Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Genre Loyalty Does Not Equal Genre Contentment

I shall not tolerate such rubbish. Good day, sir.
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From Jane: One reason that romance books comprise such a large portion of the book retail business is because of genre loyalty. Romance readers return to the genre because it gives a specific emotional experience at the end of the book. Wanting a specific emotional experience, time and again, should not be equated with not wanting quality literature.

I read two industry professionals posit that the readership of books that sell do not want a quality story.

In an interview with Reading in the Dark, Paula Guran, Editor of Juno Press, wrote the following in response to the idea that “‘women’s fiction’ is [perceived to be] of a lesser quality than that read by men.”

PG: I don’t think that perception exists anymore. Publishers do know that more women buy more books than men, so they want to sell to women.

There is the idea that “romance”, which is read primarily by women, is of a lesser literary quality, And it is true. Not *all* romance, of course, but a lot of it. Plus a sizable number of romance readers want the same formula over and over; they don’t want a higher quality. Before someone gets ticked off about me saying those things, let me point out that the same could be said of horror during its brief boom in the 80s. Most of it, but not all, was poor quality and, at the time, the public didn’t seem to mind.

Crime/Thriller writer, John Rickards, articulates a similar thesis only with nicer words.

The existing readership, one writer . . . said, wants us to be performing monkeys, doing the same trick time and time again. They want their preconceptions reinforced, not challenged. And fair enough; it's what most of us look for when we want to be entertained rather than stimulated. I'm no different and I'm sure you're not either. . . Audiences don't want anything original, as Fry says in Futurama, they want to see the same thing they've seen a thousand times before. Clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them feel scared.

Rickards essay is a charge to his fellow authors that they write something not to the genre mainstream, to the genre expectations but something risky, to carve out a new audience with new writing. It's an admirable charge but one that conflates, like Guran does, genre loyalty with genre contentment.

Devotion to the genre is not blind. However, in a fan culture, criticism is not acceptable, particularly if the criticism is focused on seemingly small details. Readers receive it from both both sides–for both perpetrating the poor quality and then complaining about it when we get it. After all, publishers only sell want the readers want. This argument assumes that readers have some control over the genre which we do not. At best, we buy the books we want to read, but voracious readers like myself need to have more than one book a month to read and therefore we buy and read books that are satisfactory, average and thereby perpetuate the myth that all we want is average.

When we do vocalize criticism, there are those who question a reader's loyalty and love for the genre, as if there is some right way to go about vocalizing complaints regarding a book. Oftentimes discussions devolve into small details, not because readers focus on small details but because those small details serve to represent a broad emotional scope. For example, in Julie Garwood’s Honor’s Splendour, one detail is recounted more than any other and that is Madelyne’s warming of the feet of Duncan. The story is more than that one moment of selflessness but it is a detail that nearly everyone who has ever read that book remembers. By invoking that one scene, that one small detail, one can call up a host of emotions associated with reading that book. The converse is true. When reading a book that contains a number of details that are incorrect, a reader cannot recall each and every error. Instead one or two serve to standout in the memory of the reader and serve as the placeholder for all negative emotions.

There are a hundred and one reasons not to try something new whether it is time, money, past negative experiences, etc. Coupled with the ingrained genre loyalty, it is not surprising that the tried and true remains on top even if the tried and true isn’t as well written, ground breaking, etc. as the new and novel.

It’s spurious to think that the readers don’t want higher quality. For one thing, the majority of readers may not know that there are books of higher quality in the morass of books smushed together with their spines and covers all bleeding together to create one giant indistinguishable mosaic of pulp. Publicity can make or break a book. If Meljean Brook’s thoughtful, layered books were given the same publicity push as Jacquelyn Frank, I suspect Brooks would be the bestselling author that she deserves to be (and will one day be).

Authors, however, do need to strive to put out the best quality of book out there. Declaiming errors by saying that what is being written is “historical romance” not “historical fiction” seems to bely the idea that romance works deserve the same critical respect as any other piece of genre literature. If it does not, then the critics such as Guran and Rickards are justified in claiming that readers do not want high quality fiction.

***

From Robin: I was thinking this week about how both readers and authors feel on the defensive for things they shouldn't be. It seems so similar. Until I remember that authors are getting paid for their writing, while readers, well, we aren't. In many cases, we're actually paying, whether it be for books, bandwidth, or the like. And still we're characterized as indiscriminately lapping up "formulaic" fiction or told we're being mean to authors by reviewing their books with more than a drive by "best book evah." We're supposedly too stupid to recognize bad books when we read them, but then we're mean if we talk about the flaws we find in books.

First, as to the dismissal of genre readers as formula addicts, we're right back to the flawed logic of book sales = what readers want. We keep hearing that readers drive the market, but aren't we buying from a pre-sorted, unevenly marketed selection of books? So even under the best circumstances, readers are choosing from an already limited and selected supply of books. And as the market hones in on the latest trend, replicating and modeling to capitalize on past sales trends, it narrows further, until the next trend comes along and pushes the funnel in another direction. Sure I understand that authors and editors are caught, too, but sometimes I just want to be a selfish reader and want what I want without all those qualifications.

Anyway, genre readers buy genre books, as we're supposed to. Does it mean they give us what we want? That's the question I think needs to be asked. Do you have any idea how many books I buy that I am disappointed in? A lot. But who cares. My purchase makes me a statistic in that pile of numbers driving what will be published next, even if I didn't like some of those books. And even books I enjoy I find flaws with, from weak copyediting to awkward writing to inconsistent characterization or plotting. But the more books I read in the genre, the more I am able to fill in the blanks when a book is thin in a certain area. And I think this is a particular genius of the loyal genre reader –" the talent for fleshing out what isn't written and triggering an emotional connection by filling in what I call the "genre shorthand." Most readers do this without thinking, in my opinion. Which means they don't necessarily begrudge having to do it.

