Digital Publishing

As I am writing this essay, Katy Evan’s Racer went live on Amazon. I have been following the author’s social media promotion from the conception of the book; right from announcing the book, revealing the cover, teasing excerpts, pre-ordering and finally, the release day. She has a burgeoning group of close 70,000 followers on Facebook and close to 18,000 on Instagram. It’s been two days since the release of the book. It has already got close to 200 reviews on Amazon and just as many on goodreads. Her Facebook group, run by her fans, has close to 5000 members, including scores of bloggers, who are sharing and hyping about her book. The book is close to reaching ‘Top 100 paid’ in Kindle store and is already at #6 in Romance/Sports sub genre, which means she is selling high numbers. There is one detail though; Katy Evans is a self-published author.

 

Katy isn’t the only one riding this thrilling wave of digital publishing. Hundreds of self-published romance authors have managed to break into the market and establish a popular brand identity. Who are these authors?

 

Alison Baverstock, an associate professor in publishing at Kingston University, Surrey, said her research showed a clear gender split, with 65% of self-publishers being women and 35% men. Nearly two-thirds of all self-publishers are aged 41 to 60, with a further 27% aged over 61. Half are in full-time employment, 32% have a degree and 44% a higher degree (Brown 2014).

 

These authors—men and women, come from all walks of life and life experiences but have one thing in come—they have successfully bypassed the traditional publishing channels and incumbent middle men, after being turned down everywhere else in most cases, to reach their target audience. That is, kind of, priceless. Self-publishing has created a brand new, level playing field where romance authors are blooming unchecked. It’s a romantic wilderness.

 

Romance publishing, for long, has been a highly lucrative, but moderated genre of publishing. Romance has evolved. It has been the money-maker, albeit underrated, for the publishing industry. If we look at the romance publishing life-cycle to date, we’ll be able to ascertain that the innovation and content, in romance publishing, has been driven from the reader’s side. The publishing industry has been forever playing catch-up to the market demands. It could be the move from traditional ‘sweet romances’ produced by Harlequin for decades, to the uproar of spicier historical romances termed as the ‘bodice-rippers’, to the tsunami of 50 Shades of Grey, which singlehandedly revived the bookstore sales across the spectrum. The audience has been ahead of the publishers (Markert 1985). The content has reflected the path of self-awareness in women. According to best-selling author Jenny Crusie, ‘‘the romance industry is more responsive to reader feedback than any other genre … Romance novels do not determine what readers think; readers determine what romance novels get published” (Crusie 2007).

 

An editor is a hunter-gatherer—a person who scrounges through the slush piles, networks with agents, actively looks for writers and ultimately gives the publishers the actual content to publish. This is a vital role. The editors are the gatekeepers. They keep track of the market’s wants and needs and calibrate their searches accordingly (Williams 1993). One of the reasons that romance has remained relevant in the era of globalization is that romance publishers have shown a unique willingness to diversify their offerings, along with a stalwart refusal to flinch away from social, cultural and demographic change (Tapper 2014).

 

The romance market is a different ball-game altogether; unlike other genres of publishing. It’s a demand driven market. Where an average American reads about 12 books a year, a romance reader devours about 15 books a month. That figure alone, should give you a pause. To put things into perspective, according to the Romance Writers of America’s annual report, the estimated total annual romance sales amount to $1.08 billion. Romance novel share of the U.S. fiction market is 34%, of which, eBooks is 61%, Mass-market paperback is 26%, Trade paperback is 11% and Hardcover is 1.4% of the pie. The readership constitutes 84% female and 16% male (RWA 2015).

 

You can love self-publishing or doubt it, but you cannot ignore it. The numbers speak for themselves. Kim & Mauborgne conducted a study of 150 strategic moves spanning more than a hundred years and thirty industries and argue that companies can succeed by creating blue oceans of uncontested market space, as opposed to red oceans where competitors fight for dominance, the analogy being that an ocean full of vicious competition turns red with blood (W. Chan Kim 2005). Traditional publishing has been a red ocean for long, primarily because of the checked flow of content and the restriction on volume.

