ARE YOU KIDDING ME ON CANCELLING AUDIBLE ESCAPE
September 16, 2020 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Romance novel readers are some of the most voracious and loyal book readers (and buyers) around. And yet their enthusiasm is sometimes their undoing. 50% of indie publishing platform SmashWords' sales were derived from romance novels in 2017 and romance novels were 87% of the top 100 bestsellers in 2015. And yet in that same year Scribd's ebook subscription service cut roughly 80-90% of their romance titles. Just this week Audible Escape--a subscription service for romance and "feel good" audiobooks originally called Audible Romance--announced they would be shuttering the service in November. Many authors had already left the program citing Amazon/Audible's terrible royalty rates.
posted by jessamyn (31 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
My understanding is that much of Escape catalog is going to be added to Audible Plus, which is actually a net win for Escape subscribers if so, since it would now be included with an Audible "Gold" plan, rather than being a $7/month add-on (or had as a stand alone for $8/month vs. $13 before).
posted by 3j0hn at 11:36 AM on September 16


I am confused by this. Is this a complaint that despite being such a popular genre the E platforms are offering less of it? Is it a complaint that authors are being paid less absolutely or that they are being paid less as a percentage of gross or net for E books vs Audiobooks vs Physical books?

Is this a fundamental problem of this kind of distribution model, people are not willing to pay? people are paying too little as the all you can eat subscription model is just a loss leader to expand/conquer market share? It would be nice to understand for instance what it costs just in author royalties to supply enough content for a Romance fan's average listening consumption.

So is the subscription model dead? Or does it have less romance titles than before? Because authors are pulling out? Because the programming of the subscription has changed?
posted by Pembquist at 11:46 AM on September 16 [2 favorites]


At least we'll all still have Chuck Tingle to read.
posted by delfin at 12:08 PM on September 16 [10 favorites]


I think that the problem is that romance readers read *a lot* of books. *A lot.* They read considerably more books than readers of pretty much any other genre. So they tend to break subscription models: the model assumes that the subscriber is going to read or listen to, say, a book a week, and then they have to figure out what to do when they have subscribers who listen to or read a book every day. And for subscription services, which typically pay authors and publishers by the number of books that subscribers read/ listened to, that either means stiffing the authors/ publishers or shutting down the service. They could make the service really expensive, but that wouldn't be attractive to readers.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:14 PM on September 16 [36 favorites]


Back when I worked at a Waldenbooks, we had one of those "spend $x get a $5 coupon" programs. For our non-romance readers, this probably worked out to maaaaybe $25 in free books a year. For our category romance readers, this meant that every sixth week, they'd come in with a sheaf of coupons and pay for that two-week period's $100 worth of books entirely in coupons. They were really, really on the far end of the bell curve, and any bookselling plan that doesn't take them into account is going to have some hard realizations.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:46 PM on September 16 [48 favorites]


That seems like the kind of service cheapskates like me cycle through one month every two years or so in order to skim the cream of the catalog and then go read other genres until enough new books come out to make it worthwhile. I'm way more likely to stay subscribed to a service that has a less restricted stock. I do read romance, among other genres and read 200+ (possibly 400+) books a year, so I have to be pretty cheap about what I spend per book.

Think about audio is even if you listen to it at 1.4x or faster speeds you really can't get anywhere near reading speed on paper.

What I've seriously been wondering about is how few books, even in pandemic times, are voiced by whole casts of actors instead of a single actor. You'd think a crew of ten or so people could plow through 100 books and get similar royalties or better than each person taking 10 books on alone. I'm guessing there's something I'm missing about how that business works though.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:48 PM on September 16


Brother Caine, I believe that Full Cast productions just take more time for the Producer to get ready, splicing the various tracks together and normalizing volume and compensating for different recording spaces and whatnot.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:51 PM on September 16 [3 favorites]


Live by the throbbing "sword", die by the, etc? Fair pay is definitely an issue and the whole traditional vs self-publish marketplace is a hot, steamy, throbbing mess. Oops, that crept in again. But for reals, though, it's a bit of a nightmare out there, across all genres. In theory, the firm, steady hand of the market should inevitably swoop in and thrust these castaway scribblers back into the turgid embrace of profit.
posted by Godspeed.You!Black.Emperor.Penguin at 12:51 PM on September 16 [5 favorites]


