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If you’re published, but are already on book number two and haven’t hit the bestsellers lists, chances are you’re what’s termed a midlist author. To publishers, midlist authors are the least exciting category of writer. Their first books weren’t hotties. They’ve been bought again because they did okay their first time out, but are often pushed to the back of the bus in favor of those at the top, or the next potential hottie to come along.

Editors and publishers have been shouting about the death of the midlist since dinosaurs were harnessed to run printing presses, sometime in the mid-1980s. Publishing industry pundits at the time urged their readers to cup a hand to their ear and listen for the death knell, as corporations began gobbling up publishing houses and sought to “trim the fat” off their operations.

Why should we publish people who aren’t going to be runaway bestsellers? was the prevailing corporate wisdom of the era.

In truth, I suspect that the history of the midlist over the last twenty-five years could provide hours of lively debate. Is it less than it once was? The proverbial mere shadow? Or is it even stronger today?

Lori Devoti’s “The Death of the Midlist” revives the old arguments at Romancing the Blog, with news that two publishers are supposedly sending their midlists to the gallows. In addition to providing an excellent Midlist for Dummies-style primer, Devoti asks an important question.

…when I heard these two publishers were eliminating their mid-list I thought, “How?” Are they dropping everything that isn’t an A to them? Are they getting out their crystal ball and only buying the “big” books? Or are they just gouging out the middle? Keeping the A’s and the D’s but dumping those darn B’s and C’s?”

The answer, I think, would be yes. If publishers wanted to cut their midlist, there are a number of ways they could put the squeeze on the middle. They might raise the criteria for purchases of an author’s second and subsequent books, requiring higher sell-through rates or even a back-to-print order before an author was bought again. They could contract fewer new authors, selecting just a handful at a time, those they perceived as having the potential for mass appeal; whereupon they made those lucky few into bestsellers.

Where would all the unwanted authors go? It’s a sure thing that they wouldn’t stop writing, or attempting to see their books published. I know I wouldn’t. My guess is that more and more of them would turn to eBook publishers and even self-publishing as an option.

Which makes me wonder, will the large New York houses decide not to eliminate the midlist, but transform it instead?

What are the chances they’ll release most of the dinosaurs from the printing presses and put them to pasture, or swamp, or the Brontosaurus graveyard, and choose not to print, warehouse and distribute midlist books? What if they looked forward a decade, to when print book sales will be on the wane anyway, and came to the conclusion that the midlist should be eBook-only?

In this scenario, print would be reserved for two categories of books, the A-list, and those whom publishers visualized as having the potential to A-list, whether they be first-timers, or long-time eBook only midlisters who have found a large enough audience to merit the luxury.

Devoti makes a good argument in her post when she wonders how the buying public would react to a total evisceration of the middle:

…my guess is a lot of authors who live on the mid list would just disappear. This would be okay for a while. There is a never ending supply of new hopeful writers, but eventually wouldn’t that get old? There are a lot of really good books on that mid list. (Seriously, none of us believe only best-sellers are good, right? Or even all best-sellers are good.) If you could only pick between the new and the big, I truly think you would miss what used to be in the middle.

Regardless of what choices corporate publishing makes, to transition their B- and C-list authors to another format, or allow a great migration of the same to smaller eBook-only houses, my belief is that the midlist will never truly die.

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One of the most frustrating problems for romance authors and author hopefuls is not how to write something, but what to write and how to find people, ideally lots of people, who will buy it. Some authors excel at the business and marketing side of the writing biz, while others loath it and just want to be left alone to do their work.

Personally, I hate marketing. Why? Because it’s extremely complex and considering the vast array of ways people communicate with each other these days, there’s just so damn much of it. If you’ve ever visited a writers forum and taken a look at the signatures of the various posters to that forum, you may have noticed it’s common for an author to include links to websites, multiple blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other assorted “content streams.” All of that has to be built and maintained, and it’s a helluva lot of work, time that’s pulled away from what many writers prefer to do, write.

Some experts claim that no amount of marketing an author does, and this includes book signings and tours, will increase that authors sales. Others believe it’s crucial to engage in as many activities that put your name in front of readers as you can. Most authors have the option of leaving all publicity efforts up to their publishers, but it’s becoming increasingly rare to find an author who doesn’t have at least a bare bones website or blog.

Even if the subject of market trends makes your brain want to shut down, it pays to have at least a passing knowledge of them. Who is buying books now and why? How are they buying books? Where are they buying books? What are they buying? How can you use this knowledge to sell your books to them?

