Same Old Story: Romance Writers Recycle Pulp Books as E-Books, and Reap Rewards

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For decades, romance novels have been printed on cheap paper with racy covers and sold in drugstores. But fans are increasingly buying their books online. At the annual Romance Writers of America Conference in New York this week, some canny authors say they are discovering clever ways to cash in on the shift to e-books.

The Not-So-New Bestseller

Earlier this month, the No. 1 fiction e-book on the New York Times Bestseller List was "Summer Secrets," by Barbara Freethy.

"'Summer Secrets' is about three sisters who won an around-the-world sailing race with their kind of crazy father when they were teenagers,” said Freethy, a California writer in town for the conference. Ten years later, a reporter shows up in town, and uncovers a secret about what really happened on that boat that summer.

Well, here's a twist Freethy is not keeping to herself: "Summer Secrets" is actually not a new book. It was published in 2004, in paper, by NAL/Penguin.

When the story fell out of print, the rights reverted to the author. This had been the pattern in publishing for decades, and usually it didn't mean much.

But with e-books growing rapidly, Freethy thought she'd try re-publishing "Summer Secrets" electronically. She posted it to online bookstores run by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and watched the orders come in.

"I had no idea that the book would take off in the way that it did. But it just shows there was a lot of life left to the book," Freethy said, adding that she expects to make more money from the second-run e-book than she ever did from the paper edition.

Author and Businesswoman

Another author who's embraced digital publishing is Nyree Belleville, who writes under the names Bella Andre (spicier adult books) and Lucy Kevin (madcap adventures for younger women). She said she watches book sales closely to get a handle on what readers want — right down to the choice of electronic cover art.

Recently, Belleville decided to make a change to the covers of her Lucy Kevin books: "I first had photo covers, and when I changed them to illustrated covers my numbers literally changed overnight," she said.

Belleville said she's constantly in contact with readers, and has written sequels to books based on popular demand.

Since most of her sales are online, she now does much of the work a publisher used to do: copy editing, graphic design, promotions. When she can't do it herself, she hires someone.

It's paying off. Belleville is now selling between 1,000 and 3,000 books online, every day, typically priced from 99 cents to $4.

"It's going to be a very good year," Belleville said.

More good years may be in store. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports the portion of Americans owning e-readers doubled in the past year, to 12 percent.

And publishers have gotten wise. Most paper book deals now reserve e-book rights for the publisher.


Correction:WNYC originally reported "Summer Secrets" was published by Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. It was in fact published by NAL/Penguin. WNYC regrets the error.