Controversy — January 23, 2014, 2:47 pm


Romance writers, Jennifer Weiner, and the future of publishing

Illustration by Thomas Allen

Illustration by Thomas Allen

The New York literary industry stands at the front door and frets over the guest list, while everyone else is sneaking out the back. There are many better parties. Though e-books — and soon we’ll call them books — will not destroy the publishing industry any more than paperbacks did, they have already fractured and decentralized it. You can feel, in literary corners of the city, the depreciation of old-style New York–centered prestige. It manifests as a sense of lessening atmospheric pressure, a feeling that you do not have to be here to make it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you don’t want an invitation. Few writers appear more covetous of old-media respect than Jennifer Weiner, the author most recently of the bestselling novel Then Came You, and an agitator, on her website, Twitter, and elsewhere, for the inclusion of commercial fiction — and by extension commercial fiction written by and for women — in the New York Times Book Review. Weiner’s self-advocacy aroused enough emotion to earn her a profile in the January 13 issue of The New Yorker, and many people are now debating in the very forums that exclude her work the question of whether she belongs. The New Yorker will never publish her fiction, but a profile is another story. Weiner may not realize how flattering old media finds her attacks. In her, it has found someone whose cultural influence isn’t limited to literary New York, and yet who shares its belief that New York is the only town in the game. Aspirants validate establishments.

Weiner has a few things straight: she’s a commercial rather than a “literary” writer, and female writers of commercial fiction for women are perhaps the least-respected writers in America. They are definitely the least respected by the male-dominated New York houses and magazines. But in tracking the conversation about Weiner, it’s easy to forget that the most popular and lucrative genre of writing in the United States is commercial, female-dominated, and almost completely independent of New York.

Romance novelists, a group I write about in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine, only care about the New York Times Book Review insofar as they appear on its bestseller lists. In stark opposition to New York writers, they don’t worry about being un-literary. They consider the idea of literariness irrelevant to their project. Last August, at the Romance Novel Convention in Las Vegas, I met Angela Knight, a New York Times bestselling author of paranormal erotic romance, and when I asked whether she worried about being accepted by the literary establishment, she said plainly, “Fuck them.”

Good romance writers can earn a living without anyone in New York publishing knowing their names, because they publish and promote their work themselves. A traditional publishing house might give an author 25 percent of the net price on an e-book (meaning that if an outlet marks down your title, you get 25 percent of the discounted price). The e-book distributor Smashwords, by contrast, forbids outlets from discounting and returns 60 to 75 percent of the cover price to the author. The Amazon, Kobo, and Sony e-book stores offer similarly good rates.

Romance titles are priced low, usually around four or five dollars, which makes it easier to sell a lot of them. A known author, rolling with Facebook and Goodreads promotion, can move more than a thousand units daily on Smashwords alone. A 60 percent cut of two thousand $5 e-books is $6,000. If your book sells well for a week, you’ve made $42,000. Publish two books a year, a not-unusual pace for an e-book author, and you’ve earned $84,000 before taxes. And that’s just from Smashwords — because contracts with most e-book distributors are nonexclusive, you can sell through other distributors, too, so you may have comparable revenue coming from Kobo, Amazon, and others. And this is assuming you’re not a top-tier author. The writers in the winner’s circle, which in romance is big, can easily pull six or seven figures.

Jonathan Franzen has criticized Weiner for being self-promoting. Romance writers would find this criticism hilarious. They are, like Weiner, excellent marketers. HP Mallory, a writer who always wanted to drive a Land Rover and now does, has 35,000 likes on Goodreads and 8,700 Facebook fans. The Facebook pages she makes for her characters are equally popular. Mallory, along with writers like Bella Andre, Catherine Bybee, Barbara Freethy, Abbi Glines, Liliana Hart, Colleen Hoover, RL Mathewson, and Kirsty Moseley, have figured out how to turn their finely tuned genre writing into money. By self-publishing, they cut out the suits who once took cuts.

Why isn’t the literary industry paying attention to all of this? One reason — and I think Weiner would agree — is that romance is genre fiction, written almost exclusively by women. Self-styled literary readers don’t read books that wind up, as every romance does, with a happily-ever-after (an HEA, in the language of the genre).

