Lessons in Love: Romance Authors and the Power of Labor Solidarity

From Publishers Weekly:

Love is in the air for publishers. As I write, five of the top 10 New York Times fiction bestsellers are romance. In the first half of 2023, print unit sales of romance titles soared 34.6% over the same period last year, while in 2022, romance unit sales grew 52.4% over the previous year, according to Publishers Weekly.

Publishers are scrambling to explain love’s new bloom. Is it the BookTok bump? The Colleen Hoover effect? The Big Five’s belated recognition that characters of all races, sizes, and sexual orientations deserve their happily ever afters?

Maybe. But after studying romance authors for nearly a decade, I believe the surge is driven by romance writers themselves, and their unique solidarity as a labor force.

It might seem counterintuitive to think of romance writers—or any authors—as a labor force. Writers work alone. They don’t have a regular employer or paycheck. Nevertheless, romance writers realized long ago that there’s strength in numbers. In the late 1970s, these writers—mostly women, mostly white, almost universally disrespected by the book world—sought each other out by letter and phone call to share scarce industry intel.

In 1980, Black romance editor Vivian Stephens formalized this grassroots network into Romance Writers of America. For 40 years, the group dramatically improved conditions for romance writers, pushing for better contracts, transparent royalty statements, and on-time payments.

Sadly, not all writers benefited equally: RWA’s failure to fully include diverse authors contributed to the group’s spectacular implosion in 2020. Nevertheless, for four decades, RWA spread an ethic of mutual support that still infuses the romance writing community. My research found that an astonishing 74% of romance authors connect with each other online, over the phone, via email, or in person at least once a week. Half connect every day. This tradition of close, frequent connection means that advice and innovation spread like wildfire among romance writers.

Labor law forbids solo contractors, including authors, from sharing compensation figures: it’s considered price-fixing. Indeed, to avoid antitrust suits, RWA devotes a page of its website to explaining antitrust law and discouraging members from discussing rates.

No matter. Romance writers have openly shared royalty rates and contract terms for decades. Today, on social media, email chains, and elsewhere, romance writers frequently share best practices for promotion, marketing, and reader relations. Other genre authors tell me this kind of openness is unusual. One SF writer said getting others to share income data is “like pulling teeth.”

Of course, other author organizations lobby for better contracts. But these groups typically restrict membership to traditionally published authors, which limits innovation. Romance writers famously welcome newcomers: RWA admitted unpublished authors from the very beginning. And a commitment to training new authors still pervades Romancelandia’s countless online groups and the many smaller romance organizations that splintered off from RWA.

This sense of solidarity benefits established as well as aspiring writers. Based on guidance from newcomers (often authors of color shunned by the publishing industry), traditionally published authors adopted the tactics of self-publishing, helping drive the indie romance explosion. The boom drained revenues from mass market publishing and empowered romance authors to demand better treatment from publishers.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG doesn’t know if “labor solidarity” is an entirely accurate term to describe RWA and similar organizations. Authors are not employees of romance publishers. They are independent actors who are not protected by labor laws, nor are they under any obligation to show up at a workplace designated by a publisher, spend any specified days or times writing for a publisher, etc., etc.

Typically, if a business entity is hiring someone to perform work as an independent contractor, the business cannot tell the contractor how to produce the goods, services, etc., that the contractor is delivering to the business entity AKA Principal.

If someone hires a carpenter to build and install a set of cabinets in a garage, the carpenter buys the wood, nails, screws, etc., to be transformed into cabinets and uses his/her own tools to build the cabinets, makes the decision to hire, whatever additional help the carpenter believes will help finish the job more efficiently or complete the job without any additional help.

If the homeowner hires the carpenter as described, the carpenter does not become an employee and the homeowner is not subject to the various laws and regulations that an employer undertakes when an employee is hired, including filing wage reports with government agencies, deducting and paying state and federal taxes from the employee’s compensation, etc., etc.

PG has gone on too long, but romance writers, for all their many virtues and accomplishments, are not laborers working for an employer. They are self-employed entrepreneurs creating a product and selling it to the highest bidder or otherwise utilizing their creations in any way they think best.

Labor solidarity got PG thinking of some of the classic working-class songs Woody Guthrie wrote.