— Historic Newspapers (@HistoricPapers) December 5, 2012
Romance publishers, especially those based in the US, often seem to lag behind in recognizing how culturally diverse and international their readership is. Harlequin/Mills & Boon is neither US-based nor unaware of its global reach, but their book lists are still overwhelmingly tilted toward white characters, and the majority of their non-white heroes and heroines are either fantasy types like sheikhs and princes or located in separate lines like Kimani. But last year M&B put its money where its mouth was and released the first book in an Indian line, written by an Indian author, and this year they released a second. Unfortunately, the books are only available in print versions and through Indian vendors, which makes it much harder for the rest of us to read them. Then this November, Harlequin released an Indian-set book by an Indian author in its Harlequin Romance line: Monsoon Wedding Fever by Shoma Narayanan (if you missed it, Jayne’s terrific review is here).
I happened to be in India last year during the month that the first Indian M&B book, The Love Asana by Milan Vohra, was released, so I picked it up and read it immediately. This year I ordered the second book, His Monsoon Bride, by Aastha Atray, directly from M&B India and had it sent to a cousin in Mumbai. She passed it on to another cousin who was visiting her, and eventually it wound up in my hands. And of course I bought and read Narayanan’s book.
All three books suffer from the kinds of problems that frequently plague new authors. The characterizations rely a bit heavily on standard romance tropes, and the conflicts keeping the heroes and heroines apart are a bit formulaic as well. But these are the types of flaws that can be overcome, and I can easily imagine future books improving as authors figure out how to showcase their unique imaginations within the category framework.
On the plus side, the Indian-written HMBs have a much stronger sense of place. The character relationships, the family backgrounds, and the context reflect the India that Indians know, rather than depicting the exotic India that you tend to find in Indian-set novels written by non-Indians. In Narayanan’s book, the workplace, the wedding scenes, and the interactions among the older and younger family members felt spot on. In the Indian M&Bs, there were a number of scenes where I could visualize what was going on and where. It’s the kind of thoughtful, rich context I appreciate so much in many of my favorite romances set in the US or the UK, but which I almost never get in books set in India.
But there is a tension in these three books between genre expectations and demands and the Indian culture depicted here. One that stands out to me is the frequent tendency for romance heroines and/or heroes to be loners. In order to focus on the relationship, authors often write main characters who are orphaned, or estranged from their families, or in some other way separated from a supportive kin network. This can strain credulity in a western-set contemporary romance, but it seems even odder in an Indian one. In The Love Asana, the heroine has almost no family around her, and in His Monsoon Bride the heroine is an only child with a widowed father. Monsoon Wedding Fever‘s heroine is part of a happy and supportive family, but the hero has sworn off love because of his parents’ unhappy marriage.
I found the first scenario the most plausible. There are certainly some small families in India, especially today, and it is certainly possible that one’s parents were estranged or otherwise lost touch with their siblings, cousins, etc. The widowed (very wealthy) father worked less well for me, because while it’s possible, it’s not common. Men, especially wealthy professional men, need the institutions of marriage as much as women do (in terms of fulfilling their social and religious obligations). The scenario propelled the plot, but it momentarily took me out of the reading experience, because I was trying to come up with a substantive reason for him not to remarry.
The third scenario was the one I had the most trouble with. Marriages go bad, and children get hurt. But one of the positive aspects of Indian extended family life is that children see more than just their parents’ marriage; they see those of their grandparents, uncles and aunts, elder cousins, friends, and neighbors. Until very recently, nuclear family living arrangements were the exception, not the norm, even for middle- and upper-class urbanites. So you might, as a child, be scarred by something in your nuclear family, but there’s a good chance that you’ll gain support and a different perspective on an issue by watching how other adults you love approach it. In my own family, there were awful and wonderful parents, and awful and wonderful marriages, and they were all people I was related to and being raised by. My parents were the most important people in my life, but they weren’t the only very important people.
