Digital Publishing Moves Mainstream: Is Your Publisher Playing the Professional Game?

 Originally published at Jessewave.


At RWA[1]’s 2012 national conference in Anaheim, a digital-first title won the contemporary single title RITA[2]. The RWA board introduced new, protective language into the bylaws, specifically stating that “membership shall not be denied to adults because of race, color, gender, age, religion, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, or political affiliation.”[3] The board also announced that beginning this fall self-published authors earning $5,000 in total sales or more will be eligible for the Published Author’s Network (also known as PAN), something the organization has long resisted.

While self-published authors are not yet eligible for the RITAs, the goal is to make this happen as soon as is logistically possible. At the Passionate Ink party, speakers Sarah Frantz and Eve Berlin spoke about the popularity of erotic romance, specifically BDSM, and how since Fifty Shades of Grey that popularity has gone through the roof, reviving dead erotic lines at major publishing houses and seeing erotic authors resigned to living in the midlist being courted for foreign book tours, all expenses paid. Frantz also moderated a panel called “Alternative Goes Mainstream,” featuring m/m author KA Mitchell, f/f author Kim Baldwin, m/m/f author Lauren Dane, Heather Osborn of Samhain, and Radclyffe of Bold Strokes Books. The panel attracted mostly those already writing LGBTQ romantic fiction, many of whom hadn’t yet met each other or joined Rainbow Romance Writers (RRW), the RWA chapter for LGBTQ romances, and authors wishing to learn more about and possibly to try their hand at LGBTQ romantic fiction. Meanwhile, at this same conference Romantic Times Magazine was present distributing free copies of their current issue, which just so happened to feature articles on male/male and female/female romances.

I’ve attended RWA conferences since 2002, and the 2012 conference at Anaheim was like nothing I’d ever seen or felt. Gone were the images of “important authors” drifting by to power lunches while the rest of us looked on. Everyone was in an important meeting, and everyone had as much chance for power and influence as anyone else. In fact, all the movement and opportunity seemed to be happening within what had in the past been the ghetto hangouts of digital and erotica. There was, essentially, a digital-first and LGBTQ romance wave, and we were where everything was happening.

Unfortunately, there were very, very few of us surfing that wave compared to those of us who could have been. Of the publishers of LGBTQ romantic fiction only Samhain had a major presence, followed by Loose ID and Bold Strokes Books who had representatives taking pitches and/or on panels. Had the rest of our LGBTQ posse been present, it’s impossible to say what we could have accomplished, given that with what little we had—those publishers, a few handfuls of authors, and me as RRW president attending every event possible to network—we did rather a lot.

There has been a seismic shift in the industry. We felt it at the Romantic Times conference in April, and this reality has only swelled at RWA nationals. For authors and publishers both, the time to act is now. We no longer need to keep trying to reinvent an LGBTQ friendly wheel. We have a serious spoke in the very large and powerful wheel already rolling, and if we band together as digital-first authors and publishers, we can probably start driving more than we ever even hoped to imagine.

But we must do this together, and we must step out of alternative and into the mainstream. Which means we need to start playing, at least a little, like the mainstream plays. Publishers must be competitive. Publishers must be mindful of the industry around them. Above all, digital-first publishers must acknowledge they are in competition for their authors, that more and more it is we who interview them, not the other way around.

The following is a bullet list of things digital-first authors should be looking for in their publishers and which digital-first publishers should be doing or working towards doing as swiftly as possible. It is by no means ironclad nor is it inclusive. All authors should, however, consider each point and decide why they agree or disagree. Publishers too, should take notice.

Standard promotion: Professionally-minded publishers provide books for contests, conferences, and charities.

Authors frequently travel to conferences all over the world to promote their books, often at great personal expense. One of those expenses, however, shouldn’t be providing their own paperbacks for promotional giftbags and charitable sales. Some publishers will also provide authors with postcards and paper flats. All these items go into goody rooms and in attendee gift bags. If you’re an LGBT author at a conference where we are still “other,” you’ll find these freebies go faster than anything else other authors and publishers are trying to give away. People are curious about us, and there’s nothing that says “try me” like a free book.

