Out the window of an AirTran jet,
brown rectangles of farmland give way to subdivisions that look like seahorse tails. Dreary November drizzle coats the land. Groggy from a nap, I open my laptop to do something this writer, reared on Hemingway machismo and Cormac McCarthy’s desperado nightmares, never thought he would: self-revoke my Man Card and read a romance novel.
The e-book, titled Unbreak Me, features a beautiful couple kissing on the cover. Its author, Lexi Ryan, writes under a nom de plume for her own protection, one sexy enough to be a name called by a strip-club DJ between dances by Tiffany Blaze and Bambi. Instead, the young mother of two is a self-published breakout star in the romance genre who’s helping change the book industry from a most unlikely place—rural Indiana.
In fact, Ryan leads a small number of self-published Hoosier romance-writers cracking bestseller lists that were traditionally reserved for authors promoted by major publishing houses. At age 33, she’s the youngest of the bunch, and she’s voracious enough in her output of books and her drive to become a household name.
As I begin to dig into Unbreak Me, one thing is clear: Plots have evolved since the classic bodice-rippers of supermarket shelves, those paperbacks with impassioned beefcakes tearing women’s dresses to shreds. The book opens with a dysfunctional wedding scene, and the emotional stakes are high from the get-go. Under the surface bubbles what romance-writers call “heat.” It’s a momentum you can feel. The writing is tight and the dialogue snappy. But to my mind, weddings are more grueling ritual than realized dream—so I quicken the pace and hunt for dirty words.
Ryan’s friends and fans had advised me that her writing is different, more about emotion than carnal passion; still, her books are full of blue language. It comes with a tinge of embarrassment to land on, ahem, a five-letter synonym for “cat,” followed by a subsequent sizzling love scene written from the perspective of a mysterious stud named Asher Logan. In this particular passage, Logan describes a voyage his thumb makes to a, cough, specific region of the damaged heroine Maggie, where he finds a certain landmark he calls “swollen and needy.” In an instant, an orgasmic Maggie envelops him. For support, they lean against a refrigerator, pictures and takeout menus flying.
By the time the plane lands, I’m convinced I’ve read every scene that even remotely deals with sex—and some scenes twice. It’s a sense of pleasurable confusion that reminds me of third grade, entrancedly watching Cinemax After Dark with my friends when the adults had gone to bed.
At first (literal) blush, Ryan appears to have what Romance Writers of America editor and publications manager Erin Fry deems the requisites for success in the self-publishing world: a strong writing voice, compelling characters, and stories that set hooks. So far, Ryan’s achievements bear out that assessment. The mother and former English professor will earn six figures this year, easy, after setting herself apart last summer by doing what many writers would call unthinkable: She turned down lucrative offers from major New York publishing houses because—in these capricious times—she doesn’t necessarily need them. She has twice made the biggest bestseller lists on her own. European publishers have started bidding wars for the rights to translate her work. She and her e-books have the power now.
It helps that Ryan is striking while the proverbial iron is hot and heavy. Largely spurred by Fifty Shades of Grey and the ensuing zeitgeist, titillating storylines have leapt to the forefront of a new, author-controlled publishing world. Romance fiction was the top-performing category on U.S. bestseller lists in 2012, logging more than $1.4 billion in sales and grabbing the largest share of the country’s consumer-book market. That’s three times the earnings of classic literary fiction—and nearly enough to buy the Colts and the Pacers.
My silly explorations in seat 27F also reveal deeper truths: Ryan’s sort of writing has a way of latching ahold of the throat, of quickening the pulse, of summoning the reader to the next hot exchange, if only out of morbid curiosity. And with a computer in my hands, with mere words on its screen, no one on this plane is privy to the naughty escapades of my mind. A mundane flight has taken on the subversive thrill of doing something wrong. That’s the magic of the e-book. And in Ryan’s world, it means one thing: cha-ching.
