How did you get introduced to romance fiction?
My mom has always been an avid reader and when I was 11, I saw a copy of Wifey by Judy Blume in her library. I had read all of Blume’s YA books and when I asked my mom about it, she said I couldn’t read it. It had all of the bad words (like really bad words), especially for an 11-year old, and very graphic sexual situations. But I was set on reading it. I did and I got completely hooked. My mom had hundreds of books, everything from romance to suspense to mystery, in the house. I fell in love with romance and I just devoured them all. She didn’t know that until I was much older.
When I was in college in the 90s, I moved into Chick Lit, which was really coming into its own at that time. It’s a genre that’s all about 20-somethings and post-college career themes. I knew that romance still existed, but I thought it was mostly historical or romantic suspense—what my mom read. When I discovered contemporary romance, I was back to being hooked. Now, I read everything—contemporary, historical, paranormal. If it’s romance, I read it.
You started with a blog. How did it grow into Book+Main?
I’m a lifelong reader and career-long marketer, but it wasn’t until 2015 when I discovered the social media arm of the romance book world. I instantly fell in love with the community and people in this world. I felt like I’d found my tribe.
In January of 2016, I decided to start a blog. I called it Kindle Unlimited Book Reviews and it’s still active today, although I no longer personally blog. I started it because the previous year, I had enrolled in the Kindle Unlimited program on Amazon. I had exhausted my search within the KU romance space on Amazon and so I kept posting for recommendations for new reads. I realized there wasn’t a blog or space making these recommendations, so I started my own.
The blog gained traction very quickly, so I started a Facebook group called The Korner for readers. They both continued to grow—today there are more than 20k followers between the two combined—and I started to see a need for something more in the romance space.
On one side, I had the authors who were reaching out to get exposure to new readers and to share their words. They’d say, “I just wish people would read me. I think if they did, they’d love my work.” On the other side, the readers were asking for very specific book recommendations within the genre, such as a “single dad, vampire, fireman novel.”
I’m joking when I say that, but the point is, a lot of romance readers are mood readers and are very specific about what they’re looking for. Those two needs were the impetus of what became Book+Main Bites, our platform that connects authors and readers through an author’s work that is searchable by more than 350 romance-specific subgenres and tropes.
What was your life like before Book+Main?
I graduated from Boston University with a degree in marketing and immediately started working for Feld Entertainment (they produce live entertainment, including Ringling Brothers and Disney on Ice). I would show up in my cities—everywhere from Lake Placid, NY to Montreal, Quebec to Halifax, Nova Scotia—8-9 months in advance of the show to get started on promotion and marketing. I lived on the road for almost two years and it was pretty lonely. Eventually I decided to settle in Chicago and started working for a national commercial real estate firm. There, I was able to manage accounts with some pretty big clients (like GE and 7-Eleven). All through this, I kept reading romance and eventually, started the blog.
Had you ever done anything entrepreneurial like that before?
Yes, I created an app with my sister back in 2009. This was right after the first iPhone came out. The idea was pretty simple: I was going to a nutritionist and they had asked me to write down everything I ate during the day. I found that process really tedious (which most people do), so I wondered if I could take a photo of everything I ate and just send those images as a log to the nutritionist. We were actually in talks with Tim Ferriss at one point about rebranding our app ‘The 4-Hour Body.’ Almost ten years later, the app, dietSNAPS, still sells everyday on the App Store.
It’s funny: my parents are both entrepreneurs and all three of my siblings have their own businesses. I swore I would never own my own business because I’ve seen the sacrifice and uncertainty that comes along with entrepreneurship—whether you’re a start-up or a mom-and-pop shop. Frankly, I liked the stability of being in the corporate world. I never thought I would start my own company, but I feel like we can make a difference in this community with Book+Main and it just became something I had to pursue.
What was the moment that you decided to go all-in on Book+Main?
From the time I found the romance book world on Facebook in 2015, I felt that romance readers and authors needed a home of our own. Something that was built for romance readers, by romance readers. In the summer of 2016, I started to explore the idea of that with one of my then-colleagues, and now co-founder and our COO, Kyle Backer.
Then, in December 2016, I took over one of the nightly posts in my online reader group called “Bedtime Stories.” It was basically a nightly post with a picture of a hot guy reading and we used the hashtag #bedtimestory.
One night, a girl commented on one of the posts asking if there was an actual story or if it was just a picture. She thought Facebook was hiding the story from her. That’s when the lightbulb went off for me, and I thought: what if we invited authors to come in and share an exclusive excerpt from a story, like a bedtime story, as a way of exposing readers to new authors and their words? Could the readers connect to an excerpt, without knowing anything about the book?