More importantly, where is the market going to be one, two, five years from now? You may wonder, am I going to be left in the dust if I don’t pay attention?

Lucienne Diver, an agent with The Knight Agency, gave the keynote address at the Heritage Book Festival in St. Augustine, Florida last week, a speech that addressed many of these questions. “New Publishing Paradigms,” is now posted on her blog. I liken it to the publishing version of a fold-out pocket map of a foreign city.

Some nuggets:

  • Reading among adults and teens is actually on the rise for the first time since 1982
  • Some companies are experimenting with enhanced eBooks, which do more than simply deliver words on the screen
  • Audio downloads of books are currently outselling eBooks
  • You can’t have a bestseller without having people talk about your books (handselling), and much, if not most, communication occurs online
  • Viral marketing is the “big buzzword,” (i.e. friends emailing links to friends who forward the links, etc.)
  • Serialized novels are becoming popular
  • Some print publishers are experimenting with a low advance/50% of monies earned model
  • Dark and sensual is currently outselling humorous and light (odd given the depressing economy)

This is only a brief list. I’ve left out many of Driver’s other important facts and insights. Some of you may already have much of the information in this address, but I’m willing to bet you’ll find a helpful surprise or two.

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One of the biggest news stories coming out of RWA Nationals in Washington, D.C. last month was the flap over eBook discrimination within the RWA. Romance eBook programming was notably absent from the official schedule for the conference, and eBook authors within the organization took exception to this by holding their own Rogue Digital Conference, which attracted a sizable crowd.

rita_awardThe difficulty most eBook-only novels and novellas face in qualifying for the RITAs, continues to alienate authors who might otherwise join the organization. In a poll conducted on this blog during the conference, 51% answered Yes, they would join RWA if it offered the same rights to eBook authors as it does to print authors. Only 17% responded that they had no interest in the organization regardless of its stand on eBooks. Granted, this was an unscientific opinion poll, but it does demonstrate the interest eBook authors have in gaining respect for their format.

Quality and eBook Legitimacy

As discussed in Part I of this post, RWA and its 145 chapters strongly embrace the writing award concept. Awards assist unpublished writers by drawing the attention of agents and editors to exemplary writing. They also celebrate published authors and help them promote their work to the reading public. Yet the RWA doesn’t offer a single award for romance authors published in eBook format, and all but shuts them out of the RITAs.

Should there be a pathway to award recognition for these authors within the RWA?

Hardliners contend that only books from qualifying publishers should be eligible for awards (i.e. those that pay a $1000 or greater advance against royalties). eBook authors and publishers argue that this rule is outdated. Advances don’t fit the business model for this rapidly growing segment of the publishing industry, and bestselling eBooks often earn out well above the $1K threshold.

If money is being used as a determinant, and not the quality of writing, why not base eligibility on how well a book sells? Because hardliners could return that volley with an appeal on behalf of “deserving” books published by mainstream publishers. These, they would argue, may not have earned out or even come close, but evidently someone in New York felt passionate enough to lay out money upfront.

What is it exactly about an editor’s location, and the ability to purchase manuscripts with a large corporation’s money, that determines worth?

Do eBooks Need Their Own Awards?

It’s tempting to want to bypass the issue by establishing a different way to award achievement in eBook romance. Marginalized groups do it all the time, in a variety of fields, from acting to sports to business. They create their own awards to recognize excellence when the older, more established group ignores or excludes them. If you think about it, print romance writers already fit the definition of marginalized. How many romance novels do you think are going to find their way onto the nomination lists for the National Book Critics Circle or Pen Awards?

What would happen if RWA opted to create a special class of RITA Award or even a different set of awards all together? Let’s call them the GENAs (Good ENough for an Award). A dozen different award categories for the GENAs cover everything from subgenre (contemporary, erotica, fantasy, suspense, etc.) to entry length (novel, novella, short story). The main qualifications are that nominees are released as eBook-only during the award year, and that they aren’t self-published. No one on the GENAs committee cares if the entry got an advance or how many copies it sold.

First off, you would excite a hell of a lot of romance writers who up until this point had been completely shut out of the game. The impact on sales probably wouldn’t be that profound. I once had an editor tell me awards add absolutely nothing to the bottom line. Still, the effect on public opinion, while intangible, could bring in curious readers who until this time may not have even realized romance existed in eBook format.

On the other hand, I can already imagine the cries from some who would take offense at being relegated to a “special” category of awards. Why do I need an eBook ghetto award? What’s wrong with my work that I’m not allowed to compete with print?

