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Vanessa Riley Headshot

BBI NxLeveL™, Former Instructor and current Board of Directors Member, Dr. Vanessa Riley, acclaimed, Author and Indie Publisher, took part in a BBI interview, conducted by Sheila Morgan. BBI continues to spotlight its notable graduates, members, faculty, staff, and honorees. Author Vanessa Riley writes Historical Fiction and Historical Romance (Georgian, Regency, & Victorian Eras) featuring hidden histories, dazzling multi-culture communities, and strong sisterhoods. Her books have been reviewed by the AAMBC, Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, Publisher Weekly, and the New York Times.

Island Queen by Vanessa Riley

BBI: What is your affiliation with the Bronner Business Institute?

Vanessa Riley: I have been an instructor in the past. The way I was introduced to Bronner, was a BBI Business Plan Competition. I entered and learned about the things that the institute was trying to do and became overly excited about it. I joined the team to teach. I always say, Deacon Al Watkins tricked me. I came for the cash and left with a job. Over the years, I‘ve been teaching off and on. I cannot tell you exactly the last time I was there. The year before Covid, probably 2019 was the last time.


BBI: Did you consider yourself a visionary at an early age, or were you inspired by family, peers or other influences?


Vanessa Riley: I would say, I have been and am more of a, get it done kind of person. I am a planner.

I look at different topics to tease out a solution. I pray that the Lord makes a way for me to use the gifts He’s given me to get the messages across, that need to be said.

From an early age, I was gifted in math and in writing, but my mother stressed to me that I should always be able to pay my bills. So, I followed the math road. Hence, I earned a Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s in Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management from Stanford University. Also, I have a BS and MS in Mechanical Engineering from Penn State University. Yes, math does pay the bills. When you are given the gift to write, the urge never goes away. The passion for it stays with you. God will make room for your talents. I started writing and I built a name independently publishing. Traditional publishers started looking for new voices and one editor from Entangled Publishing started messaging, “Hey you need to reach me. You need to write the story of Victorian Black women.” At the time I only wrote Georgian and Regency. We kept communicating and soon we had a Regency series, called Advertisements for Love. This tells the stories of Black Regency heiresses in London.

During the time of Jane Austen there were over 20,000 to 30,000 free blacks living in London. The 1800’s all way up to 1830’s, is a time of much unrest in the world. Half the world is prosperous based on the free labor of the enslaved world. While we have heard of the enslaved story in America, we have not heard much of the free peoples in Europe or the Blacks who have found freedom in the West Indies.

Publishing with Entangled brought attention to my books. NPR, Entertainment Weekly, and the Washington Post started reviewing my work. Today I write for Entangled, Kensington, and HarperCollins / William Morrow.

When I originally started indie publishing, in essence running my own publishing company, the question of whether people would want to read stories centering on Blacks in 1800s London was a question.

Stories centering on Black joy as opposed to Black pain from enslavement was not common for this time period.
Vanessa Riley at a book signing

For a while, Everybody, and I put that everybody in quotes, wants that story of how blacks have suffered and the trials and tribulations and then someone swoops in, typically someone of the majority class, comes in to save them. But Black joy—that was a question. I used Indie Publishing to prove that there was an audience. My very first book, The Bargain, without any advertisement, sold over 1000 copies in the first week. Low and behold, we have a market.

From the business aspects of indie or independent publishing, you must count the costs. You are the publisher. You have to spend money on quality editing, book formatting, and cover design. I knew that I had to have great editing and a great cover, something that needed to stop traffic. I invested in production.  Over the years, I got better at the entire process and learned how to advertise. I built a brand, that was ready for my big breakout book. Island Queen, my first hardcover, was reviewed in the New York Times as “evocative and immersive.” I feel very blessed and very privileged, to be able to write these stories.

BBI:  When did you recognize your passion for writing and how did you turn it into a career?

Vanessa:  Back in high school I was winning awards, but as I stated before, I had to pay my bills.  While working as an engineer and running my own software company, I stayed up late to work on my writing. I have to say, I’ve had two jobs since 2014, my software business and my writing business. You must treat writing as a business. That means you have to give yourself deadlines, you have to have a budget for writing education to broaden your skills. You have got to have an advertising budget. Successful writers treat writing as a business.

BBI:  At what point did you pursue publishing?

Vanessa: I began writing and re-drafting around 2004.  My very first book, Madeline’s Protector, was traditionally published. This reaffirmed my love of writing, but this story was not the ones of my heart. It was a good book, faith-filled, funny but lacked diversity. I did it to prove a point, that I had the talent to do so, but traditional publishing wasn’t interested in historical (1800s) Christian romances, centering on Black Joy.