Marie Sexton and I recently attended a small reader conference where we were the only male/male authors present. While we received some eyebrows, mostly we received a great deal of interest. Both of us made some sales, but what really moved were the stacks (and stacks and stacks) of books Dreamspinner Press provided for giveaway. I also had a stack of postcards provided to me by Samhain. In a room where more than a few people were giving titles away, I was one of the very few who left with an empty table. Free books, especially at conferences, work, and I commend Dreamspinner highly for donating hundreds and hundreds of dollars in free copies for my—and their—promotion.

Individual promotion: Professionally-minded publishers provide ads and effort on your individual behalf.

I was interviewed for the above mentioned article in Romantic Times magazine, and when I saw the final copy I was thrilled to see Samhain had taken out an ad within the article, using one of my titles in their ad. It impressed me firstly that they were connected enough to RT to know about the article and get an ad in, and secondly that they chose to use that moment to promote not just the house and its LGBT authors but my career too. This isn’t above and beyond the call, however: it’s what should be done. It’s simple business sense, because it lifts us all up. Samhain has also repeatedly asked if they could take out advertising on my blog with Marie Sexton, Coffee and Porn in the Morning, most recently to promote KA Mitchell’s upcoming release. This kind of attention to its authors and keeping up with the pulse of the romance business is what I love about Samhain.

Some houses will say they can’t play favorites, that they must promote all authors equally or not at all. While this sounds like lovely sentiment, it’s horrible business sense. Authors generating buzz should have that buzz pushed further. Authors who bring big sales—or appear as if they could potentially do so—should indeed be favorites. They are who carry the lower sellers, the authors starting out, or the authors whose work is a niche within a niche. “Fair” is wonderful on the playground, but it’s not that simple in publishing.

Professionally-minded publishers participate at conferences and events for authors, readers, and industry.

At the Romantic Times conference this year, several of us from RRW who attended were dismayed to see that the only publisher attending with promotional push was Samhain, and they didn’t promote any LGBT titles. Changing that reality became one of our number one goals, especially since we as a chapter and as the LGBT romance community became so high-profile at the event. We grew our fan base at the con entirely by hand-selling ourselves and by participating until we nearly collapsed with exhaustion. Think what we could have done as part of a groundswell, not making our own wave.

Within the romance community, the biggest industry and fan conferences are Romantic Times and RWA national, and for LGBT specific events, GayRomLit and other smaller cons like Authors After Dark. Publishers should be at industry events too, the kinds of places authors themselves rarely go. Such conferences include Book Expo America and the American Library Association. There are a myriad of other professional conferences as well, and some publishers take advantage of those connections. It’s a good idea to find out if your publisher is one of them.

Digital-first publishers could and should be banding together too, because as in all things we’re greater in unity, and what lifts up one of us lifts up us all. When we show up en masse at an industry event, people take notice. We have more power together than we do separately, both authors and publishers.

Professionally-minded publishers value authors at their houses and give them their support whenever possible.

This can be one of the most important tells that your publisher is—or isn’t—playing in the big leagues. “When it comes to my publisher, I like to feel as if they actually value me as an author,” says Marie Sexton. “I like to think they value my contributions to their house.”

I know of several authors (who asked not to be named) who left publishing houses because every time they had to talk to the publisher they felt “spanked or slapped,” even when pointing out misspellings in cover art. These same authors have also attended events with the publisher, spoken at panels at the event—and then had five copies only of their books provided for sale by the publisher while other non-attending authors had stacks upon stacks. It’s not unacceptable for an author to expect to be valued, nor is it inappropriate to leave when it’s clear you aren’t.

Professionally-minded publishers make every attempt to get their authors’ work reviewed by important review sites, including Romantic Times, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus, and even for the blogger-reviewed sites, they make the Advance Reader Copies available in a timely manner.

Your publisher should be at least attempting to get your books reviewed by the big guns, and much as we love our blogger friends, they are not the biggest game in town. By the same token, if your publisher isn’t constantly looking for new places for exposure, your books are only ever going round and round in the same circles, never expanding. Make sure your publisher is doing the simplest kind of promotion possible: providing review copies to the important places—all of them. They can’t guarantee a review. But they can try to get you one.

