The Blog of a Historical Romance Author


Can we talk about black women in stock photos?

April 12th, 2014

Trigger warning for racism.

I’ve talked before about how I make covers for my books.

http://courtneymilan.tumblr.com/post/73371595545/where-do-your-covers-come-from-the-images-models

The basic idea is this: (1) I go on stock photo websites, (2) find pictures of women in wedding dresses, and (3) modify the dresses in photo editing software. Voila, a cover.

The most time-consuming step in this process is (2)–finding a photo that will make a good underlying cover. It’s not easy. You need someone who doesn’t have a silly expression on her face, whose pose is interesting and makes the viewer wonder about her. She should match the description of the heroine in the book. If I’m doing a series, the pose needs to match what I’m doing for the other books in the series. Since these are wedding-oriented, I have to discard a good portion of them because the women are wearing or holding things that are incompatible with a book cover photo–things like veils or massive bouquets. I have to look through about 500 or 600 photos for every usable picture I find.

Luckily, there are tons of pictures of women in wedding dresses on stock photo sites. These are very often pictures that are designed for women to look at, because everyone wants to sell a bride something. The dresses are beautiful. The lighting is often just a little ethereal, which is great for a historical romance cover. And the photos are all taken with a certain view in mind: to send women the message that they are beautiful, that they deserve to look pretty and deserve to be happy. (We can talk about the bridal industry and beauty standards and all that jazz…but not today.)

Even with that said, it probably takes me 2 or 3 hours to find a good photo. This is something I do at night, when I’m too tired to do more taxing work. It’s relaxing to just thumb through photos.

Or it was until I started looking for photos of black women.

There are 107,151 pictures tagged “bride” on shutterstock.com for all ethnicities. (If you don’t add “all ethnicities” on there, you get substantially more photos–but I’m not going for exact statistics here, just a hand-wavy feel of things.)

You can also search by ethnicity (assuming the photos are properly categorized in the system).

Here’s the breakdown (and, no I didn’t make up these ethnicities, so let’s not try to parse this too much):

  • African: 57
  • African American: 444
  • Black: 222
  • Brazilian: 2
  • Chinese: 1,783
  • Caucasian: 77,536
  • East Asian: 2,704
  • Hispanic (Latin): 1,572
  • Japanese: 1,592
  • Middle Eastern: 1,235
  • Native American: 41
  • Pacific Islander: 102
  • South Asian: 1,614
  • Southeast Asian: 2,077
  • Other: 3,484 (Not scientific, but at a first guess, many of the brides in the “other” category appear to be white.)

Of course, there is some overlap between these categories. Some photos show up in both the “African American” and the “Black” ethnicity tag. And as you might imagine, some photos are tagged as all possible asian ethnicities. But you can see what I’m driving at. 107,151 photos of brides on shutterstock, and less than 723 of them are of black women. That’s 0.6% of all the available photos, and that percentage looks even worse when you remember that shutterstock is a global site, and many of the contributors are not from the US.

That disproportion is troubling.

But let’s talk about the kind of photos you can find on shutterstock.

Some of the photos are absolutely lovely.

shutterstock_100026020 (1)

Attribution: Deborah Kolb, shutterstock.com

Like this. (I used a picture of the same model, different pose, on the cover for Talk Sweetly to Me.)

So don’t get me wrong–there are adorable pictures up there, and yay for that! But there are a lot fewer pictures over all than you’d expect from population proportions. And while 0.6% of the photos of brides are black, the pictures of black brides are disproportionately less likely to be ethereal pictures of beautiful women.

There are more photos like this, where you can’t actually see faces.

shutterstock_152429537

 

attribution: John Warner, shutterstock.com

Those are relatively innocuous.

There are also more photos that look like this:

shutterstock_108557000

Attribution: nostalgi1@mail.ru | shutterstock.com

Don’t get me wrong. She’s beautiful. But she is also wearing substantially less clothing than your average woman who walks down the aisle. This is not a photo that is designed to make a woman think about the joy of looking beautiful on the special day when she gets married to the man of her dreams; this is a photo that’s designed to attract the male gaze.

And then there are photos of black women wearing wedding dresses that have no counterpart in all the 77,000+ photos for white women. I’m talking about this:

shutterstock_90214876

 

Attribution: Rob Byron | shutterstock.com

I do not have enough NO in the world for this. Fuck this shit.

Even if that last image did not exist (and it does), it doesn’t change the fact that there are disproportionately fewer pictures of black women in wedding dresses, and a smaller percentage of that tiny number intend to send the message that black women deserve to look beautiful and be happy.

And that’s horse shit, plain and simple.

 

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Jackie Barbosa’s “Can’t Take the Heat”

March 25th, 2014

Last night, I read Jackie Barbosa’s novella, called Can’t Take the Heat.

This is a beautifully written, emotional, sexy novella about Delaney Monroe, a firefighter, who broke up with her fiancé, Wes Barrows, three years ago when he couldn’t handle the dangerousness of her job. She suffers a traumatic injury on the job and–since she’s never updated her medical paperwork–Wes is the one called to her side in the hospital. When she awakes, she’s lost all memory of their breakup.

Now, I know what you’re thinking about amnesia books. You know how this is going to go: They’re still attracted to each other, she doesn’t know the truth, sexy times happen and she gets mad when the truth is revealed. That’s what a second-chance-amnesia story is, right?

Wrong. I love what Jackie does with this trope. I enjoyed the immediacy of the writing and the emotions in the first part of this novella, but there’s a point about half way through when something happens–something that I wasn’t expecting, because it’s not how second-chance-amnesia stories generally go. It was something that changed the story from enjoyable to flat-out lovable. The story is both sweet and emotionally devastating. The side-characters are fully fleshed out.

