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

What Do Readers Want?

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Romance author Ruthie Knox recently wrote an impassioned piece about the edit requests she and other writers get from their publishing houses — edits saying that “women don’t fall in love with men who cry” and “women don’t masturbate” and “people who have been sexually assaulted aren’t okay. They can’t be portrayed as okay, because they have to be broken, and then they have to be redeemed by the love of their partner, who is the only person who thinks they are okay.” What particularly disturbed her is that these editors are supposedly policing on the behalf of readers:

It is the readers, we are told, who don’t want small penises or capacious vaginas or expired condoms or crying heroes or functional humans who have been sexually assaulted and are not healed by magical sex. But I am a reader, too, and I want all of these things. I want everything. I want, as a baseline, fiction that is about humans.

Also, and more to the point, there is a way in which we tell ourselves — we, as romance readers and writers and editors, pretend among ourselves — that this kind of policing is not harmful, when it is, actually. It’s harmful to our culture, our social fabric, to perpetuate a narrow idea of who is and isn’t allowed to be sexy, what is and is not sexually okay, what can and cannot be permitted romantically.

A flood of comments from other writers agree; interestingly, several talk about finding themselves self-policing, because they’ve unconsciously absorbed what is and isn’t permitted in a romance..

This piece particularly struck me in the context of the review I’d just finished for When Falcone’s World Stops Turning. In many ways a typical formulaic Harlequin Presents, it had been most interesting to me for the ways in which it apparently tried to please both readers with specific expectations of what does and doesn’t belong in a Harlequin Presents, and readers who are sick of those expectations — which are almost invariably based on sexual double standards. The book has only been out a short time, so there aren’t that many reviews yet, but here are some comments from GoodReads:

I refuse to believe Abby Green wrote this book. Heroine was pure trash. A slut and a whore who left her baby boy home while she was fucking men in hotel rooms.

I think I will go back to old Harlequins. Those heroines had values, morals and most importantly self respect! Modern HP authors are not my cup of tea.

~~

i really like the story until i read the heroine had a casual sex affair with a ‘practically’ a stranger in a hotel room like a hooker…it’s different if you have a real relationship with another man because you (still try!) searching for something real. but NOT leaving your son to have sex in a hotel room, just to compare the sex between the hero’s and another man’s.

These are highly exaggerated descriptions of what actually happened in the book, which was written to be as close to the heroine not having sex with another man as it it could possibly be.

Is the message we should take from this that Harlequin Presents shouldn’t try to publish less sexist stories? God, I hope not. How about this as a message: you can’t possibly please everyone, any assumption you make about what “readers” want is bound to fail some of those readers, so why not let authors write the books they’re inspired to write?

I should stress that I don’t actually know what went on behind the scenes with the particular book, and my theory that some form of “policing” happened is only based on my extensive reading of the Harlequin Presents line. But in the case of another Harlequin Presents, which I’m not going to name because I don’t know how public the author wanted her comments to get, the author confirmed that she was not allowed to write her hero as being impotent. There’s no way of knowing how much it would have improved the book or its reception if she’d been able to keep to her original vision, but the criticisms include phrases like “disjointed,” “too many compromises,” “boring and predictable,” “fell short.” In Knox’s thread, author Delphine Dryden says: “In the original email thread that prompted this, I mentioned one of my books where there ended up being a lot of these changes. My comment was that it resulted in the characters’ rough edges being smoothed away, and that the book was the lesser for it (and didn’t do nearly as well as the other two in its series).”

Assumptions about what readers want not only reinforce the sexist status quo, but they create homogenized books. Books in which we know what’s going to happen before it happens. (I’ve been reading primarily romance for eight years now, and I still remember, with awe, the very first book I read in which the heroine had sex with someone else while separated from the hero — The Dragon’s Bride by Jo Beverley.) And as the comments from self-policing authors attest, these established norms are self-perpetuating. They’re writing what they’ve read, what they expect to read.

What do readers want? Perhaps we won’t truly know ourselves, until we get to experience all the possibilities.

Willaful

Willaful fell in love with romance novels at an early age, but ruthlessly suppressed the passion for years, while grabbing onto any crumbs of romance to be found in other genres. About eight years ago she finally gave in and started reading romance again, and has been trying to catch up with the entire genre ever since. She loves exquisitely written historical romance, intense m/m, and crazy, over the top categories about equally, and hopes to be buried with her e-readers. Look for her on twitter or at her blog at www.willaful.wordpress.com

93 Comments

  1. kt grant
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 05:30:19

    I never understood why it’s acceptable to read about a hero masturbating, but not the heroine. But in the same vein, it’s acceptable for the hero to be a man-ho walking STD, but the heroine must remain chaste, be a virgin, or not mention her sexual history, regardless of the time period or the setting of the novel?

  2. HJ
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 05:50:14

    I suspect that some of the perceived problems are to do with the specific imprint as much as what readers really want generally. Readers know the formula of each imprint, and if they like it then they buy the books and not unreasonably expect the books to meet it. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect the imprints to change their formulae (even if some of us would prefer that they would) so long as they have buyers who like them.

    Another way an author can create and build up a readership with specific expectations, even if she is not published by a specific imprint, is by always writing a certain type of book, and she will have to give fair warning if she wants to depart from her norm.

    However, if an author is being published outside these very specific imprints then the lines about what “readers” like and expect lose their force – or should, in my view. Those readers are already being catered for – let them go and buy the books which they know will follow the specific formula. (No criticism is intended of those readers, BTW.) Outside those imprints, it is as impossible to say what “readers” like as it is to say what “all people” like. For romances, the only universal rule is HEA.

    Perhaps het romances should start using some of the “warnings” used more frequently in m/m publishing? – they have actually become a way for people to find what they like as well as avoiding what they do not (and providing opportunities for humour, too.) I put the word “warning” in quotation marks, because although that is the term which is used, it is clear that many reject the implication of danger, evil or undesirability which it implies. But I think it is likely that having the ability to label a book and give a warning about an element which may not appeal to some readers has actually enabled authors to write much more freely, in a way which would not be possible if they were trying to be all things to all men.

  3. Liz
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 06:02:48

    So readers want the same thing they’ve always wanted: A great story. Fortunately, as a genre, the romance landscape isn’t as stark as it once was. I started reading romance when I was a teenager and my choices were pretty darn limited. It was sexy Vikings, Danielle Steel, The Thorn Birds, repeat. (Because 80s.)
    In all honesty, I still don’t enjoy reading romances where the H/Hs are are so flawed and unlikable I must spend a good part of my reading experience consciously remembering that their redemption is coming. But some readers really love those hard, emotional slogs. For those readers, that’s a great story and exactly what they want to read. Writers have to be taking these kinds of risks with their stories, otherwise we’re back to the same old romancelandia. And I won’t read The Thorn Birds again, people. I just won’t!
    And yes, I agree that the virgin heroine v. player hero thing is an awful double standard. Unfortunately, contemporaries haven’t killed it, either. Is there someone out there who is, like, way kind of smarter than me who can tell me why this is? Please. It’s 2014.

  4. Rebecca Rogers Maher
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 06:47:09

    I never thought I’d be in the position of defending romance industry gatekeepers, but look at popular media from their perspective. Across the board—books, TV, movies, music—the work that’s wildly popular is the least likely to challenge the status quo. It’s light and escapist. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, I’ll add. It’s not what I write and it’s typically not the art I seek out, but it sells because it helps people feel good.

    To me, romance was never about feeling good, per se. It was about feeling. I read romance novels, and now write them, in order to understand and feel the depth and breadth of human emotion. Not everybody reads romance for that reason, as much as I want them to. Even Romancelandia readers who have clearly expressed a desire for more challenging content in romance have (while graciously complimenting the quality of my writing) balked at the level of intensity in my books.

    That’s reality.

    Readers—even progressive ones—say they want something different. But they don’t buy different. I don’t know the reason, but I suspect it’s because it’s genuinely hard to sink into and be transported by something that’s full of barbs. (And anything that challenges our pre-existing worldview is a barb.) Lots of romance readers want that sinking-in feeling, that sweet ache in the chest, which you only get from a story that doesn’t challenge you on a deep level. And that is fine! Not every story has to challenge a reader’s worldview, and we are entitled to read for escape and pleasure.

    It just so happens that I don’t write these kinds of stories. There are other readers and writers like me, but I seriously doubt we will ever be the majority. And that’s totally okay. Every now and then a weird/challenging text breaks out and does well commercially, but it’s impossible to predict what text will do that. For me, as an author, I can’t spend my time worrying about this. It’s not my business to force anyone to read or write like I do. I can’t make people accept romance novels about suicide and rape. But I’m also not an industry executive, and I don’t need to guarantee sales in order to justify my job. I can just go ahead and write what I personally believe in and care about, and hope like-minded readers find me.

    Ruthie’s essay was kick-ass, by the way.

  5. mari
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 06:57:13

    Willaful, you summed it up beautifully in the last paragraph. Until my genre expectation is NOT met, and yet I still enjoy the story, how can I know what will / won’t work? I honestly am risk adverse when it comes to romance, but since I now read about about sexually experienced women (before the hero!)less than perfect people, etc., and other famous romance no-no’s, I can see that I really am willing to take (some) chances. It makes me sad that editors are insisting some really good writers conform to “expectations” that sound ludicrous at best, and downright harmful at worst.

  6. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 07:03:30

    There is a huge group of readers who strenuously object to the hero, but most particularly the heroine “cheating.” Sometimes this counts even if the couple have separated and this is a reunion story.
    If the couple is married, even if they are separated, the heroine is accused of “cheating” if she tries to rebuild her life. I’ve even seen menages described as “cheating” as a reason why some readers don’t want them.
    I’m not sure why there’s this fervent approaching rabid approach. In my opinion there are a lot of things that come before cheating in my irredeemable heroine list. But a cheating heroine will evoke this extreme response. I’ve had it myself, and I bet a lot of other authors have found the same. You get private emails that not only say, “I hated this heroine because she cheated” (and in my eyes she didn’t, btw), but “I’ll never read anything you write ever again.”
    Publishers are far more aware of what their readers like and don’t like and submission requirements often include something to the effect of the hero and heroine mustn’t sleep with anyone else after their relationship has begun. So writers who try to buck that must find somewhere else to publish.

  7. Rose
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 07:26:11

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher:
    Readers—even progressive ones—say they want something different. But they don’t buy different.

    Is that really an absolute, though? The success of the 50 Shades books and of various self-published authors suggests that readers are willing to buy some types of different, or to do so in certain circumstances. I think a wiser course of action than to try and homogenize everything would be to do some actual research beyond looking at sales figures and to try and understand which readers/when people would be likely to buy “outside the box” and how to appeal to them.

    I agree with Ruthie Knox – I don’t want to read just those things that she lists, but I want to read them in addition to what’s already out there. Because at the moment, a lot of what is traditionally published doesn’t seem all that exciting or diverse to me.

