History Ever After, Part II: The Problem of Chronotopes

In part one of History Ever After, I illustrated how bestselling historical romance is dominated by selectively accurate British peerage chronotopes, especially the Regency. So what, you ask? A good book is a good book. I agree: in moderation and with an audience who understands how this world has been fabricated, any reader can enjoy an exciting duke romance. I read everything.

regency-world-historical-chronotope-romance

However, the aggregate impact of these chronotopes can be harmful to our understanding of history, to the romance market as a whole, and particularly to authors of diverse books.

Mirrors and Windows

A popular concept in the discussion of multicultural books is the question of whether fiction is meant to reflect one’s own identity and experiences, like a mirror, or provide insight into the identity and experiences of another. British peerage historical romance bestsellers are mirror texts for the dominant culture and windows text for readers of color. We need more of the reverse, too.

mirrors-windows-diversity-literature

This is not a new concept. In 1965 Nancy Larrick wrote up a study in which only 6.7% of children’s books had one or more African-American character. This was a problem for African-American children who could not see themselves in books as heroes, wizards, or just boys and girls. But Larrick saw another problem, too. She wrote that “the impact of all-white books upon . . . white children is probably even worse. . . . There seems to be little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation, instead of world conflict, as long as children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books.”

Ripped-Bodice-Diversity-Report-2016Fifty years on from Nancy Larrick’s study, we’re not doing any better in Romance, according to the Ripped Bodice’s State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report. Half of the publishers surveyed in 2016 had only 5% or fewer of their books written by people of color. While diverse books do exist, it is not enough—and too often they are published independently, without traditional backing or wide print distribution. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you publish only what is selling best now, then future bestsellers will be confined to this same limited chronotope—a vicious cycle. True to form, the numbers are worse in 2017 than in 2016: 10 out of 20 publishers surveyed had fewer books published by authors of color than the year before.

Ripped-Bodice-Diversity-Report-2017

Part of the problem is the lack of diversity WITHIN publishing. This 2015 Diversity Baseline Study by Lee & Low Books, a multicultural publisher that is minority-owned, illustrates the problem. These numbers do not include two of the Big Five publishers: Simon & Schuster (which includes Pocket Books) and HarperCollins (which includes romance behemoths Avon and Harlequin). Given the Ripped Bodice numbers, though, I cannot imagine their inclusion would make the industry more diverse, at least on the author side.

industry-diversity-publishing-lee-low

Last year, Penguin UK announced the new company-wide goal for “both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025.” If American publishers tried this, they would need to target the following numbers, based on 2016 estimates by the United States Census Bureau: 61% white, 17% Latino, 13% Black, 6% Asian, 2.6% mixed race, 1.3% American Indian, and more. The numbers Lee & Low show us are far from such a representative target.

Everyone needs both mirror texts and window texts. We need them in different balances at different times in our lives, but we need both. We need diverse historical romance to be pushed with the same kind of institutional support that an Avon Regency duke book gets. Why isn’t that happening?

Misunderstanding History

Part of the reason is we misunderstand history. There is damage done when people believe that the chronotope is history. For example, if one only read the British peerage chronotopes, one might not know that people of color existed in Europe from Rome to the Middle Ages and beyond. Examples from art of the period not only proves this, but also that people of color existed at every level of society, too. Medieval Europeans discriminated more by class than race, a word they did not have.

people-color-european-history-art
Images from the period, from left: Amazons, Le secret de l’histoire naturelle, France ca. 1480-1485, BnF, Français 22971, fol. 2r; Juriaen van Streeck, Still Life With Peaches and a Lemon Netherlands (c. 1650s), Oil on Canvas, 90.5 × 80 cm; Rosalba Carriera (Italy), Africa, (1673 – 1757); The Limbourg Brothers, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry f. 193r: Exaltation of the Cross France (c. 1412) Illuminated Manuscript. All courtesy of the @medievalpoc account at Twitter.

And do not be fooled: people are getting their history from the genre. Bobbi Dumas wrote an article for NPR entitled “Don’t Know Much About History? Read A Romance.” She quoted Sabrina Jeffries as saying, “Everything I know about the personal cost of Waterloo, I learned from Regency-set historical romances.” Dumas also claimed that “Georgette Heyer wrote such a fine treatment of [Waterloo] in An Infamous Army that it ended up on a reading list for students at Sandhurst, the British military academy.” African-American author Beverly Jenkins calls her books “edutainment: entertainment and education,” which may be the most accurate way of putting it. “There’s no test on Friday,” she says, “so [the readers just] drink up the history. They just inhale it.”

