This is a special report from Karen W who is one of the primary organizers of a fan run conference called Celebrate Romance. When Karen shared this with me, I thought that everyone would be interested in the thoughts of the attendees and authors about the state of romance.
I just got back from the Celebrate Romance conference yesterday, and I thought I’d tell you all about it. It was a lot of fun. We were seriously considering ending the conference after this year, but this year’s conference was so enjoyable, we’ve started to reconsider, although the final decision hasn’t been made yet.
I didn’t leave for the conference until Friday morning this year. One of my friends offered me her frequent flyer miles for my flight, and because she’s such a good customer, I was upgraded to first class! What a nice experience compared to flying coach. (I think I’m spoiled now…)
I arrived in Kansas City at 8:30 am, and went out to breakfast with some of my friends. It was great to see some of my “romance friends”, who are scattered across the country (and in Canada!). I didn’t get to attend CR last year because of my job change, so this was my first chance to see some of them in two years. So it was nice to catch up with everyone. We made a quick bookstore run on our way back to the hotel, then spent the rest of the morning and afternoon chatting and relaxing.
The conference started at 5 pm on Friday. I spent a lot of my time on Friday night dealing with conference stuff (collecting raffle baskets, organizing books for the book trade, helping attendees who were stranded at various airports due to weather, etc.) but I got to meet some of the new attendees, as well as old friends. We also had dinner and a lot of people brought desserts to share, so it was a relaxed evening. We spent the late night hours stuffing goody bags – as usual, we got a lot of bookmarks, cover flats, pens and various promotional items. We also got several big boxes of books – Patricia Grasso’s publisher sent two huge boxes of books, the same titles that she’d sent the year before.
I woke up Saturday morning to see snow falling! Thankfully it didn’t last, but it was fun to see snow for the first time this year. Saturday is our busiest day. We had three speakers in the morning. The first speaker was Cybil Solyn, who is one of the organizers of CR, and also the owner of Rakehell, the Regency web site. Her talk was titled “The Rise of Erotica and the Death of the Regency“. She started off by asking how many people read Regencies, and about 2/3 of the attendees raised their hands. Then she asked how many people read erotica, and only about 1/4 or less of the attendees agreed. CR attendees probably aren’t “typical” romance readers, but it shows that the popularity of erotica is probably overstated.
Cybil also mentioned that Ellora’s Cave, of all people, is starting a new imprint which will be focusing on traditional Regencies. It’s called Cerridwen Press, and it will have a variety of genres, but evidently they see a niche for Regencies and they’re looking for Regency manuscripts. It may be a few months before they show up on the web site – right now there are only a few – but I found that interesting.
There was a lot of talk at this year’s CR about the “future of Romance” and Cybil mentioned one rumor that’s been flying around: “The Historical Is Dead“. Everyone dismissed this, but the publishers are much more interested in paranormal and contemporary right now. However, there is some resurgence, and publishers are looking for historical manuscripts, but the books that are being written now won’t show up on the shelves for a couple of years, so the next year or two may be sparse when it comes to historicals.
One interesting thing about this year’s CR was that we had quite a few young authors – in their mid to late 20’s – and it wasinteresting to hear their perspective on the romance industry. (Although a bit depressing to think that I was reading romance probably before they were born… I feel old.) The next speaker was Michelle Bardsley, a fairly new and young author who writes “vampire mom” books. Her talk was entitled “Putting The Normal In Paranormal“.
What I found most interesting was that she specifically targeted her book to current trends. She said that she went to the bookstores and looked at what was selling, then found a niche that she thought wasn’t being served and wrote her book accordingly. She wrote a humorous book about a single mom who becomes a vampire, and evidently it’s doing very well. (It’s called I’m the Vampire, That’s Why .)
A lot of authors talk about their “muse” and how they change to different genres “because I was inspired to try something new” even if they’re doing it partly for sales. It seems like the younger authors are more upfront about targeting their books to the market, especially in order to get their first books sold.
