By Isaac Walker
The effect of online on the romance publishing industry
The growth, and adoption, of online technology has significantly changed the publishing industry. One of the centers of this shift is romance publishing, simultaneously one of the most valuable segments of the publishing industry, and rarely taken seriously in wider culture and literary circles (McAlister et al., 2020). Romance novels account for potentially up to half of all paperbacks sold, and 15-25% of the general fiction market (Brouillette, 2019). Despite facing a generally negative public image, often involving public derision (Lauren, 2020), and a public stereotype that homogenised romance readers into stereotypes such as the “middle-aged housewife” (McAlister et al., 2020), romance publishing has always been a leading innovator for the wider publishing industry (Brouillette, 2019). Tapper (2014, cited in McAlister et al., 2020) characterises the romance publishing industry by its “stalwart refusal to flinch away from social, cultural and demographic change”. The industry is by no means free of controversies, including accusations of racial discrimination and historically lower pay for its predominantly female authors (McAlister et al., 2020). The romance publishing industry however has grown into one of the most successful and innovative segments of the publishing industry. As technology has begun to democratise the production process of publishing, authors have used social media and other online platforms as a key part of their strategy (Ha, 2016). Dissemination of romance works is now, more than ever, made possible through a wide range of digital and online “gatekeepers” (Steiner, 2018). These disseminators, such as readers, critics, reviewers and other authors allow self-published romance authors to reach a wide, international audience (Lauren, 2020). Ultimately, online networks are helping to disrupt the traditional romance publishing industry, while also making the industry a leader of publishing innovation.
The number of romance titles published every year is hard to calculate. A growing segment of romance books published do not have ISBNs, and so are unrecorded. However, it is generally clear that the number of books produced is increasing yearly (Steiner, 2019). During a period where traditional genres, such as science fiction and crime, have faced decreasing sales and revenue, romance revenues continued to grow (Tapper, 2014). Similarly, 2009 to 2014, romance authors median income increased, while general fiction writers median income actually shrunk (Larson, 2020). The industry is divided between traditional publishing, consisting of the just five major conglomerates (Steiner, 2019), self-publishing where the authors publish directly to eBook distribution services such as Apple iBooks and Amazon (Steiner, 2019) or hybrid publishing, where traditionally published authors have chosen to also self-publish at the same time (Larson, 2020). Amazon is perhaps the largest player in the digital publishing industry, with its popular Kindle eReaders, its online marketplace, and through its subsidiaries GoodReads (book reviews), Audible (audio books) and AbeBooks (secondbooks). Subsidiaries Moibipocket and BookSurge were purchased and then merged into Amazon for their print-on-demand services, and the .mobi eBook format (Steiner, 2019). As a result of Amazon’s dominant market position, self-published authors are particularly reliant on Amazon’s platform, even as they are independent from traditional publishing conglomerates (Steiner, 2019).
The 1970s saw the growth of the romance publishing industry into what is the form most familiar to us today. It became a bestselling industry, driven by new advances in binding and printing technology. These allowed romance to produce books cheaply and made them an affordable product, available at grocery stores, newsagencies and pharmacies (Larson, 2020). The role of Vivian Stephens, who as Editor in Chief of Candlelight Books, a Dell Books imprint, was instrumental in the modernisation of romance publishing must be credited. The modernised woman of the romance novel of the 1970s was, combined with the ability to produce hundreds of thousands of novels quick and cheap, instrumental in changing in the industry (Swartz, 2020). This attitude of innovation was critical to the way the industry has grown till today. Though it had its moments of pause – Stephens was ousted from the industry in 1984 (Swartz, 2020) – the romance industry would not stop innovating, going on to be one of the earliest adopters of eBooks and reading apps, led by Harlequin Books (Tapper, 2014). Through its own community website, Harlequin.com, the company began to use the online communities that formed around its books as a method of research. The publishing industry adopted reader surveys, focus groups, and online communities quickly, using them to understand what their readers wanted, perhaps in a more detailed way than any other segment of the publishing industry (Tapper, 2014).