Chinese-American-editor-historical-romance
The Chinese School in Mott Street, New York, 1879, from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

But which history do readers inhale in bestselling chronotopes? One anonymous author in my survey reported:

I once was told to remove a secondary character who was Chinese-American from a book set in 19th century NYC because the editor believed having a character of Chinese descent in that time period and setting was anachronistic. It was in fact not—I could and did provide ample historical evidence of this—and I refused to change it because I believed not only did it damage the historical integrity of the work, but it also contributed to the white-washing of NYC history.

This editor should have known better. She or he may have even lived in New York. When people in control of publishing have such a warped impression of history by the books they have been the gatekeepers over, then we are in a terrible feedback loop of ignorance.

Perceived Accuracy as a Double Standard

historical-accuracy-weapon-diversity-chronotope

Perceived accuracy is a dangerous weapon, and it can hurt an author’s critical reception by people who should know better. Let me show you how this works.

In the AAR Top 100 romance novels process, there were no books by African-American authors on the original stage one voting lists. AAR rushed to change the stage one list after Twitter blew up, but they still left off the Romantic Times 2018 Book of the Year Award winner, An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole. I believe it is a particularly relevant example. First, AAR had the ambition to make such a list, so clearly they consider themselves an authority in the genre. Second, even before it became RT’s (last) Book of the Year, it was already a very, very highly praised book. An Extraordinary Union is the story of a free black woman who goes undercover as a slave in the American Confederacy to spy for the Union and falls for a white pro-Union spy she uncovers along the way. What an interesting story, you say. And outside the British peerage chronotope! So why did AAR omit it? Because they had given it a C.

An-Extraordinary-Union-AAR-review-chronotope

One of the reviewers questioned whether this book provided a “realistic depiction of the slave experience”? If it were realistic to the slave experience, there would be no happily-ever-after. There was no HEA for slaves. When history endangers the HEA, the HEA comes first because this is romance. It is usually a minor accommodation, as it was in this case. (For example, one reviewer claimed that the heroine Elle had “an awful lot of freedom” for her spying, but this same reviewer later stated that she would still have liked to see “more emphasis placed on the spy portions of the story.”) I should point out that Cole’s book was a very well researched piece of fiction loosely based on a real person, Mary Bowser. Its treatment of everyone—from black slaves to white Confederates—is highly nuanced and layered. It also includes a bibliography. [Edited to add: As pointed out in the Book Thingo podcast on romance lists, the real and harrowing risks Elle faced in her role as a slave were explicitly laid out in the book.]

Duke-Unexpected-Bride-AAR-review-chronotope

One month later, the same primary AAR reviewer blasted the historical flaws of a Regency duke book: “Ladies didn’t run amok unchaperoned in London, and dukes didn’t volunteer for the job without any prior introduction or connection to the lady in question.” She also wrote that “it’s awfully convenient how often [Max] breaks his own rules and finds himself alone with Sophie; and Sophie, country bumpkin, transforms into a sexually confident seductress.” The reviewer was “nevertheless charmed” and gave it a B. One reason this happened was because the Regency book was judged against a chronotope, not real history.chronotope-double-standard-historical-romanceThis is a double standard. Since there is not a pre-established model for diverse Civil War romance, An Extraordinary Union was compared to the inappropriate standard of historical fiction. No romance novel will stand for everything about slavery or the civil war. It can and should be a window into that history, but the world-building has to be done very explicitly to allow for a romance to develop between two characters and to make room for their HEA. Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League series is immersed in extensive research, down to a pro-Union insurrection within the Confederacy—an understudied part of the Civil War—but critics need to allow Cole at least a portion of the same authorial agency that they give to Regency duke stories. Overall, this series is more accurate than much in the Regency chronotope.

Through-the-Storm-AAR-review-chronotope

But be careful: historical world-building also opens an author to the criticism of including too much history in the romance. This was true for Through the Storm by Beverly Jenkins on AAR. Jenkins HAS to do this historical work because it is not a chronotope that the reader understands before page one. But, again, both Jenkins and Cole include bibliographies in the back of their books. How many Regency duke stories do? And yet it seems there is no way to win: these authors are criticized for too much history or too little history.

inertia or incentive

This is not necessarily racism, but are the mirror texts of the dominant culture creating bias, nevertheless? AAR is not included in the diversity of reviewers study by Lee and Low Books, but I looked through their site. There seemed to be 2 reviewers of South Asian descent, maybe 3. I saw no African American representation, though there were a few reviewers under pseudonyms with no identifying details so I cannot be sure. I do know that AAR’s historical categories only include European and American settings. They have ”Indian Historical Romance,” but it is about First Nations (“American Indians”), not Indians from India.

