A New Breed of Romance

Hybrid author went from concept to buzzword when Bob Mayer, himself a hybrid author, coined the term in 2011. Sounding like something cooked up in a test tube or possibly some kind of alien life form, it was originally used to describe two different phenomena in the publishing world. It has come to mean a whole lot more, especially for authors writing romance.

The first type of hybrid author achieved the dream of a traditional publishing contract after having sold oodles of copies (and made beaucoup dollars) by self-publishing a novel, generally through Smashwords or Amazon. The successful transition of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey from Twilight fanfiction to self-published megahit to Random House blockbuster is the poster child for this scenario. If this script were a romance, publishers might label it as “ugly duckling transforms into beautiful swan,” but those labels depend on which side of the pond you are sitting on at the time.

The second type of hybrid author has had a long career and has now reclaimed, retained, or even wrestled back rights to her backlist titles (and, yes, in romance it’s usually a woman), while her frontlist titles are still under a traditional contract. Or possibly not. Those backlist titles have already been professionally edited, and the author may still have the electronic files. They may not need much work beyond a new cover. The author is not merely well known but downright beloved, and readers want that backlist now in ebook format.

Even though author Sophie Barnes exemplifies the author who started in ebook-only and has moved to print (with Avon), she can sum up the experience of what happens to backlist titles when new frontlist titles are available. “Every time a book gets released, it boosts the previous ones,” Barnes says. “When The Trouble with Being a Duke went on sale (Sept.), my ebook-only sales went up.” Call this the “second chance at love” theme.

But both of these narratives assume that a traditional contract is the Holy Grail of publishing, or at least that being offered one is the equivalent of a marriage contract with the author’s very own prince.

No Prince Charming

From a publisher’s perspective, there is also Frankenstein’s monster, as exemplified by sf author Hugh Howey and romance writer Bella Andre. Both are hybrid authors who have sold their print rights to a traditional publisher (Howey to Simon & Schuster, Andre to Harlequin) while retaining their lucrative and future-looking electronic rights. Howey’s deal was groundbreaking at the time, but there has been quite a bit of speculation as to whether this sort of thing will be repeated. Electronic rights are everyone’s future.

For an increasing number of romance authors, and authors in general, the hybrid concept is all about creative control. Instead of waiting for traditional publishing to come along and sweep them off their feet, these authors consider traditional publishing Mr. Wrong, at least for them, and the romance trope they are living is the “woman of independent means.”

Best-selling historical romance author Courtney Milan switched from traditional publishing with Harlequin’s HQN imprint to self-publishing because, as she puts it, “I started self-publishing for money and career stability. I did the math and realized I had the choice between working a full-time job and writing on the side for my publisher while wracked by the constant fear that my sales wouldn’t be good enough to get another contract, or supporting myself full-time by self-publishing. I chose Door B.” Faced with those choices, who wouldn’t at least give that option a very hard look?

Having it all

Then there is the writer who “has it all,” a traditional publishing contract for some books and self-publishing for books that don’t meet their publisher’s vision or marketing strategy or for which they don’t want to wait for a slot in their publisher’s schedule. There are also “books of the heart,” as they are called by Mary Jo Putney, a Kensington romance stalwart and Romance Writers of America (RWA) 2013 Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award recipient: books that may be outside of what the publisher is used to seeing from those writers.

Author Jane Porter, also a best-selling author and RWA RITA Award winner, has created her own publishing concern, Tule Publishing, to launch the “Copper Mountain Rodeo” novella series of Western romances. It highlights the new opportunities made possible in this “Wild West” of digital publishing. As an author, Porter can create a haven for other writers wanting to publish books that might not fit within their current publishing contracts, hiring experts to do the things that traditional publishers handled exclusively, e.g., editing, proofreading, cover design, and marketing. The talent for those tasks can be found anywhere, not just in the publishing mecca of New York City. Also, the short form for genre fiction—not just romance but also sf and mystery—has come back from the dead. (OK, now we’ve added zombie books into the mix!) Digital publishing has made it financially viable to publish in every conceivable length. Novellas sell.

