At the Back Fence Issue #197 Alisa Herr
At the Back Fence Issue #197
From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:
March 1, 2005
Congratulations and continued success to all the winners in our ninth annual reader’s poll! It’s hard to believe we’ve been doing this poll for so long, particularly when you consider the relative youth of the Internet. And thanks to all of you who voted – we received nearly 25% more votes this year than last year in our ballot comprised of 25 positive and six negative categories. This is the largest turn-out we’ve ever had, and while tallying the votes took a lot of time, it was extremely interesting to watch the leads change in various categories day by day (or even hour by hour). Equally interesting was my own reaction to watching the tally change. While I haven’t read all the books, at times I cheered when a book or author took the lead simply because it was fun and I got caught up in the excitement.
We’ve conducted this poll in the same fashion since its inception. We do not present a slate of candidates for readers to vote upon nor do we vet nominees in any way. Because we like to be as organic as possible at AAR, we allow readers to speak for themselves. We simply post a ballot form online of the various categories and allow readers to fill them in with their own choices. For the last few years, based on reader request, we’ve provided a list of all books that received DIK status for the year in question.
Since the second year of this poll, we’ve presented interim results – one set during some years and two sets in others. We provided two sets for this year’s poll of 2004 releases. Interim results show the diversity of opinion among our readers, which in turn spurs non-voters into voting action. The second set of interim results this time around featured twice the number (in some cases three times the number) of titles/authors as appeared in the first set, which illustrates to readers that every single vote is important and can make the difference in which title wins. And because we keep these interim results online in perpetuity, they are also a way to celebrate great books that possibly weren’t read by enough people to make it into our winner’s circle.
To see the full listing of awards, click here via jump link and a new window will open in your browser, allowing you to toggle back and forth between this column and the awards themselves.
Because of the maturity of our awards – I’m not sure how many other web-only venues have presented awards for nine years – and how important they’ve become at the site (and off it – we know of a couple of authors who’ve included their wins in book blurbs), starting last year we created actual “cyber” awards for winners to place on their own websites. To the right is our new award, and I think this tanzanite statuette will be a permanent fixture for this award. (Winners, click here for details on installing the award on your site or blog.)
The romance novel landscape definitely changes over time, and the results this year certainly illustrate a sea change from the past few years. Two authors guaranteed to do well (one has earned multiple awards every single year since we began these awards in 1996) don’t show up on our list of either multiple award winners or individual award winners at all (although they did earn at least one honorable mention apiece), and we are starting to see the ascendancy of another author, who first appeared in our winner’s circle with two honorable mentions in 2002, and won in two categories last year. But we’ll get more into that a bit later. First let’s take a look at the multiple award winners for 2004, and then at the individual award winners. And then we’ll get into some real analysis, including a look at the big winners since 1996, and just how things have changed.
The big winner for 2004 is Jennifer Crusie, no stranger to our winner’s circle, with her Contemporary Romance Bet Me. She made a tremendous showing in the first year of our awards, for 1996 releases, winning in one category and earning honorable mention in five others, which is particularly phenomenal given that both her books for that year were series titles. Only one other series title, btw, has ever won outside its own category – four years ago Suzanne Brockmann’s Get Lucky received one honorable mention in addition to winning as Best Series Romance.
Getting back to Crusie…six of her total wins were added for 2004, and of those six, three were stand-alone wins, meaning that the book in second place lagged so far behind Crusie’s that no honorable mentions were given. This is the first year she’s won Best Romance, but the second time she’s won Favorite Funny and Best Contemporary.
The biggest surprise to me was her win the Best Chick Lit/Women’s Fiction category as I thought Bet Me was through and through a Contemporary Romance. On the other hand, it bodes well for Crusie that she won in that category because, as she told us in an interview last year, Bet Me is likely to be her last “classic romance…from now on it’ll be more a marriage of romance with other genres.” This melding of genres is something I’ve noticed more and more lately. Have you?
Crusie was “full blown stunned” about her showing this year, wanted to be sure our readers knew they have “excellent taste,” and said that Bet Me was the only book she’s loved upon finishing it – it usually “takes [her] a year to like a book after it’s done.” She added, “This is just amazing. And as Min would point out, statistically improbable which makes it even better.” I asked her to talk further about this genre melding. While she’ll “always write romance,” Bet Me is the last straight romance she plans to write, the “last book that wouldn’t have another genre mixed in with it, like a mystery or a caper or adventure. Straight romance is very, very, very difficult to write, and I’m a wimp.” Then again, Crusie doesn’t like to define terms. She “just writes the books and lets other people worry about what to call them.”
Crusie had this to say about the three books she’s been writing that are currently in different stages of production:
“One is You Again, which is a romantic suspense without much suspense, a sort of Agatha Christie that I’ve been working on for two years, which means I now have enormous respect for Christie, who made it look so easy. Another one is the Charlotte book which is in the planning stage about an old-fashioned girl who just wants to get married and have kids except that somebody keeps trying to kill her. I have no idea what the title of that will be; right now, it’s the Charlotte book. And the book that’s almost finished and the one I’m very excited about, I’m not supposed to talk about yet, which is making me crazy. I think I can say it’s action/adventure, but after that, I’m supposed to keep my lip buttoned.”
