Genre knockers (popular/commercial fiction)

The question was asked by someone new on a commercial writer’s loop “what is ‘literary fiction’?” and the best answer (by far) was “What the rest of us support.”

Literary fiction is the top point of the fiction pyramid where fewer authors dwell amongst fewer publishers and even fewer sales (comparably). But it is somewhat hallowed ground. It’s emminently respectable. The rest of the pyramid basically comprises ‘popular’ or ‘commercial’ fiction. Yep, it’s what people buy. Sci-fi, fantasy, who-dunnits, love stories, historicals, Young Adult, erotic fiction. And each brings with it a varying degree of credibility.

Signing up with HMB, I realised that any media/PR activities would lead, inevitably, to dealing with those sticky anti-romance questions that are such fun to negotiate. So I jotted a few romance myths down to tackle in anticipation. As I looked around, I found lots of other authors who have almost identical lists of anti-romance sentiment.

And I actually felt encouraged.

This means the criticism is generally finite. Maybe people have run out of things to knock if we’re starting to repeat ourselves. There are some very good analyses of romance bashing on the websites of authors Anne Gracie and Jenny Crusie should you care to go for something a little more cerebral than my ‘cop that’ approach.

The Myths

  • Anyone can write a romance
  • You’ll get rich writing romance
  • Romance novels are ‘formulaic’
  • All Romance novels are ‘Mills & Boons’
  • All romances are ‘bodice rippers’
  • Romance is ‘chick porn’
  • All romances are variations on the same theme
  • Reading romance means you’re uneducated, unfulfilled or unenlightened
  • Romance disempowers women

Myth 1: Anyone can write a romance (or why novels are like sperm)

Novels are like sperm — a heck of a lot are produced but, statistically, only one or two individuals actually get to the big fertilisation pay-off — or publication, in our case.

Sperm immediately separate into clusters. The front-runners (the fastest, healthiest, longest-tailed which are biologically customised perfectly for their very specialised function) cluster up front forging a direct path to their goal. The other, less motivated, shorter-tailed, kinked ones drop back to proceed at a more leisurely pace and most eventually perish before they get anywhere near their eggie-goal. Meanwhile, back up front…the sperm, quite literally, are tripping over each other in their race to fertilise. There is some speculation that clustering causes competition (even though they’re most likely all from the same male) and, thus, evolutionarily ensures that only the primo sperm wriggle their way to the front of the pack. Survival of the fittest starts early.

Okay so that’s where it starts to deviate from being like novels. It is not true to say that the role of many novels in the marketplace is to engender healthy competitions. If a novel is swimming out there in the big publication fallopian tube then it really wants to be there. You don’t go to that kind of trouble if you’re not goal oriented.

But that intensive clustering, that massive over-supply, does generally mean that the books need to be highly specialised, highly customised for their purpose to succeed. It’s why perfectly well written, perfectly interesting, perfectly presented books may never sell.  Because another book was just custom-fitted better to a particular line or genre. Some people are born customisers, others work hard to learn it.

Please can I get to my point..? Okay.

“Anyone can write a romance novel?” Sure they can, and good luck to every one of them. But can they sell one?

Writing a novel is reasonably straight-forward. Writing a ‘good’ novel (defined here as being appropriate for the genre, engaging, technically correct and able to scramble over the rotting corpses of those that came before it) is less so.

The odds of being published in romance are, statistically, higher than the odds of being a successful sperm but some days it doesn’t feel like it. Harlequin Mills & Boon–the largest publisher of romance but hardly alone with tens of dozens of other major publishers in the marketplace many of whom include romance–receives around 20,000 unsolicited manuscripts each year, this is in addition to the working pool of authors or agented authors who submit story ideas on an ongoing basis. With maybe 20 of the 500 slots each year that aren’t already filled by existing authors, this means your chances of getting published by the market leader are 1000:1   Doable, but no gimme. Other publishers are possibly even higher, particularly considering you can’t get close to most publishers without and agent or a previous publishing credit.

This is not to say that plenty of diverse, interesting, engaging romance novels aren’t languishing unpublished out there in author-land and that those novels aren’t perfectly good works of fiction. It’s possible for someone to win twenty competitions (or more) with a manuscript and still not to be able to sell it. It’s technically perfect but just lacks the X-factor that makes an editor stand up and take notice. Or it hasn’t hit the right editor yet. Or it would sell in a flash if in the hands of a savvy agent who knew their industry.

