Consider “a trip down the aisle” to be a homonym that ties together each of the segments in this issue of At the Back Fence. We’ll take a look at the selling and buying of books, take a peek at libraries, talk about authors who write in more than one sub-genre, and meet a newly married couple during a discussion about chemistry. Linda Howard joins our discussion of this last topic.
The Selling of Books (LLB)
Many years ago, my husband and I were excited when a Simon David grocery store opened up near our house. Simon David was the “flagship” of the Tom Thumb chain in Dallas, and featured the best in produce, meat, gourmet foods, wines – even frozen foods – in the area. Unfortunately, a larger, Houston-based chain called Randalls later bought Tom Thumb, and one of the first things they did was turn our Simon David into a regular Tom Thumb. If that wasn’t bad enough, many of the specialty items and national brands we’d previously been able to buy at any Tom Thumb were replaced by the Randall’s brand.
Things took a major turn for the worse when Safeway bought Randall’s a year or two ago. Walking down the aisles of our once-terrific Simon David is now like shopping at a company store. The Safeway brand has pushed everything else out of the deli section (Safeway roast beef for sandwiches is horrible in comparison with Boar’s Head), and a walk down the frozen food aisle has the Safeway brand pushing out Bird’s Eye and the Green Giant. Yes, you can still buy Coke and Sprite, but the soda aisle is literally the only aisle not to have been replaced by Safeway branded items. We won’t go into the fits I had when my favorite non-fat yogurt disappeared, but at least Kroger has a good one, and since they stock Boar’s Head meats, the opening nearby of a flagship Kroger had us switching grocery chains for the first time since I’ve been an adult.
Have you ever visited a shopping mall while on vacation and noticed that there is a sameness to the stores you see? Twenty years ago there was still a regional quality to shopping, but not today; every mall has the same stores as every other mall. Everyone seems to be selling the same thing, and at many of the stores, the quality has gone down.
I recently heard a news report that within a few years Wal-Mart will be the premiere grocer in the U.S., supplying groceries to more Americans than any other company – local, regional, or national. While I enjoy the fact that I can buy bananas and CD’s as my local SuperTarget, I am concerned about the growing lack of competition for my grocery dollar…just recently another regional chain decided to close all its Texas stores. If you ask me, it’s pretty sad when Kroger has to advertise that they “still sell Boar’s Head meats.”
I’ve known for some time that shelf space is at a premium in grocery stores. Getting a store to pick up a new item is difficult because, to make room for something new, something else will have to be moved to a shelf either lower or higher than eye level, or out of the store completely as shelf space is finite. I know that companies pay grocers to place their items in end-caps, or near the register, or at perfect eye level down the aisle. I also know that the same things happen in bookstores – publishers pay booksellers to place their books on that table you see as you walk in, or in end-caps or face-out rather than spine-out on the shelves. Remember when it was revealed a couple of years ago that Amazon received payments from publishers to “recommend” certain books? That’s going to seem like nothing when you hear what Borders has planned, which is the implementation of more grocery style-selling beginning later this year. If you ask me, it’s more than letting the fox into the hen house, it’s letting the fox run the hen house.
As recently reported in Publishers Weekly and The Wall Street Journal, Borders chairman and CEO Greg Josefowicz plans to implement a “category management program” this year. Josefowicz, who came to Borders from the grocery/pharmacy retail industry, developed the category management program when he was president of Jewel/Osco, and what was good for the bottom line where soap and beans and Epsom salts is concerned, will apparently be good for books and Borders’ bottom line.
Borders will divide its book inventory into categories and invite publishers to “captain” said categories. HarperCollins, for instance, will pay some $110,000 annually plus $5,000 per employee to helm the romance category. As you may know, HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s The News Company, publishes romances/women’s fiction under its Avon, Harper Torch, and William Morrow lines. The money Borders receives from these publishers will fund market research that will eventually determine where – or if – books are placed in its stores.
Publishers who pay to captain a category will, as has been reported, co-manage the category, and will influence Borders’ buying decisions – including which titles, and how many – will be bought. The questions raised in the Publishers Weekly article are obvious; how will books by other publishers fare in such a system? Will a sort of quid pro quo develop – ie, Publisher A will “influence” the purchase of books by Publisher B if Publisher B will “influence” the purchase of books by Publisher A? What will happen to small publishers who do not have the money to buy a category’s captaincy?
I’ve long feared the concept that a book can be treated like a grocery store item. Indeed, in a column I wrote in August 1996, I talked about the then-burgeoning mid-list crisis and the fact that some would “market the genre as though it were detergent.” I felt a bit like Cassandra at the time, but what Borders proposes to do scares me – it scares me a lot. Not to get all political on you, but the idea of publishers stocking the bookshelves reminds me of lobbyists who write the laws governing the industries they represent. To me, this plan of Borders’ makes Amazon’s sale of used books on the same page as new books seem like much ado about nothing. I wonder how authors not published by HarperCollins feel about their ability to sell books via this, the second largest book retailer in the U.S. and Fortune 500 company, with $3.4 billion in revenues, according to their financials.