But should they have to? Obviously a reader has to do some work when reading a book; a book doesn't connect with a reader by itself. But how much of what readers connect with in books comes from the desire to have a certain reading experience and the ability to fill in on thin character traits, trite descriptions, or cliched writing?

Readers aren't stupid. We may buy some stupid books, but that doesn't mean we don't want more. We may even like some stupid books. But that doesn't mean we don't want more. All you have to do is read some of the "mean" reviews or online messageboards like AAR to see that readers are smart and savvy and often extremely well-read. They may not be able to express their critiques in standard critical language, but it doesn't mean they don't recognize weakness and feel disappointment. It doesn't mean they don't want more smart, well-written books. That doesn't necessarily mean that they want the Romance equivalent of Mt. Everest not every book has to be a conquest. Even speed bumps can grab your attention if you aren't expecting them. And isn't that what every reader is looking for — that attention-grabbing book?

Now it may be that a certain number of genre readers expect particular formalistic elements in their genre books, but that has nothing to do with the quality of books, in my opinion. It's true that genre entails formalistic boundaries. But formalistic does not equal formulaic. Tell me how stupid sonnets are because they require a certain number of lines. Or how about the stylistic and thematic limits in which the Renaissance artists had to work. If anything, I think writing well in any genre requires even more creativity and vision, because uniqueness is marked in content, style, and voice more than structure and genre theme. Maybe that's why I'm so fond of books by authors like Jo Goodman — no matter how many common elements she uses in her books, the outcome always strikes me as uncommon.

And thus begins the search for the next uncommon book. Which is ultimately what keeps the genre going, at least for the reader in me.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

53 Comments

  1. Sarah McCarty
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 05:37:05

    Excellent post and aptly portrays the catch 22 in place.

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  2. Angelle
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 05:45:22

    Anyway, genre readers buy genre books, as we're supposed to. Does it mean they give us what we want? That's the question I think needs to be asked. Do you have any idea how many books I buy that I am disappointed in? A lot. But who cares. My purchase makes me a statistic in that pile of numbers driving what will be published next, even if I didn't like some of those books.

    Once I started reading outside of my favored genre and auto-buy authors, I got more out of my reading experience. I used to have over thirty authors on my auto-buy list. Now I have two. My wallet & TBR pile are so much happier than way.

    BTW — the most laughable defense I’ve ever read was: “But I spent so much energy / time / effort, etc. writing them [the books]!”

    Guess what? As an author, you’re SUPPOSED to do that! What’s next? Brownie points for using deodorant?

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  3. Angelle
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 06:26:20

    I must proof-read my comment(s) better. *sigh*

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  4. Amy
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 06:30:40

    I am delurking here for the first time since I have started frequenting your website to say that you two ladies have put to words my somewhat muddled discontents about romance books most succinctly. Thank you.

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  5. Nora Roberts
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 07:25:15

    Well put, as always ladies.

    I think the voracious genre reader will feel some levels of discontent with that genre. But I also read an understanding and affection for that genre–and a hope for more and better.

    I appreciate all of that.

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  6. Gennita Low
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 08:27:57

    I think that “lack of quality,” for a better term, comes from over-saturation. A reader might feel tired of reading the same thing over and over if there are a bunch of books out with the same type of feel and story. Take, for example, the vampire hunter theme. When I first started reading it, it felt innovative and different and even the first person POV didn’t stop me from devouring the books. The “series” aspect also excited the reader and writer in me because of the promise of complexity in the plot.
    Because of the success of this new type of book in catching readers’ attention, more and more publishing houses started requesting for similar manuscripts. Timing and all that.

    Now, it seems that every other book I pick up is the beginning of a series about vampires and vampire hunters, and these books may be really great stories, with wonderful writing, but as a reader, I feel tired and judgmental. Perhaps that’s where the idea that “readers want formula and not quality” comes from.

    The cool thing about our genre is that it uses formula to reinvent itself, absorbing many different aspects from other types of stories. I feel that many adventurous authors who are trying different things are overlooked or not promoted enough, but that’s the nature of the business. Trying something new, in any kind of venture, has always been met with resistance and cynicism, until a bunch of converts start buying and talking about it! I’m into techno-spy thrillers myself, ahem.

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  7. Erastes
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 08:47:09

    Well, I for one, don’t want to buy average or unsatisfying books. That doesn’t mean I don’t find them, but I work hard to find books that I like and want to read and read again. Yes, even in such a small genre as my own favourite (m/m historical). I also do everything in my power to encourage people to write it, write it well, and write it accurately.

    the majority of readers may not know that there are books of higher quality

    Why on earth not? I think this rather insults the “majority of readers.” Giving out the impression that they are unaware of good literature as opposed to bad writing. I ask friends for recommendations, I use Google or Amazon. I read the BOOK PAGES in magazines and newspapers. If I’m in a bookstore I read a section, if I’m online, it’s very unlikely I’ll buy a book without an excerpt of the writing.

    I admit, freely, that people want the same old crap over and over, and will buy an author loyally no matter how their writing declines over the years. Herbert couldn’t have sold the duff Dune books if this wasn’t true, Rowling laughed all the way to Fort Knox on the back of a series of declining quality and Barbara Cartland didn’t ever worry that she had written that book 50 or 100 times before.

    If you stick to the same thing, the tried and tested, you’ll be dissatified at some point because no-one – not Dickens, not Shakespeare are on top of their game 100 percent of the time, whereas if you seek around you might just discover the jewell in a new author’s crown and then that might be the next best thing that everyone is looking for.

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  8. Angela James
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 08:47:45

    I think sometimes people fail to realize that you can love something without loving it blindly. Whether it’s a whole genre or a particular book.