  8. wikkidsexycool
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 08:07:27

    I had no idea it was this restrictive.
    Ruthie Knox wrote a very good article, so I’ve got another blog to start following.
    I’m not comfortable with publishing houses being the sole authority or “gatekeeper.” If it’s this idealized for the default hero and heroine, I can imagine what its like when a minority becomes the lead (Although many times when I look at a cover, I can’t tell which one is supposed to be the minority, because sometimes the covers are also homogenized.

    The small penis edit had me cracking up, as that could be a good, angst filled storyline. Imagine all the inventive things the hero could do so that his lady love never finds out. She could remain oblivious like some publishing houses want, and then exclaim at the end of the book when he reveals his secret, “So technically, I’m still a virgin, right?”

    I’ve got a lead character who farts and blames it on his service dog. I gather from this article, that would be a serious no-no.

  9. Kmartha
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 08:10:28

    As the saying goes, “People admire complexity, but they reward simplicity.”

  10. Anonymous
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 08:44:21

    Lots of romance readers want that sinking-in feeling, that sweet ache in the chest, which you only get from a story that doesn’t challenge you on a deep level. And that is fine! Not every story has to challenge a reader’s worldview, and we are entitled to read for escape and pleasure.

    My problem with this is that it contains the assumption that all of us have the same worldview, and we don’t. Pick a random DA comment thread of more than twenty comments in length, or sometimes less, and that becomes clear. Romance readers are incredibly diverse in all ways — race, ethnicity, religion, able-ness, class, politics, education level, sexual orientation, gender identity, you name it. What is “challenging” to one reader’s worldview could be completely the opposite for another reader.

    I’m a kinky poly woman who doesn’t want kids and is permanently estranged from her family. A great deal of romance novels treats some or all of these properties as stigmas and marks of the villainess. And you know, that’s okay, in a sense — I don’t certainly require characters in my books to be carbon copies of me, and it’s not like I’ve never noticed that society tends to frown on kinky poly non-maternal women. But a lot of those “light, frothy, fun escapist reads” are anything but to me because of the incredibly narrow portrayals of what women are allowed to be. I have DNFed so many books because I felt like my reading material was judging me one way or another. For me, a truly escapist read would probably feature a non-maternal woman with a colourful sexual history who isn’t judged for it by the author. These are all but impossible to find, and the ones that exist aren’t necessarily good.

    I guess my point is, one person’s challenging is another person’s Tuesday.

  11. Jane
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 09:04:25

    I guess I have questions here. I read about females masturbating in books. I read about men crying in books. I’ve read books that have all those “taboo” subjects. I’m not sure where these rules are coming from and Ruthie Knox keeps signing publishing deal after publishing deal so if she really hates the self policing, why not strike out on her own?

    As for what reader’s want, there’s plenty that want different (and really different given what’s trending on Amazon). In fact, I’m continually amazed at the stories that strike readers’ fancies even if I don’t agree with them.

    This idea that publishers are the sole gatekeepers of fiction women are consuming just doesn’t ring true with what’s actually happening in the market.

  12. Tina
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 09:16:00

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher:

    Readers—even progressive ones—say they want something different. But they don’t buy different.

    But can they really buy different if they are not given the opportunity to? If all difference is scrubbed from the book before it even reaches the market? In the end, if you want to read you have to read what is available so you are going to buy what is there. This of course validates the gatekeepers’ decision and allows them to say “See? We know what we’re talking about”. But all it does is gives the readers something comfortable and familiar rather than than exciting and fresh.

    I do think readers like to broaden their horizons because otherwise PNR wouldn’t have risen to the prominence that it has, or Erotica, or a voice like Kristen Ashley’s.

    I hate reading stuff articles like this because it is depressing. It reinforces why I feel so disconnected from romance lately. Notes about ‘readers don’t like…’ make me feel like this is the reason why there is so little mainstream diversity or why it feels like you get plug & play characters.

    Also, Why can’t a hero cry for goodness sakes? I just read a book where the hero leaves a room to silently weep because he is confronted head-on with how deeply his sister has become addicted to drugs and he feels utter despair. It made him feel that much more relatable and brought the despair home in a way that not allowing him to cry wouldn’t have.

  13. Nemo
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 09:20:21

    I like safe, comfortable, and happy in my reading. None of that translates into /predictable./ None of it translates into /horribly sexist/ either. I actually went off on a rant once about how rape victims are always portrayed as broken and unloved and how hurtful that stereotype is. And why does ‘different’ translate into unlikable heroines and gritty story lines? Can’t a hero with a tiny penis be perfectly fine with it? Maybe a little shy because, hey, he’s still a product of society, but overall an enthusiastic lover who wants to travel all over Sweden and then settle down with a family and three horses? I may want my happy ending and my eternal love that defeats all evil, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want interesting, varied, and flawed characters. As long as they have positive traits and they grow or admit their faults.

    Knox’s article is scaring me far far away from traditional publishing. My logical has always been that the publisher, editor and author are out to make a great book and now I’m not so sure. Want to say screw it, I’ll just write fanfiction for the rest of my life.

  14. Shae Connor
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 09:21:00

    I can understand specific lines having very specific requirements (as with the Presents, which I don’t read because I know what to expect and it just isn’t my thing). But like you, Jane, I’ve read books from publishers that contain many of the things that are supposedly “taboo” (and I do mean in M/F romance, though some of the same things carry over to M/M as well). It’s clear those things aren’t taboo everywhere. Even setting aside the self-publishing option, there are many different publishers, and they have different guidelines. If the story you wrote doesn’t fit into one, try another.

  15. Mo
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 09:27:41

    OK – I know I am stepping into dangerous territory, but the one line in this piece that really, really stood out for me was “… and “people who have been sexually assaulted aren’t okay. They can’t be portrayed as okay, because they have to be broken, and then they have to be redeemed by the love of their partner, who is the only person who thinks they are okay.””

    This one stood out primarily because it is something that was paraphrased in a discussion elsewhere about a book I am not going to name. I remember being taken aback by the reader’s comments on how she didn’t think the plot was believable because a woman who was gang raped wouldn’t accept later sexual intercourse with one of her attackers. I remember thinking “if she’s strong enough to do it and is working toward revenge for herself, why wouldn’t she or couldn’t she?” It seemed plausible to me.

    But thinking about that piece made me think of the broader implications of that mindset. And I don’t like it. It strips women of their agency, strips them of power, and leaves them perpetually helpless victims and doggone it! I can’t stand the idea of society expecting anyone who has been a victim of anything as being a victim and without agency forever because of one act. And I certainly don’t like the idea that publishing houses are perpetuating that concept.

  16. DS
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 09:30:21

    I remember reading an interview with Laura Kinsale years ago (it was in RT Magazine before there was a big online presence). She was talking about one of her books (Seize the Fire) where she was told that readers would not accept her male main character weeping on his knees. In fact he did it more than once if I remember right.

    In fact everything about that book broke the romance mold. Her heroine was overweight, lost weight during her adventures, then gained it back. The hero was a rogue and not in the adorable sense. But it was and remains one of my favorite books

    I haven’t bought a romance in about a year now but the ones I remember and have on my keeper shelf have been different in one way or another. And they might not have been the most popular books with overall romance readership, but they do tend to have a dedicated following when mentioned.

    Some of the writers I really liked are no longer publishing romances, others have died, and still others (like Judith Ivory) I have no idea what happened to them. And I haven’t found romance writers that I like enough to replace them. So I read in a lot of other genres these days.

  17. Jackie Horne
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 09:34:11

    Jane writes:

    >This idea that publishers are the sole gatekeepers of fiction women are consuming just doesn’t ring true with what’s actually happening in the market.

    I don’t think Ruthie Knox, or Willaful, argued that publishers are the “sole gatekeepers of fiction women are consuming.” They’re arguing that publishers and editors are ONE of the gatekeepers. While the advent of e-books and proliferation of e-publishers has certainly given writers more editors and publishers to work with, that doesn’t mean that those editors and publishers don’t also gatekeep. They may police different gates, but they’re still asking authors to conform to certain ideas of what they believe the reader of their line/publishing house wants.

    Many authors are turning to self-publishing to avoid demands from editors and publishers to change the details and/or themes of their work in order to “give women readers what they want.” But most would still prefer to have the marketing strength of a traditional publisher behind them: witness the many successful self-published writers who have signed big book contracts with NYC houses.

    Having worked in a publishing house myself, I know that as an author gains a reputation as a strong seller, that author gains more clout with his or her publisher, and can push back against publishers’ natural tendency to homogenize in order to reach the broadest audience possible (or at least, to avoid offending any potential reader). Ruthie Knox is attempting to use her growing clout to challenge the policing from editors and publishers that she finds limiting, and often sexist, which I find admirable. Some people work to change things from without, others from within, traditional institutions; both types of people are needed to change the status quo.

  18. Junne
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 09:37:51

    @Rose:

    50 shades of grey is for me the epitome of PC and sameness: virgin heroine, playboy hero, even the bdsm is really weak and not very risk-taking.

  19. Junne
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 09:39:10

    I’ll easily admit that if the hero and heroine are separated and she hooks up with someone else ( a random stranger or loving boyfriend), I’ll put the book down and never pick another by this author again ( unless I’m absolutely sure she’s not going to pull this one on me again). Also, I definitely have a double standard: the hero can do that and it’s not as problematic to me.

    What I like in romance books is predictability: first,no matter what happens, you know there’s going to be a HEA.Then, there are some unspoken rules ( for me) like this one: once they are together, no s*x with anyone else. Even if they’re separated for a year, or 10.
    I have no problem with authors seeking to write something else, but it does nothing for me and no matter how brilliant the story is, or how gifted the writing I won’t read it till the end. It’s definitely a deal breaker.

  20. Isabel C.
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 10:03:31

    Wow. This makes me feel even luckier to have the publisher and editors I’ve had, and I fall pretty heavily on the “fantasy with attractive well-endowed dudes” end of the scale. I do have all sorts of heroines masturbating, though, and the hero of my first book cried toward the ending, and so far nobody reading my manuscripts has batted an eye. Yay!

    And wow, shut up, judgmental Goodreads people. Did the heroine have an exclusive relationship with the hero? And did she get a babysitter for her son? If “no” and “yes”, try not living in the fifties. Jeez.

  21. Willaful
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 10:34:55

    @Jane: If you read the comment thread on Knox’s piece, several successful authors (primarily of erotic romance) comment that they don’t have this particular problem and can pretty much write what they want. I don’t think that invalidates the basic point.

  22. Lynnd
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 10:39:52

    I think I know which story you are referring to regarding the impotent hero and, while the book was good, it would have been so much better if the author had been “allowed to go there.”

    Like Ruthie Knox, I love to read stories about humans with all their complexities and foibles. A man who can cry is incredibly sexy to me (much more than the alphahole manwhores with mommy issues that are so common).