Editors try to hedge their sales-bets. They create diversity in their stable of authors to increase the chances of providing a book that’s just right for every reader. That’s why there’s so many lines with so many different themes (everything from faith-related through to erotica).

Myth 2: You’ll get rich writing romance (or why you shouldn’t give up your day job)


Not unless your name ends in Roberts, Cartland or Steele. Like any industry there are those who are at the apex and there are many, many more shuffling around for space at the fatter end of the pyramid. Romance is massive business around the world but it’s important to understand, first, how many people are writing in the industry and, second, where the money from every sale goes.

Authors, retailers, agents and designers get a percentage of everything sold but nothing on what doesn’t sell. Even publisher profits are offset by the cost of producing books that are returned, unsold, for pulping. Every book that does well has to carry its neighbours that don’t.

But the print industry… Printers get paid for 100% of the 100 million books produced every year.  Regardless of what ships, regardless of what sells, regardless of what is returned for pulping. So when I die I’m coming back as a print company share-holder.

Myth 3: Romance novels are formulaic (a computer could write one)

The presence of structural literary convention does not make a story formulaic. The basic structure of a novel meeting the definition of ‘romance’ is to have the hero and heroine form the central plot in the story, include growing tension between the characters, a ‘black moment’ (or climactic event) and a ‘happy ever after’ or optimistic ending.  The equivalent ‘formula’ in a different genre might be the importance of introducing your protagonists early in a mystery novel, drip-feeding clues to the reader throughout the novel and then having the ‘who-dunnit’ or ‘reveal’ at the end of the story. These are all non-negotiable in meeting reader expectation.

Early romance novels, particularly those published by Mills & Boon, were considered formulaic in that they created content to meet a specific market demand. At the time, the market demanded sweet, vulnerable heroines and dashing, powerful heroes. However the genesis of the formula label may lie in the fact that Mills & Boon were the first publisher to create specificationsfor its authors regarding style, content and layout of submissions. This practice is now a publishing industry standard across most genres. Additionally there are publishing production values that establish lengths (in the 70s most M&B novels were precisely 192 pages long for production reasons) which flow on to the manner and speed with which the stories unfold. When you have just 192 pages to tell your story, you really want your protagonists on the page together as quickly as possible, for instance.

Modern romances continue to address reader expectation and changing tastes. Today’s romance heroines are more commonly feisty or kick-butt and more than a match for their heroes no matter how alpha. Story scopes range from wildly escapist themes with millionaires, sheiks and vampires to it could happen to youcontemporary stories with flawed, everyday characters from the suburbs.

Author Jane Ann Krentz put it into clear context when she said

“It wasn’t that long ago that mysteries were denounced as trashy reads. They appeared almost exclusively in cheap paperback editions. Their covers were lurid and provocative with lots of bosomy women and tough-looking men with five o’clock shadows and dashing trench coats. The books were accused of being formulaic and predictable. Reviewers ignored them. Educated people did not want to be seen reading them in public.”

Sound familiar? Today, mysteries are the fourth highest grossing genre pulling in $650 million in 2007. What’s the highest..? Romance–$1.37billion in the same period.

Myth 4: All romances are a Mills & Boon

This is a bit like saying ‘every cola is a Coke™ ‘. Many suppliers–not the least Pepsi™ –are likely to disagree. A romance is simply defined by the placement of a developing relationship between two people at the core of the story and a ‘happy ever after’; not by its length, subject matter or traits.

The fact is ‘category’ romance (shorter, line-driven series with fixed shelf lives and massive turnover) is the single biggest type of romance published (40% in 2006). Harlequin Mills & Boon have made a speciality out of publishing and marketing category romance, and pretty much owns that 40% as a result (in 1985 HMB bought out its only serious competitor, US Silhouette Books, effectively creating a monopoly). The next closest sub-genre in popularity is single-title historical romance at 17%.

But ‘romance’ comes in all shapes, sizes and levels of intensity. They have been produced in Manga,  Braille, audio and e-formats with novels as long as 250,000 words or novellas as short as 10,000 words. Sub-genres include paranormal, historical, fantasy, intrigue/mystery, faith-based/inspirational, medical, romantic comedy. Additionally there are other genres that have ‘romantic elements’. These aren’t classed as true ‘romances’ but they have some of the traits of a romance.