The third speaker was Jenna Petersen, who talked about “Kick Ass Heroines: How They Are Changing Romance“. She’s another young author, and she talked about how she was inspired by Buffy etc. But it turned into an interesting discussion about reader’s perceptions about heroines. I commented that historical authors have to walk afine line between making the heroine strong and making her historically inaccurate, and one of the other authors asked “is this really historical accuracy, or just the reader’s perspective of historical inaccuracy?” Several authors mentioned that readers called their heroines “inaccurate” even when they were based on real historical figures. I wasn’t completely convinced – I think some heroines have attitudes are just historically inaccurate, and I don’t think a heroine has to be a feisty sword fighter to be “strong” – but clearly a lot of people really want strong “kick ass” heroines in their books, whether it’s historically accurate or not. Every time Jenna mentioned that she based one of her heroines on Buffy or Charlie’s Angels, there was enthusiastic cheering. So I don’t think this is a trend that’s going away.
After a break, we split up into two groups and had two discussion sections. The first one was “Characters, Plot or Cock: What Makes a Book Sexy?” This was led by Jade Lee and Elizabeth Hoyt (author of The Raven Prince). Jade Lee spent a lot of time discussing her books. But the main point we kept coming back to in this discussion was that sexiness comes out of the characters, not from sex scenes. One author mentioned that Ellora’s Cave requires that their books start with a sex scene. Blaze recommends that you have a sex scene within the first 50 pages, if I remember correctly. Other publishers aren’t that strict, but it’s clear that publishers (and readers) want sex in the books. The authors wanted to know what readers think about this, and how to bring emotional content into a book that has a lot of sex. (So the authors are aware of the problems of too much sex.) The consensus was that it can work to have an early sex scene (I mentioned Mary Balogh’s The Notorious Rake) but the author has to make sure that the emotional connection is there. Most readers want at least some sex in their books but want the sex scenes to enhance the characters, not the other way around. I haven’t read The Raven Prince yet, but a scene from that book involving kissing was mentioned as being more sexy than the actual sex scenes.
The second discussion group was “Market Glut: What Do Readers Really Want?” This was led by Melody Thomas, Amy Knupp and Kay Stockham. (The latter two authors write for Superromance.) There was a lot of discussion of trends and whether the trends are changing. The two year rule was mentioned – it takes two years for a book to go from anauthor’s desk to the bookstore shelf, so even when a trend is “over”, it takes two years for that to be reflected in the books that are published. Paranormal is still hot, but the new trend is for witches, magic and more fantasy elements, rather than just vampires and werewolves. Historicals may be coming back. Harlequin is uncertain right now, with the failure of Bombshell and the reshuffling of their series lineup. Humorous contemporaries are big sellers.
Melody asked “what kind of book would you like to see on the shelves that you’re not seeing now” and I immediately jumped in with “books with more emotional content, particularly historicals”. She agreed, and said that decreasing page counts may be part of the reason for the change to lighter books. No one could say exactly why books are getting shorter, but Melody speculated that it started out due to higher paper costs, and then stayed because of younger readers with shorter attention spans. She said that her page count had dropped by 1/3 since she first started writing. Several authors also mentioned that there has been a lot of turnover in editors in the last few years, and most of the editors are very young right now – early to mid 20’s. This affects what kinds of books get published, how the books are edited, and the push toward shorter, faster books. (The “young editor issue” was mentioned several times during the conference.)
After this discussion, we had lunch, followed by a break and a scavenger hunt to break up the day. Most people started wandering back into the conference rooms, and I talked to some readers and authors. I had one interesting discussion about publishers. A lot of people here don’t like Avon very much, but the consensus among the authors was that Avon was the best publisher by far. The authors said that Avon does much better than the other publishers in terms ofgetting the books on the shelves, publicizing books and authors, getting ARC’s out to reviewers in a timely manner, etc. Several of the other publishers ignore the authors and expect them to do all of their own promotion. So the authors really want to be with Avon, because their books will sell. Dorchester was mentioned as a publisher who isn’t as focused on trends and who is willing to publish books with unusual settings or themes. No one seems to know what’s going on at Harlequin.
