Second Life in Self-Publishing
For romance writers, getting dropped midseries is no longer the end of the world
It's fans that allow romance writers to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and carry on when a series is dropped.When Avon dropped romance writer Christina Skye’s early paranormal haunted-house series Draycott Abbey in 1999 after seven books and two novellas, she turned to the only men she could for consolation—the Navy SEALs.
Although she had at least another four books planned for the paranormal series, she didn’t think she had any choice but to move on once the publisher had called it a day.
So she wrote some romantic suspense featuring the dashing men of the U.S. Navy’s principal special operations force. In the meantime, readers at bookstore signings continued to ask about the series—but she put Draycott Abbey’s restless spirits on the back burner, always hoping she might be able to come back to them someday.
Eight years later, she finally got her chance. Harlequin was interested in reprinting some of the Draycott Abbey backlist that had gone out of print. Starting in 2007, they reissued one backlist title a year, even commissioning two new books. But then Harlequin nixed the series, and she was back where she started.
“It was over,” she says. “It was emotional, but at least I knew I could write something else. It’s your family. You invest in the characters and know how much the readers have committed to these books. I knew how much they wanted another one.”
Stories like Skye’s used to be common. Carol Stacy, publisher at RT Book Reviews, the bible of the romance publishing industry, remembers the bad old days all too well: “When I started in this business, the authors had no say in anything. I mean absolutely zero. They were totally dependent on the publishers, and if a publisher said no to their manuscript, they went away crying. They had no place else to go. Today, being rejected by a publisher is not as traumatic as it used to be.”
Writer Amanda Bonilla lives hours away from the city in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. A high-speed Internet connection allows her to make her home in this beautiful, rural location and still stay totally connected:“I really like social media, especially living where I do, because there’s not the opportunity to interact as much. I’m super active on Twitter and Facebook and try to reach out to readers all the time.”
As a romance writer with contracts for two new series at commercial publishers, a well-respected New York literary agent, and a social-media savvy readership, Bonilla’s now on the cusp of an exciting experiment. One year after New American Library dropped her first-person Shaede Assassins series after three books, she’s self-publishing book 4—Against the Dawn—on May 20.
“Right from the start, we knew that urban fantasy was on the decline and sales weren’t great,” she says. Even as far back as 2010, when book 1, Shaedes of Gray, made its debut, there was trouble brewing. “The first book did all right, and we thought that it would take off, but sales just kind of declined with the second and third books. I had a decent readership, but not enough for NAL to justify continuing on with the series. They felt like contemporary was where the shift was going, so they just let me go.”
While getting dropped was definitely a “bummer,” she understands that it was a business decision. When she made the announcement that her publisher wasn’t going to continue with her series, readers as well as other authors reached out to her.
“When readers first open a book,” Bonilla says, “they don’t look to see who the publisher is. That’s so secondary. A writer does, of course, but a reader doesn’t care. They just want to read a good story.”
She’s quick to point to her agent, Natanya Wheeler at Nancy Yost Literary, for the decision to keep going with the series. The agency has been managing all aspects of self-publishing for its clients since early 2011, when it started digitizing its massive backlist, which includes prolific, well-loved romance writers like Loretta Chase and Beverly Jenkins.
“I love the Shaede series,” says Wheeler. “We just couldn’t let it go. Since I handle digital rights at Nancy Yost Literary, we thought, ‘What the heck. Let’s do it.’ Because she still has fans.”
Self-publishing is simply a new way the agency can facilitate its author’s wishes. Clients are charged the standard 15% agency fee, and costs are kept down because many things are done in house, including cover design and formatting.
“Do I wish publishers would buy all of our books and continue every series forever? Yeah. But I understand that they have their bottom lines,” she says. “And the authors and the agencies have a different kind of bottom line.”
Author and web developer Shawntelle Madison, dropped in 2013 by Ballantine after two books in her Coveted paranormal romance series, calls it the “spaghetti on the wall technique.” Series can be lucrative for publishers. “They’ll toss out some book by an author, and if that author sticks, then they’ll continue to publish them. If not, they won’t.”
At the moment, the St. Louis native is getting ready for the self-published release of the third and final book in the series, Compelled, which comes out on May 5. She’s also waiting on word from her agent, Jim McCarthy, on interest for another title from “one of the big five.”
Before Ballantine dropped her series, she had already been exploring self-publishing. In September 2012, two months before the publisher released book 2, Madison had uploaded a short story called “Collected,” set in the Coveted universe. Knowing book 3 was totally in her hands, however, was scary.
“I do miss giving some of the responsibility to another party,” she says. “At this point, I’m the publisher, so I have to make sure that I check out the final copy and make sure that everything, right down to the cover blurb and the back cover matter, is in good condition. The publisher would help take care of that before. It’s a lot more stressful.”
But since getting dropped, her fan base has grown. One of her fans helped her form a street team, and she’s also started accounts on social media platforms like Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram. When her Facebook page received a verified status last year, her discoverability shot up. “At the end of 2012, after book 2 was released, I had about 600 likes on Facebook,” she says. “It’s now a year and three months later and I have a little over 2,700 likes. I average about 100 new likes per month when I’m not heavily promoting a release. For me, at this point in my career, that is a great increase and shows readers are still taking a chance on my work and they are listening in to see what I come up with next. On average, each post gets around 500 to 1,000 folks who see it and engage.”
Cheryl Wurtele at Joseph-Beth booksellers in Kentucky goes so far as to call romance readers a “different breed.” “They have more loyalty to their authors than you get in other genres,” she says. “A romance reader is more apt to write to an author and hear back from them. Even the big romance authors seem to connect with their readers.”
