Marie Force Calls E-Books ‘Blockbuster’ for Genre Writers

Marie Force signing her books.

Marie Force signing her books. (Photo: Courtesy of Marie Force)

Marie Force is everywhere.

The largely indie author is in Amazon’s top 100 in multiple categories, but the truth is that her reach is much wider than that. Ms. Force is the first person in our Titans Of Kindle series who has told us about how she has intentionally gotten her e-books onto every single platform she can. She’s on iBooks, Kobo and Barnes and Noble, at a minimum.

She’s also on paper, the old fashioned way. Ms. Force started as a traditionally published writer, much like Douglas E. Richards. She diverges from Mr. Richards, though, in that she pursued additional publishing contracts after she had success self-publishing digitally. She knew there were readers she would never reach if she wasn’t in mass market paper on the racks at the drug store, so she has series running with Harlequin and Berkley Books.

The market for romance books is estimated at $1.08 billion per year, according to the Romance Writers of America, with 39 percent of that volume coming from e-books. Ms. Force contends that with such a large market, with gatekeepers removed by digital publishing, it has empowered romance writers.

In the following interview, Ms. Force tells us about  her success and some of the kinks technology has had to work out so far in order to best serve the fans.

The following telephone interview has been edited and condensed:

You do some work for traditional publishers and some work on your own?

I’m much more indie published than I am traditionally published. I have fifty books. Thirty of them are indie published and 20 are traditional. I’m definitely much more committed indie, just as far as long term. As one of the first romance authors to embrace indie publishing, I’ve been doing it since 2010, since it was a viable option.

When did you publish with a publisher for the first time?

With a publisher, I had my first book out Sept 1, 2008. Very small published.

So how much time now do you spend on those publisher contracts as opposed to the indie work?

I would say it is 75 percent indie and 25 percent publisher. Harlequin has my Fatal series, which is in its fifth year. I’ve sold more than a million books with them. Then Berkley Publishing has my Green Mountain series.

Are you running several series on the indie side?

Yes, I have three indie series and four standalone indie books. I’m at book 15 on my most successful series, which is the Gansett Island series. That series has sold 2.7 million e-books since 2011. That was my gamechanger series. That’s the one that got me out of the full time job and made me self-employed and got me employees. Since it’s indie published, I’m making $3 to sometimes $4 per book on those books. 

I had a lot of rejection from traditional publishing. Every single traditional publisher rejected this series, which is something I am very thankful for now. I still had a day job when I wrote the first series, I wrote the first couple of books because I lived in fear of making the sale and then having to produce the second book with a gun to my head, because I had a job and I had little kids and I had a life. I thought: I’ll write ahead.  They tell you not to do that because what’s the point? If you don’t sell the first then you’re screwed three times over.

A Gansett Island novel.

A Gansett Island novel. (Image: Courtesy of Marie Force)

But I wrote three books in the Gansett Island series while I was hopefully trying to sell the first one, and that turned out to be very fortuitous because when everyone rejected it and self-publishing became a very viable alternative right around the same time. I had like 80,000 sales of the first three books in the first two or three months.

And so what are they about?

They are about, it’s a fictional island. It’s supposed to be like Block Island, Rhode Island, and it’s this family that runs a marina and a hotel. And slowly but surely the siblings work their way back to the island when life doesn’t work out the way they hoped it would off the island.

I keep bringing back couples that were, for example, written into their little happily ever after in book two, but they’ll show up with a new story in book 12. So the readers love that.

So if the indie stuff is doing so well, why did you decide to do traditional, when it sounds like your current contracts came after your indie success. Is that right?

They did. I wanted to be in mass market print. I wanted to be everywhere the readers are. Being with two big publishers, particularly with Harlequin, which has incredible distribution, it’s beneficial to me because I have a ton of readers who are still reading in paper.

My Fatal series was originally only an e-book series with Harlequin, but they brought it into print last year. June 28, the last two books that have already been out as e-books will come out in print.

And then July 26 is a big day. Because it will be the first time the series is out in all formats at the same time, with Fatal Identity. And I want to say ‘Hallelujah’ because the series has been very popular and if it gets more popular everyone in the different formats are looking for it on the same day. I don’t have to tell them, “Print will be out next year.” They don’t want to hear that.

Do you think you’ve converted or found any new readers on digital from being in print?

I gave one of my aunts a Kindle for her 80th birthday. She told me “Don’t give it to me, I won’t use it,” and now she’s completely addicted to it. I do spend some time trying to convince my older readers who have trouble seeing the words on the page to try digital reading, because I think sometimes they don’t realize how much easier it will be for their eyes.