Publishing The Bargain with the heroine, Precious Jewel, freed and proud in London and finding her faith in Port Elizabeth, South Africa was liberating. I went 100% independent publishing, or indie publishing as the market calls it. I built my audience. I took classes on advertising, social media, and the writing craft. I built calendars for deadlines. I did everything because it was my business to do so. I’m the publisher.   

When you are starting out, you are trying to build an audience. You have to pay for professional editing. I do not care how great you are in English; it is exceedingly difficult to edit your own work. You are too invested, and you will miss the things you need to see.

BBI:  Did you see your connection with Bronner Business Institute as a vital part to your success?

Vanessa: The principles taught there are the kind I use daily. Treat your writing like a business.  When you are traditionally published, you have no control over pricing, if you are independently publishing, you control pricing and promotion. You need to figure out your business strategy.  If you are trying to set up a loss leader, like authors have done when they do a series (of 3 books or more), they price their first book for $0.99, so that they can get everybody hooked and ready to buy the rest of the series. That is a strategy but is it the right strategy for your business? Can you afford to do this strategy?  These are questions that indies need to ask. The answer is different based upon each business strategy.  Everything that you learn at The Bronner Business Institute, is key to growing a successful business as an author.

BBI:  Would you inspire anyone interested in developing their dreams to become an author or business owner to attend the Bronner Business Institute?

Vanessa:  I think that if you want to treat your writing as a business you need to go into programs like Bronner’s to learn how to run a business.  There may be some programs more geared towards indie publishing, so do your research.  Getting a fundamental understanding about publishing is essential but so is learning about marketing or targeting a core audience. Business fundamentals are principles taught in Bronner Business Institute. I would just suggest taking BBI and other courses with a more finite focus on publishing.

BBI: Can you share any challenges or obstacles you had to overcome affecting your accomplishments or well-being?

Vanessa: As I said in my early stage, many people didn’t believe there was a market for these stories. That is a big thing. You have to trust what the Lord is telling you. He told me to tell them and to work hard and to not turn back when I faced rejection. I had one agent tell me that I needed to stop writing, that I had some good ideas, but I needed to find a co-writer, AKA somebody who did not look like me, to help tell these stories. Ummmm no. If I had listened, I would not be where I am now. I would not be seeing how my stories are touching the world and creating opportunities in audio and film for others. Like I said, I am privileged and blessed to be in a position telling the stories of our ancestors, showing Black perseverance and joy.

BBI:   Can you share with us what your newest venture is and exciting things going on with you?

Vanessa:  My latest novel titled, Island Queen, just released July 6 and was reviewed by the New York Times. Island Queen is about a woman who defies every stereotype that one would think about a West Indian woman in the 1800s. Dorothy "Doll" Kirwan Thomas who rose from slavery to become the wealthiest woman landowner in the early 1800s Caribbean. Dorothy literally saves money while enslaved, buys her freedom and the freedom of her mother and her sister.  She goes from the island of Montserrat to the colony of Demerara, to the islands of Dominica and Grenada, building businesses across the Caribbean. She became one of the wealthiest women in that period, but that is only the beginning of her story.  In history, she was literally reduced to a single paragraph in one book, a chapter in another book. The world needs to hear these stories, because when people who look like us, little black girls, little girls of color understand that they can win, their potential is unlocked. They can dream bigger.  Even in dire circumstances, God can make a way.  I’m working on my next hardcover coming out in summer of 2022, titled, Sister Mother Warrior, which is about the two women that helped shape the Haitian revolution.

BBI:  Do you write daily or have a schedule?

Vanessa:   I write every day, typically in the evenings.

BBI:  Early on, did you have a family when you started Indie publishing?

Vanessa:  Oh yes. They learned to eat lean cuisines, ha-ha.  My husband and daughter, everybody in my extended family is very supportive. I am incredibly happy, that they understand because every hour spent on writing, is time spend away from my family. You have to count the costs.

BBI:  Is there anyone or anything you would like to publicly acknowledge or credit to your success?  

Vanessa: My mother she stressed the love language.  My father was very much into history.  My husband Frank, and my daughter Ellen are wonderful. I think they are proud of me. I feel very blessed and privileged to write these books. I attribute the gifts and talents to God. Without him I am nothing. The opportunities afforded me, would not have happened without His guiding hand. Somethings are in the works that I cannot speak to now, but keep watching this space, and go out and buy Island Queen.

Transforming Lives by Discipling in Business Champions