The Lure of Romance Writing (and Earnings) for the Literary Set

Romance writing

Note from Jane: In 2014, I wrote and reported the following article for Scratch magazine; it has been edited and updated for my site.

Madeline Iva is her pen name, and you won’t find a trace of her real-life identity anywhere.

Iva is an emerging novelist who, as she puts it, writes “lady smut.” Her first novella was published last year by HarperImpulse, and it focused on sexsomnia, an actual condition in which people have sex in their sleep and wake up not remembering anything about it. The story’s protagonist is a young economist who has the hots for a strapping biologist, and starts waking up in the morning on the floor wearing different clothes. She has to solve the mystery of what she’s doing at night—and whom she’s doing it with.

Lady SmutI met Iva for the first time in 2013 during a social outing with several other authors. She told me how much she loves writing smut. She calls romance novels “happiness machines”—they guarantee that you’ll be happier after reading the novel than before.

Only later did I discover Iva has an MFA in creative writing from a top-tier program in the U.S., where she studied under one of the most respected literary writers today.

Iva is part of a growing number of authors with serious literary cred who are finding greater financial success—and a welcoming community—in the romance business.

It’s not exactly news that the literary establishment looks down on genre fiction; rarely is it welcome within creative-writing degree programs—and god help the student who tries to workshop his genre work. While I was earning my BFA in creative writing, there was one student in the degree program who loved Doctor Who (before it was cool) and role-playing games, and brought fantasy fiction to workshop. A vague embarrassment would fall over the group. If the writer wasn’t seeking to emulate Fitzgerald, Hemingway, or Woolf, we didn’t know how to critique it.

Indeed, as far as careers go, the publishing world often sets up genre writing as an all-or-nothing choice: you’re either a literary novelist, or you dive head-first into the commercial side of the business. You can’t have one toe in each swimming pool, can you?

But for many authors, the separation between literature and genre isn’t so clear. The choice to write genre is often about money, yes, but authors like Iva are also weighing the costs and benefits of less tangible perks like community, mentorship, and audience response.

Put another way: can romance writers really have it all?

How the Romance Genre Has Evolved

Iva has joined one of the bestselling genres in the publishing industry—and one of the most lucrative for authors. Fans of romance often read voraciously, consuming multiple books per week, so there is continuing and high demand for people who can write it.

“Romance” tends to be an umbrella term for many types of novels that, according to Romance Writers of America, are defined by (1) a central love story and (2) an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. Beyond that, they vary tremendously. Some are contemporary stories; others are historical. Some are sweet (no explicit sex), while others are more steamy. Romance novels can also take on the attributes of other genres (paranormal romance, romantic suspense, young adult romance). The hottest of the hot is erotic romance: It’s more explicit, there’s more sex, and there may be kinky elements. As with sex itself, what’s erotic is in the eye of the beholder, and readers will find varying definitions in the market. Then there’s erotica, which is not usually centered on romantic love and doesn’t follow any conventions of romance novels, but rather is material intended solely for the purpose of arousing the reader.

Fifty ShadesSince the rise of ebooks, it’s easier than ever for readers to download the newest titles immediately to their e-reading device without being subject to the judgment of family members, store clerks, or fellow commuters. The ability to leave behind chunky pink paperback covers and keep your romance habit a secret has benefited the market, and the outstanding success of Fifty Shades of Grey points to very large audience potential. Very, very large.

Romance writing is also an accessible way for new authors to get their start in publishing. Houses like Harlequin allow unsolicited, unagented submissions and offer online communities that can help writers improve their craft, understand the requirements of the genre, and get published.

In addition, since the advent of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and other digital self-publishing platforms, authors can take an experimental approach and see how they like the fit of romance—while earning money in the process. Last year, two young women received extensive media coverage when their self-published dinosaur erotica series was discovered to be making the authors a significant income. Even something on the fringe of mainstream romance has the potential to earn authors thousands of dollars per month; author Virginia Wade claimed her Bigfoot erotica was netting her $30,000 per month during peak sales periods.

To be clear, the genre has changed a lot over the last 30 years. If Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t tip you off, it’s gotten more explicit. Back in the 1980s, if the heroine had sex with someone she didn’t love, the sex couldn’t be consensual. Women weren’t supposed to enjoy non-monogamous sex. But whether writing decades ago or a few months ago, romance authors may not want their bosses, colleagues, or even family members to know what they’re up to—thus the prevalence of pen names in the genre. And there’s the other main reason some authors have to be coy: aside from creating brand confusion for an author who wants to write outside the romance genre, too, a successful career writing lady smut might negatively affect her reputation in other markets, especially the literary market.

