Romance readers are leading the adoption of e-books, and publishers are happy to follow. “Early adopters of e-books have not been techno-junkies but avid readers,” says Malle Vallik, director of digital content and social media for Harlequin Enterprises. “They like e-books for their portability, accessibility, immediacy, and lack of shelf space. Women have embraced e-books because they will seize anything that makes their life simpler.” That is, they read around.

Capitalizing on this trend, Harlequin recently announced the summer 2010 launch of the digital-only imprint Carina Press, which will focus on romance and erotic romance. “The voracious reading appetite of romance readers has allowed a number of digital-first companies to start and grow and become solvent,” says digital publishing consultant Angela James, who will be the executive editor at Carina. “Many readers came to digital reading because it offered erotic romance, which wasn't something they could get from traditional venues. Now traditional publishers are looking at digital-first lines.”

Romance readers and publishers remain sharply divided on the question of encryption and digital rights management (DRM), however, and many consumers continue to hold out for a low-priced e-reader and a single standardized format. “Sadly, the reader is often the missing element in the development of books and devices,” says Sarah Wendell, a romance blogger at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. “Whether it's DRM security on the books themselves, or devices that have some but not all of the features we prefer, time and again manufacturers and publishers are standing between the reader and her book.”

Carina will be offering DRM-free e-books, delighting readers who want content to be immediately and perpetually available and easily shared. Other publishers are concerned that infinitely replicable books will destroy their bottom line. “Kensington will only deal with retailers that use DRM,” says Steve Zacharius, president and CEO of Kensington Publishing. “The authors have dedicated their lives to writing a book and deserve to earn a royalty from every copy that is downloaded. The slight inconvenience that might exist to the reader in having to put up with DRM is worth the effort to make sure that the e-publishing business is a viable model.” Wendell says that inconvenience not only discourages readers but reduces valuable word-of-mouth promotion: “We can't say to a friend, 'Oh, my gosh, you have to read this—here, borrow my copy.' [Readers and bloggers] are the newest marketing and promotional team for an author, but our ability to share the very thing we love most is hobbled because we are seen as potential thieves and pirates.”

Readers are voting against DRM with their dollars. Lori James (no relation to Angela), co-owner and COO of the online bookstore All Romance eBooks, says that in 2008 the “vast majority” of its sales were of unencrypted files, mostly PDFs. “Customers who are new to reading books digitally have often experienced reading a PDF document and already have Adobe Acrobat Reader on their computer,” she says. “I understand why some publishers elect to employ DRM, but there are many readers who find navigating the DRM files daunting. Some customers are cautious when it comes to downloading new software, and others don't want to commit to a registration process and reveal their personal information. Piracy is an issue and it's bad for the industry, but we need to remember that on the whole, romance readers are honest, loyal people who are extremely supportive of their favorite authors.”

While trade publishers are frustrated by market demand for cheap e-books, mass market publishers know how to make a profit off a three-digit price tag. “We're in a unique position at Harlequin, as almost everything we publish is mass market,” Vallik says, “so we have not felt the pressure that other publishers have. Most people expect a digital edition to be less than the print version and that is how we price our e-books.” Zacharius reports that Kensington's e-books are discounted about 20% from the cover prices: “I feel the lower cost of bringing this type of format to market should be passed along to the reader.”

Another cost being passed along to readers is the steep price of reading devices, a deterrent to romance fans used to purchasing mass market paperbacks for $7.99 a pop. Vallik opines that romance readers reluctant to try e-books are waiting for a low-priced, simple e-reader—“Women have no desire to connect the doohickey to the whatchamacallit”—but blogger Jane Litte of the romance reviews site Dear Author disagrees. “Even the iPod nano now comes with the ability to take video and photos, show video, and play music,” Litte says. “My feeling is that women will adopt a multifunction device sooner rather than adopting e-reader devices.” Regardless, she adds, publishers, booksellers, and device manufacturers have to keep ease and speed of use in mind. “If other forms of entertainment provide more value or are easier to obtain,” she says, “books will lose.”

