07-21-18 Patricia Sargeant

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

How Sweet It Is

by M. L. Buchman

I had a curious "sweet" experience this month that I thought I'd share...because I found the results so fascinating.

It started because I was looking up an author (as I'm prone to do from time to time). She had six books out, except she didn't...she actually had twelve. Why? She had a sexy and a sweet version of every title.

To some folks this isn't news. To me it was a real, Hunh! moment.

I started poking around and discovered that a number of authors do this. Then I thought about my wife's knitting group. They had commented that they loved my Small Town Oregon romance series, and not just because of the knitting circle that runs throughout. However, they were unwilling to pass them on to their friends--many of whom are elderly or quite religious. My series have varying degrees of sexuality (mostly in the mild-to-medium range), but my characters do tend to take a free hand with the English language.

Eagle Cove
"So," I wondered. "If I were to offer a sweet version, would folks be interested?"

I decided to ask my newsletter fans. Now these are people who already read my books and like them enough to sign up for my newsletter so that they don't miss anything. They are pre-filtered, if you will, for already accepting the level of heat and language that I write. With that in mind I asked a single question anyway, wondering if I'd even get a 10% "yes" response:

The "heat" in a romance novel is rated from "sweet" to, well, you know. If everything else was exactly the same (emotional story, plot, characters) would you be interested in the addition of a "sweet" version of my contemporary romance books as well?

The response was overwhelming! With almost 25% of my subscribers responding, 48% answered "Yes Please" vs. "No Thanks." To say that I was staggered is an understatement.

I was puzzled until I started reading the comments (I'm so glad I added that option at the last second). Fans begged me to not change my writing for them (other than a few stray comments calling for BDSM, menage, inspirational, etc.). However, the comments consistently showed that they weren't comfortable giving the books to parents, teenage daughters, friends at church, and so on. Okay, that made sense.

The next challenge was how to change a "standard" version of a novel to a "sweet" one. I came up with a word list, tinkered around with how to present it on the cover, in the blurbs, how to load it onto retailer sites, etc. Then I faced down altering the sex scenes to have the same emotional and plot content but without any graphic moments. I tend to wind my character emotions into those moments, so it took some doing. Overall? It took about five dozen hours to convert a 60k-word novel. And courtesy of Vellum and their new ready-for-print capability (which is utterly amazing, even if I had to buy a used Mac to run it), it took under five minutes to actually produce a second version once I had the text figured out. I released them simultaneously.

This validated the process for me, because the effort wasn't too heinous and I now had a new product for my fans. But would it sell?

The answer two weeks later? A little bit. The sales of the "sweet" version are trickling out the door but not in any 48% tidal wave. I think there are a couple of reasons behind this:
  • My fans have to read the book first (and they would tend to buy the "standard" version) before they decide if they want to give it to others. This would make "sweet" sales lag well behind.
  • I have only a single title, so potential new fans wouldn't even know to look. Therefore, we're in the process of adding sweet versions to all of my contemporary romance series (of which there are now four: Where Dreams, Eagle Cove, Henderson's Ranch, Love Abroad). We'll be rolling these out over the next several months.
One of the amusing thoughts that I mostly keep to myself about this? The difference between what we're willing to give and what the receiving party wants to read. I have a friend whose grandmother was bedridden after a bad fall and she enjoyed reading romances. So my friend spent hours vetting titles to make sure that they were acceptable for grandma. Finally her grandmother protested, "Don't they write romances with sex in them anymore? Bring me some of those! The steamier the better!"

But there is a broad interest in "sweet" versions and that gives me a new channel into which to market my books. In addition to being a writer, I am in the business of selling books. So far, it's looking good. And I love having my wife's friends now being comfortable passing my books on to others (even if they themselves say they intend to keep purchasing the not-so-sweet versions for themselves).

Love Abroad B&B
Love Aboard B&B - sweet

M.L. Buchman started the first of, what is now over 50 novels and as many short stories, while flying from South Korea to ride his bicycle across the Australian Outback. Part of a solo around the world trip that ultimately launched his writing career.