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  9. Lorelie
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 09:06:47

    I feel like publishers don’t listen when we make our desire for better books known. As Jessica Bird, JR Ward sold consistantly but never hit it out of the ballpark. With the BDB series, she became a best seller. Rather than a desire for complex layered books, publishers will interpret that as readers wanting even more vampire books. It’s not about the blood sucking. It’s about the angst and issues and “that which must be overcome”. Instead we get more anemic heros. (And I mean that in every sense.)

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  10. Jill Myles
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 09:18:15

    I would just like to say that I agree with this post – Meljean Brook should be (and will be soon, I think!) a bestselling author. DEMON MOON was utterly delish and I’m currently reading my ARC of DEMON NIGHT and *loving* it.

    Meljean FTW!

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  11. M.
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 09:29:40

    And what has Meljean Brook have to do with the current discussion? I think I am going to email the author … seems like the “hired” help doesn’t even look at where she is posting. *mumbles about spam*

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  12. Ciar Cullen
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 09:35:31

    Aren’t we missing a major player in this discussion? The publishers? I know off the top of my head a dozen authors who have written really fresh stuff, but it’s too outside-the-typical-box for New York. When you read editor and agent interviews, they all say they are looking for something “new! improved! fresh voice and fresh approach!” Those manuscripts are out there, and damn it, I’ve written one of them. It’s not what they pick up, though. With fourth quarter P&L statements on their desks, my guess is that they want more, more, more of the the stuff that sold (vampires, etc.), afraid to take a risk. When you face the endcaps of B&N, you see Nora, and then twenty covers with dark angsty heroes at night on them (presumably a demon or demon hunter). It’s not because fresher manuscripts aren’t hitting their desks.

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  13. Keishon
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 09:39:22

    I am a reader who does not love any genre “blindly.” I have to research to find good books. I often go by word of mouth by readers with similar tastes. I don’t buy impulsively anymore especially not romance novels of late since the genre is flooded with vampires and werewolves.

    Readers do want quality content but with so many baby books out there you have to weed out and virgin mistresses, sheiks, dominating heroes, you have to wonder.

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  14. Lorelie
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 09:52:43

    And what has Meljean Brook have to do with the current discussion? I think I am going to email the author … seems like the “hired” help doesn't even look at where she is posting. *mumbles about spam*

    M, may I draw your attention to:

    If Meljean Brook's thoughtful, layered books were given the same publicity push as Jacquelyn Frank, I suspect Brooks would be the bestselling author that she deserves to be (and will one day be).

    As Jane posted towards the end of her half of the entry? Meljean Brook doesn’t hire spammers. She doesn’t need to, she’s building her own fangirl base. (Of which, admittedly, I am a part.)

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  15. Bethany
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 10:01:29

    A few years back I interned at a major publisher–worked with the editors of Sabrina Jeffries, Liz Carlyle and Bella Andre, also Connie Brockway’s former editor. It was my responsibility to research sales of an author’s previous books to help determine if the price of his or her newest book should go up, down or remain the same. If it is a first book, then comparable titles were used. Anyway, I often sat in on the weekly marketing and editorial meetings and I must say that editors are much like you and me. They are searching for books and writers that are invigorating and fresh, but still pushes our familiar buttons. They might want it even a little more than you and me–because quite honestly, their careers depend upon it.

    You might notice that when editors are interviewed on sites like this one, so often they eschew the word “trend”. I know that St. Martin’s editor Jennifer Enderlin, specifically, is not a fan of the word. In the world of genre literature, I think the word “trend” has become synonymous with words like “unoriginal” and “safe”. Editors really are looking for new voices all the time, but I think it is the writers who aren’t answering the call. It is so very “safe” to call out the copywriters, fact checkers, editors and publishers–especially the latter two–but I really think the change we want to realize is within the writers–and the latent writers.

    How many of us reading this have that burning desire to write but let circumstances prevent us making the committment? It may sound very “be the change you want to see in the world”, but I truly believe that if some of us readers starting using our incredbile knowledge of the genre to write the books we want to read, the results would be spectacular. I think that’s what the editors want too. And yes, I’m definitely preaching to myself!

    What do you think?

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  16. Jody W.
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 10:01:39

    Another thing to consider is how one reader’s higher quality literature is another reader’s wall-banger. And both of those readers might smart, well-read and intuitive. I do think there are some few universals that comprise “good writing”, though.

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  17. Marissa
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 10:32:22

    I’m not one to blindly read a genre either. It’s the author and how well they tell the story, the quality, that matters to me. And what appeals to others may not appeal to me and vice versa.

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  18. Jill Myles
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 10:47:39

    Um yeah, that’s what I was going to point out. Meljean Brook was decidedly referenced in the post. Please read it before denouncing others as spammers or as ‘hired’. I’ve never been paid to promote something that I love, and I don’t plan on it in the future. I’m an avid reader and an avid follower of the blog, and when I like something, I discuss it (sometimes ad nauseum). If I can turn on more people to books I love, so much the better.

    Thanks!

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  19. M.
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 10:50:48

    My apologies.

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  20. Jane
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 11:04:09

    Erastes – Finding good quality fiction out of 400 releases a month is very hard for the average reader. The average reader does not have the time to wade through a dozen review sites to carve out a reading list of 10-20 books per month. It is not insulting to the reader to suggest that good books (qualitatively speaking) are hard to find. I am not suggesting that the average reader or majority of readers cannot distinguish a good book from a bad one. I am saying that in the pre-purchase stage it is very difficult to parse out a good book v. a bad book. You certainly cannot tell from the covers whether the book is any good. Simply because there is man titty on it does not mean the insides are bad or good.

    One reason why the bestseller lists are probably given so much weight is because the average reader feels that there is something worthwhile in the book to have so many people buying it.