Looking ahead, Litte suggests that digital technology will open the door to entirely new pricing schemes. “We may see lower-priced subscriptions and licenses instead of sales,” she says, “because of the reduction of the onerous burden of returns and resales.” Meanwhile, Angela James is considering the implications for international rights and other contract terms. “I think the next few years are going to see some negotiating among agents, authors, and publishers around world digital rights,” she says. “Digital publishing has the potential to eliminate the barriers of international customs and shipping, and gain a whole new audience for authors and publishers—but lifetime world availability has implications for authors with contracts that are binding as long as the book is in print. What will 'in print' mean now that digital copies live forever?”

Books Mentioned in This Feature
No Mercy by Sherrilyn Kenyon. St. Martin's, $24.99, Aug. 2010. ISBN 978-0-312-54656-4.

Ecstasy Unveiled by Larissa Ione. Grand Central, $6.99 paper, Feb. ISBN 978-0-446-55682-8.

Gentlemen Prefer Succubi by Jill Myles. Pocket, $7.99 paper, Dec. 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-7282-4.

Succubi Like It Hot by Jill Myles. Pocket, $7.99 paper, Jan. ISBN 978-1-4165-7283-1.

Demonfire by Kate Douglas. Kensington, $6.99 paper, Mar. ISBN 978-1-4201-0999-3.

Come Hell or High Water by Michele Bardsley. NAL, $6.99 paper, Jan. ISBN 978-0-451-22878-9.

Covet by J.R. Ward. NAL, $7.99 paper, Oct. 2009. ISBN 978-0-451-22821-5.

The Battle Sylph by L.J. McDonald. Dorchester, $7.99 paper, Mar. ISBN 978-0-8439-6300-7.

The Shattered Sylph by L.J. McDonald. Dorchester, $7.99 paper, Apr. ISBN 978-0-8439-6323-6.

My Zombie Valentine by Katie MacAlister, Angie Fox, Lisa Cash, and Marianne Mancusi. Dorchester, $7.99 paper, Jan. ISBN 978-0-8439-6360-1.

Soulless by Gail Carriger. Orbit, $7.99 paper, Oct. 2009. ISBN 978-0-316-05663-2.

Changeless by Gail Carriger. Orbit, $7.99 paper, Apr. ISBN 978-0-316-07414-8.

Heart's Blood by Gail Dayton. Tor, $6.99 paper, Dec. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7653-6251-3.

Crimson & Steam by Liz Maverick. Dorchester, $7.99 paper, Jan. ISBN 978-0-505-52779-0.

Steamed by Katie MacAlister. Signet, $7.99 paper, Feb. ISBN 978-0-451-22931-1.

Desiring the Highlander by Michele Sinclair. Kensington, $6.99 paper, Dec. 2009. ISBN 978-1-4201-0854-5.

A Precious Jewel by Mary Balogh. Bantam Dell, $7.99 paper, Nov. 2009. ISBN 978-0-440-24463-9.

Dark Angel/Lady Carew's Bride by Mary Balogh. Bantam Dell, $7.99 paper, Mar. ISBN 978-0-440-24544-5.

A Wicked Lord at the Wedding by Jillian Hunter. Ballantine, $6.99 paper, Sept. 2009. ISBN 978-0-345-50394-7.

The Wicked Duke Takes a Wife by Jillian Hunter. Ballantine, $7.99 paper, Oct. 2009. ISBN 978-0-345-50395-4.

To Tame a Dangerous Lord by Nicole Jordan. Ballantine, $7.99 paper, Feb. ISBN 978-0-345-51011-2.

To Desire a Devil by Elizabeth Hoyt. Grand Central, $6.99 paper, Nov. 2009. ISBN 978-0-446-40694-9.

Tempt Me at Twilight by Lisa Kleypas. St. Martin's, $7.99 paper, Sept. 2009. ISBN 978-0-312-94982-2.

Days of Gold by Jude Deveraux. Atria, $25.99, Jan. ISBN 978-1-4391-0794-2.

Lavender Morning by Jude Deveraux. Atria, $25.95, Mar. 2009.ISBN 978-0-7434-3720-2.

Lessons from a Scarlet Lady by Emma Wildes. Signet, $6.99 paper, Jan. ISBN 978-0-451-22879-6.

The Golden Season by Connie Brockway. Onyx, $7.99 paper, Feb. ISBN 978-0-451-41283-6.