Not long after Iva finished her MFA, she tried writing a literary novel. She had a top agent interested in her short story collection, but as is often the case, the agent also wanted a novel to sell. Under pressure to produce and disheartened by the negativity she encountered inside the literary community, Iva found herself unable to write. She fell into depression for two years. It was the act of writing romance, and discovering the romance community, that she says transformed and revived her career. Although she came from a prestigious literary background, genre fiction wasn’t entirely new to Iva. She grew up reading romances because that’s what was in the house. “I had Kurt Vonnegut in one hand, and these bodice rippers in the other,” she said.

As she entered the romance world, she created the persona of Madeline Iva, whom she views as less angsty and less complicated than her real self. Having an alter ego allowed her energetic and enthusiastic side room to grow. And Iva liked the romance community she found, comprising women who she says are warm and outgoing, vibrant and middle class, who reminded her of the women she grew up with. “I felt at home with them. The literary world is much more introverted, and much more bitter, cynical, and weary to some degree. There’s a vast amount of transparency in the romance world. That’s how women operate; it’s a women-dominated field.”

In the romance industry, emerging authors don’t have to search out advice or mentor-shop, Iva said. Experienced authors and peers will tell you how it works, repeat what they told you, then take you by the hand and show you. “You could call that mothering,” Iva said. “It’s just how they do it.”

Blue AngelAdult contemporary author Jamie Brenner, who also writes erotic romance as Logan Belle, noticed the same thing about the community, especially in her former career as an agent. While Brenner describes the literary community as very “closed ranks,” she says that no matter how new or obscure a romance author is, established romance novelists will readily blurb new books or blog about them. “That’s the status quo,” Brenner said. When she published her debut Logan Belle novel, Blue Angel, in 2011, she immediately felt welcomed.

Iva says the competitiveness found in the literary community—where there’s such a small slice of the pie to go around—doesn’t exist in romance because there is so much more money being spent on romance, with plenty of readers for everyone. However, Brenner has noticed some changes lately that have caused her to pull back on writing as Logan Belle. “It’s getting very, very crowded. You have to be louder and louder and louder. You have to be really comfortable shipping things out. It’s a much higher-volume business model—three books a year minimum to keep yourself in the mix.”

Brenner says the other aspects of maintaining a genre career are growing more burdensome. Being on the basic social media outlets—Twitter and Facebook—used to be fine, but now that’s not enough. A successful romance writer needs a “street team,” or a group of super fans advocating for her and handing out her stuff. Genre writers also participate in more anthology work, so in between the several novels per year, they often contribute stories to collections. “The books are getting worse when they’re coming out closer together. I don’t know if this pace was set by the people in genre fiction or by ebooks, but it’s a really bad trend,” Brenner says.

Iva has found solutions she’s comfortable with by cultivating the sense of community that first drew her to the genre. She started a group blog, Lady Smut, where she feels more comfortable with marketing and promotional activities because it’s about promoting the group rather than herself. “In the romance world, they talk about a two- to five-year startup period. I’m still in that period. I have a very strong sense of the market, and I have a plan of what I’m going to write for the next several years, and I’m ready to execute that plan. I also have mad writing chops from going to a really good grad school.”

Using Romance to Achieve Commercial Success

Barbara Palmer is the pseudonym of a Canadian bestselling novelist who is also in her romance startup period, trying on the genre for the first time. Her erotic novel, Claudine, was released by Penguin Canada last year. So far, Palmer says she will keep her identities entirely separate: bestselling historical novelist (who refuses to be named here) and Barbara Palmer, who will not be making any TV or visual appearances to promote her romance book.

ClaudineThe idea of writing such a book was suggested at a lunch with her editor, and Palmer’s immediate reaction was to laugh. “I’m way too shy; I’m too much of a reserved WASP to ever write something like that,” she told me. But when Palmer went home, she couldn’t stop thinking about it and decided to give it a try.

Because she realized she was starting from zero—without any knowledge of the field at all—Palmer spent an intense period reading all the erotic literature she could, including the classics. “Belle de Jour is just phenomenal. I think it’s one of the best novels of the twentieth century,” she said. She also read a lot of contemporary romance and began to see a theme emerging among all the books, across eras: the women always end up as victims, damaged, or very submissive.

“That just didn’t compute well with me. Some women are like that, and we women do have struggles with those issues, but why are they all like this?” Palmer wanted to write about a woman who was completely different, someone who was very sensual, powerful, and in charge of her life. And so she created the titular character, a grad student by day who by night works as a high-end escort and commands stratospheric prices.

Palmer believes that authors like herself are crossing over to romance because of the visible potential for commercial success, even in wild spin-offs that push the envelope in terms of morality. “Some of these people are pulling in $60,000 to $80,000 a year just with self-published material.”

The possibility of commercial success is something that motivated the editor and dramatic screenwriter operating under the pseudonym Aphrodite Elliot to give romance a try. But similar to Palmer, Eliot wants to create different kinds of female characters after discovering disturbing themes when researching the genre. She labels her stories with the tagline, “It doesn’t have to hurt to be hot.”

