“I just wanted a story with a nice guy.”
In late 2012, author H. M. Ward had an experimental manuscript collecting proverbial dust on her computer. It starred a woman named Sidney and a man named Peter—an impossible nice-guy combo of handsome, strong, smart, patient, and, oh, super wealthy.
Ward had been writing since 2010 and had been down the traditional publishing route before, finding an agent and shopping her work around. Her instinct told her that publishers would have no interest in Peter. “If you take a nice-guy book to a traditional publisher,” she says, “They’re like, ‘That’s weird. Nice guys are boring.’”
So in April 2013, she published her manuscript online on her own. “I just put it up out of curiosity to see what would happen,” she says.
Despite reports that e-books are dying, Ward’s chance paid off, and continues to pay out today. According to the author, Damaged shot to No. 6 in Amazon’s Kindle store within a few days and held the No. 1 spot for several weeks. It spent a month on the New York Times bestsellers list for combined print and ebook. It was the first in two series of nice-guy books that would go on to sell 12 million copies in three years.
Publishers took note. In the year after Ward published Damaged, she was offered a series of deals from various publishers totaling $1.5 million, by her estimate. She turned them all down, and by the time she said no to her last contract, she was making eight figures as a self-published author. “It would have been a colossal mistake to sign with them at that point, financially,” she says.
Romance novels, home of heavy lids, hot breaths, and grabbed wrists, have long been the embarrassing secret money-maker of the book industry. But today, a renegade generation of self-published authors like Ward are redefining the romance novel, adapting to digital in a way that has long-lasting lessons for the book industry.
“They consume content like locusts.”
Stripped of the cheesy ’80s covers long associated with the genre, romances are now optimized for the readers whose habits have been transformed by technology. These readers aren’t casual consumers; they’re outright addicts with e-readers. And today’s romance industry is a story of creativity, community, and straight-up cash—one that stars readers as insatiable as their fictional heroines, and shrewd business women who disseminate happy endings in the millions.
The insatiable reader
From Pride and Prejudice to the 50 Shades trilogy, books that arouse readers’ passions and reliably offer a happy ending capture readers in a way that few other genres can deliver.
“Romance readers are a really, really different animal from any other kind of reader out there,” says Laura Bradford, who founded the San Diego-based Bradford Literary Agency, which focuses on romance fiction, in 2001. “They are incredibly voracious. They consume content like locusts.”
“I think anybody who reads romance will tell you that they’re a little bit addicted to it,” says Cary Mattmiller, a 39-year-old Illinois resident. She reads five romance books a week. By comparison, a survey by Pew last year showed that the average American reads 12 books a year.
Jane Friedman, a Charlottesville, Virginia-based publishing consultant, observes that, even in a physical bookstore, romance readers will buy five to ten titles at a time. Mattmiller allows herself a book budget of $60—five print books, or 20 self-published e-books—per month.
That crazed dedication has a literal pay-off for authors. Romance novelist Nora Roberts, one of the best paid authors of any genre in the world, has sold an average of 13 books per minute over the last twenty years, according to publisher Penguin. Long before ebooks, romance has consistently dominated the US fiction market, generating around $1 billion in sales each year as far back as 2000.
Over the last ten years, the genre has also exploded in productivity, according to Bowker, which tracks the International Standard Book Number, better known as ISBNs.
Ward now earns seven figures a year. She writes in an email, “I’ve been able to hire staff, rent an office, and I admit I might take a private jet now and again. I was living below the poverty line when I started in publishing.”
But she claims none of it would have been possible with a traditional publisher.
Authors who go through publishing houses make royalties on print versions of their book at a maximum of 15% of the cover price, for hardcover books. For ebooks, publishers make about 70% of sales, and authors get paid about 25% of that. But writers who self-publish and sell on Amazon, which accounts for the large majority of ebook sales, can take home as much as 70% of what they sell. (Though this model is changing as Amazon pushes authors toward its subscription platform, Kindle Unlimited, which launched in 2014.)
It’s hard to pin down how much self-published authors actually make, given that the nature of the format is decentralized, and authors don’t have to report sales or earnings. Estimates vary quite a bit: a 2014 survey of 9,000 writers found that 77% of self-published authors make as little as $1,000 a year. That could be in part because some self-published authors are only working part-time on their writing.
“I was living below the poverty line when I started in publishing.”
But either way, the site Author Earnings, which scrapes Amazon rankings to track e-book sales, is optimistic about the financial viability of self-publishing, and especially about romance. According to estimates published last month, 30 of 43 of the self-published authors they found earning more than $100,000 a year were romance writers. According to a 2012 online survey of 1,000 self-published authors, based mostly in the US, romance authors who self-publish are high earners, making 170% more than their peers in other genres.
With less overhead, self-published authors can set prices far lower than traditional publishers can, usually $3 or $4. Despite the lower prices, the high payout of self-publishing means that some ultimately take home far more than if they go with a publisher, even after accounting for their marketing and editing costs. That’s an added advantage for romance, where authors set their prices extra low because they know their readers read more, and are especially price-conscious.
“I would never pay $9.99 for an ebook. That’s like usurious, that’s like price gouging,” says Julie Tetel Andresen, who has been writing romance since 1986. “I keep everything of mine $2.99 and under.”
A perfect marriage of medium and reader
Today’s romance ebook readers might buy print versions of their favorite titles for posterity, but as romance novelists have come to understand, plenty prefer the experience of reading digitally. Not only is it cheaper than paperback, it’s also more discreet, easier to carry around on errands, and easier to buy.
In 2014, romance accounted for about a quarter of total US ebook sales from traditional publishers, more than twice as big as the next largest genre, mystery. And it’s growing: That percent is up from 19% in 2010, according to Nielsen.