Self-Published Romance and Erotica: Why, Who and Where Can You Find the Good Ones?

This is the first in a three-part series on self-published romance. Today we're focusing on those who are solely author-publishers. We'll also include a piece on authors who do both — publish traditionally as well as self-publish — and finish up with some recommendations in this popular (and often inexpensive) category.

The December issue of RT Book Reviews features a letter from reader Karen Ancell, who despairs of ever reading a self-published book again. In her letter, she states, "I am always looking to add authors to my list, but the people who self-publish may no longer be an option." She adds that her feelings hinge on the lack of a standard when it comes to "grammar, sentence structure and spelling." 

As a self-published author — although not in romance or erotica — Ms. Ansell's email wasn't a surprise to me, but it was a disappointment. Those of us who have self-published are well aware of the many books out there which simply aren't "ready for prime time" — and the stereotype of a self-published author as one who either doesn't care about good writing or doesn't know how to write well in the first place. 

So I did what any self-respecting blogger who has self-published would do: I tracked down some of my fellow self-published authors to talk about self-published romance and erotica.

These two — technically three — popular self-published authors are: romance author Penny Watson, who's active in mentoring other authors who want to self-publish, and Kit Rocha — aka Bree Bridges and Donna Herren — who write erotica under this name, as well as romance under the name Moira Rogers. (They've also already helped RT readers with self-publishing advice.)

All three authors were kind enough to take time out of their busy schedules to answer some questions for us on self-publishing, and how to find the good titles worth a read.

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What brought you to self-publishing, instead of going the traditional publishing route?

Kit: We started our career in digital-first publishing in 2008 because we’re a pair of tech-junkies who loved the idea of e-books. ... E-publishing was good to us from the start. It was flexible, it was exciting and it gave us financial freedom from day jobs.

By 2011, the only real hurdle we had to self-publishing was finding a freelance editor. The relationship dynamic is a little different when you’re the one paying them, so we wanted to be sure it was someone who got us and our voice, but who would be as brutal as necessary to pull the best possible story out of us. 

Penny: My first two novels were released via traditional publishing. [But] I wanted more control over all aspects of publishing. I've been able to choose my own editors, cover artists/illustrator and formatters — who do an exemplary job — and price my works more affordably than a traditional publisher, which has had a dramatic effect on sales.

I can explore quirky topics, mix genres and write any length I want. I love being able to write exactly what I want.

What do you think is available with self-publishing romance and erotica that can make it stand out?

Kit: ...The biggest issue with NY houses in particular is that they’re less likely to take chances on an unknown quantity. They buy plenty of erotic romance that’s been published already and sold like crazy, but that’s not exactly visionary.  

With self-publishing, I think you have greater flexibility when it comes to subject matter. And you have complete control over it — cover, keywords, metadata, release timing, pricing. Don’t sell many at $5.99? Okay, try $3.99. There’s a bit of a misconception right now that you have to price your books at 99 cents in order to move copies, but that’s just not true. If you’ve taken time to professionally produce a great book, readers will pay for that quality.

Once, of course, you catch their attention.

Penny: The books that seem to do really well are the ones that are quirky and outside-of-the-box, with excellent, quality writing. Three stand-outs are Penny Reid's Neanderthal Seeks Human, Theresa Weir's The Girl With The Cat Tattoo, and RJ Silver's The Princess and The Penis. These books offer something you don't typically see with traditionally published romance. A cat's POV. A hilarious satire on romance told from a penis's perspective (I know that sounds outrageous, and it is, and the story is brilliant). And a novel told from the heroine's POV for the entire novel until the epilogue, where we finally get to hear from the hero.

How do you recommend readers find good, well-edited self-published books? How much of the stereotype that self-published books are "not ready for prime time" is true? What's the best way authors can combat this thinking and get their work out there and recognized for quality?

Kit: ...[B]logs and recs are more important than ever. I find most of the books I read through other people who have read them.  And it can be tough to take a chance on a self-pub book, but I always check a few things: 

- Is the cover professional? 

- Is the title full of junk buzzwords? I want a title to intrigue me, and to be honest, I want a book that isn’t relying on algorithm-hacking to get where it is.

- Is the blurb coherent? Is it edited? 

- Is the price reasonable? This will vary from person to person, but my personal comfort zone is at least $2.99 for a novel, unless it’s on sale.  

If all four of those seem okay, I try a sample and go for it.

As for the best way to be recognized for quality — start with a quality product.

Penny: There are plenty of horrible self-published books. And there are plenty of horrible traditionally published books. The idea that having an agent or publishing company backing you up confers some sort of seal of excellence is ridiculous. 

How to find good self-published books?

1. Get recommendations from people you trust.

2. Check out samples.

3. If there are editing errors or grammatical errors in the title, book blurb, or sample, read at your own risk.

The best thing authors can do is:

1. Write a great book.

2. Hire professionals to edit, format, and create quality cover art.

3. Price their book wisely.

4. Promote in a positive way.

If you publish a wonderful, high quality novel [and] get it into the hands of many readers, then your satisfied customers will spread the word and promote your book. 

Do you think that editing issues — seen not only in self-published works, but those picked up by bigger publishers — have changed the view of romance/erotica for the average reader? 

Kit: Everyone has their own threshold for what “good” writing is, and plenty of people will overlook even objectively poor writing (typos/grammar, etc.) if the characters and plot are giving them something compelling. Especially if it’s something they can’t find elsewhere.

That said, the fact that bigger publishers are picking up poorly edited books and releasing them without cleaning them up has changed my perception of bigger publishers. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

Penny: I see a big divide on reader opinion about this. Some readers have zero tolerance for editing issues. And some readers are willing to overlook grammatical mistakes, editing issues, formatting problems, etc., if the story is good and the characters are engaging. 

Penny, can you tell us about what you do for other self-published authors?

Penny: As I dove into the world of self-publishing, I discovered the need for education and resource-sharing. Marie Force and I had a long conversation during a conference and we decided it would be beneficial to offer a special symposium to focus on the needs of the self-published author. We put together the Independent Author Symposium, which is being held Nov 1-2 in Rhode Island. It will explore a range of topics, from cover art design and distribution issues, to branding, self-promotion and pricing. 

Stay tuned for Part II of our self-publishing series, featuring authors who self-publish as well as publish traditionally.