The only bad thing I have to say about Can’t Take the Heat is that I wish I had the next book in the series to read right now.

If you want to get a feel for what I mean by “immediacy” in this story, go read the prologue on Jackie’s website. After I read that, I knew I wasn’t going to sleep until I finished the book–that’s how utterly gripping it was.

You can get this book here: All Romance eBooks | Amazon | Apple | Barnes & Noble | Google Play | Kobo |Smashwords

This post is part of Blog About Jackie’s books week.

I’ve known Jackie since I first started writing, many many years ago. She was part of a little group of not-yet-authors who were new to writing, and who are now multi-published authors who have written historicals. Jackie has been a friend and a support to me. Our debut New York published books came out within a year of each other. I was devastated to hear that she’d lost her teenaged son, and heartbroken for her.

If you have a chance, please consider donating to, or letting others know about, the Julian Fraire memorial fund, which is being set up in her son’s name.

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A little something for Jackie Barbosa

March 23rd, 2014
Author Jackie Barbosa recently lost her teenage son in a terrible car accident. No parent should ever have to live through this, and you can imagine how devastating this has been for her. Online, there’s no way to make someone a casserole or take her flowers, but there is something we can do to help ease her burdens and to send her the message that she is supported in this time: that is, for a short space of time, to take over the burden of talking about her books.
Between March 21st through Monday, March 31st, we’re asking people to talk about Jackie’s books. You can find a list of her books here: http://www.jackiebarbosa.com/books/. Your support can be as simple as a post to your Facebook page or twitter stream, or as long as a lengthy discussion of a particular book on a site. You can blog about a specific book, or just choose one to mention. Let us know about the post by e-mailing me at contact@courtneymilan.com. We’ll update this post with links on a nightly basis.
Reviews are always welcome. Given the occasion, however, if you post a negative review of Jackie’s books, please don’t ask us to link it here–we want to make sure that it’s a safe space for her.
We would also appreciate it if you’d link and/or donate to the scholarship fund being established in her son’s honor, the Julian Fraire memorial fund.
Thank you all so much.
(note 5/26, I’ve just discovered that I only previewed the updates, but did not  save them. Eek. My bad!)
Here’s an incomplete list of links. I haven’t been able to capture them all, and I’m not linking to individual tweets (because it would be unwieldy). If you want to be added to the list, e-mail me above:

 

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Traditional versus self publishing: official death match 2014

February 23rd, 2014

On twitter the other day, Smart Bitch Sarah remarked that it’s sad that the discussion about ways to publish has turned into an official death cage match where each side has to sneer at the other. There are enough people on both sides of this debate who do that. I try not to. Sometimes I fail, because I don’t give enough disclaimers.

For a number of reasons, a lot of authors who are traditionally-published and curious about self-publishing talk to me about their careers when they’re up for contract renewal. Over the last 2 months, that number has been extraordinarily high—I think I’m up to 11 right now—but if I count over the last…three to four years, I’ve probably talked to dozens and dozens of authors. These range from people with print runs big enough to send a book to everyone in entire cities, to people with mass market print runs that are under 10K.

Believe it or not, I really do not push any of those people to self-publish. There really are benefits to both sides. (Although, fair warning, I have been known to say things like, “Holy crap, that advance is ridiculous, you’re worth more than that.”)

This blog post is for people who are traditionally published and who are thinking about self-publishing. It’s not intended for people who have not published yet. (That’s not to say it’s irrelevant to the unpublished; just that that is a slightly different ballgame, and one I’ve never had to play.*)

I want to note at the outset that a lot of this sounds like I’m assuming it’s an either/or question. It isn’t.  I know and respect plenty of people who do both, and more power to them! I personally don’t write fast enough to do both effectively. I could traditionally publish a little on the side or self-publish a little on the side…or I could just go for broke. So while there is no theoretical reason why anyone has to make a choice, writing speed and career demands pose a practical limitation on me, and other authors as well.

This is a really, really massive blog post. Some caveats: my experience skews towards romance. I have made a personal choice about what I do, and it’s gone really well for me. Even though I try to be evenhanded I’m sure where I come from colors what I say. Take this all with a grain of salt.

With that being said, if you find yourself in an official death match between traditional and self-publishing, here are 11 points you should consider.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Some thoughts on author earnings

February 16th, 2014

I’ve written several parts of blogposts on this multiple times. This blogpost started its life as a comment on this post on Dear Author and then became way too long so I moved it here.

Hugh Howey and a mystery coder released a report on author earnings a little more than a week ago. It has been hailed as everything from total genius to utter crap. I’ve thought about writing about it since it was released. Lots of people have written about this, and I will sum up what they say: The study has convinced almost everyone who already believed what Howey said in the report, and convinced almost nobody who did not already believe it.

This is an ambitious project that is likely taking a lot of work on the part of Howey and his mystery coder. They’ve aggregated a bunch of information that people have discussed only anecdotally up until now. That’s pretty cool. That being said, it’s pretty obvious to me that they desperately need someone with some kind of background in science and statistics and data collection, because right now they’re spending a ton of time sifting through data without any sense of how to properly quantify things.

A note about my background: I spent three years doing computational modeling of physical events. I’ve forgotten a bunch of stuff and don’t feel competent (at this point) to actually quantify things myself without spending months relearning everything I’ve forgotten, but I remember enough to tell when things are running off the rails.