According to an article on the Dow Jones Newswires on May 21st, the argument does boil down to: “Is selling books like selling frozen food?” The market research that will be paid for by certain publishers will eventually determine which books you find on sale at your local Borders.
My ATBF co-columnist, Anne Marble, offered up some interesting thoughts comparing and contrasting groceries to books:
“Frozen food actually has a higher shelf life than most mass market paperbacks. Books that don’t sell well within the first few weeks are considered failures, as are the authors. That’s a tragedy, and I’ll never understand how the publishers think these numbers are useful. Books are not frozen food, they are not soap, and they are not toothpaste. One thing I know is that every tube of Colgate toothpaste is the same, the only difference is that some come with a free toothbrush. Every book is guaranteed to be unique – in fact, if it turns out that the text of a new book is astonishingly similar to a previously published book, that is a scandal.”
Market research in and of itself is not a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily compatible with creativity, as evidenced by the pandering in the film industry toward the 18-24 year-old male market. Although Borders will have the final say on which books they will sell, it’s difficult to see how all books will be treated solely on merit when the category captains will not only be paying Borders a corporate fee but also paying upwards of $5,000 per employee to “train” them.
The line between marketing and content has already been blurred. Did you know that when you pick up a copy of Romantic Times (aka Bookclub), the book featured on the cover is there because the space was paid for by publisher or author? In this area, RT is not alone; Publishers Weekly also features advertising content on its cover. But many readers looking at their RT don’t realize that the book on the cover is there because it’s a paid advertisement; many see it as a book that RT is featuring editorially for the month.
While the line has been blurred between marketing and content at the end of the retail line, my concern is that Borders’ plan will blur the line between marketing and content earlier in the process, leading to more homogenization of romances, and more mediocrity. While some booksellers – and the publishers who have signed on to captain categories – think Borders may be on to something, others are skeptical because efforts at applying general retail science to the book industry have failed before. Precisely how “failure” and “success” are defined could be very important to readers; if Borders finds this program successful, will Barnes and Noble be next?
The Buying of Books (LLB)
In March of this year I had a discussion with Blythe Barnhill about the number of books we’d read thus far in 2002. We were surprised that we had read the same number of books, and both of us decried that we’d read what was the equivalent of one book a week, a number far less than normal for us both. Afterwards, I realized how odd it would sound to a “regular” person if they’d listened in on our conversation and heard us complain about how we’d “only” read one book per week. But then, regular people aren’t bookies, and luckily enough for me, I’ve “caught” up on my reading since mid-March and am on track to read closer to 80 books this year than a mere 52.
Because AAR is a web site devoted to books, it’s no surprise that our visitors would be bookies as opposed to “regular” people. Regular people tend to frequent bookstores perhaps once a month while many of our visitors go through “withdrawal” if they don’t pay homage to a bookstore weekly – or two or three times weekly. Just the other evening, when I was in one of my periodic weird moods and wandering aimlessly around the house, my husband said, “There’s still time to get to the bookstore, you know.”
Sometimes a bookstore visit is all I need to satisfy my urge. For others, it’s impossible to walk into a bookstore without buying something. Because there are so many retail outlets that sell books these days, a trip to the grocery, drug, or discount store can result in many unplanned book-buying purchases. Just how often do we buy books, anyway?
Close to 500 readers answered that question. Where do you fit in? Fully one-third of those who voted buys books weekly. Surprisingly enough, more than 20% buy books more than once a week. Personally, I buy books roughly twice a month, as do nearly 25% of those who voted. The remaining less-than-20% buy books less often than that. Below are the detailed results:
More than once a week (111)
Once a week (157)
Once every two weeks (120)
Once every three weeks (27)
Once a month (50)
Less frequently than once a month (19)
(Total Votes – 484)
What this poll doesn’t tell us is how often books are bought at Used Book Stores. The UBS as a topic from the last ATBF was tremendously popular and deserves more space than we could provide in this column, so we’ll be doing a follow up on that soon. But we do have the space to talk about libraries in this column, and so we will.
Memories of the Library (Robin Uncapher)
Maybe it is because I have a birthday coming up but childhood memories seem to be popping up in my mind. Ive been thinking about libraries. Is there anything more magical than the discovery, as a child, that there is a place where one has access to unlimited numbers of those toys we call books? I dont think so. I posted on the Potpourri Message Board asking for peoples memories of libraries. There were many wonderful posts in the thread, too many to include them all. Many of the posters had been like me, growing up in communities that did not have many bookstores and (probably – Im guessing here), like me, without the resources to buy many books.
But first, here is what got me thinking.