Hybrid means that any combination can be cooked up in authors’ “labs” if they are willing to take on the work of vetting proofreaders, editors, and cover artists, or seeking out the best independent publishers for their finished work. The result is increased creative control, the single biggest reason hybrid authors cite for going this route. Authors get to publish the book they want, on a deadline of their choosing, with their preferred cover art, at the price they believe will sell. In addition, many midlist authors at traditional houses do their own promotion, at their own expense, so the situation for hybrid authors isn’t drastically different.

Today’s authors truly appreciate the expanded opportunities afforded by the hybrid model. “For 22 years while I worked at becoming a published author, traditional publishing was the only available option,” says Candis Terry, who writes for Avon. “And while I am ecstatic to be part of a wonderful and supportive publishing company, it would have been nice all those years to have had an outlet to see how actual readers might respond to my work. Being a hybrid author gives the individual more control over their work and their success, and I believe that’s exactly the reason the trend is here to stay.”

In 2013, the road to becoming a hybrid author may include a lot more than just backlist or dreams of a traditional contract. Once upon a time, “getting a book published was not easy, but it was straightforward,” says Putney. Today, it’s “sort of chaos. Old-fashioned pathways have broken down, but there are all kinds of exciting things out there.” Putney should know, having not only self-published her backlist but also released her backlist in audiobook, starting with Thunder and Roses, the first book in her “Fallen Angels” series.

Does the glass slipper fit?

Popular Romance Project Connects Readers, Writers, Scholars, and Libraries

In some ways, romance novels are the dirty little secret of the literary world. Largely ignored by mainstream critics, regularly maligned by academics, and sometimes hidden away even by their readers, romances are nevertheless responsible for as much as 50 percent of annual mass market paperback sales in the United States. Now, the organizers of the Popular Romance Project (PRP) are trying to rewrite the narrative, bringing romance to the attention of those who might not already pay attention to the genre by showcasing its diversity and depth and the community of authors and fans that drives its enduring popularity….

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Retaining rights to at least some of their work gives authors control of their destiny, their life, and their livelihood. But where does that leave libraries? One of the unintended consequences of hybridized publishing is that libraries have a more difficult time discovering new and increasingly popular books by authors who choose to step outside the traditional publishing path.

Typically, librarians find out about most books through the promotional efforts of traditional publishers, which target bookstores and libraries. Books that take the nontraditional route have a much more difficult time getting library attention. Most public libraries center their collection development activities and policies on whether a book is reviewed in one of the all-important prepublication review sources (LJ, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus), or, for romance titles specifically, RT Book Reviews. Without notification from these trusted sources, which don’t have the wherewithal to deal with the flood of sometimes audience-specific indie titles—or even ferret them out—title discovery is even more challenging.

Efforts such as the Public Library Association’s (PLA) inaugural Independent E-book Month, scheduled for May 2014, serve to highlight the issue. How do we unearth that marvelous book that patrons will absolutely adore if we aren’t monitoring a channel that will discover these things for us? Most libraries will purchase award winners and even nominees, but there are so many more good titles available. Romance readers are voracious.

What options are out there for discovery of nontraditionally published books? Romance expert and former RWA Librarian of the Year John Charles of Scottsdale Public Library, AZ, and California’s Los Gatos Library’s Henry Bankhead (both also LJ reviewers) subscribe to RT Book Reviews to supplement library-specific review publications, as does my own Seattle Public Library. RT reviews ebook-only and self-published romances and gives greater coverage to the small and indie presses that dominate romance publishing than long-established sources. LJ’s weekly Xpress Reviews, published online, is another excellent outlet for reviews of small press and occasionally self-published romance.

Los Gatos Library (LGL) uses the Enki Library (the Douglas County, CO, ebook self-hosting model) as a way of uncovering nontraditional content. LGL has also chosen to partner with self-publishing vendor Smashwords in an “eBook Self-Publishing Partnership” aimed at local authors. Any authors who use the cobranded portal have their works tagged for consideration by LGL.

