|As a writer, sometimes you get commissioned to write a piece that ultimately doesn’t run or quickly disappears from view. Unpublished is where I resurrect those stories.|
Originally published in the Australian, 1 November 2001
Unlikely romantic entanglement
Will Barbara Cartland’s ageing fans pay to download audio versions of her books, asks Angus Kidman?
“A MAN should certainly not be a virgin on his wedding night,” the late romance novelist Dame Barbara Cartland once told a reporter. “You want one person who knows what he is doing.”
Eighteen months after Cartland’s death, it seems that her estate is rather more willing to venture into uncharted territory. Last week, Cartland’s son Ian McCorquodale announced plans to make audio versions of her work, including more than 160 unpublished manuscripts, available for download on the internet via an official website, http://www.BarbaraCartland.com. With a back catalogue comprising more than 700 works, Cartland aficionados can potentially look forward to hours of listening to stories in which winsome females surrender to the romantic attentions of dashing aristocrats.
“Dame Barbara herself was always enthusiastic about the use of new technology, and was excited by the prospect of bringing real love to parts of the world that had never had access to her books previously,” gushed the official announcement of the scheme. However, the publishing industry, which has already seen electronic books fail to make any real market impact, is less convinced the concept will succeed.
The most pressing problem for the project may be a lack of demand for Cartland’s work, whatever the format. While Cartland’s name may be synonymous with romance fiction among the general public, romance enthusiasts and industry observers are less convinced of her market value.
Total sales of Cartland’s books are estimated at over 1 billion, but sales do not appear to be growing. In the US, virtually all the Cartland titles now available are in large-print format, suggesting an ageing audience. In Australia, none of her titles is on active release.
“I have never had a request for a Barbara Cartland book,” says Angela Orbien, co-founder of online romance bookstore Siren Books (www.sirenbooks.com). “I have read romances for almost 15 years now, and have had a website dedicated to romance fiction for over four years. I am also very active in all the online romance reader forums and I have never come across people wanting to read Barbara Cartland.
“Most serious romance readers have gone past the Barbara Cartland and Mills & Boon stage,” she says. “It’s a bit of a shame that Barbara Cartland seems to be the stereotype for romance readers; this couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Orbien can’t see the Cartland project taking off, but she believes that romance readers are, contrary to popular perception, happy to embrace new technology. “The [romance] demographic is 18-to-50 year-olds, mostly career women. These are women who aren’t fazed by technology, and are very comfortable with the internet.”
The audio format may prove more appealing to the elderly readers who appear to constitute Cartland’s main market. Nonetheless, a demand for digital audio books hasn’t emerged yet in any age group. “I have never had a request to download audio files,” says Orbien.
That lack of enthusiasm has also been apparent in other attempts to market audio books in digital formats, which have failed noticeably to replicate the success of such books on cassette or CD. Audible, which runs a website dedicated to audio downloads, raked up a loss of US$8 million ($15.5 million) in its most recent quarter, while the company’s CEO resigned in July.
Another literary audio website, MP3Lit, was bought out last year by online magazine Salon. The acquisition included a venture to sell audio downloads, Loudbooks.com, but that division has since been quietly shut down. Salon now largely uses its audio offerings as an additional enticement for readers to pay for a subscription.
Those who do want to download such Cartland classics as The Patient Bridegroom or Love and the Loathsome Leopard will need plenty of space on their PC. A typical unabridged audio book can run for five hours, needing 70 megabytes or more of storage space. Not only can this quickly fill your hard drive, it can also take hours to download.
The one possible advantage of larger file sizes is that they may act as a deterrent to distributing pirate copies of the novels. However, the growth in digital piracy of movies — which create much larger files than novels — suggests that this won’t be the case for long.
Technology issues aside, Cartland’s heirs may have priced her out of the market. Subscribing to the plan, which allows you to download 12 books a year, costs pound stg. 10 ($27) a month, or pound stg. 100 a year. Each book can thus cost between $20 and $30, not including the cost of net access for downloading. In contrast, a typical paperback romance novel costs between $9 and $12, and Cartland’s novels are readily available in second-hand stores.
At those prices, romance sells well. Harlequin Mills & Boon Australia recently estimated that there are 850,000 readers of its books in Australia, purchasing a total of 5.5 million copies a year.
The story behind the story
This was a fun piece to write at the time. The Cartland subscription project did not survive, as I discovered much more recently when I forced myself to read one of Cartland’s previously unpublished works. However, audio versions of a large number of Cartland titles are available, at a rather more reasonable typical price of $6.50 each if you don’t want a subscription.
Audible was eventually purchased by Amazon and now dominates the audio book market, which did much better than this piece grimly predicted.
Incidentally, Siren Books, whose founder is quoted extensively in the story, is no longer online. The domain is for sale, but with a listed price of US$5,095 I’m not sure there will be any takers.
Main image: Wikimedia Commons