Linda Howard’s Romantic Suspense novel Kiss Me While I Sleep was the second-biggest winner of 2004, with three wins. She was 2003’s biggest winner, with four wins and two honorable mentions. Howard too has a long history in our awards, having won or received mention every single year since their inception. Her grand total to date stands at twelve wins (two being stand-alone wins, both from 2000) and 11 honorable mentions. She’s also received one dishonorable mention, back in 1996, for Purple-est Prose, which is the same year she won honorable mention in the Most Luscious Love Story category twice, for both her 1996 releases.
This is the fifth Romantic Suspense win for Howard, and the second in a row. She’s also won in the Strongest Heroine category three times – and again, two years in a row. It’ll be interesting to see how she does in next year’s poll. Her new book, To Die For, (marketed as romantic suspense but really romantic comedy) earned a great many votes, in several categories – in error too, I might add as it is a 2005 release and therefore eligible in our next poll, not this one. Given its release so early in the year, will she be able to maintain that enthusiasm from readers? All I can say is that it’s my first romance DIK of the year, and I’m usually only good for one or two per year.
Every year when I email winning authors, Linda Howard’s response is one of delightful surprise; given her immense popularity and the length of time she’s been a best-selling author, I am equally delightfully surprised by her reaction. This year is no different:
“Okay, I’m speechless. It’s a good thing I’m writing this instead of trying to talk. . Whenever I’m writing a book it’s as if I’m in a void, with nothing but me and the book and I don’t have a clue if I’m doing anything right or creating the biggest clunker in the universe. Then Laurie e-mailed me that I’d won Best Romantic Suspense, Strongest Heroine, and Best Villain, and just knowing that I’ve done something right in the past gives me hope that I’ll be able to wrestle a coherent tale out of my current tangle of characters. So thank you for the atta-girl. I’ll keep wrestling with this beast, and y’all keep reading.”
With two wins and two honorable mentions, Mary Balogh repeats for 2004 the number of wins and honorable mentions she received for 2003. She did it with only one book in contention though, as opposed to the two romances and one novella she won/placed with for last year. Balogh has this to say about Slightly Dangerous and its showing in our poll: “Slightly Dangerous is such a precious book to me, as is Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle, the hero. I think they are probably my personal favorites among all I have written. It is such wonderful validation to have both recognized so highly by your readers. I am deeply grateful.”
Balogh, who for years was Queen of the Trads, begin publishing only European Historicals back in 1999. While some of her readers followed her, others hung back with more of a wait and see attitude. You can track how she built her readership by looking at results of our poll for those years. In 1997 and 1998 she won for best Regency and received honorable mentions as author Most Glommed, and in 1999 she again received honorable mention for author Most Glommed. Her next appearance in our winner’s circle was in 2002, when she earned three honorable mentions – once again for Most Glommed, but also for Best Romance and Best European Historical. And then in 2003 she won for both Most Glommed and European Historical, and received honorable mentions for Short Story and Best Villain.
Just as Linda Howard has “owned” the Romantic Suspense category over the years, one could easily say Balogh has done the same in the Most Glommed category. She’s “only” won it once, but she’s earned five honorable mentions for Most Glommed, for 1997, 1998, 1999, 2002, and now again for 2004. This is a critical category as it illustrates the depth of a reader’s enjoyment of an author’s writing.
Since 2003 she’s published six books in her Slightly series. The first and third served Balogh well in our awards for 2003, and for 2004 it is Slightly Dangerous that captured the imaginations of our readers. Not only did Slightly Dangerous win as our Best European Historical, it was a stand-alone win . Over the years, then, Balogh has won six awards and received ten honorable mentions. That she continues to draw readers into her older books by virtue of glomming is a testament to her abilities; although I went on a glom-buy of Balogh some years ago, it wasn’t until 2004 that I went on a read-glom of Balogh, ripping through six of her trads very nearly one after another.
Sherrilyn Kenyon (aka Kinley MacGregor) first appeared in our winner’s circle in 2002 with three honorable mentions – two as Kenyon, who writes Alternate Reality Romances, and one as MacGregor, who writes Medieval Romances. In 2003 she won as MacGregor for Best Medieval and as Kenyon for Most Tortured Hero (a tie, actually). Interestingly enough, she also received honorable mention in the Tortured Hero category as MacGregor.
For 2004 both wins and both honorable mentions are for this author writing as Sherrilyn Kenyon. Her Night Play brings her the award for Guiltiest Pleasure Read – a stand-alone win, btw – and honorable mentions in the Alternate Reality and Best Hero categories. Perhaps more telling is that she wins in the Most Glommed category. It’s far too early to say, but the best comparison I can come up with for her ascent over the past few years is Suzanne Brockmann. And her showing this year is even more proof of the growing popularity of AR Romance. Besides Balogh, previous winners in the Most Glommed category have been Mary Jo Putney, J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts, and Suzanne Brockmann.
Laura Kinsale made her much-anticipated return to publishing after a seven-year absence with Shadowheart, sequel to 1993’s For My Lady’s Heart. Although a somewhat controversial book in terms of its S&M-tinged love scenes, Kinsale lovers heaped superlatives all over this book, and for it she wins two awards and receives an honorable mention. Both wins, btw – for Best Medieval and Most Tortured Hero – are stand-alone wins. The honorable mention is as Luscious Love Story, indicating that romance readers can be an adventurous bunch. Kinsale’s earlier appearances in our winner’s circle is limited to 1997’s My Sweet Folly; Kinsale earned both an honorable and dishonorable mention for that year.
Connie Brockway and MaryJanice Davidson each won a single category for 2004 but also earned an honorable mention. Brockway’s win was a stand-alone, and while she has won or received honorable mention for every year of our awards sans 1996 and 2003, Davidson is brand new to them for 2004. Brockway, btw, had her best year with 1997 releases – she had two big ones that year, All Through the Night and As You Desire, which speak to her incredible versatility to handle both dark and light styles. Her total tally to date is five wins and fourteen honorable mentions. Brockway’s win for 2004 is in the Best Cabin/Road category and Davidson’s is for Best Alternate Reality. In Davidson’s mock-dramatic fashion, her comment upon learning of her wins was, “Thank you so much! I was sure I’d get ‘Most Sucky Author’ or ‘Unbelievably Bad Writer’, so this was a pleasant surprise.”
For readers who bemoan the loss of great historical romance authors into other sub-genres and genres, Connie Brockway will soon be joining their ranks. She shared that My Seduction was “absolutely exhausting to stitch into being” and was sure “that every seam was crooked and every patch blindingly obvious.” Brockway thanks all of our readers, appreciates “all the support they’ve shown” her over the years, and hopes to continue “to entertain them for many more to come,” but has no additional historical romances planned – for at least a few years. She’s recently signed a contract with NAL, and adds, “I’m heading off in a new direction. While the contract is open-ended (two novels of fictional work) and I could see myself doing a more detailed historical novel, I’m excited about trying something new. Not suspense. Not chick lit.”
Of the individual winners for 2004, several stand out. First and foremost to those of us “who knew her when,” Marianne Stillings is the stand-alone winner as Best New Author (all winners in this category are listed to the right). When informed of her win as our Best New Author, she wrote, “I’m stunned. Really. And thrilled. Honored. Surprised. Happy. All those things. Wow. I’m still trying to absorb this news. The only thing I know I’m doing is smiling! What a wonderful honor! To the readers, I guess the only thing I’d like to say is: Thank you all very much, and I hope I never, ever let you down.”
Nonnie St. George won for Best Regency two years in a row, and both are as stand-alone wins. Given the small audience for traditional Regencies, it’s hard to say how how her reputation for brilliant romantic comedy will translate into sales in the contemporary arena, but even if she’ll essentially be starting over with an entirely new market, talent will out in the end. I’ll sorely miss her trads but will gladly follow her wherever she plans to go.
After a four year absence from our winner’s circle, Adele Ashworth returns with Duke of Sin, voted our readers’ Most Luscious Love Story of 2004. Adele won two honorable mentions the year she debuted with My Darling Caroline, and then, with 2000’s Wintergarden, won three awards and earned four honorable mentions. She offers her “heartfelt thanks to the varied and vast romance novel readership who loved Duke of Sin,” is “delighted that so many people thought the book worthy of such a wonderful distinction as Most Luscious Love Story,” and considers this distinction “one of the greatest honors I could ever receive for one of my books.”
We included a category for Best American Historical category in the second year of this poll – it is now called Best American/Frontier Historical so that romances set in the frontiers of Canada and even Australia could be considered. Since its inclusion into our poll, Maggie Osborne has won it three times – she earned an honorable mention in the category once as well. I asked Osborne for her thoughts on winning, for her crystal ball predictions about the harder-to-find-each-year single title historical Western, and her plans for the future:
“I’m just thrilled that your readers chose Foxfire Bride as the best American Historical/Frontier Romance of 2004!!
“Fox is the type of heroine I most love to create – a tough, kick-butt woman with an inner vulnerability that can break your heart. While this is my favorite type heroine, I never know if readers will care about her as much as I do. Your readers and this award are a wonderful validation. Please extend my thanks to your readers – I’m happy and grateful! I think there will always be a place for western/frontier romances, but I’m hearing the same as you, that readership has fallen off for the western romances. I believe, though, that a good story, well told, will find an audience so I don’t think the sub-genre will vanish. I certainly hope not!
“I have retired. (It’s still hard to say that r word!) Foxfire Bride is my last book. It’s been 25 years and over 50 books . . . it’s time to go play with my favorite cowboy.”
An author who seems in retirement for now, albeit of the forced kind, is Diane Farr, whose Buried Treasure win for Under a Lucky Star is a stand-alone win. Farr is currently without a writing contract. In response to her second win (the first was for 1999’s traditional Regency Fair Game – she also earned honorable mention for that year as Best New Author), Farr wrote: “I’m thrilled by this win – and touched. And grateful. Many thanks to everyone who voted. There’s nothing like reader support to give a struggling author a shot in the arm.” My theory on just why she is currently without a writing contract is something I’d love to get some feedback on: her Regency-set historicals are, at most, subtle in terms of their sensuality. Nearly all Regency-set historicals feature more overt sensuality, so is it possible that too many readers simply go “huh?” when they read one of her brilliantly written books because they are different and not as expected?