There are thousands of romances that are not ‘a Mills & Boon’ but it certainly is true that millions more ARE. This is because Harlequin Enterprises is now a super-corporation which owns the three major ‘category’ novel producers – Mills & Boon, Harlequin and Sillhouette. Some studies put their sales at five-and-a-half books every second, globally (2007).

Myth 6: Romance novels are ‘chick porn’

The 1972 release of Kathleen Woodiwiss’ “The Flame and the Flower” (AVON) is generally agreed to have revolutionised the romance industry for two reasons – by taking the ‘action’ beyond the bedroom door for the first time and by being released in soft-cover straight up. Following the success of this first release, AVON flogged over eight million copies of Woodiwiss and another romance author’s books in three years. These single-titles fed the flames for more passionate, ground-breaking historical romance showing that sexual expression was in great demand amongst readers.

Literally, romance is distinguished from pornography by the inclusion of a relationship between two people as central to the story. Without the romance, the story would fall over. Pornography is all about sexual titlation and without THAT a pornographic story wouldn’t stand up (in fact the story is often very flimsy without the sex).

But when people criticise romance as ‘female porn’ I think they’re being less literal.  What they’re talking about is the arousal (emotional or physical) that romance can generate.  A good romance is full of what is called ‘emotional punch’, it’s what gets your heart hammering and makes your breath catch and has you staying up late to see how it will resolve. Most often that’s about something emotional that happens (or doesn’t) between characters rather than something sexual.  But romance lines with higher levels of sexual expression may also elicit a physical arousal in some readers. The best of those lines elicit both an emotional and sexual arousal.

Readers in other popular genres become just as aroused by literary devices like suspense, horror or mystery and some of these may also include sex. Sex has a role to play in increasing engagement but it is not the primary device.

Just like in the romance genre.

Romantic erotica takes the genre to the sexual extreme but still does not cross over into ‘porn’ territory, when skilfully delivered. Yes, there’s plenty that isn’t but, when done well, erotic romance arouses the reader on two levels — a psychological engagement and a physical engagement.  But pull the sex out of a well-written erotic romance and the story will still hold up.

Myth 7: All romances are variations on the same theme

Contemporary romances have a massive amount of story scope compared with their earliest cousins but it has been said that ‘There are no new stories in the world’. It is certainly true that some themes appear more commonly in romance–cinderella, beauty and the beast, ugly duckling type stories; hidden/unexpected child stories; forced proximity (desert island) stories.  The themes are popular with readers and there are no end to the number of stories one can weave around a popular theme.

However some subjects are still on the ‘no’ list for 99% of authors. Controversial issues such as warfare (including terrorism), politically ‘hot’ issues, or social issues that will date (such as stock market crashes, diseases etc) are generally discouraged.   As markets shift different types of story become difficult to sell — stories featuring artists, actors or sports stars have in the past been discouraged. Don’t ask me why, they sound like perfectly interesting people to me and it’s hard to buy the arguement that readers don’t find ‘hollywood’ stories realistic when they’re buying millionaire/sheik stories by the container-load. But I assume they don’t sell.

That our heroes and heroines are moral, decent, likeable people is important regardless of what story they are packaged in. This is because as readers we want to be able to relate to our heroines and fall in love with our heroes.

The general consensus is that if the writer is skilled they can breach convention and possibly get away with it. But one non-negotiable rule is that the hero must not be ‘unheroic’ and the heroine in conventional romance should demonstrate positive values — she might be a stripper to support her disabled child but never to support her drug habit. A hero may kill adult humans for a living (ie: a reformed assassin, a soldier) but if he kills fluffy animals it would not be well-received by contemporary readers.  Romance Author Anne Gracie says that ‘there’s something important and valuable’ that women are getting from fantasies involving scenarios of sexual dominance and so stories with extremely dominant males overpowering the woman sexually still appear commonly, although the kind of aggressive, forced sexual relations that might have typified romances in the 50s and 60s–where a forced context was a convenient way to get your characters together sexually in a cultural context of women who weren’t sexually liberated–is a big no-no these days.

In the case of romance giant Harlequin Mills & Boon, they bundle these story ‘types’ together carefully under tightly marketed lines so a reader knows what kind of story they will get just by picking up the latest title in their favourite lines.  If a reader likes dashing princes, brooding businessmen and arrogant Sheiks then they look for a Silhouette Desire or a Harlequin Presents. If they want a more true-to-life story with storylines more closely aligned with ‘real world’ and very emotionally intense storylines they migth look for a Harlequin Romance or a Silhouette Special Edition. For fuller sexual expression and hip story-lines they might look for a Harlequin Modern Heat or a Harlequin Blaze.

