Forbidden romance?

Why are electronically published romance novels not receiving the blessings of the traditional steamy-fiction industry?

Published September 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Leta Nolan Childers, gravelly voiced and extravagantly named, is a romance novelist living in a remote South Dakota town. Once an investigative journalist, Childers now spends her days taking care of her adopted son and penning books with titles like "Cupid's Revenge." ("Shannon Cassidy has no time for Cupid -- especially when all he's done is bring her grief and heartbreak," reads the book's promo copy. "Yet, when Cupid appears in the guise of the mother of the man she most loathes, even Shannon's firm resolve can be pierced by the arrows of love.") On her publisher's Web site, you'll find nearly a dozen Childers originals -- including four children's books and a game about a passel of cats named Buddy, Baby and Bug.

But despite her prodigious productivity, you won't find any of Childer's books on the shelves of your local bookstore; in fact, not one of her romance novels has been published in a traditional print format. Instead, she produces, as she rather obliquely puts it, "books in electronic bindings" -- or, as the popular media would call them, e-books: electronic books, books that come in pixel format only. And she's quite happy with that fate.

"I live in a small community, and the access I had to the traditional publishing houses was very limited," Childers explains. "When I was pursuing publication ... I had a vision of them getting my package and looking at the postmark and laughing and saying, 'I didn't know anyone in South Dakota knew how to put crayon to paper.'" Instead, Childers turned to a startup e-publishing company called DiskUs Publishing; for moral support, she began a mailing list called "e-authors," through which than 120 authors, mostly romance writers, chat daily about their electronic careers.

The main topic of conversation these days, though, is not how to write steamy scenes, but how to command respect from the "professional" romance publishing industry. Their prose may be as purple as any supermarket novel, but because they've chosen pixels over paper, writers of e-romances are being left out of the industry's prestige organization, Romance Writers of America (RWA). The traditionalists argue that the e-publishing industry has yet to develop professional practices, and so far doesn't deserve as much respect as the bodice-bursting Harlequins gracing the checkout counter.

This, of course, frustrates the e-authors, who are considering creating their own organization. "I can't emphasize enough that one of the things that authors [of] electronically published books face every day is so many myths and misconceptions and misinformation that is purposely spread and purposely perpetuated, that couldn't be farther from the truth," complains Childers. "We represent change, and change is a scary thing. But we're not out to destroy traditional publishing, and there's no reason that both traditional and e-books can't coexist in the world."

If there is a black sheep of the publishing industry, it is the romance novel. These paperbacks are scorned by high-minded literary types for their heaving bosoms, tender caresses and manly members, and for enticing a group of readers consisting primarily of gushingly devoted teenage girls and middle-aged women. The publishing industry also doesn't like to admit that trashy romance novels are consistently the bestsellers of the book world. In fact, around 40 percent of all adult popular fiction books are romance novels, according to the RWA. But as witnessed at the recent RWA convention in Chicago, which included a lecture called "Defending the Genre," romance writing is still not considered an art.

Still, female would-be authors flock to the genre. The RWA boasts over 8,000 members -- although only 1,500 of those have actually seen their work published. That means there are a lot of massively muscled arms that have yet to crush milky white breasts in a published format.

It's of little surprise that many of these frustrated love-struck authors are looking online at the myriad of startup e-publishers producing books that can be read on electronic readers like the Rocket eBook or the Softbook, as well as in HTML and Acrobat formats. Some are even delving into print-on-demand technologies, signing up for's Advantage program for independent authors and selling their books in small print batches.

NuvoMedia, creators of the Rocket eBook -- at $329, one of the bestselling electronic readers on the market -- estimates that around 8 percent of all books in electronic format are romances. It seems that not only are there a lot of romance fans and novelists around, but the romance novel is also appropriate for electronic books. "Romance books are a different kind of read, they are a quick fun read, so the form of an e-book is compatible with that. You can print out the book, since it's only 120 pages, or put it on an electronic reader and read it in two hours," says M.J. Rose, author of the erotic thriller Lip Service and one of the e-book industry's success stories. "The e-format really lends itself to books that are easier to read."

The e-publishing industry in turn, is seen as friendly to romance novelists. Take, for example, Kate Saundby, another member of the e-authors list and the scribe behind 12 "futurist romance" novels, such as "Dark Angel" ("When crime lord Felix de Morel falls in love and decides to go straight, the object of his affections is not exactly a girl and her favorite snack is a bucket of cockroaches"). Although she's never published a traditionally printed book, she dismisses the traditional publishing industry as being unfriendly to writers. "E-publishers are author-friendly; the author has enormous control, while in print publishing they get treated like dogs," she sniffs; she says she turned to e-books at the suggestion of no less than famed sci-fi author Piers Anthony. (Her books are also available in print, via the print-on-demand fulfillment house Xlibris.)

Others point out that e-publishers are more accepting of books that don't fit into a specific genre -- books that cross from romance to paranormal to mystery and suspense, and aren't easy to fit into a tight marketing budget. They talk about the "personal attention" they get from the e-publishers, the marketing support and the high royalty rates that they can command -- royalties for e-authors waver around 35 to 50 percent of sales, as compared to the 6 to 15 percent that print authors receive. Most of all, they talk about the excitement of pioneering a whole way of publishing -- as Childers puts it, "There has to be some sort of outlet for us who wanted to look toward the millennium and the future."