Julia Quinn, known for her light Regency-set Historicals, wins her stand-alone award this year for When He Was Wicked in the Most-Hanky category, somewhat reminiscent of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ 1998 Most-Hanky win for Dream a Little Dream. Quinn found it a “difficult and wrenching book to write,” and while initially the book was “to take place entirely after Francesca’s first husband had died,” she ultimately realized a much stronger story came out of “introducing him and truly show[ing] how devastating his death was for both Michael and Francesca.”
Quinn realized that some of her readers would be disappointed in this, her “first true out-and-out tearjerker” because it was such a departure for her as an author, but “hoped that many others would love it” as much as she did. To keep the necessary “creative spark alive,” she feels she can’t write “the same book over and over again.” Winning in the Most-Hanky category at AAR, “in a category that, a few years ago, no one would have ever pegged [her] for,” is an incredibly important type of validation and she thanks everyone for allowing her this stretch.
Carla Kelly, who seems a sure bet to win any year she is published, even if that publisher is a small university press (as was the case with last year’s For the Ladies), remarked that while “novels are fun to write,” she likes “the challenge of the short story. Maybe it’s akin to writing poetry: trying to say as much as possible in a small space.”
The final individual award winner is Evelyn Vaughn, who won in the Series category comes for A.K.A. Goddess, one of Silhouette’s new Bombshell novels. For those unaware, the Bombshell line is Harlequin/Silhouette’s first non-romance series line.
When asked for comment, Vaughn (aka Yvonne Jocks) said that she’d “never been more excited by an award” than she was by A.K.A. Goddess winning as AAR’s Best Series Novel for 2004. She’s “long valued” her AAR reviews – even “when [her] work left reviewers underwhelmed” – because of the fair and intelligent opinions expressed by our staff. But as much as she values our reviews, she’s not only wowed, but “double wow[ed]” by winning this reader award, because, “when it comes down to it, the writing is all about the readers. [She] may create characters and stories, and may even give them their first breath of life, but it is the readers, and only the readers, who give these ‘fictions’ their true reality.”
I asked Vaughn about winning for a brand new line that isn’t even a romance line at all. She’s all the more honored, she wrote, “that AAR’s reader’s have come together for A.K.A. Goddess, adding that “[she’s] been blessed not once but twice by the creation of a series line that offered to publish what [she] not only hungered to read, but was ready to write (Silhouette Shadows and now Silhouette Bombshell). She’s encouraged that “readers are embracing stories about strong women who make their own reality,” and is quite happy that a book “with its theme that we are empowered by the myths of goddesses is more than encouraging, it’s glorious.” And though the romantic element in Bombshells is secondary to the adventure element, she knew that the romantic subplot would be “compelling and integral to the story,” adding that “the readers of AAR considered this Bombshell romantic enough, and they’re pretty smart people.”
On the idea that series romances have gone downhill in recent years, Vaughn would ask us to consider whether or not “we are glorifying the past by remembering only the really good books that came before” and believes that “good novels still outnumber bad.” She admits that there are bound to be “missteps,” but “there will also be gems…and readers will still occasionally disagree on which is which.”
Some big names are missing from this column so far. They are Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb and Suzanne Brockmann. While throughout the polling process Roberts/Robb was in the running in multiple categories, in the end she earns just one honorary mention and “wins” in one of our negative categories. The (dis)honorable mention in that category, btw, goes to Suzanne Brockmann, who did earn two honorable mentions in positive categories. For both of these authors, who generally win multiple awards year after year, this came as something of a shock, particularly since our review staff remains as keen on these authors as ever.
But perhaps not as much of a shock to me as the book which was voted the Worst Romance of 2004 – my own favorite romance for 2004, Lucy Monroe’s The Real Deal. Just one vote separated it from Rowena Cherry’s Forced Mate, but I can only wonder how I could have loved a book so much that was simply hated by the largest contingent of those voting in this negative category. It is small consolation indeed that Monroe’s book earned a slot in our interim results for nine positive categories.
As for the other negative categories, I noticed a few things right away. First, were the “award” for Most Annoying Lead Character given to a book rather than a character, Daisy’s Back in Town would have tied to “win.” We’ve never had both leads in a single book voted for in this category (although Daisy was apparently quite a bit more annoying than Jackson). As it is, Daisy herself earns (dis)honorable mention. And, Deirdre Martin, who was our readers’ Best New Author for 2003 earns (dis)honorable mention for 2004 in the same category. Finally, for the first time in the history of these awards, we have not only a “tie” for Purple-est Prose, but both books are by the same author. That’s right, Nicole Jordan’s Lord of Seduction and Master of Temptation tied for Purple-est Prose. Given how much she’s cleaned up the purple-tude of her writing in the past couple of years this comes as something of a surprise, but there you have it. Incidentally, she “won” in the same category for 2003 as well.
Rather than dwell on the negative just now, let’s move on. The issue of stand-alones is always a fascinating one, because it illustrates how close the voting was in various categories. A stand-alone win occurs when a book or author receives so many more votes than the book or author in second place that no honorable mention is given.