I do not mean to pick on one review site—but, again, if you aspire to poll readers and rank romance novels, your reviews and ratings do matter. [Edited to add: based on inquiries from an AAR reviewer, I acknowledge that other review sites may not be more representative. I did not break down the ethnicity and race make-up of other romance review sites, like Dear Author or Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, the two the reviewer asked me about. The Lee & Low Books study (above) shows that lack of representation in published review journals (also asked about by the AAR reviewer) is a significant problem. I focused on AAR‘s reviews in this study because of the visibility of the Top 100 list and the bias issues in the survey process, a larger issue that I might have to take up in a separate post.]

Still, no single book, publisher, reviewer, or reader is the problem. The aggregate is the problem. In the aggregate, if authors writing diverse historical romance, particularly authors of color, are not getting traditional publishing support (which the Ripped Bodice statistics show), and they are not getting critical acclaim because of an unequal standard, then they will have a harder time finding their market. They could have a harder time being mainstream bestsellers. And then traditional publishers might say “those books don’t sell,” which is a way to obscure the fact that publishing has helped establish a market that is unfriendly to these books.

pew-study-readership-affinity-groups

They will be sorry. Pew Research found that the most likely person to pick up a book—in any genre and any publishing format—is a black woman who has been to college. Reading is an inclusive activity. Moreover, the younger the reader, the more likely she or he is to be non-white in the United States. Yet RWA’s own study of romance readers and their membership is significantly less diverse than the nation as a whole. Diversifying the books in the genre should be a matter of survival for the industry—as well as a matter of variety and accuracy.

readership-compared-ethnicity-population

Is there some optimism from my survey of 336 historical romance readers that they are interested in fresh, new settings outside the British peerage chronotope? If we assume the readers who answered these questions were at least as white as the United States as a whole (61%), then many white readers also want diverse books.

new-time-periods-historical-romance

Romance is a commercial industry, and readers can choose to read as they wish. But do they understand that their Regency dukes are a fabricated chronotope? More importantly, do industry professionals realize it? If they focus only on current bestselling trends, they will crowd out other books, alienate future readers, and weaken the industry itself by making it less elastic.

Change is happening fast. Vested interests are facing a challenge in one of the most money-dominated industries in America: politics. On 28 June 2018, the 28-year old Bronx hometown hero Ocasio-Cortez handed a primary defeat to the 4th ranking Democrat, Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and ten-term incumbent in the US House of Representatives, Joe Crowley—a white man. This is how fast markets can change. Ocasio-Cortez had no corporate donations and 1/16th the funding. And the New York Times missed it.

alexandria-ocasio-cortez-change-america

Similarly, will New York publishing houses miss a similarly sudden shift in historical romance readership? If they do, we need to help each other find books that are a little different: set somewhere else, with more political plot lines, or with broader character representation. Help me crowd-source these lists on Goodreads so we can find the historical romances we need for the 21st century:

historical-romance-chronotope-original-list

(To go back to the History Ever After content page and find the handout flyer, click here.)

Some updates on History Ever After

For a moment there, I wondered if I was getting to Sydney for IASPR at all. One of the legs of my journey was canceled, and it took two international calls to clear up the mess. (I think I’ve done it…we’ll see if I actually board a plane). When I hung up the phone, I thought to myself: “Gee, I would rather put the finishing touches on my History Ever After talk than grade those thirty-six exam essays waiting for me.”

(I would have probably also opted to fold laundry, clean out the fridge, and even scour the shower if any of those would get me out of grading. I feel bad about this reluctance because I teach really great students, and I love to see them succeed. But staring at such a large pile is disheartening.)

In any case, I procrastinated a few hours and updated the data on my slides. The last time I posted about my research, I only had about three months worth of market data to crunch. Now I have six. The results have not changed so much, even as Twitter has been alight with criticism of the lack of diversity in romance in general and historical romance specifically. But I should not get ahead of myself.

The dynamic duo of Regency and Victorian romance still dominates the industry. Of the historical romances that make the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, USA Today, Amazon, and Barnes & Nobles bestseller lists, 63% are set in 19th century Britain. And among online retailers, dukes are like kings:

peerage-book-titles-historical-romanceWith the royal wedding this past month, I understand the appeal of the royalty-slash-nobility happily ever after—though this wedding was far more inclusive and kick-ass than any Heyer book, I dare say. (While I am thinking of the wedding, let me give a shout out to my good friend Andres for bringing me a commemorative tin of shortbread. I may have been a little excited—ahem—when I received it. However, that “best by” date sticker has me confounded. I mean, really? The tin is what I want. That doesn’t expire. Who the heck cares about the shortbread?)

meghan-harry-wedding-tin

Anyway, I get it. I really do. But that still does not explain why dukes/duchesses appear in the titles of a third of the Amazon Regency and Amazon Victorian Top 20! (See the above slide.) About the same number of historical romance novel finalists in the 2018 RITAs have duke or duchess in the title. Not in the book; in the title!

