A note on historical romance sales in print


Jeannie Lin writes really awesome historical romances. These historical romances  are also set in China. I want to commend her publisher for publishing those books. I’m so glad someone recognized her brilliance, and decided to publish something awesome even if it was out of the standard mold. Jeannie has announced that there will not be a print version of The Jade Temptress because print sales weren’t very good. I’ve seen lots of explanations and finger-pointing–but oddly enough, almost none of it is directed at the most obvious culprits.

So let me list the usual reason why print sales are low. It’s not because there’s not enough buzz about a book; a book can get great online buzz and have extremely meager print sales. (More on that below.) It’s not necessarily because people don’t want to read the book–especially for newish authors, most people don’t know that the book exists.

No. The usual reason that print sales are low is that there are very few print copies of a book in a bookstore. If a major chain takes one copy per store and shoves it on the back shelf, guess what? Sales are 99.99% likely to be terrible, and it doesn’t matter how good the book is. Once that happens, there is almost nothing an author can do to recover. Even if, against all odds, you sell a good portion of your meager print run, no store is going to be impressed by your luke-warm streak of selling 200 copies more than anticipated. They’re going to see a book that sold 700 copies total, and since they’re shrinking shelf space again, by the time your next book comes out, they’ve decided they don’t have room for books that sell under 1,000 copies in their chain. Your print career was finished before your book even hit the shelves.

That’s the reality for most authors who get squeezed out of print, and there are a a lot of historical romance authors who are getting squeezed out of print right now–not just Jeannie. The major bookbuyers are just not giving a lot of new historical romance authors shelf-space.

So I see a lot of blame going on for how this author lost print distribution, but nobody’s mentioned the fact that historical romance shelf-space, in general, is falling precipitously. There are other amazing authors who are having the exact same thing happen to them as we speak.

Now, do I know that this happened with Jeannie? No. As of the writing of this post I have not talked to her about the situation. And that’s because of what I’m going to say next–I didn’t want to talk to her because I wanted to write this next part and say, very clearly, “She had nothing to do with this part at all.” Because she didn’t.

I am not (currently) an author of historical romances set in China. But I wrote books for HQN–historical romances that were set in England, books about a marquess and about a man who was going to inherit a dukedom. Books that had amazing buzz and fantastic reviews in all the trade journals.

I know there’s a narrative out there that suggests I was hugely successful for Harlequin before I walked away to self-publish. The Code of Being Nice about your publisher means that you don’t bitch about stuff in public. You put a good face on things and smile and say, “I’m so happy with how things are going!” I’m about to break that code, a little bit, but I’m going to try to do it nicely.

Every year I was with Harlequin, I felt sick about what was happening to my career. Everything Jeannie described in her post about her print sales happened to me. I felt sick to my stomach, and all I could do was keep swinging as hard as I could and hope that something connected. When I wrote Unveiled, I had a handful of people email me saying that this was my break-out book, the book that was going to put me on the map. I had amazing online buzz.

So what did that look like in print?

The following screenshots are from the royalty periods through June of 2013, but the amounts in the first column are cumulative for all sales.

Unveiled was released in February of 2011. Some people still say it’s the best book I’ve ever written. It was nominated for a RITA, had amazing reviews and a great following.

Here’s a partial snapshot of my royalty statement showing my English language retail print sales. The left-most column is the one we care about. The first line is the number of units that were shipped to stores; the second line, the number of units that were stripped and reported as returned. There are no reserves at this late point in the game, so that leaves that final line, which is the net units sold.

Yep. You read that right. Those are return rates of about 60%, with 9,768 copies sold in print–and this was in a world where Borders existed. (And yes, my royalty statements really do come in that small a type).

Here’s Unclaimed:

You’re seeing that right, too. That’s a 67% return rate, a commensurately smaller print run, and less than 6,000 copies sold.

