How Elana Johnson—and Liz Isaacson, Jessie Newton, and Donna Jeffries—left traditional publishing to inspire indie success
Over the fourteen years she’s spent in the self-publishing industry, Elana Johnson has learned to use her strengths. The USA Today bestselling Romance and Women’s Fiction author and CEO of AEJ Creative Works, Inc., is good at compartmentalizing, so even when her to-do list is a mile long, she can focus on what she’s working on at the moment. She’s good at multitasking too, which comes in handy when she’s working on multiple projects at once. And though she didn’t realize it at first, she’s good at writing quickly.
In fact, she’s really good at it. And even now that she has more than one hundred and sixty titles to her name, she isn’t planning on stopping anytime soon.
Well, technically, they’re not all to her name—some of them are credited to Liz Isaacson, Jessie Newton, or Donna Jeffries instead, the pen names she uses in conjunction with her own. Each of her four author names focuses on a separate subgenre of Romance or Women’s Fiction, and each is successful because of Johnson’s effort and years of writing experience. But these days, she isn’t keeping that knowledge to herself. Her Indie Inspiration with Elana Johnson Discussion Group on Facebook has more than 2,700 members in every stage in the publishing journey, from experienced indies to those just starting out.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes and tried a lot of things that worked and didn’t work,” she says. “So I have a lot of experience, and my goal is to tell you about all of those—good, bad, ugly—so that you will feel inspired in your own career to make mistakes or to experiment or to step outside of the box that other people are saying you have to stay in.”
Breaking from tradition
Johnson’s path to self-publishing success started, quite literally, on a more traditional route. After finishing a Young Adult Dystopian novel in 2009, she began querying and landed a literary agent at the end of that year. Her manuscript sold to Simon & Schuster the next year and published a year after that, in 2011. But it was when she self-published a short story set in the same world as her novel that her mindset began to shift.
“That was my first experience with Amazon and KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), where you can publish it yourself,” Johnson says. “And I just remember … looking at that book cover in KDP and going, ‘I want a lot of those. I want a lot more of those.’”
She stuck with traditional publishing long enough to complete her first book’s trilogy, but the traditional publishing process wasn’t quite what she’d envisioned. For one, it was exceedingly slow, and for another, finding a home for some of her other novels was becoming a chore. Still, when she decided to switch to self-publishing, it wasn’t immediate smooth sailing.
“I don’t know if you were around in 2014, but Chris Fox’s Write to Market was not around,” Johnson says. “All of the Facebook groups … where we find out a lot of the information and we learn self-publishing, they did not exist.” She started with self-publishing her finished works that were passed over by traditional publishers, but they never sold well, and eventually, she decided to take them down. “Everybody will be grateful for that,” she says with a laugh.
Her breakthrough started in 2014, when she decided to transition from the Sci-Fi genre into Romance. She published her first books in the genre, Contemporary Christian Cowboy Romances, under the pen name Liz Isaacson in 2015, and she found her calling in the publishing world. Three years later, Johnson cleaned up the titles published under her own name and rebranded herself as a Contemporary Beach Romance author. In 2020, Jessie Newton was born as an author of Women’s Fiction, and Donna Jeffries began publishing Romantic Comedies last year. These women are all technically Elana Johnson, but she refers to them as if they’re separate individuals—and in some ways, that’s the way she hopes readers view them too.
“I hope this doesn’t sound super arrogant, but I already know a lot about launching and packaging and writing and marketing and advertising. I can’t truly ever be new again,” she says. “I can’t erase that, but I can launch into a new genre as basically an unknown and see how it goes.”
A wealth of knowledge, a source of inspiration
Alongside her Romance novels, Johnson also began publishing a series of writing and marketing guides, Indie Inspiration for Self-Publishers, in 2019. The books cover how to write cover copy, marketing systems, and methods for adjusting to a rapid release schedule, all skills she’s incorporated in her own work. But it was the Facebook group the series spawned that, after the release of the series’ third book in October 2020, took off in ways Johnson never expected. Nowadays, the Indie Inspiration with Elana Johnson Discussion Group has amassed more than 2,700 members, and it’s still growing steadily each week.
“The group is an incredible source of information and inspiration for indie authors,” writes April Wilson, a Contemporary Romance author who’s been part of the Facebook group since May of last year. “Elana manages to keep the group very positive and focused on author inspiration. She’s very active in the group and steers its direction herself.”
When she first made the group, Johnson had worried her messages wouldn’t resonate with members, especially when what she wrote contradicted the things well-established authors were saying in other self-publishing groups. But she’s found that many people agree with what she writes. Beyond that, she hopes her posts encourage authors to think outside the box and to not be afraid of making mistakes in the same way she’s learned to do over the years.
“I grew a lot when I finally was like, ‘Enough. I’m tired of listening to all the fear statements and worrying so much about what I do and how it’s going to be taken by others. I’m going to do what I think is best for me and my business,’” she says. “So that’s my goal is to inspire people to think outside of the box and to operate their businesses without any fear at all.”
Reason to write
Even now, Johnson admits she’s surprised to be able to make a full-time living from her books. She has published 3 titles as Donna Jeffries, 11 titles as Jessie Newton, and 54 titles as herself—and that’s not counting the Indie Inspiration series. And by the end of this year, Johnson will have published her hundredth title as Liz Isaacson. From a business standpoint, she could stop writing if she wanted to. A friend even asked her recently whether she had ever considered shifting from her role as an author to that of a publisher.
But she’s come to realize that she doesn’t want to give up storytelling. For her, the process of writing fiction is therapeutic. “It’s a way to connect to other human beings who are going through the same hard things that I have to go through,” she says. “It’s almost a silent way of saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got you. We’re going to fix this by the end, and it’s going to be okay.’”
Just as surprising as her own success, she admits, is that it won’t always translate across books or authors—publishing methods that work for one person don’t necessarily work for another, and even among her own books, some titles just don’t sell as well.
Take her writing speed, for example. Johnson churns out words much faster than most—she finished her first published novel, the one that sold to Simon & Schuster, in just seventeen days. But even her newest pen names have seen plenty of success on their own, without the massive backlog or years’ worth of readers her Liz Isaacson or Elena Johnson titles have produced.
“I think often we think that—that somebody who writes fast is doing better than we are, or someone who releases more books than we are is somehow doing something better than we are, and that’s not true,” she says. “You just have to figure out what works for you and what fits your life, and that is what’s best for you and what you should be doing.”