RITA-2018-duke-regency-chronotope

The New York Times Review of Books just put out a Summer Romance Reads list. The Review‘s new romance columnist (yes, they learned to ask someone who actually reads romance to write about romance) indicates a fresh trend: poking a stick at the genre’s “reliance on aristocracy.” I would have cheered this news loudly if it were not for the fact that 3 of 4 historical romance novels mentioned have peerage or peerage-adjacent heroes (2 duke offspring—one illegitimate—and a marquess).New-York-Times-romance-recommendations-summer-2018I have no doubt these books are great, and I look forward to reading them. I love all four histrom authors featured, and I have even interviewed Joanna Shupe on this very blog! And a few of these books challenge the chronotope in different ways—for example, Cat Sebastian has written a bisexual marquess and a nonbinary love interest. Cool!

But I want commoner heroes and heroines who make things, heal diseases, and run businesses—and they did in history. Women did, too. The Times book reviewer writes: “In Regency England, the space [strong women] can eke is usually tiny, the size of a marriage and no more. Sure, there are outliers, but authors can only stretch historical constraints so far.” First of all, give me those outliers. Outliers make the best fiction! Second, this is true only as the Victorian era restricted women’s rights from what they had enjoyed before. So why do we love the 19th century so much?

Despite all these facts above, there are still strong women who made history, no matter the odds against them. And we might expand our understanding of women’s work to include the many household management and childrearing tasks that women had extensive control over. And you did see women in professional fields, such as education and health care. There are interesting stories out there.

And I do want to read all four of the historicals on the Times‘s review. The problem is not them, or any individual book. Any book is great if it is a good story well told. The problem is the effect of the aggregate. The overreliance on two chronotopes—19th century Britain (especially peerage heroes) and medieval England/Scotland—may distort readers’ view of history and make the market less friendly to diverse books and authors. This is a theme I will expand upon late this month in my recap of my talk, History Ever After. Stay tuned.

Discoverability: A Sneak Peek from the History Ever After Survey

(In preparation for my presentation, “History Ever After: Fabricated Historical Chronotopes in Romance Genre Fiction,” I created two surveys, one for readers of historical romance and one for those producing it. Now the results are in. Do you want to sneak a peek?

I am not going to spoil the whole presentation now, but I will show you a little bit from the reader’s survey. Here were the questions asked:

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Question four is my topic of the day: discoverability. That’s the toughest nut to crack in today’s market so authors, listen up! Below are the options available to the respondents. (They also had a write-in option.)

discoverability-history-ever-after

I wish I had a drum roll for the big reveal here, but since I don’t here goes…

survey-discoverability-history-ever-after

I know what you’re thinking: Social media recommendations won? Woot woot! I’m gonna throw promo around my favorite Facebook groups like graffiti! Well, hold on there, friend. Let me make an important disclaimer before you do. My survey link was distributed via social media, especially Facebook groups and, to a lesser extent, Twitter.

It makes sense, then, that the survey respondents would take book recommendations via the very same channel that suggested the survey, right? So let’s not overvalue that response. But what can we learn from the results?

