Feature: Romancing readers worth billions

By TERI SPRACKLAND   |   July 29, 2002 at 2:25 PM

DENVER, July 29 (UPI) -- Romance just ain't what it used to be.

That sweet, shy segment of the publishing industry, once plagued with low self-esteem and "bodice-ripper" jokes, is now kicking ass and taking names. American publishing conglomerates would be in deep financial trouble without the billions of dollars brought in by dozens of perennial best-selling authors and hundreds of solid midlist sellers.

Romantic fiction has grown into an essential element of the American publishing business, bringing in well over a billion dollars in sales last year and providing more than half the paperbacks sold. Romance novels were read by 41.4 million people last year -- including 3.5 million men.

Romance writers are a tough breed -- working endless hours, sometimes for years on end, getting their first product out the door and into the hands of the big New York publishers. They run the gamut from start-ups to big-strike million-dollar players. Bored housewives they're not -- more like obsessive-compulsive workaholics, who have a lot in common with Silicon Valley types in their nonstop devotion to their chosen field. They talk their talk, walk their walk, day after day. They even have their own trade group: the Romance Writers of America.

So, why doesn't The New York Times do reviews on these authors that perennially hit their best-seller lists? (The New York Times Book Review section does, however, take advertisements for romance fiction.) Why isn't an author like Nora Roberts, who last year sold more paperbacks than Stephen King, reviewed in publications that regularly review other genre fiction, such as mystery, science fiction and horror?

Could the answer be ... sexism?

Yes, say many writers and readers.

Nora Roberts, Julie Garwood, Jayne Ann Krentz, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Suzanne Brockmann and Teresa Medeiros, all of whom were in attendance at the 22nd annual conference of Romance Writers of America in Denver recently, earn millions of dollars for the publishing industry. According to attendees at the recent 2002 RWA conference, the most profitable segment of the industry still doesn't get the respect it is due, because it hasn't been able to shake its "bodice-ripper and flaky reader" stereotype image. The RWA, a powerful industry advocacy group with some 8,500 members, is working to overcome those prejudices.

What about that dated stereotype of the romance novelist as a bored semiliterate housewife who halfheartedly fiddles away at writing? There were more Harvard grads at the RWA convention than usually seen outside Cambridge, Mass. A retired Air Force colonel, whose military career spanned the decades from Vietnam to Desert Storm, has carved out a successful second career as a romance novelist. Other authors include a commercial airline pilot, a NASA engineer, and a Shakespearean scholar publishing both Regency novels (early 1800s England era) and Oxford University Press tomes.

Retiring RWA President Harold Lowry -- yes, a man -- writes romantic Westerns under the name Leigh Greenwood. And racial stereotypes that claim that the books are all written by and for white America are also misleading. Avon Books is actively seeking romance novels featuring African-Americans and the president-elect of RWA, Shirley Hailstock, is African-American.

The impact of romantic fiction on the publishing market is often underestimated, according to writers and publishers attending the meeting.

"If Nora Roberts were a man, she'd be on the cover of big business magazines as the next Charles Dickens," Elizabeth Lowell said. Lowell's no slouch herself -- she has sold many books under several pen names and boasts a truly die-hard group of fans that will travel long distances to her book signings.

All told, RWA members write 55 percent of all the popular paperback fiction sold in the country, more than all the science fiction and mystery titles combined.

Roberts, whose disciplined work habits are legendary in publishing, has written hundreds of books.

"I take a day or two off before starting a new book," she said at the RWA conference. She credits her education under the tutelage of nuns with providing her with the tools to write -- particularly guilt.

"Writing doesn't make you neurotic," she said. "Neurotics become writers!"

Jayne Ann Krentz, who quit her job as a librarian in the high-tech industry of Silicon Valley about 20 years ago, has seen the last dozen of her books hit The New York Times bestseller list, under her own name for contemporary fiction and as Amanda Quick for historical fiction. Her heroines, whether 19th century or contemporary, are all self-willed, intelligent women. And her heroes are ... well, heroic, though never perfect.

Krentz believes that the popularity of romance fiction is simple to understand. "It's about the yin and yang of human nature. It's not about stereotypes -- it's about archetypes," Krentz said.

"I changed careers because I discovered I had an entrepreneurial nature, and was too intolerant of bureaucracy," Krentz said. Many romance writers are really driven to have their own businesses, she said.

Debbie Macomber agrees. Despite joking that it took her 20 years to become an overnight success, Macomber sees herself as the head of her own enterprise in Port Orchard, Wash. -- one that employs others to do her secretarial, accounting, marketing and public relations work. Unlike the majority of RWA members, Macomber does not work at home.