    I think that part of the problem with mainstream publishers is that their “customers” are still the booksellers, not the readers so any sales data they get is going to be filtered through that source. Courtney Milan’s latest blog regarding her print sales numbers were really interesting in this regard, particularly the number of returns that publishers get from bookstores. The fact that self-publishing has taken off so well in the romance genre probably says a lot about publishers not really delivering what many readers really would like to read. Frankly, except for a few authors, I am pretty bored with most of what I am reading in the romance genre from mainstream publishers. I am reading less and less romance these days or I am reading self published romances or older romances from authors such as Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney etc.. If authors like Knox want to break out of big publishing and write the stories they really want to write, there will be an audience who will give them a chance.

  23. LucyDean
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 10:49:10

    I adore Ruthie Knox’s writing, but I agree with Jane; maybe for traditional publishing there’s more pressure to conform to some out-of-date editor’s idea of what “sells.”

    But have you seen what’s on Amazon lately? I mean, self-published dinosaur erotica SELLS…nobody appears to have “policed” those authors.

    I guess the question that can be posed to authors who are sick of the policing and subsequent self-policing, is, do you wait around for the industry insiders (ie, editors at traditional publishing houses) to change, or do you go out on your own and write however you please?

  24. Ridley
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 11:25:15

    @Nemo:

    And why does ‘different’ translate into unlikable heroines and gritty story lines?

    Ah, well, hang around romance long enough and you’ll notice that everyone outside the mainstream, middle-class, abled, white, straight, cis experience is they and they exist to add angst and drama to stories.

  25. P. J. Dean
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 11:50:26

    What do readers want? Truthfully who knows. To me it’s the chicken or the egg scenario. Is what the reader buying truly reflective of their wants or reflective of what’s being pushed? Lots of flotsam sells because Goodreads gives it glowing reviews or a known writer writes a plug for a book. So if you shill it, they will come. It’s about the bottom line. Not reader preference. And will always be because it’s business. If a reader wants something different, the only way a reader could possibly change the course is to NOT buy and then flood a publisher’s inbox with reasons why she/he is not buying. Complain. Squeeky wheels get greased.

    Lastly, I’ve constantly heard the reader lament of “not knowing what’s good to read.” How about trying something novel? Go Old school and rely on one’s own mind to select something to read and not go with the Goodreads lemmings? Okay, a book could stink but at least you’d only have yourself to blame for the purchase. Personally, I use that method and now use Goodreads to weed out the “five-star diamonds” which are really lumps of coal.

  26. Jamie Beck
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 12:04:16

    Thanks for posting Ruthie’s article. I enjoyed reading it (and its comment thread).

    I think it’s fair to say that there is an audience for everything, but some stories/tropes and character types have a bigger audience than others. Profit is the top priority for publishers, so they are going to hedge their bets and play to the masses. It’s not surprising, although I do think it is limiting, short-sighted, and it short-changes readers.

    Some authors are happily writing within the confines of editorial expectations and loving their careers. Some brand name authors are lucky enough to have the clout to push the envelope. Maybe Ruthie can use her current popularity to make editors step back and consider taking more “risks” and trusting the diverse readership to enjoy something unusual or unexpected.

    But ultimately the relative ease of self-publishing enables writers to make choices with their work. So — and I say this without any judgment attached — in my opinion, the gatekeeper is only a gatekeeper as long as the writer is wedded to needing the validation of a traditional publishing contract or an advance. There have been enough examples of self-publishing success to prove it is possible to write the story you want and connect with readers in a meaningful way without a publisher’s support.

  27. EP
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 12:10:13

    I am going out on a limb, being honest and vulnerable here as a reader who reads about four or five romance books a day.

    I love my traditional romance books. I prefer my heroine to be a virgin and the hero not to be a man whore. But read romance novels that have heroines that aren’t virgins too.

    You see I was a virgin when I got married at 32. Yep, that’s right. I made a decision to wait and to this day am glad I did. Married a wonder hot guy and we have been married for over 10 years and have three beautiful kids.

    I say all this for a reason. We live in a world with many diverse and differing points of views. I made a personal choice for myself but have never judge others for what they choose to do or how to live (in fact have close women friends who are total opposites from me). I respect ever persons decision for their own life.

    But what I have been picking lately is if you do have a traditional view point something is wrong with your thinking or life style. I read Harlequin Present occasionally for the traditional romance…so is that bad??? To read a contemporary romance novel today with a virgin heroine is not that common anymore. And why not a hero who’s a virgin? So I hope as reader that my feel good, traditional romance, with the HEA, will still be available for me to read and enjoy.

    I share all this to say in the end that I hope that we can all appreciate and respect all women. Even women that love their traditional life and romance book. ;)

  28. Jane
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 12:16:46

    @Willaful: That policing is happening? Sure it does but an author doesn’t have to allow herself to be policed. Frex if you are writing in a HP line, then you are writing to a really specific audience. That’s part and parcel of being an HP writer. Category lines are restrictive.

    Knox herself was an editor (and may still be) so I wonder why she doesn’t speak from her editorial viewpoint. Seems like her impassioned essay would be so much richer, with so much more depth.

    I see plenty of authors taking chances, particularly in the self pub market. It’s not always where I want to go and not always the “different” I want to see but if an author doesn’t want to be policed, this is a whole new world. Authors have a lot of power over their own work.

  29. Rebecca Rogers Maher
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 12:47:12

    @Rose:

    “I think a wiser course of action than to try and homogenize everything would be to do some actual research beyond looking at sales figures and to try and understand which readers/when people would be likely to buy “outside the box” and how to appeal to them.”

    That is an excellent point, and I’m sure some niche publishers do this research and buy/market their books accordingly. They only do this, though, if there’s a financial incentive (which means the perceived niche has to be big enough to be worth the investment) because commercial publishing is a business whose primary goal is to make money. Many individual authors do productively engage in this kind of research (whether they’re self-published or simply receiving little support from their publishers), but it is still a niche market they’ll find, because…

    @Anonymous:

    Sales trends don’t speak to the uniqueness of individual readers. They are broad generalizations based on statistics. Some of us may indeed get that “sinking in” feeling from books that are radically different from the norm, but we are not yet the majority (according to sales figures). However…

    @Tina:

    You have no idea how deeply I hope you’re right and I’m wrong. I want to believe that if all the freak flags were truly flying, people would snatch it up joyfully.

    But this isn’t just about books that are different. Yes, dinosaur porn exists and people buy it. But it’s not fundamentally challenging status quo ideas about gender, race, class, sexuality, etc. More and more, you can read a story where the hero cries and the heroine masturbates. But you’re not likely to see a story, for example, where the heroine is actively angry, hyper-intelligent, working class, and masturbating—paired with a hero who’s short, slight, sweet, sensitive, also working class, and crying. Make them both POC and you might as well use the paper for kindling.

    I agree with Ruthie that publishers play a role in gatekeeping. So do reviewers and readers who say, “That’s not romance.” As many commenters have pointed out, so do writers who police ourselves because we’re afraid of how people will react to our crazy stories.

    The fact is, when you write a book that challenges the status quo not just in a few details, but very deeply, it’s going to be hard to make that book a bestseller. There are exceptions, thank goodness, which is why I think people who write crazy stuff should keep at it. You might break through one day, and even if you don’t, you will have spoken the truth as you see it, which usually feels better than pretending to fit in when you don’t.

  30. Rebecca Rogers Maher
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 12:49:04

    @Jackie:

    I think you’re totally right that Ruthie is taking on the thankless task of leveraging her success to change how things are done from within. That is so great!

    @EP:

    I think most people would agree that what we want is a wider spectrum of choices. I love to read the kinds of books you describe. I want the other kinds of books, too (not instead of).

    @Jane:

    Yes, an author doesn’t have to allow herself to be policed. She can choose not to write for a line whose restrictions don’t match her work. But it’s not just the specific lines that have rules, and it’s not just the formal, written rules we’re talking about here. The most upsetting rules, in fact, are often the ones that are unspoken.

    Some authors (like me) have chosen to self-publish in order to write alternative material without policing. My thoughts here are not just on my own individual books, but on the romance genre as a whole—I want to see it expand and grow. I work toward that goal from the outside, but as Jackie said, Ruthie Knox is working from the inside, generating conversation about how oppressive social norms get reproduced on the micro level, day-to-day, among writers and publishers. I don’t think she’s obligated to strike out on her own in order to make a valuable contribution to this discussion.

  31. Willaful
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 12:49:35

    @EP: I think it’s perfectly possible to have a romance novel that upholds “traditional” values about sex without being sexist. It’s probably pretty rare, however. In this instance, no reviewer commented on what the hero had been up to while the coupled was separated. I don’t see a novel in which the heroine has to remain pure while the hero is almost equally required to have a lot of casual sex as upholding any values other than those of the double standard.

  32. Lindsay
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 12:52:11

    I would absolutely like to know more about this from other authors, because I would love to have crying heroes, impotent heroes, expired condoms, etc. I love authors that include bodily fluid clean-up, laughing during sex, female masturbation (actually, I can only think of a few times it’s happened or was even alluded to and was really pleased from the departure). I don’t think they have to be in every romance or everyone has to enjoy them, but I like people and people include a whole lot of different experiences. I’ve read heroes (in het fic no less) who were rape victims and how it affected them. These are the books I remember because they were different from the tropes so common they all start to mush together in my memory. I don’t mind those tropes either, but they are a lot more interesting to me as a reader when they’re dealt with in new and interesting ways.

    I do know that a lot of the above happened in self-published books, and that is one of the main reasons I haven’t given up on self-published books yet. For every few that lack any editorial oversight whatsoever, there are ones brilliantly written and edited to make fantastic stories that have really stuck with me. Courtney Milan in my mind has really dealt with a lot of different things traditional publishing likely would not have gone for, and even when something is not 100% my cup of tea I’m just happy that someone went there (and generally I’m really happy with how she approaches and portrays things).

    The quote about sexually assaulted people REALLY bothered me, not just because it’s incredibly awful thinking — but think of the number of people you’re telling are not okay and are not able to be portrayed in romance. Going by numbers, that’s anywhere from 1 in 6 women to 1 in 3 — are you really willing to stand up and tell that many readers that they’re broken people? That many authors?

  33. Anonymous
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 12:58:00

    A few years ago, I wrote historical romances for Avon Books. The sexual content wasn’t policed by my editor. I wrote a book where the hero had oral sex with another woman while with the heroine. I wrote another book where the heroine masturbated, and both she and the hero had other sexual partners while apart. I was, funny enough, policed when I proposed a novel where the heroine had a physically demanding job. I was told readers’ don’t like to see heroines who sweat – genteel professions only, like governesses.

    I think policing is more about brand control. Of course readers’ expectations vary, but publishers and their respective lines are “known” for something and have to meet readers’ expectations.

  34. Jane
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 13:17:21

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher: What are the unspoken rules? Not to write about men crying and women who recover from sexual assault?

