Romance novelist’s success in launching Waterhouse Press shows how independent authors are catching up to publishers in the sophistication of their marketing and the scope of their ambitions.

Share story

One chilly morning last month, Meredith Wild, the best-selling romance novelist, was sitting in her library in Destin, Fla., wrapped in a loose black sweater in front of a crackling fire. Most mornings, Wild writes her novels in this spot after her children leave for school, but that day she had other business to attend to. She had a call with a reality-TV production company that is developing a show about her, and later, a conference call with a team at Waterhouse Press, the small imprint that is publishing her new novel in June.

Wild — her pen name — has an unusual amount of sway for an author, owing to her high-profile position at Waterhouse: She founded the company. After sales of her self-published erotic novels took off on Amazon and other sites, Wild created the press partly as a way to get print versions into bookstore chains and big-box stores.

“I wanted something that sounded like it was a real imprint, because nobody takes you seriously as an independent author,” she said. “I felt I was being discriminated against as an indie.”

Meredith Wild, writer turned publisher

Education: Majored in English at Smith College

Founded: Waterhouse Press, an imprint for her books and others

Now publishing: Nine books scheduled this year by other previously self-published romance writers including Helen Hardt and Audrey Carlan

Source: The New York Times

Her marketing abilities proved so effective — she sold 1.4 million print and digital copies — that she decided to expand her business by taking on other authors, in essence becoming a publisher herself.

Last year, Wild began quietly acquiring works by other self-published romance writers, including Helen Hardt and Audrey Carlan, and publishing their books under her Waterhouse imprint. She’s become a kind of value investor in erotic prose, pinpointing undervalued writers and backing their brands.

“We’re hoping to discover the next big person and replicate some of the success we had building the visibility of my books,” Wild said. “We’re interested in taking these diamond-in-the-rough type people and building their brands.”

The fledgling imprint is off to a promising start. One of the series it acquired, Carlan’s “Calendar Girl,” has sold more than 1 million copies since Waterhouse rereleased it last summer, and it recently appeared on the USA Today and New York Times best-seller lists.

Wild’s path from becoming a self-publishing star to operating her own small imprint is the latest sign that independent authors are catching up to publishers in the sophistication of their marketing and the scope of their ambitions.

Self-published authors can negotiate foreign-rights deals and produce audiobooks. A handful of the most successful independent writers sell print copies of their books in physical retail stores like Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart and Target, giving them access to a market that traditional publishers have long dominated.

Now enterprising authors like Wild are forming their own small publishing houses. Just like the old-guard editors and publishing companies they once defined themselves against, these new imprints promise to anoint fledgling authors with legitimacy and give them an edge in a flooded and cutthroat marketplace.

In a sense, these authors-turned-publishers are thriving because the self-publishing ecosystem has become oversaturated. Amazon has more than 4 million e-books in its Kindle store, up from 600,000 six years ago, making it harder for new authors to find an audience.

Building your own brand may sound appealing and empowering, but only a small fraction of self-published authors sell enough books to make a living, and many are put off by the drudge work and endless self-promotion involved.

“Authors are hungry to try to find new methods to crack the market, and if someone is saying, ‘I did it, come work with me, and I’ll teach you the secret sauce,’ that sounds like an interesting proposition,” said Peter Hildick-Smith, founder of the Codex Group, which analyzes the book industry.

For decades, the literary world dismissed self-published authors as amateurs and hacks who lacked the talent to land a book deal. But that attitude gradually began to change with the rise of e-books and the arrival of Kindle from Amazon, which gave authors direct access to millions of readers. Over the last five years, close to 40 independent authors have sold more than 1 million copies of their e-books on Amazon, the company said.

Publishers and literary agents who once overlooked self-published authors began courting them with staggering book advances. The self-published fantasy writer Amanda Hocking sold a four-book series to St. Martin’s Press for $2 million in 2011. Last year, independent romance novelist Jasinda Wilder sold a trilogy to Berkley Books for seven figures.

After Wild’s self-published “Hacker” series took off in 2014, she was bombarded with offers from publishers, agents and film producers. She was earning so much by then that she told her agent she would entertain only eight-figure offers. She eventually settled for a bit less, agreeing to a $6.25 million advance from Forever, a Grand Central Publishing imprint, for five books.

Forever has sold nearly 500,000 digital and print copies of the “Hacker” series — a healthy sum, but far less than the 1.4 million digital and print books Wild had sold on her own, without any of the editorial guidance, marketing muscle or sales and distribution channels of an established publisher.

Perhaps that’s why Wild opted not to sell the rights to her other books. Instead, she’s publishing her current series through her own imprint.

“I’m more comfortable being in control of my successes and failures,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to be on the sidelines.”

Last year, a third of the 100 best-selling Kindle books were self-published titles on average each week, an Amazon representative said. Some analysts attribute the dip in publishers’ e-book revenue in part to the glut of cheap self-published books, which often sell for as little as $1.

Wild’s success grew out of a meticulously planned marketing campaign. Before the book was even released, she began buying online ads targeting erotic romance readers.

Her husband took out 10 credit cards and a personal loan to pay for advertising. They borrowed $70,000 from David Grishman, a former banker who is Wild’s brother-in-law and now Waterhouse’s chief executive. They eventually raised enough to fund a six-figure national marketing campaign, which included paid posts on social media and movie-theater ads promoting “Hardwired” that played before the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie.

“Hardwired” took off instantly, and sales snowballed when the second and third novels were released.

By that summer, Wild was making $500,000 a month in royalties. Her books were selling briskly through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She arranged her own audiobook deal with Audible, forgoing an advance in exchange for higher royalties. She sold translation rights to publishers in several countries.

She hired Grishman to run Waterhouse, so she could focus on writing. As the company grew and her sales surged, she realized she had the infrastructure for a publishing house of her own. She just needed more authors.

The first author she signed was Hardt, who had been writing romance novels for a decade but never did much to market them. Waterhouse is acquiring all her books — more than 30 titles. “I thought it could get my name out there better than I had been able to do for myself,” she said, “and it certainly has.”

A few months later, Waterhouse discovered Carlan. “We found her through her Amazon ranking, not because she was doing well but because she wasn’t doing very well,” Wild said. Carlan had great reviews but low Amazon sales rankings, suggesting that she was talented but lacked marketing skills.