 

Digital publishing, by the way of its business model, has opened the doors to blue oceans, where independent writers could get their books to the intended audience without having to go through the traditional distribution network. Considering the behemoth size of the romance field and the new wave of self-published or indie authors, the editors today have a new avenue to find their next big find. These relatively unknown authors, who do respectable amount of business and have a ready-made following are the perfect candidates for the traditional model of romance publishing.

 

The hunter-gatherers in the romance publishing have finally caught up the insurgence of self-published contemporary romance, YA romance and adult fiction. Scores of self-published authors have been signed up by publishers to capitalize on the ready-made market. To find the next best-seller, maybe the editors need to analyze Amazon’s sales data (how much ever it is). The publishers have been cognizant of the changes. Harlequin Mills and Boon (HMB) ventured into a self-publishing imprint in 2009, but received severe flack from the publishing world for exploiting unsuspecting writers, as they charged ‘for services’. It was argued that what HMB were offering was NOT self-publishing but vanity publishing (Friedman 2009). Following the furor, HMB changed the name of the venture from Harlequin Horizons to DellArte press (Gardner 2009). But that too died a slow death over the following 4-5 years.

 

Jane Friedman argued, “Harlequin is clearly at an advanced stage of considering how it will evolve—or devolve, considering on your perspective. But most writers and writer organizations (and publishers) have NOT grappled with these questions yet. Publishing has often been slowest to change and adapt of all industries. Some argue Harlequin should’ve been better prepared and planned more strategically to respond to the criticisms that would arise. But when you’ve already moved on, like Harlequin—and are seeking solutions—it’s tough to backtrack to the mindset of those people who are stunned, angry, and indignant, and can’t even conceive of adaptation” (Friedman 2009).

 

Friedman also quoted Shatzkin in her blog post.

 

A friend of mine in the financial business wrote a book 20 years ago and wanted to get an agent to sell it. He knew the advance would be low, but he also knew the book would add credibility to his business. He wanted it sold. An agent told him that the agency only handled books on which they thought the advance would be $25,000 or more, yielding a commission of $3,750 at the normal 15%. This friend told the agent, take the first $3,750. The agent took the book, sold it for $6,000, and everybody was happy. This kind of arrangement, as well as others where the agent actually charges a fee for helping an author manage self-publishing options, are going to have to become more common in the future. Let’s not be too judgmental about the pioneering agents who change the paradigm. (Shatzkin 2009)

 

This is tricky. Because the market is flooded with self-publishing options for budding writers. Author Solutions is well-known for this. But the publishing industry is not quite ready to give their stamp of validation to the party crashers—the self-publishing authors. HMB tried to bridge the gap between the two forms publishing, but weren’t successful. They have, since then, launched Carina Press, a digital-first publishing platform, where they publish new authors in digital format and later go into print.

 

It ought to be simple; this amalgamation between print and digital platforms; this meeting of hunter-gatherers and the romantic wilderness. It isn’t.

 

Even though the scenario is well laid out, the integration between the two isn’t as simple. Consider this: Author Marie Force has 50 titles in her backlist—30 titles self-published and 20 titles with traditional publishers. She took her early works to numerous publishers, got published in 2008 (very small release) and made no waves. Around 2010, she took the plunge into the self-publishing and has been swimming strong, since. She prices her books between $4.99 and $6.99. She is consistently ranked in the Top 100 best-selling authors on Amazon and does decent business in print. But nothing compares to her returns on Amazon. She is digitally present in a market that primarily reads eBooks. Also, Author Kristen Ashley, who routinely tops the Amazon charts. She has the attention of her audience and even managed to get her books into Wal-Mart, which is no small feat. She has small team handling her editing, design and PR. Her focus is solely on writing. These authors also have presence on Kobo, iBooks and Createspace. (Observer and Dale 2016)

 

Now consider the pricing model of these self-published books. Most self-published works are priced between $2.99 and $6.99, with most authors pricing the earlier books low and progressively going higher as a series evolves. Collectively, these authors are looking at a $30 proposition in each customer (assuming it’s a 5 book series). It makes sense to reel in the reader early on with lower prices. Romance readers are extremely price sensitive, so the authors can only play around so much.