So the grounds for the hero’s rejection of marriage felt quite western to me. The author emphasized his time abroad, but it didn’t persuade me because his attitudes toward marriage were established well before that. He was willing to make an arranged marriage, but not a love marriage. This choice could have been explored in interesting ways, but instead we just had the standard “I’ll never fall in love” trope, which has mostly run its course in mainstream romance, thankfully.
I’d love to see a marriage of convenience plot set with a contemporary Indian twist. There are still plenty of men and women who voluntarily find spouses that way, and MOC is a popular trope among readers. Would you be willing to read a modern MOC using an arranged marriage scenario? Would it have to be transformed into grand passion, or could it be a quieter type of falling in love?
The final tension that seems obvious to me at the moment is the sexual one, or the lack thereof. These three books, as well as one Jayne and I reviewed jointly a few months ago, are fairly low on the heat meter. The HMB books have sex scenes, but they’re much less explicit than you find in many other category romances, including some of the “sweet” ones.
I’ve noticed that there are quite a few romance readers online who make it clear that don’t want to read “tame” books, or books that stop at the bedroom door. While I’m only talking about four books here, I wouldn’t be surprised if the HMB authors continue to write low-heat romances. There is absolutely a market for steamy fiction, but I don’t know how easy it is for Indian women writers to write that type of commercial fiction, or for Indian women readers to openly read it. So is the tradeoff worth it for non-Indian readers?
These books give me hope that as authors from other parts of the world get the opportunity to write and publish romance, we’ll have the greater variety and richness that we as readers are always seeking. This is how you get true diversity: when the people whose stories are being told are well represented among the ones who are doing the telling. And the more we acknowledge that our “exotic” settings are someone else’s normal, the more that every author who wants to will be able to write about a wider range of characters and settings. Love and romance are universal, but the context in which individuals can seek romance varies. The new authors at HMB and elsewhere help us to see that variety.
I believe, though, that we may have to make some adjustments about what we consider the “standard” romantic storylines. I think many of us would welcome more stories set in an extended family context (think of the series possibilities!), but at least for a while, reading other-culture romances means accepting some aspects of other cultures that aren’t part of our usual genre expectations.
My starter list of what I’d like to see: sympathetic treatments of arranged marriages. And unsympathetic ones, i.e., where the women are trying to avoid arranged marriages with people they don’t like and find the heroes on the way. Daughter-in-law stories, with conflict not between the hero and heroine but between the heroine and the family. Scientist and engineer and doctor women (there are plenty in India).
How about you? What’s on your wish list?
Escape Publishing is the digital first imprint from Harlequin Australia. They are current touring the romance blogosphere. Escape currently has five books available for purchase and are open for submissions. Escape Publishing offered me the opportunity to ask a few questions, which I did. The following are Ms. Cuthbert’s answers.
1) What will Escape Publishing offer readers different from Riva or the new Harlequin Kiss line?
Escape is doing two things that are a bit different: first, we’re really focusing on Australian authors, voices, settings, and stories. That’s not to say that we’re not open to international submissions – we are – but our main goal is to bring the Aussies to the world.
Second, being digital-first, we’re offering a broad scope. We publish anything from 5000 to 250 000 words, any genre, subgenre, crossgenre, or new genre, as long as it’s romance, and we’re actively seeking stories that haven’t been able to find a home in print: that is, riskier titles, niche titles, experimental titles.
2) Will the books be available worldwide simultaneously. If not, what are the anticipated release date differences?
Absolutely – we’re available globally from all the major e-retailers, as well as most smaller e-book sellers.
3) Where will readers be able to purchase the books?
Oops! Well see above, but readers can also buy them directly from our website: www.escapepublishing.com.au (that’s also a great place to find out about more about our titles, our authors, and our publishing model)
4) Is there a similarity in tone or sexuality or time period for the Escape line?
Not at all – we run the gamut. One of my personal goals for the line is to publish what readers want – and that means variety across the board, in story, voice, tone, sexuality, and length.
