It’s no secret that the rise of self-publishing, along with the start-and-stop growth of e-book sales, has had profound effects on traditional publishing. But no genre serves as a better case study for how publishers are reacting to these changes—sometimes successfully and sometimes not—than romance.
Earlier this year, Samhain Publishing, a predominantly digital publisher of romance founded in 2005, announced that it would cease operations, citing declining e-book sales. At the same time, Waterhouse Press, founded in 2014 by romance author Meredith Wild, has experienced robust success, particularly with Audrey Carlan’s Calendar Girl series. Waterhouse acquired Carlan’s self-published titles in 2015 and, according to the publisher, has since sold more than three million units in digital and print combined.
It would be difficult to parse all the reasons why some publishers thrive in the changing romance landscape while others flounder. What’s clear is that, in order to succeed, romance publishers have had to develop flexible strategies for securing author talent and capturing readers in a competitive and highly saturated marketplace.
Here’s a look out how several digital-first romance publishers—some independent, others imprints within major houses—have evolved in terms of author branding, marketing, format, and more.
The All-Powerful Author Brand
At a time when many romance readers discover books online, and when authors may publish in a variety of venues (on their own, with a traditional publisher, or with several publishers simultaneously), author branding is more important than ever.
Liz Pelletier, publisher of Entangled, a digital-first romance publisher based in Fort Collins, Colo., says that the “days of being proprietary are over,” and the imperative to elevate an author’s brand trumps the competition among that author’s other publishers.
Pelletier cites the example of Tessa Bailey, who in addition to her Entangled titles also publishes with Grand Central and Avon. To promote Bailey’s books, Entangled recently ran a Facebook campaign centered on the motif of dirty talk—Bailey, Pelletier says, is the “queen of dirty talk”—which directed users to Bailey’s website, where all her books, including those with Grand Central and Avon, are promoted. “I wasn’t pushing a book; I wasn’t pushing a series,” Pelletier says. “I was pushing her brand.”
InterMix, a digital-first imprint of Berkley, tends to give its authors a fair amount of latitude in cultivating their brands. “These people are very savvy,” says Jeanne-Marie Hudson, marketing director at Berkley. “They know who their readers are, and what they’re looking for.”
Give and Take
Traditional publishers can benefit from the reach of hybrid authors, who self-publish as well as publish traditionally. Hudson says that because hybridization increases an author’s visibility, each of the author’s publishers—not to mention the author herself—benefits from her broad platform. “Romance readers are generally very loyal,” Hudson says. “If they like an author, they tend to want to read more by that author.”
Swerve, a digital-first romance imprint of St. Martin’s Press, seeks out authors who have made a mark in self-publishing, says Anne Marie Tallberg, publishing director. “Our romance editors are voracious readers, and they love finding self-published people they feel could [do well] at Swerve. We’ve head-hunted people.” One author Swerve sought out is Cherrie Lynn, who self-published her most recent books, Shameless (2014) and Watch Me Fall (2015), and who will begin a trilogy with Swerve in early 2017.
Another digital-first publisher actively seeking independent authors is Riptide, an LGBTQ house with a strong romance focus. “We’re seeing fan-fiction writers, who’ve earned their chops playing in other people’s sandboxes, migrating in large numbers to traditional publishing with original fiction,” says Rachel Haimowitz, Riptide’s publisher. “We’ve signed a number of authors this year, mostly debut, who built large followings in fandom,” including Aidan Wayne (Counterbalance, Sept.), Jordan S. Brock (Change of Address, Oct.), and Quinn Anderson (Hotline, Nov.).
Cindy Hwang, editorial director of romance at Berkley, says the self-publishing market is more than a source for new authors; it also can alert traditional publishers to new reading appetites.
“A lot of self-published authors are not afraid of publishing very edgy, very extreme material, and sometimes that’s not a good fit for traditional publishing,” she says. “At the same time, there are a lot of readers out there who are drawn in by different kinds of reads that they find from self-published authors, and that can indicate a readership that isn’t being served” by mainstream publishing.
For example, Hwang says, male-male romance first took off with small presses; then, some authors began self-publishing. Traditional publishers are now investing in the subgenre. This season, InterMix will publish five male-male titles, including His Royal Secret (July) and His Royal Favorite (Aug.) by Lilah Pace, who began writing male-male romances for fun some time ago, Hwang says, but did not submit them to be published until 2015, when the market seemed more receptive. Male-male romance provides a “fantasy element” for its largely female audience: “It’s an interesting way to explore different aspects of gender identity.”
Scooping up an author with a self-publishing track record offers another benefit to a traditional house.“Self-published authors are often very focused and aware of the need for self-promotion,” Hwang says. “They bring a certain skill level that someone who hasn’t done any self-publishing probably hasn’t had the opportunity to hone.”