Ghetto award or not, if offered, many would accept one with a gracious thank you. Nor would the fact that talent is being rewarded go unnoticed by industry media. eBook romance writers would incorporate the awards as just one more strategy to build the audience for their talent, until gradually they were on a level with mainstream members, and in some cases eclipsed the old guard. At this time, different awards for the two formats would seem redundant, even indulgent.

Not Really a Matter of Respect

I offer the above scenario not to advocate for it, but to illustrate that eBook authors, like a lot of marginalized groups, are determined. Give them award, don’t give them one, they’re still going to press forward with their work. Numerous indicators in the market suggest the tide of consumer resistance toward eBooks is turning. eBooks are the only segment of the book industry experiencing not just strong, but explosive growth (166.7% in the first five months of 2009 alone).

As much as I would like to say that the lack of acceptance of eBooks by the RWA constitutes a lack of respect, what I more firmly believe is that it shows an absence of foresight.

eBooks have the potential to level the playing field, democratize publishing. True, it isn’t that much cheaper for a publisher to produce an eBook than a print one, but other than server space, eBooks don’t have to be warehoused. Returns don’t constitute the gut wrenching financial worries they do with print. What the future of eBooks portends is a revitalization of the smaller publisher, reinvented for a new era, to replace those modest-sized print houses who found themselves gobbled up ten and twenty years ago by megapublishing groups.

Let Judges (Readers) Decide

Generally, editors at print publishers know their market. They tend to have finely-honed buying skills. Many possess degrees in English literature or creative writing, or years of experience working under someone else who has taught them how to critically assess the merits of a piece of writing. But so do editors working for eBook publishers. Should their tastes and judgment as to what does and does not constitute good, even great, writing be discounted?

Just because a print publisher has the advantage with a larger budget and deeper promotion pockets doesn’t mean it’s infallible. Both print and eBook publishers buy books that soar or bomb. Nor does a lack of an advance indicate a lack of respect toward the author, as long as that author is compensated in other ways, such as a higher royalty rate and faster payments.

Here’s the scenario I’d like to see happen. RWA calls in whatever committee has the power to make policy on the RITAs, and tosses out the old eligibility rules. Just tosses them. They refuse to ignore or separate eBook authors into a different class of awards. If they’re that concerned with money, they specify a publisher must fit one of two criteria to qualify, either the traditional publishing model (advance plus low royalties), or the new model (no advance, but high royalties).

While they’re at it, they create a couple of additional categories to accommodate the inherently shorter length of many eBook romance offerings. Finally, they don’t force eBook publishers to produce bound copies of their books for judging. What silliness in a time when RWA chapters routinely prefer electronic vs. paper entries for their own contests.

eInk is still ink. Give the judges both formats to read and let them decide what’s worthy of an award and what’s not. All authors deserve a chance to compete.

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Note: Wednesday’s bestseller lists are below. This post has been bumped to the top from its original posting yesterday.

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While we’re on the topic of racy romance novel covers and the looks we sometimes get while reading the words between them…

Superagent Deidre Knight at The Knight Agency, posted a link to this funny yet insightful rant on her blog.  “It Ain’t Your Mama’s Romance,” which you’ll find at Chicks-n-Scratching: Chicks Who Write Romance and Love It, tackles four of the biggest snipes leveled at romance writers and readers.

Second of the complaints about romance: “It is all sex.”

The article’s reply: “And this is a problem…why?”

I won’t spoil the rest of the article by listing the other three complaints and the Chicks’ snappy rejoinders. Follow the link above to the original post. (Knight’s blog can be found on her agency’s website.)

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that an online book retailer in possession of a good fortune in public domain fiction, must be in want of a manner to control it.

—Jane Austen (Not)

It doesn’t matter where you sit on the issue of Digital Rights Management (DRM) and protection of copyrights in eBook format, this post at The Consummerist, tells a tale of the truly absurd.

As part of the much hyped roll out of their new eReader app this week, Barnes & Noble offered free downloads of five novels in the public domain, among them Jane Austen’s beloved, Pride and Prejudice, the all time best book to read when you lose hope that romance exists.

There’s a catch, though. The books are wrapped in the same type of DRM that permitted Amazon to recently zap George Orwell’s 1984 from the memories of Kindle devices everywhere.