  1. As you might expect, book blogs do sell books. If you can get reviewed by several of these sites, especially the big ones, terrific! (It does not matter the grade they give you, believe it or not. I have heard both Sarah Wendell and RedHeaded Girl from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books say that—according to author feedback—the books with the biggest sales boosts might be those with the lowest-scoring reviews. Keep in mind that while the reviewer might not like bear-shifter-billionaire-alpha-hole-holiday-baby-surprise books, Jane the Reader might want to devour them like, well, a bear.
  2. Beyond book blogs, though, almost as many people find books through random browsing online. You can pay to promote on retail sites like Amazon, and how often your ad shows up depends on how much you bid for the spot. The real gold mine, though, is when a retailer promotes your book for free, especially in search results. To do this, you need to make friends with a nasty beast: the algorithm. How? Well, being a bestseller already is good. That’s helpful, right? To sell books you need to have sold books. Great, Jen. Thanks. Okay, how about this: a connection to another bestselling novel helps, too—those coveted “also bought” features. Outside of this survey, I have been tracking bestseller lists for three months, and I have noticed that sales on Amazon are strongly affected by our next marketing tool…
  3. Promotional newsletters like BookBub, Bargain Booksy, and others have changed the publishing industry. Initially, BookBub was a resource targeted at independent authors, but its tremendous success (millions of subscribers) meant that bricks and mortar publishers quickly got on board. While the big New York houses do not like to discount their books too close to publication date, they do use BookBub and others for their backlists. For example, Julie Garwood’s The Wedding, first published in 1996, was discounted to $1.99 this past week, advertised on BookBub on Tuesday, and now (on Thursday) it is still number 67 in the Kindle Store. That means it is on target to sell approximately 1500 copies today, according to Dave Chesson’s Kindlepreneur calculator. Before you rush to submit to BookBub, know that they do not accept everyone’s request for promotion. And, even if they do take your book deal, a spot in their newsletter is not cheap: from $66 to $4,000, depending on your genre, market (US or international), or book sale price. Is this worth it for an indie author? Maybe, after you have enough other books in a series to sell at full price to the new readers you attract.
  4. Speaking of newsletters, an author’s newsletter still has cache! (Did you know that you can sign up for mine here? Just checking.) In fact, author newsletters came in above promotional newsletters in the survey, but I put the paid ones first on this list because of their success in pushing sales. (By the way, I will be writing more about my bestseller tracking results after IASPR this summer.) Just keep emailing your readers—and do recommend the books that you enjoy reading, too, because people are listening. Read on…
  5. Fourteen people wrote in “recommendations by other authors.” This result could be compromised by the place I solicited for responses—two of which were big author pages—but I do think it is interesting that four percent of my respondents wrote in the very same idea (and that they felt it was distinct from other social media recommendations). So endorsements work. But you need to find an author with a big enough following to matter, and this is not always easy for debut authors without the support of a good agent or large publisher.
  6. Giveaways are popular in this survey, too, but I have a question about those: will entrants buy your book if they lose the giveaway? Anecdotal evidence from my friends says not necessarily, but I imagine that if your goal is to create name recognition, a giveaway on a site like Goodreads could work for you. I have no data to back this up, other than the relatively strong showing on this survey.
  7. Even digital people have a real life. The next response people gave was browsing in bookstores, superstores, grocery stores, libraries, and (yes!) yard sales. Obviously, this distribution channel favors print books; those who publish digital-only miss out. The deck is also stacked for traditional publishers who have distribution networks that reach into Walmart, Target, Barnes and Noble, and more.

That’s all for now. I am still analyzing the results of this survey, and these are just my first thoughts. Do remember that this is a survey for historical romance, and the results may have been different for readers of contemporary, erotic, inspirational, paranormal, or other romance subgenres. I will put this survey together with my other research to examine the most popular settings, plots, and characterizations in bestselling historical romance—the chronotopes—and see how flexible the market is. More to come!

[Background photo used in header taken by Jerzy Gorecki, used with permission under the Creative Commons CC0 Universal Public Domain Dedication 1.0 license.]

The Business Workshops of #RT17

Last week, I told you a bit about the craft workshops and panels I attended at #RT17. This week, I’m all business. This is long, so you might want to digest it in chunks.


Mark Coker Smashwords founder speech on future of digital independent authorship publishing at Romantic Times Atlanta

This workshop was led by Smashwords founder Mark Coker. You can read a comprehensive recap of all ten trends at author Cecilia Tan’s blog here, and most of it you already know: digital publishing has democratized publishing; romance has led the way in professional-quality independent publishing; and that there is a glut of high quality, low-priced books. The ability to inventory digital books for basically free means that everything stays in print and on the market forever. This increased supply has pushed down prices, especially for new authors.

Coker ended the presentation with a call for author mobilization against KDP Select, Amazon’s exclusivity program with subscription-based pricing. He portrayed KDP’s system as predatory pricing, a monopolistic practice that threatens to put Amazon’s competitors out of business. This threatens the newly-found independence and choice of independent authors. We have just been released from bondage to the Big Five, and now we’re in bondage to Amazon, according to Coker. While this may be true, he did not fully recognize the prisoner’s dilemma that Amazon presents to authors. If we all stood up together as one and refused to participate in KDP, we would all be punished equally by Amazon’s algorithm—meaning none of us would be punished. This might put KDP out of business. But without collective action, pulling out of KDP will only hurt the individual author who takes the stand. Your books will be buried in Amazon, and other authors will be thrilled to take your spot at the top of the bestseller lists. In this prisoner’s dilemma, no one chooses the collective good over their own self-interest. That’s human nature, and Amazon knows it.


