A Utah romance author’s first book became a national bestseller. Here’s how she beat the pressure of success for the second.

With ‘Swift and Saddled,’ Sage says she’s feeling the pressure to deliver to her fans the way ‘Done and Dusted’ did.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Romance author Lyla Sage at The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.

Lyla Sage remembers how her life “changed within the span of 21 days,” and how it all started in the Target store in Layton.

Sage — a Utah author who had self-published her first novel, the cowboy romance “Done and Dusted” — said she remembers “so vividly” that she was in Target “when my agent texted me and asked if I had a minute to chat. I said, ‘I’m in Target. Is that a problem?’ And she said, ‘Not for me.’”

Her agent called, and told her that her self-published book was being picked up by Dial Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House — one of the “big five” publishers in the book industry.

Sage said she started sobbing in the store’s swimsuit section. “Everybody thought I was probably crying for another reason,” she said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Romance author Lyla Sage at The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.

Still talking to her agent, Sage walked over to Target’s book section, and found a Dial Press book — “Hello Beautiful” by Ann Napolitano. That’s when Sage agreed to sign with the publishing house.

Sage now has written her second novel, also for Dial Press, “Swift and Saddled,” set to be released Tuesday. Her launch event Tuesday at The King’s English Bookstore, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City, is sold out.

“Swift and Saddled,” like “Done and Dusted,” is set on the fictional Rebel Blue Ranch — a property inspired by the ranches in Wyoming and Utah where she spent a lot of time growing up. The location is also infused, she said, with what she sees when she looks outside her window in Utah.

“What Rebel Blue became is the love letter to all the places and people that I love,” Sage said.

‘Look at me now’

Sage wrote “Done and Dusted” in three months, published it last June, and saw it picked up by Dial Press in October. It became a national bestseller. Barnes & Noble listed it as one of its “Best Books of 2023,” and called it “a rare self-publishing success story.”

Sage said she never expected her book, a cowboy romance that employs the romance trope of “brother’s best friend,” would blow up the way it did.

“My only goals for “Done and Dusted,” I had them written down on a sticky note: To break even on the money that I spent on it, and to get in the top 100 of the Western category on Amazon.” She smashed past both of those goals.

When it came to figuring out the self-publishing game, she said, “What I say is that I was just a girl who had access to Google and a dream.”

Part of that process was finding and hiring Austin Drake — an artist who had never done a book cover — to design the cover illustration. As part of her deal with Dial Press, she said, she requested Drake be brought on, too.

“It was just important for me to be able to say that, ‘This is romance, Western and Lyla Sage,’ and Austin’s art style lent itself well to that,” Sage said. “So much of ‘Done and Dusted’ and its success is the cover.”

There are signed copies of “Done and Dusted” in “the tunnel of love,” as she calls the romance section at The King’s English. For this interview, Sage is sitting nearby, on a white chair in the fiction section, wearing a black suede fringe jacket.

The bookstore is special to her, she said, because she spent a lot of time in the fiction section when she was an undergraduate at the University of Utah. Once, she said, she sat in that room and cried over a boy. Last December, she took part in her first in-person signing event.

“Look at me now,” she said.

(Austin Drake | Dial Press) The book jacket art for "Swift and Saddled," the second Western romance by Utah author Lyla Sage, to be released March 5, 2024.

From ‘Done’ to ‘Swift’

“Done and Dusted” centered on Clementine “Emmy” Ryder reluctantly returning to her hometown — and running into her brother’s best friend, Luke Brooks, the town bad boy.

With “Swift and Saddled,” Sage starts with Emmy’s brother, Weston, who becomes infatuated with Ada Hart, a city girl hired to renovate a house on the Rebel Blue Ranch property.

In writing her second book, Sage said, she felt the pressure to duplicate her earlier success.

“Sometimes I feel like I showed up to a black-tie wedding in cowboy boots,” she said.

“Writing books is hard, writing second books is traditionally hard,” Sage said, adding that the fact that her first book did “remarkably and miraculously” well also increased that pressure.

The success of “Done and Dusted,” she said, created within her a “fierce and formidable echo chamber” — one that she often felt stuck in, feeling both grateful and overwhelmed.

“I really needed a lifeboat in that echo chamber, and that’s what ‘Swift and Saddled’ became,’” Sage said.