Does the proliferation of romance fanfic erode price in that industry? Does the voraciousness of the readers erode quality? I remember when I was a wee lad it seemed like there were a lot of specialty used bookstores that were solely devoted to inexpensive paperback romances.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:51 PM on September 16 [3 favorites]


[the thing] about audio is even if you listen to it at 1.4x or faster speeds
The (iOS) Audible app allow listening speeds of up to 3.5x! I am a little surprised they don't cap it at 1.5x now that they've vastly expanded their all you can eat offerings.
posted by 3j0hn at 12:55 PM on September 16


Making the subscriptions more expensive wouldn't be attractive to most readers, but romance readers are obviously not most readers. restless_nomad's anecdote shows they're willing to spend more to read more physical books, so it's not a huge stretch to think that a subscription model based on usage tiers would be a reasonable compromise. In fact, one of those smashwords links in the OP suggests it too.
posted by natabat at 12:56 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]


Live by the throbbing "sword", die by the, etc? Fair pay is definitely an issue and the whole traditional vs self-publish marketplace is a hot, steamy, throbbing mess. Oops, that crept in again.
Most of us don't do this anymore, because it's tired and not funny and also kind of sexist. There's nothing inherently funny about romance novels. Lots of people like them. Lots of MeFites like them! They're not inherently any more worthy of mockery than anything else that people like to consume.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:09 PM on September 16 [68 favorites]


Does the proliferation of romance fanfic erode price in that industry?

Ha, it certainly makes me a relative cheapskate and/or very picky reader for pro romance fiction. I'll happily pay for romance novels, but never more than the $8 you'd pay for a mass market paperback, and the library can meet a lot of my romance novel needs, so I see no need for a subscription service on top of that. The vast majority of romance novels aren't to my taste though, and I'm not willing to wade through a ton of garbage, paying for the privilege, to find the few that I like. I can do that on AOOO for free!

I doubt it's a consideration for most romance novel readers though. The worlds of fic and romance can certainly run parallel to each other, and often share writers, but I don't think there's enough overlap between romance readers and fic readers to meaningfully impact romance publishing's bottom line. Like, voracious romance readers aren't going to be satisfied with just fic, though plenty of fic readers are also reading and paying for romance novels.
posted by yasaman at 1:09 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]


AOOO? that's like saying To-ron-to.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:02 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]


lol given how often I type ao3.org into an address bar, you'd think I wouldn't make that mistake /o\

Does the voraciousness of the readers erode quality?

Anyway, I've also kind of wondered about this, but have been hesitant to attribute it to the audience or anything beyond how with a greater quantity of books, a higher proportion of those books are necessarily going to be crap. Also, in the world of self-publishing, the incentive for quality versus quantity is probably decidedly skewed towards quantity.

But hell, The Da Vinci Code and sequel(s?) exist, and were, somehow, enormous bestsellers. Romance doesn't have a monopoly on mediocre popular fiction, so let's not suggest its readers are somehow especially lacking in discernment. A subscription model based on usage tiers, as natabat suggests, would probably be the most fair option for both writers and readers.
posted by yasaman at 2:58 PM on September 16 [4 favorites]


> They're not inherently any more worthy of mockery than anything else that people like to consume.

Oh, agreed, fully. We are strange animals, hooting and chirping at each other to communicate complex ideas and maintain enormous, lubricative fictions that keep societies somewhat functional at scale. It's all really quite delightful when separated from the myriad ways in which we cause harm to each other.

And so, for any harm caused by my earlier comment, I do apologize.
posted by Godspeed.You!Black.Emperor.Penguin at 4:01 PM on September 16 [8 favorites]


Does the proliferation of romance fanfic erode price in that industry?

I can tell you this much - it's a very common path these days for teenagers to write fanfic then graduate to writing pro romance novels. They aren't mutually exclusive and there's a whole complex ecostystem going on there. Even sci fi genre fans really have no grasp on how differently romance readers and authors contribute to their community.

