How Amazon and ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Created a Golden Age for Self-Published Romance Authors — and Why It May Already Be Over

“Romance never does go out of fashion. It’s radical.” – Bob Dylan, AARP Magazine

For Monica Murphy, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling romance writer living in the foothills of California’s Yosemite National Park, a typical day goes like this: she spends an hour online tending to her social media accounts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Then, when her three kids are off to school, she gets down to the serious business of writing sexy romance novels.

Murphy is a pen name — and as Murphy, Karen Erickson has been writing adult novels since 2013. She had been a working romance writer since 2006, publishing under her own name, but it took Murphy’s sexy new adult novels to bring Erickson the kind of “life-changing” success that meant that her family wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck. And as she told Flavorwire, “I’m able to work at home and if my kids need me, I’m there for them.” The work of both Erickson and Murphy — but especially Murphy — kept her family afloat when her husband lost his job.

At first glance, it would appear that the success of “Monica Murphy” has a lot to do with the aftermath of the biggest romance phenomenon in recent history, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. For anyone who knows the contours of James’ story, Erickson appears to have followed a similar path, along with plenty of other self-published romance writers, who are creating a new class of working genre writers online.

A television producer turned full-time keeper of the Fifty Shades flame, James started writing online in 2009, two years after Amazon introduced its splashy e-book reader, the Kindle. Writing as “Snowqueens Icedragon,” she published serialized fan-fiction called Master of the Universe in Twilight forums, and the Twi-hard crowd swooned over the naughty sex scenes that showed the virginal heroine’s sensual awakening. They also swooned over how the buttoned-up, fabulously wealthy businessman who makes the story’s protagonist sign a sex contract ends up experiencing something like real love (with lots of, “Go away, I’m too tortured but also great in bed” drama in the interim).

In 2011, a small Australia-based e-book publisher called The Writer’s Coffee Shop put out the complete Fifty Shades series as a three-book trilogy — containing Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed — and it went viral. Soon the trilogy was selling hundreds of thousands of copies as a self-published work, turning millions of mothers’ Kindles into a source of naughty pleasure. Random House’s Vintage imprint picked up the series for seven figures, and a new and revised edition was released in April 2012.

This release took Fifty Shades’ success to the next level — it was the most talked-about book of the year. In a recent Vanity Fair article on the upcoming film adaptation, writer Vanessa Grigoriadis described what Fifty Shades mania meant for publishing: “Worldwide operating profits for Random House, Vintage’s parent company, jumped almost 76 percent for 2012, and every US employee got a $5,000 bonus, which was announced at the Christmas party.” According to The Guardian, James made $95 million in 2013.

Fifty Shades of Grey was one of those decade-defining books that made the genre of romance palatable to the masses. It also opened up the use of Kindles and e-readers to a new audience, and according to an Amazon source, the Kindle edition sold four times as many copies as the print version. The Fifty Shades phenomenon was like “a rising tide lifting boats,” according to Sarah MacLean, the author of nine historical romance novels, including Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake and Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover. She told Flavorwire, “Romance is too big of a ship for one book to disrupt it. [But] Fifty Shades blew the door open to a whole new group of readers. It was just early enough in the self-publishing story that there weren’t that many novels out there and it was one of the first that people could download quickly and put on their reader.”

Some of this audience comes from the long tail of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Twilight was the first book millions of women of all ages not only read but hungered for, where the story gripped them in a primal way. For those women, romance novels came with another emotional hook. Fifty Shades of Grey was the grown-up version of Twilight, and its audience has moved on from James’ book to other stories of intense attraction and wild sex, at all levels of explicitness.

Of course, the audience for romance was robust long before Fifty Shades entered the picture. “Romance publishing has been around as long as there have been paperbacks, and even earlier,” says Publishers Marketplace News Editor Sarah Weinman. “Who was George Eliot thinking of when she excoriated ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists?’” And sexually explicit literature dates back to antiquity. Weinman describes how romance is one of the stalwart genres in publishing: “[It’s] making millions, if not billions of dollars a year, and as a result, it’s one of the genres to produce real careers.”