Sage puts a lot of herself into her books, she said — even more than usual with this book.

When Wes teaches Ada how to drive a stick shift, that’s based on what Sage’s dad taught her. Wes also makes Ada’s favorite Greek dish, spanakopita, and Sage has included her Greek mother’s recipe in the back of the book.

Her characters also deal with real life situations. In the first book, Emmy has ADHD. In the second book, Weston has depression.

“My characters feel very real to me,” Sage said. “Wes’ depression and mental illness [were] just something that was a part of him. It wasn’t like a plot device for him to overcome or be better by the end.”

Sage said she found an emotional clarity in her characters. “What Ada does is kind of find her way back [to herself],” Sage said, adding that she clinged to Ada and Wes and their love story, “as a way to cope with how much my life had changed in such a short period of time.”

She said, “A skill that came with ‘Swift and Saddled’ that I’ve employed in my writing since is looking at a scene or chapter, a sentence or whatever, and asking myself, ‘Am I writing this for me? Or am I writing this for other people?’”

She said she rewrote one portion of the book many times — more rewriting than she’s ever done for anything — because she didn’t want to disappoint readers.

“You just have to keep going until it feels right,” she said. “You have to take a break. You have to take a step back.”

“Swift and Saddled,” she said, “proved that I could do it no matter what. I could do it with the pressure and I could do it better. I could keep going, improve and keep growing. I wasn’t stuck with just that one book and that one success story.”

Being big on Booktok

One part of moving from indie publishing to traditional publishing that’s “nerve-wracking,” Sage said, is being noticed by authors she admires.

Elsie Silver, another popular cowboy romance author, wrote a blurb for “Swift and Saddled.” Ali Hazelwood, who recently released a paranormal romance, “Bride,” shared a photo of Sage’s book on her Instagram story.

Sage said “Done and Dusted” found some of its success through BookTok, the bookish side of the social media platform TikTok, where creators share recommendations and more.

Sage also uses her Instagram counterpart to share edits of her work and graphics that readers make of her books.

“BookTok and Bookstagram [have] created this really lovely third place, where you get to talk about something that you love, and other people might love it, too,” Sage said.

A cowboy romance renaissance

In Sage’s first-grade yearbook, she said, she wrote that she wanted to be a cowgirl when she grew up. In a way through her books, she is able to do that.

She also said that Luke Brooks, the male lead in “Done and Dusted,” was inspired by Tim Riggins, the star running back on the high school football team in the TV series “Friday Night Lights.”

“I sat there and I thought to myself, ‘What would happen if Tim Riggins, grew up, became a functioning member of society and maybe washed his hair every once in a while?’,” Sage said. “And that is how Luke Brooks was born.”

Thinking about small towns, and the West, Sage said, “There’s something beautiful about this more simple way of life, … this idea of the cowboy or cowgirl living their life in the most authentic way possible.”

“That’s what we think about when we think about the Wild West,” Sage said, referring to the subgenre of cowboy romances having a renaissance. “We think about authenticity and fearlessness. And I think it just lends itself so well to a romance.”

The romance genre, in general, is booming — for proof of that, note that a romance-centered bookstore opened last month in Salt Lake City’s Maven District.

“Lots of people out there [are] unapologetic and excited about it,” Sage said, “and we don’t care about the societal expectations or how sometimes people look down on romances.”

Sage is planning more books in the Rebel Blue Ranch series. The third book is set to be released in November, and the fourth and final installment is expected in the spring or summer of 2025.

Readers seem to be ready. During her interview at The King’s English, several people overheard the conversation and stopped to say hello. One said she had never heard of Sage, but bought a copy of “Done and Dusted” on the spot. Another said she pre-ordered “Swift and Saddled” at the store, and had finished “Done and Dusted” in two days.

Sage will go on a seven-stop tour for “Swift and Saddled,” starting with Tuesday’s sold-out event at The King’s English.

“There’s literally no better beginning than Rebel Blue Ranch, but I’m also excited about everything that’s to come,” she said. “This is my dream. This is what I wanted to do forever.”

Sage said she has other dreams to accomplish. “There was a girl who had a dream, and a woman who executed,” she said, “but they just get bigger from here.”