5) For authors, what are the royalty rates? Why Escape versus the other digital first imprints available?
Our royalties are among the highest in the industry: 50% for sales off the website, 40% for sales from third party retailers. But that’s almost a secondary consideration. Why Escape? Well, we’ve got a small, dedicated team – which makes us flexible. We’ve got incredibly quick turnarounds – at the moment we’re averaging just over two weeks for initial response, and just over three months from acceptance to publication. And we’ve got the experience – the Harlequin team at our back, with their history, their marketing, their understanding of romance.
6) Who is your target audience?
If I say readers, I sound deliberately vague, and that’s not what I’m trying to do. But it’s the true answer. More specifically, readers who love the genre, but haven’t necessarily always been able to find what they’re looking for. Readers who want something a little different, or even just a little variety. Readers who are interested in Australia and Australian voices!
7) Will these be romances or a range of different books and stories? If so, how will the romance reader know which books will deliver the emotionally satisfying conclusion?
All our books are romances – it’s the only restriction we’re putting on submissions. So they all focus on a romantic relationship, and they all have emotionally uplifting endings. I know – I’m doing all the reading, and I refuse to accept anything else :)
8) Will there be DRM on the books?
No – all our books are published without DRM or geographic restrictions.
9) What is the release schedule for books. (I.e., what day of the month and how many).
We’re aiming for a first of the month release every month. As to the number – we’re going to keep this fluid and release the titles we have ready to go. At the moment we’re looking at around 6 a month.
10) What are the lengths of the books.
Everything from 5000 words to 250 000 words.
If readers have any other questions, let me know and I’ll pass them on.
Edited to add: I stayed up all night reading “Grease Monkey Jive” which I bought for a whole 99c. It was a great, long romance that actually shows two people falling in love. Might be the best 99c book I read this year. For the U.S. readers, all the Escape books are currently priced at 99c. The Australian price if $4.99. This is a lot of bang for the buck.
Maybe not exactly Lois Lane, but each book in today’s DA³ Interview features a heroine who works at a newspaper. Here, in order by chronological setting, are the books:
In Seducing Mr. Knightly, Maya Rodale concludes the Regency-set Writing Girls series with Annabelle, the shy advice columnist who asks her readers’ help in attracting the attention of the man she loves from not-so-afar—he’s the paper’s owner.
Editorial wars fan the flames of the social and political unrest of 1850’s Louisville in Ann Gabhart’s Words Spoken True. Adriane writes for her father’s newspaper, but the arrival of a Northern editor challenges her beliefs.
Finally, back to Britain and the present day for Liz Fielding’s The Last Woman He’d Ever Date. Claire is the gossip columnist for a village paper, which is far from the prestigious journalistic career she had in mind for herself pre-unplanned pregnancy. One great story on the self-made millionaire in town could turn things around, though.
Instead of the usual six-word memoir, let’s stick with the newspaper theme: A headline for your protagonist:
Maya Rodale: Lovelorn Writing Girl Attempts Audacious Schemes To Seduce Rogue
Ann Gabhart: Editor’s Daughter Defies Conventions by Writing News Stories
Liz Fielding: Single Mother Struggling To Keep Job
How your heroine came to journalism:
Maya Rodale: Annabelle entered a contest in The London Weekly, never imagining that she’d win the position of advice columnist (“Dear Annabelle”) and become one of the four scandalous and celebrated Writing Girls.
Ann Gabhart: Adriane was born to it, a newspaperman’s daughter. She grew up in the newspaper offices of her father and learned about getting out the news.
Liz Fielding: Claire Thackeray should have been a high-flying journalist. Instead she fell in love with the wrong guy, had a baby and is now writing up the women’s interest and gossip on a small town newspaper.
What readers will love about your hero:
Maya Rodale: Besides being devastatingly handsome, wealthy, and powerful… He’s a man that gives women a chance to be something more that what society allows. While he is fiercely focused on his work at the newspaper, Annabelle recognizes “the intensity with which he might love and make love to a woman—her—if only he would.” She’s right. Oh, so right.