Mark Coker Smashwords founder reveals survey future independent publishing at Romantic Times Atlanta

This presentation was less ideological and more data-driven than the first. Some of the data followed the trends seen in his 2016 survey, but let me recap what I found particularly interesting. Note that all of this is based on averages, so your mileage may vary. The survey showed that among his authors:

  • Write as long as you need to. The top 70 bestselling romance authors at Smashwords average 92,000 words (excluding box sets) and 113,000 words (including box sets).
  • But keep the titles short. The top 100 bestsellers at Smashwords have 24.45 characters on average in the title, while the 900-1000 bestsellers have 30.11 characters on average. The last 100 surveyed (bestsellers 9,900-10,000) average 35.5 characters.
  • How much should you charge for your ebooks? Free books still get the most downloads, but among books for sale, the best range is still from $2.99-$4.99. The spot at $1.99 is a dead zone. It seems to be better for Smashwords authors to price at $0.99 or $2.99 than $1.99.
  • If you write a series—and, yes, they still dominate the romance market—you should give away the starter for free. 7 out of 10 of the bestselling series on Smashwords have a free starter. Interestingly, 4 of the 10 did not have any new book in the series published within the survey period (a year), which shows the persistence of series, even when complete or on pause.
  • Should you put your books up for preorder? Especially in the iBooks store, yes. They count your preorders as first day sales, unlike Amazon where they are counted on the day the purchase is made. Coker found that of the top 1000 bestselling authors, 61.7% released at least one book on preorder. There could be other factors at work, like the fact that the most professional and organized authors might be the one getting their act together for preorders. Maybe they have nicer covers, better writing, and better advance marketing, he suggested.
  • Should you do a box set? “Box sets are not the path to riches, but they can be a nice complement to your publishing strategy,” Coker said. Authors participating in at least one box set—whether alone or with other authors—are highly represented among bestselling authors. However, in my opinion, this may be more a function of catalog size than actual box set sales. Authors with more books in the backlist tend to have higher earnings and more followers, and these are the authors who have the material to create a box set. Moreover, the best selling box sets are $0.99, which is a pretty low value on that many words.

Written Word Media Bargain Booksy Freebooksy panel digital print marketing at Romantic Times Atlanta

This workshop featured two executives of Written Word Media, the team behind FreeBooksy and Bargain Booksy. It was a little free-form, but here are the takeaways that I think may interest fellow authors:

  • Perceived value was a very interesting concept to me. Giving a book away for free without any hurdles not only loses you revenue, but it also lowers the “perceived value” of your book. But if you take an email address from a reader in order to get the book, that adds perceived value. Perceived value can also come from a reader pay to attend an event. Another trick is to keep the price on the back of the book the same as others in industry, and then put “special price” stickers on it. This way you can give special sales at specific events while still keeping the perceived value of your book high.
  • Covers are important, but they do not make the sale. They need to accurately represent the genre, general theme, and relative professionalism of the book—but NOT the whole plot! The point of a good cover is to get someone to read the blurb. The blurb sells the book.
  • In terms of ebook sales, the panel sees people making the most at the $2.99-$4.99 range, which agrees with Coker’s findings. (And, by the way, Coker joined the panel informally.) Bargain Booksy thinks that middle-range prices ($4.99) with flash sales (“for a limited time only”) is a good strategy.
  • Not surprisingly, it is easier to bring prices down than up. If you need to increase prices, do so incrementally.
  • As you might expect, pricing will expand and contract based on the number of books being released. This is supply and demand. The last two years have seen a lot of people fall out of the market, which is why we see prices going up a bit.
Romantic stock photo of couple in the jungle with a moon from Shutterstock for Sugar Moon spoof Jennifer Hallock steamy historical
You do NOT want your cover to describe the entire plot of your book. Case in point: this Shutterstock image has so many elements that are perfect for the story of Sugar Moon, including two reasonably good models, a jungle setting, and a big frickin’ moon (or is that a white earth?). But no. Just no.

Sourcebooks Casablanca publisher presents publishing market data at Romantic Times Atlanta

To be honest, this workshop turned into an infomercial of why we authors needed a traditional publisher, especially Sourcebooks. Even though I am fond of Sourcebooks because they published a few of Laura Kinsale’s books, I was still annoyed by their attitude. Nevertheless, there were a few interesting bits of data:

  • There are impulse buyers out there! In a Neilsen study of romance book buyers, 23% planned to buy one specific book at specific time; 23% planned to buy the one specific book, but not at a specific time; 26% planned to buy a book at a specific time, but not any particular book; and 30% didn’t plan to buy anything at all, making it a total impulse purchase.
  • How do readers first find you? Browsing the store accounts for 15% of first discovery. Reader recommendations account for 15%, but it needs to be recommended three times. Your author marketing accounts for 14%, but people need to see your materials at least twice. Finally, print and other analog (non-internet based) publicity counts for 13%, but it needs reinforcement 2.5 times. Bottom line: your marketing has an impact, but it’s best when reinforced by another source.
  • What do readers want to hear in your marketing? 31% of book purchases are based on book message. How do they like the sound of your story? 26% buy because they like your other books or the rest of your series. 15% is based upon reader recommendations. Only 8% of purchasing decisions are based upon special pricing alone, so don’t just drop your prices without a plan. Make sure you have a good book message, too!
  • Sourcebooks’ data also suggests that “freegans” will not convert to “paygans.” Just because people download your book for free doesn’t mean they will purchase more. This seems to contradict Coker’s data. (See above.)

ReShonda Tate Billingsley workshop on getting media coverage for indie authors at Romantic Times Atlanta

Much of what I learned in this workshop is hard to describe because it was based on the attendees pitching to ReShonda. She was brutally honest in her advice, but it was totally warranted. ReShonda was definitely the best teacher at the conference. I’m a little bit in love with her. Here are a few of her points:

  • Twitter has become a requirement in many newsrooms today. Follow your local reporters and know what they cover. This helps you find the right person for your story.
  • When you call or contact a newspaper or television station, there is no “my book this” or “my book that.” Have your assistant call the newsroom, even if your “assistant” is you (under a different name). First talk about a critical issue the reporter should be aware of, and then reveal that a local expert (ahem, that’s you) wrote a book about this very problem. Give your pitch as a story, not a summary.
  • Email a pitch for a weekend feature first thing Thursday morning. If you try to do it late Wednesday, it will get buried in the pitches that come after you. And if you wait too long, they will be working on other things before yours. And why Thursday? Because it gives them time to consider your book for their weekend story planning, when it is hard to find news.
  • The email subject is your hook. Never say “new book” in your hook.
  • Paid news service promo agency stuff gets ignored. Do it yourself instead. Write a text email and attach a press release, if you have one. Do not bother sending books or promo kits. They will be thrown away.
  • Follow up. Don’t be a stalker, of course, but follow up two to three times by email. Call once if you need to.

You’ve reached the end! If you’re still here, I’m impressed. I learned a lot about the industry at #RT17. Not enough to justify the price tag, of course. In fact, that was maybe the most important business lesson: national conferences do not make financial sense if you have to pay your own way. I didn’t go to make money, though. I went to have fun, and I did. But I hope you’ve been more frugal and gotten your #RT17 value from this post. Next year, you can do the same for me.

The Craft Workshops of #RT17

The RT Booklovers Convention is an industry trade show more than writers’ convention. As a result, there are more bloggers, publicists, readers, and vendors than you’ll see at an average RWA event, which takes some focus off the craft of writing in favor of the business and marketing side of things. (And there’s lots of fangirling. See my previous post.) But RT does have craft workshops, even if these tend to be author discussion panels rather than instructional presentations. Learning happens! Let me prove it to you:

What's In A Name Piper Huguley Romantic Times Atlanta

Piper Huguley lead a solo workshop called “What’s in a Name?” in which she discussed onomastics, the linguistic field that studies the origins and history of personal names. She discussed considerations in naming your characters, but she went well beyond online tools—though she gave some of those, too, and I’ve added a few to my character tools site. But her sociological lessons captivated me most. For example, she talked about the history and derivation of gender crossover names. Did you know that Ashley, Beverly, Shirley, and Joyce were originally boys’ names? Many only crossed over to girls in the latter half of the twentieth century. Some are just crossing over now, like Mackenzie and Wyatt. Why? According to Huguley, names can be a symbolic armor or protection. If you have one child, and you want to give her the strongest chance at a successful life in a male-dominated society, you might give her a boys’ name. And there are “born to win” names, taken up by the African-American community when their children could not get the respect they deserved in white society. Earl, for example. Or Lloyd (for Lord). Or Piper’s relative, King Huguley. Or her character Champion Jack. Or Prince. “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” was a legal name change forced by Prince’s dispute with Warner Bros music, but Prince itself was born that way. Prince’s father had the stage name Prince, and he gave it legally to his son—Prince Rogers Nelson—because “I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do.” Shivers, right?