As of the writing of this article, I’ve heard the magazine end of Romantic Times is still saying they don’t take LGBT romances, which is very troubling, and RRW is addressing the issue. The web reviews, however, are very open, and the magazine did just print a very LGBT friendly article. Hopefully with increased pressure the magazine’s refusal to acknowledge LGBT romances ends soon.

No matter who is doing your review, however, it needs to be provided in a timely fashion. If your publisher’s idea of Advance Reader Copy (ARC) is a week before launch to toss an HTML document to a handful of blogs, they’re doing you a horrible disservice. To get into those review sites I mentioned above takes months of advance notice—for print magazines like Romantic Times it can be as high as six. Not all publishers can follow that model, and authors may not want them to. But even smaller blogs need time to work you into not just their reading schedule but their reviewing schedule.

“Most of the publishers I work with are digital first and I typically get review copies anywhere from a week or two prior to release to days or weeks after,” says Jay of Joyfully Jay.  “While I am happy to consider a book for review whenever it arrives, it can be difficult to schedule a review around the release date if I don’t get the review copy early enough.  Typically my review calendar is scheduled 3-4 weeks ahead, and we are usually reading a week or two in advance of when the review is published.  Although occasionally we are able to squeeze things in last minute, typically it is difficult to turn a review around in less than a week or two.  So if publishers don’t make books available early enough, the reviews will not run until after the books are published, in some cases by several weeks or more.”

“[Digital-first] publishers, with very few exceptions, rarely send out their books for review until they are actually released,” says Wave of Jessewave. “Samhain is probably the major exception as they send out their books for review months in advance of release, which allows the reviewers to schedule their reading and review writing without feeling pressured. If more publishers had the facility to pre-order their books this would be a major incentive for them to send out the books a lot earlier, because they want those advance sales. The majority of reviewers on any site have full time jobs so it’s very difficult for them to find the time to read a book and write a quality review in two weeks, and we need a minimum of 4 weeks on this site. The more time we have to read and review the books the better the content and quality of the review, which would be to the advantage of the publisher and the author.”

Don’t forget about libraries, either. Ebooks are increasingly part of their circulation, and print books remain an excellent way to have a reader find you and want to own you for their very own. Digital-first publishers particularly are in a good position to outreach directly to libraries. Does yours?

Professionally-minded publishers provide authors with cover art in a timely manner.

Personally, I want my cover art at least a month in advance of my release. I use it to make book trailers, buy ads on blogs, and publishers should be using it for ads as well. I have had, several times, cover art come in with less than a week to go. I’ve heard of people getting cover art hours before release. Nothing about that is professional, and it hurts everyone.

“I need my cover art at least a month before publication in order to help create a buzz about an upcoming title,” says an author who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s incredibly important to me in helping market the book and building awareness in reader’s minds, not to mention ordering swag for giveaways at release time.”

We all know that what we want more than anything is to see ourselves in that coveted top 100 for book sales at Amazon and ARe. Hell, we want the top ten. But how can you get there if your publisher is whipping out art in the eleventh hour? Forget ads that publish as your release goes live, and never mind that they should have been up weeks before your launch. And heaven forbid anything goes wrong, say a character turns up as the wrong race or the cover is essentially nothing at all like your book. Mistakes happen, and they can be fixed. But we—and our publishers—need to be in a position where we’re practicing fire safety, not constantly putting out fires.

Professionally-minded publishers provide solid editorial (not anonymous) which allows a dialog between editor and author. Editorial should be contracted by the editor herself, and failing this, she should only edit work she loves. If said editor is also an author, she needs to take clear pains to separate her authorial persona from her publishing one.

It’s important to note that while the ideal might be objective, autonomous editorial from non-authors, we all know in digital-first that’s simply not a realistic possibility right now. This means, though, that our editorial should work that much harder to make it clear it is aiming at the professional.

“I have a couple of experiences of ‘double blind’ editing and I didn’t like it one bit,” says an author. “I treasure the relationship I’ve built up with my editor at Samhain, and find it much easier to work on edits with someone who loves my work.”

