What romance writers can teach us about the digital economy

Many creative industries have been decimated by the economics of digital. Not so for romance writers, whose average incomes have actually increased threefold.
Romance writers, like the authors of the books above, are thriving in the digital publishing world despite declining sales in other genres. (CARINA PRESS/Harlequin Desire/Harlequin DARE)
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This segment first aired in February, 2018.


If you want to understand how to thrive in the growing "gig" economy, look to a surprising source: romance writers.

So argues Chris Larson, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She studies how digital technologies transform media industries.

Chris Larson, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder

Unlike many in media, romance writers are flourishing in an era of digital disruption. Larson looked at their incomes from 2008 to 2014. She found the median income had tripled. She compared that to a study by the Writers' Guild in the US over the same period, suggesting median income for authors across all genres had dropped by 30%.

(Ben Shannon)

Romance writers, like most writers, are freelancers. Larson argued in a recent article, they have three practices that contribute to their success, and offer lessons for other freelancers.

1. Openness to newcomers

First is an open attitude towards up-and-coming writers, an approach that goes back to the 1970s.

"Romance writers were ridiculed and stigmatized, and really mainstream writing groups didn't want anything to do with them, so they created their own writers' association," Larson explained. "They decided to welcome any writer who aspired to become a romance writer."

Harlequin Intrigue's "romantic suspense" series. Digital allows authors to experiment with different niches (Harlequin Intrigue)

This openness came in handy as digital technology started to change publishing. "They were very quickly able to share innovations among each other, both the traditionally published authors and those who were experimenting with ebooks."

2. Sharing competitive information

"They share with each other, both in-person, and online what works," Larson argued. "They tell each other how much money they're making...how they're marketing their books, and that's sort of secret information in other industries."

3. Getting advice from newcomers

In most industries, junior mentees seek advice from more senior mentors. Larson's research showed the opposite could be the case. "In my survey...the writers who were earning the most money were established writers who asked advice from newcomers." Larson's reasoning was that newcomers were the ones who had more incentive to experiment with new forms of publishing than established writers.

Romance readers are voracious...so they had an appetite to try all kinds of stories, and that's part of what digital allowed- Malle Vallik

Malle Vallik, Editorial Director, Author Engagement at Harlequin, agrees with Larson's take on openness. "I go to several romance conferences each year," she said. "Whenever we have a writer from a mystery group, or a science fiction group come to one of our conferences, they're actually amazed at how open everyone is about 'this worked for me, this didn't work.'"

(Ben Shannon)

Harlequin was an early innovator in the digital space. They were among the first to release all their titles as ebooks. For Vallik, the romance genre in particular benefits from digital publishing.

Malle Vallik, Editorial Director, Harlequin

"Romance readers are voracious...having a reader read 20 books a year, or 20 books a month is really common...so they had an appetite to try all kinds of stories, and that's part of what digital allowed," she explained. "You could get into the market with more niche, with less costs...so when we talked about authors being hybrid authors — doing publishing and self-publishing — that made a lot of sense in the romance market."

Chris Larson acknowledged that the term "gig economy" refers to many different types of workers, some of whom may have more ability to self-organize than others. However, she says the big takeaways are: "band together, share successful practices, and look for newcomers who probably know more than you do about what's coming down the pike."

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