But another reason is that romance novels haven’t been well served by the New York bookstores where the literary industry shops. For her 1984 book Reading the Romance, still the definitive study of the subject, Janice Radway had to travel to an all-romance bookstore in an anonymous Midwestern town in order to gather enough readers to anthropologize. Today, outside the purview of New York publishing’s sales and distribution, romance writers have found success with e-books and self-publishing. “What’s now becoming clear to everyone,” Smashwords founder Mark Coker told me, “is that romance was underserved by the traditional retail model.”

And that is where Goodreads and Facebook have come in, as well as message boards, author blogs, and mailing lists. Twitter, insufficiently direct and interactive, doesn’t hold sway in the romance world, where the only vital relationship is that between reader and writer. Critics and publishers don’t factor in at all.

In the annals of New York literary history, husbands who relied on their wives to be their scribes and editors are embarrassingly plentiful. Romance has inverted the model. Last year, the Novelists Inc. conference in Myrtle Beach featured a panel intended to teach the husbands of romance novelists how to be their wives’ assistants. “Five of the women there,” Brenda Hiatt, one of the panelists, said to me later, “their husbands have retired from their jobs.”

I should mention that most romance writers have very traditional marriages — at least until the wife starts writing. The man plies a middle- or upper-middle-class trade, and the woman works part-time or takes care of the kids. But a big royalty check has a way of altering a marriage contract.

You see a certain pattern: a husband who respects his wife’s success, knows he’s not her audience, and, not being a writer, evinces little anxiety about any of it. “Romance,” said Angela Knight, “is written by women, edited by women, sold by women, read by women.” The autonomy extends even into the marriage. Lynn Lorenz, who makes a good living writing gay erotica for women, told me that her family “loves the extra income; it’s bought us two cars, a new washer and dryer, dishwasher, microwaves, vacations.” Her husband, who works full-time, doesn’t read her books.

Successful commercial romance writers have economic power in their relationships and in the world. They have sales, fans, and control over the marketing of their product. Few of them see any reason to lose sleep over New York. Few even mention it in conversation. The literary industry is lucky Weiner is so pissed off at it. At least her anger is attention. And she’ll have a platform in the literary world as long as she keeps tweeting to her 81,000 followers that she isn’t taken as seriously as Franzen, because someone has to spread the news of the cultural relevance of the institutions that created him.

It’s not Weiner’s desire for inclusion that should scare New York. It’s the threat of her indifference.

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  • Melanie C

    Very interesting article w/ a lot of great points, thanks

  • Jackie Barbosa

    Great article, but where on earth did THIS statistic come from: “A known author, rolling with Facebook and Goodreads promotion, can move more than a thousand units daily on Smashwords alone. [...] And that’s just from Smashwords —”

    I don’t know anyone, even among the biggest names in romance self-publishing, who move anywhere close to 1,000 units a day in Smashwords storefront. Maybe, maybe, if an author is using Smashwords to distribute to Apple, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo, she’s might rack up that number on a daily basis, but since Smashwords is about a month behind on reporting those sales, authors certainly don’t see them daily.

    Smashwords’ storefront is notorious among self-publishers for being the bottom of the barrel in terms of sales–no one relies on it for any significant percentage of sales.Most romance self-publishers make the majority of their sales–and derive the majority of their revenue–from the following retail outlets:

    * Amazon
    * Apple
    * Barnes & Noble
    * Kobo

    Smashwords doesn’t even make the list, except to the extent it’s a distributor to retail outlets other than Amazon. The single biggest reason self-publishers use Smashwords is because they allow us to distribute *free* books to Barnes & Noble. (Barnes & Noble doesn’t have a free pricing option like Apple and Kobo, and unlike Amazon, it also won’t price-match your book to free if it’s free at other retailers. This makes Smashwords’ distribution system the only game in town for getting a free book to B&N.)

    • Harper’s Magazine

      The figures we used came from Smashwords. They were useful as a baseline for our hypothetical, but we didn’t mean to imply that other revenue sources were less valuable. Thanks very much for further filling us in.

      • Jeanne Tomlin

        Then they included sales made through their distribution channels to other retailers. That is simply not correct that anyone could expect that kind of sales from the Smashwords stores. They might if they chose to use the Smashwords distribution channels however.