I never got into fanfic as a young person (just a wee bit too old and missed the right tech window to be able to self publish to a receptive audience) and deeply regret it. I write freelance and there is always dozens of ads on my platforms looking for various niche romance writers. As restless_nomad points out, there's a voracious, loyal market for romance books, and they are just as discerning as any other reader. More so! They can get shit for free. If they're paying, they're paying for quality, and if you can show them a bit of respect they'll reward you.
posted by Jilder at 4:35 PM on September 16 [6 favorites]


The vast majority of romance novels aren't to my taste though, and I'm not willing to wade through a ton of garbage, paying for the privilege, to find the few that I like. I can do that on AOOO for free!
I find enough gems in Kindle Unlimited that I haven't canceled yet, but I'm definitely sifting through mountains of garbage to find the treasure. I'd kill for a search that let me find things like "rights reverted to author on novel previously published professionally" or "the five-star reviews of this did not come from friends and family". As-is, I have a massive wish-list of everything that looks interesting and I bail on a book quickly if I think it's not worth it. (Occasionally, I find a KU book with no review at all and roll the dice.)

I had considered the Scribd subscription at one point, as I'd love a higher quality subscription, but it didn't seem like the catalog was as broad as I would want.

Reading the links, it's bonkers that the Audible rates were so much lower than the KU rates. (Although I've seen cases where Amazon claws back some of that KU money by claiming that page reads were fraudulent. Maybe they couldn't implement that for Audible and had to bake that into the lower rate?)
posted by Anonymous Function at 5:08 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]


Audiobooks.com supposedly has 200,000 titles in their romance subscription for ~$15/month.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:18 PM on September 16


they tend to break subscription models

They used to make subscription models - supermarket-rack-type romances had cards bound in advertising subscriptions by mail, several volumes a month for about the cover price, guaranteed never published before!

If it could work with shipping physical objects, I’m surprised it didn’t work with servers and routers. Though I suppose it didn’t work forever with the physical books.
posted by clew at 6:45 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]


Though I suppose it didn’t work forever with the physical books.
No, I think romance subscriptions still totally exist. But I don't think they run on an unlimited book model: you get a certain number of books per month. I think Scribd and Audible Escape are more like Netflix, where you pay a flat monthly fee and then get unlimited access. Plus I think the romance subscriptions were (and maybe still are) typically run by romance publishers like Harlequin, so they had a really clear idea about the specific market they were working in, and they kept all the profit rather than having to give some of it to an intermediary like Scribd or Audible.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:01 PM on September 16 [3 favorites]


You’re right, a known number of books is more like the monthly fee for one book that Audible seems to be doing fine with.

Advertising an unlimited subscription specifically to romance readers... my college crew team went to an all-you-can-eat Mongolian grill one day after weekend practice, and they were fairly nice about disinviting us back ever but still.
posted by clew at 8:22 PM on September 16 [6 favorites]


"Live by the throbbing "sword", die by the, etc? Fair pay is definitely an issue and the whole traditional vs self-publish marketplace is a hot, steamy, throbbing mess. Oops, that crept in again.
posted by Godspeed.You!Black.Emperor.Penguin at 3:51 PM on September 16 [2 favorites +] [!]
"

Most of us don't do this anymore, because it's tired and not funny and also kind of sexist. There's nothing inherently funny about romance novels. Lots of people like them. Lots of MeFites like them! They're not inherently any more worthy of mockery than anything else that people like to consume.


But there is also nothing inherent about romance novels that makes them above the mockery that others get either? I personally didn't see anything in GY!BEP's comment that felt like they were specifically mocking romance more than anything else gets mocked here.
posted by LizBoBiz at 6:30 AM on September 17 [2 favorites]




I think that the problem is that romance readers read *a lot* of books. *A lot.* They read considerably more books than readers of pretty much any other genre.

Somewhat off topic, but I've never seen anyone explain or even theorize about why this is true. Romance readers break many curves -- there are a lot of them, they read more books than anyone else, and they're more active than other readers. Most reading communities IME are absolutely dominated by romance readers, for good and ill. They have their own language for tropes and reviews. There's an entire culture and etiquette built up around book reviewing. And they rapidly build communities and then ecosystems around those communities. On the (self-)publishing side, it's absolutely cutthroat, and there is a lot of money to be made. (Or scammed.) They're just not like other readers.

It's fascinating, and I've never really seen anyone try to address the "why" of any of these phenomena. I'm tempted to make guesses based on the demographics of romance readers and my own experience writing romance novels, but not like...in public, because way too many people would go to a sexist place. Which might explain why I've never seen anyone else explain it, either.
posted by schadenfrau at 8:59 AM on September 17 [13 favorites]


I think, in part, it's a self-reinforcing system. I was polling some readers last year about their reading speed, and some were saying they will easily go through 3-5 books a day. It's clear that if you're reading 5 books a day, they are not large, complex books; they're going to be short, simple, easily digestible. Publishers get that; category romances are brief, with a focus on delivering your favored tropes in the most time-efficient way possible, and the self-pub world has certainly picked up on that.