And since most journalists or speculators are drawn like moths to a flame to the more glamourous, exotic, fantastic lines (hey, just like readers!) their view of romance tends to be skewed heavily.

Myth 8: Reading romance is a sign that you’re uneducated, unfulfilled or unenlightened

Harlequin Mills & Boon’s annual romance report says that

“the image of the dissatisfied housewife devouring romance novels is not, and never has been, true of the majority of the genre’s readership.”

For a start, approximately 9% are men. Two-thirds of romance readers graduated high-school or college and nearly 60% entered the workforce (full or part-time).

Prolific romance best-seller, Marian Keyes, is bothered by criticisms about readers of romance saying,

“it’s just another way of making women feel shit about themselves, by making fun of the books they write and read and the issues in them. If they were a group of men writing thrillers who had the same impact around the world they’d be celebrated.”

Of the $6.31 billion net revenue from US publishing retail sources in 2006, romance accounted for 21% of overall sales ($1.37billon), second only to religious/inspirational sales (and including the sales of The Bible). The following year when they took the Bible out of the race, Romance topped the chart by a mile. Romance’s nearest commercial competitor was the science fiction/fantasy leviathan which, although it had the much bigger public profile (and probably double or treble the unit cost further skewing the dollar-based stats), accounted for just under $500 million.

There are other clues to the mass popularity of romance amongst readers, 161 authors with 288 titles dominated the best-seller list in 2006. And did I mention the 64 million readers who read at least one romance in 2004?

That’s a lot of unenlightened, unfulfilled and uneducated readers spending a LOT of money on their sad little habit.

The fact is that there is nothing unenlightened about enjoying stories that celebrate love or relationships. And if you’re reading a romance, you’re ahead of the estimated 27% of Americans (for instance) who didn’t (or couldn’t) read one single book in 2007 (AP-Ipsos poll 2007). So that’s a big tick in the ‘educated’ box. And unfulfilled? Well, have a chat to the behemoth that is the Romantic film industry. Adding a little vicarious romantic pleasure to your day does not a sad, pathetic loser make. It just means you like to feel good.

Myth 9: Romance novels disempower women

Rubbish. Not modern romance. Back in the bad old days maybe… Read something current, people!!

Depending on what line or sub-genre you like to read there will be different levels of empowerment shown.  Suspense/intrigue is chock-a-block with women working equally with (or sometimes senior to) a male character in resolving a crime or mystery.  Harlequin Blaze and most erotic romance places women very much in control of the sexual encounters and if they’re not its consensual dominance. Contemporary romances of the ‘sweeter’ variety are often full of challenges being faced, met and overcome by heroines who range from quietly strong to downright kick-butt. And the onus is on character development so that, if a female character is too passive or lets people walk all over her, by the end of the story she’s learned how to stand tall.

These are all important messages. Even in the sub-genre that seems to get people’s equity bells ringing–wildly fantastic and passionate type scenarios involving exotic locations, millionaires, sheiks or other highly alpha males–the heroine is the one person capable of bringing that dominant man to his knees. He may bully everyone else but he ultimately fails to dominate his heroine because she’s more than a match for him.

This last type of category romance is often held up for scrutiny (along with some sub-sub-genres of historical romance) as portraying negative messages for readers. But when readers select those two sub-genres, they are actively choosing escapism. They’re choosing fantasy. And they know it. The number of readers who might think that they actually could end up pressed tightly against a dashing sheik riding cross the desert if only she could be employed as the nanny to his Australian nephews..? I don’t think so.

On the contrary…some lines of romance (particularly contemporary) deal very directly and positively with social issues that affect young (and not so young) women. Real-life issues like eating disorders, disability, psychological issues, broken families, infertility, fidelity, adoption and loyalty form the supporting framework for many romances. They provide a private and safe way for some young women to first be exposed to the issues, the values and the emotions. It gives new readers time to examine their own values and form new ones.

The role of women in society today is more complex than ever. Women lead demanding, stressful lives and they need some escapism. If they choose to take that mental and social break by tumbling into the engaging, fantastic, or diverting pages of a good romance then where’s the harm? At worst we’ve entertained them.

At best we’ve changed them.

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