In early 2010, things weren’t going very well for San Francisco-based romance novelist Bella Andre. Brick-and-mortar bookstores were shutting down in large numbers, and after seven years, eight books and two publishers, she learned she had been axed from her latest contract.
“I was hanging on by my fingernails,” says Andre, 41, who was trying to carve out a niche in contemporary romance. Peers advised her to try a different pen name, to change genres, to write anything but love stories. With a degree in economics from Stanford University and a background in music, she wasn’t short on career options.
Then a friend suggested she look into self-publishing. At the time, Amazon.com’s (AMZN) direct publishing platform, which allows just about anyone to publish and sell their books online, was beginning to gain traction among professional writers. After years of bending her stories to the will and opinions of publishers, editors and literary agents, Andre found the prospect of having complete autonomy over her material very appealing.
“As an author, I was not high up on the publishing food chain and [my ideas] were rarely ever listened to,” she says. “I took my friend’s advice and I dove right into self-publishing.”
Her first ebook, “Love Me”, went live in the spring of 2010 for $3.99. Within a month, she had earned $20,000 — four times as much as any book contract she had ever signed. Just a few months later, her second original ebook became the first self-published title to hit Amazon’s top-25 best sellers list. She was hooked.
Today, like many independent romance authors, Andre has become a one-woman publishing house. She’s churned out more than 30 titles and sold 3.5 million books around the world, the majority in ebook format. Revenue for Oak Press LLC, the indie publishing house she created in 2011, has been in the “eight figures,” she says. In 2014, Publisher’s Weekly named it the fastest growing independent publisher in the U.S.
Andre isn’t the only one. Despite the fact that ebook sales in the U.S. have begun to level off, romance books are much more likely to be purchased in digital format. Nearly 40% of new romance books in the first quarter of 2014 were purchased as ebooks, compared to 32% bought in paperback form, according to a recent report by Nielsen. In contrast, ebooks accounted for less than one-quarter of total new book sales during the same time period.
Say what you will about romance novels (bodice-rippers, Fabio covers and all), it’s hard to deny that some of the most exciting entrepreneurs in the U.S. today aren’t hoodie-wearing app developers — they’re women writing books for women and making millions in the process.
There is very little official data on book-author earnings available, which is why suspense writer Hugh Howey created AuthorEarnings.com, where he analyzes and publishes data on online ebook sales. According to his findings, nearly 30% of the top 100 bestsellers on Amazon were self-published in July.
And romance indie writers are leading the pack. As of mid-July, indie romance writers accounted for a whopping two-thirds of total romance ebook revenue on Amazon, compared to the 18% cut enjoyed by traditionally published authors.
“This makes a lot of people uncomfortable,” Howey says. “That’s a huge power that self-published authors have.”
In a recent analysis of debut Kindle authors, he found many more new self-published writers were earning $100,000+ annually than those who were published from the top five traditional publishers.
“[Traditional publisher books] advances are no longer high enough to support debut authors,” he wrote in the report. “And yet, at the same time, we have met and heard from hundreds of self-published authors who are not household names but are making a full-time wage from their works.”
Business is booming
As a genre, romance lends itself exceptionally well to digital publishing for a few notable reasons. Romance readers — 84% of whom are female — are a voracious bunch. Two-thirds of romance readers plow through at least two books a month, according to the RWA — twice as many as the typical American adult, Pew researchers found.
“I think ebook sales have definitely aided the romance genre,” says Erin Fry, editor and publications manager at the RWA. “And romance writers have always been at the forefront of the digital revolution. Authors can make real careers out of being self-published or combining print and digital.”
With the smash success of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, publishers have been looking at the romance genre with dollar signs in their eyes.
E.L. James’ sexy tale of a college student’s erotic love affair with a corporate executive actually began as wildly popular “Twilight” fanfiction. When a small publisher in Australia caught on to the buzz online, it asked James to swap out the main characters and produce the story as an original ebook.
