It was bound to happen sooner or later: For the first time, a self-published book appears on one of The Washington Post’s best-of-the-year lists.
The distinction — bestowed on Alisha Rai’s erotic novel “Serving Pleasure” — marks a small but telling milestone. Long scorned as the “vanity press,” self-publishing now draws hundreds of thousands of hopeful authors. The vast majority of the books sell very few copies, but each year produces another rock star — an EL James or a Hugh Howey — whose stratospheric success fuels more dreams and brings more legitimacy to the platform.
“Serving Pleasure” appears on The Post’s list of the year’s best romance fiction, one of several genre lists in Book World’s Best Books of 2015 package. Rai, who works as a lawyer by day, released “Serving Pleasure” through CreateSpace, Amazon’s independent publishing platform. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Our romance reviewer, Sarah MacLean, didn’t think she was doing anything particularly radical by including a self-published book.
“You asked me to choose the five best romances of the year, and I did,” she tells me. “ ‘Serving Pleasure’ is an excellent example of the best of romance.” And MacLean isn’t surprised that the romance genre is the first one to break Book World’s “No Self-Published” rule. For her, it’s just another example of the genre’s progressive and disruptive vitality.
“Because romance readers are so voracious,” she says, “we tend to be the genre that blazes trails in publishing. Mass-market trim size, e-books, experimental pricing: These are all trends that romance came to first, so it just makes sense that excellence in self-publishing exists here.”
Also, the massive size of the romance market — about a quarter of all adult fiction — presents an unusually wide spectrum of motivated customers. “Readers can find exactly the kind of romance that they’re looking for,” MacLean says. “Billionaire or duke, motorcycle gang or vampire brotherhood, secret babies or virgin widows, smokin’ hot or super tame — whatever your literary kink, you can find it these days, in large part because self-publishing is making even the most obscure ideas accessible.”
Rai has published 12 books — some with traditional publishers, some on her own. “I started in this industry smack dab in the middle of the digital revolution,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed experiencing the entire process of making my books, from story to building a team to marketing and packaging. This industry is changing every day, and it’s handy to have the flexibility to change strategy and adapt quickly.”
Still, she cautions new writers to understand what they’re taking on: “The biggest difficulty is probably the flip side of the biggest advantage: It can feel overwhelming to make every decision. When I started, a friend told me that it was okay not to be an expert in everything, but I needed to be honest about my shortcomings — and then hire people who could be my experts.”
Bella Andre is one of those writers who make a very good living by publishing their own novels: She’s sold more than 5 million copies. “Authors are no longer bound in their storytelling by what the traditional publishers think the market can bear,” she says. “Instead, because we can go straight to the reader now, we can write exactly the books that we want to write and exactly the books that our fans want to read. We don’t have to worry about whether an agent can sell the book, or if an editor and publisher want to buy the book, or if a retailer wants to stock the book. Personally, I think this new open market can — and does — make for much more interesting storytelling.”
But she acknowledges that striking out on your own is not for every writer. “If you are an author who enjoys running your own business, then self-publishing is a great way to go,” she says. “However, if you really just want to focus on the book and nothing else, then traditional publishing might be a better bet.”
Erin Fry, editor and publications manager of Romance Writers of America, a nonprofit writers association, suggests that the big commercial publishers are feeling the heat, even if they still offer special advantages.
“ ‘Legacy’ romance publishers understand the appeal of self-publishing for some authors,” Fry says, “and this knowledge should spur them to offer authors good contracts, marketing support and wide print distribution — things that can be a challenge for self-published authors.”
Harlequin, possibly the most well-known imprint in the country, isn’t ceding any ground to the self-publishing industry. Dianne Moggy, vice president of romance fiction at Harlequin, points to the full range of services her company offers, including editorial guidance, art, marketing, distribution, accounting, consumer research and social-media training.
Clearly, that’s not the same experience as uploading your masterpiece to CreateSpace and poking your friends on Facebook, but for many authors the independence is deeply appealing.
MacLean, Book World’s romance reviewer, publishes her novels with Avon, a division of HarperCollins. And yet she understands what her fellow writers appreciate about publishing their own books. “We know from life that, while they can make for terrible failure, big risks also make for very big rewards. And very good books.”
Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.