Sunday, February 11, 2007
The EREC List currently includes 43 e-publishers of erotic romance, and I know there are probably at least a dozen more (please comment to let me know about any I have missed). Some of these epublishers will not survive the year, others will never seize a meaningful market share. From the point of view of readers it is becoming hard to keep track of an author's output and there are legitimate questions about quality control [as addressed recently by Mrs Giggles]. But these complaints should not be placed solely at the feet of the authors.
There is no doubt that erotic romance epublishing is a busy and crowded marketplace. Romance readers once waited loyally for the paperback output of their favorite authors. The more reading time you had, the more authors you followed. And for print-published writers and paperback readers this is still a great strategy. However is seems like the online readership has increasingly adapted to follow a different strategy, one already common with erotica readers. They follow specific epublishers based on either their niche or their quality assurance. Many epublishers have a clear specialty such as Torquere for gay and lesbian fiction and Discipline and Desire for male domination and spanking. Others compete in the mainstream of erotic romance and strive for a high level of quality; they hold and grow their readership to the extent that they achieve this goal. In either case the reader may no longer feel any particular compunction to read an author's m/f short story at one epub just because they liked their novel length m/m at another--especially if that author is prolific and works across many sub-genres.
E-publishing, for the most part, is a bulk business. If you want to pay the bills solely through e-publishing you need to generate as much viable content as you can. A reality erotica writers have long had to live with. The realities of the market inevitably put pressure on writers trying to maintain quality, but more importantly on editors to define a niche or raise and hold high the bar. The editor's role is largely invisible in the word of paperbacks, but crucial in the digital domain were the gate-keepers are many and variable in their competence. It is the acquiring editor's judgement that creates the e-publisher's brand--they need to hold the line with both new and established authors if they are to keep their company afloat.
Can the high output of epublishers be sustained? I think it can and the reason is this. The new digital production methods (e- and POD) allow each reader to find the very specific material they like. If you like full-figured heroines, interracial, gay, femdom or almost any kind of demographic or relationship so long as there are a few hundred other customers looking for the same thing then an epublisher and a writer will find it worthwhile to cater to your needs. Low overheads allow the exploitation of smaller niches. So while many writers will compete for the mainstream erotic romance market, the others can either battle to the top of that pile or build a smaller one of their own.
The key is that customers make their demands known and epublishers listen. The demand of alpha vampires and female centred menage may be high but it is not inexhaustible. Both writers and publishers need to find and exploit the still uncharted territories of romance and desire. New epublishers should not seek to clone the success of Ellora's Cave indefinitely, any more than new writers should all model themselves on Jaid Black. In the end the heat in the reader's seat comes from the fantasy they share with the writer. Women's (and men's) fantasies are so much more diverse than the main themes epublishers are catering to. So writers need to explore their own fantasies rather than strive to write BDSM or gay sex when it really doesn't rock their boat. E-publishers need to take a chance on new material rather than only mining the known seams of demand. (How many epublishers initially turned away m/m because "our customers are women" rather than letting those customers define their own needs?)
Eventually the large publishing houses will steal much the erotic romance epublishers' thunder--providing real erotic romance and even m/m and BDSM reading at chain stores. But the smaller markets will never be accessible to companies depending on large offset print runs. And the smaller, kinkier or quirkier, markets will always include material people prefer to buy online and store in digital forms. When I see writers asking 'how do I write yaoi, or bondage or m/m when I am not interested in it?' I can't help but wonder what wonders they are interested in and are not writing. Where are the books full of furries, pegging, forced feminisation or all those other unexploited wonders of human sexuality? When one publishing area gets crowded, the smart critter leaves the pack and tries his or her luck in a new territory. Risky? Maybe, but no riskier than trying to snatch market share from between the teeth of Ellora's Cave and the other alpha epublishers already well established in their niche.
* And to explain the title of this post, you may remember the children's counting song that starts:
There were ten in a bed
And the little one said
"Roll over, roll over"
So they all rolled over
And one fell out
Epublishers who don't want to feel crowded, or even fall out, need to realise that there are many more places where we can make our beds.
[Feb 12, 2007] Edited to add, Racy Li makes a similar point here.
[Feb 16, 2007] See also this from Joyce.