    If there are readers who protest such themes (as evidenced in Willaful’s review) that’s not the so called gatekeepers problem. In this day and age when I feel anything does go, if you want it to, then I don’t see the gatekeeper problem. If the problem is writing a book that is “different” and “breaks the rules” and still is a money busting success, that’s an entirely different issue.

    Balancing money with the desire to write without boundaries is completely understandable but who’s the villain in that scenario?

  35. Willaful
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 14:12:43

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher: “I suspect it’s because it’s genuinely hard to sink into and be transported by something that’s full of barbs. (And anything that challenges our pre-existing worldview is a barb.) ”

    That’s a really insightful comment. I tend not to think of these things as barbs because generally anything out of the common mold delights me, but I can see why others would perceive them that way. And quite it’s possible that I don’t get as easily transported by the different as I do by the familiar.

  36. Rebecca Rogers Maher
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 14:59:45

    @Jane:

    There is no sneering villain in this scenario. There are prevailing social norms that are being upheld in the way that all social norms are upheld—in the tiny interactions that take place within small and large groups of people every day that reinforce expectations about how we should behave and what is normal.

    Any individual author can self-publish whatever she wants, but my little self-pubbed book is competing against books that are backed by conservative traditional publishers who pay for advertising. At the same time, it’s not being taken as seriously as traditionally published books by media outlets that might review or otherwise showcase it. Books with alternative/challenging content that ARE released by traditional publishers are typically not given the same level of financial support as books that are more of a surefire guarantee because they match what’s currently selling, so the potential of these more socially challenging books is also systematically suppressed.

    It is not a level playing field.

    Still, I can and do I choose to defy genre expectations in my writing, and I fully accept that for that reason I probably won’t be a “money busting success”. What I don’t accept is that many “unwritten rules” are racist, classist and sexist. When books that break these rules are suppressed in the marketplace, oppressive social norms are reproduced, and I don’t like that. Here are a few of the unwritten rules, from my perspective:

    1) Romance heroes and heroines should be white, and they can’t be poor, or stay poor, or readers won’t be able to/want to empathize with them.
    2) Romance heroines should adhere to most standards of traditional femininity. For example, don’t write a heroine who’s too actively angry or forceful, or readers won’t believe she deserves the hero.
    3) Romance heroes must adhere to most standards of traditional masculinity, so for example if they do cry, we have to see a counterbalance, such as alpha dominance or abs you could cut diamonds with, otherwise readers won’t believe he is a “real man”.

    I could go on. Anyone else want to chime in?

  37. Willaful
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 15:25:19

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher: Rebecca, I think you should have written this piece. :-)

  38. Jane
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 15:28:11

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher: So here’s what you are saying. You are saying that books that trend toward certain normative standards do financially better or that publishers are more willing to back those books. That’s a financial decision that you and every other author out there makes.

    Patricia Briggs posted this weekend that she wanted to write a story about a tangential couple that appeared in one of her Alpha and Omega books. Her publisher said she can but it would have to be a mass market book and not a hardcover book. Briggs decided to write the hardcover book instead because they have three kids in college. (This was explicitly stated in the comments). So Briggs is making a financial decision to write the book that will bring her the most money rather than the one she’s been aching to write.

    That’s perfectly fine and I appreciate Briggs being so forthright about the situation. But it’s her decision and that’s what she makes clear. She’s not placing blame on the readers; she’s acknowledging that a Charles & Anna hardcover makes better sense for her career.

    So Ruthie Knox who writes the whitest people out there, in the most conventional situations, is bemoaning about not being able to write about small dicked POC heroes? If that is so it’s because she’s making a financial decision to write about characters that trend more to the mainstream. Not everyone is choosing to that. I saw Molly McAdams is writing an Asian hero for her next novella being released through HarperCollins.

    I get that readers who want a certain type of book but can’t find them are bemoaning the state of the industry. It’s hard to find good books out there. For every one decent book I read, there are about 15 that are varying states of horribleness so I completely understand readers banging the drum for different, fresh, innovative (because what is currently selling completely is against their own tastes).

    That said the perpetuation of sameness is the result of authors wanting to have financial rewards for their writing so they choose to write books/characters/tropes that have the broadest appeal. That’s not policing from gatekeepers; that’s authorial choice. AND THAT ISN’T WRONG. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH WANTING TO MAKE MONEY WRITING.

    But what I see as problematic is someone arguing that they’re oppressed and they can’t write what they want to write but continue to publish mainstream, trend appealing books.

    What Knox is saying to me is that readers don’t want to buy the books that she wants to write but that ‘blaming the reader’ argument isn’t as sexy as saying mainstream publishing is completely holding a sea change in romance back.

    For every complaint about what is being self policed, there are books in traditional publishing that have been published with those features. There was a short bald man in one of Jasmine Haynes stories. There was a woman who had sex with stranger in a hotel room ala Abby Green. It wasn’t the publisher who held her back. It was a reader comment that Willaful highlighted.

    Are there some editors more restrictive than others? No doubt. But let’s stop placing all the blame on these nebulous NY / trad published editors. Knox herself is an editor and I don’t see a lot of non POC, small dicked, poor people from Entangled Press.

    I guess I want to see authors start taking ownership and admitting, yes, I’m writing the most commercially viable project I can within the range of stories that appeal to me. I’d like to stretch (see e.g., Willow Aster who wrote a interracial relationship set in the 1970s or the Becca Ritchie series that features a girl who is a sex addict) but I also like to earn money so until the market is ready for me, I’m going to stick to what is selling.

    I admire the authors who are taking storytelling chances even though the financial rewards aren’t guaranteed. Those are the authors that are going to change the industry when their stories catch fire.

  39. Michelle Smart
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 15:30:09

    I’ve been reading through the comments and felt I needed to chime in here. I am currently writing my fifth HP and I can say, hand on heart, that I have never felt any restrictions in what I write. My first book had a ‘cheating’ heroine. I say cheating – she was in a marriage of convenience that was unconsummated by mutual agreement, and the h/h had a deal that their marriage was open. I knew when writing it that it would be controversial and so it proved to be – Like Abby Green’s book (which, incidentally, I loved), there were a number of GR readers who loathed it; called the heroine a whore etc… But there were equal numbers who loved it. Would I write another cheating heroine? Hmm… that all depends if I dream up a HP story where I feel it integral to it.

    Maybe I’m just lucky with the editor I have, but I’ve never felt restricted. I’ve even been able to have one of my hero’s cry! As long as I keep to the promise of the line then all’s good, and it suits me perfectly.

    PS: Saying all that, I’ve just had to tidy up my heroine’s bedroom as it was too messy! Presents Heroines do not have messy bedrooms. Well, they do, but definitely not mouldy cups on the bedside table.

  40. Sirius
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 15:30:41

    Just couple of asides which I hope are at least somewhat relevant. DA helped me find some really good m/f romances and I will be forever grateful to quite a few fellow reviewers for that, but in my life I only read two Harlequin Books – “The one who got away” by Kelly Hunter and “Lotus palace ” by Jeannie Lin. I read one of those for book club at DA and another one also after reading DA review. I liked Hunter’s book and thought “Lotus palace” was fantastic, year only started but I won’t be surprised if it will be on my top ten list for 2014. Having said it, I did not pay attention to what Harlequin Category those belonged to. I think Hunter’s was Kiss but I am not sure and even if it was – I do not know what it means. I mean from what I keep reading here ( not just in this thread, in some other DA discussions) every category must follow some specific rules and limitations? Like heroines must have such and such qualities and heroes such and such qualities? If I am correct that would bore me silly and would be one of the main reasons why I usually do not read Harlequin books unless review convinced me otherwise and usually it does not. Also I read some reviews of Ruthie Knox’s books but I have not read her books – so I am not sure if she is writing for Harlequin category. If she is though – I am confused – if these books have limitations and writers know what they signed up for , then the subsequent criticism of such limitations I am not sure I understand. If the criticism is more about big publishers ‘ treatment of romance books in general , sure then I am more receptive to that. I think some of the examples of such policing are just bizarre and the writers should speak up against it.

    Although you guys as somebody who mostly reads m/m in romance department ( I do read other genres a lot) I have to tell you about men’s crying – do be careful what you are wishing for ;). Seriously – I have no problem whatsoever with men crying if the situation warrants that and of course it could be different for different guys. I think a societal conditioning which still often says “boys don’t cry” is well idiotic. But men cry in m/m and cry and CRY a lot, sometimes so much that you just want to smack them hard ;).

    Anyway – me going on and on about the fact that I have the preconceived impression that Harlwquin categories have rules about how characters should behave does not mean that I am not doing same thing in m/m.

    One of the most widely sold ( judging only by amazon bestseller lists – obviously have no clue about her sale numbers) authors in m/m writes the narrators who are literally the same in every book – change the name and profession and here we go. I don’t see her leaving those bestseller lists any time soon – and who but us readers ( including me obviously – who buys almost every book she cracks out) put her and several other authors like her there?

    She is the only writer with whom I have this experience – otherwise I choose the books which are just as different from each other as they could be and pretty much in all varieties and subgenres of mm and gay fiction, but everybody has their own writer or writers like that. I guess the point I am trying to make is that I think readers are dictating what they want to read much more than publishers are forcing them to read anything. Of course as I said my romance reading is mostly from small publishers so maybe it is that different for big ones, but I think that at least in m/m if we would not buy something publishers would pick up on the trend faster than big ones.

    Oh and word about impotent hero, heck how about the hero who at least struggles with his performance and cannot give heroine multiple orgasms right away or something?

    I read a great m/m book last year ( for me anyway) where part of the reason for the tension was the guy having his performance significantly decreased due to side effects from his medication. I thought it was fantastic and one of the most romantic and believable conflicts I have ever read about. Loved it and no, he was not magically cured by love. Rambling over :).

  41. EP
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 15:32:59

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher – I guess I should have added that I do read non traditional romances also. Just wanted to make a case for the traditional romance book. One of my favorite books is by Nalini Singh- Heart of Obsidian!!!

    @Willaful- I totally concur with your point on a double standard!!! And yes, I get just as angry when it’s okay for one but not the other MC.

    And just a clarification…..I read 4-5 books a week not a day!!!

  42. leftcoaster
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 15:34:59

    OMG. I have never been sorry to read the comments at DA until today. So astounded I can’t think of anything to say that isn’t vitriolic.

  43. jamie
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 15:37:18

    @Lynne Connolly:

    @Lynne, I’m not quite that rabid, hopefully, but I do see it as “cheating” when a couple is STILL married, but separated and going out with other people. For pete’s sake, just divorce if you want to live a single life. And I despise cheating with either hero or heroine.

    However, if someone truly repents and GROVELS adequately, then I can read a cheating book and have in the past. Often times, there’s not enough groveling going on. I want there to be lots, and painful for me to be satisfied, lol.

    @EP – like you I like the heroines to be virgins and heroes too. But I admit the manho thing does create lots of angst.