    • MarkCoker

      Jackie, yes, there have been instances of authors moving 1,000+ copies per day at Smashwords, though those days are rare. When Jesse (the reporter) asked me how many copies a day our authors could sell, I answered 1,000+ was common for some of our bestsellers. I answered this question wearing my distributor hat, since the Smashwords distribution network is where our authors earn 90% of their sales. It’s my mistake, not the reporter’s, if the reporter thought I was referring to the Smashwords store. I wasn’t. Nevertheless, 1,000+ days at the Smashwords store is truthful as well, so what the reporter reported is correct. Many of our authors have the power to direct thousands of orders to the Smashwords store. We pay 75% list for a $3.99 book, and authors can earn up to 80% list depending on the size of the customer’s cart. I’d disagree about the reason most authors use Smashwords. Yes, we enable free pricing to B&N and every other retailer. But we offer much more than that. We help authors reach retailers and libraries they can’t reach on their own, and even for retailers you can reach on your own, we can help you spend more time writing and less time fussing with distribution, metadata management and sales reports. We provide exclusive merchandising and metadata management tools. We also enable preorders to B&N, something most indies can’t do direct. For sub $2.99 and $10+ prices at B&N, we actually we pay higher royalty rates (60% list) than authors earn going direct (40%).

      • Hybrid Author

        I remember my first large quarterly payment from Smashwords in 2012, when my book was sitting in Amazon’s top 10. I had seven increments of $10,000, and one for $4,000.00. As I scrolled, seeing one $10k payment after another, I nearly fell out of my chair.

        Using Smashwords can be lucrative. Make no mistake about it.

      • Ken Carmichael

        I use Smashwords to distribute to B&N and KOBO. And will use them at the end of this year/early next year to distribute my new paranormal series to those stores, plus iBooks. (At the moment I distribute my contemporary romances directly to iBooks). My sales each quarter from Smashwords are in four figures. I understand that changes are in the pipeline at Smashwords, where very soon I’ll see sales in ‘real time’. This year I will be using the B&N pre-order function, too. As a distributor, Smashwords are innovators and not afraid to try new things like partnering with Scribd and the Indian digital book store, Flipkart. Mark also advises the board of The Alliance of Independent Authors – ALLi. Independent authors are organising and sharing best practice. Romance authors in particular are an innovative and nimble footed group who actively support each other by sharing what’s happening and what’s working NOW in their business. The thing that separates very successful independent romance authors from the rest is that their focus is purely on the READER experience, not on whether or not the ‘establishment’ find their work ‘acceptable’ – as can be seen by Angela Knight’s comment. Go Angela! Readers now actively participate in promoting the work of their favourite authors. This means that in the digital romance world there is a true author/reader partnership, which bypasses the middle men who are clinging with their fingernails to the past. Now a writer can try new things and respond very fast to what their readers want more of. Romance authors in particular are working collaboratively issuing boxed sets, and working together on continuity series to share new authors with their readers. There is a whole eco-system evolving in the digital book market where authors are running their own GLOBAL publishing business. I employ my husband, a virtual assistant, three editors, brand manager, cover designers and proof readers, plus enlist super-keen readers to read new work. Make no mistake, it’s a lot of hard work, but I wouldn’t change a single second of having this opportunity to find joy in the work and the ability to talk directly to my readers. The ‘establishment’ has absolutely no idea of what’s happening or how we’re innovating each day in our business. By the time they do wake-up, we’ll be evolving again. It’s a brave new world and I for one feel very fortunate to be a small part of it.

  • T.J. Diggs

    Jesse Barron, thank you for taking independent writers seriously. Romance and other genre writers usually face some prejudice when it comes to the big publishing houses and literary fiction writers. We are seen as mostly unprofessional hacks and this perception has only increased with the advent of web-based publishing. The simple fact is, quite a few genre writers are creating sustainable cottage industries by catering to those niches that New York believes are beneath them. It’s not just romance by the way. Writers in Erotica, Mystery, and Fantasy are making headway as well. Thank you again for this intelligent take on the subject,

  • Andrew Ashling

    “It’s not Weiner’s desire for inclusion that should scare New York. It’s the threat of her indifference.”

    This is what the whole e-revolution has brought about. Authors who aren’t begging the gatekeepers to be allowed to join the party, but writers/business people asking, “What can you do for me and my books that I can’t do myself — and how much are you prepared to pay me?”

    Trade publishing will need a few years more, I think, to adjust to this new reality.