The present role of both social media communities and online networks in the romance publishing industry is an outgrowth of this history. The growth of the major tech conglomerates, most especially Apple, Amazon and Google, has changed how publishing is done. It is cheaper than ever to publish a novel, but it is also harder than ever to reach your readers. Self-publishers and small publishers are “reliant on the large media companies as agents of transfer” (Steiner, 2018). A new network of gatekeepers and promoters has had to take up the slack, from the bookseller to the critic. McAlister et al. (2020) highlights how communities have had to develop around romance publishing to enable authors to succeed, often connected by the internet. These groups, whether they gather by Facebook, Twitter, or email, are both support groups and a way to share skills, creating a network of participants in the publishing process (McAlister et al., 2020) It is this process that allows self-published authors, especially those from marginalized groups, to reach their reader and their editors, cover designers, and community as a whole. A romance novel published in one country is now available globally, a fact that is sometimes connecting a local community more strongly, or creating a community from across the world (Lauren, 2020).
As mentioned earlier, romance readers fill face stigma. They may be derided for reading romance, or characterised in popular media as unintelligent. As a result of this stigma, romance readers are often only able to speak to other readers about their interest and favourite authors. According to Lauren (2020, “the shame surrounding romance forces readers to rely on others.” Social media communities have given readers a place to talk to each other, recommend romance books to each other, and become the gatekeepers and disseminators of a genre (Steiner, 2018). Many readers of romance make separate Goodreads and Facebook accounts in order to discuss romance, afraid that family and friends would frown on their choice of reading material (Lauren, 2020). Romance is, afterall, “the most popular, least respected literary genre” (Regis, 2003, cited in Tapper, 2014). However, readers are also more diverse than ever, thanks to digital technology. Romance readers now draw from a worldwide audience (Lauren, 2020), able to appreciate and disseminate these books via online networks and social media, with greater freedom than ever before. The growth of the romance reader into a more diverse audience is driving the innovation necessary for the industry to continue to grow.
According to Jennifer Enderlin of St Martin’s Press (2014, cited in Tapper, 2014) “Reading used to be solitary . . . now you read a book, you go to the website, you chat with the author, you chat with your friends”. Romance authors have begun to harness this online ecosystem to engage with their readers or fans, and create close, intimate (McAlister, et al., 2020) social media communities around their chosen reading material. Though this phenomenon is not exclusive to romance readers and publishing, the general stigma that reading romance should be a “dirty little secret” (Larson, 2020) has given romance readers an incentive to seek out other people online that share their interest. Technological developments allow readers to avoid some of the stigma previously associated with romance reading, and interact on social media communities either anonymous or without much risk of their friends and family knowing about it. Similarly, eReaders allow them to read a romance book without possibility of someone accidentally seeing the cover (Greenfeld-Benovitz, 2012). But romance authors need to be able to reach these readers, empowered as they are by technology to read wherever and whenever in relative anonymity. The romance publishing industry has always taken to digital platforms, such as Harlequin.com, mentioned earlier. Goodreads is a significant player in the online reading world (Steiner, 2018), but it serves most of all as a place to read reviews and assess a book before purchasing or reading. Perhaps most successfully for their community building, the romance publishing industry has used Facebook, where many romance authors cultivate their relationships with readers (Ha, 2016).
According to McAlister et al., (2020) “one of the key ways in which romance fiction has innovated in the twenty-first century has been in self-publishing.” With fan communities behind them, authors have worked to counter the “polarized market” (Steiner, 2018) that is dominated by trade publishings connections to critics, bookstores and marketing outlets. Instead, online social media communities are the marketing force and the book selling platforms of self-published authors. Larson (2020) establishes that romance authors have become more financially secure than writers in any other genre over the last decade. This ability to explore new genres and innovate with what they write. Authors are able to create books that wouldn’t have received a New York publishing house contract because they can sell straight to the reader (Ha, 2016). The “gatekeepers and promoters” (Steiner, 2018) are now the readers themself, whether engaging directly in social media communities or via review sites and blogs. In the case of #RomanceClass, a Filipino-based romance writing community, the readers are also participants in the production process themselves. Whether as editors, authors, beta-readers or cover designers, the readers have become a “professionalised community” who produce the books just as much as they read them (McAlister et al., 2020). This harnessing of online spaces has seriously disrupted the industry, leaving self-publishing platforms such as Amazon squaring off with the major New York publishing conglomerates (Steiner, 2018).