The greater the percentage of stand-alone wins, the less competition faced by the eventual winner. Years with fewer stand-alone wins signify a tougher race, with a significantly closer vote between winner and honorable mention.
In this poll for 2004 releases, more than 50% of the wins were of the stand-alone variety. Last year there was more competition, although some of the greatest competition occurred, significantly enough, in the two years (2001 and 2002) dominated by Suzanne Brockmann. Although there were many books and authors to win in only one category, 2004 is the least competitive year to date when so measured.
It’s also interesting to see how well our reviewers matched our readers…how many of the winning books earned good grades and/or DIK status. Of the 25 positive categories, more than half earned DIK status (or an equivalent A level grade). The lowest grade earned by any of these category winners was a B-, which was the grade given to only two of these books by our review staff. It’s a different picture, and more of a mixed bag where the negative award winners are concerned, but frankly, some of the voting in the negative categories doesn’t make a lot of sense – they are anomalies, IMHO. For instance, the Most Annoying Character winner was from a book that a great many people thought was pretty good, and some of those who voted for it in a positive category also voted for it in this negative category. And I think there’s some confusion on Most Disappointing and Worst – my assumption in creating two distinct categories was that there are some books keenly anticipated that don’t live up to expectations, but as a general rule these are not the worst of the year, they’re just highly disappointing. Regardless, of the five reviewed books in negative categories, three earned grades in the B range, one earned a C-, and the fifth earned both a B and a D. I guess we’re just lucky I’m not on the review staff, or my DIK status for The Real Deal would really have hurt us here.
As you all know, we at AAR don’t believe it’s possible to talk about the best without also discussing the worst, a widespread practice throughout the media in discussions of movies, books, and music. Let’s continue, then, with the Author You Gave Up On category, which is one of those negative award anomalies mentioned earlier. When I originally envisioned this poll, the idea was to separate out authors a reader once liked or loved but no longer did from those authors beloved by all, it seemed, except the reader being polled. I, for instance, I gave up on Teresa Southwick in 2004. She is not, however, the author I chose as “Author Others Love But I Don’t.” That honor belongs to someone else – an author I’ve never “gotten” or “liked,” whatever term is acceptable to you. I guess it’s a matter of interpretation, because a number of readers vote for the same author in both categories even though most readers don’t go from loving to actively disliking an author in a single year.
(no such category for 1996)
1997 – Danielle Steel
1998 – Danielle Steel
1999 – Nora Roberts
2000 – Nora Roberts
2001 – Nora Roberts
2002 – Brockmann/Roberts tie
2003 – Nora Roberts
2004 – Nora Roberts
The Authors Others Love That You Don’t category, originally created to give voice to readers who feel totally alone in not “getting” a author who earns kudos all around her, in some ways it now seems to be a sort of negative referendum against the popular in general. Based on results of earlier polls at AAR, it’s clear that there are a good number of readers who believe that popular and good can never be synonymous. Given the status of romance in the mainstream, and of romance itself as popular fiction, that’s a rather odd attitude, I think. Another hypothesis is that certain authors “earn” votes in this category as a political statement against those authors perceived by the mainstream to be romance authors but not considered to be such by readers – hence the “win” by Danielle Steel in the early years of this poll.
In either case, my original plan for this category hasn’t quite taken us where I thought it would go. Because this is a yearly poll, I assumed readers would vote differently each year. While I haven’t tallied the votes in previous years, the emailed ballots were sent to me before being forwarded to Shelley. And though we keep all names private and confidential from everyone both in and out of AAR, I snuck a peek and compared ballots sent by a random selection of readers for two or three years, and in many instances an individual reader chose the same author for each year. As you can see above, Nora Roberts is the unfortunate recipient of this dubious distinction most often, although she shared it with Suzanne Brockmann in 2002, and for 2003 and 2004, Brockmann “earned” (dis)honorable mention. Given that these two authors are quite possible the “winningest” authors over the nine years we’ve polled, they probably don’t mind. And yet both these women tend to be a polarizing force…whenever we post a positive review for either of them it is seen by some number of readers as a conspiracy of sorts.
We’re incredibly lucky to have so much history to draw from in preparing the analysis for our annual awards at this point. Last year I created a detailed list of the big winners and for which books they’d earned big. Since we’ve already published that, I’ll summarize here and simply list by author. Most of these authors are multiple winners in the year in question, but I’ve also included each year’s Best New Author. Take some time to peruse this list, and then I think we’re ready to talk specifically about who’s hot…and who’s not.
While many of our awards and honorable mentions go to lead authors, I’ll reiterate: “popular” is not an antonym for “good.” For every author who causes us to go “Huh?” if she sells well, there is another best-selling author who sells well because she writes entertaining romances that appeal to a wide variety of readers. Regardless, most if not all of each year’s big winners have had staying power. Certainly for some it only took a few years for their stars to fade – whatever did happen to Jenny Lykins? – but others have remained strong, or grown even stronger, over time, at least when they have books for which to vote.
What I’m attempting to say is this: our winner’s circle year after year is mostly comprised of authors who are good at their craft and deliver the goods in terms of stories, characters, and relationships. I’m not embarrassed or ashamed that any of them have won, or to believe that the results are anything less than representative. Our readership may not mirror the entire population of romance readers, but I think that by far our choices each year are smart and worthy of the accolades received.
