From Bad Romance to Good: a Look at Self-publishing and Romance Ebooks

By Isla Sutherland

Gabrielle Ashton is a 22-year-old television producer and law student. She is also making significant waves in the self-published literary romance scene, having made over $10,000 and had almost one million page reads since her debut in June this year. I spoke to Ashton about her experience turning her hobby into a lucrative side-business. 

Gabrielle Ashton has always been an avid consumer of romance fiction. Having grown familiar with the literary landscape, she found there was a pronounced disparity in the standard of available content. ‘I thought to myself, “How much are these people getting paid?” because some of the stuff is so shocking,’ Ashton says. After having researched the processes and earnings of self-publishing romance, she felt, ‘I could write something better than this.’ And so she did.

Romance novels fulfil a very specific criteria. The form is very prescriptive – sexy man, headstrong woman, an insurmountable dilemma, a happy ending – and what makes a book interesting is what it does with that form.

‘The romance genre is quite interesting because there are set tropes; it’s not like you have to produce a literary masterpiece every time you’re writing a book, or even be that creative with the plot,’ Ashton explains. ‘The first book I wrote was a “brother’s best friend” romance, where the heroine ends up dating her brother’s best friend. Pretty simple. But that’s a common trope, and, pretty much, that’s your plot. Then you pick a setting and come up with some characters, but it’s not that difficult once you’ve got the bare bones of the stuff.’

Ashton published her first novel Holding Out for Paris on June 13 of this year. Her second novel in the ‘Holding Out’ series is called Holding Out for Harper. It is an ‘enemies-to-lovers fake engagement romance’ and was published July 18. Her third book was due to be released at the end of September and will be called Holding Out for Hope, an ‘accidental pregnancy romance’.

These are just some of the tried and tested romance formulas Ashton has tried her hand at. Her books are self-consciously clichéd and unapologetically utilitarian; they serve to scratch a very particular itch, and that is precisely how they deliver. This perhaps accounts for her immediate success as a debut author. ‘I’m writing to market, and I’ve read a lot of romance so I know what’s going to work,’ she explains. ‘They’re not literary masterpieces, but they make mums in America happy.’

Ashton writes under a pen name, which she finds help her to don the register of the genre more easily. Her anonymity lets her exploit the hackneyed erotic lines… than she would usually be comfortable with.

‘It makes my writing better when I’m not thinking “Mum’s going to read this”,’ says Ashton.

Ashton isn’t aspiring to the Man Booker Prize, but her entrepreneurialism is certainly worthy of praise. Ashton self-published through Amazon—in particular, through Kindle Unlimited, ‘which is kind of like Netflix for books’ she explains. This is a subscription service where readers pay $9.99 a month to access over one million titles on Amazon.

‘As a reader, I hated to pay for books, particularly if it was a book by an author I didn’t know. Whereas, if I could just read it for free and have a go at it, and return it if I didn’t like it, that was an easy thing. So when I was publishing I thought, “I want to be on that,” because people might take a chance.’

Amazon pays Kindle Direct Publishing authors according to how many page reads they receive by Kindle Unlimited subscribers each month. Ashton has had over 900,000 page reads since her debut, which, for a 285 page book, equates to about 3200 books read. For outright sales (ebook and print) she’s had roughly 1000 downloads per book – and that’s in less than three months. She has also received pre-orders on her next novel, and has landed herself an audiobook deal for the series.

The romance genre in particular dominates ebook sales. The digital frontier seems to be a particularly effective medium for romance fiction, for a variety of possible reasons.

My first theory is that it offers readers discretion. To some extent (even post Fifty Shades of Grey) bodice-rippers and romance novels in general are still taboo in society today. Kindle can allow readers to bypass awkward interactions with the local librarian, and to surreptitiously read in public settings.

Ebooks are also a more affordable medium. Romance readers have been shown to be uniquely voracious in their reading habits: New York Times bestselling novelist Sarah Maclean writes a romance column for the Washington Post and observed the fervent reading habits of romance fans up close. ‘Romance readers are tremendously passionate about their books, and they read on average ten to twelve books a month, which is way more than most readers do,’ Maclean states. Ebook allows romance readers to consume books at unprecedented rates, without breaking the bank. ‘They want to read like you binge-watch a TV show, so to go and buy a physical book gets really expensive,’ Ashton suggests.

Ashton has another theory to explain the success of romance novels in the digital medium. She theorises that many romance novels originate as fan-fiction on internet forums, and evolve into their own stories. We are all privy to the fact that Fifty Shades began as serialised fan-fiction on Twilight forums. Romance is thus endemic to the digital form: ‘A lot of the romance stuff online started online, so it naturally went that way.’

Self-publishing platforms are uniquely equipped to get books to market quickly, which is a great business model for romance authors that affords them the speed and flexibility they need keep their readers happy. ‘I bought this program that lets you format ebooks yourself. I literally just upload it to Amazon, who review it for about three days, and then it’s out there,’ Ashton explains. ‘It’s pretty instant.’

Many romance authors publish six to even twelve books a year. Traditional publishers cannot keep up with this publication timeline because it can take months to get a book onto the market. ‘The thing with the romance audience is that if they read a book and they like it, they’ll also go on to read every other book you’ve done, because a lot of them will read a book in a day,’ Ashton says.

‘I’ve heard of a lot of self-published authors who then get offered the traditional deals and they reject them. I think a lot of it is because the traditional publishers might publish a book and then want to release the next one in a year […] Whereas if you’re self-publishing, you can write a few books and line then up to publish every month. The fans who aren’t die-hard fans probably wouldn’t wait a year, but if something’s coming out in a couple of weeks, they’re happy to go on and read that.’

What’s more, Ashton receives seventy per cent of the royalties through self-publishing on Amazon, where authors who publish through traditional channels wouldn’t receive anything close to that.

Kindle Unlimited authors have to work hard to promote their own books and attract new readers in a crowded marketplace. Ashton does most of her own marketing through social media sites like Instagram and Facebook.

‘When I was testing all my ads, I found that when I used an excerpt that was slightly steamy versus something that was a bit more romantic, the steamy ones were the ones that people wanted to click on.’

Ashton uses ‘Facebook pixel’ to optimise ads and build targeted audiences for future ads. ‘That’s where I’ve found I’ve had the most success,’ she says. ‘It’s kind of scary how much you can target people on Facebook, down to the most specific set of interests. Once I had 2000 clicks on my ad, Facebook had the data of those 2000 people, and they made me a custom audience: they went and found another two million other people who were similar to those people, so I could then start advertising directly to people who were likely to click on my books.’

For decades, self-publishing was derided as an embarrassing sign that an author couldn’t cut it in the ‘real’ publishing industry. It was ‘the literary world’s version of masturbation,’ John Winters wrote in >Salon.  But now the tables have turned. Self-publishing can be a highly lucrative business that offers greater flexibility for authors. Self-publishing on Amazon platforms benefits authors in some genres: namely romance novels, where authors might write books in a matter of days, and readers consume them in even fewer. It would appear that some writing skill and a lot of entrepreneurialism can get you a long way.

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