Ann Gabhart: Blake Garrett reports the news as it happens. He fights for what he believes and refuses to be intimidated. He works and loves with his whole being.
Liz Fielding: He’s a man hell-bent on revenge, but right from the start we see his vulnerability, and a well-developed conscience when he bathes Claire’s wounded foot.
The setting for the first kiss:
Maya Rodale: In the drawing room…
Ann Gabhart: In a carriage…
Liz Fielding: In a muddy ditch…
A scene you vividly remember writing:
Maya Rodale: I had spent years writing the first chapter in my head and I knew exactly what I wanted it to be. Finally sitting down to write it—in bed, on a crisp autumn day—was such a pleasure. (Take a look at chapter one!).
Ann Gabhart: The election riot scene where Blake and Adriane see the mob burning the Irish tenement houses. The history is intense and so are the characters’ reactions to what is happening and to each other.
Liz Fielding: Hal invites Claire to be his date at a charity auction. Until now, although he hasn’t been able to stay away from her, he has been planning to make her pay for what her father did to him as a boy and every scene between them is underpinned with threat. At the auction, he realises that he’s been fooling himself, that what he wants is Claire Thackeray, in his bed, in his life. On the surface the scene is all about sex, but the subtext is all about letting go of the past.
For me, the heart of a good tale of journalism lies in the ethical dilemmas. Tell us about one your heroine faces.
Maya Rodale: Annabelle receives a letter requesting advice from her rival for the hero’s affections. She’s torn between doing her job well—and thus giving advice that would thwart her own goals—or putting herself first for once. Of course, the first thing she does is stuffs the letter in a book on a high shelf and tries to forget about it. It’s true: even romance heroines are prone to procrastination.
Ann Gabhart: In the 1850s, newspapers were how people got their news. Editors wrote fiery editorials intended to incite readers. Adriane knows her father’s editorial rants are escalating the political unrest in the city, but there’s little she can do to influence his opinions. Then she finds out her father owes one of the politicians money and she wonders if her father is reporting what he believes or what he thinks the politician wants him to believe. She wants their news stories to be truth, but at the end of the story, she is confronted with the dilemma of reporting the truth of what has happened and facing social and economic ruin or not reporting the whole story and being in a position to write the news on another day.
Liz Fielding: In order to get back onto the career path she originally envisaged, Claire needs a big story. The arrival of Hal North, the bad-boy made good, is her opportunity. He’s a person of interest but he guards is privacy well. He’s a scalp every editor would pay highly for and she knows where he comes from and all his youthful misdeeds. Then she discovers the truth about his birth and can name her price.
What’s distinctive about the role of the press in the time period of your novel?
Maya Rodale: The Writing Girl novels center around The London Weekly, a fictional but “typical” newspaper from the Regency era that is based largely on actual newspapers from that time period that I read while doing research. Those papers and the society were gossip-tastic–just like our society today. Whether The London Weekly or People Magazine, or calling hours, Twitter, salons, and Facebook, it just seems human to want to know what other people are doing and to connect with them.
Ann Gabhart: The 1850s were a decade of political unrest in America. Not only was the Civil War lurking on the horizon, but also an influx of Irish and German immigrants was settling in cities like Louisville, the setting of Words Spoken True. Some of the established citizens of these cities feared the immigrants would take over the country if they began getting elected to office. That led to election riots like “Bloody Monday” in Louisville where dozens were killed. Some people put part of the blame for the riots on newspaper editors because of how their fiery editorials incited the public.
Newspapers were how people at that time got the news. People also looked to newspapers as a means of entertainment and enjoyed reading about their own social functions and activities. These stories were generally reported in the flowery language of the Victorian age.
