There's a loud conversation going on in America right now about women and sex: An erotic novel called Fifty Shades of Grey is in high demand. It's dirty, it's risque, and housewives are getting all panty-twisted trying to get their mitts on it. Which is so silly! It's been available as an e-book since last year.
Dubbed "mommy porn," Fifty Shades of Grey is the first part in a trilogy that began as "Twilight" fan fiction. It was written and distributed online by E.L. James, a TV executive from West London, before being published in print by a tiny Australian publishing company. Now, those print copies are all bought up, and horny ladies across the country are in hot pursuit of the book, which tells the story of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, a powerful businessman and a virgin college girl who begin a BDSM-ish relationship. Excerpts from the book are heavy with bad-romance prose, and the content is definitely titillating: Anastasia is spanked, whipped, fucked and other bonus hush-hush things ladies and good girls supposedly don't think or talk about.
If you're one of the ones searching high and low for a print copy, you're in luck. According to the New York Times, Vintage Books, part of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, won a bidding war for the rights to the trilogy, paying out seven figures. And they're doing a major publishing push, so in April your local Barnes and Noble should be well stocked with Fifty Shades.
But if you have a Kindle, you don't need to wait until next month for the paperback. It's been available digitally all along, and women in the erotic e-book club know already they don't need "Twilight" fan-fic to get their naughty pleasures.
Kindles and Nooks are affordable for nearly everyone now. Almost every title you could want is available on Amazon. Libraries are tweaking their e-book-lending systems. And there's enough e-literature in the public domain to keep you busy reading for years. But it was reported a couple of years ago, also by The New York Times, that romance and erotica is the fastest-growing genre in the e-book market; readers can enjoy their dirty stories more discreetly when they're reading on a coverless tablet. And as demand grows, so does opportunity for suppliers. And publishers.
Christine Wunch of Enfield writes paranormal romance novels under her pen name, Casey Wyatt. But like many other independent romance writers, Wunch writes e-books, is published at an e-press, and hangs out with other e-writers.
"I decided to go with a smaller press because there's so much frustration with these bigger presses," Wunch said in a phone interview from her home. Negotiating with big presses to publish your book is a long, anxious and stressful process.
"I want people to read my book," Wunch says. "I have a lot of stories to tell. Publishing an e-book is almost like a vindication thing. I really can sell something."
The press she chose, Soul Mate Publishing, was a newer e-publisher out of Walworth, N.Y., and had just opened in September.
"Even though it was a new publisher, they'd already had a lot of success already," she says. Wunch, who's an active member of the Connecticut chapter of the Romance Writers of America, says many members of the CCRWA have also signed with Soul Mate. Jennifer Fusco, president of the chapter, agrees.
Fusco bypassed e-publishers and self-published her three-part how-to series, Market or Die! in e-book form on Amazon. She's sold about 3,000 copies since she published the first book in June 2010. But for her fiction (she also writes fiction), she's choosing to go the traditional route, through an agent, to "the big six in New York." (Those are the Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Group, Random House and Simon & Schuster.)
As a professional marketing person, Fusco says she felt confident she could market and self-publish Market or Die! without much trouble. But fiction, she says, appeals to a mass market, and requires heavier marketing and in-store appearances, paid for with a lot of money.
Those are the big differences between e-, self-, and big-six publishing. Going through an e-press, you relinquish a percentage of your sales in exchange for things like cover artwork and editing. When you self-publish, you've got to recruit artists and editors to do that stuff for you, and pay out of pocket. (Fusco says she has an artist friend who worked with her on her book's cover, and she hired a freelance line editor for 2 cents a word.) And the big six, if you're patient, thick-skinned and lucky enough, will grant you some amount of money and invest in a bigger marketing push. But that's if you can get them to return your calls.
Kristan Higgins, a Connecticut-based romance author, is signed with a bigger publishing company, HQN. She says her e-books sell better.
"As an author, my sales in e-books are somewhat astonishing; they outsell my print books by more than 2:1," Higgins wrote in an e-mail. "My backlist is available constantly in e-format, so my sales there have been really strong, too. As for e-publishing, it's a great option for writers who don't want to take the time to go through traditional publishers or are frustrated with lack of positive response from the same. Writers have complete control over their work if they self-publish, but they don't have the editorial support offered by a major publisher, either, or the marketing and distribution. Small presses might give you some of both. Whatever the case, it's up to the writer to determine what success looks like."
E-presses can be unreliable, though. Wunch says she knows of small publishers that start up, do OK, then collapse, leaving writers exasperated and confused about what happens to their books' rights, and where to go next.
Allison Merritt, a steampunk-romance writer from Missouri, said in an e-mail that she'd just started pitching her book The Treasure Hunter's Lady in January 2011. When a brand-new Missouri-based e-press, Midnight Magic Press, showed interest, Merritt was excited — she'd just been rejected by "a big-name agent" — and signed all the contracts and set a schedule for the book's release.
"I was working on the edits for The Treasure Hunter's Lady by then... and was about halfway finished with the first round when I got an e-mail on Thanksgiving Day."
It said: "Midnight Magic Press has had many unforeseen difficulties since its creation only weeks ago. It is with a sad heart that I make the decision to close its doors before they truly had the opportunity to open. I'm sorry for this and I hope the best for you."
"My editor sent me a list of other places accepting manuscripts, but it was such a blow, I couldn't even think about querying again for a couple of weeks. Eventually I just decided to self-publish."