Heroines You Can Have It All Alisha Rai HelenKay Dimon Sonali Dev Romantic Times Atlanta

Alisha Rai, HelenKay Dimon, and Sonali Dev led a workshop on “Heroines: You Can Have It All.” They brought up an issue that has always been prickly to me: the “TSTL” (“too stupid to live”) criticism. Readers can be hard on heroines, especially ones who make mistakes. Yet, as HelenKay pointed out, sometimes our characters have to make the wrong choices, especially if those errors fit the character or situation. The key is to allow your heroine to be strong in other ways. Alisha talked about this in terms of “competence porn,” à la My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In that wonderful show, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) is an utter mess with relationships, but she is a bloody brilliant lawyer. Actually, she is a casually brilliant lawyer because it almost seems to take no effort. She’s just that good. She puts relatively little thought into her job until she needs to save the day, and then—whoosh, she’s stunning. When the show goes back to her personal life, though, she is still a freaking mess. She’s a relatable heroine, but still one we admire (most of the time). Sonali Dev talked about a different problem: turning the reader’s knee-jerk pity into a heroine’s weapon. Instead of making her heroine Mili a stereotypical child bride, she let Mili own it. Mili essentially says, “Okay, I’m a child bride—promised but not yet married. And instead of pouting about it right now, let me use that status to get educated and do what I want to do first.” This kind of nuance is really inspiring.

Bangin Hot Betas Karen Stivali Vanessa North Annabeth Albert Tamsen Parker Romantic Times Atlanta

Another great workshop was “Bangin’ Hot Betas” with Karen Stivali, Vanessa North, Annabeth Albert, and Tamsen Parker. They write hot, hot books—and they give good workshop, too. The big point was that beta does not mean boring. In fact, you can mine more complexity with a beta character but still get all the feels. The “let me teach him a thing or two in the bedroom” is pretty sexy, if you think about it. Betas can be more self-aware, more concerned for their partner’s needs, and more vulnerable. The authors acknowledged that pitching a beta hero is difficult, but their advice was to focus on what is awesome about the hero. Don’t highlight the beta bit—just write it that way. Like any book, get the tension and stakes high. Write it with the best dialogue and the hottest romance, and use those attributes to market the book. The reader may not even know why she loves the hero so much, but the point is that she does!

Historicals Welcome to Americana Beverly Jenkins Alyssa Cole Piper Huguley Joanna Shupe Kianna Alexander Kate McMurray Romantic Times Atlanta

I also loved the “Historicals: Welcome to Americana” workshop, but my notes were a little more sparse because I was too awestruck to really process everything that was being said. Why? Let me tell you the panel: Beverly Jenkins (our 2018 NECRWA Master Class presenter!), Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley, Joanna Shupe, Kianna Alexander, and Kate McMurray. The latter two I have not read yet, but I plan to. They talked about all sorts of issues I care about, including the need to allow for a more representative slate of characters in more varied time settings, especially in American history. Ms. Bev said that a reader once told her that she couldn’t imagine an HEA between African-Americans in the nineteenth century. Ms. Bev rightly pointed out: “Even in the toughest times, people still love, still have birthday parties, still have picnics.” So true. While we all love our Regency historicals, we have to acknowledge that the real Regency period was one engulfed in war. We don’t get that in our costume dramas, which are significantly based upon Georgette Heyer’s description of the Regency rather than real history. For example, even Jane Austen spent much of her life not in the bucolic countryside—or even in Bath—but in Southampton, a “dock town filled with public drunkenness, street prostitution, and violence.” If you, like me, appreciate a little real history thrown into your entertainment, Camille Hadley Jones and I discuss this kind of thing in our new Facebook group, History Ever After. Come on by!

Smart Bitches Trashy Books Reader Recommendation Party Sarah Wendell Romantic Times Atlanta

There were many great reader events, but one that really stood out was the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books Reader Recommendation Party. Here’s how it went: the Bitches gave a book recommendation each—with reasons—and then we readers got a chance. Sarah Wendell came around with her mic and briefly interviewed us on what we liked and why. Here’s the thing: Sarah is funny. Correction: Sarah is freaking hilarious. I imagine that doing a podcast for so long has sharpened her quick wit, but part of it is talent, plain and simple. What fun! Those who made recommendations got extra raffle tickets. (We had each started with one, if you were keeping score.) After a bunch of book recs, raffle prizes were awarded. Then rinse and repeat. I got to give one recommendation—just one, and it was so hard to choose! But I had to pimp #romanceclass, so I chose one that had both Manila and millennial feels, so I went to one of my favorites: Mina V. Esguerra’s Iris After the Incident. There was a lot of good book noise (“oooohhh”) when I described it, so I hope lots of people bought it! If you want to know more, read my review here.

These were just a few of the offerings in Atlanta. If I did not mention a panel or workshop, I probably just could not get to it. Despite all the awesomeness above, I actually spent most of my time at marketing or industry workshops, which will be the subject of my next post. Stay tuned!