I started reaching out to authors to see if they would be interested and within 48 hours we had six months booked. By the first week in March, we were booked for all of 2017. Readers were immediately hooked. Reviews were showing up on Amazon within the first week from readers that had discovered the related books through Bedtime Stories. And, authors were telling me that when a bedtime story was connected to an existing, published novel, they were experiencing spikes in sales of 30-50%. We’ve also had somewhere around 75 novels that have come from an author introducing new work as a bedtime story that they later went on to publish.
Kyle and I shifted quickly and felt that instead of simply creating a social media site for the romance community, we would solve their two biggest issues: authors looking for new readers and readers looking for their next great read. And that’s how Book+Main Bites was born.
Then, in February of 2017, I met Melissa Saneholtz. She owned her own PR firm for romance authors and within ten minutes of us talking on the phone, she was all in. She believed that what we were creating would be a game changer for the romance world and became an adviser. In January of 2018, she came on full-time as our CMO and became our third partner.
Most startups fail — this is crazy and super hard — what’s your relationship with the risk?
I’m OK with risk. Failure, not so much. I was the most financially risk-averse person before, but in founding Book+Main, I’ve taken on extraordinary financial risks. I’ve sold my condo and my car (I still have my Vespa!). I’ve put more money into the company than I’ve ever taken out. But honestly, I’m ok with that, and I believe in what we’re doing. I know we have a billion dollar idea and a billion dollar team.
Of course, there are setbacks. For example, we thought we would launch and immediately go into paid author subscriptions and begin recognizing revenue from those subscriptions, which is one of the ways in which we monetize (in addition to advertising and affiliate from book sales). However, we quickly realized that the lack of forward-facing analytics for authors was a major hindrance to converting authors to paid subscribers. Being an author is a business and understanding ROI on any marketing spend is critical. They wanted to know how many people were seeing their Bites or clicking through, so we made the decision to hold off on paid subscriptions.
Setbacks happen, but there are usually solutions to work around them—and always lessons to be learned. We’ve been transparent since day one that this would be a paid platform for authors. Last month, we rolled out Bitecamp, which takes authors through a 30-day course which teaches them best practices, how to promote their B+M account, and how to make the most of every Bite. Just last week, we rolled out paid author subscriptions. Any new authors will have a 30-day trial from the day they register. Existing authors will have a 30-day trial from the day we announced the Pro Author accounts, which will be $9/month or $99/year. Readers will always be free.
What is your superpower?
I think being an optimist is probably my greatest superpower, but I’m also all about the win-win. With every problem, I’m committed to making it a win-win for everyone involved. For example, in any challenge we face, we’re committed to finding a solution that is a win for our authors and readers, as much as it is for Book+Main. To me, when you give that level of priority to all parties, they’re more likely to engage long-term. And frankly, I’m just not interested in short-term solutions. We’re building a billion dollar company and that doesn’t happen with short-term thinking. From our investors, to our readers and authors, and to each person that works at Book+Main, that’s our goal. We believe that the level of success we’re looking for is only accomplished when we all succeed together.
For us, succeeding is all about bringing our vision to its full potential for the romance community. If you cannot engage others in your vision, I don’t believe you will succeed. Nobody does this—a startup—alone. It takes a team and it must be a win-win for everyone involved.
What’s your kryptonite?
I’m really sensitive and I’ve had to build a much thicker skin. On one hand, this helps me connect with others and has been one of my greatest strengths in engaging others in this vision, but it can be difficult for me to separate the personal from the business sometimes.
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
I’m addicted to my Apple Watch. If it tells me to, I’ll get up and start running in place—even in meetings. It serves as a great reminder to get out of my head. I also fall asleep while listening to a meditation series from Cory Muscara on Simple Habit every night.
And it probably goes without saying, but I’m a big reader. I typically read 10-15 books per month. I never sleep through the night, so I read. It also helps, and perhaps it’s an unusual non-habit, that I don’t watch TV—ever. I moved in March and still haven’t plugged in my television.
Some of my go-to gadgets include:
Apple Watch: I’m one of those people that’s very influenced by things that are “gamefied.” I love my streaks and getting new badges!
iPhone: I use it for everything and have read thousands of books on it. I have multiple Kindles, but my iPhone is my go-to for reading.
Alexa: I mostly use it to stream music, get the time and weather, but I also use it for math. Especially when I’m cooking and need a weight conversion—I hate using cups. It’s all on a digital scale.
