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How Your Mama’s Category Romances Are Burning Up the Charts

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Category titles disguised as single title books are burning up the Kindle/Nook charts. The existing category covers appeal to existing category readers but those readers who so clearly love books like The Marriage Bargian, Wife by Wednesday, the Danvers Series, and even 50 Shades aren’t making a move to reading Harlequin categories.  In speaking with readers, it appears that they don’t realize that they are reading a category like romance and the existing category look, particularly the Presents, are deterring readers from adopting the existing category books.

new school categories

These category type books have tropes that appeal to readers but the self published authors have shied away from category type covers.  They are packaged more like single title romances.  Take, for example, Sarah Mayberry’s self published title “Her Best Worst Mistake.”  It is her second to the most reviewed book she’s published, second only to a book published two years ago.  The difference in her covers is huge.

Sarah Mayberry covers

The editorial content of the self published books are not that different than traditional category romances.  Weekends Required by Sydney Landon is about a boss and his shy administrative assistant (who secretly jumps out of birthday cakes but is not a stripper and only works at posh high end events because those guys never grope her – yeah right ); The Marriage Bargain is about a rich man who needs a wife to close a business deal; Wife by Wednesday is another marriage of convenience story where a guy has to marry in order to secure his inheritance.


I asked a Harlequin author whether she had any thoughts about the success of self published contemporaries and she asked her friends.  Here’s what a few of them had to say, anonymously:

Author One:

I think it’s virtually impossible to figure out why one book breaks out and sells above and beyond anyone’s expectations. If it was quantifiable, I think it would happen more often. I don’t think we can judge another book’s success or lack thereof based on those breakout books–books with sales like The Marriage Bargain or 50 Shades are not the norm for any author, self-published or from an ebook press or anywhere. Most authors, like 99.9%, are not experiencing that kind of success.

 As to why category-type books are doing so well on Kindle and the like… I will always champion the category form as a short, intense read that leaves people smiling. I know people in real life and online who have never read a category, and insist they never would for whatever reason–too short, too cookie-cutter, too melodramatic, although obviously since they’ve never read one they don’t really know. Yet these same people might read a self-published book that is, in fact, a category–they just don’t realize it. Harlequin has done a tremendous job promoting its brand and many Harlequin authors enjoy worldwide sales that are in the hundreds of thousands. Yet in the case of Kindle, it might be that the strong branding hurts Harlequin’s category authors, because some readers automatically steer clear of those distinctive covers. I’d like to see Harlequin try more mainstream looking covers, although they have done this in the past and it has not been successful. Whether the market is changing enough for another try is up to debate.

Writing for a category line has never limited me in terms of what I’ve been able to write–quite the opposite. Editors encourage unpredictability and pushing boundaries, and I think you read many issues in a category that a mass market publisher wouldn’t touch. With three or four books coming out a year, you have a lot of room to experiment and see what works, and great feedback from the editorial team. It will be interesting to see how publishing continues to evolve in the wake of self-publishing and ebook presses. I imagine in some months or years things will settle down to a new norm, whatever that looks like.

 Author Number Two

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 My understanding is that the bulk of readers HATE the idea of change to the Presents covers in NA, which is why Romance HQ is so loathe to change them.  Though I think someone suggested somewhere that the e-book covers could be more contemporary, and maybe that would boost sales?  I like that idea, but I worry that a separate cover creates the same problem the different UK/US covers cause, with readers ultimately annoyed because they thought it was a new book and it’s not…

And maybe I’m missing something, but I’m pretty satisfied with how Harlequin do things.  I knew what I was signing up for.  I *want* the machine.  The things I’m not happy about are far outweighed by the things I like: my books sold all around the world without my having to do a thing, being able to experiment with characters and plot lines without the desperate feeling that Every Book Could Be My Last–which is a benefit of having three or four books out a year instead of one, and being part of the line–so if one of us has a book that gets a lot of attention it automatically raises awareness of the line as a whole and helps us all.  

Honestly, I don’t know of any constraints apart from the word count.  I don’t feel there are things I can’t do.  I’ve certainly never been told I should do anything in particular.  One of the things I love about Presents is how the line nurtures all these very different voices, and otherwise?  Anything goes.  

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 Author No. 3:

I think the appeal of series books is that they focus entirely on the relationship between hero and heroine (and sometimes that’s what makes them challenging to write because within this word count there is no room for padding). They are pure, concentrated romance, short enough to read in a couple of hours when you’ve had a bad day or you’re stressed out with life, or just because you need distraction or a reason to smile. Although they’re short, they’re often intense and gripping. You can allow yourself to be pulled into a story knowing you’re going to finish it in a couple of hours and sometimes that’s just what people want in a busy life. And then there’s the cost – readers have budgets. A series book won’t make the same hole in that budget as a single title. I have never felt constrained by the format. I’ve always written exactly what I wanted to write. What would I change in Presents? Not much to be honest. I would love to see the ebook and the paperback released on the same date. I don’t always like the titles but that is being addressed.