    I also think you miss the point in the piece and that is because of loyalty, readers will return again and again in hopes that what drew them there in the first place will revive. I know that is what drives people to keep buying authors way past their “expiration date”. I have my own personal bugaboos. My own slate of authors that I have not yet “given up on” because I grew to love so many of their early books. An author has to do alot to kill my loyalty to them. Alot. I still buy Joan Wolf even though her best writing days were in the 90s because I keep hoping the next one will be like the ones I love so much and have re-read so much that the little covers have fallen off.

    Again, author loyalty doesn’t necessarily mean that readers want the same crap over and over. It can mean (and I suspect it does most of the time) that the readers developed a love for the author from strong early works and hopes to find that again.

    Sticking to the tried and true becomes a habit, true, and one that can prevent a reader from expanding their vision, but it is easily understandable how that happens. With so many choices and so little information about them, it’s overwhelming to a reader.

    I recall that before AAR and TRR existed that I would go into the bookstore and browse but be overwhelmed by the offerings and leave with familiar names because a) I didn’t have the money to take a chance on books that might not be fulfilling and b) I couldn’t tell whether I would like the book based on cover and backstory alone.

    There are few tools of immediacy that can provide a reader, in a bookstore, with the pre-purchase information necessary to make an informed decision.

    In regard to the publishers, I simply don’t see the “quality” manuscripts being turned away. There are so many avenues to being published in this market with the rise in prominence of epublishers. Even westerns are being published. Space operas, high fantasies, urban fantasies, romantic suspense, Victorian period historicals, roman period historicals, and so on and so forth.

    I know that some have said that there isn’t enough lesbian romance but I also know that Angela James has said that it is rarely submitted and you can’t publish books that aren’t submitted.

    I’ve come to a point, however erroneous it may be, that may be authors aren’t getting published because their work is not good enough and not because publishers are too afraid to put something cutting edge out there.

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  21. Jackie L.
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 11:15:35

    Thanks to sites like these, my auto-buys have increased rather than decreased. In fact, money that used to go to MWA writers now goes to RWA writers–thanks to contemporary suspense romances. Over the thirty (holy hatcheck, Batman) FORTY years I’ve been reading the genre, I’ve seen a huge amount of improvement.

    So it’s not perfect. Heck, what with something like 1500 new titles or more a year, we need to sort the chaff from the wheat.

    OTOH, my husband’s genre, hard sci fi is dying off. I had to whine at the guys at Making Light to have any books under the tree for him at all this year. Of his eight autobuys, only one had a piddly little nothing book out for Christmas. Four of my autobuys had books out very recently and I enjoyed them all a whole lot.

    I think the romance genre is still alive and well, but it may need a tune up or two and some tires rotated.

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  22. sherry thomas
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 11:16:07

    I’ve never understood the charge that complaints equalled disloyalty.

    My mom, whenever she had something to say to me, would always tell me that she’s only taking the trouble–after all, I usually bit back at her–because she cared.

    I think it’s the same with the vast majority of readers–in which I include myself–who write about and comment on the genre and the books in it. We do it because we care, whether we rave or rant. Would we ever work up the anger and the frustration and/or the squee even it weren’t for our deep investment in the genre and the stories?

    I want the quality of the books as a whole to improve and for the genre to offer me far more blow-me-away books than it currently does. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say yes, it does rest on the writers above all, because editors can improve it, but they can’t perform alchemy.

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  23. Bonnie L.
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 11:28:22

    I really disagree with the sales = what the readers want argument because it is not a measurement of the readers satisfaction with the book after they are finished reading it. How many of those books were sold because the reader was desperately looking for something new and thought the book they were buying was it? I never buy books on impulse anymore because I don’t have the money to waste on something that I may not like. I obsessively read review sites like this one in order to make informed purchases. I make my impulsive choices from the library, that way I don’t feel like a fool when I come across a book that is unreadable for me.

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  24. Ciar Cullen
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 11:47:29

    I've come to a point, however erroneous it may be, that may be authors aren't getting published because their work is not good enough and not because publishers are too afraid to put something cutting edge out there.

    Small press pubs like Samhain, my publisher, are perhaps taking chances, but I’m really not convinced larger NY companies are.

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  25. Jaci Burton
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 11:49:19

    Excellent post, Jane!

    As a writer I hope to always do better. Readers push us to do that, and it makes us strive to improve. Silence equals complacency, in my opinion.

    As a reader I’m thankful to the brilliant writers out there–both old and new– though I’m sometimes disappointed, I’m always loyal to the genre I’ve loved for more decades than I care to admit. ;-)

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  26. Ann Aguirre
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 12:14:53

    Small press pubs like Samhain, my publisher, are perhaps taking chances, but I'm really not convinced larger NY companies are.

    I have to disagree with this. The first thing I sold isn’t safe by any means. I write cross-genre, which means I could be lucky and pull readers from sci-fi and romance, which would be wonderful. But there’s also a chance that I’ll tick off readers from both genres and satisfy nobody with what I’ve done. But it’s what I really wanted to write, and I was lucky enough to find an agent (and then an editor) who took a chance on me.

    Then we sold an urban fantasy series that was so hard to quantify, my agent wasn’t sure what to call it when we pitched it, as it has elements of fantasy, mystery, romance, and even a touch of horror in certain sections. She asked me to tone those aspects down a bit because she was afraid it was too much variety in one book. And at first, when I was telling her about it, my agent wasn’t positive she would like it (this was after I signed with her) because it sounded weird, and parts of the book were set in Mexico, and publishers don’t like exotic settings.

    So I’m proof that publishers do take chances. All the factors have to be in alignment, however. The right book, right agent, right editor — everything has to line up just right.

    I think readers want new stuff, but they’re a little leery too. They want to hear three or four other people rave about the author before they take the chance.