One of the best aspects in doing interim results, and keeping those results online in perpetuity – is that the final results, while depicting a critical snapshot, don’t tell all. For instance, Laura Lee Guhrke makes no final showing in our winner’s circle, but her two books appeared in our interim results five times. And then there’s Susan Elizabeth Phillips, who has had many a trip into our winner’s circle. Her “only” appearances in the final results for 2004 are for two honorable mentions, and yet Ain’t She Sweet? appeared in five different categories in the interim results. Suzanne Brockmann, who earned two honorable mentions and one (dis)honorable mention, shows up in five categories as well in the interim results. Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb shows up nine times and yet has her worst showing ever, with just one honorable mention, and one “win” in a negative category.
And yet it’s doubtful that Brockmann’s star is on the wane; indeed, she received a great many votes for Hot Target, which like Howard’s To Die For, is not eligible until our next poll. And while Eve and Roarke, after more than twenty books, may have lost some luster, it’s pretty amazing when you consider it that Robb’s and Roberts’ characters (Northern Lights‘ Nate struck a particular nerve with readers) showed up on the interim results for Most Tortured Hero, Strongest Heroine, Best Hero, Best Heroine, and Best Couple. These five categories represent all five positive lead character categories, btw.
It’s hard to say what next year will bring. Roberts/Robb may truly have peaked after all these years, but I would not count out any author who’s won roughly two dozen of our awards and received nearly that many honorable mentions over the past nine years – even one who’s won a fair number of negative awards, particularly since her most recent releases have been so well-received – no “phoning it in” here.
It would be difficult to end the analysis here, without mentioning Stephanie Laurens, who has now earned the dubious honor of winning as Author You Gave Up On for the third year in a row, and in each instance she was the stand-alone “winner.” When she first made the move from traditional Regencies into Regency-set historicals, her voice was seen as a breath of fresh air, her love scenes inventive and fun, and her heroes pursuing heroines an eventual trademark loved by readers. But a great many of these same readers eventually found her books interchangeable, her love scenes overly-plentiful, and decided that rather than being fresh, her voice had become boring. Especially interesting about Laurens’ fall from grace is that the previous Gave Up On “winners” had far lengthier publishing histories.
2004 offered a strong variety of great romances, from the comedic to the suspenseful to the sad. Julia Quinn showed us her dark side emotionally, and Laura Kinsale likely introduced many a reader to the darker side of sex. Some great new authors debuted (Marianne Stillings may have blown the competition out of the water, but 2004 also brought us Julie Anne Long, Kathy Love, and Kate Rothwell). Medieval and Frontier Romances, though, continue to be published in fewer numbers, and with the loss of Maggie Osborne, few great authors of Frontier Romance remain. Rising star Nonnie St. George showed us she was not a one-hit wonder. But, unfortunately, even though we know a great buried treasure when we see one, too often buried treasures remain just that – buried. Which is why Diane Farr is currently without a publishing contract. And 2004 continued the type of hybridization we started to see a few years ago, not only with the first non-Romance series line offered by Harlequin, but by the Paranormal and Chick Lit influences that continue to work their way into the best Romance has to offer.
What conclusions do you draw from this year’s poll, and about the results going back to 1996? 2005 already seems to be shaping up as a great year – our reviewers have already awarded DIK status to six romances (and though our “official” review for To Die For is a B+, it’s a DIK for me). What gives an author longevity, and why do certain authors remain buried treasures rather than shining stars? How is the 2005 reading year going for you? I can’t wait to hear from you on our ATBF Message Board, and also to see which books, authors, and characters you loved or didn’t, and your reactions to the various questions and theories posed throughout this column, and to find out which previous winners.
On What She Said (Anne Marble)
One thing that struck me while looking at the results, and at Laurie’s analysis, was that many of the winners were examples of what Laurie calls the hybridization of the genre. Even those books that weren’t truly hybrids had “something extra” besides the romance – call it an “X-factor” or maybe a “McGuffin.” It might be the adventure (as in the Bombshell line), or it might be the paranormal, or a romantic suspense plot, or enhanced sexuality. Let’s look at some of the new imprints and lines that are coming into being. The first official book in Harlequin’s Luna line of Fantasy Fiction, described in Harlequin’s writing guidelines as “female-focused fantasy with vivid characters, rich worlds, strong, sympathetic women and romantic subplots…that enhance the main story but don’t become the focus of the novel,” was published in January 2004 and Tor started its new line of Paranormal Romances in October 2004. And of course, 2004 also saw the birth of Harlequin’s Bombshell line, its first non-romance series line.
I think it’s telling that the first year Bombshells were available, a Bombshell won the award for Best Series Romance Novel. It’s no secret that series romances have been in trouble and that Harlequin has been scurrying to make changes. Many long-time fans have or slowed down on buying series romances or given up altogether. Until recently, I hardly ever did more than browse the series romances haphazardly before giving my attention to the single titles. Then, along came Bombshell, and I got interested again. Apparently, a lot of other readers, including those all important younger ones, feel the same. Does this mean that Harlequin risks losing older fans by going after new, younger readers? Only time will tell, but Laurie shared an anecdote with me about her recent visit to a UBS in a predominantly blue-collar city near Dallas whose customer base is comprised of mostly women past the age of 40. The store’s owner related that she’ll no longer be pre-ordering Bombshells from her distributor as nobody was buying them (she will, though, order them upon request).