Many, many authors who double as editors do a good job of separating their authorial and editorial lives. Several whom I know personally have found they love editing more than writing and have made it their focus. There are editors who double as authors, however, who are truly reprehensible.

Recently I heard the story of an editor at a small house who flat out told an author, “I have to finish my book before I have time to work on yours.” That same editor, when she finally got around to doing her job, essentially tried to rewrite the story to her own style and tastes, not holding the author to a professional standard but only her idea of what “writing” was. This, clearly, is a situation to avoid.

“I don’t have anything against authors working as editors/publishers,” says another anonymous author, “but I’d certainly want to make sure they were putting my work first when wearing their editing hats. I’ve heard stories from authors at author-owned houses who are convinced their releases have been delayed because the owner had a new project to work on. Whether or not their suspicions are right, I couldn’t say, but I believe authors who are publishers need to take real care not to give this impression.”

In addition to author/editors, publishers need to take care that their editors behave professionally at all times. Shortly after I became published, I also did some contract editing for Dreamspinner Press. Lynn West holds her editors to a hard line of professionalism, and when she felt I was inappropriate in my comments—quirky humor, sarcasm, anything that even remotely slipped from professionalism with an author I didn’t know—she called me on the carpet. This is exactly how it should be.

Unfortunately I have heard of instances of editing, both content and copy, so rigid that authors feel threatened. Sometimes it’s tone—sarcasm, near brutality—sometimes it’s a failure to understand that editing is as difficult a dance as writing, if not more so. Editors who cannot respect the difficulty of it—and who cannot respect the authors whose work they hold—should not edit. I left editing when it became clear that it got in the way of my own writing, and when I felt myself trying to edit authors into “my style.”

Professionally-minded publishers provide books for preorder on their websites and on third party whenever possible.

Not all publishers’ systems currently support this, but if they don’t, they need to be working on it. Because when the author—and the publisher—are running their advance promotions, readers should be able to hit the coveted “preorder now” button and give us all some money in the bank, a sale already in the bag. Some readers will need repeated exposure before they try us, but some will want to simply click and go. We want that to be able to happen.

Examples of publishers currently allowing preorder are Random House (on publisher’s site, at third party), Samhain (on publisher’s site, at third party), St. Martin’s Press (on publisher’s site, at third party).

Riptide and Silver Publishing are two publishers who allow preorder on their websites, but currently Amazon and most (if not all) third party sites don’t allow that feature for smaller presses, or as Riptide put it “little guys like us.” This is another example of how, especially as the wave of digital and small-press publishing continues to build, digital-first presses could band together to put pressure on retailers. It won’t come easily, and it won’t happen overnight, but it will no doubt be a great deal easier with all of us working together.

Professionally-minded publishers do not deliberately delay releases to third party sellers.

This is a contentious issue among digital-first publishers, and I understand there are charts and figures which “prove” delaying to third party is good for publishers and author sales. While I respect those figures, my personal experience and that of many others disagrees. When my releases are concurrent with publisher and third party, I hit bestseller lists and my sales are amazing. When I don’t, they slag and I don’t hit any lists at all.

More significant though is the experience of my readers and my own experience in buying books. I stumble across books all the time that I’d like to try, but if it isn’t available on Kindle, I don’t buy it. Call me lazy, call me what you like—it won’t make me hook up my device to the computer, find my credit card, and clunk along.

Which translates to that often I forget books and don’t buy them, and I’m not the only reader doing this.

“I have 3 booksellers that I will buy from, if I can’t get the book there, I don’t buy it!” says reader Mandy. “Although I have a favorite and will always check there first. It’s not like there isn’t enough out there to make my [credit card] go running the other direction.”

“I use Amazon exclusively because it’s easy,” says reader Heather. “I’ve already had my debit card number stolen once and it is not an experience I’m willing to repeat. I also use only Amazon because I can download straight to my Kindle and not have to jump through any hoops—which is another reason I downloaded the LIAW stories here, because I had the option of downloading in Kindle format.”