Where I think we run into trouble is when people outside the genre assume all the books and all the readers are geared for speed like that. Some people want a fat historical romance jam-packed with detail, for instance, and plenty of authors want to deliver those. I don't think anyone is reading 5 of those a day (while they might easily slam through five shorter highly trope-targeted historicals).

You have to decide, really, which audience you're writing for, and it's not an easy question. The voracious readers look like they'd be the easiest audience, since there's the perception that they'll read anything--but that's not really true. They want those tropes, they want those characters, and if you can't deliver, if you're not surgically precise, if you start to burn out, then you miss out on that market. But if you try for the slower-reading audience that wants to dive into a long, deep book, then you have to deliver that depth--you can't cheat them out of it, or they won't come back for the next book. And it's really a rare writer who can please both those audiences.
posted by mittens at 10:34 AM on September 17 [11 favorites]


Yeah, I will clarify that by "category romance" above I mean specifically the mostly-Harlequin, very short, very very clearly marked trope delivery systems that came in every two weeks and that we treated like magazines - once they were expired, as it were, they went into the dumpster. They were probably on the order of 30-50k words - novella length, so half to a quarter of a typical novel - and while the people who read those also sometimes bought full-length romances, they bought all the category romances in their preferred categories.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:52 AM on September 17 [1 favorite]


But none of that addresses the sheer amount of activity you see in romance communities. There's no way to know how active those communities are on a per capita basis, but my guess is that they're a lot more active than others. Like I don't see book bloggers in any other genre getting secondary and tertiary burn out from dealing with the audience (YA excepted -- and there's probably a discussion there, too, though sometimes it seems as though there's a broad spectrum of YA-NA-Romance-Category Romance). There is a LOT of social and emotional energy expended on romance, is what I'm saying, and it leads to some weird dynamics that don't seem to happen in other genres.

But also, those self-publishers aren't just recycling Harlequin tropes or books. I'd actually argue that went out of style years ago, after the first wave of formerly traditionally published authors entering the self-pub world crested. My impression since then has been of this ever-evolving, hypercompetitive, roiling, hybrid thing, where self-publishers are constantly inventing (or stealing, and then re-purposing) new tropes and new subgenres. A lot of people made a lot of money off writing exclusively motorcycle club books, or alien bdsm books, or college athlete books, or or or. Which is to say: it's not like someone only recently realized people might have fantasies about college athletes, just that romance authors collectively sort of developed a language of genre around it. Sometimes deliberately, in a coordinated, highly negotiated way designed to take maximum advantage of amazon algorithms.

I think these books have always been ever-evolving, it's just that it's happening much faster now, and it's mostly happening in the self-pub universe. And you know what? Good. Every major publisher ripped of the women writing these books for years until Amazon made self-publishing viable, and now a number of those women are very rich, at the expense of those publishers. It is a cutthroat world that (now) gives me hives, but the advent of self-publishing has been an unmitigated good for the (mostly) women writing these books.

And now Amazon's monopoly status is coming back to screw them again. So...that sucks. Because the only way to remain viable on Amazon for a lot of writers who don't have an existing platform is to opt-in to their subscription pools. (KU, others.) Which is definitely on purpose. And, in a sane world, should be the target of regulation, but that is...so far down the list.
posted by schadenfrau at 12:59 PM on September 17 [2 favorites]


A fairly short article on indie romance authors -- lots on how Black women, especially, can write very successful books that conventional publishers either wouldn't publish or wanted to homogenize. A little bit, adumbrated, about the personal branding and advertising that is ?possible? ?necessary? for an indie romance author.
posted by clew at 3:08 PM on September 23 [1 favorite]


Honestly I think the romance market is just apples-to-oranges when compared to, say, the mystery market, and it'd be much closer to compare it to like the superhero comics market in terms of size, depth, and creativity. If you look at it from that angle it seems a lot less inexplicable.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:06 AM on September 25


I’d even say the video game market- I read that the actual comics market is shrinking. Also, the expectations customers have of how to mold the subject. Also the name `escape'!
posted by clew at 9:53 AM on September 25


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