Oz Publishers Desperately Seeking Romance

Guest post by Nikki Logan

I recently attended a national Australian writers’ conference in Melbourne and a national American writers’ conference in New York City just one month apart and thought what a magnificent opportunity for a bit of good ol’ compare and contrast

Romance writing is big business in Australia—one leading global publisher reportedly signed 55 new romance authors last year; 24 of them were Australian (Go us!). But this is not the same as saying romance is big business for Australian publishers. The vast majority of those Aussie authors are writing for overseas markets/houses and so when Australians buy romance novels (as they do in vast quantities), chances are it’s from a US/UK house even if the author is Australian.

*cough* Awkward.

Aussie publishers are seriously late to the romance party. Random House, Hachette, Allen & Unwin, and Penguin all spoke and took pitches from 350 writer delegates at August’s Romance Writers of Australia national conference. Just three years ago you couldn’t pay them to attend, now they’re scrabbling over each other for a spot. Either they’re tired of this enormous revenue stream going to overseas houses (even the overseas branches of their own houses) or they’ve realised they have a glaring gap in their inventory.

Across the Pacific it’s an entirely different story. The US national conference of the Romance Writers of America was crawling with publishers and agents. They know what a lucrative market romance is and they aggressively target the content producers. They gave away pallet-loads of their product to the 2000-strong delegates, they offered spotlight sessions to introduce their house and their publishing packages to authors, they saw hundreds of writers in crowded pitch sessions. They contributed workshops, they postulated and argued and forecast on industry panels, and they got their brand repeatedly in front of author faces. In other words, they attended conference with a ‘what we can do for you’ mentality and they actively interfaced with authors in a way that made them very accessible.

Now, we all know that ‘what we can do for you’ is just pretty packaging for ‘what you can do for me’ but it’s a heck of a lot better than the silent message Australian authors have been getting for years from our own publishers, ‘we don’t want what you have.

Except now they do. A lot.

There was a heap of focus on ePublishing at the Australian conference.  At home, issues relating to geographic restrictions mean many Aussie authors simply are not available in e-book form in their own country where we do our best promotion. Aussie e-book buyers are cracking the regional restrictions on their readers or utilising US third-party address services to register their devices so they can download the books they want to read. They’re finding workarounds. Some of the regional challenges are contractual, some the expense of conversion for Australian publishers who don’t have a massive romance revenue line to offset against. Some of it is the very late start that Australia got in the e-armsrace.

ePublication is old news in the US market, already just another format, albeit a dominant one. Self-publishing was the topic on everyone’s minds in New York. I heard that ‘self-publishing will become the new slush pile’ and that the ‘crème will rise to the top’ and create a new generation of popular authors. I heard that the e-boom was reminiscent of the advent of the ‘trade’ or ‘mall’ paperback in terms of the leap in affordability and accessibility and how that hadn’t hurt the industry any in the long term. I heard how traditional publishers may have put their fingers in their ears and gone la la la as they saw their own industry rapidly heading in the same direction as the music industry a decade before it. I heard how hard it is to achieve any kind of breakthrough in an e-book environment where there are 500,000 self-published ebooks on Amazon.

Through all of that, one thing has become glaringly obvious to me:

  • ePublishing is not a threat to writers (at worst it’s a threat to print models)
  • Self-publishing is not a threat to writers (at worst, it’s a threat to traditional publishing models)

Both are opportunities for writers. And different writers will have different kinds of success just as they do now.  It just might be a different sub-set of writers having the success for the next decade. (And maybe that’s what’s got the published author fraternity so angsty… They’ve worked hard to dominate in the paradigm they understand. If they fail to understand this new one will they get over-run while they flap their hands?)

Let the publishers deal with the threats to their various models. The savvy ones are already getting with the program and being smarter—and by smarter, I mean smarter than the authors.

Big Aussie regency author Stephanie Laurens said the savvy pubs are now ‘luring’ e-rights with a print-rights carrot, something the e-only or self-only models can’t easily offer. But she believes the private, long-term intent is not to print much (or possibly at all).

In the US, number-cruncher author and keynote speaker Madeline Hunter said self-publishing has contributed to a ‘collective sigh of relief’ from authors because their ‘survival no longer rests on their relationship with their publisher’. But she also warned that success as an author will come from building readership (distribution) not from making quick bucks now, and that the thing traditional publishers currently still have over everyone else is distribution.

Currently.

Despite some major self-publishing success stories (Amanda Hocking’s already worn-out name gets dragged-out-and-dressed-up a lot in these discussions), it’s still hard for already published authors to trust and believe that they can disengage from traditional publishing models.  Trust is whipped-puppy slow to return in a group of individuals who have spent a lifetime being told you can’t do it without the big pubs. Yet ironically they are the most likely to succeed simply because of their existing profile.

Author, motivational speaker and ex-Green Beret, Bob (Warrior Writer) Mayer, spoke at the Australian conference and told us about the 80,000 books he flogged in a month as a self-publisher, though he would be the first to argue that there is no such things as self-publishing because ‘you can’t do it professionally by yourself’. But Bob is not your usual author. The man speaks in sound bites, aggressively targets writers as buyers with his craft-books, is better endowed than most writers with business acumen and was highly trained by the Green Berets in how to take strategic risks. He is almost by definition the anti-author.

Hi, I’m Bob Mayer and, by the way, wanna buy a book?

But New York and Melbourne conferences clearly showed me that the ‘traditional’ publishers are now fighting back. They’re fighting back by reminding everyone that ePublished-only authors have access to their part of the sales pie while their authors have access to the whole pie (although they will admit the pie is rapidly changing shape). They’re fighting back by luring e-rights with the carrot of print publication. They’re fighting back by changing their royalty structures. One can only assume they’re fighting back by joining forces with the enemy, previously their competition.

And when big publishers start to have lunch together, it’s hard for authors not to believe they’re the topic of discussion. But Mayer would urge us not to treat publishers like the enemy and to make ‘courageous choices’.

‘You may fail,’ he told a room full of published authors in Melbourne who looked back at him with flat-lined lips, ‘but what if you succeed?’ 

Nikki Logan lives in Western Australia and is working on her 10th romance novel for Harlequin Enterprises.  She is also writing an e-book about ‘The Chemistry of Reading’ . 100+ of Nikki’s tweets from the 2011 RWA (US) National conference in New York and the 2011 RWA (Aus) are archived in her Twitter ‘favourites’ (@ReadNikkiLogan)

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One Response to Oz Publishers Desperately Seeking Romance

  1. Marc Carolan says:

    An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a colleague who had been conducting a little research on this. And he actually bought me dinner simply because I found it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending some time to discuss this matter here on your website.

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