There are fourteen books in the Callaways. It’s about a family that was born to serve and protect. Many of them are firefighters, but there’s this sense of giving back to the community and to the world throughout their family history. It’s also a blended family, so if you remember the old show, The Brady Bunch, it’s four of his and two of hers and then two together, so the kids grow up with a different relationship to each other and to their parents, which I thought would be fun.
Then it got into the world of firefighting. Many of those books are set in San Francisco and take you in different ways through the family relationships and also through their love relationships.
Jenny Wheeler: Did you have to make an extensive family tree to keep track of who was who, and how they were all inter-related?
Barbara Freethy: Yes, absolutely. I did the original eight and then I did a family of cousins of six kids. Then the book goes over several years. People have children and you have to keep track of that.
More Callaways coming in the future
But it is really fun and I will probably go back and do another Callaway spinoff, but I took a little bit of a break for myself and for the readers. I think they will be excited to go back and meet more Callaways in the future.
Jenny Wheeler: Is it all on a spreadsheet?
Barbara Freethy: Some of it is. I’m not a big spreadsheet person but I do have a lot of notes in a notebook. That’s more my style.
Jenny Wheeler: I must admit I’ve got several notebooks. I’m always burrowing around trying to find the one that I need.
Barbara Freethy: Right. The little notes that get lost. That’s the problem.
Jenny Wheeler: I wonder if you could give readers a brief idea about the difference there is for you in being in this position compared with being a mid-level traditionally published author.
Barbara Freethy: Right. I wrote for four of the big five New York publishing houses over my career before I became indie, so I have a pretty good sense of both worlds. As an indie author I have far more control over my product – everything from the writing to the distribution, to how often I write, to how fast I write, to how I want to distribute it, what price point it would cover.
There is no comparison in terms of control between the two things and I love it. I’ve discovered that I’m very good at the business end of writing. I enjoy that as much as I do the writing so for me, it’s been a fabulous experience.
Indie writers generally work at a higher publishing rate
Jenny Wheeler: You’re working very hard. I think you are producing four books a year.
Barbara Freethy: Yes. Generally, between three and four. Four books a year is about my pace.
Jenny Wheeler: And a traditional publishing house can’t handle that volume of work.
Barbara Freethy: No. For most of my career, I was allowed to publish one to two books per year, and I write faster than that. Also, the books are scheduled so far out, so you might write a book and then it doesn’t come out for two years. I really appreciate with digital now and with indie that I can write a book and bring it out in four months for my audience. That’s been great.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s valuable too because you get instant feedback on how readers are receiving it. You don’t have to wait two years and have almost gone cold on the idea.
Barbara Freethy: Right. In traditional publishing also there’s so much dependency on the print book, and when you write a series, it’s very difficult for any bookstore to carry all the books in the series in their store. They just don’t have shelf space for it. In the digital world it’s much easier to write a series because the reader can get all of the books in the series at the time they want them.
When you’re doing traditional and you’re writing a series, which I have done for traditional publishers, I’d have a book out and then the second one wouldn’t come out for a year and a half. By that time the first book was gone and readers couldn’t find it.
Binge watching has transferred to binge reading
Now it’s not only traditional. It’s also print versus digital. Having the option to shelve an unlimited number of books in any of the online bookstores has allowed writers to be able to allow readers to binge read, which we couldn’t necessarily do before.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, exactly. It’s partly why I framed this podcast the way I did. When I started looking at publishing five years ago now, I realized that the Netflix phenomenon of people binge watching has very much been transferred into reading with the digital age, hasn’t it?
Barbara Freethy: Yes, it has. It’s probably the number one difference. Readers can get all the books in a series and read them all at one time. I know readers who will wait until there are two or three books out before they’ll start a series simply because they want to binge. I think series have taken off in this era of binge everything – binge watching, binge reading. That has been really good for writers.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. The people who listen to the show – I presume that if they find a book they like, they are wanting to go and find more to read. I usually gratefully decline debut authors and say to them, wait until you’ve got two or three so that if people really like it, there’s something else they can go to, because that’s exactly how we live these days.