    I think for me as a reader, the bottom line is that I want stories that are well written. I think some writers can write good stories with all of the restrictions of a category romance for example, while for others those restrictions result in cookie cutter type romances (which a lot of category romances are). But we readers remember the stories that are different or unusual.

    I think the best writers come up with their own style and pizazz in spite of those restrictions, or because of them.

  44. Sunita
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 15:40:18

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher: Sure, I’ll chime in. I wrote a post a while back at my VacuousMinx blog about reading outside one’s comfort zone and why I think it’s difficult for the best-intentioned readers, so I won’t repeat all that here.

    But in terms of your 3 points (these are just off the top of my head):

    (1) Harlequin SuperRomance regularly has poor heroes and heroines. Jeannie Watt wrote a rancher who could barely keep his ranch. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t rich by the end. Vicki Essex wrote a Chinese-American heroine who lost her job and moved back in with her parents. She was putting together a career on the fly at the end of the book. The hero was comfortably off but not rich. No, they’re not in dire poverty as a rule, but I’ve read quite a few HSRs with main characters who have to think hard about how to get to the end of the month and whose financial situations aren’t magically fixed by the end.
    (2) The supposedly best book in romance, which is on top of AAR’s list every frickin’ time they run the poll, has a heroine who shoots the hero. And that’s just one of the ways she is at the boundaries of heroine likability.
    (3) Loretta Chase’s hero in Miss Wonderful is not an alpha. He doesn’t cry, as I remember, but he has various other issues and they’re there at the beginning, middle, and end of the book. The heroine is clearly more real-life competent than he is He violates any number of masculinity norms.

    As I say, this is just off the top of my head.

  45. Rebecca Rogers Maher
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 15:41:24

    @Jane:

    I hear what you’re saying. It smacks of hypocrisy to you, to complain about a system you’re willingly participating in and making money from. But what do you make of Jackie’s argument, that Ruthie Knox is playing a valuable role in shifting the conversation from the inside? It seems to me that in many ways she has a lot more power than I do, for example, to stretch the boundaries of what we find acceptable in this industry. It’s a valid approach, isn’t it, to make incremental changes? Not every writer has to push every button at once. You can do something that’s mostly traditional but contains challenging elements, and you can push for the inclusion of more of these elements over time, no?

    @Willaful:

    Don’t mind me. I don’t blog or write actual books anymore. I just crash other people’s blogs. :)

  46. Robin/Janet
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 15:43:03

    @Jackie Horne:
    I don’t think Ruthie Knox, or Willaful, argued that publishers are the “sole gatekeepers of fiction women are consuming.” They’re arguing that publishers and editors are ONE of the gatekeepers. While the advent of e-books and proliferation of e-publishers has certainly given writers more editors and publishers to work with, that doesn’t mean that those editors and publishers don’t also gatekeep. They may police different gates, but they’re still asking authors to conform to certain ideas of what they believe the reader of their line/publishing house wants.

    But Knox’s post was focused on editors from traditional publishers, and whether they are the “sole gatekeepers” in a general sense doesn’t negate the fact that Knox singularly focused on them.

    The reason this distinction is important for me is because I’ve been hearing this complaint for years, and while I don’t doubt that some editors do make these comments, I also think it’s important to ask an accompanying question: What are authors doing about it? Because editing is a conversation, and it’s about bringing the author’s book into the marketplace within the particular line and brand of a publisher. Different lines, different publishers, different editors all have different styles and expectations. And authors have responsibilities here, too. How many authors just go along with these editorial comments without saying anything in response? Is that fair to the reader? After all, this is the *author’s* book, and as Jane said, authors have so many choices now. In fact, that contract signed with the publisher for whom the policing editor works was a choice, as well.

    NOT that I find most of these “rulez” to be the least bit logical, correct, or appropriately imposed. I’ve written and ranted many times about what I feel is a homogeneity and a moralism in the genre that imposes artificial, often seemingly random limits. But what I want to see if authors standing up for their vision and really thinking about that vision and why it’s important to them. And I’d love to know how Knox, who was an editor herself, would suggest these situations be handled, since she’s been on both sides of the equation. And she writes what I think of as pretty traditional Romance, although that’s somewhat of a tangent. But in any case, I don’t see her post as a call to action (or the comments, for that matter). Because, well, what’s the proposed action? At what point do these complaints become excuses not to take risks for authors? And in what ways to authors have participatory responsibility for all the choices they make, as well?

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher: Readers—even progressive ones—say they want something different. But they don’t buy different. I don’t know the reason, but I suspect it’s because it’s genuinely hard to sink into and be transported by something that’s full of barbs. (And anything that challenges our pre-existing worldview is a barb.) Lots of romance readers want that sinking-in feeling, that sweet ache in the chest, which you only get from a story that doesn’t challenge you on a deep level. And that is fine! Not every story has to challenge a reader’s worldview, and we are entitled to read for escape and pleasure.

    I think it’s a mistake to assume that readers aren’t buying different or seeking out different. First of all, one has to define “different.” There are many authors who can take familiar tropes, for example, and infuse them with a new emotional depth. Jo Goodman always comes to mind in that vein. There are authors who take genuine risks in their books. This post has reminded me that I want to review LaVyrle Spencer’s Spring Fancy for DA, because that book, published in 1984 as the first Harlequin Temptation, features a heroine who is engaged at the beginning of the book and who ends up with another guy. WHO she begins seeing before she breaks off her engagement. AND there are class issues raised in the novel, as well. In many ways, that book feels fresher than many of the contemporaries I’ve read in the past few years. I was also thinking fondly of Susan Johnson’s Pure Sin and Forbidden, both of which feature Absarokee (Crow) protagonists; in fact, the heroine in Forbidden is one of the first female lawyers in the US, and she’s the first Native American lawyer (and she’s involved in a lot of the land disputes with the government). Both of those books represent very complex, interesting characters whose culture is treated with respect by the book. They are not token, whitewashed, fetishized characters, and Johnson added numerous historical footnotes to her books to provide adequate background on issues of particular importance. Did she use more traditional tropes, as well? Sure. Her heroes are over-sexualized alphas, for example. But they’re not unidimensional. Compared to the books Johnson is writing now, it’s almost impossible to recognize the same author in them. Which is kind of an interesting point, and one that incidentally relates to this conversation. I’ve seen many Johnson readers pine for her old books, hoping that she might go back to where she began in the genre.

    As for the issue of the comfort read, I agree with you that there are many people who want that from the genre. Sometimes I want that from the genre. But I don’t always want it, nor do I think the genre needs to be or should be limited to that (I know you’re not arguing that – I’m just kind of using your comment as a jumping off point, because this post got me thinking about these issues). For one thing, people find comfort in all sorts of things. I will always give 50 Shades a pass for the fact that it got women talking publicly about their sexual fantasies, which I do not think was anticipated, and yet shows how unpredictable a book’s reading and reception can be.

    I know there are readers who don’t like infidelity, rape fantasy, and other elements in the genre. Which, as you said, is fine — plenty of books out there where they can be avoided. I still remember the massive furor over a Laura Lee Guhrke historical, in which the hero and heroine are separated and there is infidelity. But for me, at least, I don’t need to identify with the protagonists, and sometimes it’s enough for me to appreciate what the protagonists find together in love — I don’t need to approve of every aspect of their lives to find that romantic in the context of *their* relationship. If an author can convince me that a couple can be happy in circumstances that would not be my personal choice, then I can be open to that. I have my own limits of course, but I think to assume that all readers have the same moral compass (let alone the same way of reading) is just, well, incorrect, whether publishers, editors, authors, or readers make it. I’m not sure there *is* a majority of any kind of reader, because, as you said, you can never predict what a text will do, which means that you can never predict how readers will respond.

    I agree with Knox that there are really very few rules (in fact, I wrote a post on that myself, and Knox made an interesting comment that seems to come from a much different place than her recent Wonkomance post). And clearly there are some readers who would like to see the genre narrowed in whatever ways they deem appropriate. But I definitely know that there are readers who are looking for and buying different, and who are taking risks in their reading. Maybe what we need to be doing more of, though, is talking about those books, and about how books do and don’t take risks for readers, because I think there would be a fair amount of diversity on that question, as well (take the question of whether 50 Shades offers something new — IMO it’s a mix of old and different, which is what makes it so popular for so many readers). Because I think it’s the tendency to (over)generalize at all that gets us all into trouble in these types of discussions.

  47. wikkidsexycool
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 15:47:41

    @Rebecca

    I’d like to piggy back off your advertising comment.
    Because it’s true that readers can’t buy what they don’t even know exists.

    Next month is February. Which not only means valentines and love will flow, but major publishers and perhaps even Amazon and Barnes and Noble will promote one, two or even three black authors on the first page of their site.

    It’s possible a few self pubbed authors may be included (no more relegated to the sub menus!) but as has been done in the past, it’s probably a given that big name authors will get those coveted spots (Beverly Jenkins, Octavia Butler, etc). February is also usually the time publishers pull from their “classic” collection of black literature, which is fine by me.

    However, it could be a great time for enterprising authors who write multicultural and interracial books to promote themselves on various sites, regardless of what the majors will do.

  48. Jane
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 16:02:48

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher: I have no idea how Knox is ‘challenging the system from within’ as Horne says. Is she acquiring and editing books that are outside the traditional norms. Is she writing those types of books? Or is she blogging about what anonymous editors say to their authors? I mean, should I take from the fact that both she and Mary AnnRivers are both edited by Sue Grimshaw and (Knox is now edited by Shauna Summers) that these two editors are holding them back from writing what they really want to write?

    I don’t get how she’s working from within and if you say, well, you don’t know the whole story, you’re absolutely right. I have only what she writes publicly to go by.

  49. Willaful
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 16:04:49

    @Robin/Janet: “In many ways, that book feels fresher than many of the contemporaries I’ve read in the past few years. ”

    This is something I’ve been saying for years, particularly as regards to Harlequin Presents from the 80s. I think it’s just starting to turn around again and hope it will continue to do so.

  50. Willaful
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 16:08:30

    P.S. Which of course is exactly why we’re seeing pushback from readers who really prefer their HPs written in a certain way, to certain standards.

  51. Jane
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 16:14:23

    @Willaful: I feel for Harlequin in regards to their category lines, particularly HP. They need desperately to change and modernize. (If Entangled’s Brazen’s dominance over Harlequin’s Blaze is instructional at all). At the same time, they’ve got these millions of direct to consumer customers like the one who left the review for Abby Green who really are not going to like going in the new direction with more modern heroines and different storylines.

    They’ve got to make the change and I commend them for trying. (Remember when Maisey Yates had that mixed race couple and she got all kinds of hate mail?) But it’s going to be painful all the way around.

  52. Anna Richland
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 16:23:54

    This is a fabulous discussion, and even w/only one book out there, I’ve experienced exactly this type of gatekeeping – but that was pre-publication, not from my actual publisher.