These new imprints and lines are symbolic of trends that have been going on for a while – romances with something extra. But what really brought this home to me was that this year, Sherrilyn Kenyon won the title of “most glommed.” This is the first time a paranormal author (she wins solely as Kenyon and not as her pseudonym Kinley MacGregor, who writes Medieval Romance) won that honor. She also won an award for Guiltiest Pleasure as well as two honorable mentions. While she has won (and won big) as MacGregor, this is like her winningest year ever. And she is just one of several paranormal romance authors who are striking a chord with many fans – and a discord with others who don’t really want too much of that X-factor.
These trends are interesting to me that for years we have heard “experts” say that romance readers don’t like to read outside the genre, and yet there are now so many imprints, lines, and trends appealing to both romance readers and non-romance readers. And surprise, surprise (well, not really), romance readers are reading them. Sometimes they are even deliberately seeking them out. Then again, I’ve always thought those experts didn’t know what they were talking about. While I know plenty of romance fans who read romance only, I know many who read outside the genre – and not only my colleagues here at AAR.
Is it a generational thing? It very well might be. When some of the earlier futuristic romances came out, I sought as many as I could. At the same time, I realized that not everybody “got” these books. In a used bookstore, I overheard a reader (who wasn’t that much older than me) complain that she didn’t understand those books. But younger readers had Star Wars and Star Trek “imprinted” upon them. We could “get” the stories because we had been weaned on TV shows and stories with SF trappings. The settings weren’t (pun intended) alien to us. And like me, many of these fans probably watched the first Star Wars movies and wished there had been more of a love story. Other fans may have had crushes on Kirk or Will Ryker. Books like JAK’s Sweet Starfire were a great solution. We could have the Science Fiction (or Fantasy), and we could have our love story, all in the same book. Yet many fans still only want to read about the romance and don’t want to read about vampires or other far-out ideas. They often feel that having something else in the story (whether it’s an “out-there” premise or a romantic suspense subplot) dilutes the romance.
Will some types of stories suffer because of hybridization? We’ve seen some unfortunate changes in many a historical because of suspense or mystery sub-plots. Is there a danger that paranormal sub-plotting will continue to erode the “pure” Romance? A pure romance requires strong relationships, which in turn requires strong characterization and characters of enough interest to hold up an entire novel. That’s a challenge.
But is hybridization a bad thing? Not necessarily. It can be good for the writer, and healthy for the genre. Writers do evolve – particularly successful ones. In the early 1980s, I read How to Write Best-Selling Fiction by Dean R. Koontz. In his book he pegged Elmore Leonard as a potential breakout writer and said that once the right publisher nurtured him, they’d have a hit on their hands. At that time, Elmore Leonard was writing short, acclaimed crime novels such as 52 Pickup, but he was not a best-selling author. Sure enough, years after Koontz’s book came out, Elmore Leonard started writing longer, more complex novels, and he became a best-selling author whose books are now made into movies starring John Travolta. And it’s healthy for a genre to bring in new fans…if SF and Fantasy fans begin to read hybrid romances, how is that a bad thing?
Genres evolve. Sometimes the taboos are broken. Sometimes what used to be okay is no longer allowed. Not everyone likes all the changes. But even when boundary-busting books are accepted and even loved, the “old style” reads can still be found. Look at the variety of books in the mystery genre. Almost since the day Mystery became a recognizable genre, there have been people making “rules” about what mysteries can and cannot be about. In 1928, mystery writer S. S. Van Dine wrote the famous “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” which included rules such as “There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.” Since that time there have been numerous writers to break these rules. They not only “get away with it,” they’ve become incredibly successful in so doing. Yet as with romance, some things remain inconstant. Mystery fans don’t want to pick up a mystery novel and then read thirty chapters where no crime occurs. Just as Romance fans do want a romance, even if they’re buying a romance hybrid such as Undead and Unwed or a Bombshell.
Series and E-books
In the contemporary categories (Contemporary Romance, Romantic Suspense, Chick Lit/Women’s Fiction), both of the big winners (Jennifer Crusie and Linda Howard) got their start in Series Romances. There are also a lot of major authors who got their start in series romance – Nora Roberts and Sandra Brown, of course, as well as everyone from Elizabeth Lowell to Barbara Delinsky. For years, series romance for many authors has been like the college basketball of romance. Some writers start out in series romance and then go on to the NBA – single title releases. Some hit it big, others don’t. Some fans prefer the single titles, others prefer series over the single titles, just as some fans would rather watch college basketball than an NBA game. Laurie, btw, disagrees somewhat with this analogy (she remembers the old days when the NBA and ABA co-existed). She argues that not all series authors aspire to write single title romances, that writing for a series line offers perhaps slightly more security than writing single titles because when retail outlets buy a line, they buy the line instead of picking and choosing from that line, and points out that when Harlequin started its Blaze line – among others – only existing and profitable authors were invited to write for it.