Promise Me Tonight by Sara Lindsey. Signet, $6.99 paper, Feb. ISBN 978-0-451-22937-3.

The Untamed Bride by Stephanie Laurens. Avon, $7.99 paper, Nov. 2009. ISBN 978-0-06-179514-5.

The Elusive Bride by Stephanie Laurens. Avon, $7.99 paper, Feb. ISBN 978-0-06-179515-2.

Viking in Love by Sandra Hill. Avon, $7.99 paper, Feb. ISBN 978-0-06-167349-8.

Simple Wishes by Lisa Dale. Grand Central, $6.99 paper, Jan. 2009. ISBN 978-0-446-40689-5.

It Happened One Night by Lisa Dale. Grand Central, $6.99 paper, Nov. 2009. ISBN 978-0-446-40690-1.

Ain't Too Proud to Beg by Susan Donovan. St. Martin's, $7.99 paper, Nov. 2009. ISBN 978-0-312-36604-9.

Can't Stand the Heat by Louisa Edwards. St. Martin's, $6.99 paper, Sept. 2009. ISBN 978-0-312-35649-1.

On the Steamy Side by Louisa Edwards. St. Martin's, $7.99 paper, Mar. ISBN 978-0-312-35646-0.

Bed of Roses by Nora Roberts. Berkley, $16 paper, Nov. 2009. ISBN 978-0-425-23007-7.

Lake Magic by Kimberly Fisk. Berkley, $7.99 paper, Jan. ISBN 978-0-425-23202-6.

Slow Heat by Jill Shalvis. Berkley, $7.99 paper, Feb. ISBN 978-0-425-23366-5.

Naked Edge by Pamela Clare. Berkley, $7.99 paper, Mar. ISBN 978-0-425-21976-8.

Something About You by Julie James. Berkley, $7.99 paper, Mar. ISBN 978-0-425-23338-2.

Queen of His Heart by Adrianne Byrd. Harlequin Arabesque, $6.99 paper, Sept. 2009. ISBN 978-0-373-83166-1.

Prize of a Lifetime by Donna Hill. Harlequin Arabesque, $6.99 paper, Oct. 2009. ISBN 978-0-373-83168-5.

Forbidden Falls by Robyn Carr. Harlequin Mira, $7.99 paper, Jan. ISBN 978-0-7783-2749-3.

McKettricks of Texas: Tate by Linda Lael Miller. Harlequin, $7.99 paper, Feb. ISBN 978-0-373-77436-4.

The Summer Hideaway by Susan Wiggs. Mira, $7.99 paper, Mar. ISBN 978-0-7783-2799-8.

Home in Carolina by Sherryl Woods. Mira, $7.99 paper, Apr. ISBN 978-0-7783-2756-1.

Eternal Kiss, edited by Trisha Telep. Running Press, $9.95 paper, July 2009. ISBN 978-0-7624-3717-7.

Tangled Web by Lee Rowan. Running Press, $13.95 paper, Dec. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7624-3684-2.

Lover's Knot by Donald Hardy. Running Press, $13.95 paper, Dec. 2009 ISBN 978-0-7624-3685-9.

Mrs. Miracle by Debbie Macomber. Avon, $7.99 paper, Nov. 2005 ISBN 978-0-06-108346-4.

The Sweetheart's Knitting Club by Lori Wilde. Avon, $7.99 paper, Dec. 2009 ISBN 978-0-06-180889-0.

The True Love Quilting Clubby Lori Wilde. Avon, $7.99 paper, Apr. ISBN 978-0-06-180890-6.

How to Knit a Love Song by Rachael Herron. Avon, $13.99 paper, Mar. ISBN 978-0-06-184129-3.

The Shunning by Beverly Lewis. Bethany House, $13.99 paper, Feb. 2009. (repackage). ISBN 978-0-7642-0463-0.

The Secret by Beverly Lewis. Bethany House, $19.99, Mar. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7642-0680-1.

The Missing by Beverly Lewis. Bethany House, $19.99, Sept. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7642-0724-2.

The Telling by Beverly Lewis. Bethany House, $19.99, Apr. ISBN 978-0-7642-0770-9.

The Choice by Suzanne Woods Fisher. Baker, $14.99 paper, Jan. ISBN 978-0-8007-3385-8.