And it’s these fans that allow romance writers to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and carry on when a series is dropped. In 2009, Ace offered former fan-fiction writer Dianne Sylvan three contracts for a total of five books in her Shadow World vampire series, intended for eight books. The first book, Queen of Shadows, was published at the end of August 2010. When her editor left Ace in early 2013, she was “orphaned” and dropped not long after because of low sales. Ace will publish book 5, Shadowbound, on March 25.
“I figured that much of the Shadow World’s audience would be willing to follow me,” wrote Sylvan in an email from her home in Austin, Tex., “since if they stuck with me for five books, they’re likely invested enough to see it through even if I’m going about it in a different way.”
Former Kensington acquisitions editor Megan Records thinks that finishing your series and satisfying your possibly too-small-for-New-York fan base might be one of the best uses of self-publishing. “If a series isn’t profitable, publishers aren’t going to keep publishing it just to make readers happy,” says Records. “That’s just a business reality. Publishing is a business. And that’s what people have to remember. You may not be making enough traditional sales for a publisher, but you’re probably going to earn enough from your existing audience to at least make it worth your while.”
Paranormal romance writer Angie Fox, who is presenting a panel at RWA National in San Antonio, Tex., this July called “How to Quietly Make 6 Figures in Self-Publishing,” agrees. “New York can declare a genre not profitable because they have to sell a lot more books in a short period of time to make it profitable for them. But authors can keep going and do well,” says hybrid author Fox, who also publishes a paranormal series with St. Martin’s Press. Fox cites these loyal, voracious, and author-focused romance fans as one of the main reasons that writers are able to self-publish when their series goes belly up. “I’ve had readers email and say, ‘You know, I just blew through your entire series in a week.’ That’s very flattering, but I’m thinking ‘How many years did it take me to write that?’ ” she laughs.
Beverly Hills Demon Slayer, the sixth book in her successful Accidental Demon Slayer series about a preschool teacher who finds out she isn’t what she thought she was, will be self-published in May. Originally bought by Dorchester in 2007, the series’ first three books were published to much acclaim and grabbed spots on the New York Times bestseller list. Her books were in Walmart, at airports, in grocery stores, Barnes & Noble. It was all going so well before financial trouble hit the publisher in early 2010.
Book 4, The Last of the Demon Slayers, was due to come out in 2011, but with the future of Dorchester in doubt, Fox took the rights back, hired an editor and a cover artist, and released the self-published book earlier, in October 2010. “It was a scary thing at the time. Self-publishing wasn’t really what you did when you were a New York writer.” She worried about bewildering her readers who were used to picking her books up easily in a bookstore. “I announced on my Facebook, I announced on my blog, I announced everywhere—‘Look, this is how you have to get it.’ And readers would still send me emails,” she says. “I’d feel so bad. They’d say, ‘I just went to the Barnes & Noble and I couldn’t find your book.’ And I’d say, ‘No, no, no! I’m so sorry. What you have to do is this: they’ll order it in for you but you have to ask.’ So there was confusion, but there was also a lot of enthusiasm.”
When Dorchester went under, she received the rights back for the first three books. Things have gone so well she’s extended the series to nine books from her original plan of five. “I wouldn’t be doing this well, I don’t think, with my indie books if I didn’t have that New York background,” Fox says.
All the data shows that, for the most part, the most successful self-published authors are hybrid, says Deb Werksman, publisher at Sourcebooks. “They’ve come from a commercial publishing background. They’ve been through the process. They know what to do. In fact, in many cases, they’re hiring the same freelance editors, they’re hiring the same cover designers, they’re hiring the same resources as their publishing house.”
Fox has done exactly that. “I’ve been able to hire my old cover artist for my covers. I hire editors that work for New York [publishers] to do all my editing. Really, my readers are getting the same product.” And bookstores are more amenable to stocking a hybrid author’s self-published print-on-demand books because the quality is similar to that of a traditionally published book and the author already has an audience.
An author who continues to self-publish a dropped series will also find herself “sharing” the series with the former publisher as it continues to publish frontlist. Many authors consider it a win-win. If the series takes off, both the author and the publisher can benefit.
Some writers choose to continue their series where they left off, others opt to start fresh, says Fox. Author Laurie London wanted a clean slate. When Harlequin dropped her Sweetblood series after four books because of low digital sales, she decided to self-publish book 5 as book 1 in the Sweetblood World series. “It’s set in the same world and will have the same characters, but if someone is finding me now for the first time, they won’t feel they have to start with all four Harlequin books before they can read book 5. Controlling the first book in a series is so important. You can be nimble with pricing to drive sales to the other books. If I don’t have control over the first book, I can’t employ this strategy.”
When an author decides to continue to self-publish a dropped series, it can work in everyone’s favor, says Werksman. There’s no reason for publishers to feel threatened. Sourcebooks often coordinates marketing efforts with authors who choose to self-publish and makes sure that readers have unfettered access to a writer’s backlist as the series continues. “I think it’s fantastic for authors to have the options that they have,” she says. “It’s forcing publishers to be clearer and more communicative about what we do and what we have to offer, and in Sourcebooks’ case that is distribution and sales, marketing and promotion.”
Bookseller Wurtele remembers long ago when readers just had to live with the heartbreak that a romance series that they’d read and loved had faded into nothingness when a contract was terminated. Barring a bit of confusion, she’s happy that misery if now a thing of the past for her customers.
“Publishers are in a very tough position,” says Stacy from RT Book Reviews. “You can’t fault them for wanting to try different things,” she says. “But the authors don’t have to give up now. That’s the key difference.”
Trisha Telep is an editor specializing in romance.