How one Kiwi author is making $200,000 a year publishing romance novels online

Leeanna and Tim (right), her husband of 24 years, renewed their vows in Las Vegas – with Elvis – during their trip of a ...

Leeanna and Tim (right), her husband of 24 years, renewed their vows in Las Vegas – with Elvis – during their trip of a lifetime to the US.

She's a USA Today bestselling author who sells up to 300 books a day and has droves of fans in America – but you won't find Kiwi Leeanna Morgan's name in New Zealand's literary annals.

She lives on the Kapiti Coast, but her 15 novels are set in the US state of Montana. Her series include Montana Brides, The Bridesmaid's Club, Emerald Lake Billionaires and recently, The Protectors. Her backdrop is Bozeman city, in the Rocky Mountains. 

Cowboys and cattle ranchers feature in early novels, while the lives and loves of other Bozeman characters – a genetic scientist, IT specialist and business consultant – are explored in later series.

Leeanna posing with a cowboy in Bozeman, in the US state of Montana, where her 15 romance novels are set.
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Leeanna posing with a cowboy in Bozeman, in the US state of Montana, where her 15 romance novels are set.

"They're modern romance stories with contemporary themes, a strong sense of family and community and happy endings." Morgan says. "I like happy endings. It's nice to be able to put a smile on someone's face."

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It's a theme that's obviously struck a chord with readers. In just two years, Morgan has gone from an unknown writer to one who earns $200,000 a year, allowing the mother-of-two to give up her job as libraries and arts manager at the Kapiti Coast District Council to concentrate on writing.

"If anyone had told me two years ago that I'd be able to resign from a job I loved to become a full-time writer and publisher, I would have smiled and thought they were slightly crazy. But believe it or not, that's what happened," she says.

Days after leaving her job, Morgan and her family – including her mum who edits her books – were on a plane to America to visit her novels' birthplace, Bozeman, where the Kiwi heroine in her first book headed in search of her birth father. 

"I'd done a lot of research about Bozeman, but to be there was amazing." 

Morgan wrote her debut novel Forever Dreams in 2014. Underwhelmed by the returns from publishing, she penned two more books and listed them on the Amazon website. 

"I couldn't believe the response from readers," she says. "I offered Forever Dreams free, to build interest, and it became number one in the world on Amazon for free contemporary romances. That success ensured future books, with overlapping themes and characters, had a ready audience."

Leeanna with her mum Kath Rooney at Yellowstone 
National Park, on their recent trip to the US.
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Leeanna with her mum Kath Rooney at Yellowstone National Park, on their recent trip to the US.

Her success has not been without sacrifice, including little sleep and less time with husband Tim and her two children, aged 12 and 17. 

"I'd be up at 5.30am, getting in a few hours of writing before work, and writing in the evening when everybody else was asleep." 

Tim, a manager and local volunteer fire chief, took on extra duties so his wife could devote herself to writing. "Tim took over running the house and organising our children," Morgan says. "He did it to support me, but also because he could see the potential benefits of my success for the whole family."

That success has certainly enhanced life for the Morgans. There was the "trip of the lifetime" to the States – and a new car. "It's taken away the financial stress, allowed us to take a nice holiday and to look forward to a future we never considered possible," she says.

Morgan is riding a wave of ePublishing that has revolutionised the business of books. Advanced technology has enabled writers to produce, publish and promote their own work. This new breed of writers, called "indie" (independent) authors, can make a lot of money.

"Ebooks are cheap to produce, sell and buy and, as a writer, you can access a global market," says Morgan. "It's all about sales volume and, without a publisher taking a big cut, the author gets more money per book. There's never been a better time to be a writer."

Ebooks are also a winner for readers – or at least, those who are happy to shop in virtual bookshops. Amazon reported its customers are now buying more eBooks than hard covers and paperbacks combined.

Apple adds about a million new iBook users every week and the market continues to grow as sales of smart phones and devices increase.

That said, Morgan's phenomenal success is due largely to her drive and tenacity. As well as becoming a dedicated writer, she's had to become an entrepreneur. "It's been a steep learning curve. 

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I've had to learn about formatting, cover design, building websites and my brand. I'm still exploring different ways of marketing."

Morgan's books sell for about $3 and she offers novels free for a period to build sales and hook new readers. New books are heavily promoted in advance as pre-orders. Connecting with her readers via social media is a big part of her promotion strategy.

"Social media is incredibly important. Encouraging my readers to be part of my hero and heroines' journeys makes them want to buy my next book."  

As well as becoming a USA Today bestselling author this year, her novel All of Me won the Koru Award for best New Zealand romance novel of the year in the long category. Later, on her trip to the US, she and Tim, who met on a Contiki bus trip 24 years ago, went to Las Vegas to renew their wedding vows. It's been quite the year.

Morgan is happy to share her newfound knowledge with other would-be authors. With another successful local romance writer, Diana Fraser, she has set up an ePublishing course, run through Kapiti Libraries.

Believed to be a world-first, the course teaches indie authors all there is to know: how to format, market and promote their books, along with comprehensive printed guides, available to buy through eBook retailer Smashwords. "The self-publishing guides and workshops are incredible," Morgan says. "Diana and I are really pleased to pass on what we've learnt to other authors and to inspire them to publish a book they are proud to call theirs."

So what's next for Morgan? "I aim to put in an eight-hour writing day from now on, just as I did when I went to the office, and to produce a minimum of five books each year. 

If anything, I'll be writing more but hopefully my life will be a little more balanced." 

 - Stuff

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