insideNew Zealand is a land of many attributes, but Romance Central it is not.  The tendency is to tuck away romance novels at the end of shelves like tails between legs.  So imagine my surprise when I came across Chapter, an Auckland bookstore devoted entirely to romance novels, and I was glad to get the opportunity to interview Frances Loo, owner and founder of Chapter.

Like many of us, Frances was weaned on Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart, and branched off into Mills & Boons and Barbara Cartland before becoming a full-blown romance lover.  During a sojourn in America she gloried in the large selection of single title romances, having been limited predominantly to series romances in New Zealand.  So when Frances returned to New Zealand, she opened Chapter, a book café dedicated to single-title romances.

Now open for more than four years, her clientele consists mainly of an established base of professional women, with a smattering of catalogue customers.  They want the latest releases as soon as possible, and with the majority of the books imported promptly and directly from America they can get it.  They are also willing to pay the price: New mass market paperbacks in New Zealand range from $16 at low-cost superstores to $26 in small towns, and the prices at Chapter fall in the higher end of the spectrum.  (Note: The purchasing power of the New Zealand dollar is similar to that of the US dollar.  Reading is not cheap in NZ.)

Inflation does have an up side: Readers get more discerning.  The flip side though is that conservatism sets in – who wants to take risks, at $20 a pop?  So it’s hard to sell a new series or new author.  “What’s popular [in New Zealand] will be popular in America, but it doesn’t always work the other way around,” she says.  But the advantage to a small bookstore is “You act on the recommendations of customers,” and some now-popular authors, like Charlaine Harris and Nalini Singh, were discovered this way.  (Nalini Singh, of course, occupies pride of place on the shelf featuring New Zealand authors, not least of which because she lives in the neighbourhood.)  And by carrying extensive author backlists, her customers are able to glom to their heart’s content.  No electronic browsing, here; Frances’s customers want printed books.

The trends at Chapter differ little from the trends elsewhere.  “Romance is escapism,” Frances says, so her contemporaries and suspense sell moderately well, her erotica (which she terms Hot Romance) is picking up, and trade is briskest with the historical and fantasy/paranormal subgenres.  The latter, especially, “provides the extra oomph in terms of escapism.  Rather like milk vs. dark chocolate.”  And like recent statistics have shown in the US, business has picked up despite the recession.

Which just goes to show.  Whether you’re in Los Angeles or living with the kiwis, we all like a happy ending.

– Jean AAR