Writes The Consumerist‘s Chris Walters:

The ebook “war” is a race to the bottom, apparently, with Barnes & Noble trying to out-do Amazon on DRM stupidity. A reader emailed B&N customer service to point out that their “free books” offer consists of 5 public domain titles that are no longer protected under copyright, yet are still locked down with digital rights management (DRM). Their response? “For copyright protection purposes, these files are encrypted and cannot be converted or printed.”

As much as I love eBooks, it’s a good thing to know I have three paperback copies of Pride, plus the A&E version starring Colin Firth on both DVD and VHS, as back-ups.

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Leigh CourtRed Sage romance author Leigh Court found herself on the NBC Nightly News this Sunday in a segment on how the U.S. recession is influencing the entertainment business.

While bad economic times mean layoffs and cutbacks for many, for others it offers a creative wellspring of plot lines for a variety of media from television to literature. Court’s part of the segment lasts a mere eight seconds, yet romance publishing is shown in a positive light, as an industry providing much needed escapism.

Watch the segment and see what you think. Correspondent Chris Jansing reminds us that in the Great Depression, fiction about people who met with strife during the era became immensely popular.

Conversely, the 1930s was also the decade of the glamorous movie musical, of Ginger Rogers swirling around in exquisite gowns that in today’s dollars would likely equal the annual salary of some unfortunate soul manning the fry station at Burger King. Americans wanted to be misdirected away from bread lines toward romantic stories about women enjoying life in big houses complete with servants, sleek Art Deco furniture, and a wardrobe of hats to die for.

Curiously enough, in several of the most enduring movies of the 1930s, the women were rich while the romantic leads weren’t always as well off. Think Kathryn Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story. Granted, Hepburn ends up marrying her well-to-do neighbor played by Cary Grant, but I doubt viewers questioned Stewart’s virility or maleness in his role of an underpaid writer who literally sweeps the heroine off her feet.

During her NBC report, Jansing also directed the spotlight toward  the new “recession TV” series Hung on HBO, about a middle-aged man who loses everything to the downturn and opts to use his best asset to survive as a gigolo.

Which brings up the question, would romance readers, not simply accept, but propel a story with a similar dynamic to the top of the lists? Can romance readers be comfortable with a man who isn’t rolling in dough, but who is still incredibly yummy and masculine?

A poverty-stricken heroine is no stretch, but a hero living in a pup tent is a dicey choice. Though it worked for Gigi Levangie Grazer in The Starter Wife, personally I found myself more attracted to the author’s hilarious and secretly tragic descriptions of life in L.A. than the hero of her novel, Sam Knight. Sam may be sweet and tortured, but he feels like a bit of wimp to me, too much Heathcliffiness without the deranged strength.

Sometimes a girl just wants to forget the fact that she’s driving around in a ghastly old minivan with two missing hub caps, a cracked windshield, and a passenger’s side window that won’t roll down any more because bird poop shorted out the motor. Sometimes you just want to fantasize about things you probably won’t ever have. That includes a dangerous alpha hero with a lot of money.

Then again, dreams of something much more attainable, a man who understands what it’s like to struggle financially because he’s been there himself, can be incredibly romantic and funny and sexy.

Here’s the question I’d like to ask, will romance successfully pull something exciting and daring out of the present economic situation? Would readers buy it, as in a lot of copies of it? My thought is that this might be the perfect opportunity for eBook romance writers, those who, by definition, can get stories to market faster and who have publishers more open to taking calculated risks.

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Accounts coming out of the Romance Writers of America® National Conference last week point toward the sagging economy finally effecting what some considered a bulletproof sector of the publishing industry. Though there is no clear consensus, authors and bloggers have commented about their uncertainty as to the future of romance, where it’s going, how it’s evolving, how well it’s really doing.

Just fine, thank you, is the answer for those with contracts and sales. After all, it’s the one market that isn’t zinging off a cliff, and in today’s world, that’s saying something.

Those with doom and gloom on their minds, might spot certain signs of contraction in the market. An annual dinner scaled back to a cocktail party at the conference. New authors learning they need to prove themselves in two or three books, and if they don’t, being told a name change is indicated. Advances for print novels at New York publishers shrinking, and in one rumored case even falling below the $1000 RWA minimum per book.

Others see not disaster, exactly, but indicators of a certain crispy, overdoneness around the edges. Maybe too much paranormal romance out there. Erotica in decline. Editors and agents saying they’re looking for fresh material, something new from authors to sweep aside the sameness they bemoan continues to cross their desks.