 

Now consider the traditional publishing pricing. Hard covers are priced at $25, paperbacks at $14 and eBooks at $9.99 (averages). There has been a raging discussion about publishers increasing the rates of the eBooks, which in turn has hampered them from making any headway into the digital market, although it has led to the resurgence in print sales. Even if successful self-published authors wanted to go through traditional publisher, there is no room for potential agreement when it comes to pricing. The readers will not pay $9.99, if they know they can get comparable books for less. This has been a key deciding factor for many authors, who don’t see merit in publishing only through traditional methods.

 

Also, the traditional model of publishing allows for maximum 15% royalties for the author, as opposed to 70% they earn when publishing with Amazon. That is a big chasm to fill. So what does it mean for the hunter-gatherers and the blooming romantics?

 

Traditional publishing and self-publishing are not mutually exclusive. It would be erroneous to think that in the current market you can do either-or. Publishing is transforming organically, hence, everything is changing. Digital and print publishing, as we know it, are transmogrifying. The market is turning a new leaf. Although, the market is more dynamic and price sensitive; the good news is—there is plenty of demand.

 

Publishers have an incentive for hunting in the self-publishing field, for newer, yet tried and tested content to meet the high demand of the romance readers. It would be wise to skim the top, but  focus on the next tier of writers who are on the verge of breaking out in the market. On the other hand, the self-publishing segment can gain more ground with print sales. Even though it is a digital market, 30% of readers still read print, and only print. There is no other way of reaching these people, but through traditional publishing.

 

Ultimately, publishing industry needs new talent and the authors need the validation that can be achieved only through traditional forms of publishing. It could be a win-win situation, but only if the wheels of publishing can align. As is the nature of business, in due time, it always re-calibrates itself. It would be interesting to see how this unfolds.

 

Anumeha Gokhale

Master of Publishing, Fall 2017

Simon Fraser University, Vancouver

Works Cited

Brown, Maggie. The Guardian. 11 9, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/09/fifty-shades-of-grey-women-dominate-self-publishing (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Crusie, Jenny. http://arghink.com. 04 14, 2007. http://arghink.com/2007/04/please-remove-your-assumptions-theyre-sitting-on-my-genre/ (accessed 09 25, 2017).

Friedman, Jane. Writer’s Digest. 11 03, 2009. http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/digitization-new-technology/harlequins-self-publishing-venture-is-it-the-future-of-publishing (accessed 09 26, 2017).

Gardner, Suzzane. Quill & Quire. 11 26, 2009. https://quillandquire.com/omni/harlequin-bows-to-pressure-changes-name-of-self-publishing-imprint/ (accessed 09 23, 2017).

Markert, John. “Romance Publishing And The Production Of culture.” Poetics Vol.14(1), 1985: 69-93.

Observer, The, and Brady Dale. Titans of Kindle. 03 16, 2016. http://observer.com/2016/02/kristen-ashley-digital-author/ (accessed 09 28, 2017).

RWA. Romance Writers of America – Romance Statistics. 2015. https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=580 (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Shatzkin, Mike. The Idea Logical Company. 06 29, 2009. http://www.idealog.com/blog/the-evolving-role-of-agents/ (accessed 09 26, 2017).

Tapper, Olivia. “Romance and Innovation in Twenty-First Century.” Publishing Research Quarterly 30, no. 2 , 2014: 249-59.

The Observer, Brady Dale. Titans of Kindle. 03 16, 2016. http://observer.com/2016/02/kristen-ashley-digital-author/ (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Thompson, John B. Merchants of Culture. New York: Penguin, 2012.

  1. Chan Kim, Renée Mauborgne. Blue Ocean Strategy. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press, 2005.

Williams, Alan D. “Who is an Editor?” In Editors on Editing, by Gerald Gross, 3-9. New York: Grove Press, 1993.