When I announced the debut of Her Brother’s Billionaire Best Friend, I got a landslide of emails and Facebook messages that I was, frankly, expecting. Readers who, while being fans of my Abigail Barnette work, weren’t happy about its exclusivity to the new platform, especially after Taken By The Alpha King was only available on Radish. And the reason I expected this was because I was miffed that one of my favorites was doing an exclusive on Yonder and I also don’t like using serialized platforms as a reader.
When that favorite author, Ruby Dixon, announced her Yonder exclusive, Bound to the Shadow Prince, my immediate reaction was, “Ugh, I have to wait for chapters and figure out coins and shit? This suuuuucks.” Which I know I shouldn’t be saying about these platforms since I’ve had such ridiculous, unexpected success on them. I’m grateful for all of that, believe me, and I think it’s great that readers who enjoy the format or find it easier to read in small bites have so many options now, but I want to make it clear that I fully understand the frustration of readers who, like me, don’t like to read on their phones and don’t like to wait for chapters to release.
So, if I’m not a fan of using serial fiction platforms, why am I (and so many other authors) a fan of writing for them?
Money. The answer is money. Or, more accurately, feeling that my work is respected, valued, and properly promoted. And, once again, I don’t think I’m alone in this.
2022 exposed a lot of what authors already suspected about the publishing industry. They have no idea what the hell they’re doing. Most of their successes are luck, predicated on throwing as much money as they can into debut authors or “BookTok sensations.” Rather than supporting authors they’ve already invested in, they operate on a sort of gambling system, sucking up whatever they think the next big thing will be and tossing aside those who don’t make a social media splash right out of the gate. It truly seems like Colleen Hoover is single-handedly keeping traditional publishing on its feet with her painfully white, toxically heternormative bullshit abusemances. And while the biggest publishers keep swearing they’ll diversify and stop running their offices like literary sweatshops, they’ve yet to deliver on any of these promises.
Another thing about the industry that hasn’t changed? The money. In 2004, I was offered an advance of $18k for a three-book series. As a first-time author, this was a huge get. The money was, of course, broken down by book: $5k for the first title, $6k for the second, and $7k for the third. Each of those amounts was broken down into three payments: signing, delivery, and acceptance. Between 2004, when the contract was signed, and 2007, those payments were doled out a sliver at a time. And while royalty money did start to show up in 2007 (Harlequin had one full year after publication to start delivering on royalties), in that three-year period, I made $18k. There were no opportunities for writing on the side; all my potential work belonged to the publisher, who had right of first refusal. If I’d wanted to publish anything independently, it would have very much hurt my brand. Indie authors are still considered not “real” or “good enough,” no matter how much popularity they accrue, but in the ’00s, one self-published book was enough to destroy your entire career. I was locked into that contract, making far, far less than minimum wage.
But that was almost twenty years ago. Things have changed, right?
Wrong. If you look at Publisher’s Marketplace, most of the deals reported either fall into the “Nice Deal” category or the amount isn’t vaguely reported at all. How much of an advance does a publisher have to pay to qualify as a “Nice Deal?” Anywhere from $1 to $49,999. And no, I didn’t accidentally leave off zeroes anywhere. One single dollar is enough for a publisher and agent to claim that the author got a “Nice Deal.” My last traditional contract was a “Nice Deal.” It was $8k, once again split up into three payments. That was ten years after that first contract. I recently heard from an acquaintance that she’d gotten a contract with a traditional romance publisher. Her “Nice Deal?” Was $5k, exactly what I was paid for my first book in 2002. Twenty. Years. Ago.
I got lucky with my first contract in that the publisher very much wanted the books to be a success. They marketed them well, with full-page ads in national magazines, even. In Brazil, there was a television commercial. They pulled out all the stops to make me a successful debut author. But after that debut, the marketing really trickled away. My second book was featured in one quarter-page advertisement in Romantic Times. The cover was the same color as the advertisement’s background and partially hidden by the cover of a different author’s book from a completely different genre. But when the sales weren’t as high for the second book, it was my failure. I hadn’t promoted hard enough on MySpace and Second Life.
Yeah. Those were the mega-frontiers of digital author marketing in the ’00s.
When I later took out ads in British Glamour to boost sales of The Boss, I was shocked at how affordable it was to do so. And if it was affordable for my indie author ad budget… how come a major publisher didn’t want to splash out that kind of dough on a much larger investment they’d already made?
Fast forward two decades, over some successes and failures. After a YA serial for Radish that didn’t take off, they approached me about monetizing my backlist on their site. And they offered me an advance larger than any of the books in my first three-book contract, for material that had already been published. I retained the rights to my work and walked away happy. Later, when they approached me about writing a serial exclusively for them, they offered a larger advance than I would have gotten from a traditional publisher, based on deals I’ve seen reported and things I’ve heard behind-the-scenes lately. And they launched a heavy advertising campaign, complete with promotional codes, custom graphics, and a whole team of people working on the launch. In one weekend, I watched over a million views stack up on the story. They promoted the hell out of it because they cared whether or not it did well. They didn’t view the money they paid me in the advance as disposable; this is in contrast to major publishing houses who often won’t bother to pursue repayment of “Nice Deal” advances when a work isn’t delivered. They also don’t own the rights to the work in perpetuity. While I’ll never own my Blood Ties or Lightword/Darkworld series again, I’ll be able to publish Taken By The Alpha King as an ebook and paperback someday, opening it up to an entirely new audience. I’ll be able to sell the foreign and audio rights. Hell, I retain the film and television rights, too.
The same thing is happening with Yonder. They’ve purchased the exclusive rights to Her Brother’s Billionaire Best Friend… for a limited time. And they paid me fairly for my work, far more money than a traditional publishing house would have offered me for the same book, while allowing me to retain certain rights after the conclusion of our exclusivity agreement. Both Radish and Yonder came to me with serious offers that proved they not only understood the value of my work, but they also respected me as a creator and a business person. No one has taken the attitude that they were somehow doing me a favor by offering me a contract. No one has tried to keep their hands on rights they don’t plan to monetize, so that they can have them “in case.”
This has just been my experience, but I know I can’t be the only author who has faced the disappointment of traditional publishing, the relentless grind of self-publishing, and the developing horizon of serialized publishing and said, “Yes, door number three. The one that combines the best of both worlds, please.”
Still, not every reader (including myself) likes the format. While none of my favorites have gone all-serial, and while I have no plans to go all-serial, either, I’m a little afraid that one day someone will be like, “Hey, I’m going all-serial.” If you share this fear, please know that I don’t have any plans to just abandon writing self-published books. This year, my output has been low everywhere due to grief and now, medical circumstances. Focusing on those serialized projects is how I paid my bills. It might shock people to know this, but the only self-published books that have ever made me a sustainable living have been The Boss series. All my other titles have sold between fifty and a hundred copies. It’s disheartening to dedicate six or more months to a book only to publish it and see that for that six or more months of work, you’ve made thirty dollars and then the title fizzled out. When faced with the prospect of guaranteed money I can live off or the possibility that maybe a book might net me more than a hundred dollars in royalties in a year? I have to follow that money. I have to be able to survive.
Hopefully, 2023 will see some new releases as ebooks and paperbacks, but until I find out what’s going on with my injuries from the car accident (some may require surgery), and with the resultant lawsuit (that I’m required to file in order for my auto insurance to pay for my medical treatment, which my regular insurance won’t cover because the injuries were incurred in an auto accident), that just might not be financially possible. But I do have projects I’m continuing to work on, at a sloth-like pace. Thanks for understanding and not giving up on me.