Maverick women writers are upending the book industry and selling millions in the process

Image: Maria Corte for Quartz
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“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.

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.

A new kind of publisher

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.

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.

That split might be even wider than industry analysts really know: Self-publishing data is by nature difficult to capture, and self-publishing is particularly popular among romance writers. Ward, who publishes in print as well as in e- and audiobook form, estimates that digital accounts for about 90% of her total sales.

Mattmiller, who works for an oil field company, says reading on her phone is the best way to squeeze reading into a packed schedule. With baseball and softball games every night, and different sports year-round, says the mother of two, e-reading romance is perfect. “I really don’t use my Kindle anymore,” she says, “You can just take your phone if you’re waiting at a kid’s game and open up where you left off, or on lunch hour, or when you wake up in the morning. It’s just kind of there, it’s easier. You can read a lot more.”

She remembers watching soap operas with her mother, a stay-at-home mom, saying, “Back then you weren’t so busy during the summer time. Summer was summer, and you did your thing, and you could spend time watching TV with your family and stuff. But that’s changed. Kids are busy, so your life is busy.”

Authors and fans, bonded

According to the nonprofit Romance Writers of America, around 82% of US romance book buyers are women, and 41% are between 30 and 54 years old. Most romance authors are female. Yet for a long time, the link between writer and reader was broken by a long chain of agents, publishers, promoters, and retailers.

Perhaps one of the most shocking revelations of today’s romance renaissance is that readers aren’t crazy about those raunchy covers. In fact, the clichéd covers featuring rock-hard abs and bared breasts were once part of a marketing strategy to entice male distributers, who picked books to sell in bookstores and gas stations. Says Carrie Feron, senior vice president and executive editor of Avon, the 75-year-old romance publisher now owned by HarperCollins: ”They had to appeal to other people besides the reader in order to get into the reader’s hands.”

Today, a self-published author’s ability to connect directly with her audience plays an essential role in sales. ”They’re very good at building relationships with readers,” says Friedman of romance writers, “and using strategic marketing campaigns to keep the readers involved from book to book.”

Romance authors were among the first fiction writers to get involved in online communities in the early days of the web. These built-in communities, today on Facebook and on blogs, mean that the traditional gatekeepers of literary agents and publishing house editors, who decide who should be published and how to market them, are far less important than in other genres.

“People were saying you couldn’t turn [Facebook] fans into readers. Not true!” says Ward. “A big part of my success definitely comes from Facebook.” Ward has a small team that includes her husband, but she’s the main force behind her marketing and social media. In fact, in the beginning, before Ward had sold even one book, she spent time attracting readers to her Facebook page.

She amassed 30,000 excited fans before she published her debut novel, Demon Kissed, in 2011. “I built it over a six month period, one fan at a time,” she says of her following. “Everyone starts small. It’s gumption and vision that determine if you’ll succeed after you have that first reader.”

Lauren Blakely, the self-published pseudonymous author of Seductive Nights, says that straight-to-fandom is a huge part of her success, too. Blakely, who’s sold more than 1 million self-published copies under this name, spends four hours a day engaging with her fans and community on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads. She has published six young adult novels through traditional publishing houses under a different name—none of which had met their advances by 2012—but found that engagement with her audience there was not what it has been with her romance titles.

“The teens aren’t as reachable online, but romance readers are,” says Blakely. “We’re wives and moms, so we’re on Facebook.”

Creativity unshackled

Going it alone can be a Herculean task. Self-publishing writers need to be able to commission an effective book jacket, manage a copyeditor, and run their social media accounts or hire a team to do it. “It’s a lot of strict managerial skills, creative managing skills, that very few people have,” says Steve Axelrod, who has been a literary agent for romance writers since the late ’70s. ”Women in romance who have succeeded [in self-publishing] have a range of skills that is just so impressive.”

On top of that, of course, they have to fill the pages with hundreds of diversely described moans, kisses, and long glances, and, of course, the requisite happy union. Notes Andresen: “If you can show why two people should, or probably will go on to, live happily ever after; if you can show how they connect on an emotional, spiritual, physical, and intellectual level—that’s not easy!”

But that’s where self-publishing online also allows an unprecedented degree of artistic freedom. Andresen was originally published with Warner Books, now Grand Central Publishing, a part of Hachette. ”The way you make it big in the mass market is, you write the same book over and over,” she says. “You write a product and you give your reader the same experience every time.”

She, too, switched to self-publishing, starting in 2011. Now she can rattle off a long list sub-genres she has the freedom to experiment with: medievals, regency, western, murder-mystery romance, paranormal, and contemporary. Last year she finished a trilogy set in Vietnam. The first is BDSM-inspired, the second is motorcycle club-themed, and the third, mixed martial arts. “No New York publisher—they wouldn’t want that. That’s weird!” she says.

Happier endings

“Romance has never gotten the respect it deserves,” says Axelrod, “Either as a business or as a creative pursuit.” But as authors prove their business savvy, online communities chat away the shame of the stereotypical bodice-ripper, and smooth tablet screens conceal recent purchases, a newly confident wave of readers has begun to emerge.

“I’m always the designated driver,” says Cary Irvine, a 37-year-old project manager from Richmond, Virginia. “I’m not adventurous. I’m not a person to do something that my mom and dad would not approve of. Me sitting at the pool reading Fifty Shades of Grey—probably isn’t something that I would do.”

That was before. Once her husband bought her a Kindle, she says, a new habit took hold. Now Irvine reads 10 to 15 romance novels a month.

“I prefer having my Kindle where I can be in my mind wherever I want to be, and enjoy that story, and not concern myself with other people,” says Irvine. She lets her close friends in on her secret, though, she says. “They call me the crazy mommy porn lady.”