But, I definitely see a lot of people are hardcore: if they are print readers, they are print readers, and you are never going to flip them.

So what do you think is the right price for an e-book? And what’s going into that number for you? What are the different feelings and strategies going into that number?

One of Ms. Force's books published with Harlequin.

One of Ms. Force’s books published with Harlequin. (Image: Courtesy of Marie Force)

I feel like you pay for the story, not the format. You’re paying for the months that the author has spent creating the story regardless of how it’s delivered to you, but I do understand the readers’ perception that when they are holding a paperback in their hand, they are getting more value somehow, because they can pass it on easier than they can with digital books.

From my point of view, I don’t feel that I really owe the reader the cheapest price I can give them. I owe them the best book I can give them. So I try to spread it around in terms of a lot of discounted first books in series. I try to do a lot of sales, but for the most part, my front list, on the indie side, is $4.99 to $6.99.

That’s sort of high.

Yeah, you know, I didn’t start there. I was at $2.99 for years, and it has slowly come up. Selling that to the readers, they sort of understand.

My front list on the traditional side are $7.99, and my last two $7.99 books made the New York Times bestseller list, so I think people, when they get an author that they trust is going to give them a certain experience every time, they are willing to pay.

Case in point, there are authors like the Danielle Steels and the Nora Roberts’s of the romance world who are charging $14.99 for front list. People are willing to pay it for those authors, for that experience.

‘I know retired women who read two books a day. One in the morning and one at night. So we are feeding that machine.’

One thing people have said, is it’s also true that lowering the price point actually makes more money overall, because a disproportionate number of people more will buy it. Have you ever experimented with those numbers in that way?

I have, and I believe that. I have a free first in the series, and the earlier books are in the $2.99 range. The middle books are in the $3.99 range and the later ones are $4.99.

It just depends on the length of the series and what you’re asking them to commit to.

I sort of woke up one day and realized people are coming to this series new and there’s 10 books, it’s going to cost them $50 to read the back list. So you’re looking at it from a $50 standpoint, instead of a $20 standpoint. So getting the early books down to a lower price made sense to me.

I talked Harlequin into doing the same thing with the Fatal series. We have now got a lower price tiered structure for the earlier books.

So we are enticing people to come into the series by giving them a break on the older books, but still expecting them to pay the full price for the new ones. And I think that the readers are totally on board with that.

Is there a part of you where you don’t want to charge less than that, because it isn’t even about money? Is there an emotional side?

Not emotion so much as just it’s just the going rate for people.

You look around at some of my peers, who are at roughly the same point in their career that I am. That’s the going rate for our books on the indie side. So, why would I price less?

Big publishers fought for the right to charger higher e-book prices. I don’t know if Harlequin fits into that. I know romance was super early into e-books. Does it have a different pricing structure?

No, both of my publishers are under the agency pricing model where they set their prices. They are not discounted ever. [Note: previously, Amazon bought e-books under the wholesale model, which permitted the company to sell some books at a loss to attract readers to using Kindles.]

So your books are now $7.99?

It’s pretty much the going rate for all traditionally published, front list, bestselling author books that are also in mass market paper. It’s not like it’s just me.

How does revenue for your books business break down? Are you doing Nook, Barnes & Noble?

I’m doing everything. Amazon is by far my best publisher, by far. Apple is by far my number two on the indie side. It’s quite a difference between number one and number two. And it is quite a difference between number two and three.

I make very good money at number three. I make very good money at number four, so I have no complaints.

You’re the first person I’ve talked to that’s doing iBooks.

They are not doing iBooks?

I think most of the other big e-book authors started with Amazon and went into Kindle Digital Unlimited (KDU), Amazon’s subscription service. You have to be exclusive to Amazon to get in that. 

The Wreck, a romantic suspense novel, by Marie Force.

The Wreck, a romantic suspense novel by Marie Force. (Image: Courtesy of Marie Force)

I had too big of a following on the other platforms by the time KDU came along. I could never do that. I sell in multiple thousands on day one on iBooks, on Kobo, on Nook. There’s no way I could be exclusive.

I did put my books in for KDU when we were allowed to. They gave some of us the option to without the exclusivity. If it wasn’t required to be exclusive to Kindle, I would put all my books in KDU.

I could not do that to all my readers on the other platforms. They’ve been faithful to me.

And so have the retailers. Like, I’m one of the top ten publishers on Kobo’s indie publishing arm. How can I go to them and say I’m going to be exclusive with another retailer?