The setting where Ryan cranks out the majority of her work speaks to the Internet’s power to shrink the globe. She isn’t holed up in a Brooklyn brownstone, and she’s certainly not observing lovers on exotic beaches. Instead, to get to Ryan’s house, I hang a right off the highway in a town near Terre Haute; head past yards cluttered with junk and stacks of chopped wood; and slip down a hill, over a creek, around horse pastures. It’s early afternoon on a weekday, and the neighborhood is deserted. Auburn leaves blanket nearby woods. It’s a serene, insulated place to raise her 2-year-old girl and 6-year-old boy—who understands that Mommy writes love stories for a living—with her husband, Brian. The seclusion is nice, but it’s her pseudonym that provides the best barrier between her family and the male fans who misconstrue her saucy writing as an invitation. She’s fielded creepy e-mails and messages—“You’re beautiful … I’d like to talk and get to know each other …” Nothing too terrible, yet, but disconcerting enough to set ground rules for this interview: nom de plume, only.
Ryan steps outside, a short woman with deep-brown hair and an easy smile. Across from her ’70s-era split-level sits the white, Georgian Revival–style house where she grew up, the youngest of seven children. After her 2004 marriage to Brian, a carpenter, the two moved to the cul-de-sac together. As a little girl there, she constantly wrote stories in journals and asked her sisters to read them. When she played with her brothers’ Matchbox cars, she pretended the cars were on dates. She recited Prince lyrics before bedtime. Given her choice of career, the name her siblings secretly called her—“Mother Teresa”—seems ironic, but according to one of her sisters, it was apt: “Straight and narrow, apple of the eye, perfect straight-A girl, no worries, and no problems,” recalls Kim, a nurse. “She was the perfect one.”
Ryan received her first taste of romance-writing in junior high, when her mother handed her a copy of Jude Deveraux’s A Knight in Shining Armor, a supermarket classic, and said, “You’ll like this.” And she did. Ryan had finally found a source that echoed the love stories in her head. She devoured every Deveraux title and moved down the library shelf to other romance titans like Judith McNaught—checking out so many books she feared she’d one day reach the end of the canon and have nothing left.
At nearby Indiana State University, where Ryan earned a master’s degree, Mark Lewandowski, her English professor and thesis adviser, warned her she was wasting her talent with romance. “To a certain extent, [she] caught me off guard, because I’d never really encountered [romance-writing] before,” Lewandowski says now, laughing. “I think she is very sure of herself, not in an obnoxious way. You have to have a thick skin. You have to be willing to take some hits, and she was.”
Following graduation, Ryan landed a job teaching English at Ivy Tech Community College’s Terre Haute campus, a 40-minute commute. After her kids were born, she’d often set an alarm for 3 a.m. to steal time to write. Three years after college, Ryan finally enjoyed a triumph: Her racy short story “The Exhibition,” about an erotic painter who courts his brother’s ex-wife, was selected for an anthology called Sex and Shoes. It was time for the veil of a pen name, so she picked “Lexi Ryan” because it was easy to pronounce and remember. (An amateur porn star has since started using the same name, which makes the original Lexi cringe.)
The anthology credit helped pave the way for her first two books, Stilettos, Inc. and Flirting with Fate, both published with a small Massachusetts e-press, Ravenous Romance. For each title she was paid $200, and though sales of Flirting failed to even recoup that money for the company, Ryan learned the value of reinvesting in the business. She used the advance to help buy the copyright for Text Appeal, her first foray into self-publishing.
For Ryan, the change was a leap of faith. Even with a small e-press, a traditional submission-rejection process applies; the payoff is that publishers will award advances and cover production and promotional costs. A self-published writer must foot all bills him- or herself, entailing a greater financial risk—but also a bigger potential gain.
Produced for about $400, Text Appeal was released in June 2012. The story centers on Riley Carter, a hotel heiress who accidentally seduces a bad-boy gambler named Charlie “The Devil” Singleton by way of texting steamy messages to the wrong phone number. Ryan decided she would try to put out 10 books over the course of three years, figuring that revenue from so many titles would allow her to step away from teaching and achieve her dream of writing full time. But first she needed buzz. Frustrated that Text Appeal had sold only 200 copies in three months, Ryan searched the Internet and found a Facebook page called “What to read after Fifty (50) Shades of Grey,” referring to the first book in the E.L. James best-selling trilogy about a filthy-rich bondage enthusiast named Christian Grey and his latest fixation, college student Anastasia Steele. Though authors were encouraged to share their work, Ryan was uncomfortable the first time she posted; self-promotion seemed ugly. But it worked. Within 24 hours, she sold another 40 copies on Amazon alone.