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  27. Shiloh Walker
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 12:17:59

    Finding good quality fiction out of 400 releases a month is very hard for the average reader. The average reader does not have the time to wade through a dozen review sites to carve out a reading list of 10-20 books per month. It is not insulting to the reader to suggest that good books (qualitatively speaking) are hard to find.

    Oh, I definitely have to agree with this.

    Not to mention that a book that starts out well doesn’t always end well. I tend to skim the first few pages just to see if the writing style clicks with me when I’m buying a new author~ if the voice is boring, there’s a ridiculous amount of type os or the story just doesn’t appeal, I don’t buy it.

    But even skimming like that, getting recommendations, doesn’t mean you’re promised a good story. Even if it starts out with a bang doesn’t mean it will end on the same note.

    I’ve read books where half way through a character I loved suddenly turned into an idiot. Books where the plot had so much promise and then it fell flat. So I’d definitely have to agree that finding books that work for me as a reader definitely isn’t as easy as skimming a few review sites or asking for recs.

    As to contentment and loyalty, I’m always loyal to the genre, but that doesn’t mean I’ll love every romance book put out. That doesn’t mean my fave genre doesn’t get old from time to time.

    That’s my reader perspective.

    My writer perspective is that flouncing off in a huff because a book got nitpicked is silly. And IMO, sorry if it bothers you, it’s so high school.

    People can always improve, on everything they do, and for a writer, that includes writing. But how can you improve if you don’t see where the problems are?

    Writers are often too close to a book to see them, and sometimes, I’d imagine even editors can be. Writers are looking to tell their story, editors are looking to find the good stories.

    The objective party in most cases is going to be the reader. They aren’t looking to sell anything, they aren’t looking to their career. They are looking for some entertainment and escape.

    They spend their money buying the book and if on some level that book leaves them unhappy and they want to put into words what it was, more power to them.

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  28. Ann Bruce
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 12:24:10

    Ladies, thank you for articulating feelings I share about a genre I love despite–and sometimes because of–its flaws.

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  29. Robin
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 12:28:19

    The cool thing about our genre is that it uses formula to reinvent itself, absorbing many different aspects from other types of stories.

    Although I’d substitute “itself” for “formula,” I love the way you put this, Gennita, and I also think it’s dead on. The strength of genre, IMO, is also its potential weakness. Structure can inspire or constrain, depending on how it’s interpreted and applied.

    Editors really are looking for new voices all the time, but I think it is the writers who aren't answering the call. It is so very “safe” to call out the copywriters, fact checkers, editors and publishers-especially the latter two-but I really think the change we want to realize is within the writers-and the latent writers.

    I really appreciate your perspective, Bethany, because IMO it’s one we rarely get (i.e. what is the process by which an author is sold, marketed, etc.). One of the things I wonder is whether authors who head a breakout trajectory in the genre are held to a higher standard in having their books published, while authors who have a manuscript that seems to “fit” within however the current market is viewed have an easier time getting published. I have no idea if this is true, but essentially I agree with you that the buck, so to speak, starts and stops with the author (although I think good writing is really a partnership among authors, editors, copyeditors, and publishers).

    I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while for another article I’m working on, so let’s see if I can articulate it clearly: IMO the limits of the genre and even the market do not mean authors can’t write incredible books, for the same reason that the formalistic limits of haiku do not preclude new and extraordinary poems in that form. When I hear authors or publishers or editors complain about “formula” or about us stupid readers, it always comes off as defensive and unimaginative to me. A great writer, IMO, CAN excel in even the most populated and formalistic genre. That doesn’t mean they always will, or that readers will agree on what’s excellent work, of course.

    As for more readers writing in the genre, isn’t that sort of the ugly cliche — that every reader wants to be an author (as untrue as it is), and that every reader THINKS they can be an author? Granted I think those who appreciate the genre can often do it the most justice, but a great reader does not a great writer make, IMO.

    I've never understood the charge that complaints equalled disloyalty.

    Economist Albert Hirschman wrote a fantastic book called Exit, Voice, Loyalty, in which he distinguished so-called public goods from private goods. In public goods (like education), people are intended to use their voice to change the system from within, while with private goods (corporations and service providers, for example), people will exit when they are not happy, giving their loyalty to a competitor. So corporations and the like aim to win the loyalty of customers to keep them from exiting. In Romance, though, while clearly many readers function by exiting from certain authors or publishers or types of books, IMO many don’t, applying the logic of the public good to the corporate model of Romance publishing. Those readers don’t exit for one reason or another, even though they may not be satisfied. Which, to me, shows how inadequate the basic consumer model of Romance publishing is — readers may talk about how we’re consumers, but do we behave like typical consumers (or is there any meaningful competition to begin with)?

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  30. Shiloh Walker
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 12:31:36

    Small press pubs like Samhain, my publisher, are perhaps taking chances, but I'm really not convinced larger NY companies are.

    I’m going to agree with Ann A on this… I think NY pubs are taking chances.

    I mean, four years ago, I wouldn’t have thought I’d see Lora Leigh on the NYT list for an erotic romance. But it happened (and I’m over the moon happy for her~she totally deserves it.

    Four years ago, how many people would have thought you’d see a hardcore BDSM erotic romance out by a big publisher? Joey Hill’s book The Vampire Queen’s Servant certainly fits the bill on taking chances, I’d imagine.

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  31. Sarah McCarty
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 12:39:34

    I think major publishers are in a tricky spot when it comes what to buy. They do need to hit the broadest taste because there are a certain number of books that must be sold to break even. The only real feed back they have on that is sales emerging trends in sales and their gut instinct. And while they’re buying, they have to fill the current trends yet also be ahead of and anticipating new and returning ones.