    One point, as the discussions seems to focus a lot on editors, is that for most NY or print-pubbed writers, there are usually TWO sets of gatekeepers: agents and editors. They both scrub something off in their turn, bringing every manuscript a little closer to the center of the target they think yields success. I think agents and editors both have a lot to offer and play important roles, but at the same time it’s their business for books to make money, which means yesterday’s proven formula, not tomorrow’s risk, and not actually pushing the envelope.

    The digital world is different – fewer gatekeepers, for instance, and far more willing in my experience to take risks, b/c of the lower costs of putting a book into the digital world, even for a big publisher.

    Personal example : A print editor said the H/h in my book FIRST TO BURN had to kiss much, much sooner, b/c that’s a requirement … but she’s a captain and he’s enlisted, on a deployment, and she would not destroy her career for him like that. No smart woman would. Heck, no TSTL woman would ditch her career for a kiss in this economy, so no, she wasn’t going to make out behind the barracks in the first 25 pages. I couldn’t betray my character that way, but that slow build to the romance scenes, which makes it a huge pop when it does happen later, was fine with e-publishers.

    On the other hand, my epub editor encouraged me to take some risks with the romance (and by the way, I have an impotent hero who conceals his tears, and my male editor NEVER said BOO about that) . I had a huge laugh b/c one sex scene is interrupted by an emo-talk, and we had to decide how to finish it … my editor said that not finishing the sex was a risk, but he thought I could pull it off! He and I both agreed that the emotion was high enough that any further sex at that moment would just feel cheesy. That’s a decision that I think springs from a more flexible definition of the genre found in epubs.

    I’m not saying epubs are the be all and end all. I do think the higher investment a publisher has to make into print makes them risk averse, and epubs have less to worry about and therefore can take bigger risks and have heroines who’ve been raped but aren’t warped, impotent heroes, nonvirgins, etc, but at the same time some of those risks result in torture porn and choices like the social worker condoning drug involvement book from a couple weeks ago.

    There’s a place for everything – I’m not going to expect NY/Print/HQN to be the place for everything – that’s the internet.

  53. Melissa Cutler
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 16:33:14

    @Isabel C.:

    Isabel, I’d like to echo your remarks. I’ve been very lucky with my editors and publishing houses. I have a western romance coming up soon from a NY publisher in which the cowboy hero is Jewish and infertile. And, oh yeah, he cries. And the heroine is ultra-intelligent, has a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and is a chronic liar. I received overwhelming support from my editor because he agreed with me that it’s an excellent story. I imagine that there will be readers who are turned-off by some of the elements of the story, just as others will find it refreshing. It just goes to show that reader likes and dislikes vary wildly. The shorthand that my writer friends and I use to describe readers’ vastly differing opinions of books is this: remember, some people don’t like bacon.

    That all being said, my first release did have issues getting to publication because of the heroine’s “loose morals.” A couple weeks ago, a reader and I were in conversation about a heroine of mine who hooks up with a stranger in chapter one, and who then goes to church in chapter three. The reader found this to be poor form because in her experience with church and people who go to church, this was not acceptable behavior for a Christian woman. The book has been out for a while, but this reader’s comments reminded me of how difficult it was for me as an unpublished writer to find agent representation for this book. Many agents rejected my query for representation because–as they told me–a heroine who slept with a stranger in chapter one would be difficult, in not impossible, to sell to NY publishers. Many agents suggested that I re-write the chapter as only a kiss, but I decided that didn’t ring true to the heroine or the story, even if it meant the book didn’t sell. It was a tough call to make. For what it’s worth, when I did finally get the book in the hands of NY publishers, I got a lot of interest and sold the book with no problem.

  54. Isobel Carr
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 16:49:27

    @Melissa Cutler:

    Remember, some people don’t like bacon.

    We need that on ribbons, or buttons, or sparkly pipe cleaners twisted into tiaras.

  55. Willaful
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 16:49:33

    @Jane: I’m still waiting for that Yates book to make it to the States, as I know a number of others are, as well. :-(

  56. AnAu
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 16:57:55

    @Willaful:

    The Yates book was actually published in the States in December. All the December Presents were packaged with a second, previously unpublished in the US, title–so the book with the interracial couple was packaged with one with a white couple, who naturally was the one shown on the cover.

    http://www.amazon.com/Hunger-Forbidden-Sicilys-Corretti-Dynasty-ebook/dp/B00DPANU8G

  57. Erin Satie
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 16:58:51

    This is just a minor point but–to me, the most interesting thing about Ruthie Knox’s post was the way she drew a contrast between writing a taboo sexual fantasy (incest-adjacent) and got no pushback, while writing a heroine (or a fantasy of the heroine?) who had armpit hair got LOTS of pushback, especially from readers.

    To me, the take home point there–and in a lot of comments–was that if you want to go to the mattress about something, a quirk or a scene or whatnot, that’s doable. While it can be much harder to casually include smaller transgressions, like the armpit hair.

    To me, the point was never, “We can’t get away with anything,” but much closer to, “We have to fight for every little thing”. Maybe ESPECIALLY the little things.

  58. Ruth
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 16:59:24

    This made me feel a little bit crying until I read the comments. I’d hate to think that authors felt their creativity was stifled to such an extent.

    I’m a reader only, so I only have that perspective. What do I like to read? Hmm…

    A HUGE variety!!

    I guess that the most profitable romance readers are those who read a lot of romances, in which case I struggle to believe they all want to read the same thing over and over again. I’m sure that the big sales are generally from the more formulaic romances, but until publishers can see the full suite of what individual readers actually read, then their guessing as much as anyone else. Yes, I’ve read quite a lot of blockbusters, but the complete list of what I’ve read and like is quite diverse, and that’s just me. Think about all the other readers out there!

    There is some truth in knowing from the publisher’s imprint what to expect, but I can’t express the wonderful feeling of surprise when you come across a romance which is different. It sucks you in, makes you think, makes you feel committed to the book and takes you out of your normal life. Bliss.

  59. AnAu
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 17:00:39

    (Oh, and in case the sarcasm in that “naturally” wasn’t clear, rest assured it was intended. Of course Harlequin waited to publish that book with one with a white couple so that couple could be on the cover. Ooooooof course.)

  60. Willaful
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 17:04:00

    @AnAu: Sneaky! Thanks for the info, I’ll spread the word.

  61. hapax
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 17:17:56

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher:

    But you’re not likely to see a story, for example, where the heroine is actively angry, hyper-intelligent, working class, and masturbating—paired with a hero who’s short, slight, sweet, sensitive, also working class, and crying. Make them both POC and you might as well use the paper for kindling.

    No, no, no, don’t burn it, send it to ME — I’d read the hell out of that!

    Well, except for the masturbating. I don’t really care about sex one way or the other in my romance, but if you want to talk about something that is REALLY verboten in today’s romance market, how about a romance without explicit sex (or, just for funsies, no sex at all, with virgin hero and heroine who don’t consider that a disability to be cured a s quickly as possible) that is NOT an inspie? How about “sweet” paranormals or m/m (or paranormal m/m)?

    I like a well-written sex scene okay, but I really read romances to enjoy characters sharing and joining minds and hearts and hopes and dreams, not body parts.

  62. AnAu
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 17:25:10

    @Sunita:

    I think it’s interesting that Sunita mentioned that Superromance features poor characters. It may be worth noting that Superromance is both Harlequin’s most realistic line–and also one of the lowest selling. I haven’t seen this mentioned much online, but effective this month, it isn’t being carried in print in stores. The only way to get a print copy is to order one online, and they’re only doing Larger Print versions at that (which at least is better than Kiss, which isn’t going to be in print in the US at all). So that may be another example of how, for better or worse, realism isn’t what a lot of readers want.

  63. Kate Pearce
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 17:26:51

    I’ve written a lot of books and only once have I ever had an editor tell me that she couldn’t connect with my short story because she didn’t like reading about heroine’s who were unfaithful. I ended up self-publishing that one and out of the 20,000 or so people who have picked it up a few have made the same comment, but they are in a minority.

    But out of the 30 or so things I’ve published two things consistently annoy my readers.
    1. that my doctor heroine in Roping the Wind is a bitch because she’s played the game to climb the corporate ladder.
    2. That my poor female male carrier who finds herself stuck on a planet full of intergalactic vikings should not have stayed there and enjoyed ‘SEX’ when she had a child left at home on Earth. Firstly it would’ve been a very short book if she’d lost it and simply screamed until she found a way home and secondly–intergalactic viking orgies, man Fantasy, fun… you know?

    So I do think that readers have certain expectations, and that they seem to be more directed at the female characters than the males. I mean, some of my heroes in the Simply series behave appallingly, but most of them get away with it whereas the women in the series often do not.

    I made a deal with myself when I started writing that I’d always be true to my gritty, honest writing self-especially the sex scenes, so I’ve always written books on the edge of a lot of readers comfort zones. I’ll never be Nora Roberts, I just can’t bring myself to write something ‘safe’. All writers make those choices, and it has to be the right one for you, but with the number of opportunities open to us all today, I simply put the book in the right place for that particular project. I’ve never felt constrained to write to any guidelines, but then I don’t expect everyone to love my books either. And, believe me, they don’t. :)

  64. Rebecca Rogers Maher
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 17:29:43

    @Jane:

    Based on what I’ve observed of Ruthie Knox’s work, she seems to be doing the following:

    1) Writing heroines and heroes with a wider range of gender-atypical feelings and actions than I’m used to seeing.

    2) Working with, showing support for and promoting other authors who are doing interesting/different things in the genre, at Wonkomance and elsewhere.

    3) Writing extensively about her appreciation of alternative stories and celebrating these different approaches publicly.

    Even if she was only policed once by her editor, even if her editor was really nice about it, even if her editor were responding to larger marketing pressures and it wasn’t at all personal, and even if (as I imagine some would argue) Knox is profiting from branding herself as “alternative,” Knox would have the right to protest even minor policing, both privately and publicly. Policing does happen, and we should be talking about it. I respect her contribution to the discussion.

  65. Shiloh Walker
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 17:40:10

    Gonna nose in, but I don’t know if it’s that all publishers who do this.

    I’ve never once been asked to take out a scene where my heroine masturbates–I’ve written those, the most recent, IIRC was WRECKED… she was masturbating in the shower while the hero was downstairs, completely unaware. I wasn’t asked to tone that down. It came out from Berkley.

    Berkley had another book where the hero had just come from a funeral and his twin was crying. Actually, I think both of them were pretty torn up-a friend from the army had just died. My readers were emailing from the get-go asking when I’d write the other twin’s book. He was a fricking mess but readers loved him.

    I’ve written some rough characters–a heroine who was a recovering drug addict, another who could see her bright and shining future as an alcoholic hovering on the horizon. The first book in my upcoming series with St. Martins has a recovering alcoholic as the hero and I say recovering in the way that he stares at a bottle of booze and covets it the way he’d covet a woman.

    These are books with St. Martins, Berkley and Ballantine, they’ve never asked me to dial it back or they never told me I couldn’t write ‘this’ or ‘that’.

