Do Romance Novelists Make Money?

by | August 19, 2016 |

Let’s talk about Money. Specifically, is making money for romance novels sales the only way to measure a writer’s success or are there other reasons we write? Is whether romance novelists make money the only story worth telling about successful authors? Let’s delve deeper into those questions.

Defining Success

Warren Buffet’s net worth is $65 billion. I know because I just googled him. When I typed in his name, the second link in the search results was to his net worth. It’s part of the story because it’s a measure of his business acumen.

Warren Buffet, investor – worth $65 billion

Warren Buffet, investor – worth $65 billion

I also just googled Toni Morrison. It’s possible to find her net worth because there’s a site for celebrity net worth. (In her case it’s $24 million.) However, you have to type in Toni Morrison net worth in order to get to it and find out how much money she makes writing. That’s because her net worth is not part of the story. Her literary prizes are, and they come up first in Google searches. They’re part of the story because they are a measure of her talent.

I bet no one asks Toni Morrison whether romance novelists make money

Toni Morrison, writer – winner of the American Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, National Humanities Medal, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Nobel Prize in Literature

What Makes a Successful Romance Novelist?

Now we come to the July 22 article in Quartz, Maverick women writers are upending the book industry and selling millions in the process and the topic of money for romance authors.

Thu-Huong Ha has written a well-researched article on romance writers and the opportunities they have in going the self-publishing route rather than the traditional one. I was glad to have had a skype interview with Ha, a number of email exchanges with her, and I was pleased to be included in her published article. She did a great job.

The main emphasis of the article is how much money romance writers make self-publishing novels. Her lead example is H. M. Ward, and what we primarily learn about this writer is the millions she’s been making.

Romance Novelists Make Money -- people like H.M. Ward who have a seven-figure annual income

H. M. Ward, writer – bestselling and self-published author with nearly 13 million books sold and a yearly income of seven figures

I think it’s great that writers are taking their careers into their own hand and making a financial success out of it. The only problem with this story is that it’s the only story when it comes to romance novels. There are so many other stories articles can focus on when writing about successful romance authors. Whether — and how much — romance novelists make money doesn’t have to be the only part of the story.

Years ago when my first romance, My Lord Roland, was published by Warner Books, I was interviewed by Betty Hodges of The Durham Herald Sun, as it was called at the time. We had an interview that lasted the usual time, at the end of which, she asked me, “How much money do you make writing romance novels?”

I was somewhat taken aback. I replied, “What does money have to do with it?”

Her response was, “It’s part of the story.”

I wasn’t sure why making money for romance novels was part of the story. I can’t remember how I answered it. Probably not well.

Some years later an undergraduate at Duke asked to interview me for the Duke Chronicle about my romances. He came to my office on campus, and one of the very first questions he posed was, “How much money do you make writing romance novels?”

Oh, right, that question. This time I was more prepared. Instead of answering it, I asked him, “Who’s your favorite author?” I think he answered Saul Bellow. I then invited him to ask me the kinds of questions he would ask Saul Bellow. He did, and we probably had a different conversation than the one he had anticipated.

A History of Shame and Money for Romance Authors

How much money a romance writer makes is part of the story, of course. It’s not as if Betty Hodges, the student who came to my office, or Thu-Huong Ha invented it. It was there already in 1855 when Nathaniel Hawthorn wrote:

“America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash – and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of the ‘Lamplighter’ and other books neither better nor worse? – worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the 100,000.”

So there we have it: the linking of shame to commercial success and the way romance novelists make money by writing these stories. As a best-selling romance author, H. M. Ward should be ashamed of herself … all the way to the bank.

Let us note that Toni Morrison has sold millions of books and has millions in net worth. But her sales and her income are not part of the story. They’re a sidebar.

For years I’ve heard arguments that romance novelists make money when most writers barely scratch out an existence. Becoming a successful romance novelist should garner respect not shame. Those arguments never work, because of the entrenched narrative that equates commercial success writing romance novels with – in Hawthorne’s words – trash.

Do Romance Novelists Make Money? Defining Success for Romance Authors

The only way to dig out of the trench is for romance writers to change the story, to say to future interviewers: If you’re interested in insights into my writing, then I’d love to tell you how I understand both the romance as a venerable art form, my contribution to it, and how I define success as a romance novelist.

If you want to know about making money, go interview Warren Buffett.


Addendum: I felt Ha was completely sympathetic to her subject matter. However, one comment surprised and puzzled me. After quoting a well-known literary agent for praising the range of managing skills writers need to succeed self-publishing romance novels, Ha adds:

“On top of that, of course, they have to fill the pages with hundreds of diversely described moans, kisses, and long glances, and, of course, the requisite happy union.”

This odd comment came in the subsection entitled Creativity unshackled, making it seem that Ha’s understanding of the creative range of the narrative form is extremely narrow.

I am moved to comment only because this is the section in which I am quoted in several paragraphs. I can say that of the many challenges my chosen narrative form presents me, creating an improvisational range for describing moans, kisses and long glances isn’t one of them.

As far as the requisite happy ending goes, see my blog: Five Myths About Romance Novels


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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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