And there are success stories for them to aspire to -- such as that of Rose, who turned to electronic publishing after her book was rejected by the New York publishing industry. Using both an e-publisher and a print-on-demand service, and signing up for the Advantage program, Rose ceaselessly promoted her book in online zines and erotic Web sites, building such a fan base that her book was eventually picked up by Pocketbooks. Her success has done wonders for the morale of the electronic publishing industry and garnered feature stories in newspapers across the country -- although it does seem that the moral of her story is that promotion is worth more than the format, and that the ultimate validation and money is not in e-publishing, but with print and the traditional publishers. As she points out, "for every electronic order I got, I got 10 print orders."

Indeed, despite the praise of these authors, e-publishing isn't a bed of roses. Certainly, the industry faces negative accusations. Traditionalists in the RWA and elsewhere argue that the electronic publishing industry is riddled with vanity publishers and accepts sub-par authors that couldn't get published elsewhere. Some (but by no means all) e-publishers are small, amateur organizations that offer little editing or promotional help. And despite the high royalty rates, e-publishers don't offer advances, so authors must support themselves while they write; their profits are based solely on book sales. And sales, so far, are paltry -- which explains why almost all e-authors are still holding down day jobs and penning their romances during the moonlit hours.

"The sales could be a whole lot better," grumbles Marilyn Grall, an Oklahoma City medical transcriptionist and the author of the e-book Conquest of the Heart ("He was a mercenary soldier who wanted nothing more than a hearth, home ... and heirs. She was an heiress whose lands had been confiscated by William the Conqueror. In the tumultuous days following the Battle of Hastings, a young woman must face her destiny, a man the truths in his soul."). She expects that will change with hard work: "It's a pioneering grass-roots effort. That's what is exciting about it -- we are all working so hard, doing whatever we can to promote it."

Despite the writers' optimism, the question of sales and royalties is critical to the romance industry at large, and is what is presently preventing the digital romantics from being accepted by their print counterparts in the RWA. Although the association voted last year to accept e-authors as members, it recently instituted rules that prevent any e-publisher from gaining official recognition. The RWA now mandates that a publisher must sell at least 5,000 copies of one of its authors' books to receive RWA recognition.

This means that e-authors may not be able to compete for the coveted RITA awards -- the gold standard of the romance industry -- since titles must be published by a "recognized" publisher to qualify. They also can't compete for the RWA's amateur writers' award, the Golden Heart, which requires that authors not be published at all. And their books won't be listed in the Romance Writers Report, the journal of the RWA, which profiles all the upcoming romance novels.

The e-authors are furious about this, insisting that the RWA has a "constant history of making a decision only to change it to the disadvantage of authors published electronically," as Childers puts it. The RWA, meanwhile, insists that it doesn't object to e-books -- in fact, RWA president Jo Ann Ferguson has even released some of her already-published books in electronic format -- but it says that the e-publishers' practices need to be more in line with those of the print industry. Ferguson sighs, "Everybody gets their feelings hurt when they are told the baby's not beautiful or perfect, and I can understand their feelings on all of this ... but we're not going after e-publishers, we're just saying that if you see this publisher at the RWA they've met our criteria."

Romance e-novelists are also discovering that, unlike their print counterparts, their books won't be reviewed in the Romantic Times magazine, the premier periodical for romance fans, unless the authors or their publishers ante up thousands of dollars for an ad in the magazine. This new rule was set in place by Romantic Times this month after it was faced with a flood of new electronic titles. Explains publisher Carol Stacy, "It's a signal to them to say that if you want to be a viable industry, then treat yourself like a real business, and learn how to participate." If the e-publishing industry can't afford to buy ads, then the magazine can't afford to devote pages to the books. In response, many romance authors are pooling their money for cooperative ads, fitting 17 to 20 authors onto a one-page ad.

But romance novelists aren't the only e-authors who feel that they are being discriminated against. E-authors of science fiction -- another group that has taken to electronic books like fish to water -- are also being rejected by that genre's organization, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Although this organization, like the RWA, voted to allow e-authors as members last year, thus far not a single author has been invited into their ranks, because of a standard that requires that authors be published by a company that pays advances -- which, of course, e-publishers don't do.

As Paul Levinson, president of the SFWA, notes, "It's always seemed obvious to me that it didn't matter words were on paper or on a screen, they can be equally professional and wonderful. But what makes something professional is that there's an amount of money exchanged, even if you don't have to make a living at it."

In other words, these organizations seem to want e-publishers to act more like print publishers, whereas e-authors and publishers think that the publishing industry should just get over itself and realize that the economics of the industry are changing. After all, they say, the print publishing industry is already killing the midlist book (those with modest sales and little potential of becoming a bestseller), because of the high cost of author advances and supporting unsuccessful books. But until the e-publishers are successful in sales and promotions -- or boast a real hit author in their rosters -- it's unlikely that anyone will take their advice on how to run an industry.

Regardless, the e-publishing industry is growing quickly. The electronic publishing category of Yahoo now lists 150 electronic publishers, from tiny romance-focused houses like Awe-Struck E-books to more established general interest publishers like Hard Shell Word Factory. Even the "titans" of the romance industry -- such as Harlequin, whose claim to the throne of love is undisputed -- are starting to pay attention to electronic publishing, producing some of their published titles in electronic formats and including "electronic rights" in their contracts with new authors.

"I think we have to sell books and then everyone will sit up and take notice. We are a baby industry. We have to become a household word, and the handheld readers have to become as common as calculators," explains Kathryn Struck, founder of Awe-Struck. "That time is coming. The Internet will help it happen quickly, and the close-knit community of e-book authors and publishers are organizing and pooling resources to put the words 'I gotta have an e-book!' on the tip of everyone's tongues."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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