Liz Fielding: The present-day obsession with celebrity has led to phone hacking, bin diving journalism. Personal privacy has been lost in the rush to salivate over the latest scandal or ogle Prince Harry’s bum, all in the name of “public interest”. We have become voyeurs of other people’s intimate moments.
How was your heroine’s characterization affected by putting her to work in this particular profession?
Maya Rodale: It was a tricky balance because Annabelle is decidedly not the sort of daring girl who would do something scandalous, like write for a newspaper. And yet one of her defining characteristics is that she extremely generous, kind and helpful to others, even at her own expense. So while she would never author, say, a gossip column, she’s a natural to offer advice to anyone who asks.
Ann Gabhart: Adriane’s character was greatly influenced by her work on the newspaper. She had “ink in her blood,” which meant she could never be truly happy unless she was involved in the business of getting out the news. At this particular time period, the middle of the nineteenth century, such work was not something a lady would do or even be thought capable of doing. So Adriane had to be independent and not concerned with the rules of society.
Liz Fielding: Claire gave up her place at a premier university to have her baby, defying her mother and her teachers who tried to persuade her to have an abortion. She’s probably the smartest reporter on her local paper, but is confined to women’s interest, reviews of the local pantomime, small stuff. Hal’s story gives her a chance to break out, but instead of excitement at the challenge, the reality of exposing someone to the public gaze makes her uncomfortable. Even when she discovers what he is planning, she hesitates to send her story to one of the big tabloid newspapers. And yes, like everyone, I read the gossip columns!
What’s coming up next?
Maya Rodale: In addition to Seducing Mr. Knightly I’ve also published a light-hearted and humerous novella, Three Schemes and a Scandal. I’m also at work on a new series which features a contemporary heroine writing a series of historical romance novels based on her own romantic misadventures.
Ann Gabhart: My inspirational novel, Scent of Lilacs, will be re-issued in March 2013 with a new cover. Then in July, my second Rosey Corner book, Small Town Girl, will be released.
Liz Fielding: I have just finished the first draft of my second “ice cream” book. The first, Tempted By Trouble, was published a couple of years ago and I’ve now written Sorrel’s story. No title as yet.
Your favorite book at age 10:
Maya Rodale: Anne of Green Gables—which is still one of my favorite books.
Ann Gabhart: Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.
Liz Fielding: I read so much as a child and I’m trying to remember what I was reading about that age. What Katy Did Next, maybe. It’s a book I loved. Anne of Green Gables, Pamela Brown’s The Blue Door Theatre, or Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes. They are all still bright in my memory.
Many thanks to Maya, Ann, and Liz. Readers, leave a comment or question for a chance to win one of the featured books.
“She dreamed of digging through ancient ruins–but the only exploring Anna Simmons gets to do is in the expensive houses she cleans in Pearlman, Michigan. When Brandon Landers hires her, she’s unsure whether to be furious or thrilled. He evicted Anna and her ailing mother, but she’s heard rumors of hidden treasure on his land. Treasure Anna decides to find. Not just for herself, but for new employer whose unexpected kindness has softened her heart.
Physically and spiritually wounded in the Great War, Brandon knows not to hope for the impossible–like buried riches or Anna’s love. Is there still time for them to learn that the only treasure they need is a lifetime together?”
Dear Ms. Johnson,
Your Love Inspired Historical books have been on my radar for a while, mainly due to the early 20th century time period you’ve selected to use in them. It’s one I enjoy and thankfully one that is beginning to be seen more often. But “Legacy of Love” is the first I’ve sat down and read. I hate to say it but this is one of those books that I can read and be interested in while reading it but finish with nagging questions and unresolved issues which become more manifest the longer I think about them.
Basically I decided to read the book in spite of the blurb which doesn’t do the actual plot justice and would confuse me if I hadn’t already read the book. Brandon doesn’t actually evict Anna and her mother – that was going to be done by the new owner of their rental home. Brandon has enough honor to make sure the two women have a place to live because it’s his father who sold the house before his death. The why is that Brandon’s younger brother needed to be set up with a trust fund but there are unexplored hints dropped that the new owner would have traded the rental for Brandon’s house. Why? This is never explained.
