By Randy Kraft, Special to the Independent
Kaira Rouda is hardly an overnight success. The local resident switched from real estate marketing to full-time writer in 2010 and never looked back.
She inaugurated her career with a self-help guide, “The Real You” distributed by Wiley Publishing, still in print, and has since self-published 12 novels and one story collection. In July, Amazon launched her online short fiction series, “Kaira Rouda’s Laguna Worlds.”
Her resolve has paid off. In September, Rouda landed a five-figure, two-book publishing contract with Harlequin Books, the world’s leading purveyor of fiction written for women and a division of Harper Collins Publishers, one of the five companies that dominate publishing worldwide.
Rouda is among six writers signed for the new Graydon House Books, named for a historic Georgian manor on the 100-acre property in Toronto where Harlequin is headquartered.
Harlequin senior editor Margo Lipschulz, who will shepherd a new line-up of women’s fiction, plans to publish the first six books September 2017 and 15 annually.
“We pulled together fresh voices that look at women’s lives through a different lens,” says Lipschulz.
According to industry insiders like Scott Eagan, founder of Greyhaus Literary Agency in Seattle, romance and women’s fiction are totally different even as they share readers.
“In romance fiction, the relationship is the central plot arc of the story and there is always a happy ending, whereas women’s fiction has more to do with personal evolution,” says Eagan.
Harlequin, founded in 1949, also owns Carina Press, another major romance imprint, as well as Mira Books, a women’s fiction press. The company, which claims to have sold 6.6 billion books since inception, saw sales decline for five years before the acquisition in 2014 by Harper Collins, a division of Rupert Murdock’s Newscorp, which owns Avon, the other powerhouse in the romance category. Craig Swinwood, the chief executive at the time, acknowledged that they might not have shifted rapidly enough to the growing e-book format.
Another insider, MJ Rose, an author, marketing guru and founder of 1001 Dark Nights, publisher of romance novellas, says romance sales are increasingly dominated by self-published writers and online purchases, depressing publisher revenue and suggesting that a company like Harlequin needs to expand beyond their core business.
“Romance has never been bigger and many authors have gone out on their own, publishing at lower price points to appeal to these voracious readers,” Rose says.
So-called women’s fiction is a broader category that includes literary authors like the trending Elena Ferrante or thrillers like the popular “Girl on the Train“ by Paula Hawkins, as well as the cultural literature that appeals to book groups. In another age, Edith Wharton might have been considered a romance writer and Henry James a novelist of women’s fiction.
Even as she successfully built her brand through social media, Rouda never stopped chasing agents and recently found representation with Katie Shea Boutillier at Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York. Boutillier had previously rejected Rouda’s queries and was skeptical about the most recent submission, “Best Day Ever” because it is written with a male point of view, a rarity in women’s fiction. Andrea Katz, founder of Great Thoughts, Great Readers, a Facebook readers’ community, urged Rouda to press for a reading.
“Despite my initial hesitation, this novel knocked it out of the park,” says Boutillier. “On top of that, Kaira is prolific, and she’s fast, and that’s refreshing.”
As the agent submitted the work to Harlequin, among others, Lipschulz was attending a writing conference where Rouda had already made an appointment to pitch her work. She was impressed. “I came home and read the book in one sitting, and I was sold,” says Lipschulz.
Publishing industry sales are reported by format rather than content; thus there are no sales figures for women’s fiction versus romance. However Nielsen Consumer Trends confirmed that romance buyers are the heavy lifters in the business. Fifteen percent buy two or more books weekly, and at least half read one book or more weekly. Romance Writers of America, a trade group, says romance readers go through 50 – 100 books a year. In contrast, the Pew Research Center reports the average American adult reads 12 books annually, on average, with half reading less than five.
Nielsen reports that romance fiction accounts for 39% of adult e-book sales, in contrast to 17% of total adult books, making independent publishing that much easier.
Harlequin claims a stable of 1300 romance writers across the globe and publishes 110 titles a month. The worldwide Harper Collins sales force has the potential to place a variety of women’s fiction into booksellers and also discounters like Costco and Walmart, where, according to a NY Times report in 2010, one-third of books are sold. Rouda is in good hands.
As icing on the cake, a well-known Los Angeles agency is pitching “Best Day Ever” for a film, although Rouda doesn’t have much time to think about that, she says, because she’s ruminating on the next manuscript, due to Harlequin in March.