    For authors, this means not every book we write will fall within the anticipated profit margin. That can be frustrating, but, fortunately, smaller publishers exist that can afford to take the “risk” of publishing books that fall outside the bigger houses range. Two years ago I couldn’t get anyone to look at a western historical romance. Especially one that was different from the norm. Now I’ve sold several series in this genre to NY houses. The only thing different between two years ago and today is the anticipation in the demand in the market.

    Readers also benefit from the existing NY market (which I feel is experimenting with new ideas that stretch the old framework) and the flourishing ebook market. There are plenty of quality books in both and assure the reader has a huge variety from which to choose. Always a good thing and I shop in both markets heavily.

    Voting with the dollar- This is slightly deceptive. I think houses tend to be very repsonsive, but that response is hindered and disguised as it happens in layers and over a long period of time. Big houses do not “turn on a dime”. Books on the shelves today were purchased 18-24 months previously, and the purchases made today (reader’s votes if you will) will be reflected in the choices on the shelves three years in the future. That lag time seriously complicates everything.

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  32. Robin
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 12:43:17

    I ask friends for recommendations, I use Google or Amazon. I read the BOOK PAGES in magazines and newspapers. If I'm in a bookstore I read a section, if I'm online, it's very unlikely I'll buy a book without an excerpt of the writing.

    I consider myself a pretty informed reader, not only in Romance, but generally. I do all this that you name and continue to visit reader blogs, messageboards, and other venues where people are discussing and reviewing books. And honestly, I’m at a point where pretty much every book I read in Romance I feel could have been better. Sometimes it feels like the book needs a stronger editorial hand, and sometimes it feels like the book needs more authorial control, and sometimes I have no idea what it feels like it needs.

    I say this not to insult any author, because there are many books I do enjoy. But as a reader, I often make compromises to enjoy those books, to ignore what the book COULD have been. And sometimes I think it sucks, especially when I see authors and readers talking about how they want more mainstream media respect. I’m not saying that other genres don’t have problems, as well. But they’re just not as big, as varied, and as marketable as Romance. Ultimately, I think the only solution is to publish fewer books, to cultivate authors *as writers,* and to put more money and staff into editing in the old-fashioned way when an editor was a creative partner with the author. It’s hard for me not to think that a lot of the issues in the genre could be cleared up if authors simply had more time in which to produce a book.

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  33. Jane
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 12:53:01

    Sarah – I think the time lag is really important because right now I feel like many historicals that are coming out are NOT regencies (although some have a regency feel to it) so that NY is responding to what they perceive as a reader request. I do wonder, though, if the historical differences between, say, the Victorian period and the Regency period are not well utilized that the Victorian historical will suffer the same complaint.

    I am going to buy the Michelle Styles book that Jayne reviewed today because it takes advantage of the freedoms and social changes that the time period experienced just like the best Regencies utilize the social mores and constricts to create conflict and drama.

    Okay, that was way off topic. Sorry.

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  34. Ciar Cullen
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 13:10:40

    I'm going to agree with Ann A on this… I think NY pubs are taking chances.

    I mean, four years ago, I wouldn't have thought I'd see Lora Leigh on the NYT list for an erotic romance. But it happened (and I'm over the moon happy for her~she totally deserves it.

    Four years ago, how many people would have thought you'd see a hardcore BDSM erotic romance out by a big publisher? Joey Hill's book The Vampire Queen's Servant certainly fits the bill on taking chances, I'd imagine.
    I'm going to agree with Ann A on this… I think NY pubs are taking chances.

    Maybe you’re right. It doesn’t seem like a huge risk to put out hot books–but I’m glad that folks like you are doing well. Perhaps I’m wrong. Seems that it was more a natural progression of hotter romances selling better to me. More like a financial slam-dunk. But I’m not in those board meetings anymore :o) Thank God.

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  35. Janine
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 13:59:49

    People can always improve, on everything they do, and for a writer, that includes writing. But how can you improve if you don't see where the problems are?

    Writers are often too close to a book to see them, and sometimes, I'd imagine even editors can be. Writers are looking to tell their story, editors are looking to find the good stories.

    Thanks for saying this, Shiloh.

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  36. Sydney Somers
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 14:32:43

    I'm going to agree with Ann A on this… I think NY pubs are taking chances.

    I mean, four years ago, I wouldn't have thought I'd see Lora Leigh on the NYT list for an erotic romance. But it happened (and I'm over the moon happy for her~she totally deserves it.

    But would they have taken those chances if some of those authors like Lora Leigh hadn’t been successful with the likes of Ellora’s Cave and Samhain? I think in those cases it was certainly easier for NY to contract their books since the authors already had established fanbases. I think since small presses can take more chances because of their lower overhead costs, in some ways they’ve led the pack in exploring stories and themes that many probably considered too risky in the beginning.

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  37. Nora Roberts
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 14:56:36

    Publishers do, imo, take risks, just as they play it safe. In a business like publishing you have to do both to remain viable–and remain in business.

    As a writer I know, absolutely, that every book I’ve ever written could have been better. It may have been (and should have been) the best book I could write at that particular time, but it could, unquestionably, have been better.

    As a reader I often feel the book I’m reading (in whatever genre) maybe could’ve been better. If I dive into it, am absorbed by it and satisfied at the end of it, that’s a marvelous thing. And I’m still critical enough to pick a little and think how it could’ve been just a little better.

    I think those of us who read so much (and/or write) and are so interested or attached to both the genre and the industry tend to be more critical. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just that we tend to spot both the flaws and appreciate the virtues more than others might.

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  38. Patrice Michelle
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 15:27:25

    It kind of goes back to that saying about, “Too much of a good thing”. Just like when we find an author we like and we go and buy her backlist, the same can be said of reading a bunch of books in the same genre back to back. It might feel like much of the same story over and over. I think when we gorge ourselves, that’s when it’s easier to squint and pick out the flaws of a story/genre (in a magnifying-glass kind of way) vs. when we mix up the genres we read. When we mix up our reading with different genres we can see the differences in them, and that’s where we learn to appreciate what we DO love (and come to expect) about certain genres vs others.

    As for NY taking chances, it does seem to me that some of the stories coming out are more varied than those in the past. There are a lot of good stories being written with great voices, so in some cases I think it can still come down to: right manuscript, right agent, right place, right time.

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  39. DS
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 16:20:55


    Plus a sizable number of romance readers want the same formula over and over; they don't want a higher quality.

    Cassie Edwards. She has two new books coming out next year.

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  40. Ann Bruce
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 16:54:04

    I'm going to agree with Ann A on this… I think NY pubs are taking chances.

    Is it really taking a chance when an NY publisher follows the path created by the smaller pubs? Would there really be romantic erotica at any of the NY pubs had electronic publishers like Ellora’s Cave not gone there first and PROVED there is a market? Lora Leigh? Joey Hill? Cheyenne McCray? All former EC authors.

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  41. Shiloh Walker
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 17:02:44

    But would they have taken those chances if some of those authors like Lora Leigh hadn't been successful with the likes of Ellora's Cave and Samhain?

    Yes, it’s taking a chance… those who read ebooks are aware that they are often buying books that might be a little off the mainstream, or a lot hotter than normal. It’s one of the reason, I think, that epublishing has flourished so well.

    But NY had no guarantee it would go over as well with readers as en masse. Erotic romance was sort of a niche, filled the need for those who wanted to read hotter, those who wanted to write hotter.

    There was no guarantee when some of the erotic romance authors signed and sold to NY that our books would be well received. Especially not so well received that they hit the bestseller list.

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  42. Shiloh Walker
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 17:04:29

    Thanks for saying this, Shiloh.

    It’s nothing but the truth the way I see it. I’d rather have somebody read a book and tell what they didn’t like than to just praise it, praise the hot guy, praise the hot sex. I can write hot. I’m aware of that. But hearing that doesn’t help me improve the things I don’t do as well.

    ;-) But you’re welcome.

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  43. Angela
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 17:07:50

    I do wonder, though, if the historical differences between, say, the Victorian period and the Regency period are not well utilized that the Victorian historical will suffer the same complaint.

    That’s exactly why I’m leery of the new Victorian bandwagon. Laura Lee Guhrke’s new series show how fun the 1890s can be, and Lydia Joyce’s novels are awesome at portraying how dark, angsty and gothic the mid-Victorian era is, but writers eager to just sell won’t see this new period as that–a new period–and just take “Regency” plots and put them into “Victorian” settings (though I do see this happening a bit >.<).

    Cassie Edwards. She has two new books coming out next year.

    Add Connie Mason to that list.

    But Brava ladies on the post. It put my feelings for the genre in print form.

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  44. Shiloh Walker
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 17:08:19

    That lag time seriously complicates everything.

    I’d have to agree with this.

    I know epubs are usually on the ‘cutting edge’ so to speak with genre trends but the NY pubs also see those trends, and react… but it isn’t a quick a turn around with NY.

    A book I wrote for Samhain earlier this year, finished in Sept, I think, will release in January.

    But a book that I finished for NY about the same time won’t be out for a good year.

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  45. Jan
    Dec 04, 2007 @ 18:25:56

    How many of us reading this have that burning desire to write but let circumstances prevent us making the commitment? It may sound very “be the change you want to see in the world”, but I truly believe that if some of us readers starting using our incredible knowledge of the genre to write the books we want to read, the results would be spectacular. I think that's what the editors want too. And yes, I'm definitely preaching to myself!

    You’ve got a good point Bethany. How many writers out there sat down one day because they thought no one was writing the book they wanted to read? Sure, it results in some bad books being written. But editors can weed those out, especially if there are good books waiting in line. Go forth and write!

    Personally, I like both the same old stories and the innovative books . It depends if I’m after a comfort read or something stimulating. I find that they’re generally not the same thing for me. Romance is a very comfort oriented genre so I’m not surprised a lot of people go for the former. Unfortunately, my main comfort in romance was the trad Regency, so now I just re-read my keeper shelf. :(

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  46. John Rickards
    Dec 05, 2007 @ 04:28:34

    Great piece, Jane. An interesting point about prolific readers/buyers having to ‘make do’ with what’s there and thus perpetuate the existing market (or the existing market stereotypes of readers who like average books). I think I only touched on it briefly in my witterings, something about a reader who likes Shoddy, Formulaic Bestselling Author having an opinion as valid as anyone else’s if it’s a free choice. The problem is that it’s usually not, which ties into that market perpetuation thing.

    I don’t know if the same thing happens in the US, but in the UK, publishers pay the big chain bookstores to put certain books into their front-of-store ’3 for 2′ special tables, which is where the big sales are. Of course, that’s part of a book’s promotional budget and so it only usually happens for those earmarked as bestsellers before publication. Which means books similar to, or by authors of, other books which have sold by the ton. Which means other books that were on those tables before. And it becomes a closed loop – Book A sells well, so B (similar book) is pushed while C is ignored, so B sells well, so when D, another similar book, comes out…

    Much the same process goes on in bookstore stock buying – stores only usually take high volumes of books they know will sell and which they’ll push in-store – and in the allotment of PR funds at publishers. Every now and again there’s a rogue breakout book which does really well through luck or quality and which then joins the loop as a fresh Book A, but otherwise it’s a closed system. And certainly in this country, becoming more closed all the time. Stock levels in particular make it very hard for readers to find good books that aren’t a part of the generic mainstream; if you’re a fan of a particular genre, if the only thing your local store stocks is average tat then all you can buy is average tat. And there’s almost no way to voice your demand and balance the supply/demand equation.

