Romance as a category doesn’t seem very serious, does it?

Cheap books with cheesy covers that grace the checkout lines at the supermarket, and are most often found in the hands of older female readers (or it used to be). Romance books were a kind of joke all the while I was growing up. Especially, in my academically successful family.

Even F.R.I.E.N.D.S. acknowledged the corny status romance writing achieved when Rachel became inspired to try her hand at it:

[Rachel hands out copies of her steamy romance novel draft to the gang.]

Rachel: Oh, and - and on page 2, he's not reaching for her heaving beasts.

Monica: What's a niffle?

Joey: You can usually find them on the heaving beasts.

Rachel: All right, all right, all right. So I'm not a great typist…

Ross: Wait! Did you get to the part about "his huge, throbbing pens"? I tell ya, you don't wanna be around when he starts writing with those!

Phoebe: I just got to the part about "her public hair."

Just as Amazon changed the world of book publishing in profound and irreversible ways, so too has the romance genre evolved. I don’t doubt that publishing steamy books has ever been about anything other than making money – at least for publishers.

I know authors who write books for the love of it. And then I’ve seen a lot who write for other reasons.

It’s not like the world ever expects the next literary prodigy to arise from the ranks of romance authors. Heaven forbid, women coming from a female-dominant space would ever be given that kind of credit.

As millennials are finally coming face-to-face with the fact that we’ve grown up (rather than are still in the process of growing up), we’re also changing the way the world of romance books is perceived.

Now, we have readers and authors on social media apps showcasing the kind of books and stories they always wanted to read but never found from the big publishers.

Self-publishing, Kindle, and access to the online world, have made it possible for those stories that don’t fit the publishing guidelines of traditional publishers to slip through.

Romance books have increasingly become more representative of the people who read them; the heroines have become more varied in both age and behaviour (and aren’t always heroines), the main characters in the books aren’t only white any more, and the relationships in the books are more complex than the age-old Boy Meets Girl.

So far, so good. Romance as a genre has needed new ideas and fresh minds.

Then there’s the negative aspect to publishing, which has impacted all parts of the industry.

Kindle Unlimited introduced an even more exploitative method for authors to earn money from their writing.

The people behind Kindle Unlimited have often boasted about their efforts to enhance the user experience and promote fairness for authors.

But, in the end, we are talking about a company whose primary aim is to generate profits, not to be fair to its vendors.

When dealing with Amazon, you have to always remember that the house always wins.

Even when they respond to industry pressure and change the return policy, their first and foremost goal is always Amazon. They’re typically slow to respond because the issues tend to cost the indie authors more than it does Amazon.

The romance genre on Kindle Unlimited is plagued by book stuffing where titles can be as long as 2,000 or 3,000 pages.

Book stuffing is highly controversial because Amazon pays authors from a communal pot, making Kindle Unlimited a zero-sum game where some authors’ gain is the others’ loss—and where getting more readers to read pages actually decreases your payout per page (doubly so if you’re using paid traffic to get those reads).

The majority of revenue will always go to those who can spend $50,000 on an advertising campaign and still obtain a considerable return on their investment.

The ranking system only further divides the haves from the have-nots.

Even if you write well and prolifically, tailoring your work to your market, success is not guaranteed.

As with everything online, you are still responsible for locating an audience (often a cold one if you use ads) and persuading them to consume your back catalogue.

The most successful romance writers aren’t necessarily the best authors but rather the ones with the most effective marketing strategies.

They frequently have assistants or teams supporting them in achieving their marketing goals (as with most people who make it big online, it’s just that those teams are typically invisible to anyone following their channels).

Hired community managers help maintain fan engagement, create newsletters, distribute advance reader copies (ARCs), and encourage readers to write those highly sought-after Amazon reviews, so that the author has time to write.

And visibility is everything on Kindle Unlimited.

But the automated mechanisms that drive this visibility are somewhat mysterious. Authors use a variety of tactics to appeal to the algorithm. And just as we’ve seen with SEO, there are black and white hat strategies.

Amazon supposedly uses your purchase history and the books you have looked at to predict your preferences.

However, only a small number of books appear at the bottom of the page, and it’s often the case that those who purchase Amazon ads are favoured, resulting in recommendations that are not particularly accurate. Not in my experience, anyway, or the experience of those I’ve spoken to about this.

Instead of reflecting my personal preferences, these recommendations read more like a highlight reel of what’s currently popular.

It’s not unlike social media, where transparency into who’s paying who to promote what product isn’t always clear (no matter what the guidelines say).

The result of Amazon preferring those in their own pay-to-play system, means that a few books maintain a strong presence in the top rankings while the majority are relegated to obscurity.

The 30-day cliff. Real or myth?

Whenever there is less transparency in how something works, there is always speculation. The same is true for the Amazon cliffs. Some say it exists, others say it doesn’t matter even if it does.

And in the end, the only thing we can know for sure, is that Amazon will do what will benefit Amazon.

The one thing the mere discussion around the 30/60/90-day cliff does is puts pressure on authors to pump out content – and try to compete with everyone else doing the same.

That’s why you’ll find a lot of ghostwriting, repetitive plots, copycat writing, re-publishing previously published content as well as rampant miscategorising of books to give them a better chance at breaking through the rankings.

A reverse harem book is more likely to get a best-seller rank when misplaced in a less competitive category. Books that don’t actually feature the things required in their category can often also be found on page one of search results.

The only sure fire thing that will boost visibility on Amazon (but not guarantee results) is buying ads through Amazon Marketing Services (AMS).

Like I said, the house always wins – they make money when you make a sale and they make money when you’re still trying to make a sale (i.e. advertising with them).

And once you do venture into buying visibility through AMS, you’re going up against authors who can afford to put down tens of thousands of dollars at a time, further decreasing your chances of actually being seen.

Whenever the questions are put to Amazon, their spokespersons are quick to assure that the company is proactive in addressing abuses of their systems.

The publishing industry is known for its cut-throat attitude.

And none of this is new.

Sure, when talking about companies like AMS who have unfathomable amounts of data, we’re talking about all this on a whole new level.

But even Charles Dickens’ meandering prose may be a reflection of the fact that he was paid per instalment.

Big publishing houses have always lived and died by their ability to game the system, crack the best-seller lists, and pay-to-play in a given market.

With the advent of SEO gaming, it has become even more cut-throat.

While many authors see success through self-publishing, there is an unsavoury side to the industry that is often swept under the rug.

Book stuffing is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are rumours of authors manipulating Amazon’s algorithms by working together to release books in a specific niche at the same time.

As with other online industries, there are spaces where people gather to discuss black hat SEO tactics.

In a system where visibility is everything, the pressure to succeed has led to a culture of desperation, where tactics like book stuffing and manipulating algorithms are seen as necessary evils to survive in the industry.

Instead of focusing on quality content, authors are increasingly concerned with gaming the system to gain visibility and make a profit.

Or they’re spending a lot of time and effort on marketing that gets them nowhere (which means the time they spend away from writing is costing them dearly).

Where does this leave the reader?

As more authors turn to these techniques, it’s becoming harder to find quality books amidst the noise.

In 2021 there were 12 million ebooks on Kindle and it grows every day.

As algorithms are manipulated, readers are being recommended books that are not necessarily relevant to their interests.

In the end, it’s a lose-lose situation. (Well, for everyone but Amazon.)

Authors who refuse to participate in these tactics risk being buried beneath the competition, while readers are bombarded with low-quality content or the same content over and over again.

In seeking to strike a balance between visibility and quality content, the publishing industry is a ruthless one that has only been exacerbated by the online world and Amazon.

As a reader, you’re left to find your own way through the noise.

BookTok is big, but is it helping?

Before we get into BookTok, let’s take a moment to look at TikTok itself.