I give Harlequin all the credit in the world for good intentions. They did a lot of things to build me as an author, and really wanted to do so. But good intentions don’t matter. I could draw a straight line through my print sales with every book, and they were going to hit zero sometime in 2012.

So before we talk about why Jeannie’s next book isn’t getting a print run–please try and keep this in mind. Harlequin sold less than 6,000 US retail print copies of Unclaimed in 2011, after I had hit the New York Times list with Unlocked. 

I know that this post could potentially annoy people at Harlequin, and I hope it doesn’t. They tried to tell me my books were at fault, but…I think I’ve demonstrated that they were wrong about that. People do want to read my books. Lots of people. My print sales did not reflect that. I hope that Harlequin takes this criticism for what it is–not my attempt to say that they suck and I hate them, but that they need to recognize that they have a problem selling historical romance in print. They’re not good at it, and I hope they figure it out before they run more print careers into the ground.

Jeannie’s books mean a lot to me. It almost physically hurts to hear people saying, “This is proof that Chinese-set historicals don’t sell.” When I wrote my English-set historicals and had craptastic print sales, I had the benefit of other authors’ experience to prove that English-set historicals can sell in print. Nobody pinned the hopes of the entire subsubgenre on my shoulders. Using Jeannie’s books as a stand in for an entire sub-genre is really, really unfair to both her and the class of Chinese-set historicals. It’s disturbing to take a book that features non-white people in a non-European setting, to have it perform precisely the same way as books that are written about white people in a European setting, and to then say that this is proof that books about non-white people do not succeed.

Before we say that readers won’t read Chinese-set historicals, we should give Chinese-set historicals a chance. And that chance has to be bigger than one author, writing in a subgenre where the bookbuyers are already wary, publishing with a house that has a less than sterling-record with historical romance.

If you’re reading this, go buy Jeannie Lin’s The Lotus Palace. She is one of the most brilliant new historical authors to come on the scene in recent years–and at some point, I really believe that bat is going to connect for her and her books are going to start flying out of the park.

Edit: I just wanted to add one thing. I refer to “Harlequin” as a monolithic entity, but it’s really one that is made up of people. Not all people in it are alike, and sometimes, when making broad statements, that paints with too broad a brush. I always felt like my editor loved my books and worked with me to make them the best books possible; for what it’s worth, the pushback came from higher up.

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54 Responses to “A note on historical romance sales in print”

  1. Kris Bock says:

    I read The Sword Dancer last week and loved it. I’ll be reading more of Jeannie’s books. For me, the different setting is a selling point. Who wants to read the same old thing? (OK, some people obviously do.)

    Courtney, I love your books as well, and I appreciate the intelligence and honesty you bring to conversations about writing and publishing.

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  2. Suze says:

    The kindle e-book price for Jeannie Lin’s “The Lotus Palace” just dropped to 99 cents. I bought “The Sword Dancer” yesterday and I bought “The Lotus Palace” today.

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  3. Melissa says:

    One the main reasons I stopped buying romance novels in print was the fact that I couldn’t find them in the stores. I’m a complete nerd — I have all my favorite authors and new releases marked on a calendar, and so on those special Tuesdays, I’d head over to Barnes & Noble, only to find that the books were never on display. I would have traipse to Customer Service and ask (and while I love my romances, having to ask every week for titles that always have the words seduction, love, sex, etc. makes people look at you weird). Contrast that with the amazing experience of being able to pre-order my favorite novels, wait up until 12 AM on Tuesdays and then spend the rest of the night reading my favorite authors.

    Plus, I recently moved overseas for a year and had to leave my print library of 1500 books at home. It’s okay, because I have 1200 other books on my Nook. I honestly don’t intend to buy another romance novel in print, but I would hate for that decision to keep authors from being signed to new contracts due to print sales.

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  4. I went and bought it. I love historicals set in China!

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Courtney Milan writes historical romance novels like the ones you see to the right. She still remembers bits and pieces from her old lives, where she was (variously) a scientist and a lawyer.

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