For Monica Murphy, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling romance writer living in the foothills of California’s Yosemite National Park, a typical day goes like this: she spends an hour online tending to her social media accounts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Then, when her three kids are off to school, she gets down to the serious business of writing sexy romance novels.
Murphy is a pen name — and as Murphy, Karen Erickson has been writing adult novels since 2013. She had been a working romance writer since 2006, publishing under her own name, but it took Murphy’s sexy new adult novels to bring Erickson the kind of “life-changing” success that meant that her family wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck. And as she told Flavorwire, “I’m able to work at home and if my kids need me, I’m there for them.” The work of both Erickson and Murphy — but especially Murphy — kept her family afloat when her husband lost his job.
At first glance, it would appear that the success of “Monica Murphy” has a lot to do with the aftermath of the biggest romance phenomenon in recent history, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. For anyone who knows the contours of James’ story, Erickson appears to have followed a similar path, along with plenty of other self-published romance writers, who are creating a new class of working genre writers online.
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In a recent Vanity Fair article on the upcoming film adaptation, writer Vanessa Grigoriadis described what Fifty Shades mania meant for publishing: “Worldwide operating profits for Random House, Vintage’s parent company, jumped almost 76 percent for 2012, and every US employee got a $5,000 bonus, which was announced at the Christmas party.” According to The Guardian, James made $95 million in 2013.
Fifty Shades of Grey was one of those decade-defining books that made the genre of romance palatable to the masses. It also opened up the use of Kindles and e-readers to a new audience, and according to an Amazon source, the Kindle edition sold four times as many copies as the print version. The Fifty Shades phenomenon was like “a rising tide lifting boats,” according to Sarah MacLean, the author of nine historical romance novels, including Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake and Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover. She told Flavorwire, “Romance is too big of a ship for one book to disrupt it. [But] Fifty Shades blew the door open to a whole new group of readers. It was just early enough in the self-publishing story that there weren’t that many novels out there and it was one of the first that people could download quickly and put on their reader.”
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MacLean, who’s been publishing with HarperCollins since 2010, has observed the fervent reading habits of romance fans up close. “Romance readers are tremendously passionate about their books, and they read on average ten to 12 books a month, which is way more than most readers do,” she says. The appetite of romance readers has been a particular boon for self-published authors, with most cranking out their stories at a quicker clip than your typical traditionally published author. MacLean averages about two books a year, while Erickson, as Monica Murphy, completes a book roughly every two months.
What makes a romance novel successful? Books break out because they fulfill the very intense criteria of the best of the genre. Romance needs to hit beats that are driven by emotional investment in the story. The form, in some ways, is very prescribed, and what makes books interesting is what they do with that form. “It’s a very visceral experience for readers,” says MacLean, who also writes a romance review column for The Washington Post. “Many readers see themselves in the stories and are able to imagine their lives in different ways through romance, and those things are not to be discounted.” Romance readers want to feel everything, to care deeply about the relationship in the story, getting both turned on and thoroughly invested in whether or not the central relationship has a shot in a world that suffers cruel and delicious twists of fate, right up until the happy ending.
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In 2007, Amazon introduced Kindle Direct Publishing — a free way for authors to distribute their work — along with the instrument to read these e-books on. This made the entryway to publishing as easy as getting an email address, creating a rich opportunity for romance writers to find a broad audience of readers. It’s created its own six-figure-salary mid-list, whose rise was a result of talent, and crucially, timing. The romance authors that I talked to have certainly benefited from Amazon: as Erickson put it, “When Amazon launched Kindle, for a lot of us, we were making real money.”
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This economic state has led to the slow death of the mid-list author in traditional print publishing, where fewer and fewer writers survive in the middle of the sales pack. Their advances are falling and their sales are, too. A Publishers Weekly article from 2011 discussing the changing expectations of the “big six” (at the time — in 2015, it’s the “big five” with Penguin Random House) reveals that publishers aren’t signing up books that seem like they’ll sell 25,000 copies at most, and an agent is quoted as saying “5,000 is the new 50,000” regarding advances.
Yet romance has stayed steady in print, and it’s simply exploded in e-book sales: in 2010, it occupied 19 percent of the e-book market, and by 2014 it had grown to 24 percent, which means for every four e-books sold, one is a romance.
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Although Amazon is consistently opaque about the numbers its “best sellers” designation actually represent, a former Amazon employee told me that “from past experience, the #1 seller could mean it’s selling [anything between] hundreds of copies a day to thousands [a day].” For a romance writer working at great speed and efficiency, like Murphy or Grace, this can translate to a six-figure salary for what would be considered mid-list sales.
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The time may have passed when the average writer could upload their romantic story online and make an instant career out of it. It’s looking as if it’s harder to get to the level that both Erickson and McDonald have achieved in a few short years. As Weinman says, “Some [writers] have broken out. But fewer and fewer do. The ideal ecosystem is a hybrid one, where authors can move back and forth between publishing with mainstream houses or on their own, or do both at the same time.”