MacLean, who’s been publishing with HarperCollins since 2010, has observed the fervent reading habits of romance fans up close. “Romance readers are tremendously passionate about their books, and they read on average ten to 12 books a month, which is way more than most readers do,” she says. The appetite of romance readers has been a particular boon for self-published authors, with most cranking out their stories at a quicker clip than your typical traditionally published author. MacLean averages about two books a year, while Erickson, as Monica Murphy, completes a book roughly every two months.

What makes a romance novel successful? Books break out because they fulfill the very intense criteria of the best of the genre. Romance needs to hit beats that are driven by emotional investment in the story. The form, in some ways, is very prescribed, and what makes books interesting is what they do with that form. “It’s a very visceral experience for readers,” says MacLean, who also writes a romance review column for The Washington Post. “Many readers see themselves in the stories and are able to imagine their lives in different ways through romance, and those things are not to be discounted.” Romance readers want to feel everything, to care deeply about the relationship in the story, getting both turned on and thoroughly invested in whether or not the central relationship has a shot in a world that suffers cruel and delicious twists of fate, right up until the happy ending.

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One thing is clear: Fifty Shades may have helped open the floodgate for a new generation of these hungry readers, but at least as important was another phenomenon, which predated James’ novel. In 2007, Amazon introduced Kindle Direct Publishing — a free way for authors to distribute their work — along with the instrument to read these e-books on. This made the entryway to publishing as easy as getting an email address, creating a rich opportunity for romance writers to find a broad audience of readers. It’s created its own six-figure-salary mid-list, whose rise was a result of talent, and crucially, timing. The romance authors that I talked to have certainly benefited from Amazon: as Erickson put it, “When Amazon launched Kindle, for a lot of us, we were making real money.”

In January 2015, at the Digital Book World Conference in New York, Jonathan Nowell from Nielsen Book gave a presentation subtitled “How E-Books Have Changed the Print Book Marketplace.” Nowell’s charts, figures, and pie graphs revealed that almost all categories of print books have seen a decline in sales since e-books hit the marketplace in 2009. To the average reader, it’s clear that the introduction of e-books to the market, and the looming possibility that Amazon could have a monopoly over all words, is enough to give pause.

This economic state has led to the slow death of the mid-list author in traditional print publishing, where fewer and fewer writers survive in the middle of the sales pack. Their advances are falling and their sales are, too. A Publishers Weekly article from 2011 discussing the changing expectations of the “big six” (at the time — in 2015, it’s the “big five” with Penguin Random House) reveals that publishers aren’t signing up books that seem like they’ll sell 25,000 copies at most, and an agent is quoted as saying “5,000 is the new 50,000” regarding advances.

Yet romance has stayed steady in print, and it’s simply exploded in e-book sales: in 2010, it occupied 19 percent of the e-book market, and by 2014 it had grown to 24 percent, which means for every four e-books sold, one is a romance.

Erickson has observed this rise firsthand over nearly a decade of writing in earnest under her own name, publishing romance novels, novellas, and stories for both e-book imprints and traditional publishers. Erickson books fit the genre of “steamy romance” — where there are sex scenes — and “sweet romance” — more like a romantic comedy, with kissing.

monica murphyErickson became a full-time romance writer in 2009, but her career changed when she wrote her first “Monica Murphy” book, One Week Girlfriend. It was different — younger and more explicit than the previous “Karen Erickson” work, a sexy story about a 20-something girl who is the “one-week girlfriend” of a college football star. Crucially, it ends on a cliffhanger, the sort that makes readers want to get their hands on the next book as soon as possible. In January 2013, she published One Week Girlfriend online on Amazon under her new pen name. By the next month it was #150 among USA Today‘s bestsellers. And by that April, it reached the New York Times e-book bestseller list. Random House published a print edition under its Bantam imprint in August 2013. Two years later, the book has nearly 700 reviews on Amazon and 2,671 written reviews on Goodreads, where 37,949 users have rated it.

By the summer of 2015, Erickson will have 15 books, novellas, and short stories published under the Monica Murphy pseudonym, with series ranging from the One Week Girlfriend world (“angsty” new adult, the nascent genre of books with characters in their late teens and early 20s figuring life out — with sex) to the Fowler Sisters, which has “high sexual content,” as Murphy wrote in USA Today.

abbymcdonaldFor Abby McDonald, a writer who published seven young adult and two adult books through traditional publishers, self-publishing was a chance to have more control over the process. “My YA books were about teenagers figuring their life out, but then I had an idea for a new book that was older, but still not adult, about characters in their early 20s facing these same coming of age issues but more intense emotionally — and sexually,” she told me over the phone. “This new adult genre hadn’t caught on in traditional publishing, but was exploding on the self-publishing scene.” Her agent pointed her in the direction of self-publishing, and she published Unbroken, the story of a good girl named Juliet returning to her hometown and reuniting with “the one that got away,” bad boy Emerson, under the name Melody Grace in March 2013.

The book debuted at #60 on the USA Today bestseller list, hitting #1 on Barnes & Noble’s site, and it was the first in an ongoing series of Grace novels and novellas (she’s published ten of these since 2013). Today, it’s sold 250,000 copies worldwide. With an initial investment of $300, she was able to get coverage on a bounty of romance blogs, run a cover reveal on her blog, and earn thousands of adds on Goodreads. Pretty soon, “Melody Grace” had taken on a life of her own. As a longtime friend of the author, I was able to follow the process firsthand. “The reaction was instantaneous,” she said. “There’s an incredible book-loving community online, and I was able to tap into it.”

Although Amazon is consistently opaque about the numbers its “best sellers” designation actually represent, a former Amazon employee told me that “from past experience, the #1 seller could mean it’s selling [anything between] hundreds of copies a day to thousands [a day].” For a romance writer working at great speed and efficiency, like Murphy or Grace, this can translate to a six-figure salary for what would be considered mid-list sales.

For some, the rewards can be even greater. A June 2011 feature in the New York Times Magazine tracked the popularity of Amanda Hocking, the “first self-published millionaire,” who wrote the Trylle series of paranormal romances about “beautiful trolls”: “Soon she started selling hundreds of books a day. That June, she sold 6,000 books; that July 10,000… Today, she sells 9,000 books a day.” According to an earlier USA Today article about Hocking’s success, she was pricing her books at $0.99 and $2.99 apiece.

To explain the money that Hocking was making in the simplest terms (as actual statistics on Amazon are always opaque), let’s turn to estimates. Based on the numbers above: if Hocking’s books were priced at $3 and selling 10,000 copies a month, she would have been taking home $21,000 a month, deposited directly into her Amazon account 60 days after the initial sale. At one point, Hocking’s numbers went up steeply, and the thousands of books that she was selling in a month, she was selling in a day — so image that $21,000 as a day’s salary.

This setup offers a potential pot of gold for many authors, in comparison to traditional publishing, even when e-books are sold for far less money than “real” books. On Amazon’s Top Sellers of 2014 list — a list that includes brand names like John Grisham, Lee Child, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and this year’s literary breakout, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See — #7 is The Fixed Trilogy, a Fifty Shades-style trilogy by Laurelin Paige. Notably, the series blew up once Paige bundled all three books — Fixed on You, Found in You, Forever With You — together and sold them as a three-pack for 99 cents.

The interest in this trilogy spurred interest in her other books, and offering low-priced works is a crucial marketing method for self-published authors. Erickson experienced this kind of success in early 2013, when her digital publisher Samhain made one book in a series free. “People don’t quite understand this, but the rest of the sales for the series goes bonkers.” She was able to buy a Honda Accord outright that year. “I like to joke, that’s the car that Samhain bought,” she says.