I think some of the authors I’ve talked to came along after KDU, so they just stuck with that.

Yeah, I can see that. If you go to another retailer you’re basically starting from scratch. It can be daunting. We talk about that on one of the author groups that I run. About the courage it takes to take all your exclusive books and then send them wide. And then have to wait out the growth pattern at all the other retailers. And in the meantime you’re not getting the KDU income anymore.

I’m very glad to have all my eggs not in one basket though.

What do you mean by the author groups that you run?

So, I have a Yahoo loop that has 3,000 indie authors on it. And I have a Facebook group that I started three weeks ago that has 800 indie authors on it. Well, they are indie and traditionally published, but mostly indies.

They are just a great place for authors to hang out and talk about what’s going on, what they are hearing. Today, the big scoop on the Facebook page was the new icons on Facebook.

The author community, especially the romance community, is very generous. Gone is that attitude of “if I help you I might sacrifice that one spot that might have gone to me on the publisher’s schedule.” Now it’s like an open field. There’s room for everyone who wants to be in the game, so why wouldn’t I help someone? What does that cost me? Nothing.

Do any of the e-retailers, like Kobo or Amazon or any of them, talk to you directly as an author about how they can serve you better?

All the time. All of them do it. They will go to the authors they know who are paying the closest attention to the business and say, “We want to roll out this new feature, will you test it for us?”

Is there anything you can point to that you gave a lot of input on?

Yes. Pre-orders on all of the major retailers. We really hammered that one home hard. It allows your book to go live on every retailer at the same time, and the bigger you get the more important that is. I cannot overstate how important that is. It makes for such a quiet, smooth release day. It goes live at midnight everywhere. You don’t have one group clamoring because another group is so excited that they have the book.

Obviously, for the retailers, they had to put some time into developing these programs. One of the things that Amazon prides itself on is a good customer experience. So, if we agree to roll a book out on a given day, we have to deliver it. They have to deal with the customers if we don’t, and they don’t want that. So they require we upload the final book ten days before the go live date or we run the risk of having our pre-order privileges suspended for a year.

And I don’t blame them for that at all. At all.

But it took some time for the retailers to work out these things so they could satisfy their own corporate culture and do what we wanted to do. It took a while, but I think they all got it right.

And now indie publishers have the same access to this sort of thing as their traditional counterparts do.

There’s artists out there who believe that putting intellectual property, like books or music, on the block chain (like bitcoin) could make it possible for consumers to treat digital books like physical books. What do you think about using block chain to track IP of your books and let users resell them?

No, I wouldn’t. Where do I profit from that?

People will say I just read your whole Fatal series, but I got it from the used book store. Well, good for the used book store.

There’s only so many print books out there that could possibly be resold, but with a digital book it’s potentially endless. And if you lose control of a digital file, you lose control of it forever. I don’t even give out advanced reader copies in PDF format or MOBI format. The only way I will give an advanced copy of a digital book is if it send it directly to a person’s Kindle.

I get the concept. It can’t exist on your Kindle at the same time it exists on someone else’s. But the second, third or fourth people don’t have to pay for it, but those people don’t have to pay me for it?

So, as far as I can tell so far, e-book success stories seem to be really exclusively genre fiction authors.

Yes.

Do you have any thoughts on why that is? Do you think the non-genre fiction will come along? Or is there something about digital that makes it right for genre fiction?

It comes down to the one basic fact that genre fiction readers are voracious. Romance readers, myself included, can read a book a day, almost. At least every other day. I know retired women who read two books a day. One in the morning and one at night. So we are feeding that machine. They can’t get enough. I think that’s true across the board, whether it’s digital or print or audio, you’re probably going to see the romance, the mystery, the thriller readers are going to the ones fueling it.

The inspirational market is picking up too. It’s becoming a bigger player.

So I think if you have the built in readership and add in the ease of access that digital readers now have to the content, the combination is blockbuster, for authors. Which is awesome.

So many people are now running small businesses. I am. I have four full time employees. I’m the sole provider for my whole family. I know so many people who are in that boat now. I can name you 100 people who I know personally in that boat.

Back five years ago I couldn’t name 15 people that were doing this full time.

I have my entire business set up so all I do is write. My staff take care of the money, the designs, all that. That’s a thing a lot of small writers are learning. You can’t just write the books, but you have to run the business too.

Further reading in the Titans of Kindle series:

Marie Force Calls E-Books ‘Blockbuster’ for Genre Writers