Once upon a time, and briefly, I was a Mary Kay lady. Recruited by a friend from high school, and seeing a potential income stream amidst aspiring actors and queer friends who didn’t have the time or inclination to buy makeup from someone who didn’t recognize their needs, I dove in. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t lose money. But I didn’t make money either.
That said, my now decade old Mary Kay experience keeps teaching me things about writing and selling romance novels, and I’m hoping some of these insights may benefit you or spur a discussion that can benefit us all.
1. Multi-level marketing never works. At core, Mary Kay is an MLM situation — those who can recruit a sales force under them make money, and those recruited need to do the same if they want it to work for them. Ultimately, this is unsustainable. Which means that blog hop that you’ve been chosen for if only you recruit two more people (who have to do the same thing down stream) to be part of it? It’s not going to get you page views, sales, or endear you to your friends. Choose blog hops around themes relevant to your work where the only person you have to recruit is yourself.
2. Specialized language is isolating. Mary Kay had a lot of very specific sales patter that applied only to Mary Kay products. Sometimes these weren’t just a barrier to us, the consultants, but to our customers. Similarly, the romance community has lots of industry-specific terms for things with other names elsewhere. Romance writers, for example, often refer to mailing lists as loops. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it can be isolating to newbies and prevent those of us in the community from remembering to also look outside the genre for business inspiration.
3. Being positive all the time is exhausting. The number one Mary Kay rules was to always be positive. And look, no one wants to hear writers whine about their sales any more than they want to hear makeup consultants whine about their sales, but some types of professional honesty are important not only to our own endurance, but to helping the genre as a whole. Scam awards? Publishers that don’t pay? Sites like Writer Beware exist for a reason, and it’s a good one. Similarly, new and early-career writers need information on the realities of the business — it’s a shifting terrain, with varying levels of income and sales, populated by a range of authors with vastly different definitions of success. Be optimistic, be kind, be professional, but be careful of the tyranny of constant positivity in the face of things that are just wrong.
4. There is no one way to be a romance author. Mary Kay spent a lot of time telling me how to be a woman in a way that wasn’t relevant to me. Sometimes, the romance genre can feel like this too — whether it’s about who you are or what you write. But as long as you write relationship-focused stories with a happily ever after or happy for now ending, you belong here if you want to belong here.
5. Sometimes, but only sometimes, you’ve got to spend money to make money. This is the big one, but the answer is both yes and no. In Mary Kay this meant having product stock. In writing this can mean buying book stock for giveaways and in person events (something that’s hugely benefited Erin and I), or investing in yourself as if you were a publisher if you’re an indie writer. But too often in this genre there’s an arms race — about swag, advertising, about conference attendance, and more. Spend money on these things if they benefit you and in a way that fit your career and career stage. (Are you an indie? A professional editor benefits you). But don’t ever spend money on them to keep up with the Joneses. This is your writing career, no one else’s.