I’m not sure it’s possible to know what makes one book a bestseller and another not.  I think part of why these other books are doing so well on Kindle/Nook, etc, is because of the fluidity of the marketing (in the case of self-pubs and epub-first houses).  Entangled has the ability to change the cover, the copy, and the title up until the last minute if they sense what they have isn’t working.  Harlequin can’t do that because the books are also going to print at the same time – and you can’t change print details at the last minute the way you can ebook details.

I’m happy with what Harlequin has done for me.  I have shelves full of books in different languages.  I get reader mail from around the world.  I can afford to write full time.

The question about marketing Harlequins differently is interesting, but I’m not sure how to answer.  Harlequin is a brand, and sometimes I think the brand hurts us as much as it helps us.  The readers who aren’t clicking the buy button probably aren’t clicking because of the covers, the mistaken idea that the books are interchangeable, and the thought that Harlequin isn’t for “serious” readers.

Changing the covers could work.  It might not work.  The Presents readership, for example, is huge – and they know what that cameo means.  They want what they are familiar with.  Yes, we’re losing out on some impulse buys probably, and I don’t quite know how to fix that.  Changing the covers to please a digital audience is not the answer if it alienates the print audience.  I would like to see the print and ebooks released on the same date, however.

I have never felt constrained by writing category.  The books are short, intense reads that are meant to give readers all that heart-stopping intensity and passion in a compact bite.  Of course I can’t have three subplots, but so what?  I’ve never been told not to write something.  I’ve never felt steered or constrained.  In fact, I’ve often been encouraged to take it further.


I’m interested in hearing what others have to say.  Why do you think these self published category novels are so successful?  Is there content there that you can’t find other places?  Are you reluctant to pick up a category title? If you were reluctant but have since changed your behavior, what brought about the change?  Please feel free to comment anonymously BUT if you do comment anonymously, use a different or even a fake email or your gravatar will out you.

 

 

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

39 Comments

  1. Molly O'Keefe
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 07:04:39

    So interesting. I agree with author number one that the appeal of category romance is the short intense romantic read. Highly dramatic hook, bordering on unbelievable and lots of emotional fall out. The readers who would never read category are greeted in the grocery store by a wall of covers that don’t appeal to them.

    The covers continue to be such a thorn. I think Harlequin, much like the rest of traditional publishing, is caught trying to reach out to new readers and change while still appeasing their backbone reader – numbers of which have been slowly dwindling.

  2. Mary Anne Graham
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 07:10:42

    Call me crazy – many people do – but I don’t think it’s a matter of disguise. I think it’s more a matter of readers in a digital age rejecting labels.

    I think a reader will pick up a category romance/sci fi/YA/thriller – if the blurb and the cover interest them. Mixing and matching genres may drive industry insiders nuts but I don’t think it bothers reader at all.

    I hope it’s a preview of where we are headed as a people – growing past the need for labels and boxes and lines.

  3. Liz Talley
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 07:15:58

    There is definitely perception by many, many readers that Harlequins are books for older, less smart people. Heck, I even had this attitude coming out of college. Harlequin introduced me to my love of romance – my grandmothers, aunts and friends passed around huge paper sack of them which I naturally dipped in, sneaking away to read about nurses, pianists and the torrid love between them. But when I emereged from college summa cum laude degree in hand, I looked down my nose at them…and that perception of Harlequin being for the teeming masses of somewhat uneducated stuck with me. Even when I first started writing and folks suggested I sub to Harlequin, in the back of my mind I thought, “Surely I can write something better than that.”

    Deal was…I hadn’t picked up a Harlequin in twenty years. Imagine my surprise when I read a few of the books. Ugh, how wrong could a gal get? Some of them were, gulp!, better than the ST books I’d been reading.

    So the stereotype of the average Harlequin (non-serious :)) reader persists and is perpetuated by many in the publishing business. For many years it was just common knowledge that you cut your teeth on Harlequin and then went out and conquered the world of single title. But e-books have changed everything.

    My suggestion would be to use the traditional branding on the shelf covers with a different cover and style in ebook format, pulling back on the branding. “Harlequin” doesn’t mean as much to the reader of ebooks….the sample and the writing quality does. In that way, HQ can give a book the best chance of success in both worlds.

    Great topic. Can’t wait to read others’ thoughts on it.

  4. Maili
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 07:51:31

    duplicate (sorry!)