Anna dreams of exploring ancient ruins but has no concrete plans or steps outlined to achieve them. She just seems to drift with a vague idea that one day she’ll go to college and study. For now she’s cleaning houses and might resort to working in a cannery. I never felt this aspect of her background was fleshed out enough. This plot line isn’t explored enough for me despite Anna’s determination to discover a hidden treasure in Brandon’s house. I guess it’s more that Anna is willing to spend time on the hunt and patiently piece together the clues that might lead to a find rather than that she’s going to head out and be an Egyptologist. I also am not thrilled that by the end of the book, she appears to be willing to totally give up on her dream in order to stay in Pearlman and assist Brandon with his rare books store. She does love the store and books and wants to make it a success but the understanding seems to be that her dream will be let go for his. This just made her dreams seem conveniently disposable and not a deep seated part of who she is.
Brandon’s dream is opening a store to sell rare books and highbrow literature. A noble goal, certainly, but his business plans are as concrete as are Anna’s tenuous dreams of archeology. As with Anna, this comes across as more a character checklist item – pick a job for the hero – rather than something that means a great deal to him. I realize that business models and competition were different 90 years ago but I honestly sat reading these sections of the book and thinking, “Good luck buddy. If you’re still in business next year I’ll be surprised.”
Brandon is good at being (rightfully) frustrated with his feckless, younger brother. Reggie breezes in and out of the story, causing problems then skedaddling. I’m not sure why or if you have plans for another book to wrap his character up or if his fate will fade into the background. As well, there are several young women in town who interact with him and who are also little more than character outlines rather than fully realized people. The book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger or anything – rather these characters are just left dangling and twisting on the wind.
Where I did feel a lot of emotion and intensity from Anna and Brandon was in jumping to conclusions and heaping blame on their own heads. Anna is young, only twenty, so her wild imaginings and leap frogging in logic is more understandable. Brandon’s ultimate decisions have a little more thought behind them but neither of them communicate particularly well before arriving at their (usually wrong) cross purposes. Each of them also has a major incident from the past which haunts them to this day. They both use these to think the worst of themselves at times – Brandon more than Anna – and both have to almost be hit over the head – repeatedly – before beginning to forgive themselves. By the time Brandon whines for the last time that Anna deserves better than he could ever be, I almost agreed with him.
Faith plays a role in them laying down their heavy emotional burdens but I’ll be honest and say that as a reader I almost felt as if I were being bashed with religion in this book. Of course millage will vary per reader and what they feel comfortable with but for me, even in this historical setting and with a hero suffering from post war issues, it’s heaped on with a backhoe.
I’ve had good luck with inspies. I’ve had bad luck with inspies. And sometimes what I get is a mixed bag. I liked this one for the setting used. I felt the religion was laid on with a heavy hand and the conversion of the hero back to faith practically lit with neon. But what I most regret is that the interesting premise of timing it 90 years after the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb and teasing us with a heroine who is said to be interested in archeology ultimately went nowhere and that I’m left with several questions that have – as yet – no answers. C-
Oh, and I wasn’t sure how in 1924 Brandon could refer to Edmund Hillary (born 1919) climbing Mount Everest since it didn’t take place until 1953. Seriously, an editor should have caught this.
Watch the Stunt Double for Roger Moore almost get eaten alive by crocodiles!
But I’m afraid my major takeaway was, once again, that the legal experts applying their antitrust theories to the industry don’t understand what they’re monkeying with or what the consequences will be of what they see as their progressive thinking. Steamrollering those luddite denizens of legacy publishing, who just provoke eye-rolling disdain by suggesting there is anything “special” about the ecosystem they’re part of and are trying to preserve, is just part of a clear-eyed understanding of the transitions caused by technology.
As always, Shatzkin’s insider look at how trad publishing thinks is insightful.