The romance publishing industry has always adopted innovation, and continues to do so today, through the use of online networks and social media communities. Ultimately, self-published authors are continuing the tradition started when romance publishers were some of the first to adopt ebooks, eReaders and online fan communities (Tapper, 2014). Today, romance authors continue to earn more on average than any other genre’s authors (Larson, 2020), partially thanks to the growth of self-publishing and hybrid publishing. From the early Harlequin fan communities, to massive Facebook fanbases today (Ha, 2016), romance authors are using online platforms to change the game and move the process of dissemination from traditional methods to an online platform. Amazon, Apple and Google have become major players in the publishing industry (Steiner, 2018), as this trend continues to grow. Online communities have, in many places, become integral to the production of romance novels (McAlister et al., 2020). Romance has a “vanguard status” (Brouillette, 2019) among publishing, for its continued pioneering use of digital technologies, and while this has begun to place Amazon and its competitors at odds with the New York publishing conglomerates (Steiner, 2018), it has also helped romance authors to seek and reach success (Ha, 2016; Larson, 2020). The ability of romance publishing to create communities around their work continues the long tradition of romance authors having a close relationship with their fans, using new technology to broaden the scope of that audience and reduce the restraints placed on it by gatekeepers and physical distance alike (Tapper, 2014). Romance publishing is a key innovator in the use of social media and online networks, among all forms of genre publishing.
Brouillette, S. (2019). Romance work. Theory & event, 22(2), 451-464. https://search-proquest-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/docview/2287050361
Greenfeld-Benovitz, M. (2012). The interactive romance community: the case of “covers gone wild”. In S. S. G Frants & E. M Selinger. (Ed.) New approaches to popular romance fiction: critical essays (1st ed., pp 195-205
Ha, T. (2016, July 22). Maverick women writers are upending the book industry and selling millions in the process. Quartz. https://qz.com/711924/maverick-women-are-upending-the-book-industry-and-selling-millions-in-the-process/
Larson, C. (2020). Open networks, open books: gender, precarity and solidarity in digital publishing. Information, communication & society, 23(13), 1892-1908. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2019.1621922
Lauren, C. (2020). The publishing industry and its reputation. Publishing research quarterly, 36(1), 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12109-019-09703-2
McAlister, J., Parnell, C., & Trinidad, A. A. (2020). RomanceClass: genre world, intimate public, found family. Publishing research quarterly, 36(3), 403-417. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12109-020-09733-1
Steiner, A. (2018). The global book: micropublishing, conglomerate production, and digital market structures. Publishing research quarterly, 34(1), 118-132. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12109-017-9558-8
Swartz, M. (2020, September). Vivian Stephens helped turn romance writing into a billion-dollar industry. Then she got pushed out. Texas Monthly. https://www.texasmonthly.com/arts-entertainment/vivian-stephens-helped-turn-romance-writing-into-billion-dollar-industry/
Tapper, O. (2014). Romance and innovation in twenty-first century. Publishing research quarterly, 30(2), 249. https://link-springer-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/article/10.1007/s12109-014-9363-6
13 thoughts on “The effect of online on the romance publishing industry”
Thanks for the fascinating read, Isaac! As a rather big romance reader myself, I found this an interesting insight. There is a stigma with being a romance reader, but it seems to be changing from where it was when I first picked up my first romance novel. I think sometimes we put the stigma onto ourselves, which makes the situation even harder. In light of the new Bridgerton TV series, it has been interesting in the uptake of the original romance novels by people who probably would not have read them previously.