    Scratch that-once, it happened, on a submission to Carina. They wanted me to rewrite one area-they felt it would ‘alienate’ readers even though the circumstances were completely viable, completely realistic. I refused. It would have altered the entire tone of the story and changed how I went from there on out. So they passed on it and I gave it to Samhain instead. They didn’t request any changes at all. The story hit home with enough readers that I got emailed over it… quite a bit, but it was because the story moved them. If I’d whitewashed something, I don’t think that would have happened.

    So while I can definitely see where some traditional houses want stories whitewashed and all niced up, I don’t think it’s true for all of them.

    If it was, I wouldn’t be writing heroines with track marks from an drug habit, heroines who end up having to dump wine down the sink because they know if they don’t, they’ll keep drinking themselves into oblivion to dull memories and heroes who have been known to cry.

    @Rebecca,

    Re: your list


    1) Romance heroes and heroines should be white, and they can’t be poor, or stay poor, or readers won’t be able to/want to empathize with them.
    2) Romance heroines should adhere to most standards of traditional femininity. For example, don’t write a heroine who’s too actively angry or forceful, or readers won’t believe she deserves the hero.
    3) Romance heroes must adhere to most standards of traditional masculinity, so for example if they do cry, we have to see a counterbalance, such as alpha dominance or abs you could cut diamonds with, otherwise readers won’t believe he is a “real man”.

    I guess I’ve been lucky but a lot of my characters don’t fit this list. My last RS had a black heroine and a Latino hero. One of the upcoming novellas from St. Martins has a black hero. The first heroine in my FBI psychics was dirt poor, biracial, the one who could see the beauty of her alcoholic future smiling down at her before she flipped it the bird and dumped her booze. The second in that series had a black heroine. All of these are from traditional publishers. My heroine who had a drug habit-she was white, but again, that’s a book from a traditional publisher.

    One thing I don’t write a lot of, in general, are books where the hero and/or heroine are poor and stay poor and I’ll own that fact and state up front: I know what it’s like not have much. I can’t say I lived in poverty, my parents had four kids and they had their hands full just keeping a roof over our heads. The idea of having anything ‘extra’ just didn’t exist.

    Plenty of people around us had it much worse and I saw that every day. I have no desire to revisit any of that, even if it’s just for something as simple to add more meaning to a book. If it fits the story, I go with what the story wants-I always follow the story, but I’m not all that interested in reliving any of that.

    But the chances to tell stories where the characters are outside of the norm are there. I do it quite often and I’ve never had one of my traditional editors say no.

  66. Moriah Jovan
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 17:54:12

    I’ll interrupt my popcorn eating to say only this:

    The books are out there BUT, sadly, they may require some digging. A friend made a comment to me about “mainstream fiction” as a genre, where it went, what it was useful for. It may be that that the stories people want don’t come in the package they’re expected to come in.

  67. Sunita
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 18:06:45

    @AnAu: That’s a good point. I almost added Karen Templeton, who has been writing “ordinary people” stories for years. She’s still writing for what used to be called the SSE line at Silhouette, with the same kinds of characters. But I don’t know if those book are available in print still.

    The Medical line also features non-rich non-fabulous people pretty regularly, but again, not easily available in the US.

    My response was motivated in large part by my resistance to the ideas that (a) there aren’t a variety of characters in category romance (which includes more than Harlequin, of course, as a Twitter buddy pointed out); and (b) that there hasn’t been variety for a while. I loathe alphas w/washboard abs, yet I’ve been finding other romances to read for decades.

  68. Willaful
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 18:31:53

    Based on various comments I’ve seen, here and elsewhere, I’d like to clarify something. Knox’s piece was not intended to be specifically about herself or about her editor or publisher. It was based on conversations she had with writer friends about experiences some — though not all — of them shared.

  69. Robin/Janet
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 18:40:05

    @Kate Pearce: I have no doubt that readers have expectations. Hell, expecting the unexpected is an expectation, too. However, having spent many years responding to letters from various members of the public, I can tell you that the people who generally write those letters are NOT necessarily the majority. They’re people who cared enough — one way or the other — to write that letter. And so while I think it’s tempting for all of us to have our sense of reality shaped by feedback, I’m not sure it’s the most reliable in gauging how readers *as a whole* are reading.

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher: I have gone back and forth in trying to decide if I want to make this comment, and it would undoubtedly be much easier to not say anything, but here goes: when Wonkomance first started, I was excited to see authors connecting to the genre in what struck me as a more intellectually engaged way. It was refreshing and felt like it came from a place of genuine interest, rather than from blatant promo.

    Over the months, though — and perhaps not in any intentional or systematically planned way — there has also been a lot of promo from that group, and I can tell you that it has distanced me from the site and made me very wary. Then Knox wrote that post in which she indicated that she didn’t feel she should have to disclose personal relationships she had with other authors in recommending a book, and that really troubled me, because for me the post skimmed right over the fact that she was even in a position to personally recommend books because of her professional brand. Like all conflict of interest situations, there was a trust issue there, and I didn’t feel like it was acknowledged or valued.

    As Jane said above, there is nothing wrong with writing for money. It’s completely irrational for readers to expect creative altruism from writers of commercial fiction. And I sympathize with authors who are now having to do so much of their own marketing and promotion, and, at the same time, trying to “read” the market. At the same time, though, I’m burned out by it all, and I’ve become cynical in situations that probably don’t deserve it. I know that’s unfair.

    I don’t doubt that Knox and all of the Wonkomance contributors are thoughtful, creatively engaged writers. But all the self and mutual promo has brought me to a place where I can no longer convincingly discern commercial promotion (of self and “friends”) from creative activism. And while I do not in any way think those two things are mutually exclusive, Knox has been pretty forthright in articulating that she doesn’t want to provide the kind of disclosure that would help readers make the distinction. And I respect her honesty in that. But one result is that I’m no longer inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.

  70. P. J. Dean
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 19:36:13

    @wikkidsexycool: Thank you, Wikkidsexycool. Very nicely stated. As a writer of multicultural/IR romance, the irony of Black History month and Valentine’s Day falling in the same month shows how the publishing industry overlooks the opportunity to promote multicultural/IR romance of all kinds beyond the few who’ve cracked the “ceiling.”

  71. JB Hunt
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 19:36:19

    @Jane I’m not sure it’s fair to pigeonhole Knox as writing “the whitest people out there,” which suggests she has no range and only features one type of mainstream character.

    I’ve been impressed with the variety of characters she writes and the variety of settings she’s explored.

    The hero of Roman Holiday is Afro-Cuban-American and grew up in a foster home after his father killed his mother. Cath in About Last Night is pretty edgy, as is the heroine of Roman Holiday.

    Knox’s characters tend to be sexually empowered. Her books often feature working class h/h. She and her characters are interesting, actually.

  72. Jane
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 20:09:16

    @JB Hunt: No, I characterized her as writing about white people and white people issues. There’s lots of authors that write about middle class. Sarah Mayberry, Shannon Stacey, Jaci Burton to name a few. Hell, Nora Roberts is another. There are lots of authors that write about sexually empowered women.

    I’ve read Knox and she’s writing essentially category tropes modernized. And she does it well but she’s not breaking new ground with her stuff. I’d love to see the books she’s acquired for Entangled that contained the elements she says other editors have been suppressing. Where’s the small dicked hero who cries matched up with the cave like vagina woman? I mean, if she really thinks we readers are being held back from getting books we want, then isn’t she, as an editor, in a perfect position to acquire and push them out to us readers?

  73. P. J. Dean
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 20:10:08

    @AnAu: Hate to hog the thread today surely you jest? No wait, I must be kidding. Another disconcerting example of cover politics occurred in ‘The Knights of the Boardroom’ series by Joey W. Hill. A very popular series with a ton of readers, so I don’t know why Penguin blinked. And Penguin did blink big time. Anyway, the third book in the series, “Honor Bound” has an interracial couple who are soldiers who serve in Iraq and in Afghanistan, as the main characters. Their differences are part of the book. I am sure Ms. Hill made the heroine, Dana, African-American for a reason. So what does Penguin do? The cover of the book shows a woman who is WHITE. WTF! I know covers don’t match the story all the time but really this was not a matter of the wrong hair color. It was the wrong ETHNICITY! The power of hate mail must be a bitch.

  74. Jane
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 20:28:55

    @P. J. Dean: Ugh I hated the Knights of the Boardroom series. The second book has awful, awful fetishtic Japanese scenes and its so degrading. The men fondle and play games with a woman while conducting a business meeting. I get red just thinking about that book even though I love other Hill books to death.

  75. P. J. Dean
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 21:32:16

    @Jane: I swear last comment for the night. Yes, the series has a definite ick factor. But that’s how hardcore BDSM strikes me. Don’t want to start the whole rape discussion again but book one or two, whichever, has the rather criminal/creepy scenario of the trussed-up sub/heroine being “calmed and tamed” by the heroes’ dom friends before the dom hero attacks her. And let’s not forget he does it for her own “good” because he “loves” her and she really doesn’t know what she wants. Goodness me. Bless us all. G’night.

  76. Elyssa Patrick
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 21:33:17

    I was annoyed by the RK blog, honestly. And I rarely trust her for recommendations because of the non-disclosure. It’s not hard to say I’m recommending this book but she’s a friend and I beta read this or whatever.

    Sometimes it can be nerve-wracking to write what you, as an author, think is outside reader conventions. I’ve second guessed myself more times I can count. I mean, when I was writing One Hit Wonder, I really did not think it would go over well with the flamboyant hero who had no issues he was a one hit wonder. Same thing with While It Was Snowing. I worried incessantly about the role reversal of characters and that there wasn’t any sex scenes in the story. I always worry that I won’t pull it off or readers will think, meh, this is beyond stupid–which they might think anyway.

    I could have policed myself in both instances. I didn’t. And there are a lot of authors who don’t police themselves, either. It’s not like this deserves medals, by any means, for authors to write what they want, and it’s not wrong for authors to write to make money. Listen if I didn’t want to make a living off this, I would just squirrel away my books under the bed and do something else. But I want to write books and make money off of them.

    But basically sometimes what you think won’t do well because it’s not what has “typically sold” in the marketplace does well. And even if it didn’t sell well (it’s not like any of my books have been break out hits) I much rather release something I didn’t censor because I worried about reactions. It’s not like you’re going to please every reader anyway, and there’s never any guarantees that a “hit” will actually be a hit.

    Jane, I actually think her editing gig with Entangled never came about for some reason.

  77. hapax
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 21:51:21

    @Elyssa Patrick:

    I worried incessantly about the role reversal of characters and that there wasn’t any sex scenes in the story

    FWIW, that sentence just made you a sale. :-)

  78. LaurieW
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 22:23:44

    I’ve worked in the industry for many years, and I have to say I disagree totally. There are romance books out there that have every sort of kink, “taboo,” twist, and behavior. The market and what it has to offer is wider and more open now than it has ever been. But the issue is that every house and/or line has a readership, and the rules they live by and edit by and “police” by are the ones established by that readership. They have built a brand, they have built a readership, and that readership expects that when they spend their money on one of the brand’s books, that the rules will be followed. They are NOT happy if they spend their hard-earned money and don’t get what they expect, and they express themselves quite thoroughly in long and sometimes vitriolic emails and letters.