Self-published romance stars like Ryan point to Fifty Shades as the battering ram that cleared their path to success, whetting women’s appetites for erotic literature on a grand scale. As of November, the trilogy had sold more than 70 million copies worldwide, ranking it among the fastest-selling series of all time and a bona fide phenomenon on par with the child wizards and sexy vampires of yesteryear. Though Ryan still hasn’t read any Fifty Shades books (in fear she won’t like them and will be forced to give that opinion), she quickly learned that E.L. James enthusiasts are hungry for similar fare. She kept posting on the Facebook page, kept pushing. She started hassling bloggers. Soon, her sales “went through the roof”—from an average of less than one copy of Text Appeal sold per day to more than 10.
To build on that momentum, Ryan released two shorter books, Just One Night and Just the Way You Are, later in 2012, and regained the rights to her first two novels. She launched a promotional strategy that gave away one of her novellas for free and discounted other books to 99 cents, down from her usual range of $2.99 to $3.99, the indie standard. (Self-published e-authors keep a relatively high percentage of royalties—around 70 percent, versus traditional publishing’s average of 10 percent for printed books—so higher prices aren’t paramount.) Her Internet presence and free-book offers effectively primed readers’ appetites for more, and Text Appeal landed on the New York Times bestseller list for digital books and the USA Today list for all books in February of last year. The novel charted for only a week, but Ryan was elated to be a legitimate bestselling author. For a while, she suffered from “impostor syndrome,” wondering if her success was real. What happened next was verifiable proof.
Unbreak Me—the first in what Ryan calls her New Hope series, named for the fictitious Indiana town in which the books are set—published in May 2013. The e-book sold nearly 60,000 copies in its first two months of release—a large chunk of the 125,000 books she’s peddled overall, landing Ryan on bestseller lists for the second time. She had written a smash hit.
In less than two years, Lexi Ryan’s novels earned big payouts, and overtures from major publishers.
The money flooded in quickly. Unlike the biannual payments traditional publishers often provide, Ryan received e-mailed “Payday” notifications from e-publishers like Barnes & Noble and iTunes in just four weeks. One deposit from Amazon last June was more than $51,000. Ryan resigned from Ivy Tech and hunkered down to write. After all, she says, romance fans are impatient. They usually expect a new title about every three months.
Another local comrade-in-letters agrees. “[Fifty Shades] started a lot of women reading again,” says Greenwood author Aleatha Romig. With no writing background, the 48-year-old Romig (that’s a protective pseudonym, too) recently quit her job as a dental hygienist to write full time and promote her own series of dark, romantic thrillers. After becoming frustrated with a vanity publisher, she, too, turned to self-publishing in 2012 and watched her sales skyrocket. Her third book, Convicted, reached No. 16 on the New York Times bestseller list for e-books (which equals Ryan’s highest-charting position) and No. 25 on the combined list in October.
Still, Romig hasn’t experienced all of the opportunities that have come Ryan’s way. In an occurrence that Ryan says never would’ve happened five years ago, when self-published authors were less of a commodity, a New York–based agent aggressively pursued her. After vetting him, she agreed to a deal. Then, this past summer, two New York publishing houses approached with offers to buy the rights to Unbreak Me and its sequel, Wish I May. She won’t discuss numbers, but she says the money would have nearly paid off her house. She declined them anyway. She didn’t want to relinquish control of her release schedule, she says, possibly leaving her fans waiting for e-books that traditional publishers would likely price twice as high. Ultimately, she made the decision she felt was best for her career at the time, but she has since agonized over her choice: “They were offering me something I’d wanted most of my life: to be on shelves, in bookstores.”
Romig says that while she hasn’t been able to reach a deal for her current series with major publishers, their offers would need to be “very good” for her to move forward. In a single week last autumn, she earned more than she paid for her first home. Besides, to e-writers like Romig and Ryan, physical novels have become all but an afterthought. “If my books were only in print, there’s no way that people in Slovenia or Turkey or South Africa would be reading them,” says Romig. “I get e-mails from all over the world.”
Ryan can say the same; for a year, checks for Text Appeal have streamed in from Amazon Germany and Amazon France, and it’s a safe bet her international presence will soon rise. Her agent, who sees no cut of her self-published sales, has instead been crucial in brokering deals for audio books and works translated into German and French. The French rights sold as the result of a three-house auction, with the winning publisher paying about $50,000 to publish Unbreak Me and Wish I May for seven years. Recounting this deal, Ryan smiles and says under her breath, as if feeling guilty, “That’s free money. The work was already done.”
