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
Devilâ€™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 Carewâ€™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
Ruleâ€™s Bride, Kat Martin, Mira
A Ladyâ€™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 Heâ€™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 Nightâ€™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.