What’s Happening with Romance
by Linda Carlson
Swashbuckling young hunks ravishing glamorous virgins, embossed covers and titles in gilded script. If that’s your perception of romance novels, look again. The genre has changed.
Yes, paperback racks still display bodice-rippers as well as the demure love stories that climax (so to speak) with a passionate embrace in the final chapter, and each romance author can still function as a brand that helps all that author’s titles sell better.
But today’s romance publishers are active with e-books; sales of erotica are surging; characters are better developed; page counts are lower; and authors and publishers alike are using a variety of marketing tactics, including social media.
If you’re publishing romance now, you’re in a very crowded market. Some authors are predicting that the genre will be saturated for a few years by the flood of e-books, both republished material and original digital-only shorter pieces. And pricing is very competitive, with some books being offered free to generate demand for an author’s latest work.
“Erotica and erotic romance have been at the cutting edge of e-book sales, and continue to be the bestselling subgenres in e-book format,” says Deb Werksman, editorial manager for Sourcebooks, which publishes erotic romance but not erotica. The two subgenres are distinct, she explains: “Erotic romance is still focused on the love story and has a happy ending,” while “sex scenes are the main focus” in erotica.
But, Werksman continues, sex scenes in erotic romance “can go beyond what we can publish in a traditional romance, in that the main characters can have multiple partners and kinky things going on.” She adds, though, that “you still have to have the love story front and center.”
Christina M. Brashear, who founded digital-first Samhain Publishing in 2005, believes erotic romance is becoming mainstream. “People like the frank nature,” she says.
And some industry observers say the erotica subgenre has attracted new customers because of e-books. “The faint-hearted who didn’t have the nerve to ask a bookseller for an erotica title now don’t have to,” Margo Maguire points out. Maguire’s titles include a paranormal Warriors series (Avon); she observes, “The advent of the Nook/Kindle/iPad/Sony e-readers has been quite the boon to erotica authors.”
Gay romance is another subgenre that’s popular in e-book formats. It appeals to “readers who have greater tolerance for there not being a happy ending,” says Rachel Haimowitz, whose Crescendo was just issued by Storm Moon Press. Some gay presses want a lot of sex, she adds, but she doesn’t see a market for lesbian romance. “Gay guys won’t read it, and neither will straight women, while most members of the GLBT community will read gay fiction.”
As for other subgenres, according to Pamela Spengler-Jaffee (publicity director at Avon, which publishes some new titles digital first and some simultaneously as e-books and in print), “Cowboy contemporaries are sizzling hot right now.” Also, Avon will be releasing a couple of new firefighter romances this summer.
Sarah Wendall, author of Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from Romance Novels, notes that steampunk romances and stories that feature historical middle classes and “below-stairs” romance, which might not attract large enough markets to justify publishing in print, are finding eager audiences as e-books.
And at Samhain, material from the 1970s and later has been acquired and was introduced in December in e-book format as “Yesterday’s Romances for Today’s Readers.”
Spengler-Jaffee notes that traditional media have been supportive. “Venues like USA Today will include e-book authors in articles and trend stories, and many of the trades review e-originals or e-first publications,” she reports.
Library Journal is one trade journal that is explicit about reviewing e-romances. Its Web site states that it began considering digital-first full-length romances last May. (Interestingly, the site notes, “Simultaneous print/ebook romance titles are not eligible, though we will accept romance e-originals that will subsequently spin off print editions.” For more information, especially about using NetGalley to provide access to e-galleys, see libraryjournal.com/csp/cms/sites/LJ/SubmitToLJ/TitlesForReview.csp#Books.)
The introduction of electronic ARCs means it’s possible to solicit reviews from a far wider early audience at virtually no cost. Deb Caletti, whose YA romances are published by Simon Pulse, says that digital ARCs “give bloggers a chance to write reviews and build enthusiasm for the book.”
Because readers are becoming more savvy about the source of reviews, especially those published online, Wendall believes it is increasingly important for these reviewers and bloggers to state clearly that they are not being paid to promote a product. “That reinforces the trust that is important in online recommendations,” she says. “You want to know that you’re receiving a reader’s opinion, and only her opinion.”
Between the Covers
Although many traditional romance publishers continue to impose formulas on their authors (the first kiss in Chapter X; no sex without a commitment; and never any sex before Chapter Y, for example), today’s romance readers “crave stories that mirror the issues they are dealing with in their own lives,” according to Deborah Piccurelli, author of Hush, Little Baby (Sword of the Spirit Publishing).
Seduction and passion aren’t enough to sell romance today, many authors believe. It’s important to have strong plots, with characters readers can follow through several books. “The sales trends for my own books show that readers savor books filled with emotion, but not saccharine sentiment,” says Susan Wiggs, who is published by Mira. “They love books that take them to a place filled with beauty and nostalgia, and they love characters that feel real to them. In fact, they get quite passionate about continuing characters.”
Victoria Janssen agrees. The author of books such as The Duke and the Pirate Queen (Spice), which some readers describe as erotica, she says: “In later books, I wrote fewer sex scenes to allow more room for both romantic and action plots.”
Like Janssen, Jenny Brown refers to “emotional connection.” Over the years, she reports, she’s tightened her prose and worked for better character development “that gives readers a more satisfying emotional experience.” Brown’s current historical series, Lords of the Seventh House (Avon), features an astrological theme.
New Norms for Length
Romances today are shorter, Werksman of Sourcebooks points out. Wiggs agrees: “Mine have definitely become shorter, now about 100,000 words, both because of publisher requests and because I am getting better at making my point. “
Although Werksman believes that many readers are interested in shorter books, she is concerned about what happens when authors post shorts or sell self-published shorts, and “readers don’t realize they’re buying a novella or short story, and then the shorter pieces get negative reviews.” Wendall agrees, noting how frustrating it is to buy what you think is a book and find it’s a novella or short story.