A note about my bias: I have been self-publishing exclusively since late 2011, although I’m technically a hybrid author. Given the current market, I find it unlikely that a publisher will offer me something for digital rights for future books that would be even remotely close to the value of the rights they would want. I’m open to any sort of publication but I am deeply skeptical that anyone other than me will ever maximize the value of my rights. At this point, my bias in publishing would (you think) skew me to take Howey’s point of view on things.

With those two things out of the way, I’d like to make some points that I don’t believe have been made at this juncture, although I have not trawled the entire internet to see what everyone is saying.

1) Some people are saying that the study bases author earnings for a year off of sales for a day. I believe it’s incorrect to say that the authors are using a days’ worth of sales. As best I can tell from the methodology, they used a single snapshot of sales rank–so that would be ranks for one hour on Amazon, not one day.

2) The study is not actually providing raw data, and it is a mistake for it to use those words to describe the Excel spreadsheet that is included at the end. The raw data used by the study is book rankings, as that is the only data that is used as input. (Technically, there must also be raw data used to determine unit sales–that’s what formed the KDP Calculator in the first place–but that is not disclosed at all.) The excel spreadsheet provided at the end of the report provides us with the information produced by his algorithm–in other words, the Excel spreadsheet tells us what the study’s model suggests for author earnings. This is not raw data. This data has been chopped up and boiled.

[Edited @2:37PM CST: Okay, my point number 2 was based on the Excel file I downloaded. I downloaded pretty much the instant I saw the report, and that was at a point when the server was wonky. Apparently, I didn't get a full download, so I didn't have the full data, but assumed I was seeing everything there was. That's my bad. I was wrong on this point--they do include the full data in the Excel file. I'll update this and some of the points below on that basis.]

3) I don’t think Howey or his mystery programmer have ever done any kind of scientific modeling, or they would probably refer not to their results as “author earnings”–which they do not in fact poll–but as “the Howey model of author earnings.” They are not giving us actual data about author earnings. They are giving us author earnings as calculated by their model, which takes as input data from Amazon which is loosely correlated with author earnings.

Note that saying that something is a model is not an insult, nor is it intended to be one. Models are extremely useful–they allow you to collect and aggregate data you might not be able to get from reality, or to try to ignore extraneous circumstances. For instance, when you use high school physics to calculate the speed of a falling bowling ball from a tower, you’re modeling reality: your model neglects electromagnetic effects, quantum effects, relativistic effects. It probably assumes a smooth bowling ball. It also probably assumes that the effects of gravity are equal throughout the fall even though the distance from the earth changes. Data would be an actual measurement of the speed of an actual falling bowling ball. A model is when you plug the measured weight of a bowling ball into an equation and come up with a number.

If your model works well under the circumstances you use, the measurement and the model will provide very, very similar answers.

(Aside: I spent three years working with a guy who believed that almost everything interesting in the world could be modeled with an Ising model. I actually wrote a final class project in law school using a modified Ising model to test assumptions about free speech. I am not a person who is opposed to models.)

This brings me to…

4) One of the reasons you need to differentiate between reality and a model is that every model has limits. High school physics equations are awesome at calculating the speed of a falling bowling ball from a tower, or a frictionless ice skater going in a straight line. They are total crap at calculating the behavior of quarks. If you tell me what your model is, and do not tell me what the limits of the model are, you’re not telling me when I can take your results seriously.

It’s a model. You can’t take it seriously all the time. If you think you can take your model seriously all the time, you are engaging in the practice of religion, not science.

So, for instance, if your model is that author earnings can be calculated by looking at sales on Amazon US, and you neglect print sales entirely, you should mention that your model does not account for print earnings. And boom. There you are. You have a model. You explain when it works best and when it fails, and you try to use it only in situations where it works well, and only to the extent that the model gives good results. That’s decent science.

If someone else has to do that for you, you’re not engaging in science; you’re engaging in opinion fluff. At that point, you’re not going to convince anyone who is on the fence; you’re only providing fodder for the people who agree with you.

5) Note that you are not slamming yourself if you disclose the limitations of your model. In fact, that’s how you come up with legitimate models that you can use to make reasonable approximations about reality in the first place. The biggest failure, in my mind, of the author earnings report was its failure to try to figure out how and when it was wrong.

6) The study hasn’t disclosed some important elements of the model, and that makes it impossible for other people to make educated guesses as to how good it is. Specifically, how it is that the study comes up with a single number for unit sales when the KDP Calculator (which he cites for changing sales rank into sales data) gives a range, and in some cases, a very broad range? For instance, the KDP calculator says that books ranked 201-1000 all sell between 100-300 copies a day. How many sales does this study attribute to a book ranked at 300?

We aren’t given a range of unit sales or author earnings in the report. We’re given a single number, and I can’t tell how that number is derived. Do the authors use the midpoint of the range given? Are they linearizing over the entire range, so that a book at sales rank 201 will be credited with 300 sales, and a book at sales rank 1000 will be credited with 100 sales? Is there some kind of a non-linear best fit formula? I don’t know. I’m guessing that they are linearizing sales between data points, but I don’t really know that that’s true because I’m not given enough information to reproduce their results.

[Edited @2:42 PM: Okay, now that I have the full spreadsheet, I can see what they're doing. They are linearizing around the data ranges of the KDP calculator.]

(Sidenote: I’ve found the KDP calculator to be a little out of date; Theresa Ragan’s range giver is usually more accurate. But assuming that I’m going to take this as a given, we know the instances in which they fail (the rank calculators assume steady sales at that rank over multiple days; when you’re rising quickly in rank or falling quickly in rank, the tend to underestimate sales and overestimate sales respectively)–and this is usually because the range given is broad enough to swamp effects on the sales rank that are due to things other than that days’ sales.)

