The erotic romance publishers blog recently asked readers if they thought per-title romance e-book sales were down. My answer would be yes. It is a tougher market than it used to be. The following post discusses possible reasons for the downturn, and the ways in which romance e-book publishers are trying to adapt to the changing market conditions.
Vulture.com recently published a piece profiling troubles at Ellora’s Cave, the pioneering publisher of e-book “romantica”. According to Vulture.com, the once insanely profitable publishing company has been seriously impacted by self-publishing platforms like Kindle Direct, and the Kindle Unlimited subscription service. Most authors and readers have seen this firsthand: the romance e-book market is swamped with free books, ultra cheap books, and thousands and thousands of self-published books. All romance e-book publishers, not just Ellora’s Cave, are having a tough time competing.
The modern e-book romance reader is offered an embarrassment of riches. Without some reason to be loyal to a particular author or certain publisher, the reader may well choose a book simply because it's cheap. As long as the reader is sufficiently entertained, they’ll be back, looking for more of the same. They won't care if books are self-published or not. It’s the dog-eat-dog nature of the free-enterprise system.
A whole industry has sprung up to support and inflate the visibility of self-published romance e-books. Many of these schemes are highly unethical, some are not. But that’s the subject of another post.
How is the romance e-book publishing industry responding to these changes? The solutions pretty well scare me. For example, Ellora’s Cave has been accused of failing to pay authors' royalties on time, if at all. This publisher is also attempting to publish non-romance genres. Ellora's Cave is not the only one. Samhain, a high quality romance e-book publisher, has made a significant investment in horror fiction.
Although more ethical than not paying authors, I believe diversification into other genres is not a smart business move. Legendary Wall Street investor Peter Lynch termed that kind of overreach “diworsification.” He suggests that a business that diversifies too widely risks messing up the original business because management time, energy and resources are diverted. Sure, there may be fewer non-romance e-book titles to compete with, but so what? Romance readers are voracious. Readers of other genres may not be. How many failures before a romance e-book publisher figures out what makes a superior, best-selling non-romance book? How long will it take to determine who the new audience is, and how to entice them into purchasing? That may well be why Carina Press abandoned its efforts to publish straight science fiction.
The changing market has also resulted in changing submission requirements. For example, Carina Press is no longer accepting short novella length romance fiction. Samhain isn’t accepting submissions at all.
These are interesting times.