I do tend to agree with Sierra, I do not feel it is harder for authors to engage with their readers. In fact, I have found it to be the total opposite. I follow multiple authors, mainly on Facebook. Such social communication has allowed for the reader to feel an emotional connection to them, even have an opportunity to engage with them one on one (Kowalczyk & Pounders, 2016). From a personal perspective, I have had numerous interactions with some of my favourite authors. As such, I have recognised this ‘connection’. Though I literally know they really do not who I am, I have this inane feeling of an intimate type of relationship with them. I have even had the pleasure of their interaction on my own personal page by ways of likes, comments and shares. I feel I have a closer connection and reach to these authors than I did when I first started reading them.
It is ironic that it was through these connections I read of #Cockygate. It caused quite the stir in the romance circles 2 or so years ago when self-published author Faleena Hopkins tried to trademark the word ‘cocky’ (Ralston, 2019). The popularity of her books was only through the online publishing of them, her fan base from her online presence, much like you mention in your paper. It is quite an interesting incident in light of the mention of social networks. The ensuing hashtags (#ByeFaleena, #FreeTheCocky, etc) pulled together readers and authors alike, across multiple platforms. The readers, as well as other authors (published and self-published), became those ‘gatekeepers’ you mentioned. They fought back against the trademark and Amazon. You might find it interesting; I had totally forgotten about it until I read your paper. I just spent the morning re-reading some of the many posts.
So, thank you again for a thought-provoking paper. It may not seem like a conventional topic, but it sent me along a path of rediscovery of online publishing, including its quirks.
Kowalczyk, C. & Pounders, K. (2016). Transforming celebrities through social media: the role of authenticity and emotional attachment. Journal of Product & Brand Management. 25. 345-356. http://doi.org/10.1108/JPBM-09-2015-0969
Ralston, D. F. (2019, June). “Cockygate”: Trademark Trolling, Romance Novels, and Intellectual Property. In A Publication of the Intellectual Property Standing Group of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (p. 21). https://cccc.ncte.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/IPAnnual2018.pdf#page=24
Hello Isaac, I found your paper absolutely fascinating!
I want to hear your thoughts on the publishing industry as a whole. In your paper you talk specifically about romance novels and how they are evolving to fit into the online context. However, I was a very avid reader in high school. I was also broke. So I had to get creative when it came to finding and reading books that weren’t available in my school library. I found many novels that I wanted to read online that were not necessarily posted by the author on those sites? Was that unethical of me? Perhaps. But I was able to finish many book series by doing this and I gained a greater appreciation for those series. What do you think about this? How do you think plagiarism online will effect the publishing industry?
Well done on a great paper! This topic was so interesting, and one that I do not know too much about so it was great to read your paper and learn about the online romance publishing communities.
I’m interested in the stigma around romance novels. On one hand, it is surprising that there is still such a stigma around romance novels as they are the most popular and lucrative genre. On the other hand, as romance novels are known as a women’s genre, sadly, I know I should not be too surprised. All too often women’s interests and issues are derided.
Have you seen any evidence of the online community owning the stigma attached to romance novels and attempt to shake it off?
I feel like the recent Netflix series Bridgeton would have gone a long way to lessening the stigma too? The series was wildly popular and sparked a resurgence of reading the books based on the show. Quite a few of the books in the series topped the best seller lists for paperback and digital. The online community for Bridgeton – both the books and the tv series seems to be thriving. Especially on TikTok, there are many videos of people bragging about how quickly they read all the books in the series. So hopefully, strong, supportive online romance book communities will help to abate some of the stigma overtime. What do you think?
Reference to Bridgeton book sales :
My experience is that romance still gets an level of derision, but that this may be more of a generational thing? Certainly I think it will be fascinating to see what academic work is done on TikTok in the future, given its so young. It has its own culture and a lot of that has been very sex-positive and open about these issues. For example, the recent Omegaverse trend on TikTok. I’m sorry if you don’t know what Omegaverse is though haha! (its a… subgenre of romance fiction, particularly gay romance fiction).
I don’t recommend googling it unless you’re not easily embarassed by sexual topics. If you are interested, check out Swell Entertainment’s video (TikTok and the Omegaverse).
But it is fascinating (and heartening) to see Gen Z people owning their interest in such a traditional taboo area of discussion.