By contrast, publishing through a traditional house offers an initial advance, and royalties paid only once the advance is made back through sales. Royalties are, on average, generally 25 percent of digital sales, and eight percent of bound books. The majority of authors don’t sell enough to receive significant royalties. While traditional publishing and print deals can work for some romance writers, not all print deals have much to offer them. After all, if you’re already selling 15,000 copies a week on a platform that makes your book available to anyone in the world online, what difference would a small distribution deal make?

That’s not to say that self-publishing is the best solution for all writers. A 2013 survey from Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest of 5,000 authors (a mix of aspiring, self-published, both, and traditional) showed that only 1.8 percent of the self-publishing respondents reported making over six figures on their writing, compared to traditional publishing’s 8.8 percent. But that’s a figure that should be taken with a grain of salt.

Hugh Howey, the author of the best-selling series Wool and a champion of the “freedom” of self-publishing, eviscerated the survey on his personal blog, writing that data in this sample had to be skewed, since the self-publishing category also encompassed “aspiring authors,” while traditional publishing’s numbers obviously didn’t include the writers and books that never made it out of the slush pile. As he wrote, “Of these hobbyist writers, thousands now make a full-time living from their work. Thousands more pay a huge chunk of bills from their hobby. These are part time [sic] artists who have thousands of fans and hear from readers all over the world. Some of them go on to get offers from agents and publishers and score major deals. All because they are doing something they love.”

It seems that there is a genuine phenomenon occurring online with self-published romance authors. But while Fifty Shades‘ success created and capitalized on an audience that was new to the world of romance and erotica, it’s unclear whether that audience will hold. The authors that I talked to were thankful about the timing of their debuts — they were open about the fact that if they had started publishing sexy books after 2013, they may not have gotten the market toehold that they have today. 

Erickson says that publishing One Week Girlfriend in 2013 was crucial: “So much of it was timing, and luck, and word of mouth… readers were hungry for more of these books, these new adult-type books. A few people here and there on Goodreads loved it and spread the word.” Self-published romance has had a trajectory similar to the early days of blogging — when there weren’t a lot of voices out there, it was easier to establish yourself as a must-read. That was the case with Fifty Shades, and it has also been the case with a lot of authors who established their names and brands in 2013 or before.

Part of the saturation today is due to technology: online, your books never go out of print, and the amount of self-published books increases by huge numbers each year. A survey from Bowker — an LLC that specializes in self-publishing statistics on sites like CreateSpace, SmashWords, and Lulu — reports that from 2008 to 2013, the number of self-published books rose 1000 percent.

The time may have passed when the average writer could upload their romantic story online and make an instant career out of it. It’s looking as if it’s harder to get to the level that both Erickson and McDonald have achieved in a few short years. As Weinman says, “Some [writers] have broken out. But fewer and fewer do. The ideal ecosystem is a hybrid one, where authors can move back and forth between publishing with mainstream houses or on their own, or do both at the same time.”

This approach is working for Erickson: like many of the mid-list romance writers on Amazon, she signed with Bantam for Monica Murphy’s distribution after One Week Girlfriend exploded online. She partnered with the publisher in order to make her books available at stores like Target and Wal-Mart. “My publisher allows me to self-publish in between [books],” Erickson said. “I’ve told them, time and again, that readers forget. If you go for a long time period in between books, you lose your audience.”

But equally, there’s certainly an audience there to lose — or win. As the success of Fifty Shades demonstrates, romance remains a fertile ground for publishers both new and traditional, and even if the e-book boom has peaked, there are still opportunities for writers whose work can engage with an ever-voracious readership. As MacLean, the HarperCollins author, says, “I love to say that self-publishing has made the genre more rich, because whatever your thing is, whoever your thing is, somebody out there is writing for you.”