Barbara Freethy: Yes, I think that’s very true. Even myself as a reader, if I love someone’s book I’m immediately going to go and see what else they’ve written and what else I can buy.
Learning the business of publishing
Jenny Wheeler: You mentioned you’ve discovered that you are very good at the business end. What were you doing in life before you became a writer that might have helped contribute to that, or was it a natural inclination you had or discovered?
Barbara Freethy: That’s a good question. I worked in public relations way back when, long time ago, so I really enjoyed the writing part of public relations, which was writing newsletters and collateral materials for clients, but I didn’t enjoy some of the other aspects. So, when I went into indie publishing, I did have some of that ability to market and an understanding, although I wouldn’t say that I come at it as a marketing expert because, as I said, I did this many years ago so my knowledge is not as up to date as people who maybe are doing that work right now and then becoming indie writers.
Also, I have a lot of experience in publishing because I was published for so many years by other publishers. When you’re published by a traditional publisher there’s a misunderstanding that they’re going to do everything for you. In truth, they left much of the marketing up to the author anyway, so I learned how to do that even when I was with a publisher. I understood that I had to build my newsletter and I had to get my word out and I had to talk to booksellers and all that. So, I did have some experience coming out of traditional.
Barbara Freethy – Finding her best place in the publishing scene
It was important to understand the relationships between people. Some writers just want to write and that’s all they want to do. That’s fine, and that’s what they should do. The great thing is there are so many paths and so many options now, and there weren’t before. That’s why I’m so excited about it. Writers can do whatever they want, whatever works for them personally.
Jenny Wheeler: Do you think that if you hadn’t have made this step, would you still be writing at all?
Barbara Freethy: I think I would still be writing because I love to write, but I definitely was frustrated by the lack of speed at which I could write. It was fine to do one book a year when I had small children and a lot of other things going on, and a part-time job and other things. But I really wanted to write more and I wanted to write faster, so I think that was going to be a frustration for me.
Luckily, the eBook was invented and the booksellers decided to start selling digital and they decided to allow authors to go direct to them. That was certainly a game changer for writers. No more gatekeepers. It’s good and bad, because a lot of things get published that perhaps aren’t that good, but also a lot of things get published that would have never been published because somebody thought it was too narrow or not universally appealing. That was always a problem in traditional – you have to sell to the mass market, so you can’t be too original necessarily.
Barbara Freethy on ‘writing between the lines’
Jenny Wheeler: You have mentioned yourself that your books tend to cross boundaries between romance and mystery. We have described them as romantic suspense and contemporary romance but they cross the boundaries a little bit. You sometimes found that yourself, didn’t you?
Barbara Freethy: Yes. I did find that. In fact, I had a lot of publishers say your books are hard to cover because they are a little bit of everything. They’re emotional and then they’re funny and then they’re sad, and then they’re mysterious, but they’re not dark.
I like to write between the lines. I feel like my writing is more interesting when it’s got more dimensions to it. I don’t like to write to a particular trope. I’m sure I use the tropes in my writing, but I don’t come at it from that point of view. I think a lot of writers specifically say, this is my trope and I’m writing to it, whereas I’ll be much more interested in who the characters are and what else can I throw at them? What else can I do to make this twisty or surprising or different?
I definitely march to my own drummer in terms of how I write, but it worked so far and I think that the readers appreciate it when there is depth to the story, so that’s what I like to do.
Jenny Wheeler: Would you say that’s helped you to keep fresh?
Barbara Freethy: I think so. I know a lot of writers talking about burnout now, and I think that is because there’s been such an emphasis on writing a specific thing. This is what sells, so you must write this.
How author Barbara Freethy organises her typical working day
There are a lot of people talking like that, and I think that when you stay in that narrow box, it makes it easier to burn out because you get tired.
I can’t write one book a month, which would exhaust me. I have to go a little bit slower although I still write at a fast pace but being able to write different things keeps me creatively excited. I think a writer has to be. You can tell when a writer loves the story that they’ve created. I think that’s evident to the reader.
Jenny Wheeler: We’ve talked about the demands of being an indie author. Can you give us an idea of how much of your working day would be writing and how much would be the business and marketing aspect of it.