"I rented an office in 1992 as a leap of faith. It is a serious business for me," she said. She uses various techniques to build brand loyalty among her readers, including a chatty newsletter and a family cookbook. She now has 25,000 names on her mailing list and gets seven-figure advances for her novels.

"Women get trivialized," Macomber said of the stereotypes attached to romantic fiction. "But publishers are taking us very seriously now."

While it is generally acknowledged that the best-selling authors receive six and seven-figure advances, beginning authors tend to receive offers from $1,000 to $7,500, according to a confidential industry survey conducted by writer Brenda Hiatt.

Despite their successes, many romance fiction writers feel that they still struggle under the "bodice-ripper" epithet that became attached to the genre over 20 years ago. In the 1970s, the lavish cover art decorating the covers scandalized those in more traditional areas of publishing. Covers showed gorgeous women in tattered and revealing clothes, and even more gorgeous male "hunks" embracing them.

Romance fiction is still haunted by three myths: "that they are poorly written, that the books are all the same, and that they are only about sex," according to Charis Calhoun, RWA's public relations director.

Cathie Linz, a 20-year veteran writer who serves as liaison with librarian organizations, calls the allegations downright sexist. "The books are about women, therefore there are those that refuse to take them seriously," she said.

Some public libraries still do not catalogue romance titles, and thus have no way of tracking checkout statistics, which heavily influence library policy and buying, Linz said.

"Once the library starts tracking checkout, instead of dumping them in a box by the door with a 'free: take one, leave one' sign, then the librarians realize how important the genre is to their patrons," she said.

New lines, including Harlequin's "Red Dress Ink" series, have been launched to attract younger, 20-something readers who are looking for a "Sex in the City" or "Bridget Jones's Diary" style of reading material -- one that doesn't necessarily end in anyone saying "I do" at the altar.

Paranormal elements are now common, with heroes that don't exactly fit a Dudley Do-Right image. The popularity of paranormal shows with almost-bad guy heroes, such as Spike the Vampire on television's multiyear hit, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," demonstrates the principles of entertaining storytelling, according to Anne Stuart, an author with a reputation for blending romantic and suspenseful elements in her more than 50 books. "Spike is very, very smart -- and funny. The character works because of the love that drives him ruthlessly towards his worst enemy," Stuart said.

Another trend likely to grow in importance is the pre-eminence of military characters as heroes and heroines. "Right now, there is a percolating interest in the military," noted Lucia Macro, executive editor at Morrow/Avon, a part of HarperCollins Publishing.

Brockmann, whose stories feature a fictional Navy SEALS team, has seen her sales skyrocket. Brockmann's novel "Over the Edge" (about terrorists hijacking a commercial airliner) was released two weeks before the bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The events of Sept. 11, Brockmann said during her keynote speech at the RWA conference, showed that romance writers have got it right -- love matters.

"I don't think there has ever been a time that I'm more proud of being a romance writer than this last year," Brockmann said. When tragedy struck, those about to die reached out with love in their last phone calls, and those that survived reached out to help complete strangers, she noted.

Romance writers don't only break the stereotypes within their novels -- they are themselves often quite unusual people. Merline Lovelace (yes, that's her real name) has published over 6 million books and over 45 titles during the last 10 years -- since she retired as a colonel from the Air Force.

Sari Robins, who just sold her first book (a historical novel called "Her Scandalous Intentions") is a tax lawyer in Atlanta. She started writing because she had always enjoyed reading historical romances.

"One group that doesn't scoff at us is the financial types, like brokers. They are fascinated to know how much romance writers generate in the publishing industry," Robins noted. "Anyone who looks down on romance writing hasn't got a clue," she said.

The economic recession has not seriously affected the popularity of romantic fiction sales, although some editors feel that cash-strapped buyers may switch some hardback sales into paperback.

"In the past, romance has been recession-proof. However, the changes in distribution channels in the last 10 years, to include the Price Clubs and other mass-market business, might have an effect. All in all, the business is hugely profitable," said Steve Axelrod, a literary agent whose client list includes several perennial best-selling writers.

With thousands of unpublished writers working away, the publishing industry is not likely to run out of popular and profitable romance novels to publish. Whether making million-dollar sales or still in start-up mode, the writers attending RWA had one thing in common: their insistence on being treated respectfully for their work and their sales power. Oh, and for many, chocolate fuels their writing sessions. The only serious complaints heard at the RWA convention were that not every dessert at the luncheons was chocolate.

So, hand over the chocolate -- and the money -- and no one will get hurt.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for more news from UPI.com
Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories