I was talking to a girlfriend of mine about e-books and she referred me to this Fast Company article about Harlequin’s (you know, the romance novel publisher) e-book imprint. It’s fascinating. Go ahead and read it, or if you’re like me, stick it on Instapaper for reading later.

There are a bunch of things that I love about this piece.

  1. Angela James (the subject of the article), who runs Carina Press, Harlequin’s e-book division, is thirty-five years old. Which is pretty awesomely young to be running a big, booming business.
  2. Ms. James’s relevant background includes being a member of a fan listserv for an erotic romance e-book publisher. Yes. She was a fan first – an online community member – before she took her first job in romance publishing.
  3. The whole article is a great reminder of how much innovation smut in general (a term I like to use to include everything from slash fiction, to romance e-books, to porn) has wrought in the online sphere.
  4. There are some pretty radical differences between the business model Carina Press is using and the one traditional print publishers use. And they all make enormous amounts of sense.

Let’s talk some more about that last one, because I have been pretty worried about the future of book publishing for a while now, and this is the first time in years I’ve had much hope that the big publishers might actually pull it together to embrace change rather than resisting it.

First, Carina Press’s authors make 15-30% in royalties from their books’ sales. To put that in perspective, I believe Emira & I earn something like 5-8% of the cover price for every copy of our book that’s sold, or just over a dollar per book. Our agent, of course, takes a cut of that, and then we split it in two & pay taxes on that. So let’s just say royalties are not exactly keeping us in the lap of luxury. (Or even in lattes, not that we’re complaining – after all, we did keep our day jobs.)

But I digress. I’m guessing most Harlequin/Carina writers don’t use agents – traditionally, at least, Harlequin has always had direct relationships with its authors – so they would keep all of their royalties. (They don’t get an advance, but advances are taken out of your royalties anyway, so as far as I’m concerned that’s a moot point.)

Now, of course, Carina’s e-books are priced lower than print books – $2.99-5.99 – but that’s good news, too, from my perspective. In digital media, you have to charge what the market will bear, for one thing – and for another, romance books aren’t priced very high to begin with. Remove the cost of printing & shipping and pass that savings on to the consumer – talk about a win-win.

I’m also delighted to hear that Carina has foregone the use of DRM. This line from James is priceless:

“Our theory is that it doesn’t prevent piracy because any pirate can strip DRM in about 30 seconds,” says James. “DRM instead inhibits casual sharing, an important part of the reading process — and the purchasing process.”

It’s clear right there that she gets her customer. She’s echoing the same sentiment expressed by Neil Gaiman in this brief video about the internet, piracy and copyright – namely, that there’s value in fans sharing copyrighted content because it leads to new fans, and therefore new customers.

I’m also impressed by the fact Carina publishes 2-4 new books every week. This is simple supply-and-demand stuff, but the traditional print publishing industry simply isn’t equipped to respond to customer demand the way e-book publishing can. Romance readers are notorious for inhaling books in no time flat and clamoring for new titles. In many ways, they’re the ideal e-book customers, because they also tend not to re-read older books or even seek them out. It’s a transient medium that thrives on novelty.

When we published our book, I learned some things that blew me away about the publishing industry. There are a lot of things about the way things have always been done in that industry that boggled our little digital-entrepreneur minds. For instance: It took 9 months from the day we submitted our absolutely-final, copy-edited, no-more-edits-allowed manuscript to the publishers, until the date the book was actually on store shelves. That’s three-quarters of a year. Unbelievable. That it could possibly take that long, in an age of publishing-on-demand, to get a book printed out & distributed to stores, still blows my mind.

Here’s another tidbit: To this day, we receive exactly two sales reports per year. Every six months, we get one mailed to us (yes, via snail-mail) along with our royalty cheques. By the time we see how sales were for January through June, it’s usually October. With this kind of reporting, there is no earthly way that we as authors can possibly respond to sales trends. So let’s say, for instance, there’s a sudden upswing in sales of The Boss of You in Baltimore – which might, say, prompt us to do a bit of Googling to find out who in Baltimore has been talking us up, or perhaps write something on our Facebook Page to see if anyone from Baltimore is stopping by for the first time – but no, we couldn’t possibly have that information in time to do anything useful with it. It’s deeply frustrating as an author, because our greatest hope is to connect with our readers and give them something that’s useful and valuable to them. The old processes simply don’t work well in the digital age.

(I want to be clear, by the way, that none of these complaints is directed at our publisher. Everyone there has been absolutely amazing to us, and we love them dearly. They’re all hamstrung by the same problems I’m complaining about, simply because they’re part of an industry that has some seriously messed-up “way we’ve always done it” problems. Let’s not even start on the financial problems posed by the fact bookstores can return unsold books to publishers months after ordering them… Anyway, my point is: individual publishers are not the problem – the problem is systemic.)

It’s delightfully poetic and significant that the path into the future of publishing is being paved by erotic fiction writers and their fans. Eros and creativity are inseparable, of course. But I think the community component is an important one, too. It’s meaningful that Angela James is an unapologetic fan of the romance genre, and has obviously gained the trust of her readers at least in part because she is one of them. Her success is another nail in the coffin of the old, top-down, “expert”-led publishing models, even while it hails a new profit source for a giant conglomerate (Harlequin is owned by TorStar).

I’m excited to see where this all leads. It’s certainly about time publishing got with the twenty-first century.