In the afternoon, we had our last discussion session – “The Future Of Romance: Not So Happy Endings, Atypical Heroines, Futuristic/Fantasy and Everything Else“. One main focus of this discussion was that readers have to let the publishers know what they want. Several authors and other romance insiders said that editors were sometimes out of touch, and didn’t necessarily know what readers wanted. The “young editor problem” was mentioned, along with editors being located in New York (not much of a romance mecca). Authors emphasized that while they passed along comments from readers, the comments had a lot more impact if they came directly from readers. Several people mentioned the revival of Harlequin Historical as a victory for readers – Harlequin saved HH because of reader comments, and now it seems to be going strong. So there was a big push for readers to send email and/or snail mail to publishers or editors. All the authors said that editors really pay attention to reader mail.
A couple of publishers are experimenting with multi-book series, where there may not be a happy ending in every book. The JD Robb books were mentioned, along with the Sookie Stackhouse books and the Evanovich books. Suzanne Enoch (who wasn’t at CR) was mentioned as an author who has written a three book series with the same couple featured in every book. This seems to be a test to see if this type of book works for romance readers (and if it does, more might be on
the way). CR attendees were not very enthusiastic about this, and said that in a romance, they expected a happy ending. Mystery and fantasy books had different expectations.
More crossover books are on the way, especially romances with fantasy elements. The driving force seems to be drawing in readers who might not otherwise read romance, but there’s a real concern about alienating traditional romance readers. Although paranormal is clearly very popular, there were quite a few people at CR who felt that they weren’t finding the books they wanted to read, and I think many of the authors shared their frustration (and mentioned again that readers should email publishers about it).
In the late afternoon on Saturday, we had the book trade, followed by a night out at a local barbecue restaurant. That was a lot of fun. I picked up four Lori Herter vampire books at the book trade – these are hard to find, but I don’t know if they’re any good. I also won a raffle basket with some Ellora’s Cave books, so I guess I’ll finally try one!
On Sunday we had three more speakers, mostly light and funny talks. Lorraine Heath spoke about “The Victorian World vs. The Regency World“. She said that because Westerns went “out of fashion” she had to pick a new era, and she didn’t find the Regency period very appealing. So she started considering Victorian, and she talked about the differences between the two eras. She mentioned the difference in attitude – the Regency era was a period of national pride, due to the Napoleonic wars, while the Victorian era was much darker and more cynical, especially due to the English involvement inquestionable wars like the Crimean and Boer wars. She also talked about the hardening of class lines in the US during this period (with “The 100” in New York society) and how this led to American heiresses going to England to find husbands. It was an interesting talk, and it makes me more interested in reading Lorraine Heath’s recent books (which have sat unread in my TBR pile).
Terry McLaughlin spoke about movie heroes, and Isabo Kelly talked about “Sexual Oddities in the Animal Kingdom“. Both light and fun talks that made everyone laugh. We also had a cake to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the conference.
Then we had the book signing. I talked briefly with Elizabeth Hoyt, and told her that The Raven Prince was extremely popular with online readers. She is very shy, and said she was surprised and thrilled by the reception of her first book. The sequel, The Leopard Prince, is due out next month. (I tried to win an ARC of the new book in the raffle, but I didn’t win. :-<)
I talked to Vicki Lewis Thompson about her nerd books, and she said that it brought her a lot of readers who don’t normally read romance. She said that the books were often mentioned on “nerd-related” bulletin boards, and that a lot of these readers said things like “I would never read a romance, but I read your books”. She commented that it showed that heroes don’t have to be the typical “alpha male” types. She’s going to be writing a paranormal series next.
Jane: Thanks for allowing us to share this with the readers here, Karen. If you readers have any suggestions on what you would like to see at future CR gatherings, let us know. Locations, authors, topics. It’s always good to have feedback. Thanks again.