One thing I heard out of RWA 2008 was the difficulty in selling the big straight contemporary. What I hear from alot of authors is that it is hard to sell a contemporary without a hook, like suspense or paranormal. What I heard from readers is that they can’t find enough good straight contemps (without hooks like suspense and paranormal). I have loved the contemporaries that I have read recently such as Susan Mallery and Kristan Higgins. Lisa Kleypas’ contemporaries for St. Martin’s Press seem to be successful (both made the New York Times). Deirdre Martin who writes the hockey books for Berkley and Rachel Gibson who writes for Avon also have had good success, if not the NYT List, they both have made the USA Today list.
Jennifer Crusie is an iconic name in romance fiction as well, hitting the New York Times with Bet Me. One of the most popular romance authors of modern time is Susan Elizabeth Philips. There appears to be a disconnect between what the readers want and what authors are telling me is not selling.
The above mentioned successful contemporary authors have a wide range of themes/feels to them. For example, SEP and Lisa Kleypas are more angst driven. Jennifer Crusie, Kristan Higgins, and Susan Mallery are more family-centric, but not very morose with nice levels of emotion and humor. Deirdre Martin writes the most women-y fiction of the two and Rachel Gibson perhaps relies more on humor than any of the other authors.
There are also the popular such as Susan Wiggs, Jodi Thomas, Debbie Macomber, and Sherryl Woods who write a different sort of contemporary women’s fiction. One editor described them as light women’s fiction or gentle fiction.
I asked three New York editors of popular contemporary authors what they were looking for and what they are seeing and what they are rejecting. To protect the innocent, I’ve kept the answerers anonymous.
Editor 1: It’s definitely I’ll know it when I see it sort of thing, but I think there’s room amidst all of these authors for a contemporary romance writer to find her own place. I personally would like to see more realism, though a great high concept never hurts. Ultimately I think the thing that makes a contemporary romance satisfying (well, any romance, but particularly contemporary since it is set in the world we know and live) is the characters-‘layered characters, lots of emotion (and that doesn’t necessarily mean angsty), and fully developed relationships amongst the other characters besides the romantic relationship-‘siblings, parents, kids, friends, etc.
Editor 2: I can only speak for myself, but I always feel that I’m simply reacting to the material that’s sent to me. If the manuscript is wonderful and intelligent and entertaining or touching in some way, then I will do my best to find a smart way to publish it-‘which means finding some way to make it distinctive, so that it has a shot. I don’t really see myself as directing things the way your email sort of suggests-‘looking for manuscripts that are more grounded or high concept or realistic, etc. I always feel the ideas begin with the authors, and my job is to recognize what’s already there-then maybe shape it or bring it out more and serve it up to best advantage. In many cases, my authors have simply written from their hearts, and don’t even realize what’s special about what they’ve done until I describe it to them. But all I’m doing is reflecting back to them what’s already there.
Editor 3: It’s pretty subjective; more of a matter of taste than one big thing that we’re all clamoring for. I myself gravitate toward the down to earth, the realistic. But a solid, singular narrative voice could render me sold on a book I may not otherwise consider for my list. I’m looking to be blown away by fresh, well-executed ideas. I’ll always have a soft spot for good, old fashioned romantic comedy. Of course, a fresh premise and unforgettable characters are a must. The types of books that are being rejected are ones lacking originality or inspiration.
From chatting with a couple of editors, they are definitely open to publishing more contemporaries but they are having trouble finding manuscripts that appeal to them. On the retail end, it seems that readers aren’t buying enough contemporaries to encourage editors to take more chances. There is an abundance of paranormals and a decent number of romantic suspense books but there are few straight contemporaries.
Is it because contemporaries have a greater sense of realism even if the hero is a billionaire that it is too hard to be swept away? Is the thirst for contemporaries adequately filled by Harlequin and Silhouette categories? Is it because the books feature primarily working woman as heroines and they are less appealing? Are older readers more likely to buy contemporaries than younger readers?
If you read contemporaries, what are you looking for? What would make you pick up a contemporary? Is there a certain look on a cover that signals “contemporary”? If you don’t read contemporaries, why not? What would make you read one? If you are a writer of contemporaries, what insights do you have? (feel free to comment anonymously if you like).