All three of his military romantic suspense series—The Night Stalkers, Firehawks, and Delta Force—have had a title named “Top 10 Romance of the Year” by the American Library Association’s Booklist. NPR and Barnes & Noble have named other titles “Top 5 Romance of the Year.” In 2016 he was a finalist for Romance Writers of America prestigious RITA award. He also writes: contemporary romance, thrillers, and fantasy.

Past lives include: years as a project manager, rebuilding and single-handing a fifty-foot sailboat, both flying and jumping out of airplanes, and he has designed and built two houses. He is now making his living as a full-time writer on the Oregon Coast with his beloved wife and is constantly amazed at what you can do with a degree in Geophysics. You may keep up with his writing and receive a free starter e-library by subscribing to his newsletter at: www.mlbuchman.com


Sarah Raplee said...

Interesting post, Matt!

I've read romances since I was a teen (I read lots of other stuff, too.) The great stories have always been there, long before writing explicit sex scenes became the norm.

As always, thanks for sharing your insight into this ever-evolving business!

Judith Ashley said...

Matt, Thanks for keeping us posted on this shift/change/niche? I'm intrigued in the concept of sweet versus what I normally write and will keep it in mind as I start the first sequel to my Sacred Women's Circle series.

Maggie Lynch said...

As always, Matt, you are great at testing new marketing ideas. I had to laugh when you shared the story about the woman curating the sexiness for her grandmother only to learn she wanted it.

You are undertaking a lot of work (70 hours per book) to rewrite for sweet. As you write a lot faster than I do, it may pay off for you. For me, I need those 70 hours to write new books because I seem to be perenially behind.

When I began writing romance I was constantly concerned about what I thought my mother would think. I quickly learned that having nine children was not accidental at all. :) Out of my fans, I've had only one person tell me she couldn't read anymore because of the sex. I told her I would give her a refund, but also suggested she try doing what some fans have told me they do. That is to skip the sex scene and keep reading. She did that and finished the book and bought all the rest.

There is DEFINITELY an audience for sweet books, and in the Christian market it is a requirement. However, the Christian market tends to stay with inspirationals more than anything else. I guess the question is how large is the market and is it worth it. Obviously you have determined that it is worth it to invest the time to make all your series sweet. I hope you are right.

The big question is, if you are keeping covers the same, then how do you differentiate the two books in marketing. Yes, I know that the blurbs and keywords and categories will be different. But, to my mind, seeing two of the same covers would make me think there was a problem. As covers are the first way one encounters a book these days, it seems you need something special outside of the parenthetical mention.

Of course, I'm probably all wet with that opinion. :) I'll be interested to see if you run into any problems. Good Luck!

M. L. Buchman said...

Hi Maggie,
Converting the book from standard to sweet is more on the order of 5-7 hours, including production (5 minutes with Vellum + 10 minutes for the cover) and distribution. The story is already complete, it's just a matter of doing a roughly 25 word search and then reading through any sex scenes and turning them into strictly emotion scenes.

As to distinguishing the books, I do the following:
1) The cover (and you can see it on the sample at the end of the post) has the phrase "(the sweet version)" on the front cover. The binding now reads "title-(sweet version)" and the first line of the back cover copy explains what the sweet version is.
2) That same explanation is included as a separate page immediately prior to Chapter 1 as well as the first line of the description on each distributor's site.
3) To further distinguish it, I actually have two separate series on my website and on each distributor. So both books are #1 in series, but the series names are:
* Love Abroad B&B
* Love Abroad B&B -sweet
Next month I will be expanding the experiment:
* Eagle Cove: an Oregon Coast romance (5 titles already published)
* Eagle Cove - sweet: an Oregon Coast romance
I now have 4 contemporary romance series (2 complete, 2 in process) totally 11 novels and 7 short stories (plus collections). This change is intended to help me expand into the contemporary market and while it doesn't double the reach of those titles, it certainly expands it.

Now to see if it pays off anywhere near to the way my fans talked about it.

Barbara Rae Robinson said...

Fascinating, Matt! I think a lot of us will be watching what happens for you.