One chilly morning this month, Meredith Wild, the best-selling romance novelist, was sitting in her library in Destin, Fla., wrapped in a loose black sweater in front of a crackling fire. Most mornings, Ms. Wild writes her novels in this spot after her children leave for school, but that day she had other business to attend to. She had a call with a reality TV production company that is developing a show about her, and later, a conference call with a team at Waterhouse Press, the small imprint that is publishing her new novel in June.
Ms. Wild has an unusual amount of sway for an author, owing to her high-profile position at Waterhouse: She founded the company. After sales of her self-published erotic novels took off on Amazon and other sites, Ms. Wild created the press partly as a way to get print versions into bookstore chains and big-box stores.
“I wanted something that sounded like it was a real imprint, because nobody takes you seriously as an independent author,” she said. “I felt I was being discriminated against as an indie.”
Her marketing abilities proved so effective — she sold 1.4 million print and digital copies — that she decided to expand her business by taking on other authors, in essence becoming a publisher herself.
Last year, Ms. Wild began quietly acquiring works by other self-published romance writers, including Helen Hardt and Audrey Carlan, and publishing their books under her Waterhouse imprint. The press will release at least nine novels this year, including two in Ms. Wild’s current series. She’s become a kind of value investor in erotic prose, pinpointing undervalued writers and backing their brands.
“We’re hoping to discover the next big person and replicate some of the success we had building the visibility of my books,” Ms. Wild said. “We’re interested in taking these diamond-in-the-rough type people and building their brands.”
The fledgling imprint is already off to a promising start. One of the series it acquired, Ms. Carlan’s “Calendar Girl,” has sold more than a million copies since Waterhouse rereleased it last summer, and it recently appeared on the USA Today and New York Times best-seller lists.
Ms. Wild’s path from becoming a self-publishing star to operating her own small imprint is the latest sign that independent authors are catching up to publishers in the sophistication of their marketing and the scope of their ambitions. Self-published authors can negotiate foreign-rights deals and produce audiobooks. A handful of the most successful independent writers sell print copies of their books in physical retail stores like Barnes & Noble, Walmart and Target, giving them access to a market that traditional publishers have long dominated.
Now enterprising authors like Ms. Wild are forming their own small publishing houses. Just like the old-guard editors and publishing companies that they once defined themselves against, these new imprints promise to anoint fledgling authors with legitimacy and give them an edge in a flooded and cutthroat marketplace.
In a sense, these authors-turned-publishers are thriving because the self-publishing ecosystem has become oversaturated. Amazon has more than four million e-books in its Kindle store, up from 600,000 six years ago, making it harder for new authors to find an audience. Building your own brand may sound appealing and empowering, but only a small fraction of self-published authors sell enough books to make a living, and many are put off by the drudge work and endless self-promotion involved.
“Authors are hungry to try to find new methods to crack the market, and if someone is saying, ‘I did it, come work with me, and I’ll teach you the secret sauce,’ that sounds like an interesting proposition,” said Peter Hildick-Smith, founder of the Codex Group, which analyzes the book industry.
Standing in front of a bookcase in her library, where she has prominently displayed books by Ms. Hardt and Ms. Carlan, Ms. Wild seemed to derive equal satisfaction from the books of others she has published as from those she has written herself. The bottom shelves remained empty, reserved for future acquisitions.
“I’m looking forward to filling them up,” she said.
Once Disdained, Now Courted
Later that morning, Ms. Wild and her husband, Jonathan, sat on the couch in front of the fireplace, each holding a printed agenda. It was time for the conference call with David Grishman, Waterhouse’s chief executive, and three other Waterhouse employees. A former firefighter, her husband now works at Waterhouse on the marketing team. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out onto a swimming pool and beyond it, the choppy, blue-gray water of Choctawhatchee Bay.
They discussed Ms. Wild’s writing schedule and the marketing strategy for Ms. Hardt’s next novel, an erotic romance set in the Victorian era. Then the conversation shifted to Ms. Carlan. Barnes & Noble had just placed a paperback order for her “Calendar Girl’’ series, about a young woman who becomes a high-priced escort to settle her father’s gambling debts.
“We’re at the top of Nook, iBooks and Kindle,” Mr. Grishman said. “We’re selling a lot. We should look at another print run.” He suggested printing an additional 30,000 books of the first two volumes.
When the call ended, the mood was giddy.
For decades, the literary world dismissed self-published authors as amateurs and hacks who lacked the talent to land a book deal. But that attitude gradually began to change with the rise of e-books and the arrival of Kindle from Amazon, which gave authors direct access to millions of readers. Over the last five years, close to 40 independent authors have sold more than a million copies of their e-books on Amazon, the company said.
Publishers and literary agents who once overlooked self-published authors began courting them with staggering book advances. The self-published fantasy writer Amanda Hocking sold a four-book series to St. Martin’s Press for $2 million in 2011. Last year the independent romance novelist Jasinda Wilder sold a trilogy to Berkley Books for seven figures.
After Ms. Wild’s self-published “Hacker” series took off in 2014, she was bombarded with offers from publishers, agents and film producers. She was earning so much by then that she told her agent she would entertain only eight-figure offers. She eventually settled for a bit less, agreeing to a $6.25 million advance from Forever, a Grand Central Publishing imprint, for five books.
Forever has sold nearly 500,000 digital and print copies of the “Hacker” series — a healthy sum, but far less than the 1.4 million digital and print books Ms. Wild had sold on her own, without any of the editorial guidance, marketing muscle or sales and distribution channels of an established publisher.
Perhaps that’s why Ms. Wild opted not to sell the rights to her other books. Instead, she’s publishing her current series through her own imprint.
“I’m more comfortable being in control of my successes and failures,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to be on the sidelines.”
Editors and publishers are adjusting to a new power dynamic, one in which even multimillion-dollar advances aren’t enough to ensure an author’s loyalty.
“It’s a challenge, because a lot of the ones who are very successful at it are making a lot of money, which in all honesty can be hard to match with the traditional publishing royalty structure,” said Leah Hultenschmidt, the Forever editor who acquired the Hacker series from Ms. Wild.
Publishers fighting to recruit top-selling authors have other reasons to be alarmed by the growth of self-publishing. As independent authors grab a bigger slice of the e-book market, digital sales by traditional publishers fell by 11 percent in the first nine months of 2015, according to data gathered from more than 1,200 publishers by the Association of American Publishers.