  5. Maili
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 07:53:15

    I do find myself ignoring all M&B/HQN covers when browsing online for some romance novels to buy. Even though some non-HQN/M&B romance books are a lot like a typical HQN/M&B novel.

    It’s not because I believe that M&B/HQNs are full of interchangeable crap, though (many of my all-time favourites are M&B/HQN romance novels). It’s more along the line of me taking it for granted. It was there ten years ago, it’s still here today and most likely, it’ll still be there in ten years’ time.

    And to be honest, it’s always been about authors than stories, which does involve committing self to a specific line in order to follow that author. Most category authors I liked have moved on and the lines they wrote for ended, too. So I’m not as strongly attached to M&B/HQN as I was before. The current M&B/HQN lines don’t interest me that much nowadays, anyway.

    Basically, I’m generally not that keen on Harlequin Presents and M&B Modern/Desire. Historical tends to leave me dissatisfied. I never liked Blaze (the virgin-as-a-sex-therapist trend and similar trends completely turned me off). Riva and Medical leave me cold. I found newer Intrigue rather bland and annoying (how many more ways can one cut TSTL?) and Spice rather frustrating. All these experiences have clearly influenced my expectations and assumptions about each line, regardless the quality of each author’s writing.

    And I think that’s influenced me into ignoring HQN/M&B as a whole when I browse. Self-published category romances do tend to make me to drop the expectations and assumptions I usually have for HQN/M&B. In other words, I’m no longer that invested in HQN/M&B enough to scout around for potential autobuy authors.

  6. Ros
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 08:25:11

    I am fascinated by this discussion and not only because I have a personal interest in it (my category-style romance is being published by Entangled later this month). Of course there are outliers like the Marriage Bargain, which are impossible to predict, but in general the Entangled category books have all sold really well. I don’t know how many copies the average Presents sells and how that compares to the Entangled figures. But I do think that many of the Entangled readers are not reading Presents, though they would probably love them. It seems to me that there’s a huge potential audience for category-style romances who would not dream of buying a Harlequin book for all sorts of reasons. If I were in charge of Harlequin, I’d be focusing on the potential new readers, and hope that most of the existing readers would keep buying, even if they grumble about cosmetic changes to the branding. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the covers for the new Kiss line and I’ll be interested to see how they sell.

  7. Mom on the Run
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 08:34:24

    I’m astounded at how well that Danvers series is selling because the writing is, for lack of a better word, clunky. Extremely clunky. The stories and characters are pretty good, but all I could think was how badly I wanted to edit and smooth out the dialogue and descriptions.

    I’ve always loved Harlequins, but I’ll be brutally honest that I think the Super Romance covers are just heinous. I’ve never bought them unless they are by an author I know I like (Sarah Mayberry, Tara Taylor Quinn) probably because they are so unappealing. And the Presents still look the same as they did when I was 15 years old and I received a box in the mail once a month (and I’m pushing 50). I hadn’t read one for years, but there are some new authors that are very good and changing up the “formula”. But now that I don’t buy books off the shelf anymore, the description of the book is more important than the cover to me….in fact a lot of times I wonder if the artist even got any description of the characters at all.

    Someone who does beautiful covers….Bella Andre.

  8. Mandi
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 08:42:25

    I think it all comes down to covers. They are SO important. And Harlequin’s tend to be really cheesy. Like you point out – there is such a huge difference in the Sarah Mayberry covers. I have lots of friends who are just coming into romance because of 50 shades, twilight etc..and they would never pick up the Mayberry hqn cover, but they would pick up best worst mistake in a heartbeat.

  9. Ros
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 08:44:16

    The side-by-side of Mayberry’s covers is so striking. Her self-published book looks so much more professional than the messy, tacky Superromance cover (which, by the way, I think are much more heinous than the Presents covers, and do an appalling job of conveying how good the books are).

  10. Jill Sorenson
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 08:51:45

    I thought The Marriage Bargain was published by Entangled, not self-published. I’m also wondering about the definition of category romance. Are we talking about length AND content? Because digital publishers have been releasing category length novels for years but no one calls them that. If content signals a category romance (marriage, billionaires, bargains, babies?), those tropes are common, especially in Harlequin Presents, but that line doesn’t represent the whole. There are many, many category romances featuring cowboys and small towns and ordinary folks.

    Maybe one of the advantages of self-pub is that Harlequin is a known entity. If their romances haven’t worked for you before, you might steer clear of all Harlequins. There are publishers I avoid for this reason. An unknown self-pub author gets a fresh chance.

    I prefer the self-pub covers over Harlequin covers by far. But the first thing I noticed when I read this post was the glaring error of “Danver’s” on Weekends Required. The hero is Jason Danvers.

  11. LG
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 08:59:08

    The only Harlequin covers I tend to gravitate towards are the Harlequin historicals, I think because the colors tend to be lusher – color seems to be huge with me when it comes to cover art. The main reason I’m still relatively okay with Harlequin covers, at least when it comes to physical books, is that it’s easy to pick them out when I’m doing a quick browse for something that might appeal to me. Unfortunately, that can work against them when potential customers already have a negative opinion about the books.

    I can’t really say much about Harlequins in the e-book world, because I ignore Harlequin e-books for reasons that have nothing to do with their covers or content. Harlequin’s branding makes it very easy for me to ignore the books in my search results, because the books are so immediately identifiable (with some potential for confusion provided by books like Samhain’s retro historicals).

  12. StillTryingToLoveCategory
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 09:40:40

    As a romance author, I feel like I SHOULD like and enjoy category books, but the simple truth is, I don’t. Never have, and fear I never shall. I follow the reviews and at SmartBitches. I try almost all the category books that either of you recommend, but I have never found one that I liked enough to buy a second book by that author. It’s a secret shame (hence the anonymous comment), and it’s certainly nothing you can admit to in public or fear of being flamed.

    That said, I loved Sarah Mayberry’s Her Best Worst Mistake. I was so excited that I’d finally found a category author I wanted to glom. Alas, I was overjoyed too soon. When I read its traditionally published prequel, Hot Island Nights, all I could think was “wow, what a let down.” It utterly failed to live up to the glory of HBWM. Had I read HIN first, I would never have tried HBWM and I can’t say I have any desire to try any of Mayberry’s other Harlequin books.

    My conclusion after my three year experiment in trying to learn to love category romance is that there’s something about what appeals to the Harlequin editors that doesn’t appeal to me. Or maybe they just polish out the bits that DO appeal to me, since Mayberry’s selfpub story was magnificent. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m more willing at this point to try selfpubed category-like romances, in the hopes of finding another HBWM.

  13. Carolyn Jewel
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 09:59:13

    I hadn’t ever read a category romance until Harlequin started giving away some a couple of years ago. Some of them I LOVED and others I didn’t. Pretty much my experience with single titles, by the way. Some authors just nail the shorter format.

    The current HQN covers do not work for me. To me, they say, “Conservative Content Here.” I always think of Nancy Drew when I see them. I know I’m judging books by their covers and it’s awful of me. But you know what? The cover for Her Best Worst Mistake is awesome. I would at the very least click to see if the story would appeal.

    My biggest issue with Categories, aside from finding them (the Harlequin website has never worked for me and I gave up trying some time ago), is knowing which ones to buy. There are so many. I’m so new to Categories that I don’t have any curation resources — I don’t know yet whose Category tastes will be similar to what I like to read.

    I don’t find that Categories of any sort, self-pubbed, trad pubbed or whatever, ever get in front of me in the Amazon recommendation engine. I do most of my eBook purchasing from Amazon. Doh, of course, because I don’t buy very many.

    My thought is this; HQN understands its current buyers. But what are they doing to get themselves in front of readers like me– potential buyers? I have to say, not much. Their current covers are a negative in that regard. If it’s the case that current buyers love the current covers and potential buyers are turned off by the current covers, then HQN needs to fork their covers and then work hard to make sure readers can tell if they’ve already bought the book. (include a thumbnail of the other cover?)

  14. SAO
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 10:01:27

    Harlequin has done an amazing job of branding as a publisher. Something that other publishers can only dream of. Their covers emphasize that this book is a Harlequin, whereas single titles rarely make the publisher as obvious.

    This branding makes it easy to see the books as generic and repetitive. A unique cover hints at a unique book. 10 similar titles on one bookshelf say the opposite. The titles encourage this, too. ‘The Cowboy and the Shotgun Bride’ suggest that the characters are generic.

    So Harlequin has a dilemma — how to keep their branding strong while avoiding the idea that they churn out a gazillion variations on the same trite story.

  15. A.M.K.
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 10:19:19

    @StillTryingToLoveCategory:

    I actually thought Hot Island Nights was one of Mayberry’s weaker Blazes, so if that’s the only one you read, I really wouldn’t give up on her altogether. Try Below the Belt, what a book ;)

  16. DM
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 10:26:00

    I hadn’t read a category until I saw a comment (here or Smartbitches–can’t remember) quoting a line of dialogue from a Sarah Craven Presents that was just plain masterful. I ebayed a box of Sarah Cravens. Someone must have saved them up for decades. There were books from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, probably about two dozen all told. Some were terrific, some were misfires, but all were tightly written. Then I noticed how many of my favorite historical authors started out in category Regencies, and started tracking down old Mary Balogh, Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverly and Anne Stuart titles and I found the same thing. Really tight story-telling, to the extent that when I read single title Regencies now they often feel padded. This is probably because the same tropes fire so many of these stories, and once you’ve read a trope done well in 50K words, unless the execution is brilliant, it can feel bloated at 80K words. But when I think of those hokey old Presents covers, or those Regency covers (oh, dear God, the hair!) I think: small, well-written, packs a punch. But the current Presents cover design doesn’t make me think this, because it feels dated. The old covers are dated of course, but they were stylish for their time. The new HPs look stuck in the early 90s to me.

