Write Byte

Suzanne Brockmann on
The Company that Sells You Series Romance

April 15, 2002

Given that one of the books I analyzed in the April 15th issue of At the Back Fence regarding unwed mothers was written by Suzanne Brockmann, I decided to ask her directly about this romance novel phenomenon. The article she sent me was incredibly honest and altogether interesting, not only about unwed mothers, but about some of the other decisions/choices made by Harlequin/Silhouette, the company that publishes 75 series romance titles each and every month. Read on!

— Robin Uncapher


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First, it should be interesting to note that Everyday, Average Jones (with the pregnant heroine on the cover) has sold better than any other series romance I’ve ever written. And let’s not kid ourselves here – sales of series romances have a lot to do with what’s on the cover. (Likewise, Get Lucky, with book with the Pillsbury Doughboy hero on the cover, sold rather dismally.) Is it any wonder that Harlequin/Silhouette shouldn’t push for more books that would be able to have similar covers?

Sales is the bottom line for H/S. Yes, they are a conservative company. (I’m still shocked by the fact that Harvard’s Education was only the second SIM to feature African American characters. Eight hundred and something books and it was only the second?!?) If writing about characters who aren’t WASPs is considered risky, you better believe that values in these books will need to be conservative, too.

Hence the language restrictions in series romance. No foul language, despite the fact that real tough guys occasionally (or frequently) swear. Authors are encouraged not to write “issue” books. Date rape was considered to be too volatile a topic and was axed from a proposal I wrote not too many years ago. Abortion definitely falls into this category. It’s an issue that some people are so passionate about that they’re willing to kill and become terrorists to keep it from happening. Politics is another topics that’s hands-off for a series romance. AIDS – get it out of here. It’s too real, too gritty, too likely to inspire a reader to write a letter to the publisher stating discomfort or dissatisfaction.

(And these letters do get written. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been scolded and lectured about the language I use in my books by readers who cc: my publisher. I often encourage those readers who write to me with this complaint to stick to reading my series romances. They can be assured that there will be no realistic language or true-to-life unpleasantness in those books.)

Again, consider the publisher’s goal – to sell books. Books that are purposely about tried and true topics with a guaranteed happy ending. Books that won’t get anyone upset.

Books where the rough reality of an unplanned pregnancy is softened and sanded down to something smooth and beautiful.

Personally, I believe that H/S is guilty of trying to please all of the people all of the time, and this adds to the “throwback to twenty years ago” soft around the edges fantasy feeling of a series romance. I’ve also heard it said that we, as series romance authors, should consider our main audience to be the women of the Midwest. I’ve also been told that the Midwest is some ten to twenty years behind both the East and West coast. Is this true? I don’t know – I live on the East coast and I know quite a few smart, savvy, edgy, up-to-the minute women who think the way I do, who live in H/S’s alleged target zone. Sounds to me like it might be a myth.

But does it really matter if it’s real? The main thing is, this is what I’ve been told that H/S believes and I think it definitely plays a part in the books that they chose to buy from authors and sell as series romances.

Let’s talk for a minute about the books that H/S is buying – the books that H/S authors are writing.

Consider the fact that just as sales drive H/S, positive sales also drive H/S authors. If you wrote a book and found out that that particular subject (secret baby) earned you 1/3 to 1/4 again of the money you made on your other books, wouldn’t you think, “Hey, maybe I’ll write another of those secret baby books?” You bet you would!

Both authors and H/S want very much to give readers the books that those readers want to read. People are buying these secret baby books – in huge numbers. Maybe to make your discussion of this topic complete you should get the opinion of a reader who intentionally reaches for the books with the pregnant heroine on the cover!

What is it about this fantasy that works for them? I, for one, would love to know.

Out of all of my thirty-something books, I’ve only written one – EAJ – with a heroine who was pregnant. Personally, I don’t see the romance in an unplanned pregnancy. (And in my mainstream Troubleshooters books for Ballantine, I’ve got an ongoing subplot featuring a realistic unplanned pregnancy – illustrating, with the very unhappy marriage that ensues – just how big a mistake getting married for the wrong reasons can be!)

And with that said, we need to remember that conflict is what drives all fiction. Without conflict (which can come in the form of a character’s mistake) there’s nothing of interest going on.

And an unplanned pregnancy is one hell of a conflict, you’ve got to admit that!

But if you’re writing a series romance, you need to start backpedaling furiously with a conflict that that, to achieve the soft, fantasy feel that a series romance needs to succeed.

When I sat down to write EAJ, I wanted to write a book where the conflict wasn’t about the gritty realism of an unplanned pregnancy. In fact, I did what I could to eliminate all grit by having the heroine live in her mother’s house (mom’s in Florida with her new husband) with her divorced sister. I set it up so that Melody has enough money from an inheritance to be able to live in this low-rent situation for 5 or 6 years specifically because I didn’t want this book to be about worrying “how’m I gonna pay the rent?”

When the main part of the book starts, Melody is already well along in her pregnancy. I purposely put her past the point of “should I keep this baby?” She spent lots of time thinking about that, and her answer, obviously, was “yes.” She didn’t ask for this, but she’s made the choice to keep the baby and is embracing that decision completely. She’s even faced the disapproving small-town gossips (throwback to 20 years ago, and yes, these people still exists in the small towns of America!) and stands as a single mother with her head held high.

The conflict of EAJ is about Melody and her desire to marry someone who will love her, someone average and ordinary – not this hotshot Navy SEAL who knocked her up.

I wanted to touch briefly on birth control now. I consider it an amazing accomplishment that we authors are able to get away with writing sex scenes that include condoms. When I first started writing romance back in the early 1990s, it was believed that even the mention of condoms interrupted the flow and fantasy of the love scene. In my earliest books, I was encourage to make the mention of them as minimal as possible.

I consider it a major triumph that now, ten years later, the fact that characters didn’t use condoms in a love scene would be jarring! And as far as planning goes – many of my female characters carry condoms and plan for sex with the hero.

But I’m sorry. We’re not writing a pamphlet on birth control here, and those editors weren’t entirely wrong. Condoms do interrupt the flow of a love scene. It’s a necessary interruption, and I and my fellow authors work very hard to make it work in our books. When one of my characters reaches for a condom, it’s symbolic of them taking care of themselves, protecting themselves, practicing safe sex. Do we really need all of the details? I don’t think so.

— Suzanne Brockmann


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