I hadn’t read more on Bridgerton’s effect, though I have watched it. I know that there has been a lot of dialogue around the shows choices and that has also helped start more conversation about the problematic parts of the romance genre (I briefly mentioned some of these, such as Vivian Stephens’ blacklisting by the industries and the RWA scandal in my article) but didn’t go into them in more depth. I think that frank conversation about these elements of the genre can only help it grow and shake off its stigma.
Swell Entertainment’s video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sthxFNBc2w
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about romance being a generational thing. It seems to be less an issue than I recall a few decades ago. It’s still somewhat of a ‘taboo’ genre to some people. A bit ironic in the wake of the ’50 Shades of Grey’ series (not that I’d personally refer to it as a true ‘romance’).
Yes, I agree that further academic work on TikTok would be so interesting!
I had not heard of Omegaverse. It is so fascinating to find out about all the types of subcultures and the strong communities that spring from them.
I also agree that the stigma may be generational. This is a bit of a side story – but when we renovated our house, we found a stash of Mills and Boon books in a hole in a bedroom wall – some poor teenager in the 80s felt they had to hide them from their family! At least now, as you mention in your paper, people can find their community online to discuss the books and make their own fan fiction, and the latest generation coming through may face no such derision and shame for enjoying romance novels.
I really enjoyed reading this paper, it was informative and well-written. I found the parallel between e-books and social media and the success of romance books fascinating.
As Sierra mentioned it would be interesting to read what this impact has been on other genres! I feel like Young Adult/paranormal is incredibly popular on social media with huge fandoms out there, and could be tied to the generation of ‘digital natives’ (danah boyd discusses them in her book ‘It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens’, 2014).
On romance genre, surely blogs had a big impact too? Some authors became really engaged with readers on blogs, hosted on their own website or elsewhere. I remember in the early days of the SMTB blog it was an innovative hub embracing the trash stigma to review, discuss, interview authors and promote the romance genre – https://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/about/
I actually did see SBTB mentioned in a few academic studies while researching, though they mostly didn’t end up being useful to my topic. I’m also a keen fan of their blog.
I think, personally, blogs are an important part of the social media sphere today, though I think their influence has shrunk. Micro-blogging platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, etc. have huge reach that blogs sometimes struggle with. Vloggers have also become very popular; I particularly love WithCindy. They have enormous influence in a way. For example, for the release of Netflix’s new adaption of the Grisha trilogy (Shadow & Bones), they’ve been using booktubers (youtubers who talk about books in vlog format) as part of the marketing.
But it was hard to find more concrete research on the role of blogs. I do agree it’d be fascinating to research how other genres are contributing too.
This was quite an interesting read, and closely linked to areas I nominated as “further research” in my own paper. With the impact social media has on romance publications alone, I think it could be interesting to compare such impacts across a number of genres! As a big reader myself, I follow a lot of book-related accounts and tags on many social media platforms, and most of the recommendations I see are for sci-fi and fantasy, though this may be my own user bias based on who I follow.
You note that “online networks are helping to disrupt the traditional romance publishing industry, while also making the industry a leader of publishing innovation”. While I agree with the first half of this statement, I would argue that, as authors and publishers of any genre use social media and online networks to market new novels towards a target-audience, the romance genre cannot be isolated as a leader among the publishing industry as a whole. But, I have limited knowledge on the statistics in this area, and can only comment from a reader perspective!
Additionally, you say that “it is cheaper than ever to publish a novel, but it is also harder than ever to reach your readers”. Why is it harder than ever to reach readers? If social media allows authors to sell directly to their readers instead of via a “New York publishing house”, isn’t it therefore easier to ensure a novel reaches its target market?
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!
Thanks for commenting! I was afraid this topic would put most people off from engaging haha.
When it comes to why I single out the romance industry, is that from 2009 to 2014, romance publishing was the only genre where the average author income grew, and the only genre with sales growth overall (compared to sales decline in sci-fi and fantasy). Larson (2020) and Tapper (2014) present some statistics on that particular area of concern.