  17. StillTryingToLoveCategory
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 10:31:06

    @A.M.K.: Will do. Thanks!

    @DM: Trad Regencies are an exception for me. Those were often great, but they stopped publishing them. I’m really glad a lot of them are being reissued and that some authors are going back to writing them.

  18. Melissa Cutler
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 10:39:31

    I’m a huge, life-long reader of Harlequin category romances, as well as a writer for the Harlequin Romantic Suspense line, so this discussion intrigues me. I don’t often pay attention to covers of e-books I buy because I almost always base my decisions on favorable reviews, recommendations by friends, a book that caught my interest via a Twitter discussion, or a known author. I rarely, if ever, browse for e-books by cover and don’t tend to put a whole lot of stock into the covers of the books I buy.

    That being said, I know that plenty of people do put stock in them, which is why I get frustrated when a cover does a disservice to a great book. For example, the cover of Karina Bliss’s BRING HIM HOME had me stewing for days because it’s a wonderful book with a modern sensibility, but the cover is so cheesy that I know it won’t reach nearly the number of new readers it could with a better cover.

  19. Nicola O.
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 11:17:19

    Such an interesting topic. For me, it’s less about self-pub vs. traditional than it is about how we search, discover, and choose new authors to read. Amazon and e-reading is a total game-changer for me. I have tended not to read category because I like a longer read, but if I see enough buzz about an author or discover her ST books, I might check out her category work.

    I don’t care about covers much either. (on the Sara Mayberry example above, I don’t really love the new one either — the models are standing so stiffly they look like mannequins to me). E-reading makes it easier to ignore covers.

    I’m new to e-reading and I’m finding myself surprisingly price-sensitive. I might try a shorter work if the price seems low to me, just to try out the author. So that seems to have more influence on me than the cover.

    And for whatever reason, as I get older I’m appreciating shorter stories more. I think my attention span is getting shorter.

  20. Jackie Barbosa
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 11:43:55

    @Jill Sorenson: I thought The Marriage Bargain was published by Entangled, not self-published.

    That was my thought, too. THE MARRIAGE BARGAIN is most assuredly NOT self-published.@

    Mom on the Run: Someone who does beautiful covers….Bella Andre.

    Bella’s self-published books are also solidly in the category length range (around 50,000 words, IIRC).

  21. Ridley
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 11:50:38

    I don’t think strong branding is bad just for Harlequin. Ever since their house style created covers that are all but identical, I’ve refused to read Avon historicals. I used to really like them, and I love a good mistorical romp, but those covers scream “formulaic and forgettable” to me now.

  22. Ros
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 12:23:28

    @Jill Sorenson: I think the question of what constitutes category or category-style romance is a good one to ask, now that it’s not just ‘books you buy according to the line’.

    For me, I think it’s books that have a specific word count and a solid focus on the central romance. I don’t expect category-style books to have many secondary characters or big subplots. I expect the hero and heroine on the page for most of the pages. I expect the focus to be on their emotional journeys, even if there is some external plot. I do expect that they will play on one or more existing tropes – not necessarily the billionaire playboy, but just as likely the friends to lovers or girl-next-door tropes. (Yup, I know I’m not using trope to mean what it really means.) There is a strong element of knowing what to expect, whilst still loving authors who can bring a fresh voice and different twists to the genre.

  23. Las
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 13:15:18

    I agree with Jill about Harlequins–if you disliked them before, you’ll probably always avoid them, which is easy to do since the covers all have that signature look. I’m usually completely unaware of publishers, but I always know when I’m looking at a Harlequin.

    I’m weird about categories. Generally, when I think “category,” I think HP, which fills a very particular role for me. I don’t read them often, but every once in a while I’m in the mood for that classic OTT HP. The HP authors who tend to get very good reviews don’t do it for me, since their books are not what I’m looking for when I pick up an HP and I don’t find their stories good enough for me to separate it from the HP label.