7) If you’re going to use your model to make suggestions about reality, you need to spend some time demonstrating that your model gives results that are comparable to reality. A model that is not tested against reality is just a thought experiment.

I’m sure Howey could get hundreds of people to donate actual data on author earnings to compare against his model on the self-publishing side, and probably can find dozens willing to sacrifice old royalty statements from traditional publishers to check the other end of things. Historical Amazon ranks are available to authors through Author Central, too, so there could absolutely be attempts to determine what sort of error his model introduces.

But the report never makes one comparison between modeled author earnings and actual author earnings. That, in my mind, makes it almost impossible for me to take it seriously. If Howey had taken his model and compared 5% of the data points in it to actual earnings, he could have gotten some kind of an idea how good the model was. That didn’t happen.

8) [Edited 3:01 PM: Note that I'm adding a point 8.5 below this now that I have the full spreadsheet.] I tried to do this in a limited form. I took a calculation for a single book of mine–Unraveled. As a side note, this book is MOST LIKELY to fit his data calculations, because it’s been out for a long time; it’s self-published and has been out long enough that there are essentially zero print sales; I haven’t been trying to promote it much, mostly because I don’t control the first two books in the series, and so there are very few big jumps; and I had a new release about two months ago, so the book in January is at about the “average” rank in its release-to-release lifecycle.

This book, at this time, is probably one of the more likely books to fit the Howey model of earnings.

On January 30, 2014, the rank was 9,990. According to the KDP calculator, I’m selling 1-10 books a day–specifically, it gives that response for sales ranks from 8,001-40,000. If we linearize around those points, I should be selling about 9.44 copies a day on Amazon US, meaning that I’m making $26.36 every day according to Howey’s calculations, or $9623 every year.

As it is, I know the actual amount I made on Unraveled last year on Amazon US from February 1, 2013 through January 31, 2014, and it’s $13,831. In other words, for a relatively stable book with very few jumps, in income–a book that’s MOST LIKELY to be correct under this analysis–the model is off by 44%.

Of course, this is drastically dependent on the day in which the observation is made. If I’d used January 25 instead of January 30, my sales rank would have been 5,895. The KDP calculator tells me that the range 3500 through 8000 gives us 10-30 sales per day, and so assuming linear behavior, we get 19.3 sales per day, which is $53.90 per day, or $19,675 per year–or off by about 30% in the other direction.

(Yet another side note: I don’t think that error on the order of 30 to 40% for a book most likely to fit the model means that the model is inherently crap. Like I said, I spent years using Ising models as models of glassy behavior, so I know what it’s like to work with a model where if you’re within an order of magnitude, it’s all good. But this does tell me that the model is unlikely to be capable of making fine-grained comparisons in author earnings, where “fine-grained” means the model is unlikely to be able to distinguish between $10,000 and $30,000.)

And that’s where I think we have some problems. No attempt was made to figure out how closely the Howey model hews to reality, but the authors discuss the results as if they were reality instead of a model. They give author earnings results to two decimal places without knowing if their model is giving them any significant digits. As best I can tell, the Howey model of author earnings is at best quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation, which is at best useful for an order of magnitude estimate.

Measurements of actual events must be the ultimate arbiter of reality, and this is a place where we have the capacity to make measurements. The failure to compare the model’s results to actual measurements before making pronouncements is a huge problem.

[8.5) Added around 3:24 PM.

Now that I've played around with the full spreadsheet, I'm even more confused. The full spreadsheet gives enough information for a relatively dedicated searcher to find her own books in the mess, which I thought I did.

I believe that the following books are mine: #356 on the spreadsheet is The Countess Conspiracy, #564 is The Duchess War, #591 on the spreadsheet is The Heiress Effect, and #1059 is A Kiss for Midwinter. These lines fit the rankings for the day polled, have the right number of reviews on the relevant days, and the right review averages. No other books of mine, either indie or traditionally published, appear to be included in the spreadsheet. This gives me 4 books, with a total of $1153.98 in author sales per day. Hypothetically speaking.

There is no author on the spreadsheet with that daily sales total.

I checked to see if perhaps I had misattributed one of those books to me, but there is no author on the spreadsheet whose earnings are a combination of any of those three numbers. I thought maybe I'd missed one or two of my books on the spreadsheet, but there is no author whose earnings are higher than $1153.98 per day who could rationally be me, unless the author data includes more books than are included in the title data. So who knows how this goes?

Assuming that I'm right about identifying my titles above--and if I am, their author data is royally screwed up--this model would say that I earned $117,238 on The Duchess War, $11,384 on A Kiss for Midwinter, $115,198 on The Heiress Effect, and $177,383 on The Countess Conspiracy.

I can't evaluate that estimate for The Heiress Effect and The Countess Conspiracy, since they haven't been out for a year. It's too high by 15% for The Duchess War (on Amazon US; if we include global earnings on the title, though, it's too low by 42%). And at this point, I'm too tired to add up earnings on A Kiss for Midwinter. In any event, I'm coming up with the same gut sense: there's a pretty massive margin of error on these numbers, and my innate guess at it is "big." I don't have the data to get better than that.]

9) This doesn’t mean I think the methodology is useless. But I think that until the study authors start really talking about sources of error, and finding ways to quantify those errors, the study isn’t going to be much use to anyone except people who already believe it. If you can’t tell me how wrong you are, you haven’t taken the effort to figure out how right you are.

