Robyn Carr might not be a household name, but she’s certainly a force to be reckoned with on the bestseller lists. Her newest book, The Wanderer, capped off its first week on sale moving nearly 48,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, making it #1 for the week ended March 31. Carr, who found success catering to an avid fan base she developed over her time at Harlequin’s Mira imprint, was not always a star. Hers is the story of a former midlist author who, once she discovered the right approach, was able to break through. For Mira, which began publishing Carr in 1999, the key was saturating the market at the right time, in the right way, and, of course, with the right story.

The Wanderer, which has an announced initial printing of 500,000 copies, is the first in a new series called Thunder Point, which builds on the successful run of Carr’s 20-book smash, Virgin River. The Virgin River series started in 2007 and the last book was released in 2012. After selling 127,000 copies in its first year, the series sold amost 2.2 million copies in print and digital in 2012. Thunder Point has been molded in the same vein as Virgin River, so much so that its hero, Hank Cooper, is a character from Virgin River. The interconnectedness is no accident; it’s the thing Mira feels made Virgin River, which is set in a Northern California town, a turning point for Carr.

After some stand-alone novels and a trilogy called Grace Valley, Virgin River—which, from its inception, set out to present a patchwork story featuring myriad characters who all live in the same small town—elevated Carr to another level. Mira thinks the storytelling approach, and the timing of the books, was the key.

Carr, before moving to Mira, spent much of the 1980s writing historical bodice rippers for Little, Brown. When she arrived at Mira in the late ’90s, she wanted a bigger audience and felt she could reach it, with the right kind of book. While Grace Valley’s three titles sold moderately well, Mira hoped for something more.

When Carr began conceiving of the Virgin River series with her editor, a number of romance writers had been having success with connected series, a term for collections with a variety of characters who reappear in different titles or who are linked by a particular community. While romance titan Debbie Macomber is, arguably, the genre author credited with inventing this approach, a number of authors found success with it, such as Sherryl Woods, Susan Wiggs, and Susan Mallery. Carr focused on a story arc that could extend over multiple books and, intermittently, on different characters.

“Virgin River was the beginning of a breakout,” explained Margaret Marbury, Mira’s v-p of editorial. She said that the imprint had been struggling with Carr’s stand-alones, noting that while they were “strong,” the author “wasn’t really tying them together.” After some time off, Carr came up with was a smalltown setting—Virgin River’s population is about 600—that Marbury described as beautiful and solidly “working class.” The town is home to a number of military and ex-military denizens, and the series’ hero is former Marine Jack Sheridan who, in the first Virgin River book (also called Virgin River), discovers an abandoned baby on a front porch.

Prepared for Carr to produce a high volume of books, Mira developed a publication schedule that called for the release of three titles, over a three-month period, every year. Mira published the first three Virgin River books in April, May, and June of 2007 and “saw tremendous results.” The titles, released in mass market paperback, are longer and often more elaborate than the kind of romances published by Harlequin’s series imprints. Mira therefore made sure to, as Marbury put it, “stockpile” Carr’s books.

In 2008, when Mira published A Virgin River Christmas, Marbury said the numbers “turned the tide.” Then, in an attempt to keep Carr’s fans sated, Mira reissued the Grace Valley titles over a three-month span, beginning in August 2008. (Like Virgin River, Grace Valley is also set in a small Western town.)

“We kept her name out there with the reissues,” Marbury explained, adding that reissues are “made” for this kind of marketing. Marbury also believes that the Christmas-themed Virgin River book drew new readers to the story, as it likely got in front of “seasonal shoppers seeing the holiday tables.” In the reissues, Mira also teased forthcoming plot lines in Virgin River.

Marbury said Mira positioned Carr as a writer focused on “small towns, big men,” referring to the alpha males who are her heroes. After developing a loyal following, timing was key to grow Carr’s sales. “We knew what Robyn was writing and kept her on a consistent schedule, and I absolutely think that has a lot to do with [how we grew] her audience.” It also, we can only assume, shot The Wanderer to #1 last week.

Robyn Carr’s Virgin River Series Total Print and Digital Units (units in thousands)

YEAR 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 CAGR
Virgin River Series 127 145 439 837 1,538 2,180 77%