    The other thing about categories for me is that when it comes to contemporaries, I only read category length (is length the only criterion for category?) unless there’s a suspense plot to move the story along. I stay on the lookout for mentions of those books, but I don’t actively search through any of the Harlequin lines when I want a non-HP contemporary. It’s not a deliberate snub, it really just does not occur to me to look in that direction unless someone I “know” in Romanceland recommends a particular book. Such is my bias that when I read Ruthie Knox’s Ride with Me, I was surprised to discover that Loveswept is a category line, because I loved that book and didn’t think it would be an “official” category. In my mind a category can only be good for a category, which makes no sense considering I have several categories on my keeper shelf. Maybe it’s a holdover from my self-loathing Romance reader days.

  24. Patricia
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 13:38:40

    @StillTryingToLoveCategory: I thought Mayberry’s HBWM (which I loved & am really hoping is a return to her Blaze-type stories) was somewhat similar to her “Cruise Control” Blaze. You might try that one.

    I read Category regularly, always buy by writer & enjoy most. However, if the writers move to other lines, in many cases I just stop reading them, as the “type of Romance” overrides all for me. Re the Blaze line it has recently moved to various genres &, as a result, many have not kept my interest. IA w/most comments here re the “intense focus” on the H/h as the reason why I love them.

  25. Expy
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 14:02:13

    Can someone explain to me like the idiot I am what category romance is? I googled for the answer ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romance_novel#Category_romance & http://www.romancewiki.com/Category_Romance ) but I’m not understanding any of it. I only get the gist that category romance are novel-length…

  26. Ros
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 14:38:11

    @Expy: The key bit in the wiki definition is: “The books are published in clearly delineated lines, with a certain number of books published in each line every month.” These books are published in categories, or lines, which have very clear defining features. Harlequin Romance: no sex, Harlequin Presents: some sex; Harlequin Blaze: lots of sex; Harlequin Intrigue: sex and a mystery; Harlequin Nocturn: sex with werewolves. And so on. They are strongly branded with the focus on the category, rather than the author, as the sales point.

  27. Expy
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 16:20:30

    @Ros: So they’re like imprints, correct?

  28. Nicola O.
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 16:36:04

    Expy, category romance is also a significantly shorter format than single-title books, and typically distributed differently. They’ve always relied less on big bookstore sales and more on grocery stores and places where you’d find magazines, as well as a subscription model, at least in the US.

  29. Maria
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 17:03:45

    Most of the categories I’ve read have been recommended reads from either here, or SBTB. All I can say is thank GOD I’m buying ebook versions of those, because I can just imagine the mockery I would get at work or from my friends from the HQ covers. Its only recently that I have felt comfortable enough to let my friends know that I read romance. I’ve been hiding behind the paper bag for a long while. The book content has been satisfying, although the shorter length doesn’t always work for me. Sometimes I’m just not ready to let go of the characters, and I feel a little bereft that the book wasn’t longer.

    I understand that HQ has strongly branded itself, but I feel that the covers just scream dated to me. I don’t see much difference thematically between the current covers and the ones I get from the thrift store that were published in the 80′s.

    I don’t understand why they couldn’t update the image, and still retain the HQ header that identifies the book as being a HQ category? I always feel like I’m taking such a chance when I click on a category romance with such a dated cover. Am I going to get an rapetastic alphahole old skool? That’s what the current covers say to me.

  30. Susan
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 18:07:38

    @Ros: Your descriptions had me rolling with laughter!

    I still have a number of my old books by Sara Craven, Violet Winspear, Ann Hampson, Anne Mather, etc. in a dresser drawer. I loved those books and vividly remember them to this day. I’ll still occasionally read a contemporary category but, although I like some better than others while I’m reading them, I’d be hard-pressed to give any reliable description or details even a few days after I’ve finished. I can appreciate the skilled writing, but the stories just don’t seem to stick with me. (And I refuse to believe my age has anything to do with it! :-) )

    And what can I say about the covers? Execrable? Embarrassing? Dated? Silly? Yep, that’ll do it. How can covers this cheesy manage to be so bland and forgettable at the same time? Since I predominantly read ebooks, covers aren’t as important to me as they used to be, but there’s nothing about any HP book that would entice me to “pick it up” without an independent rec.

    That said, I have a substantial collection of Harlequin Intrigues (and Silhouette Bombshells) and Historicals. Love ‘em, and the covers don’t put me off at all. And I fiercely love those old traditional Regencies, and the dopier the cover the better! I adore when they look like scenes from bad 60s movies. Pure camp.

  31. Kaetrin
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 02:42:38

    I tend to read category books by author. So, for me, it is Sarah Mayberry or Kathleen O’Reilly’s name on the book which leads me to buy it, not Harlequin. I gather I’m in the minority with that?