Determining how wrong you are is what makes your work believable.

10) I do think there are useful things in that report–aggregate measurements are probably more likely to have individual sources of error cancelling out, as long as we recognize that they’re likely crude. So I would feel safe pointing to that report and saying unit sales of indie books on the bestseller lists on Amazon are on the same order of magnitude as trade published books on the bestseller lists on Amazon. I would feel more comfortable about that if those numbers were drawn on a daily basis for a lengthy period of time and aggregated, as compared to looking at a single slice of time, and if individual model results had numbers that were tested and compared with reality on a regular basis. I’m willing to send Howey and his team my royalty statements for months in order to help them come up with that estimate, and my guess is he could find many multiple authors who would be equally willing.

11) In short, I think someone using similar methodologies could, if careful, make reasonable, cautious statements, that would have some value. But they’d have to be damned clear about how they’re calculating unit sales, would have to aggregate sufficient data so that they had an error estimate in their calculation, would have to poll for lengthy periods of time, and would have to test their results against actual data to see how the model (and this is a model of earnings, not data about earnings) corresponds with reality.

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A note on historical romance sales in print

January 18th, 2014

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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Know what your rights are worth

August 19th, 2013

Note: Here there be mathematics.

There’s a calculation I’ve been breaking out dozens of times in the last month or so–in innumerable conversations at RWA, in e-mails back and forth with several people asking me for advice. I mentioned it in my talk to the Golden Network, and mentioned it again at the PRO retreat at RWA’s national conference. Usually the question that has been asked of me looks like this: “I got an offer from my publisher for $3,500 for my next book,” someone says. “Should I take it or self-publish?” (Note: I’ve seen similar numbers from five different people in the last month, so if you think I’m talking about you, I’m not–I picked the advance that was the aggregate offered.)

I never answer that question. I can’t know what your circumstances are or what you should or shouldn’t take, or what you value and what you need or where you are in your career.

What I can do is tell people how to think about money earned over time in a semi-rational fashion.

First, we need to talk about time, and specifically, how long a time. When people say that ebooks are forever, that may be true in the strictest sense of the word. But your ownership rights in your ebook will terminate seventy years after your death, and that will undoubtedly restrict your commercial ability to exploit things. Second, the implication is often that if you sign a traditional publishing contract, you tie up your rights forever. But you don’t. All U.S. authors have the statutory right to terminate a grant of rights 35 years after publication under 17 U.S.C. 203. 35 years is a long time, but it’s not forever. (In fact, in my calculation, it’s about 50% of forever.)

Furthermore, even if you had the right to your ebooks forever, money earned today is worth more than money earned next year. That’s because you could take the money you earned today, put it in the bank, and have more money waiting for you next year. What that means is that if someone offered to give you $50 a month every month forever, with no stopping, they aren’t offering you an infinite amount of money. You can actually put a finite dollar value on how much that costs. (For math nerds, it’s because the calculation of how much that is worth is a series of form x^n, where x <1, and so the series converges.) (How could you get something that paid you $50 a month every month forever? You put an amount of money in the bank, one that pays $600 a year in interest, and look–you’ve got money forever!)

So if you are going to think about the value of the rights you are giving up, you should (1) be thinking about their value for 35 years, not for infinite years and (2) be taking into account the time-value of money.

Luckily, economists have been doing this kind of calculation for years. It’s called a net present value calculation.

Here are the things you need to do to figure out the net present value of your rights.

1. You need to have some idea of how much money is worth to you over time.

There are a lot of things that people advise using here, and I’m not going to get into that much. I will just point out that if you owe the mafia money, and they’re going to collect on it in November, and you need $20,000 or you’ll lose a finger… Don’t think too hard. Money today is worth a lot to you. Money earned post-November is not worth nearly as much. Likewise if you are on the verge of losing your house or if your brother needs bail money.

If you’re carrying credit card debt at 17% interest rate, money today is worth a lot more to you than it is to someone who has no debt at all.

For the calculations that follow at the end, I’m going to use 2% as the rate. This is actually high when you compare it to today’s discount rate, but interest rates are historically low, and we’re doing the calculation over 35 years, so. Economists might quibble with this choice, but frankly, this is the smallest of the sources of error in my calculation and so I’m not going to weep about it.

Just be aware that what I say may not apply to your situation, and you might need to jigger the calculations accordingly.

2. Figure out what you’re being offered.

This is just going to be the starting point, but it’s a good starting point.

Let’s take the example I started with (not an actual example, by the way)–someone who is offered $3500 for a book. What would it take for the net present value of your self-published earnings to come out to $3,500? Using 2% as the discount rate, a contract that offers you $3,500 is the equivalent of earning $139 a year for 35 years–that is, making $11.58 a month. That’s what $3,500 a book means.

Now let’s up the ante. What if you were offered $500,000 for a book? That’s a huge advance. A self-published book that has the same net present value is one that makes $19,750 a year, $1645 a month…which means selling about 633 copies at $3.99 a month every month. Put another way, a book at $3.99 that falls somewhere between Amazon rank 5,000 and 10,000 for 35 years is worth $500,000 today.

For reasons that I’ll get into below, and that some of you are screaming about now, this is a really, really rough estimate of actual earnings. But it’s a decent rough guideline. Take the advance. What kind of steady sales would you need to equal that advance over time?

This tells you, by the way, that a $3,500 advance is an absolutely pitiful investment by a publisher. They will earn back what they put in without even batting an eyelash.