But Laurie, Robin, and I are in agreement that it’s not as easy to break into series romance today as it once was, and that many authors who do find a slot are quite happy to keep it rather than trying to break out as a single title author. Robin reminded me that series editors hire new authors to fill slots that are open in the publishing schedule. They hire authors whom they believe can write a certain kind of category story under certain deadlines and be reliable. In spite of the huge number of series books published, there are not an unlimited number of slots available because known series authors write more than one book a year. Series publishers expect to develop the new authors they have, so they do not want to bring in too many new faces. Robin thinks that the traditional Regency Romance is more likely, if it continues to exist at all as a sub-genre, to be a training ground for single title authors and that their low profitability and limited exposure makes them the ideal training ground.
Now that series titles are evolving, does that mean the new big name authors will come from hip new lines such as Bombshells? And it’s not just Harlequin publishing kick-ass heroines – 2004 saw LoveSpell’s 2176 mini-series, which was built on a pitch by author Susan Grant, who wanted to shepherd a female adventure series.
Also, are e-books becoming for authors what series romances once were? Are e-books the new college basketball of romance? They may very well be. First, it’s no secret that while there have been paranormal romances in print for years, there has never been an explosion of the paranormal akin to that seen in the e-book field. More and more people are reading e-books. More and more fans are paying attention to e-book writers and trends started (or at least nurtured) by e-publishers. And of course, this year, MaryJanice Davidson, who got her start in both in e-books and Romantica, earned two wins and two honorable mentions. Also, just as many series authors still write series books after they start writing single titles, she has shown no sign of abandoning the e-book field. Nor has Angela Knight, and some already-published print authors are diversifying and selling books to e-publishers as well. The stigma of e-books as stories not good enough for print publishers, then, may be starting to fade, which will only increase the importance of electronic publishing as well as the hybridization we’ve been talking about.
I know that e-books have helped “pump up” my interest in romance novels this year, even more than Bombshells or other trends. I’ve been reading more e-books than ever before. One reason for that is because I decided to try Romantica e-books again, after some of my first experiences turned out to be rather “squicky.” Writing the ATBF column about PayPal and erotica romances helped me find lots of romantica publishers and authors. On top of that, writing the column on paranormals rejuvenated me all over again.
Our Ninth Anniversary
Today marks the ninth anniversary of this column, originally known as Laurie’s News and Views. Although we touched on this question tangentially back in December, each year on its anniversary I like to hear from readers about its continuing relevance. Do you still look forward to ATBF or is it an idea whose time has passed?
I like to think the success of ATBF relates to its organic nature as well as the brilliance of those who contribute to it, including my co-columnists Anne and Robin, and the many AAR staff, readers, and authors who have written for us. But given the column’s longevity, we need you to tell us whether you continue to look forward and enjoy it on the whole or if it’s getting long in the tooth. Let us know, and then help us reminisce about your favorite columns/segments.
Time to post to the Message Board
Please consider these questions in addition to the others posed in the body of the column itself:
What did your own ballot look like? How many of the books listed had you read? With what percentage of the final tally did you agree? Are you inclined to read any of the books that did well that are in your tbr (or possibly tbb) pile? And, if you are one of those many readers who didn’t read a tremendous number of 2004-published romances, do you now feel as though you missed something?
Do you believe we’re in a period of transition? Are you surprised by which authors made it into our winners’ circle – and/or which ones did not?
Several mid-list authors were recognized by our readers with wins and/or honorable mentions. I started to make a list, but frankly got confused – is an author like MaryJanice Davidson, who burst onto the scene in 2004 still mid-list or not? What about Sherrilyn Kenyon? A long-time author such as Maggie Osborne, who wrote in a sub-genre read by fewer and fewer of us each year? Let’s talk about the difference, and then consider the question: What do you think about this year’s break-down of lead and mid-list authors?
What are the big surprises in this year’s results as far as you’re concerned? Which results didn’t surprise you at all?
If you were handing out these awards based on your own votes, which books/authors would have won?
Fill in the blank: Author _____ did not have a release for 2004 and it was sorely missed.
Looking back over the information presented for the past nine years, what do you think about it? Any surprises in terms of authors/books that won, won big, or lost? Do most of the big winners and/or big losers stand the test of time? What trends, if any, do you see?
What’s your position on hybridization? Do you like reading blended books or do you prefer straight Romance, SF, Fantasy, Mystery, what have you?
How many of you are currently reading series romances? Did you used to read them but then stopped? Are you new to them? What’s your feeling on the Bombshell line? As for e-books, do you read them, how much better are they than they once were, and what’s the best way to read one if sitting in front of a desk-top isn’t appealing?
Every year at this time when this column passes another anniversary, I ask our readers how it’s doing, whether it still providing interesting and thought-provoking commentary on the romance genre, its authors, and its readers. Now’s your chance to give me some your feedback – good, bad, indifferent – on At the Back Fence throughout the last year.
Take a stroll down memory lane and help us reminisce about previous issues and/or segments of the ATBF column you particularly recall. Be sure to mention when you started to read it.
TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books and Anne Marble
2005 AAR Reader Awards
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