    I’ve never subscribed to a line or bought a book just because it was part of a particular line. I guess that makes me weird?

    I have a number of SuperRomances on my TBR but again, they are there because of the author, not the publisher/line. And definitely not because of the covers. Those SuperRomance covers look stuck in the 80′s to me (or worse) – so not what I get when I actually read the book (thank god).

  32. Des Livres
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 06:11:26

    Most women who work in offices will not want to be seen reading a Mills & Boon in Australia, because they risk contempt from their work colleagues. All of Harlequin M&B’s target demographic (?female aged 18 to 120?) have strong views on H/M&Bs. I would suggest parallel publishing to reach the unconverted. Come up with an imprint with some booky name, you know, like Brown & Dunne, Jones & Dunkel and parallel publish all the books so they look like 50 Shades of Grey. And maybe not title them “pregnant with the billionaires baby”. I Was sitting next to someone on the train reading a tree book copy of 50 Shades, and my it looked very grey and serious!

    For myself, I am author driven. I too, having burrowing my way through Sarah Mayberry’s back catalogue, and was enchanted by Below the Belt.

  33. Liz Talley
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 09:38:44

    Just as an aside – Superromance has just changed the covers using a pull back effect for a more Single Title feel, especially since the word count is increasing to 85K with the 2013 books. Many of them are much, much better than those before. Some (like the TTQ house one) not so much. But they are at least trying to experiment with the covers while still keeping the branding. But I think the hidden issue is that the branding is preventing new readers from picking up the books. Several people in the responses indicated they’ve read Superromances by Sarah Mayberry based on recommendations given on review sites, but they don’t continue reading any other books in the line which means covers don’t really matter to them – authors do. So even if I put a beautiful, serious cover on one of my books, it won’t matter because they don’t “know” me and thus won’t read me. So I guess that really stinks for HQ authors who don’t get many reviews and have covers that drive readers away, but such is business I suppose.

    So again, it become a discoverability issue for HQ authors who must not only struggle to be visible in a sea of books out there, but fight against the stereotype placed on HQ books (and their old-fashioned covers.) Hmm….lots to think about as a newish author.

  34. Des Livres
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 11:10:07

    @Liz Talley: “discoverability” is surely an issue for every author. Publishing with Harlequin gives you an instant market, although it might mean others don’t find you as quickly.
    My thought, being a complete reader and in no other way involved with the publishing industry, is to identify “what an author like” you are. When I’m looking at a new author, say on Dear Author or Amazon or wherever, I want to know what the author’s like – or “kind of like”. An author who is “kind of like” Katie McAlister, for instance, is very different from an author “kind of like” Laurell K Hamilton. Some readers adore both, some do not – or need to be in a particular mood.

    But I’d suss out what sort of author you’re “kind of like” (maybe consulting with your beta readers/editors etc – not who you think you’re like, but who your readers think you’re kind of like) and aim yourself at those readers.

    Incidentally Sarah Mayberry has had a bit of a reverse effect on me – I’m starting to peer a bit at Harlequin books now.

  35. Kelly
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 13:46:20

    @Expy: If you look at the Harlequin website, they have submission guidelines that specify *exactly* what each category is.

    Thanks to NetGalley, I’ve been on a Harlequin binge this month, and it’s been a most educational experiment. The only Harlequins romances I’d read before were a bunch of Historicals, and I didn’t even realize they were categories – I just glommed onto the authors (Rolls, Justiss, James).

    I requested one or two from each line, and my reactions ranged from a B+ down through two DNFs. I never would have read any of these – or even glanced at them on Amazon – because the titles and covers just SCREAM “Romance-O-Matic.” I read a decent Love Inspired Contemporary, but the cover is so god-awful (ahem, beware of lightning strikes around me) I would be *way* too embarrassed to recommend it to anyone.

    As I was reading and reviewing, I tried to keep the category requirements in mind – most of the titles were what I expected, and sometimes not in a good way.

    My lessons learned:

    - Beware of jumping into the middle or end of a series. Category romances have a LOT of series. And mini-series. And meta-series. And spin-offs. And sequels of spin-offs.

    - Beware of misogyny-disguised-as-romance. The tamest ones (a Classic Romance and an American Romance) had the worst female-bashing.

    - Romance can take a back seat to the crazy-ass plot shenanigans in Suspenses and Intrigues.

    - For the Desire and Presents lines, you must have a VERY high tolerance for alpha-hole heroes and heroines who go stupid in the presence of testosterone.

    - For Special Editions or Super Romances, I’ll have to depend on DA and other reviewers I trust for recommendations.

    I’m going to stick with the Historicals, the Carina imprint and maybe a Blaze by Leslie Kelly once in a while. I requested a few Loveswepts, and those are up next – it’ll be interesting to see how they compare. Their covers and titles are definitely more eye-catching!