“Unless there is a benefit to the author, I don’t think that the publishers should do something which benefits them but probably harms the author,” says reader HJ. “They should be ensuring that the book is easily available to all readers ASAP, including those who browse the big sites and buy on impulse, or on sales rankings. Unless they are die-hard fans, readers may well not know that an author has a new book out, and won’t find it until later (if at all). Rankings seem to play an important part in buying decisions, so a slow release which dribbles out over weeks probably harms authors, especially if sales which should happen all at once with a couple of big retailers are dissipated over several weeks in other places. It makes for an unfair playing field, as the authors will be competing with others whose publishers have a different policy.

“Finally, some readers will read a blog post or review and decide they’d like to read the book, only to be deterred when they realize that it isn’t easily available. It seems that in those circumstances it isn’t even possible to pre-order on Amazon (I’ve noticed that pre-ordering Kindle titles is often impossible). Unless the reader is really keen and is prepared to create a reminder, they probably forget all about the great review and never buy the book. So the author’s hard work in promoting the book or the publisher’s effort in circulating ARCs is wasted, and a sale is lost.”

Another Goodreads reader said, “First, it’s a big hassle having to juggle multiple accounts across different publishers’ website. It’s much more convenient being able to buy from one big retail place and have all my books there.  Look, I love for authors to get the maximum percentage of royalty they can have but sorry to say that love doesn’t go farther than the love of convenience from buying at a big retail place like Amazon. My free time is precious. Unless I am a hardcore fan of that author, I refuse to waste time hunting down a certain book on a certain website. Not as if I don’t have enough books to read or other books to buy. Second, not every publisher uses Paypal. The more publishers I personally leave my credit card information to the bigger target I become for payment shenanigans. I don’t want that.”

“Higher royalties on an unsold book are still zero,” said reader and moderator of the Goodreads M/M group, Jen McJ. “Lower royalties on a book that you sell at a third party that you wouldn’t sell on your publisher site is still better than zero.”

It’s not just readers who want immediate release to third party; authors do too. “As an author I prefer immediate release to third-party sales,” says Marguerite Labbe. “I think that more venues equals more sales and more exposure all around which benefits everybody. Ideally I wouldn’t mind if everyone went to my publisher and bought direct, but I know that it’s not realistic. I’ve also noticed a difference when third party sales opened up and if I did, I’m sure the publishers noticed the same.”

In a recent episode of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart mocked both Viacom and Direct TV for thinking that viewers were interested in their programming war. “I’ve got news for you. None of this matters. None of this is indispensable.” If readers can’t get your book in the way they’d like to get it in the time frame they’d like to get it, they’re not going to make lists and set reminders, not most of the time. They’ll simply find other things to read.

The greater issue here is also growth, both for authors and publishers. Again, the goal is to become a big enough player, at least professionally, to compete with not just other digital first publishers but New York and the Big Six.  This will never happen by circling the wagons around a small pond. The standard model of sales has always been around exposure and word of mouth; Fifty Shades of Grey is a crazy-bestseller at this point because it’s the book you have to read to “play” as part of the current culture. Not reading it is also playing; yet we’re still all talking about it.

In digital publishing, the goal is to create a long tail. An initial big sale or moderate sale, with a book well-written enough to generate buzz, fanned by strong promotion and exposure. This sort of model generates an initial small sale from publishers followed by, in a few months when third party comes in, large, sustained sales. Books that do well live on the top 100 on Amazon and ARe for months. This can’t happen if books dwindle and die on publisher lists, counting on readers going directly to the site to generate a sale.

Professionally-minded publishers understand that contracts are never ironclad and are always negotiable.

Anytime a publisher says nothing in their contract is negotiable, it’s probably a good time to walk. The only exception is if their contract has withstood intense scrutiny by author organizations and/or lawyers representing authors and not publishers. This is the case with Harlequin Enterprises. Their contracts are notoriously impervious, but they’ve also all been gone over by a million agents and RWA with fine, fine toothed combs.

That said, they’re currently the subject of a class action lawsuit. So perhaps the “no ironclad contracts” is a good rule of thumb no matter who you are.

“I believe that everything is and should be negotiable,” says agent Eric Ruben of The Ruben Agency. “It just depends on the bargaining strength of the parties involved and the point at which they’re at in their career. Some publishers believe that there are a great number of writers who will be grateful for any contract they’re given just to get their work published. Often they’re right. After all, in some cases it makes sense to get your foot in the door. However, each situation needs to be considered on its own merits.”