    The disconnect is, in my experience, that many times authors don’t investigate and find out what will be expected of them. Many of these houses and/or lines post their “rules” on their submissions guidelines pages, and their contracts have clauses that require the author to edit their work to the house’s guidelines. If they signed that contract knowing that would be required and then balked, whose fault is it? It is the editor’s job to ensure the manuscript is edited to fit the house’s style and requirements, and it’s the author’s job to do the work. If they don’t want to do that, they should not submit to that house and sign that contract. It seems pretty straight forward to me.

    Every single house has a type of book and a style of editing, things they will include in their stories and things they edit out. That’s why the readership for each house is different–readers follow the house or line that sells the type of book they want to read. I can guarantee you that the readers investigate and try a few books from a house to figure out if they like it, if their wants and needs as a reader will be met by that house or line’s books. And yet some authors will send their manuscripts to every single house accepting submissions without reading one book from that house or doing any kind of research. Some of them even assume that if the house likes their book enough, they won’t be required to follow the rules. I think authors need to do their homework and find out if there are issues the house or line does not want included, scenes or events the author will be expected to remove, and a style they will be expected to conform to BEFORE they submit their work or sign that contract. To agree and then complain doesn’t seem very fair to me. If you don’t like being made to edit your book, publish it yourself or find a house that will welcome it as it is.

  79. leftcoaster
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 23:48:28

    Ok, I left alone the requirement for a gender based double standard when it comes to sexual activity, but I can’t stay away from the comment box when we talk about People Who Are Not White.

    It’s a side track, but I can’t resist. Arguing that someone is diverse because they write about a lot of different kinds of white people and one guy who isn’t (but his father is a violent murdering criminal) makes me laugh a little. And want to go hang out at the toast or assign reading Ta-Nehisi’s blog. It reminds me of the response my (not white) spouse said when someone said the west coast town we lived in was “very diverse”. The reply? “Yes, you can find any kind of white guy here you can imagine”. Heh.

    I will say that my thirst for books that reflect something a little closer to my life and the people in it is why I hang out here. I really appreciate the effort that goes into pointing readers to books that might not be the easiest to find.

  80. Julie
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 00:04:22

    I must say that I really enjoyed Ruthie Knox’s first couple of books. In fact, Cath was a rather non-traditional heroine in About Last Night. So what is she talking about? She is being dishonest with her readers and herself. Clearly, she has been writing to the so called “rules we create”and for money. Why else has she thrown herself into the more lucrative new adult category. She has also recently gone from recommending delightful and unusual books in her Wednesday blog (Simple Jess, anyone?) to promoting her friends. I agree with Ellyssa Patrick that their needs to be more disclosure. I no longer go to her blog for recs.

    I want to point out that one of the best and most unusual books of 2013 IMHO was The Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee Smith. And it had a respectable following. You’ve got your angry, overweight, sexually assaulted, unlikable heroine, a romance with a religious lizard man, extreme violence, rape… Clearly writing what you want can be done, but it does take courage…and a little less whining.

  81. Abby Green
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 01:36:46

    @Willaful: “I should stress that I don’t actually know what went on behind the scenes with the particular book, and my theory that some form of “policing” happened is only based on my extensive reading of the Harlequin Presents line. ”
    Interesting discussion guys, thanks! Willaful, for what it’s worth there was no policing in my book at all. I simply decided at that point in writing that manuscript that the heroine should have had some other sexual experience – to even out the odds/make it more realistic?! And I got absolutely no notes from my Ed about it to say yay or nay during the revision process.
    Also FWIW it’s worth Heidi Rice has written an impotent hero in a Harlequin series book in Surf, Sea and a Sexy Stranger (admittedly he doesn’t stay impotent for long ;)).

  82. PeggyL
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 02:25:46

    As usual, late to the party. But I got the chance to read your insights on romance publishing.

    I am a “simple” reader: First and foremost, the story has to grab me–that’s why I read reviews. Next is the author’s craft, my reading experience is that some authors can create magic out of a told-to-the-death storyline.

    That’s all. See? Really simple.

  83. Willaful
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 02:50:26

    @Abby Green: Well, that is very cool that you were able to follow your own inspiration, even if the backlash is not so great.

  84. Rebecca Rogers Maher
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 05:51:14

    The final thing I want to say here is that there’s a difference between trends and individual books. Every time an individual book is published that challenges oppressive gender, racial, class or sexuality norms, I truly feel so happy and hopeful. If that book then does well commercially, I am over the moon, because it widens the space for more books of its kind, and things change. This has happened in the past, it’s happening now, it will continue to happen, and I am so, so glad.

    The fact that individual books provide these challenges is great, but that doesn’t negate the argument that there are disturbing overall statistical trends in romance that need examination. I have read thousands and thousands of romance novels, and studied the bestseller lists with interest. These trends do exist.

    Not every author or publishing house is required to challenge these trends. And few authors are going to challenge every trend at once. An individual book might offer a POC character but stick closely to gender and class norms, or offer a white character but present challenging gender norms. Yes, I usually prefer books that challenge more than one social category, and of these categories, race and class are the least examined in romance, but I respect books that offer any sort of alternative representation of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. This is not only how our genre changes, but how the larger culture changes as well – by opening up to different voices.

    We may disagree about what changes we want to see or how to go about making them happen, but I think many of us are saying the same thing. We want a wider spectrum of backgrounds and experiences represented in our genre. I hope we can continue to listen to each other about what we see as limiting this spectrum, and keep talking respectfully about ways to expand it.

  85. Jill Sorenson
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 08:43:13

    I really enjoyed Ruthie’s post and viewed it as rallying, rather than whining. Obviously she’s doing some interesting, provocative things. Her post (along with Willaful’s thoughtful commentary) has sparked the liveliest discussion I’ve seen here in a long time. Maybe since AJH/Alexis Hall’s review of Suddenly You.

    Incidentally, that author has moved on…to Wonkomance.

  86. wikkidsexycool
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 09:01:24

    @Rebecca,

    Thanks for that very eloquent statement. I’ve listed your site in my blog links. Yours and PJ’s.

    This post and the subsequent comments has been quite enlightening. In answer to Willaful’s question “What Do Readers Want?”

    I can truthfully say I really don’t know. I only know that as a reader, I buy a variety of books, from non-fiction to comic books, from ebooks to hard copies. As a newbie writer, I realize I’ve chosen a “niche” genre, however I have the hope that it can grow, and so to that end I’m doing what I can to promote it. What those who write in niche genres sometimes lack, is the system of bloggers, reviewers, and in general a wealth of sites already out there to help promote. However, I’m optimistic after discovering sites like Dear Author, Romance Novels in Color, founded by writer Delaney Diamond, the site that Ridley’s a part of called Love in the Margins, to name but a few. There has to be a network established, just like many have done in m/m and f/f romance.

    What do readers want?

    I don’t know. I just hope I can put out a book and work to get it before enough eyes, so it will be what that particular reader wanted.

  87. Ridley
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 09:51:52

    @wikkidsexycool: Delaney Diamond runs RNIC? I didn’t know that.

  88. P. J. Dean
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 09:54:47

    @wikkidsexycool: Thank you, I’ll be adding yours to mine. Plus your last comment encompasses all that plagues books of varied types that are not on many readers’ radar.

  89. Liz Talley
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 10:23:52

    Disclaimer: I didn’t read all the comments and I’m very late…but I love this subject enough to join in)

    Just wanted to thank you for discussing what readers want in terms of realistic characters. I’m a Harlequin author (Superromance to be exact) and I’ve been very pleased with the liberties my editor has allowed me (and other Superromance writers like Sarah Mayberry and Stephanie Doyle) to take in portraying characters as real people. I have impotency at the beginning of one book and my August book begins with the line “Shelby Mackey had experienced a lot of bad sex in her lifetime, but she’d never made a man cry.” Yeah, the hero cries after sex with her. And some of my books have mixed race heroes and heroines. Never once did my editor shirk away and I’m so, so very thankful she didn’t.

    Many traditional readers don’t like my books…and there are some non-traditional readers who don’t like them either. That’s cool. Perhaps some don’t like the reality I present of life in Louisiana. I think if a writer writes Southern books, he or she must deal at some point with race, poverty and religion. I like that particular realism in my books even if it bothers other people. Fine with me if you don’t like the subject matter, but at least it makes you think about what you believe (even if you believe I’m wrong). I have to write honestly from my point of view, even if it clashes with someone else’s. So I agree with Elyssa Patrick in that I’m not chasing a hit, I’m chasing a story. (Harlequin categories are rarely “hits” anyway)

    I understand some readers wanting to cling to what they know. And that’s cool. But I love readers who embrace non-traditional subject matter in a book and who boost authors’ pushing boundaries.

    So thanks for an interesting post…and I’ll go back and read all the comments when a deadline is not bearing down on me.

  90. JB Hunt
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 10:47:10

    @Jane and @leftcoaster

    I’m not arguing that Knox is a multicultural trailblazer or busting stereotypes and tropes right and left (would be wonderful if she were), but I just thought that the “whitest people out there” comment was unwarranted and misleading.

  91. Dhympna
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 11:23:47

    @JB Hunt:

    I dunno how that can be “misleading” or “unwarranted”–if the characters are white, then they may very well be the “whitest people out there” to someone else, especially given the thrust of this post and the dearth of multiculturalism and colours in romance.

    Heck, I am white and may be the whitest person someone else will ever meet.

  92. Lynn Rae
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 19:36:25

    Chiming in late, but I’ve really enjoyed reading this and all the comments. I’d read the Ruthie Knox post earlier (and commented) but didn’t speak of my experience with editors ‘policing’ my work. In my first book, the house/editor didn’t object to or try to modify my characterizations or push to make the characters more ‘likeable’.
    In my second book, I had a bit of a conflict with my editor over one scene because she felt my heroine lost her temper too quickly and acted in an unappealing way. We worked through it and I didn’t feel the finished product was compromised at all. I still have the original scene to read whenever I want.
    With my next two books under contract to a larger publishing house, I had to decide if I wanted to ‘heat up’ my books to fall under their erotica line, or tone them down for the ‘sweeter’ side. The decision was completely up to me and I never felt pressured either way. I might earn less money because I chose sweet, but it was the right decision for my characters and therefore for me.
    I’ve written about garbage collectors, people who feel trapped in their jobs, people who worry about how much money is left in their checking accounts, people who think they’re boring, and people who burst into tears because they are overcome by emotion. In other words, people like me. I want people like me to get their HEAs too and I’ve been able to find publishers willing to put my stuff out there.

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