    Bugger me, what a long comment. :-)

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  47. Kerry Allen
    Dec 05, 2007 @ 04:36:16

    Ultimately, I think the only solution is to publish fewer books…

    This sentiment boggles my mind every time I see it. That book I thought sucked so bad I used it as a fetch toy for the dog to get my money’s worth might be someone else’s favorite book ever. Limit the variety of books available, and one group of readers or another is going to be deprived of what they enjoy.

    I accept the fact that I’m not going to like every book I read, just as I’m not going to like every peanut M&M I put in my mouth (you know what I mean, the occasional off one that tastes like a sweaty sock). I improve the odds by reading a lot of books (and eating a lot of peanut M&Ms).

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  48. Janine
    Dec 05, 2007 @ 10:09:49

    This sentiment boggles my mind every time I see it.

    I don’t think Robin was saying that fewer authors should be published, just that the industry should be set up in such a way that authors wouldn’t be pressured to write very quickly and produce a lot of books in a short time. If writers had more time to write and editors more time to edit, then surely the result in many cases would be better books?

    There are some authors who can write three or four books a year without their quality suffering, but IMO they are few and far between. And then there are those on the opposite side of the spectrum. Laura Kinsale is an example of a writer who is now taking longer to produce her books than most writers can afford to take, but surely the genre would be worse off without her wonderful books? There may be more writers of Kinsale’s caliber out there whose books we simply aren’t seeing because of the emphasis placed on producing books quickly.

    So yeah, I can understand Robin’s comment.

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  49. Gwendy
    Dec 05, 2007 @ 13:59:02

    The mutiple board discussions on this topic have made me think about the reasons for my own “fan girl” tendancies. I’m still reaching into the romance backlist for classic reads even though I’ve been reading the genre for about seven years. This enables me to view the genre in a brighter light than it might realistically deserve. For the most part I only read new books that have gotten good or intriguing reviews or recs. Even so, I’ll still come across books that feel empty and formulaic. But considering that I’m not as spontaneous in my romance choices as I used to be – I might be reading only the good stuff!
    I was so happy and delighted to find this genre and I think that feeling has never really left me. I do feel loyal and protective and yet it is also important for all of us to be able to critique and gripe. Its healthy for the writers to get a bit of both – the raves and the pans.
    I realize I might be clinging to the glory days of the best this genre had to offer. I tend to overllook my favorite writers clunkers. And to think of them in relation to their best work. For example, I was bored by the Lisa Kleypas seasonal series. I think of it as an aberration. I think of Madeline Hunter ‘s medievals as her “real” books. In my mind Adele Ashworth equals “Winter Garden”. I might be in a bit of denial. Of course there are also authors who I have totally given up on . Lorraine Heath, Karen Robards and Elizabeth Lowell come to mind.
    And yet no matter what, I’ll always be grateful to this genre for bringing back a kind of childlike joy to the experience of reading and exploring books.

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  50. Kerry
    Dec 05, 2007 @ 23:26:16

    The thought that comes to my mind as I read this article and its comments is that the very nature of reading forces us, the readers, to do things backwards. The only way sales could truly relate to reader satisfaction would be if we could read the book first and THEN pay for it if we thought it was worth our money.
    No matter how much research I do on a book, the fact remains that I have to shell out the money for it before I’ve read it (unless I’ve read it from the library and I’m now buying my own copy). So my “vote” is made before I really know if I want to vote for that book or not.
    Which is why I think the “sales show what readers want” argument is totally bogus. I can think of several books where I not only wish I could get my money back, I think the author owes me for wasting my time. There are also books where I wish I could afford to buy several copies to show how much I liked them.

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  51. Robin
    Dec 06, 2007 @ 01:20:12

    This sentiment boggles my mind every time I see it. That book I thought sucked so bad I used it as a fetch toy for the dog to get my money's worth might be someone else's favorite book ever. Limit the variety of books available, and one group of readers or another is going to be deprived of what they enjoy.

    See, I don’t really understand the argument that publishing fewer books would deprive readers of variety. As it stands, there’s, what, 400-500 Romances published a month? And how many do you think any of us choose from when we make our reading decisions? Further, how many authors are we hearing about who are losing contracts because their books aren’t selling to a certain level? How many authors who do sell are being pressured to write at least three books a year (single title length), whether or not it serves their writing pace of the overall quality of the books, because that’s the pace publishers demand of contracted authors?

    If I felt that publishers really cared about giving readers diversity in the genre, or even variety, I think I’d be less skeptical. But in what seems to me like a factory-farming publishing system, it seems more like authors are toiling as laborers, and editors are stuck in the middle, getting paid dirt for a very demanding job (I think they make about what public school teachers make, another example of criminal underpayment), all while publishers are throwing a boat load of books out into the market hoping to sell as many as possible. So yeah, what Janine said in her comment was one of the things I was intimating, but even beyond that, I don’t really think that the sheer number of books published in the genre actually serves either variety or quality. Just think of some of the big name authors who are currently writing without contracts (Kinsale and Crusie, for example), or what happened to Tracy Grant after writing Daughter of the Game, or how Carla Kelly was out of a contract for quite a while. Let alone those authors we don’t even know because they didn’t get a shot beyond one book published without fanfare or promotion in a sea of others that may or may not be so very different.

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  52. Georgie Lee
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 12:07:06

    Criticism is good because it helps a genre grow and change which leads to new storylines or a fresh take on an old theme. Great article!

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  53. Flight into Fantasy » Review: Jacob: The Nightwalkers, Book 1 by Jacquelyn Frank
    Jan 03, 2008 @ 20:41:21

    [...] Jane over at Dear Author made a throwaway comparison between Jacquelyn Frank and Meljean Brook over here, which inspired me to check out this series. Synopsis: Jacob is the demon enforcer for his people. [...]

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