David Mamet, writing scornfully in 1998 about “pseudoart,” observed that “people are drawn to summer movies because they are not satisfying, and so they offer opportunities to repeat the compulsion”.

This applies to TikTok as well.

The algorithm tries to get people addicted rather than giving them what they really want.

—Guillaume Chaslot, How TikTok Reads Your Mind

What did I say was the one true thing? That’s right, the house always wins.

BookTok has gained a big influence on the literary industry as a whole that it’s almost impossible to not have heard of it if you like books, since libraries and bookshops have jumped onto the platform.

The good thing is that it probably has influenced a lot of people to fall in love with books and reading.

The problem is that the books that circulate on BookTok tend to be a very narrow selection.

I’ve also seen how BookTok has become a breeding ground for toxic fandom culture, where people dig into their trenches and argue for the sake of arguing.

I’ve personally noticed a lack of critical thinking and critiquing books based on things like writing, character depth, plot, etc. and favouring a kind of blind love of the author or characters instead – and this despite the community being heavily based on reviews and commentary about books.

But if you try to discuss, analyse or offer counter points, you’re quickly shot down with an attitude of, “I liked it because I did. You shouldn’t say bad things about it just because you weren’t into it” – which defeats the purpose of having a conversation about it, hearing views that differ from yours.

The people I’ve interacted with have often made me feel like I was inanely arguing on Twitter in a way that doesn’t broaden anyone’s mind, just make people feel hurt, angry, and frustrated.

To me, books are pieces of media that are meant to be read, enjoyed (or not), discussed, analysed from different perspectives, and commented on.

Refusing to hear an opinion or experience that differs from your own defeats the purpose of seeking out others to share it with. (Unless your goal is to somehow make money off the content or sales, then sparking fervent argument or creating a stans around it makes perfect sense.)

The problem with this method of interacting with literature is that it is robbed of context. It’s one thing to find a quote or a fragment beautiful, it’s another thing entirely to only engage with poetry in “compilations” that stitch together mangled pieces of poems, or to read Russian novels for the pleasure of being seen with them. To read books written by brilliant people in pain, books that have been written with intentionality every step of the way, and to have done so with the goal of being a “cool girl,” and to have understood maybe half of them, is a win for commodification, and little else.

“BookTok is a mistake” by Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger, The Pitt News

The groups and various “toks” run deep on TikTok.

And BookTok isn’t the only community on the platform subject to harmful recommendations.

BookTok operates under that same premise under which the house always wins, and if the house wins by narrow-minded arguments centred around depressingly similar books, or promoting the idea that young women should base their identity off a few stolen personality traits from books they’ve been told to read, solely for the image it will give them, then that’s what TikTok is going to do.

BookTok is a lot of fun and I’ve found some good recommendations there, though never the ones that are being hyped by the larger community.

Having said that, I also have to admit that I avoid it a lot.

Especially when I see the signs of a rising storm that’s going to take one single topic from a very narrow perspective and plaster it all over BookTok for the next week, I dip out. I don’t check the app at all. Because I don’t need that extra drama in my life.

I don’t have any interest in joining or following an argument that poses problematic themes or authors as inherently bad, despite not managing to agree on what constitutes being problematic.

I used to follow book related hashtags, but these days I just tend to follow individual creators who manage to bring some common sense with them.

And when I see something being hyped, I tend to steer clear of it.

Hoover’s books are popular, but people should look deeper into her writing to find it controversial because of how she writes about abuse and trauma. She should not be using these subjects as punch lines and instead writing about trauma to educate people on the realities of abuse. Many authors do a better job writing about trauma and don’t only have abuse in their books to advance the plot.

– The problem with BookTok sensation Colleen Hoover by Kelly Marry

There’s a reason why some books stand the test of time, and some don’t.

While tastes and preferences will always vary, talent, thoughtfulness and hard work are enduringly visible in literature and are always worth reading.

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