And it’s definitely the hotness that sells best in the current market. Agent Laura Bradford told me quite directly, “There is a lot of money to be made.” Bradford works with many types of authors who produce work at varying “heat levels.” She says she has authors who can release an erotic romance and earn $50,000 or $60,000 for the first month or two that it’s available—and that’s not an unusual situation. Such authors, however, have been at it for ten years or more, and may already have 30 books under their belt.

Generally speaking, Bradford says an erotic romance (which typically involves kink, but not everyone agrees about that) stands to earn more than mainstream romance, which is focused on a monogamous couple and may or may not be sexually explicit. Of course, not all writers are comfortable writing the racier books. Still, Bradford says, “The bar has risen in terms of explicitness. An average-heat-level romance today is far hotter than it was a decade ago.”

None of Bradford’s clients write romance secretly, though some do use pen names. For writers publishing the hot stuff in the 1990s, however, it was a very different experience. Author and writing professor Mary Anne Mohanraj, who has an MFA from Mills College, told me the trade was very taboo; if she told anyone she wrote erotic material, “they were stopped in their table conversations. I would still say it, but it would derail everything.” At the time, there were very few choices for reading or buying erotic fiction, and it was hard to find.

People often asked Mohanraj what erotica paid, at which point she’d have to explain the difference between erotica and porn—because, at the time, porn paid ten times more than erotica. (Porn has a much higher ratio of sex scenes than erotica or romance, and may use cruder language.) Mohanraj wrote letters for the porn magazines and earned $300 per letter. It was only a couple hundred words, and she could knock one out in about 20 minutes. She also wrote longer pieces; all in all, she could work two days a month writing porn, then take the rest of the month off. Mohanraj wrote erotica and porn for about ten years; when she turned 30, she switched to mainstream literature. “Writing porn is pretty mechanical, so I just got completely bored by the end of it. I felt like I’d said most of what I wanted to say. I thought a lot of damage was being done by sex not being talked about openly.” Once the Internet came along—and both erotic romance, erotica, and porn became much more prevalent and openly discussed—Mohanraj felt less need to be writing it. In addition to her full-time professorship at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she is currently working on a memoir as well as a science-fiction series with, as she puts it, “a fair bit of sex.”

Bradford, who also witnessed the very beginnings of the erotic romance market as an agent, told me that the digital publishers who came onto the scene in the early 2000s—Ellora’s Cave in particular—published stories that took risks in sexual explicitness that she hadn’t seen before, in addition to implementing a digital-first strategy. The mainstream publishing industry wasn’t really paying attention, so it wasn’t until around 2005 or 2006 that the New York houses started looking at the Ellora’s Cave model and several major romance publishers started erotic romance imprints. Bradford said, “By and large, romance readers are very open minded, they are happy to try new things, happy to try new authors. You can mix it up a little bit more. I don’t think of mystery as the land of taking risks, but romance kind of is.”

The Role of an MFA Degree in Writing Successful Romance (Really)

As a debut author, Madeline Iva is still focused on learning the conventions, which is harder than she thought it would be. “The romance authors who are making the most money fulfill the expectations their readers have,” she said. But she’s also using what she learned from her MFA program, where her famous professor told her that the best novels not only engage your intellect, but are hellishly entertaining. “Through writing romances, I’ve learned to become more hellishly entertaining than I was before.”

Iva says she owes her skill at the craft to her MFA program, and other romance writers I talked to who have MFA degrees—including Marina Adair and Kait Ballenger—emphasized the value of their degrees in teaching them the craft and how to accept feedback and criticism. The combination of disciplined writing chops and romance’s marketability certainly appears to be rocket fuel for a publishing career. Adair sold seven romances while earning her MFA from San José State University; while she started out in screenwriting, focusing on family films and teen comedies, she says she can’t imagine writing anything else now except romance. Ballenger also signed traditional publishing deals while enrolled in a low-residency program at Spalding University, and now has multiple romance books out, with more on the way. Before pursuing romance, Ballenger focused on writing and publishing young adult novels (her degree concentration is children’s/YA), and she continues to pursue both genres. But romance is now paying her bills, and she doesn’t have a YA deal yet.

Scoring book deals that provide a decent wage is an uncommon outcome for most MFA graduates, who, Iva says, don’t expect to make a living writing literature. “[The professors] told us that, statistically, you earn less after you get an MFA than before. And most everybody is going to quit writing because they’ll want a house and a family and a retirement plan.”

But Iva has found her solution, at least for now. Her romance writing career has lent her the confidence and energy to take another look at her literary work and try another novel. She’s bringing to her new draft a fresh perspective on how to write a successful story, reach a readership, and craft an authorial persona that suits her needs. “A lot of the ‘writing’ world revolves around writerly stuff, not writing. The writerly stuff shuts me down. But the process of actually writing and being a professional is sublime.”

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