Of course, editors and agents have been saying this for decades. If you went back through the archives of interviews and conference panel transcripts for, say, the past two millennia, could you find an agent or editor who wasn’t looking for something new, the next breakout book, author, subgenre?

Question: Can you tell me what you’re buying right now?
Agent/Editor: Oh, you know, same old, same old. Boy meets girl. Girl and boy have conflict. Conflict leads to crisis. Throw in some hot monkey love. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget the Happily-Ever-After.

I mean, come on. Even if that’s exactly what they wanted, needed, and were happy to buy, they’re not going to say it out loud. What I believe is often meant here is something new, but not too new. Certain elements are givens of the genre.

Romance readers want happy endings or else they’d all be buying Annie Proulx and watching creepy animations of a deceased Sylvia Plath reading poetry. Because they sell, publishers, editors, and agents all want HEAs, as well.

It’s the way we get to the happy ending, though, that matters. Contrary to what critics say, there is a deep level of craft involved in writing bestselling romance. If the voice isn’t distinctive enough, it’s tough to stand out. If an author doesn’t write from a place of conviction, it shows. If readers think an author has stepped over the line, they won’t hesitate to say so.

Überstar Christine Feehan’s latest novel, Hidden Currents, in which the heroine’s weeks-long torture and repeated rape is culminated in a brutal killing during forced oral sex, is a recent example. Some readers applauded Feehan’s bravery in tackling darker elements, while others left dozens of negative reviews about the book on a major bookseller’s website.

Such examples illustrate the difficulty inherent in not only finding new ground, a patch of untilled literary earth that isn’t already paved over by those who have gone before, but in trusting that ground’s stability beneath your feet.

A handful of new submarkets are showing promise. Stephenie Meyer of the Twilight phenom, has spawned a demi-category filled with vampires and other hunky ghoulies for teens. Even adult romance readers have co-opted the trend and are consuming books intended for readers half their age. Romance authors who’ve found themselves hooked on the novels of Charles de Lint and Emma Bull, are now working in Urban Fantasy, though it’s not always easy to separate UF romance from the vampire stuff. Another group would like Steampunk—the intersection of romance and the Victorian fascination with weird steam-driven contraptions that probably wouldn’t work in real life but are super cool anyway—to be the next Big Thing.

Vampires, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, I love them all and will happily write the same, but, yes, I’d like to see something else, surprisingly different, come along. I sometimes wonder if we, the secret, collective we, ever become bored with the product in the pipeline. We’ve seen it before, I imagine us thinking.

Which brings me back to agents and editors asking writers to please, puh-lease send them something new. Do I think they mean it, really mean it?

I do. And I believe the reason partly stems from a factor almost completely unrelated to the stories romance writers tell. In comparison to other media, publishing is a dinosaur. Depending on how it impacts your life at any given moment, it can feel like T-Rex on a tear or a plush, non-Barney dino you want hang onto for dear life. My point is that the digital age is presently dragging an industry, whose very roots are grounded in wood pulp, lurching into the 21st century whether it likes it or not.

If romance publishing can find a new, truly fresh literary thing, it doesn’t have to worry so much about the implications of digital. The success of the one could offset the potential risks of the other, especially if this new thing finds a unique way to help publishing embrace and profit from the future of the book.

Opinions in the industry vary…To some, eBooks are a drab little segment of the market that doesn’t merit much attention. To others, they’re a way to market, though not necessarily sell books. For romance writers who haven’t yet gotten past the guardians at the gate and into print, or who choose to ignore print all together, eBooks equal money, a way to make a living, though not, as yet, complete legitimacy as an author.

Questions with no answers are many…Will digital book reading catch hold and find the same popularity as music downloads? Will electronic publishing have a Napster on its hands? How can the eBook model work in a traditional publishing environment? Could some Big Name Author publisher herself just as well in eBooks and POD formats, without a publisher, and put me out of a job next Tuesday?

Meh…I don’t know. My crystal ball is on the fritz and though I’ve called tech support, all I’m getting is someone in Sri Lanka who speaks English with a thick Lithuanian accent and is reading me the manual in its original Chinese.

I’ll tell you this, though. It’s not going to be next Tuesday. We’ve got time to sort this thing out. Publishing, steeped in old school business models as it is, has shown itself to be a less than nimble player. It tries, but it’s a vehicle with a lousy turning radius. Heck, there are still agents out there who don’t accept electronic queries or manuscripts, and insist on submissions that require, quite unbelievably so, postage.

I don’t think we’re going to see winds of change blowing through here any time soon. More like a turgid breeze.

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