In early 2010, things weren’t going very well for San Francisco-based romance novelist Bella Andre. Brick-and-mortar bookstores were shutting down in large numbers, and after seven years, eight books and two publishers, she learned she had been axed from her latest contract.
“I was hanging on by my fingernails,” says Andre, 41, who was trying to carve out a niche in contemporary romance. Peers advised her to try a different pen name, to change genres, to write anything but love stories. With a degree in economics from Stanford University and a background in music, she wasn’t short on career options.
Then a friend suggested she look into self-publishing. At the time, Amazon.com’s (AMZN) direct publishing platform, which allows just about anyone to publish and sell their books online, was beginning to gain traction among professional writers. After years of bending her stories to the will and opinions of publishers, editors and literary agents, Andre found the prospect of having complete autonomy over her material very appealing.
“As an author, I was not high up on the publishing food chain and [my ideas] were rarely ever listened to,” she says. “I took my friend’s advice and I dove right into self-publishing.”
Her first ebook, “Love Me”, went live in the spring of 2010 for $3.99. Within a month, she had earned $20,000 — four times as much as any book contract she had ever signed. Just a few months later, her second original ebook became the first self-published title to hit Amazon’s top-25 best sellers list. She was hooked.
Today, like many independent romance authors, Andre has become a one-woman publishing house. She’s churned out more than 30 titles and sold 3.5 million books around the world, the majority in ebook format. Revenue for Oak Press LLC, the indie publishing house she created in 2011, has been in the “eight figures,” she says. In 2014, Publisher’s Weekly named it the fastest growing independent publisher in the U.S.
Andre isn’t the only one. Despite the fact that ebook sales in the U.S. have begun to level off, romance books are much more likely to be purchased in digital format. Nearly 40% of new romance books in the first quarter of 2014 were purchased as ebooks, compared to 32% bought in paperback form, according to a recent report by Nielsen. In contrast, ebooks accounted for less than one-quarter of total new book sales during the same time period.
Say what you will about romance novels (bodice-rippers, Fabio covers and all), it’s hard to deny that some of the most exciting entrepreneurs in the U.S. today aren’t hoodie-wearing app developers — they’re women writing books for women and making millions in the process.
There is very little official data on book-author earnings available, which is why suspense writer Hugh Howey created AuthorEarnings.com, where he analyzes and publishes data on online ebook sales. According to his findings, nearly 30% of the top 100 bestsellers on Amazon were self-published in July.
And romance indie writers are leading the pack. As of mid-July, indie romance writers accounted for a whopping two-thirds of total romance ebook revenue on Amazon, compared to the 18% cut enjoyed by traditionally published authors.
“This makes a lot of people uncomfortable,” Howey says. “That’s a huge power that self-published authors have.”