Brave New World

Romance Authors on the Cutting Edge of Publishing

As the world of traditional publishing begins to appear bleaker and bleaker from the perspective of romance writers (and quite often from the perspective of romance readers seeking more variety from the genre), the future looks very bright indeed for authors who publish electronically.

Ginny McBlain, President of EPIC, says “[t]wo years ago a well known agent spoke on electronic rights at the RWA conference in Dallas. At that time, he didn’t think authors need concern themselves with electronic rights before the year 2000. Just this week, EPIC has learned that this
same agent is advising all of us to be very careful about retaining our electronic rights.”

While sales currently appear to be “slow but steady” according to Electronically Published Internet Connection (“EPIC”) vice-president and e-author Marilyn Grall, she and other authors (both traditionally published and e-published) believe the industry is on the verge of exploding. Sales of electronic books are poised to increase dramatically with the advent of handheld readers such as NuvoMedia’s Rocket eBook, and those increased sales mean more opportunity for authors.

Authors not only see the explosion of the industry as an opportunity for sales in a world where markets are growing tighter, but also as a golden chance for increased diversity in books that are being published. These days, traditional publishers are rarely in a position to take risks with what they publish; this means that authors who step outside the increasingly restrictive publisher guidelines are being rejected. Author Pauline Jones heard from publishers that her “…writing was good and the story compelling, but it wasn’t marketable for a variety of reasons, ranging from the POV to the fact that it crossed genres, rather than fitting neatly into one.” Others echo Jones’s exasperation with traditional publishers. Karen Wiesner notes that “even the traditional publishers had to admit I told a hell of a story! The reasons they kept giving me for not publishing me were based on the fact that I didn’t stay ‘within their guidelines’.”

Electronic publishers, however, are better positioned to take risks with what they distribute. A key selling point for Wiesner was that electronic publishers don’t focus on “safe” or “formula” plots. E-authors such as Jones and Wiesner have more latitude with plots, themes, and even word count because their work doesn’t have to fit both the publisher and a particular line produced by that publisher. As Anne Manning says, electronic publishers and writers “push the envelope” and goes on to note that her editor at Hard Shell Word Factory “is dying for Regency and paranormal submissions.” This is welcome news for both authors and loyal fans of these romance sub-genres.

Authors cite this willingness of electronic publishers to take chances on authors and plots as one of the key advantages of their industry. Another important advantage for authors is the contract between the two parties. Publishers place their contracts on their web sites, providing authors with the capability to make an informed decision about the business relationship that that they are entering before signing on the dotted line. Clearly written and easily accessible, contracts with e-publishers are what Jones calls “author friendly.”

For Jones and others, author friendly means a variety of things. For example, authors are only licensing electronic publishing rights to the publishers. This means that authors can explore other methods of exploiting their work such as audio books, as Jones and Manning have done, or traditional print publishing. E-publishers also tend to license works for shorter periods of time, with options to extend the relationship. Again, this provides authors with greater freedom over the future of their work. Traditional publishers can tie up any and all rights to a particular work for an extended period of time. This means that, even if the publisher has no intention of reprinting or exploiting other rights to a work, the book is unavailable to the author for the duration of the contract despite the fact most romance novels tend to have a limited shelf life.

Authors not only see the explosion of the industry as an
opportunity for sales in a world where markets are
growing tighter, but also as a golden chance for
increased diversity in books that are being published.

It is this scenario that has traditionally published authors taking a hard look at contractual language regarding electronic publishing rights. Ginny McBlain, President of EPIC, says “[t]wo years ago a well known agent spoke on electronic rights at the RWA conference in Dallas. At that time, he didn’t think authors need concern themselves with electronic rights before the year 2000. Just this week, EPIC has learned that this same agent is advising all of us to be very careful about retaining our electronic rights.” Many authors are actively pursuing regaining these rights in order to take advantage of methods of distribution not being considered by their current publishers.

The author friendly concept in e-publisher contracts further extends to critical language regarding royalty rates. While e-publishers don’t pay advances to writers, they do pay royalties at a higher rate than their print counterparts. While sales by traditional publishers are still considerably higher than the sales of for e-publishers, e-publishers offer authors increased shelf life (books are available for one year from Hard Shell Word Factory and other publishers) in addition to the higher royalty rates. It should be noted, however, that rates differ based on how books are purchased by the consumer. Authors receive lower rates when book are purchased through Amazon.com versus through their publisher.

While authors generally characterize their overall electronic publishing experience as highly positive, there are still negatives facing the industry. The first is one common with any new technology: gaining consumer acceptance. McBlain says that members of her group “speak to anyone willing to listen about electronic publishing. We are able to talk with enthusiasm because we realize that with the advent of hand held readers at a reasonable cost, this industry will grow quickly.” McBlain also cites the difficulty in getting electronic books reviewed or entered into contests as significant challenges faced by authors who are published electronically. She notes that while EPIC members keep one another informed of these difficulties, they also “especially share the good news — where we were successful in getting our work reviewed and some of those successes have come from non-traditional, but significant places, like a highly regarded S/F magazine.”

Other issues faced by writers is the perception among their peers of electronic publishing. Wiesner, for one, finds that peer acceptance is more difficult to find than reader acceptance. For example, the Romance Writers of America still does not accept electronically published books in the competition for its highest award, the RITA. While the growing market and increasing numbers of RWA members who are also e-published have made the issue a topic of hot debate, the organization is still in the early stages of determining when and how e-published books will be considered for the award. Manning does note, however, that the organization has made some positive steps in recent months. Grall concurs, noting that she will be editing a monthly list of electronic book releases for the Romance Writer’s Report, the group’s monthly magazine to its members.

Wiesner suggests speaking at conferences and
“getting around the net basically in as many places as
you can.”

In addition to their active roles in promoting their industry electronically published authors are also actively exploring new avenues for marketing their books. In addition to traditional routes such as book signings and printing bookmarks (both of which become trickier with e-books but not impossible), Wiesner suggests speaking at conferences and “getting around the net basically in as many places as you can.” She also lauds the promotion work, including sending out review copies of her books, done by her publisher, Hard Shell Word Factory.

Wiesner’s approach of using the Internet to successfully promote works is a highly effective tool used by many authors. A well-designed web site is critical for both promoting and selling books. Readers always have easy access to current information such as upcoming releases and excerpts from books. Links to publishers or booksellers ensure that visitors to the site don’t “forget” that they are interested in a book. To draw readers to their sites, authors use reciprocal links with publishers as well as mentioning both new titles and URL’s in the “sig lines” of their e-mail messages.

Other low-cost, high-visibility methods used by authors include active participation on listservs and mailing lists. Listservs provide authors with opportunity not only to share thoughts on a variety of topics, but also to promote their activities from new releases to public appearances. Mailing lists, which target groups who have asked to receive e-mail from an author, can serve a variety of purposes from an occasional mailing touting a new release to regular updates designed to increase repeat visits to the author’s web site. For example, if an author also regularly updates a site with new material, a mailing list will serve to maintain interest between releases.

Authors who are being published electronically are pioneers in their genres. They are also proving to traditional publishers that there is a market for books that push the envelope. The face of electronic publishing will be changing rapidly over the next several years, but one thing appears to be certain – the nature of the industry will guarantee an environment driven by great writing instead of marketing personnel.