To address your second question – It seems, overall, this hasn’t been researched as well as I would like to have seen. There isn’t as much academic literature on self-publishing as I expected to find. But some of the reasons I have seen highlighted, and my own experience talking to self-published authors in person, are
– The market place is flooded with competitors, so standing out is harder
– Traditional bookstores are a declining industry, and as a self-published author, it is very hard to get your books into bookstores anyway
– Instead of traditional distribution networks, the self-published author is relying on the “agents of transfer”, the online marketplaces such as Amazon. These are often a murky field, where the algorithms that control your books distribution are secret and the marketplace has a two way conflict of interest.
— Amazon makes a profit off selling your book, but it also operates AMS (Amazon Marketing Services), where you can pay to advertise your book within Amazon’s website itself. There is an incentive for Amazon to make authors reliant on paid adverts as a result.
I completely understand that! I’ve been worried about the same thing with my own paper, which explores virtual book clubs (find it here: https://bit.ly/3aKckzt).
I wasn’t aware of the agents of transfer in self-publishing; the very term sounds, as you said, “murky”! What are the conflicts of interest you describe? It seems that traditional publishing has always been riddled with such conflict, and it’s sad to hear self-publishing has similar issues. Without having an in-depth understanding of what’s involved with self-publishing a book, I’d always been under the impression it came with complete control over how your novel was marketed, edited, sold, etc. One of my favourite examples of self-publishing (though the book isn’t released until June) is a titled “The Nichan Smile”, and is authored by an artist I’ve followed on Instagram for a long time (her work often revolves around cover art and fanart, you may have seen some! Her pen name is C. J. Merwild), and having been able to follow along her process of self-publishing it had certainly seemed difficult, but it gave me the impression of eliminating any publisher biases and conflicts of interest!
Keen to hear what you think!
I have indeed seen her art! I didn’t know she had a book coming out. I really loved her Captive Prince art work, haha.
I think self-publishing definitely eliminates the original gatekeepers. That is why it has seen such a growth in LGBTQ+ fiction, BIPOC self-published authors, and so on. However, we’re also placing the books into the hands of a new sort of gatekeeper, social media influence. In the example of C.J Merwild, her social influence (a large instagram following) means she is one of the “gatekeepers” described by Steiner (2018). Creating fandom artwork has actually made her a powerful tool in marketing other authors works, probably unintentionally, and in turn makes her able to market her own book more effectively than an author starting with no social media influence.
Therefore, though the gatekeepers are no longer as rigid as editors in big publishing companies, the choices of social media influencers, the customers who write Amazon reviews, Goodreads Librarians, bloggers, are part of making or breaking a book today. Whereas it was once booksellers and magazine critics.
It sounds like it will be a book worth picking up, and her artwork of her original characters makes it look even better!
I’ve never thought about social media as the next literary gatekeepers, but having had it pointed out, I can definitely see how this makes sense. I’ve seen accounts dedicated to calling out problematic authors (@bookish.you.should.know does this really well), and as a result, many authors have apologised for any problematic portrayals of cultures or characters in books, or even personal views of the author. Further, raising awareness of what an author does and doesn’t support seems to be having a growing influence on whether a reader will buy a book or not. For example, J.M. Buckler has recently been the subject of heated discussion due to her active decision to ignore racism on her platform, and failure to educate others on racial issues, despite labelling herself as an educator. Since then, many members of the reading community have taken to their own platforms to spread awareness and links back to J.M. Buckler’s statements so that uninformed readers can better grasp who they may be choosing to support by buying her books. In this example and the cases of many other problematic authors (J.K. Rowling, Emily Duncan, Jessica Cluess, Jay Kristoff, etc.), it could be argued that literary gatekeeping can be a positive tool to combat racism, cultural appropriation, and other social issues in modern storytelling. While publishers acted as gatekeepers against LGBT+ and culturally diverse stories, social media seems to be doing the opposite. Do you think there are any downsides to social media taking on the new role of literary gatekeeping? Do you think it’s possible to work towards a future without gatekeeping in the reading world? Would that even be a good thing?
Keen to hear what you think!