I’m into anything creative (knitting, cooking, pottery, painting, etc.), but my first love is photography. When I’m feeling inspired, I’ll take a few hours on a weekend and go shooting with my Fuji X100.
For cooking, the one thing I wouldn’t want to live without is the air fryer. It’s the healthiest and quickest way to cook up proteins and vegetables, and the results are far superior to an oven. I use mine every day. I actually started an Instagram account of cooking hacks in December and have more than 4k followers there now.
My top six favorite apps are:
Of course, Book+Main Bites is my first and favorite. ;)
dietSNAPS and Zero for diet. dietSNAPS is my daily food photolog journal and I fast every night for at least 12 hours. For that, Zero is a super easy app with great UI/UX—plus streaks!
WordSwag is hands down my favorite app for graphics
Simple Habit is another critical one to my day. It’s for meditation and I use it everyday. My sister bought me a one-year subscription and it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.
Kindle. I read every single day and can’t imagine not having it at the ready whenever I want it.
I’m going to add one more because I think this is one app everyone should download: Be My Eyes. It’s a free app that connects blind and low-vision people with sighted volunteers for visual assistance through a live video call. It’s the easiest way to ‘do good’ in this world at a moment’s notice. And you’re directly connected to the person you’re helping. There’s nothing like that feeling when it rings and you can help out a stranger.
PS. Yes, I have my apps arranged by color :)
Any new romance books you recommend we read?
Wow, this is a loaded question! There are so many. I’m generally either reading ARCs (advance reader copies) or I feel like I’m catching up on older titles. I just read Strictly Professional by Kathryn Nolan. It came out last year, but I hadn’t read it yet and I loved it. She’s a remarkable writer and I’m obsessed with her Bohemian/Landslide books. I also just read The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang. Another book, a very popular one, that came out last year that I only just read. I absolutely loved it. Marie Force is one of my favorite authors and her new book, One Year Home, comes out this week. I actually read that one while she was writing it and it’s amazing. I know I’m missing so many and I’m sure I’ll kick myself later, but those are the first few that come to mind.
Have you faced any unexpected challenges while launching Book+Main?
Overcoming the romance reader stereotype has probably been the biggest challenge. People often have an idea of what a romance reader is—a lonely, older woman who reads to experience love. That stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. First, almost 20% of romance readers are male. Second, the women I’ve met in this community are some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met—they’re smart, funny, and open-minded, which I love. And most of them are in fabulous relationships—statistically, 59% are coupled—and simply love a great story. And why reading as an escape is considered a bad thing, I will never understand. It really is a remarkable community.
Our industry being “too female” has also been a challenge. Pitching a romance novel company in addition to being a female founder is not always easy. When I walk into a room filled with investors and say “romance,” I usually get a few chuckles. But once they see the numbers and gain an understanding of the scope of the industry and where we want to take Book+Main, they definitely understand the potential that exists. I love that part of my job: I get to change the narrative about what romance is and who is reading it.
What’s been your experience as a female founder?
The numbers are not kind. We read about this every single day—about the lack of female founders and investors. The number of female founders in Chicago is twice the national average, but the startup world is still heavily male-dominated.
Frankly, founding a company is all-consuming. I’m not sure I could have done this twenty years ago. In some degree, this does give me some advantage, since I have twenty plus years of business and marketing experience, and when I walk into a meeting with investors, male or female, I am closer to their age and they know that I come with that experience. And that I left a lucrative career to pursue this. That means something to them.
Would funding have been easier if I were male? Unquestionably—the numbers are there to prove that. But in many ways, being female has helped me as well in terms of finding mentors and investors that have championed what we’re doing, and access to things like all-female accelerators.
My best advice to other women is to meet other female founders in your community. Immerse yourself with other founders because we have unique experiences that men simply don’t. That’s just a fact, and that’s OK. I’ve been in two accelerators, both female focused. WiSTEM at 1871, a 12-week curriculum for female founders that I completed in December of 2018, was one of the most amazing experiences to connect with a core group of female founders. They also brought in world-class mentors and networking opportunities I wouldn’t have had anywhere else. I highly recommend seeking out similar cohorts and opportunities.
Do you have a motto or any words you live by?
I have two.
One: ‘optimism is its own reward.’ We all have to get from Point A to Point B. That journey is a lot better when you’re optimistic, regardless of the result.
And two: ‘just be with today.’ I actually have that tattooed on my arm. I struggle with staying in the moment, so that helps me key in to taking all experiences as they come.