Where to find your heart’s desire

Labor of Love: Behind the Scenes at Swoon Reads

Move over, Stephenie Meyer! Romance lovers will soon be obsessed with a brand new, swoon-worthy love story—at least, if publisher Jean Feiwel has something to say about it. After more than a year of brainstorming behind the scenes, her new Swoon Reads project, which gives fans of young adult and new adult books unprecedented power to choose which new teen romance novels they wish to see published, celebrated its hard launch late last month with about 50 manuscripts available for review, and a major ramping up of its marketing, publicity, and advertising campaigns….

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Scottsdale’s Charles uses “everything from RT Book Reviews to Entertainment Weekly to supplement ordering. You have to know the review source and factor that into ordering.” Los Gatos’s Bankhead is not only “open to any and all nontraditional review sources,” but he has been trying to brainstorm a way to get more librarian reviews of e-only-release books. LGL is working in conjunction with the PLA effort coming in 2014, and they are looking at the site Here Be Fiction (www.herebefiction.org) as a possible model. While Here Be Fiction is currently aimed at school libraries, it is easy to see how its goal of vetting quality small press ebook fiction for the school library market could be expanded or adapted for use in the public library sector.

There are, as well, tons of romance blogs out there, and it’s almost as difficult to determine which are authoritative as it is to decide which self-published books might be good for the ­collection.

Two worth considering as selection tools are Smart Bitches Trashy Books (SBTB) and Dear Author. Sarah Wendell, the primary mover behind SBTB, is also a published expert in the field of romance fiction. Her Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, coauthored with Candy Tan, is both an academic study of the genre and a slap in the face to anyone who has ever reader-shamed a romance fiction lover. SBTB continues to call the books as it sees them: good, bad, excellent, or awful.

Dear Author’s Jane Litte is a lawyer as well as a romance reader and blogger. In addition to hosting a comprehensive romance review site, which includes topical lists of romance books as well as current reviews, Litte posts excellent information about the state of the publishing industry.

Still, most nontraditionally published authors make their way into libraries through patron requests. We all rely on patrons for information on which books have generated the most buzz. Once suggestions start rolling in, we hunt for reviews in unusual sources to see what the fuss is about. Author Sophie Barnes is well aware that many of her ebooks have been borrowed from libraries. They have gotten into those institutions because “many loyal readers have specifically requested these books from their libraries.”

Trying to locate books outside the publishing mainstream isn’t a new problem. Library vendor Quality Books started 40-plus years ago as a jobber and library recommendation resource for small and indie titles for libraries. The explosion of digital publishing has added layers to the dilemma, but, referencing again the Wild West scenario, while ebook self-publishing and indie publishing may be new faces in the barroom, there’s been a barroom for a long time.

The cost of true love

As librarians face a shortage of discovery tools, they are also stuck with static budgets, limiting what they can purchase even as an increasing number of authors are exploring an exploding world of nontraditional publishing options. As Charles puts it, “Like most public libraries, [Scottsdale’s] acquisitions budget is not flush. The library has enough to purchase popular romance authors/titles, but there really isn’t any spare change left to spend on new authors who don’t have a track record with our readers.” Still, owing to demand, self-publishing is getting more respect.

At libraries, there is a tendency to hear the term self-published, hearken back to the days of vanity presses, and equate those books with low quality. The rise of electronic publishing has made it possible for authors of every type to publish independently work of high quality. From the author’s side of the equation, the stigma of self-publishing is dissipating rapidly. Self-publishing, independent publishing, small press, writers’ cooperatives, and traditional publishing are all different methods of reaching an audience, and they each work for different writers in varying circumstances. Conclusion: this can only be good for libraries.

As librarians, we can help local authors and publishers navigate their way toward being available on our shelves, including our virtual shelves. It’s our very own happily ever after.

Marlene Harris is Technical Services Manager, Seattle Public Library (SPL), is a coeditor of SPL’s Romantic Wednesdays feature on Shelf Talk, and reviews fiction and e-original romance for LJ. Because she can’t resist talking about the books she loves, and occasionally the ones she hates, she has her own book blog at Reading Reality.