Professionally-minded publishers will work with agents.

I’m amazed I even have to type that, but it’s true that many digital-first publishers don’t like working with agents. Some flat-out refuse. Some say they’ll work with them but treat the agents like pariahs. This, I hope I don’t have to tell you, isn’t professional.

Agents are there to protect the authors and get them the best deals. Agents are like Realtors or yentas: they are the go-betweens who negotiate things that authors may be nervous to ask for and publishers wish they wouldn’t. They’re also there to make sure what everyone wants and needs is communicated clearly and articulately and is understood from the word go.

“Authors are not fast food burgers,” says Ruben. “They are not a product to be pumped out, each one the same as the next. Each of my clients is a unique individual with their own needs, perspectives and talents. Successful publishers and editors understand that. They also understand that to build a lasting relationship with talent, both parties need to be happy. A one-sided deal will invariably lead to a very short relationship. That’s why both parties need and deserve professional and quality representation. And with today’s more complicated publishing landscape, I think it’s crucial for authors to have a lawyer on their side of the equation. After all, the publishers have teams of lawyers working for them.”

“Authors’ needs change as their career changes, and what was not important at the beginning of their career to get their foot in the door can certainly become a deal-breaker later on,” says Saritza Hernandez of The Corvisiero Agency. “Having an advocate who not only ensures you’re getting the best deal but also has your best interests at heart is crucial to a professional author. Any professionally-minded publisher will want their authors to have someone in their corner to help expand their career and thereby making everyone more money.”

Whether or not you have an agent or are interested in one, if your publisher feels authorial representatives are a problem, I encourage you to ask why author advocates are discouraged. “They make things more difficult,” by the way, is not a reassuring answer.

Professionally-minded publishers understand that we are in the Era of the Author.

At the 2012 RWA conference, author Stephanie Laurens gave a keynote speech that moved her to tears as she gave it and garnered her a standing ovation from the audience. Her main point was that authors have never, ever had more power and have never needed industry less. And in an age where self-publishing becomes easier and more accepted every day, when many of us are making livings off our digital-first sales, when we’re in the part of the publishing industry that’s growing instead of dying—well, her words ring all the more true.

In a world where there is no barrier between our houses, when Random House and Riptide Publishing all have equal footing at RWA, there’s no more reason to make excuses for our “little publishers.” There simply is no such thing any longer. The greater the digital wave and the greater the rise of self publishing, the more our smaller portions of the publishing pie expand and the more the wheat will be separated from the chaff. Smart, strong, professional publishers will survive. Self-serving, author-unfriendly, unprofessional ones will not.

How’s yours doing?


Heidi Cullinan has always loved a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. She enjoys writing across many genres but loves above all to write happy, romantic endings for LGBT characters because there just aren’t enough of those stories out there. Heidi currently serves as the chapter president of Rainbow Romance Writers, special interest chapter of Romance Writers of America. Though she’s written since she was able to hold a pencil, Heidi has taught writing since 1991 everywhere from elementary school to college and has studied both the nuts and bolts of writing and the publishing industry since 1995.

When Heidi isn’t writing, she enjoys cooking, reading, knitting, listening to music, and watching television with her husband and ten-year-old daughter. Heidi also volunteers frequently for her state’s LGBT rights group, One Iowa, and is proud to be from the first midwestern state to legalize same-sex marriage. Find out more about Heidi at her website, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads, or email her at


[1] RWA is the Romance Writers of America, an organization started in 1980. From their website: “37 writers came together with a common goal of trying to find ways to grow their writing careers in romance fiction. At that time, there were very few writers groups or conferences, and those that existed largely ignored the romance genre.” Read more about RWA and its history here.

[2] The RITAs are the category-specific contests hosted by the Romance Writers of America to “promote excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding published romance novels and novellas.” See a full definition at RWA’s website. See a description of the categories, including contemporary single title, here.

[3] Some have complained that RWA should do “something more” than add this to their bylaws; having sat in three days of meetings about tax laws and non-profits and incorporations, I can assure you this is about the most they can do and will explain in greater detail if asked.

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