Category titles disguised as single title books are burning up the Kindle/Nook charts. The existing category covers appeal to existing category readers but those readers who so clearly love books like The Marriage Bargian, Wife by Wednesday, the Danvers Series, and even 50 Shades aren’t making a move to reading Harlequin categories. In speaking with readers, it appears that they don’t realize that they are reading a category like romance and the existing category look, particularly the Presents, are deterring readers from adopting the existing category books.
These category type books have tropes that appeal to readers but the self published authors have shied away from category type covers. They are packaged more like single title romances. Take, for example, Sarah Mayberry’s self published title “Her Best Worst Mistake.” It is her second to the most reviewed book she’s published, second only to a book published two years ago. The difference in her covers is huge.
The editorial content of the self published books are not that different than traditional category romances. Weekends Required by Sydney Landon is about a boss and his shy administrative assistant (who secretly jumps out of birthday cakes but is not a stripper and only works at posh high end events because those guys never grope her – yeah right ); The Marriage Bargain is about a rich man who needs a wife to close a business deal; Wife by Wednesday is another marriage of convenience story where a guy has to marry in order to secure his inheritance.
I asked a Harlequin author whether she had any thoughts about the success of self published contemporaries and she asked her friends. Here’s what a few of them had to say, anonymously:
I think it’s virtually impossible to figure out why one book breaks out and sells above and beyond anyone’s expectations. If it was quantifiable, I think it would happen more often. I don’t think we can judge another book’s success or lack thereof based on those breakout books–books with sales like The Marriage Bargain or 50 Shades are not the norm for any author, self-published or from an ebook press or anywhere. Most authors, like 99.9%, are not experiencing that kind of success.
As to why category-type books are doing so well on Kindle and the like… I will always champion the category form as a short, intense read that leaves people smiling. I know people in real life and online who have never read a category, and insist they never would for whatever reason–too short, too cookie-cutter, too melodramatic, although obviously since they’ve never read one they don’t really know. Yet these same people might read a self-published book that is, in fact, a category–they just don’t realize it. Harlequin has done a tremendous job promoting its brand and many Harlequin authors enjoy worldwide sales that are in the hundreds of thousands. Yet in the case of Kindle, it might be that the strong branding hurts Harlequin’s category authors, because some readers automatically steer clear of those distinctive covers. I’d like to see Harlequin try more mainstream looking covers, although they have done this in the past and it has not been successful. Whether the market is changing enough for another try is up to debate.
Writing for a category line has never limited me in terms of what I’ve been able to write–quite the opposite. Editors encourage unpredictability and pushing boundaries, and I think you read many issues in a category that a mass market publisher wouldn’t touch. With three or four books coming out a year, you have a lot of room to experiment and see what works, and great feedback from the editorial team. It will be interesting to see how publishing continues to evolve in the wake of self-publishing and ebook presses. I imagine in some months or years things will settle down to a new norm, whatever that looks like.
Author Number Two
My understanding is that the bulk of readers HATE the idea of change to the Presents covers in NA, which is why Romance HQ is so loathe to change them. Though I think someone suggested somewhere that the e-book covers could be more contemporary, and maybe that would boost sales? I like that idea, but I worry that a separate cover creates the same problem the different UK/US covers cause, with readers ultimately annoyed because they thought it was a new book and it’s not…
And maybe I’m missing something, but I’m pretty satisfied with how Harlequin do things. I knew what I was signing up for. I *want* the machine. The things I’m not happy about are far outweighed by the things I like: my books sold all around the world without my having to do a thing, being able to experiment with characters and plot lines without the desperate feeling that Every Book Could Be My Last–which is a benefit of having three or four books out a year instead of one, and being part of the line–so if one of us has a book that gets a lot of attention it automatically raises awareness of the line as a whole and helps us all.
Honestly, I don’t know of any constraints apart from the word count. I don’t feel there are things I can’t do. I’ve certainly never been told I should do anything in particular. One of the things I love about Presents is how the line nurtures all these very different voices, and otherwise? Anything goes.
Author No. 3:
I think the appeal of series books is that they focus entirely on the relationship between hero and heroine (and sometimes that’s what makes them challenging to write because within this word count there is no room for padding). They are pure, concentrated romance, short enough to read in a couple of hours when you’ve had a bad day or you’re stressed out with life, or just because you need distraction or a reason to smile. Although they’re short, they’re often intense and gripping. You can allow yourself to be pulled into a story knowing you’re going to finish it in a couple of hours and sometimes that’s just what people want in a busy life. And then there’s the cost – readers have budgets. A series book won’t make the same hole in that budget as a single title. I have never felt constrained by the format. I’ve always written exactly what I wanted to write. What would I change in Presents? Not much to be honest. I would love to see the ebook and the paperback released on the same date. I don’t always like the titles but that is being addressed.
I’m not sure it’s possible to know what makes one book a bestseller and another not. I think part of why these other books are doing so well on Kindle/Nook, etc, is because of the fluidity of the marketing (in the case of self-pubs and epub-first houses). Entangled has the ability to change the cover, the copy, and the title up until the last minute if they sense what they have isn’t working. Harlequin can’t do that because the books are also going to print at the same time – and you can’t change print details at the last minute the way you can ebook details.
I’m happy with what Harlequin has done for me. I have shelves full of books in different languages. I get reader mail from around the world. I can afford to write full time.
The question about marketing Harlequins differently is interesting, but I’m not sure how to answer. Harlequin is a brand, and sometimes I think the brand hurts us as much as it helps us. The readers who aren’t clicking the buy button probably aren’t clicking because of the covers, the mistaken idea that the books are interchangeable, and the thought that Harlequin isn’t for “serious” readers.
Changing the covers could work. It might not work. The Presents readership, for example, is huge – and they know what that cameo means. They want what they are familiar with. Yes, we’re losing out on some impulse buys probably, and I don’t quite know how to fix that. Changing the covers to please a digital audience is not the answer if it alienates the print audience. I would like to see the print and ebooks released on the same date, however.
I have never felt constrained by writing category. The books are short, intense reads that are meant to give readers all that heart-stopping intensity and passion in a compact bite. Of course I can’t have three subplots, but so what? I’ve never been told not to write something. I’ve never felt steered or constrained. In fact, I’ve often been encouraged to take it further.
I’m interested in hearing what others have to say. Why do you think these self published category novels are so successful? Is there content there that you can’t find other places? Are you reluctant to pick up a category title? If you were reluctant but have since changed your behavior, what brought about the change? Please feel free to comment anonymously BUT if you do comment anonymously, use a different or even a fake email or your gravatar will out you.