When Ryan writes, she usually does so from the comfort of a plush green recliner in her living room, which eases lingering back problems. Her office, though, bears marks of Ryan’s trade: a wall of books and, above her desk, a painted reproduction of an old comic with Wonder Woman on the cover. Wonder Woman is an important symbol for Ryan, who wears a necklace with the words inscribed on two silver shells.
In college at Indiana State, she grappled with her identity as a feminist and her desire to write romance. The feminist argument against romance novels, Ryan says, is that they reinforce the notion that women need men to feel emotionally complete or financially secure, that women must maintain impeccable physical appearances. But Ryan claims those are baseless stereotypes, that her books and modern romance-writing in general are populated with bright, complex, independent women. In college, she came to believe that romance could “rewrite toxic fairytales,” as bestselling author Jennifer Crusie’s seminal dissertation put it.
“I feel like pornography is when it’s just about the physical act, the body parts, no characterization, no journey,” Ryan says. “I want my characters to go on a journey.”
The evidence can be seen in Ryan’s books. In a comedic novel published in early 2013 titled Accidental Sex Goddess, a character named Reese Regan seduces a hunk with her size-14 figure. Even Maggie from Unbreak Me uses her self-ascribed sluttiness to get what she wants, like hot sex against that refrigerator. But Ryan’s power queens might be Stiletto, Inc.’s Stiletto Girls, a team of jiu jitsu–trained private investigators who love to thump chauvinists. A passage from that novel clearly draws inspiration from Crusie’s essay: “Darian thought himself the knight in shining armor rescuing the damsel in distress. But Paige saw those old tales differently than most. The women in those stories probably had the situation under control before some pompous ass rode up on his white stallion.”
Ryan reads widely, mostly romance but with a sprinkling of classics like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, or the Indianapolis-set young-adult hit The Fault in Our Stars. “Classics.” “Young-adult.” The romance genre and its classifications are a little less straightforward. The provocative terms include “new adult romance,” “smut,” “ero-
tica,” and “mommy porn.” Ryan bristles at the thought of her novels being called anything but one of the various subgenres of romance. “I feel like pornography is when it’s just about the physical act, the body parts, no characterization, no journey,” she says. “I want my characters to go on a journey.” She argues that writing about sex and relationships and pain—on your own terms, no less—can empower women.
Either way, we are living in a golden age of smut. At least that’s the belief of Kelley Jefferson, a single mother of two who works at an Alabama infertility nonprofit and runs a blog on the side called Smut Book Junkie. As self-published success stories have multiplied, the romance market has flooded with titles, and bloggers like Jefferson have emerged as timesaving arbiters. They also help self-published writers coordinate “blog tours”—online appearances where the authors share excerpts, field questions, discuss dream casts for the movie versions of their works, and occasionally distribute free books.
As for Jefferson, she fancies herself a Lexi Ryan fanatic. Along with other influential romance bloggers, Jefferson received an advance copy of Unbreak Me’s sequel, Wish I May. Like many romance readers, Jefferson devours books she enjoys. In October, she downloaded Ryan’s new 217-pager around midnight and says she could not stop reading until she finished at 1:30 a.m. A few hours later, she had to ready both kids for school and work a full day, but the book was “insanely awesome” and earned a five-star rating on her blog. She especially loves Ryan’s powerful, “real” characters.
That relatability has led fans to reach out to Ryan online from all corners of the world, though she’s rarely recognized on the street. Readers span the demographic spectrum, and Ryan tries to interact with them often, traveling to several romance conventions a year, spending as much as $400 on registration alone. There are dozens of conventions each year across the nation, with thousands attending the large ones like Romantic Times, at which Ryan will appear this May in New Orleans. For her, the experiences are valuable: She networks with readers and fellow authors, takes workshops on craft and business savvy, and generally has fun.
