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Erotic e-publishing: Madison-area romance novelists seduce readers and book-industry bigwigs

E-publishing is a game-changer for writers in Madison and beyond. It has altered the way many authors deliver their work to readers, and, in some cases, how they craft their prose. As online tools for self-publishing have grown more popular and sophisticated, authors have found ways to bring their work to the public without agents, publishing houses or other book-industry middlemen.

Sales of e-published books have skyrocketed over the past few years as Amazon and other retailers built huge e-book distribution platforms for independent authors. These platforms have become particularly attractive to romance writers who know that some readers may not want to be seen leafing through bodice-rippers at the gas station or grocery store. Authors can publish on their own terms, and readers can access books from the comfort of their homes -- and, in many cases, their smartphones, tablets and e-reading devices.

In fact, romance readers have been a major driver of e-publishing's growth in general. According to Romance Writers of America, a trade association for authors in the genre, nearly 17% of all books sold in 2012 were romance novels. Bowker, an information database for publishing companies and libraries, notes that 44% of romances sold that year were in an electronic format.

That's a lot of books, a lot of readers and a lot of sales.

Stories of unknown authors hitting all the major bestseller lists have become common, and many of these writers skipped the traditional publishing process altogether. Several Madison-area writers with ties to the romance genre are navigating this terrain successfully. Though their approaches differ, one theme stands out: All of them are putting Wisconsin on the map.

'The buck stops with me'

When it comes to e-publishing, Nina Lane may have the most interesting story in town. In early 2011, Grand Central, a traditional publishing house, made an offer for one of her series, a set of historical romance novels set in Victorian times. As she worked on that series under the pen name Nina Rowan, she received the rights for an erotica novel she'd written for a British publisher in the late 1990s. Wanting to reach readers through Amazon, she decided to try e-publishing.

Lane ultimately retitled the erotica book The Erotic Dark and self-published it online in March 2012. At the time, Fifty Shades of Grey was exploding on the Internet. This widespread interest in steamy novels helped spur The Erotic Dark to the top spot on Amazon's erotica bestseller list. Lane then penned Spiral of Bliss, a sexy, modern romance trilogy revolving around a married couple. She wrote its three novels -- Arouse, Allure and Awaken -- while working on the Victorian series for Grand Central.

Self-publishing while working with a traditional publishing company, she quickly noticed the differences between the two. Lane enjoyed partnering with the editorial and publicity teams at Grand Central, but she found that self-publishing could lead to more profit if she was able to find an eager audience on her own.

"With self-publishing, the author is responsible for finding good editorial support, cover designs, and for formatting, uploading to all the major retailers and learning how to run a business," she says. "A traditional publisher does much of that for an author, but the level of control and the higher royalty rates in self-publishing now make it a very attractive option for many authors."

The Spiral of Bliss trilogy hit the USA Today bestseller list twice, without the backing of a traditional publisher. Lane attributes much of that success to her abilities: writing a solid book without much assistance; finding a strong editorial, design and support team; and inspiring readers to do a positive word-of-mouth campaign.

"Self-publishing is a great deal of work, no question, but the rewards and satisfaction can be innumerable," she says.

Madison's Ann Voss Peterson agrees. A Harlequin Intrigue author for a decade, she has 25 titles under her belt and more than three million copies of her books in print. She moved into e-publishing at the urging of a friend, self-publishing guru JA Konrath. She now publishes thrillers on her own and with Thomas & Mercer, an Amazon Publishing imprint that launched in 2009, not long after the online retailer's self-publishing platform gained traction. Since 2012, Peterson has hit the Amazon Top 100 list multiple times.

"In traditional publishing, the author has little to no say over titles, covers, editing, marketing [and] distribution, elements that can have a huge effect on the success of a book," Peterson explains. "When self-publishing...the buck stops with me, and I like that control. No more covers I hate. No more titles like Covert Cootchie-Cootchie-Coo....The fact that I make a lot more money this way is icing on the cake."

A portfolio of publishing resources

Angie Stanton, another Madison-area author, has an interesting mix of traditional and indie publishing experience. Her first book, Love 'em or Leave 'em, debuted in 2010 with Avalon Books, a small publisher that sold primarily to libraries. In 2011, she struggled to find an agent for her next title, Rock and a Hard Place, so she decided to try the fledgling e-book market. To her surprise, she sold thousands of copies in one month.

After Stanton self-published three more titles, HarperCollins Teen offered her a four-book contract, which included print and electronic rights to two of her self-published titles, plus two yet-to-be-written books. Around the same time, Avalon closed its doors and sold its titles to Montlake, another Amazon imprint, which rereleased Stanton's first book electronically. Meanwhile, Stanton continues to self-publish.

While many writers have shifted their focus to self-publishing, Stanton has created a portfolio of publishing resources suited to her needs and strengths. She's particularly proud of signing a contract with a traditional publisher after finding e-publishing success.

"Publishing with HarperTeen was a wonderful opportunity for my young-adult books to reach an even larger market through traditional channels," she says. "It's exciting to see these titles in bookstores across the country, and traditional publishing is the best way to get books into public and school libraries."

Christine Merrill, a Watertown-based writer, has written more than 20 historical romances for Harlequin Mills & Boon since 2006. The publisher, a London-based arm of Harlequin, has released all of these titles electronically. But this spring Merrill also self-published a novel and a pair of novellas. Two of these works take place in contemporary times and offer suspenseful plot points with a lighthearted tone. To some extent, they're a departure from her previous work.

Being able to experiment with different topics and writing styles is refreshing, she says.

"Traditional publishing lets me focus on the writing more than on the editing, formatting and marketing. But I also love the freedom I get with the indie work. I can write whatever I want, taking risks with subject matter and not worrying about word count," she explains.

Leading the pack

Madison has a thriving community of romance authors, as well as writers who started out in romance and then branched out to other genres. Lori Devoti falls into the second category. After establishing herself as a romance author, she began writing mysteries under the pen name Rae Davies. She recently hit the USA Today bestseller list with a boxed set of titles from her Dusty Deals series.

Other local success stories include L.C. Giroux, who has launched boxed sets with six other authors across the country and started a romance-themed podcast series, and Linda Schmalz, who was recently named a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakout Novel contest. Her new book, To Find You, survived the first round of 10,000 manuscripts and is now one of the top 100.

Of course, places like Amazon have their critics. In a recent New Yorker article, author George Packer complained that Amazon Publishing has underperformed, especially when trying to sell books by high-profile personalities like James Franco and Penny Marshall. But thanks to the Internet, the publishing world has opened up to less famous authors in ways no one dreamed of even five years ago. Fueled by a smart and supportive local literary community, it's no surprise that Madison authors are pursuing e-publishing -- and even leading the pack nationally.

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