Entangled cross-promotes with its hybrid authors: the publisher will highlight an author’s forthcoming self-published book at the end of an Entangled title by that author, as long as the author does the same for her books with Entangled.
Traditional publishers are also adapting marketing tactics from the world of self-publishing. Amanda Bergeron, who heads Impulse, Avon’s digital-first imprint, says working with previously self-published new adult authors alerted her to the value of cover reveals. “They hadn’t been a usual part of publishing, and [the authors] were getting enormous engagement from their readers, and from bloggers, by doing them.”
Sometimes, Impulse pairs exclusively with a media partner for a cover reveal; for other books, it conducts a reveal across social media channels and on its website. The imprint recently revealed the cover of debut new-adult author Laura Brown’s Signs of Attraction (June) on the Avon Romance Facebook page, which has more than 385,000 likes, and on the Avon Romance website.
The benefits to publishers of taking on self-published authors seem clear. But why would a self-published author, particularly one who’s found readers on his or her own, want to foray into traditional publishing? Angela James, editorial director of Carina, Harlequin’s digital-first imprint, says many self-published authors find the ancillary tasks associated with self-publishing, such as marketing, laborious. “They’d like to write and let somebody else handle the business things.”
Other authors hope to see their books in print—an option that many digital-first imprints offer, either through print-on-demand services or in coordination with their parent publishers. “We have some authors who’ve grown such big platforms that it only makes sense to take them into the retail market as well,” James says.
For example, a pair of writers, Melissa King and Lea Robinson, have published numerous titles under the pseudonym Alexa Riley. They came to Carina, James says, for help accessing the print market. Carina will release its first Alexa Riley book, Everything for Her, in January 2017.
Digital-first romance publisher Tule also publishes print-on-demand, with CreateSpace and Ingram, in order to “partner with independent bookstores,” says Meghan Farrell, managing editor. “This is a new thing we’ve been working on. We started with just digital. But in 2016 we’ve been working with different authors and select options for print.”
At Kensington Books, which acquired e-book house Lyrical Press in the winter of 2013–14, print is still king. Digital-first is “a way to introduce people to new authors, or newer authors, at a much lower price, and hopefully, to build them,” says Steven Zacharius, president and CEO. “Our goal is to build up an author to the level where we can eventually get them into print.”
What does it take for an author to move into print? That depends on the author, Zacharius says. “If there’s enough momentum, whatever it might be—let’s say it’s 50,000 e-books sold at a fairly normal price point, $3.99 or $4.99,” then the publisher may take a chance on the author in print.
Kensington will often move authors from Lyrical to its Zebra Shout imprint, which has lower prices than other print imprints, as a kind of testing ground. “The first book’s at $4.99, and we do three books in one year,” he says. “You’ve got a chance for that author to build his or her sales. You don’t want to first do them in digital at $1.99 and all of a sudden bring them into print at $6.99 or $7.99, because they’re going to fail.”
Short and Sweet
Digital-first romance publishers are also experimenting in terms of frequency and format, and one form that’s taken off in recent years is the novella.
Utah’s Mirror Press, a small digital-first publisher of “sweet” romance—which depicts sexual tension and kissing, but no sex scenes—focuses mainly on themed novella anthologies, each title of which runs about 15,000 words, or 50 pages.
Heather Moore, an author and the owner of Mirror Press, says her strategy is built around cross-promotion. She invites contributors who have already amassed fan bases and, using social media marketing and newsletters, aims to draw those readers to Mirror’s anthologies. A fan “reads one of our anthologies, and they get to sample some other authors,” Moore says. The publisher released its 17th novella anthology, Road Trip Collection, in May.
Other publishers use novellas to complement an author’s full-length publications. Lauren McKenna, editorial director at Pocket Star, Simon & Schuster’s digital-first imprint, says novellas “can be used as a preorder tool, serving as an effective prequel to a series.”
Tallberg, of Swerve, adds that novellas offer ways to tap into timely events, such as holidays. In late 2016 Swerve will publish eight Christmas-themed novellas, including Big Package by erotic romance writer Opal Carew.
Novellas can also help authors to bridge the gap between fuller-length novels. “In self-publishing, and e-book publishing in general, the frequency of publication matters to readers,” says InterMix’s Hwang. Publishing every three months, she says, is ideal, though the rate differs from author to author.
Some romance authors, in fact, are so industrious that publishers have trouble containing them, which explains why some writers keep to keep one foot in self-publishing. “This seems to be the trend,” says Kensington’s Zacharius. Authors who are very prolific have little choice but to pursue a hybrid approach, he adds. “Some of these authors are writing five or six books a year. I don’t know how they do it.”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York City.
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