3. Compensating for unknowns and earning over time.

Of course, this calculation isn’t phenomenal. For one, it’s a rare book that earns the same in Year 35 as it did in Year 1. We don’t have a clue what the self-published tail looks like in Year 35, because we’re really only in Year 3 or 4 of the self-publishing era, and that’s been coupled with the growth of digital publishing, too. Whether your books are still performing well in Year 35 will probably depend on whether you are still writing new books in Year 35 (35 is a long writing career), and what you’re doing to promote and push your books in Year 35.

We have literally no data, and while we can make stuff up, be aware that this is all we can do: Make stuff up and hope our assumptions are reasonable.

Second, you have to take into account that you can earn out your advance on your traditionally published books, too. And, in fact, if you’re offered $3,500 for a book, you will earn out your advance over the course of your publishing career unless your book was incompetently produced and priced. (In which case, I hope your contract allows you to get your rights back earlier.) So you need to add the money you make upon earn out into your calculation. How long will it take you to earn out? How much will you earn per year after that? This poses precisely the same problems that I just mentioned.

Luckily, since you’re comparing the value of two income streams performing under similar conditions, as long as you make similar assumptions about each one, you won’t be prejudicing one over the other. So let’s do something more complicated. Imagine that for the person who is offered $3500 for a book, she’s paid 50% on signing and 50% on delivery. Imagine that she’ll have a print run of 8,000 copies (based on a number of authors I’ve talked to, this is about right–if you’re getting more books printed than 8,000, and your advance is $3500, you’re being seriously low-balled on the advance figure), and she’ll sell 6,000 of those in the first year at 8% of the cover price of $7.99, giving her $3835.20 in print earnings.

Imagine that she’s going to sell 2,000 digital copies of her book a year, every year, for five years, at which point it tails off and she sells only 500 digital copies of her book a year for the remainder of the life of the contract. Imagine that the cover price is $7.99, the publisher is making 70% of the cover price, and she’s getting 25% of that.

In year 1, the author makes the advance of $3500. In year 2, when she gets her first royalty payment (assuming the book is published relatively close to turn in and there isn’t a huge reserve per year–in actuality, this might hit in year 3 or 4, but we’re going for simplicity), she gets $335.20 (the excess over her advance from print earnings) + $2,796.50 for her portion of the digital earnings.

In years 3-5, she gets $2,796.50 per year.

In years 6-35, she gets $699.12.

If this is the case, the net present value of that contract offered to her by the publisher is $28,827. Not bad.

So what’s the alternative? Let’s suppose that she self-publishes the book at $3.99. That she sells 2,000 copies of the book a year for the first five years (the lower price point combatting whatever marketing *cough* the publisher may or may not do for the book), and 500 copies a year for the next 30 years of comparison. And let’s further suppose that she must spend $2,000 to get her book on the market.

The first year, she makes $3200: $5,200 in income minus $2,000 in expenses. (I’m using $2.60 as the income for the book–Amazon gives 70% minus a delivery charge in most circumstances, 35% in others; B&N gives 65%. $2.60 is a little on the low side, but not a lot on the low side.)

Years 2-5 she makes $5,200. Years 6-35 she makes $1300.

The net present value of self publishing that book is $49,685.

Now, of course, there are an infinite number of corrections you can add to that. I’m not insisting that this is the way to do it. I’m only claiming that if you want to know what your rights are worth, you should think of the value over time for 35 years. Make your calculation as simple or as non-simple as you want.

4. Ask if it’s worth it.

I hear a lot of reasons why people go with traditional publishers. They don’t want to do the work. They want books on the shelves. They want the prestige. They think the publisher will do a better job in marketing. They want reviews in major print publications. I could go on and on. Some people want the advertisement that a big print run will give them. Some people think it’ll help them break out to the next level. Some people think that diversification is important in income, and so want to diversify. And so on.

None of these reasons are invalid, bad, illogical, or in any other way awful. In fact, all of them are important and worthwhile.

I do think, though, that you should have at least some sense of what that thing is costing you. If your calculation suggests that your publisher’s contract is worth $28,000, and you’ll make $49,000 if you self-publish, and you’re going with your publisher because you want to have books on the shelves, ask yourself if it is worth $21,000 to you to put 6,000 copies on the shelf.

If you think your publisher is going to do a better job marketing, ask yourself if that marketing is worth the difference in price. (And think about the value of the marketing as well as the cost for you to purchase it in both time and money. And be frank–don’t imagine you’ll get the kind of treatment a bestselling author gets if you’re not a mega-bestseller. If you’re getting an advance of $3,500, look at people from your publisher who are similarly situated, and ask what kind of marketing they’re really getting. How much is it worth? If you’re talking getting a book on NetGalley, you can do that for a very small amount–and that’s about all that some publishers are doing for their authors.)

There are absolutely some publishers who are putting value into their author’s books, and it’s definitely rational to accept less money in exchange for other things that have value to you. But you should have some sense of how much less money you’re accepting, because at some point, the thing you’re getting in exchange for that money just might not be worth it. And if you haven’t run net present value calculations before, you might be surprised at precisely how much it’s costing you.

If you want my spreadsheet that does these calculations on a year-by-year basis, you can download it here.

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RT giveaways!

May 6th, 2013

I dropped by the RT convention in Kansas City this last weekend to see some friends, get an award, and talk to people–and I had a great time! I hadn’t actually planned on going at all, and because I decided to show up so late, it was too late to get books in for the book signing. So, instead, I wandered around the signing and talked to people who I had missed in the halls. It was so much fun!

While I was there, I got some books signed from some newer historical romance authors to give away to readers of my blog.