“Long isn’t going away,” says Brashear at Samhain, where publications can run from 12,000 to 120,000 words (or more than 300 pages). “We look first at the story,” she explains. “Length is an issue only if we’ll be publishing the title in print.” This publisher sometimes packages shorter pieces together for print editions and offers them separately in digital format.
What Makes Readers Buy
The single most important reason that romance readers select a new novel is still the author. That’s what a recent survey of romance readers showed, and the readers and writers who commented for this story agree.
Price matters too. Almost any price reduction for a romance will help sales, says Danielle Jackson, the romance publicist at Sourcebooks, who also reports that discounting the e-editions of an author’s backlist when a new title comes out is very effective.
Another important marketing tool: ads for and excerpts from a new title that are printed in the back of current romance titles. Samhain promotes some new titles by offering one of the author’s older titles free in a Kindle edition. “This can create a huge bump-up for the author’s other work,” Brashear says.
As with most books, it’s tough to promote without an enthusiastic, energetic author. Jackson continues, “For print or digital books, author involvement has become a must.”
Because readers want to feel “connected” to authors, the Sourcebooks publicist emphasizes the importance of online marketing, declaring that social media and consistently updated Web sites and interactions are all vital to authors making names for themselves. To support Sourcebooks romance authors, Jackson develops virtual tours by setting up guest-blog and interview dates with book bloggers and romance Web sites.
Even with supportive publishers, authors can feel overwhelmed by the promotion necessary today. “I get support from my publisher, my agent, and an assistant, and I love the community of readers online, but it’s a lot to juggle when you try to reach out to everyone,” says Wiggs.
Her comments and those of YA romance novelist Deb Caletti point up the marketing commitment required of a publisher. “My publisher is wonderful and looks after me and my books really well: Web site, travel, appearances, press releases, blog appearances, giveaways,” Caletti says. “And there are various wonderful people who handle the general public relations and the public relations specific to schools and libraries.”
Like most authors, Caletti handles Facebook herself—in her case, a Facebook “fan” page.
“To me, it makes all the sense in the world to ditch book tours,” Caletti says. “Blog tours cost us only our time, and we can reach a larger audience. Think about all the demands on a young reader’s time and the fact that transportation is often an issue: it’s tough for young people to even get to book signings at stores.”
Wiggs is doing a different kind of online promotion. To let her fans visualize the setting of her Lakeshore Chronicles series, she is “building a virtual town, Avalon, on the shores of Willow Lake” with the help of her publisher. She expects to update with events that occur in each new book in the series.
Besides blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, some authors are using tried and true promotional tools. Maguire emails a newsletter to fans who have registered for it—“a dedicated audience that wants to know what I’ve got coming out.”
She also courts bookstores. “I like to send notes to independent booksellers, usually with bookmarks, a couple of months before my newest book is scheduled to be released,” she says. “I think those, along with the newsletter, are the most effective tools.”
Speaking of store promotion, publishers might be wise to send out shelf-talkers. Few do, said one bookseller, who suggested these as inexpensive promotion. Ideally, a shelf talker for a romance would identify which number a book is if it’s part of a series, as well as briefly describing the author or story.
Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from western Washington, home to a thriving community of romance novelists and five chapters of Romance Writers of America.
Romance Writers of America, with hundreds of chapters across the United States and many that serve subgenres, offers several resources for writers and publishers, including:
Romance Sells, a quarterly sent free to librarians and booksellers.
The archives, which offer dozens of marketing and sales ideas, are at rwa.org/cs/bookseller_articles. Publishers can advertise in Romance Sells, although RWA representative Erin Fry says certain qualifications must be met. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Romance Writers Report, a members-only publication that accepts advertising from nonmembers. Most romance writers say they are avid romance readers, and many are potential customers for publishing services, including publicity campaigns. For rates, email email@example.com.
Small Press Forum and Self-Publishing Forum are free for RWA members; see rwa.org/cs/new_forums/listservs_introduced.
Annual conferences are scheduled for Anaheim, CA (2012), and Atlanta (2013). The conferences don’t have trade show exhibits, but sponsorship opportunities are available. For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to the Romance Writers of America, a novel fits into the romance genre only if it has:
• a love story as the main plot, with two people falling in love and struggling to
make their relationship work
• an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending,” with the lovers “rewarded with emotional justice
and unconditional love”
RWA defines several subgenres, which are determined by setting and plot elements. These include:
Contemporary. Usually set after 1945 and focusing primarily on the romantic relationship.
Historical. Set in any time period prior to 1945, in any location.
Inspirational. Religious or spiritual beliefs are important in the romantic relationship.
Paranormal. The future, a fantasy world, or paranormal happenings are integral to the plot.
Regency romance. Most of the story is set in the Regency period of the British Empire.
Suspense romance. Suspense, mystery, or thriller elements are integral to the plot.
YA romance. Oriented to young adult readers.
Romance writers and bookstore buyers add variations to this list, including paranormal romance (think time travel, especially Viking and Celtic; paranormal characters other than vampires; and “shape shifters”); “bonnet romance” (an Amish story usually set between the 1920s and the early 1930s); romances designated by specific historical periods (such as medieval and Victorian) or specific social classes (such as middle class and “below-stairs”); gay and erotica romances; and edgy romances. “Edgy,” which some publishers cite as a microtrend, includes “urban fantasy” that may focus on fighting demons in the city rather than on the romance as the main story line.