These days, Rose Fox, romance and erotica reviews editor at Publishers Weekly, says pitches for new novels written by fanfiction writers are becoming increasingly common.
Another factor driving ebook sales is that, in romance fiction, series sell. The most successful romance writers are able to churn out new material at a rapid clip to satiate their fan base. Whereas a traditionally published author may wait a year to see their book in stores after completion, the timeline is less than a month for indie authors.
“People read the next romance next series in a week and need something else right away,” Howey says. “It’s hard [for traditional publishers] to ramp up … as quickly as people can read them.”
With enough reader demand, some romance writers will pump out a new tome every few months. Andre puts out about six books per year, while Barbara Freethy, an indie romance novelist based in Northern California, published 10 in the past four years.
“Everyone goes on Netflix (NFLX) and watches all of ‘Homeland’ at once, and a lot of that is happening in romance books,” says Freethy, 55. “Ebooks are affordable, and people can read as many as they want.”
Like Andre, Freethy got her start in print before going independent in 2011. Since then, she’s sold nearly 5 million ebook versions of her self-published titles and more than tripled the revenue she made with traditional publishers. She pockets 70% of her Amazon ebook sales, versus the 25% cut she would get from a traditional publisher, which she would then have to split with her agent.
“It’s a lot more work than it was when I just wrote the books, but the reward is so much greater,” Freethy says. “I’m basically running my own multimillion-dollar business.”
Fellow indie writer Courtney Milan, who writes historical romance fiction, went from earning what she describes as an “average household income” with a traditional publisher to bringing in close to $1 million each year by putting out two books per year on her own dime.
“I just can’t figure out how it’s ever going to be economically feasible [to go back to a traditional publisher] and do what I do on my own in terms of income, and still protect what I’ve developed and want to continue to develop,” says Milan, 38, who lives in Denver.
Of course, not every romance novelist — or any novelist, for that matter — can expect overnight success. What Andre, Freethy, Milan and so many other successful indie writers shared when they began self-publishing was a built-in fanbase from their days in print.
“It’s not realistic for any new author to expect to be a runaway success, regardless of how you’re getting published,” says Fox. “Most new authors are new authors. It’s going to take a couple of tries to figure out what works for them.”
Risk and reward
To say it takes more work to self-publish is putting it lightly. At their core, the successful independent writers we spoke with are more like savvy CEOs with mini-corporations to manage than carefree writers spinning love stories.
“Instead of getting paid money to sit there and write, you’re investing money,” Fox says. “Yes, there is more to be gained if the book finds success, but there’s also more risk, and that’s what it means to be a self-publisher.”
There are five major self-publishing platforms, including Amazon, Google (GOOG), Barnes & Noble (BKS), and Kobo. It takes time and effort to format a book for each company’s unique platform. And professional writers often still need the same amount of editing time as they would with a traditional publisher. Between cover artists, editors and proofreaders, it can cost anywhere from $700 to $4,000 upfront to put out an ebook, depending on how picky you are, Milan says. It can cost even more when you try translating your books for foreign markets and producing audiobooks.
Andre employs more than a dozen contract workers in countries across the globe. They help with editing, licensing her work in foreign countries, and translating and tracking her sales. She handles marketing herself and designs all her own cover art.
“I have an economics background and I’ve always been entrepreneurial,” Andre says. “This is the perfect sweet spot for me, someone who understands how to run a business, really enjoys building a brand and marketing but also has a deep creative strain.”
Milan hired a full-time project manager last year to help with everything from audiobook quality control to managing her sales figures and schedule. When a new book is ready, she assembles a team to work on the cover design and perform several rounds of proofreading and editing.
When she needed help navigating the business, she turned to other romance writers for support.
“The true story of self-publishing [in romance] is not one individual doing well,” she says. “It’s multiple individuals working together to figure out the best way to publish digital books.”
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