Erin Knightley’s A Taste for Scandal: A baker heroine meets an Earl, and gives him a taste of something sweeter than he’s ever had before.

Juliana Gray’s A Lady Never Lies: An inventor set on perfecting a horseless carriage meets a lovely widow.

Jennifer McQuiston’s What Happens in Scotland: The hero and heroine wake up married, and have to figure out how they got there and where they’re going next.

Heather Snow’s Sweet Enemy: A chemist heroine discovers chemistry of her own with the Earl of Stratford, a war hero.

Samantha Grace’s Lady Vivian Defies a Duke: A hellion shows a duke how and where to find love.

Tracy Brogan’s Highland Surrender: A Highland beauty is commanded to marry her sworn enemy.

If you’d like to win one of these, please leave a note in the comments.

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Digital Strategy in Historical Romance

April 25th, 2013

If you think that a publisher’s main job is distribution, and that distribution is a button press on the internet, you’re wrong, and I hope to demonstrate that today with some vague (yet convincing!) handwaving.

I don’t intend this post to be one about the merits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing, but instead to be about the merits of having a digital strategy versus not having a digital strategy.

A little over a month ago, Publisher’s Weekly released a list of the bestselling ebooks of 2012. They used words like “jaw-dropping” to describe the numbers that are being racked up. I thought there was something jaw-dropping about that list, especially when you perused the historical romance offerings, and it wasn’t the numbers on the list.

I went through and I pulled out all the numbers for historical romance authors. I did that because that’s my genre. It’s not the hottest romance genre at the moment, so there aren’t a lot of authors racking up numbers in it, but it does sell steadily and respectably. Here’s handwaving, part I: I had to rely on my own name/title recognition to determine if a title was a historical romance, and I’m not perfect; and also, these numbers are self-reported by the publishers, so there may be errors or titles that were not included. Nonetheless, I did see representation on the list overall for all the romance houses (with the exception of Kensington), so my assumption going in is that this is a pretty decent list of NY-published books.

Here are the historical romances I pulled out, with digital sales numbers attached.

A Night Like This, Julia Quinn (Avon) 66,192
The Ugly Duchess, Eloisa James (Avon) 59,333
The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae, Stephanie Laurens (Avon) 55,093
The Duke is Mine, Eloisa James (Avon) 47,983
Sins of a Wicked Duke, Sophie Jordan (Avon) 46,687
A Week to be Wicked, Tessa Dare (Avon) 44,792
A Rogue by any Other Name, Sarah Maclean (Avon) 44,380
A Kiss at Midnight, Eloisa James (Avon) 42,624
Winning the Wallflower, Eloisa James (Avon Impulse) 40,954
Never Seduce a Scot, Maya Banks (Ballantine) ~38,600
Seduced by a Pirate, Eloisa James (Avon Impulse) 34,516
A Lady Never Surrenders, Sabrina Jeffries (Pocket) 34,290
The Seduction of Sebastian Trantor, Stephanie Laurens (Avon Impulse) 31,027
Never Love a Highlander, Maya Banks (Ballantine) ~30,200
The Lady Risks All, Stephanie Laurens (Avon) 29,100
Seduction of a Highlander, Maya Banks (Ballantine) ~28,400
The Fall of Rogue Gerrard, Stephanie Laurens (Avon Impulse) 26,466
How the Marquess was Won, Julie Anne Long (Avon) 25,980
The Duke and I, Julia Quinn (Avon) 25,640
Devil’s Bride, Stephanie Laurens (Avon) 25,229

I bolded the outliers so you could see the pattern.

Avon has always been a force to be reckoned with in historical romance, so maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but cripes, that’s just embarrassing. Pocket has one book on the list. Ballantine has three, but they’re all from the same author (and she’s a massive force to be reckoned with–her non-historical romances sold even better). And there are imprints that are simply not registering on the historical romance radar–St. Martins, Berkeley, HQN, Mira, Grand Central.

Has it always been like this? To find out, I performed Handwaving part II. Which is to say, I went through USA Today’s top 100 list (Why the top 100? Because I’m too lazy to do 150) from February 2010 to August 2010–that is, in the times when digital was selling in much smaller amounts–and made a list of all the historical romances that hit the list at that level. Again, this relies on my ability to recognize historical romances when I see them, so there’s the potential for human error.

Here’s that list (no particular order, since I don’t know what being #18 on the list in one week means in comparison with being #13 in another week):

The Truth About Lord Stoneville, Sabrina Jeffries, Pocket
The Elusive Bride, Stephanie Laurens, Avon
Taming the Highland Bride, Lynsay Sands, Avon
Ravishing in Red, Madeline Hunter, Jove
Nicole Jordan, To Tame a Dangerous Lord, Ballantine
Dark Angel & Lord Carew’s Bride, Mary Balogh, Dell
The Hellion and the Highlander, Lynsay Sands, Avon
Provocative in Pearls, Madeline Hunter, Jove
The Marriage Ring, Cathy Maxwell, Avon
An Impossible Attraction, Brenda Joyce, HQN
In Bed with the Duke, Christina Dodd, Signet
Monica McCarty, The Chief, Ballantine
Amanda Quick, The Perfect Poison, Jove
Victoria Alexander, Desires of a Perfect Lady, Avon
Sarah MacLean, Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, Avon
The Secret Duke, Jo Beverly, Signet
Johanna Lindsey, Rogue of my Own, Pocket
Seducing an Angel, Mary Balogh, Dell
Rule’s Bride, Kat Martin, Mira
A Lady’s Guide to Improper Behavior, Suzanne Enoch, Avon
Never Less Than a Lady, Mary Jo Putney, Zebra
A Lady Never Tells Lies, Candace Camp, Pocket
Hannah Howell, Kentucky Bride, Zebra
A Secret Affair, Mary Balogh, Dell
Married by Morning, Lisa Kleypas, St. Martins
Ten Things I Love About You, Julia Quinn, Avon
A Gentleman Always Remembers, Candace Camp, Pocket Star
If He’s Wild, Hannah Howell, Zebra
Johanna Lindsey, That Perfect Someone, Gallery
Jane Feather, Rushed to the Alter, Pocket
Lisa Kleypas, Love in the Afternoon, St. Martins
Stephanie Laurens, The Brazen Bride, Avon
My Dangerous Duke, Gaelen Foley, Avon
Jude Deveraux, Days of Gold, Pocket Star
Eloisa James, A Kiss at Midnight, Avon
Loretta Chase, Last Night’s Scandal, Avon

