Author Who Knocked “Fifty Shades” From Its No. 1 Spot Explains Why Publishers May Be Doomed

Sylvia Day’s Reflected in You recently unseated Fifty Shades of Grey from its spot as the No. 1 best seller in trade fiction, where it’s sat for more than six months. “This wave of erotic fiction? It’s not new, and it’s still a niche genre,” she says.

Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series has some noticeable similarities to the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise: It’s a self-published erotic novel based on a wealthy and somewhat violent male protagonist named Gideon Cross. The plot centers on Cross’ “obsessive” and “possessive” relationship with a similarly well-off woman named Eva Tramell. Here’s a sample quote: “Pulling the hem of my skirt up, I showed him where the top of my black silk stockings hooked to my black lace garter belt. His muttered curse made me smile.”

But it’s no copycat: Bared to You, the series’ first book, was published the same day as Fifty Shades. Over the past few weeks, the series’ second book, Reflected in You, finally unseated Fifty Shades in the top spot for trade fiction (paperbacks you’re more likely buy at a bookstore, as opposed to a drugstore or grocery store). Day spoke to BuzzFeed Shift about erotic fiction and the very uncertain future of book publishing.

Your series, much like Fifty Shades of Grey, fits into the genre of wildly popular self-published erotic fiction. Why are readers so obsessed with erotic novels all of a sudden?

People say there’s a trend of best-selling erotic fiction. But what is there? There’s Fifty Shades and my Crossfire series. That’s not a trend. It’s two series.

In 2005 and 2006, there were a number of all-digital publishers specializing in erotic fiction, but there was no Kindle or Nook, so you would go to their website and buy and download the file to your computer. This was doing really well, and traditional publishers wanted to start figuring out digital publishing, so they thought this might be the genre to open the door for them. All the major New York publishers, at that point, started publishing erotic fiction. The market was flooded with erotic fiction, but the demand didn’t support it. There was too much! So this wave of erotic fiction? It’s not new, and it’s still a niche genre.

Some publishers have repackaged their erotic novels from 2005 and 2006, and they may have sold a bit better this time. But we’re not seeing enough breakaway hits to indicate a huge genre surge.

Unlike Fifty Shades author E.L. James, you’ve written dozens of traditionally published books. Why the switch to self-publishing?

I’ve been traditionally published for my whole career, starting in 2004. I’m contracted with several different publishers — I write historicals, paranormals, fantasy, everything. It’s all spread out among various publishers. I had the idea for this character while I was on deadline for another contracted book.

As I started writing the first book in the Crossfire series, I realized that the hero was pretty dark. I had some concerns that my editors would feel he was unheroic. With any genre, there are certain tropes that need to be followed. In a murder mystery, someone has to be murdered. In a romance novel, the hero has to be heroic. I wasn’t sure if the character’s darkness crossed that line. But I felt his character was absolutely integral to the story, and I wasn’t willing to change him, so I didn’t shop the book to publisher. You can’t go to your editor and say, “I have this story I’m working on but I’m absolutely unwilling to really take any editorial input on it.” So I decided to self-publish.

But then you ended up selling the book to a big publisher.

I distributed advance copies to reviewers for the month before the book was officially self-published, and the book was starting to get some buzz online. On a Friday afternoon, five days before I self-published, my editor at Penguin was looking for something to read over the weekend and stumbled across the reviews of my book on GoodReads. She e-mailed me saying, “What is this book, and why didn’t you shop it to me?” I sent a copy of the book that day, and a week later — just three days after it was self-published, she made an offer. So Penguin took over the series, both the e-book and the paperback.

So you thought it was too dark for traditional publishers — and then it wasn’t?

I write for the romance imprints of a number of publishers, and this is not traditional romance. I hadn’t thought of shopping it as “women’s fiction,” but we realized we could market it that way and not have to deal with the traditional romance tropes.

Are the requirements that books fit squarely into certain genres breaking down?

Yes, and it’s being driven by self-publishing. When you wanted to market something to big publishers before, it had to fit a slot. A lot of hybrid fiction hasn’t performed well because it didn’t fit into a neat category. With self-publishing, you don’t have to worry about that. At book conventions, it used to be that all the writers would fight to get into the panel where publishers would talk about the next big trend. Now, it’s the reverse.

Berkley Trade / AP

Where can you go wrong with self-publishing?

If someone wants to self-publish, you need to realize you’re not just a writer. You’re a publisher and need to be able to compete with big publishers. The idea that you can just slap it together and Photoshop a cover does not demonstrate good business sense. You need to make an investment. So you need to do that, and then consistently do that — most writers don’t strike it big on their first book. Some writers write hundreds of books and never strike it big.

Penguin and Random House, two of the “big” publishers in New York, just merged. What does that mean for authors like you?

One of the inevitable effects of going from a “big six” group of publishers to a “big five” is that less authors will be acquired. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — some authors are writing books and only getting a few thousands copies that aren’t widely distributed. So if publishing houses have fewer authors that they spend more time promoting, it’s overall a benefit to writers. Of course it’s rough because some authors will no longer be published, but it’s good to see two companies coming together and sharing resources to become bigger and better. It’s a tough time for the industry, and they’re fighting for survival.

Walk us through the economics here. Is it better to self-publish or to go through a publisher?

I put out Bared to You, the first e-book in the series, for $4.99. Big publishers usually start their e-books at $7.99. By self-publishing, I make 70% royalties, so I get about $3.50 per download. If you turn it over to big publishers, they raise the price, but I’m only making about a dollar a download. And it’s about the same with paperbacks. So, you have to sell that many more books for what you lost by turning it over.

With e-books, it’s an even playing field. Publishers have no advantage over an independent author selling e-books. It’s with paperbacks where a publisher can really come in and increase an author’s exposure. As popular as e-books are, an author can’t build huge brand recognition without that paperback in stores. The media is still more focused on what paperbacks are selling the most copies.

So what’s an author to do?

The question is, do I give up that extra money and go to big publishers and get more brand recognition and get more critical success? Or do I give up some of that critical success and make a lot more money? Of course, if you have name recognition, that will help you in self-publishing. So you can go to big publishers and lose money, but your ability to make money in the future has increased exponentially. So the investment was worth it.

That sounds like a kind of bad deal for the publishers.

If they step up their game, they can be a good partner. It’s supposed to be a partnership, where the author licenses her book to the publisher for mutual gain. But that balance shifted over the years, and authors were no longer considered partners. They weren’t invited to talk about cover art or foreign sales. Now that’s working itself out. The balance of power is now on the writer’s side.

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