Marketing Your Romance Novel: Sex sells, but…

MichelleOn WritingLeave a Comment

Welcome, romance writers!

My, how things can change in a year. As a community we have learned so much. Above all, we’ve learned to adapt. We watched #MeToo and #CockyGate blow up the internet. We rallied together and fought to defend our voices—and we won. Some of us survived scathing book reviews; the best of us learned not to react publicly to those, but to keep a thick skin and quietly carry on. We cheered for the passing of SESTA and FOSTA (anti-sex-trafficking acts). But then Amazon’s sweeping “ban” on erotica sent our hearts plummeting. Most recently, #CopyPasteCris kept us in check, reminding us to never plagiarize (as if we’d forgotten) and to be careful when hiring ghostwriters and co-writers.

I have come to believe within every challenge lies unique, unexpected, often hidden opportunities. These are the new and developing challenges facing romance authors in 2019. This article is meant to encourage, to propel you toward success. Be informed. Be resilient. Seek opportunity everywhere.

Let’s dive in.

Why Romance?

If you’re writing a sensual romance novel, you’re in good company. Romance continues to be the number-one-selling genre—securing nearly half of Amazon’s total eBook market share.

In recent years, the steamier the love story, the better. Though an exact figure is hard to procure, it’s no secret that erotica writers are capable of doing quite well in terms of sales—and I’m not just talking about E. L. James. In an ELLE feature, “How Women Are Getting Rich by Writing Down Their Fantasies,” author Alessandra Torre describes the beginning of her own hugely successful career self-publishing erotic romance novels—nineteen of them.

Consider the following data:

  1. Amazon sells more books than any other eBook retailer, holding up to 75% of the market share, as reported by Author Earnings (AE) and Romance Writers of America (RWA). And yes, more eBook units are sold than print books—61% to 39%.
  1. The indie market share of eBooks sold on Amazon continues to grow. AE estimates indie authors account for 38% of eBooks sold on Amazon (which may be rather conservative based on how the term “indie” is defined).
  1. RWA estimates 45% of all Amazon paid eBook units are romance—not page reads; not borrowed or free; paid. RWA also suggests more than half of these digital sales of romance novels are from indepdendently published authors. Self-published romance authors are making serious bank! (Remember when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos revealed more than 1,000 independent authors earned $100,000+ through KDP in 2017? Y’all, that’s $100 million.)

What does this mean? Yes, you can make a living writing romance—in many cases, a great living. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Those 1,000 indie authors making six-figure incomes likely invested hundreds of hours into their craft, and it doesn’t end when you finish your manuscript. Now you must bring your story to market—and if your market shops on Amazon (they do!), you need to pay close attention when Amazon starts changing the rules (they have!).

Censorship You Should Know About

Since March 2018, Amazon and other online platforms like Facebook have implemented new restrictions on “erotic” or “sexual” content, going as far as removing titles and rejecting ads they deem too explicit. What exactly is too explicit? That’s hard to determine, since there is plenty of overtly erotic content “slipping through” Amazon’s quality control—while much more innocent-looking covers and ads are rejected daily.

Consider these new restrictions very seriously when designing your cover and associated ads. If you hire someone to create your cover, make sure they’re familiar with any new policy changes for any site where you’ll post ads for your book. A couple embracing on a cover immediately elicits “romance”—but images of exposed female skin, even just a hint of a shoulder or bare navel, are being swiftly rejected by Amazon and Facebook. (An exposed male six-pack is still okay…) In the last year, at least three of my authors have expressed frustration over a seemingly innocent book cover or advertisement being rejected. This affects you. The quality and reach of your ads are critical to your book’s success.

Be thoughtful in choosing your title, book description, and Amazon categories. Until this heightened level of censorship eases up, avoid keywords like “erotica” or “taboo” or anything else that suggests your story is explicitly sexual. Even “sex” in the title can get your book flagged by Amazon or pushed into the erotica category—which, as of this writing, kills visibility.

Sex isn’t banned, but tread cautiously until online platforms find better ways to differentiate between healthy erotic romance and the illegal stuff they’re really targeting. This strict enforcement of decency is likely an overreaction to pressures from Congress. Your feelings on the issue may be heated or mixed, but in this case, feelings matter much less than facts. The fact is: this is happening, and you need to respond accordingly.

Need a second opinion on your cover, blurb, or digital ads? Send me an email and let’s discuss:

What Romance Readers Love…And What They Don’t

Readers buy romance for the central love story and emotionally satisfying ending. These are the hallmarks of romance, whether sweet and swoonworthy, or darkly erotic. There are plenty of readers on both ends of that spectrum and at every spot in between, so write what you love first and foremost.

In 2019, romance readers especially love: strong heroines, alpha heroes, diversity and inclusion, the classic tropes, fairytale retellings, and all those varying degrees of heat—from sweet to steamy.

Do not write: pedophilia, bestiality, incest, rape as titillation, necrophilia, underage sex, or depraved acts. Don’t plagiarize! Don’t include song lyrics or other copyrighted material.

Be careful with cheating and cliffhangers. Romance authors whose books include cheating or end on a cliffhanger often warn their readers up front in an author’s note. You can do this if you must. Readers may choose not to read your book. They may choose to read it and still gripe about these elements in their review. Proceed mindfully.

RWA compiled interesting data on habits of romance readers. What’s more helpful: read the top-selling books in your genre, attend writers’ conferences, and connect with readers online.

A Note About Consent

Although you could find a thousand romance novels where the hero doesn’t give two you-know-whats about the heroine’s consent, times are changing, and so are readers’ expectations. An alpha hero is not an asshole. He can be confident and flirtatious without breaking this boundary.

Persistence can be sexy, but when our heroine voices a clear “no” or expresses hesitation—whether through silence or anger or something in between—the sexiest thing a man can do is back off. A true alpha hero remains focused and calm (perhaps to such an extreme that our heroine finds it difficult getting him to open up). He doesn’t come close to losing his cool or his self-control until just the right time, and for all the right reasons.

A swoonworthy alpha lets the heroine take charge. He does not bubble over with emotion. He respects our heroine. These qualities telegraph a balanced, sensible, emotionally stable, secure person. “Assholes” are not alphas; they are insecure wannabes. Assholes don’t wait for verbal consent.

Your Approach in 2019

Romance authors, you face new challenges each year as our publishing world continues to change. 2019 is no exception. Don’t lose heart! Stay informed. Adapt. Endure. Publishing romance is your business as well as your art. It is always possible to balance your own artistic integrity—the joy you find in writing romance—with staying relevant and marketable in an ever-changing landscape.

This year, my articles will focus more extensively on marketing and mastering the writing techniques used by authors of polished, unputdownable romance. Check back soon for my next post, Write a Blurb that Sells Your Book.

Leave a comment or contact me to get in touch.

As always, happy writing!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *