For love or money

February 1st, 2009 Features, Writing Magazine

We all search for it, a lucky few get it, but writing about it’s a very different matter. Drew Turney investigates the success and censure of romantic fiction.

Trash. Female opiate. Formulaic. Unrealistic. Anti-feminist.

They’re just some of the barbs the romance genre has weathered since the time of the Bronte sisters. But if you’re a devotee the market continues to silently but utterly vindicate you. According to the ROMStat Report — the Romance Writers of America’s annual genre round-up — romance is not only top of the heap, it’s growing. The US book market was worth $10.71b in 2007, the estimated number of titles published over 411,000.

Of that market, romance novels accounted for $1.375b (12.9 percent of sales), set to grow to 13.3 percent according to business intelligence analyst Simba Information, publisher of the authoritative Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2008. Publishers collectively released 8,090 romance titles in 2007, up 25.9 percent over the previous year.

So while the global economy slows, 64.6 million Americans read at least one romance novel in the previous year according to the Romance Writers of America. That’s almost 20 percent of the population, not bad for a country where reading is supposedly way down the list after DVDs, Playstations and the like.

What’s more, romance is still on the way up. “The entire romance category trended upward last year” said Michael Norris, a senior analyst at Simba Information. “It was the number two category in our consolidated rankings in 2007, up from number six in 2006. The number of books which showed up on the New York Times, USA Today, and Publisher’s Weekly bestseller lists in 2007 increased by eight percent to 331, up from 307 in 2006.”

It’s not just publishers and booksellers doing well either. In such a notoriously underpaid industry as writing, where horror stories about making less than £10,000 per year are used to frighten newcomers like ghost stories, one major romance author contacted for this article reported routinely earning ‘over US$100,000 a book’.

But might the economic downturn spell the end of the gravy train for romance, along with every other genre? Publishing moves slowly, and such effects are usually felt up to a year later, so while Simba Information’s Michael Norris hasn’t seen any bad news from the figures so far, he also thinks the ‘high churn’ business model that gives most romance titles comparatively lower cover prices will work in its favour. “The romance category should fare better than most because of the low price point of most titles,” he thinks.

Of course, romance has an ace up its sleeve if times do get tough — one thing we all want more of is escapism.

Soma for the Masses?

But such escapism is a double-edged sword, especially for the public face of romantic fiction. Romance is frequently characterised (and dismissed) with the few purpose-built salvos described at the beginning of this article, derided everywhere from the literary media to dinner parties. Even saying the word ‘romance’ in the wrong company can mean an embarrassing social death.

Authors seem to catch most of the brunt of such mockery. Bestselling British romance novelist Jo Beverley now lives in Canada, and she finds herself the occasional target of long-held assumptions. “It’s often unintentional,” she says. “People say they’ve heard it’s easy money or that they always have the same plot. Occasionally someone — always a fellow writer in my experience — will act as if I have the plague.”

Despite having the last laugh financially, the romance establishment seems doomed to an endless defensive position. The carefully considered points from articles, blogs and conferences are endless. Just look at popular movies, one says, whether action, horror or drama the hero and heroine almost always end up in love. Or look at evolutionary biology, says another. Falling in love so we propagate the species is 400,000 years old, making romance nothing less than the story of humanity.

But romance is still brushed aside as porn for women, and not just because it’s supposedly easy to produce and consume and caters to a more limbic desire than philosophy or geopolitics. Like its male-targeted cousin, romance occupies a strange cultural enclave where fashion, polite company and very private tastes collide.

The sheer volume of output contributes to the myth that romance is all the same. With over 50 new titles appearing from industry flagship Harlequin every month alone, surely many of them are at least similar?

“The genre has always demanded a great story with compelling characters, strong emotions with a satisfying ending,” says Avon/HarperCollins author Anna Campbell. “I doubt that will ever change. Trends come and go but the essence of what makes a good romance is eternal.”

Campbell also feels there’s an inherent sexism that many — including women — still buy into. “Some women who never read romance consider it part of a patriarchal conspiracy, but romance is a multi-billion dollar industry, largely run by women for women. The stories are about women finding power, fulfilment and happiness.”

In the end, the biggest hurdle romance might face is simply that in a world where you can get so much more credibility writing about women enslaved in forced marriages, heartbreaking escapes from brutal regimes or any number of wars or injustices, happy endings just aren’t cool. Romance seems an endless chasm into which people who want to view innocent and childish dreams through unfashionably rose coloured glasses are tossed.

Kate Cuthbert is a journalist who runs a website for romance readers and did her thesis on the romance genre. To her, gender is immaterial to romance’s more elemental aspect. “Romance is a literature of optimism,” she says. “Rather than focusing on the many things that can – and do – go wrong in our lives, romance instead chooses to zero in on the positive, the things worth celebrating.”

As Jo Beverley adds, people tell her romance novels are silly because ‘things like that don’t happen in real life’, to which she’s quick to reply that people are driven mad by attraction, fall in love and sleep together quite frequently.

Critical Response

Aside from some dedicated, trade or broadly targeted periodicals and outlets such as Publisher’s Weekly (US), the weekend book editions of most influential broadsheets wouldn’t be caught dead reviewing a romance novel.

The reason may be simple fear that their esteemed peers will see them doing so and expel them from such circles. “Professional reputations are at stake,” says Kate Cuthbert. “[One of the many] stereotypes is that romance readers are intellectual lightweights, so to admit to reading or enjoying it is to have those labels applied to you. It’s terrifying when you’re developing a reputation among the literati and nobody is immune – I only did it when I left academia.”

But bestselling Harlequin author Ally Blake, with 18 novels under her belt, points out the unique and enviable position romance occupies. Unlike other genres and titles, romantic fiction simply doesn’t need media support.

“Publishers can use a lot of influence and money getting books into the hands of reviewers in the hopes they might be seen, but romance — especially category romance — already has a set audience, many of whom buy several books a month if their favourite authors have books on the shelves,” Blake says.

Occasionally the literati claims a romance as one of their own, and it’s usually accompanied by comment about how it ‘transcends the genre’. “Which means it’s too good to be a romance,” Jo Beverley laughs, “because romances by definition are badly written idiocy.”

The New Perfect Fit

So where to from here for the most enduring, best-selling and culturally embarrassing genre of books the publishing industry’s ever had? If the global economy indeed goes south, it might be that escapist fantasy sells as well or better than ever. As mentioned above, the unique pricing the romance industry infrastructure offers means romance will be one of the better entertainment propositions for overstretched budgets.

But here’s what the big, corporate-backed publishers of the world won’t tell you. Just because they’re having a hard time, doesn’t mean everybody is. There’s been an explosion of small presses, often operating exclusively online and catering for far more specialised tastes. Another reason romance is related to pornography might be because both exhibit one crucial characteristic — there’s a market for every conceivable niche, and conglomerates burdened with having to produce thousands of copies of a single title simply can’t cater to them.

US-based Black Velvet Seductions is one of the thousands who’ve stepped into the breach and found the only way is up — even while everyone else talks doom and gloom. “When people talk about sales, generally they’re not talking about those through small publishers and online venues,” says publisher and editor Laurie Sanders. “I’d be less than trusting of any facts and figures which point to the decline of romance.”

From her position at the cutting edge of technology that’s driving niche romance publishing, Sanders says many non-traditional outlets are already rewriting the rulebook. “Readers are more technologically empowered,” she says, “their choices aren’t limited by what the bookstore carries any more, and they can go to Amazon or any number of smaller online venues to find just the niche content they want. People aren’t just satisfied with just any romance, now they’re demanding certain characters, plots, settings and sexual scenarios, and more nimble companies which recognise those niches cater to them. Larger traditional publishers jump on the bandwagon much later.”

Those small niches — with the tens of millions of potential customers to support them — have now spun into entirely self-sufficient business models. From a small, powerful collection of niche content a whole industry can grow, as Florida-based erotic fiction publisher Ellora’s Cave have found and exploited to stunning success.

The technologies to capitalise on romance’s own ‘long tail’ aren’t new, either. In romance, the content inside is really all that matters (cue jokes about cheesy Fabio-inspired covers), so they’ve found a natural home in e-books. The genre is also driving print on demand, where a publisher waits for orders and then prints small amounts to fulfil them rather than pulp return stock of up to 30 percent of the print run (a process long since honed across the corporate sector where the waste of oversupply is untenable to the profit motive).

“I see traditional romance publishing as something of a sick dinosaur,” Black Velvet Seductions’ Sanders continues, “It isn’t dead yet, but most of us in publishing see changes in the traditional publishing model as unavoidable.”

But the modern book publishing business has weathered many storms by adapting — albeit slowly. And with numbers continuing to climb publishers, authors and readers are all very happy, no matter how shy you feel telling people at parties you love them”


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