Avon was still doing well in 2010–they have 33% of the historical romances on the list–but two years ago, they weren’t ridiculously dominant. Now, like I said, this is handwaving. So ignore the 33% number–numbers here are vague notions, and highly error prone. Let’s just concentrate on the general trend.

Which is that Avon is kicking everyone’s ass today, and they weren’t two years ago.

So…what on earth is going on? Here are a few obvious things to consider.

The top authors on the list of digital bestsellers are Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, and Stephanie Laurens. All three of those authors have books on that list of bestselling digital titles of 2012 that were not published in 2012. Specifically, Julia Quinn has “The Duke and I,” which is the first book in her Bridgerton series. Eloisa James has “A Kiss at Midnight,” the first book in her Fairy Tales series on the list. And Stephanie Laurens has “Devil’s Bride” on the list, which is the start of her Cynster series. In other words, Avon is not just trying to push the author’s latest release–they’re pushing the author’s latest release by bringing in new readers with older books that are tried and true.

Both Eloisa James and Stephanie Laurens have multiple Avon Impulse titles on the list–novellas that came in at low price points and allowed readers to try a new author at a low price and a lower investment of time. I didn’t see low-priced novellas from other houses until near the end of 2012, and by that time, the 99 cent novella was so commonplace that it wasn’t selling in significantly greater numbers than other books.

Not insignificantly, Avon was one of the few major NY houses in 2012 that was publishing historical romance and experimenting with pricing strategy.

Finally, Avon developed a method for getting the word out about changes in pricing strategy–they didn’t just drop the price and expect people to notice.

All of this comes down to one thing: if you think that all publishers do in digital is press a button for distribution… Well, for some books, it certainly looks like you’re right. But a publisher that thinks about publishing as a strategy rather than a button, a publisher that uses an author’s entire output to move books will do much, much better. Dominantly better.

When the rewards are somewhat evenly distributed among publishers in 2010 and are sharply skewed come 2012, it’s not the individual authors that are at fault.

Publishers other than Avon: What the heck are you going to do about this? Because you just got schooled, and that’s embarrassing.

As a note: I suspect that some people at those publishing houses, if they saw this, would say, “We have a digital strategy, but we just choose not to employ it for all our authors–just for the super-duper awesomely important ones, the ones that are major events, and an author who just barely nicks the New York Times List is not on our register.” That may be true, but if it is…why would any of those authors bother with you for their next contract?

As a final note: I’m aware that there are a lot of books that are not on this list that sold over the requisite amount. We’ve got nothing from Montlake, and I’m darned certain that Montlake has a handful of historical romances that have easily oversold not only the 25K mark, but the 66K mark that represents the top of the charts. We’ve got nothing from self-publishers, and I know from personal experience that there are self-published books that would land on the charts. I’m not sure Kensington or Sourcebooks reported. So these numbers are limited. Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear to me that employing a digital strategy on behalf of your authors kicks the pants off of having no apparent digital strategy.

~ divider ~

For Golden Heart Finalists

April 8th, 2013

The Golden Network has asked me to give a talk on self-publishing to their members at RWA nationals. I’m trying to make that talk as informative and open (and as non-judgey) as possible. I want to compile some data about how Golden Heart finalists who have self-published have fared.

There are a few reasons to think that Golden Heart finalists might do differently than the average self-publisher. First, the contest is very competitive, and so people who final in the Golden Heart are usually at a high level of craft. Second, Golden Heart classes often form e-mail loops, where people are willing to talk business, and so they often have access to people with advice and knowledge.
I want to see if these two factors will have an impact on earnings.

If you answer these questions, I promise that I will not reveal your personal data or your sales to anyone. With the exception of question 7, any data I receive will be revealed only in the aggregate. (Please only answer question 7 if you’re willing to have that answer shared with a group.)

Indie Survey for Golden Heart finalists
Please return via e-mail to courtney@courtneymilan.com.
1. What year(s) were you a Golden Heart finalist?
2. What categor(y|ies) did you final in?
3. How many times have you finaled in the Golden Heart?

4. Are you traditionally published?

4a. – If so, how many books have you traditionally published?

5. Are you indie published?
5a.  – If so, how many books have you indie published?
6. For each indie published book:
6a. How many copies have you sold of that book?
6b. How much money have you made on that book?

7. Is there any advice you’d like to give to Golden Heart finalists who haven’t published a book yet?

For those of you who are on a loop with your fellow Golden Heart finalists: Please feel free to copy & paste this and forward it to your GH class (assuming that nobody has done so yet).
Thank you all so much for your time and patience. In addition to presenting this data to the Golden Network, I will also present it on my blog.

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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