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More Thoughts on Author Popularity (Jennifer Schendel)

As we accumulate the data, certain things become clear and others cause more questions. One of the questions is why are certain authors more widely read than others? Laurie posed this question amongst the reviewers and a few of us had a go at a plausible explanation.

The first thing that jumped out of course was that most of the authors at the top third of the list started writing in the 80’s and have been steadily building on their audience for well over a decade. But that doesn’t explain why authors like Stuart and Seidel, who’ve been writing as long, don’t have as wide an audience or what about Heyer who was writing long before anyone else on the list? Then there’s Quinn, who started in the mid-90’s and still managed to be read by over 80% of readers polled. Clearly there are other factors involved.

Laurie suggested that it was a preference for straight romance over other genres and women’s fiction. The women’s fiction supposition seems well founded when you note authors better known for women’s fiction like Seidel and authors who’ve made the move to women’s fiction like Gaffney are in the bottom third of the list. She also thought that authors who publish on a more routine basis managed to stay in the hearts of their readers. This may explain Laura Kinsale and Loretta Chase’s placements, but not Judith McNaught’s

Reviewer Rachel Potter suggested it was a difference in tone. Authors in the bottom third of the list are known for writing darker books or books with a consistently more serious tone. Where as authors in the top third may write about heavy themes but lighten up the tone of their stories. The only problem with this theory is Evanovich, who could never be accused of writing deep heavy tomes, is in the bottom third as well.

Blythe noted that authors who write traditional Regencies (Heyer and Kelly) didn’t fair well at all. Nor did those who wrote Western Historicals/Americana (Heath and Morsi). Maybe they’re too specialized to gain a broad fan base?

As far as specialized audiences are concerned, all of the authors who are writing a lengthy continuing series following one character/couple (Robb, Evanovich, Gabaldon, and LKH) ended up in the bottom half of ranking by audience size. Maybe committing to a series where it works best if you read the books in order is too much for some readers to attempt. Then too, none of these series are straight romance, or, where LKH is concerned, romance at all.

There isn’t necessarily a separation by setting, but clearly there’s a wider audience for historicals. Out of the 36 authors, over 85% write historicals, started in historicals, or have written historicals. As far as I know only Brockmann, Crusie, Robb, Evanovich, and LKH have never published a historical novel. Of the top third only 3 authors – Howard, JAK, and Roberts – are better known for writing contempories (although, of course, JAK is also Amanda Quick, who has been more widely read than JAK even though as JAK she’s been published far longer).

But in the end I think it really comes down to name recognition. When discussing romance look at the top third of the list and you’ll find the names everyone talks about it. Not necessarily recommends, but talks about. Many people will look at the top of the list and find the name of the author that was their gateway author into the genre, an author who is a comfort read, or someone they’re tired of hearing about. It’s that name recognition that might cause a reader to pick them up and give them a try just to see what everyone else is talking about.

Mary and I have enjoyed the results of all our hard work and hope you did as well. The spotlight now moves to Rachel Potter, whose wanting to update AAR’s If You Like… page started this entire project. To avoid confusion, please remember that the individual poll results you read about on the previous page are not the same as what you’ll see on the revamped pages Rachel has been working on. The style poll only looked at 36 authors; the If You Like… pages are wider in scope.

Reader’s Advisory – Rachel Potter on the “New” If You Like… feature

The If You Like… revamp is done! Yippee! As chronicled in a previous edition of At the Back Fence, this has been a long and surprisingly complicated project. When I approached Laurie about updating the feature, I assumed that all it would take was a little tinkering, a bit of adding and deleting, a touch of refining and, voilá, we’d be in business again. What I found is that there is only some consensus and quite a bit of disagreement about which authors belong together and which of them are “good enough” to make the page.

AAR’s readers were very helpful in supplying me lists of names. I got a tremendous amount of input from them and tons of helpful suggestions. But when I started to make my way through all of the suggestions, I realized I was in trouble. There were too many authors for the lists! “How can there be too many?” you might ask. Well, I don’t know about you, but when I’m faced with pages and pages of data, even if it’s tremendously well organized, my brain starts to shut down. I didn’t want readers to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of suggested authors, so I started the process of trying to decide who would be on the final lists.

My fellow reviewers and AAR staffers were both a help and a hindrance in this. Many of them had strong opinions on who belonged on the lists, but quite often when someone said, “Author X definitely does not qualify!” another person would just as strongly assert that Author X did, indeed, belong. Trying to satisfy everyone proved to be an impossible task, which led to the creation of two separate If You Like… pages.

The names I included on the If You Like…(By setting or genre) page were included because they passed through the lengthy, but not very scientific process I used to decide. First, I got suggestions from readers, reviewers, and from the original page. Then AAR staff weighed in. After the period of initial squabbling, I went back and checked any and all AAR reviews for every author on the page. If most of the reviews were good or there was a mix of good and decent reviews, the author made the cut. Authors with bad reviews were dropped unless that author had a fan/advocate amongst AAR staff.

The If You Like…(By style) page was a little trickier. To choose the main authors for this page, I went down the Desert Isle Keeper page. I selected all the authors who had four or more DIK reviews. These were good starting point authors, I figured. The problem was I didn’t want a bunch of duplicate lists, so some of bigger authors were included under other authors to avoid redundancy. Thus, you will find no list for Patricia Gaffney because most people I talked to lumped Laura Kinsale, Patricia Gaffney, and Judith Ivory/Judy Cuevas together. Making three identical or very similar lists seemed pointless, so Gaffney was filed under Kinsale, and I called it good. Other authors had numerous DIK reviews, but I couldn’t get anyone to agree on other similar style authors. Jill Barnett, Teresa Medeiros, and Jane Feather didn’t get their own headings because there was so much disagreement about their writing styles and who to compare them to. All of these authors were subjected to the same process and scrutiny as those on the setting/genre page.

Of course, near the end of this process came the idea for the site-wide AAR Style Poll. There was no real attempt made to reconcile the results from both efforts because the scope of the Style Poll was limited to 36 authors while the scope for the If You Like… stand-alone pages is wider.

What I present to you as the If You Like… lists, are imperfect resources that I think will still prove useful for reader’s advisory. They are the result of months of work and input from many sources. I hope you enjoy looking over them, and I hope they will provide good suggestions for further romance reading. If you have comments or questions about these pages, feel free to contact me (you can find email links to me on both If You Like… pages.

What Next?

It’s normally at this point where we would provide you questions to think about for posting on the At the Back Fence Message Board. We’re not going to do that this time around because so many questions were presented during the course of the column that we’re sure you don’t need them re-written here. You may choose to go to the Message Board now, or go to the revamped If You Like… pages before visiting the Message Board. We only hope you check out all the related material when it’s fresh!

Jennifer Schendel, Mary Novak, & Rachel Potter

If You Like…(By Style) If You Like…(By Setting/Genre)