Barbara Freethy: It’s probably 80/20, 80% writing and 20% marketing. There are certain times, like the two weeks before I have a new release, where that shifts and I spend more time on the marketing aspect, but I generally spend most of my time on the writing because I know that at the heart of everything is the book.
If the book isn’t good or isn’t what your readers want, then all the amount of marketing in the world you do is not going to sell it. I am always very cognizant of the fact of trying to make sure I have the best product I can have.
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. Turning to Barbara as reader, because we’ve mentioned that this is a binge reading episode, what do you like to binge read yourself and who would you recommend at the moment?
Barbara Freethy on what she likes to read
Barbara Freethy: I read in different genres. In romantic suspense some of my favorite authors are Rachel Grant, Toni Anderson who also writes an FBI series that’s a bit darker than mine but very good, and I really enjoy Laura Griffin who writes a series as well. Those are my go-to romantic suspense writers.
For contemporary romance I like Christie Ridgway who has a fun series called the 7-Stud Club. She is a very fun writer. She’s got a lot of humor to her books. Jill Shalvis and then of course Nora Roberts is a long-time fave of mine. I’ve probably read every book she’s ever written, which is a lot, probably hundreds. I don’t so much explore some of her fantasy books but I like everything else she’s written. I read a lot. I grew up as a big reader, so I’ve read so many people over the years that it’s hard to say.
Jenny Wheeler: Looking back down the tunnel of time over your career, at this stage, if you were doing it all over again, is there anything you would change?
Barbara Freethy: There’s nothing I would change, but I think there are things I’ve learned. You can’t change it because you made the decision you made at the time based on the information you had. But one thing I have learned over all these years is to be very flexible and very adaptable.
Barbara Freethy on re-inventing herself ‘several times over’
I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me at traditional publishers. I had a publisher who dropped me and I had to reinvent myself. I’ve probably reinvented myself several times over the course of my career, so I think that to stay alive in this business and to stay alive as a writer, you have to be willing to change.
There are a million things you can write and a million kinds of writer things you can do, so I think being flexible and adaptable. That’s why I jumped onto indie publishing when I did when other people maybe did not. I like to try new things and I saw opportunity, but I was also willing to adapt, and I think that keeps you going.
Jenny Wheeler: Looking forward, what is next for Barbara as writer? What have you got on your desk over the next 12 months?
Barbara Freethy: I have another Whisper Lake book and other FBI book, both coming out in 2022. I’m also writing a standalone romantic suspense that’s coming out probably in January. I haven’t put that up yet because it’s a special project I’ve been working on in between my series.
I actually have written many stand-alones in my career. We’ve talked a lot about series, but back in the day I wasn’t allowed to write series, so I’ve written seventeen stand-alone books. I missed being able to do one big story and one book, so that was going to be a fun project. That’s coming out next and then who knows from there. Lots more writing going on down the road.
Jenny Wheeler: Sounds like another Callaway somewhere.
Barbara Freethy: Right. Another Callaway.
Jenny Wheeler: Do you enjoy hearing from your readers and where can they find you online?
Barbara Freethy: Yes, I love to hear from the readers. I’m on Facebook at Barbara Freethy Books. I also have a private Facebook group that you can find through that, Barbara Freethy Books page. It is a smaller group where people are chatting more about my books, so that’s fun.
Where to find Barbara Freethy online
I’m also on Instagram @barbarafreethybooks, and I have a newsletter and a website www.barbarafreethy.com. I would love to hear from readers. I usually have little promos and features in my newsletter for free books and goodies, so it’s great if people want to sign up for that as well.
Jenny Wheeler: How often does the newsletter go out?
Barbara Freethy: Again, I’m not a spreadsheet person, so not always as scheduled, but generally no more than twice a month. It’s usually about twice a month. I don’t over-inundate my readers with a lot of information but when I send out a newsletter I try to have something fun for them as well as the news and what’s coming up next.
Jenny Wheeler: Lovely Barbara. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Barbara Freethy: No problem. It was great.
Next week on The Joys of Binge Reading: Susan May Warren is a Rita and Christy award winning inspirational suspense author with over 100 contemporary and historical romances published in more than 20 languages.
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