  36. cleo
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 09:50:14

    @Kelly: I was wondering if anyone would mention Carina Press. To me, Carina Press is Harlequin going after a new demographic, as well as using a new technology. Frex – several of Shannon Stacey’s Carina stories have a category feel (imo) without a category looking cover. HQ may not be updating their category lines but they are experimenting with Carina.

  37. Charisse
    Sep 19, 2012 @ 13:03:22

    @Kelly @StillTryingToLoveCategory @Des Livres & other romance readers!
    I write what I think of as historical romances, such as “Dark Horseman” set on a 1823 Virginia horse farm. What drives me is a strong story that could only happen in some distant & fascinating time & place, when social roles & behavior weren’t such a free-for-all as now. In other words, more like a 3-course restaurant meal than a Big Mac. It’s really hard to connect with readers, because the big romance publishers would much rather sell 100 Big Macs than 1 tournedos de boeuf avec quelquechose — understandably, since books like mine take a lot more than 3 months to research & write. As a reader, is it worth your while to dig into a non-formula romance? If so, where do you go to find them?

  38. Des Livres
    Sep 19, 2012 @ 21:52:04

    @Charisse
    I wonder whether your work are “formula romances” at all – obviously I type this knowing nothing whatsoever about your work, except how you have characterised it in your post #37 above. Might your work be better characterised by describing it as “historical novals with a strong romantic plot line(s)?”
    For myself I read and have read quite broadly over the years, but what I go for is character character character. (or to put it another way as a reader, “the people”. I have noticed that I will go for an unknown author reviewed by DA or SBTB with a more equivocal review IF they convey that the characters are really great and I really like them and enjoy hanging out with them.

    I will then go to Amazon and use “go inside the book” to start reading the book itself. When the sample gets to the end I will see if I like the people/situation in the book enough to fork out the required price.

    Dee Ernst is a recent discovery from ?Smartbiches Trashy books – and it’s been a bit hard for her to get published because her books are “so hard to categorise”. The reviews highlighted the great characters/great narrator in her books. I read one and adored it and read (moan!) the Other One and it also has great characters/great narrator. She is now an autobuy for me.

    Ben Aaronovich is another recent discovery through ?DA? Crime books. Set in the UK. But again, started reading, loved the strong character(s) and the narrative, and now he is an autobuy for me. (I did the same thing – used search inside the book, started reading….)

    Dana Stabenow is another example of the same process. Crime Books – bit of a romantic sub plot here and there, set in alaska following a certain community/characters. I read a good 19 of her books back to back and am looking forward to rereading the whole lot.

    Recently I had no money at all, so have been looking at Kindle free books, and read a book by someone I would not normally try, Vannessa Grant. I liked the people in it and the way they dealt with things, and the author and her approach enough to buy her other work. Trying kindle free books is a new one for me – but now Grant has a new buyer for her books.

    Book/author preference has got to be one of the most personal and idiosyncratic things ever. In summary I guess it’s about finding the gatekeepers of the sort of readers who like your sorts of books, and getting them to review your work. I keep coming back to SmartBiches, DA, the wonderful Kelly at her splendid blog Insta-Love, because I’m finding a high success rate between their recommendations and books I like. Stabenow and Aaronovich I got sucked into through price reductions, and the Comments!

    The readership and commentariat on these blogs tend to be voratious readers, often of a wide variety of genres. On SBTB you will note right now a lot of commentary around Cordelia’s Honour, a science fiction book (with strong romantic plot element). Reviews may often state something like: “I just need to warn the reader that this book is not a classic romance, but as an historical noval/crime noval/whatever it is absolutely fantastic…”

    I hope this helps. Obviously it is my unique hunting and gathering process. I really look forward to seeing your work, and peut-etre du poulet avec quelque chose agreable? Je ne mange pas de boef, malheureusement. (Maybe you will put soemthing on the Dear Author thread they have for authors to promote their work on?)

    But all the very best,

    Des Livres

  39. Charisse
    Sep 23, 2012 @ 11:26:59

    Des Livres,
    Many thanks for this thoughtful and most helpful reply! Your “unique hunting & gathering process” sounds so productive that I suspect many other committed readers must have evolved a similar one. I will check out the writers you mentioned & see how they approach the marketing riddle. My “historical romance” Dark Horseman is actually more of a fast-paced mystery with strong characters & a strong romance thread, in which the historical background is not that big a factor except in enabling this particular plot. But I’ve been agonizing over how to shape my next book so it won’t get lost on the vast spectrum between, say, Harlequin & Gone With the Wind. Thank you for your help!

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