A few weeks before our meeting, she visited the Hot Mojave Knights conference in Las Vegas, where she greeted readers and signed the few printed copies of her books she keeps for events such as this. The high point came when a fellow writer squealed, “You’re my favorite author!” It’s the same feeling she receives from communiques with all fans, like the one who rereads Text Appeal to lift her spirits while caring for her terminally ill father. Or the myriad Unbreak Me zealots who are strengthened by the way Maggie overcomes sexual abuse. The money is one thing, Ryan says, but these interactions are priceless.
The financial rewards, though, are nothing to ignore, and they speak to the shrewdness of Ryan’s business model. Her spending thus far has been cautious, her earnings mostly going toward mundane items like student loans. As a congratulatory gift to herself for hitting the charts, she bought a featherweight MacBook Air and finished paying for her Ford Escape. Her home’s only evidence of a splurge is in the kitchen: new granite countertops, solid-wood cabinetry streaked with fingerprints, and a backsplash of trendy glass tiles—a pre-success purchase she paid off with book earnings. The week of Thanksgiving, she did dip into the French-deal money to book a family trip to Disney World.
Ryan’s husband, Brian, sounds a little awestruck when discussing her good fortune. “I always believed in her and knew it could happen,” he says. “It happening is a little unreal.” But Brian is also practical. The e-pub world sparkles with flashes in the pan. “You hope that everything can continue, and I think it can,” he says. “But there’s no contract involved. It’s all you. You’re running your own business. Like any business, when you’re doing it, it’s got the potential to fail.”
“I always wanted to be a New York Times bestseller,” Ryan says. Now that it’s happened, “I still want to be a household name, you know.”
Hoosier romance-writers like Ryan and Romig aren’t alone in their self-pub success—former Texas music teacher Liliana Hart, for instance, regularly blogs about making six figures per month—but it’s difficult to quantify how many writers are enjoying breakthroughs with life-altering paydays. Some established authors have brought audiences with them to self-publishing, while others who never found traction with traditional publishers are using e-pubs as a fresh launching pad. Locally, Indiana Romance Writers of America, which counts about 45 members, doesn’t keep statistics on the number of in-state scribes to reach high sales numbers, but board member Brenda Maxfield says more writers are turning to self-publishing as word of its potential lucrativeness spreads.
Another Indiana RWA member, Mellanie Szereto, reiterates the immeasurable effect that discreet tablets and e-readers like Kindles and Nooks have had on the genre. “Readers no longer have to hide the book covers of their favorite romance authors,” she says, “and they have an entire library at their fingertips.” Based on my plane experience, I would have to agree.
Whether or not her covers are visible, Ryan can now afford to pour thousands of dollars into the production of her books, including sensuous photography and professional editing. But she still must face the unglamorous daily grind of putting words on paper. She’s a “pantser”—meaning she flies into her narratives by the seat of her pants, creating characters and allowing them to lead her. Ryan’s goal is to pen 2,000 words per day, the equivalent of a long newspaper article, and she needs encouragement to keep going. While line-editing recently, her phone beeped with smiley-face emoticons and an “Atta girl!” text message from her writing-critique partner, Adrienne Hogan, a customer-care specialist at an Indianapolis auto dealership. “We stay on top of each other,” says Hogan.
The topic of Ryan and her husband’s amorous life is off limits, but it’s safe to say Brian isn’t culling pointers from the on-page lovemaking; he hasn’t read a single one of his wife’s novels since Stilettos, Inc.—the only book he had time to finish after the couple’s children were born. Ryan says friends have hinted that her work has awakened something in their spouses, though. More than once she’s been thanked for writing stories that allow readers to step into a sexier state of mind.
Ryan no longer feels embarrassed when explaining what she does for a living, excepting one awkward encounter with a concerned neighbor who asked if she’d accepted Jesus Christ. Instead, she’s looking forward, working on titles for the New Hope series, in which two of Maggie’s sisters will get their own books. Her goal is to have a long writing career, and if atmospheric, E.L. James–like fame should come—well, that would be just fine. “I always wanted to be a New York Times bestseller,” she says. Now that it’s happened, “I still want to be a household name, you know.”
At 2:45 p.m., the alarm on Ryan’s cellphone chimes; her little boy will come bounding off the bus in his Batman hoodie in just a few minutes. It’s time to zip up her characters’ trousers, refasten their bra straps, and become Mom again. Until tomorrow, that is, when she’ll lean back in her recliner and crank up the heat.
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the February 2014 issue.