  • Jeanne Tomlin

    I am a bit annoyed at the implication (not said outright, but certainly implied) that e-books are for romance and only romance. Apparently, Jesse Barton has never heard of Hugh Howey, Russell Blake, Joe Konrath and hundreds of other successful ebook authors who write in other genres.

    Some of the information is mistaken as well. No one gets that kind of sales in Smashwords and Smashwords doesn’t distribute to Amazon. It does distribute to other retailers, however.

    • MarkCoker

      The reporter isn’t dinging other genres. He’s celebrating romance, which deserves the celebration. Romance writers have been at the tip of the spear of the ebook revolution, and the genre dominates to this day. I’m surprised more reporters haven’t picked up on this as Jesse did. The success of romance in no way diminishes the accomplishments of other indie writers in other genres.

      Re: 1000+ days at Smashwords, see my comments above. It *has* happened and it *does* happen. Very rare, but it happens. That said, we’re very upfront with our authors that the Smashwords store is small, not our primary business focus and that they’ll get most of their sales through our retail distribution network.

      • Jeanne Tomlin

        I think the success of romance authors is great, but I still believe there is an implication in the article that ONLY romance authors are seeing success, whether that was intentional or not. This is absolutely not true.

  • Mr. Anne

    “You see a certain pattern: a husband who respects his wife’s success, knows he’s not her audience, and, not being a writer, evinces little anxiety about any of it. ”

    I am more than a little perturbed at the implication that my wife could not write any other genre without causing me, her husband, “anxiety” and marital problems. Not only am I her editor, her biggest champion, the other half of her PR team, but I LOVE HER. Why in God’s name would her success be grounds for my anxiety?!?! Perpetuating the social norms of decades ago is insulting to those of us men who are secure enough in ourselves and our skills to not only support, but exalt the amazing women we have managed to marry when they find themselves achieving success that they have worked for tirelessly. My wife writes romance, sci-fi, and adventure….and not only do I read EVERY SINGLE LINE, more importantly it brings me no anxiety.
    Best Regards,
    Mr. Anne (I use her pen name too)

    • Ken Carmichael

      Yea, Mr. Anne!

      My H is my biggest fan, part of my PR team, and he reads the work, too. He’s a number cruncher, technical and accounts guru. He’s had a highly rewarding career in his own right, but is doing a happy dance at ‘our’ success. I also write paranormal suspense and adventure. He’s been laughing like a drain that the idea I write romance causes him a moments anxiety. He’s just said, ‘Who the hell are these men who worry about their wives success? Bring it on!’ And for some reason, Google has me posting as him! LOL!

    • Esther R

      Nice! Thanks for Setting the record straight. :)

  • Liv Morris

    “female writers of commercial fiction for women are perhaps the least-respected writers in America.”

    This statement is sobering to me, since I consider myself a female writer of fiction for women.

  • Buttercup

    You make some very broad statements here and I’d be interested to know their basis. “I should mention that most romance writers have very traditional marriages”
    How do you know this?
    Also, I would dispute the figures that suggest self-published romance writers make anything like what you say. My guess is that would be exception, a rarity in fact.

  • David Biddle

    This is quite an interesting new snap shot of the industry. We should all be amazed as hell that things are changing so dang fast.

    I’m male and mostly read and write literary fiction. The new digital accessibility to me, though, of genre fiction like romance, erotica, and YA as low cost e-books (both indie and traditionally published) finds my reading interests expanding dramatically over the past six months. I’ve even read some Jennifer Weiner, just to figure out what makes her tick so loud.

    Men read romance novels already. They really do. That’s not a secret. When you add in the erotica elements popping up these days, that’s a big Duh! Old-school porn is pretty pathetic. More important though is that old-school men are heading off to retirement homes (or the great beyond). Guys who were raised by strong moms (and liberated dads) are as concerned about love, fidelity, and being good lovers as most modern women.

    Does that mean we’re looking for new romance writing for men? Should romance writers maybe think about less than perfect hero males and studs as male leads? Does romance really have to be so perfectly stereotyped? What are the implications for the literary fiction of tomorrow?

    What about the past? Its quite easy to see that Jonathan Franzen, Phillip Roth and many others (shoot go read The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, and Madame Bovary again) have been romance novelists all along.

    The snap shot here will be interesting to return to in, say, two or three years when virtually everyone is reading digitally. What writers offer up needs to keep up with what people are looking for.



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