A few years before he died my dad gave me a wonderful pen and ink drawing of the Arnolds Mills Community House in Cumberland, Rhode Island. This old Quaker Meeting House served as the library for the village of Arnolds Mills. It was my first library. I understood completely why Dad had bought the picture. He knew how special the library was to me. I still remember the wonder I felt on that first visit. This was a place where you could get books for free and you could read as much as you wanted. At that time, 1959, books were still expensive and paperbacks were limited to mysteries and drug store best sellers. Books did not appear in paper unless they were very popular as hardcovers and it was common to abridge books when they made it into paper.
America in the twenty-first century is so different from the nineteen fifties that I wonder if it is possible imagine how exciting a library was to us country children. We lived about seven miles from the nearest supermarket. Borders, Barnes and Noble – even Walden Books – were unknown and buying books at a store was considered an extravagance. Book sales were a source of great excitement, in part because books were so expensive..
The childrens section of our library was tiny by todays standards. Most books were printed using just two colors to reduce costs and the whole section, which included books like Dr. Seuss The Five Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and No Roses for Harry!, looked rather drab in comparison to those today. Library books tended to look a bit beat-up in comparison to new ones. The, now standard, plastic covers, had not been created and dust jackets were soon in tatters.
You could only borrow two or three large flat picture books at a time so moving to the Young Adult section of the library was a big deal. If you kept a book out too long the librarian would call your house to remind you. (If you were lucky she did not tell your mother or father about this indiscretion.)
When I got beyond picture books I discovered that the Cumberland librarians disdained the books I liked best and refused to buy more than two Nancy Drew or one Bobbsey Twins book. (This annoyed Dad, who firmly believed that all reading for children was wonderful and that if a child liked a book he or she should be encouraged to read it.) I suppose it did have one benefit, however; I read many Victorian and turn of the century children’s books that would have slipped by me. When I think of that library I can still envision the shelves. There was Girl of the Limberlost and Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter, the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley, and Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. On the adult shelves I remember The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, A Bell for Adano by John Hersey and Tales of the South Pacific by Michener. The Young Adult and Adult books were mostly old and without covers. Having nothing to compare it to, we didnt really mind. Quite often a librarian had cut and pasted the inside strips of the book jacket inside the front cover so that the reader could have some idea of what the book was about.
In addition to loving the library I loved the librarians, some of whom had known Dad since high school, and who made a special point to talk to me about the books I was reading. The stereotype of the nasty librarian who hates readers and loves books was nowhere to be seen.
Kari had similar thoughts and mentioned some wonderful librarians. She was especially grateful to the librarians who thought about her when she was thirteen and stuck in bed for three months following major surgery. She wrote:
“My junior high librarian sent a big bag of old paperback books to me (reading was one of the things that kept me sane during this difficult period) and the public librarian visited me and brought me a wonderful book, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. (If you like animals and humor I cannot recommend that book and its sequels highly enough.) I received hours of pleasure as a result of those gifts. Sometimes I think librarians are a separate species from the rest of humanity. Some of the most generous souls I have ever known have been librarians.”
The most touching of the posts about librarians came from Doggone, who wrote:
“Seven years ago I contracted an incurable, degenerative illness. Within a short period of time I was unable to get out of bed. The pain was unbearable but my pain killing medications were limited. The local librarian stopped my husband one day because I hadn’t been in. When he explained, she set up a deal with my husband to provide me with books that she thought were so good that I would be transported out of my sickbed if he would fetch and carry. One of those books she sent was Outlander, and the rest is history.”
I maintained my love of libraries after paperbacks revolutionized publishing, especially in times of my life when I was short on money. In college I discovered that reading light provided a needed break from the hundreds of pages of diplomatic and political history assigned. Im doubt that many people who used the George Washington University Library knew that there were copies of Irving Wallace books on the shelves but there were.
For a long time after I moved to New York City, I gave up on the library. The branches near my offices never seemed to have what I was looking for. They were a bit overused, a bit tired. And, to be honest, I got spoiled. Blessed with a good income and lots of time on airplanes (no children yet) I started buying books and forgot the library.
Then after I had a baby the neighborhood I lived in renovated its library and I could not believe my luck. I started going again and one day, made a life-changing trip over to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, which must be one of the loveliest libraries anywhere. That library, located on the edge of historic Prospect Park, is a marvel. As you walk toward the library you see trees in the park with plaques dedicated to various Civil War soldiers. Seeing them I suddenly visualized the area as it must have been at the end of the War with thousands of New Yorkers cheering their victorious husbands and sons happy that the terrible war was over at last. The Central Library itself is a dramatic structure built to resemble an open book. I remember entering this marvelous building and gazing up at the cathedral ceiling with a sense of wonder. Next to me a young Hasidic man, dressed in a traditional black broadcloth overcoat, black hat and leggings, caught my eye and gave me a wide smile. Wonderful, isnt it? he said and I nodded happily in agreement. Brooklyn in the eighties was a place of contrasts. My cleaning lady was lying on her floor listening to Crack wars outside her window every night. But the fact that this wonderful place was open to us all seemed fabulous and incredible. I remember looking around at the wide variety of people streaming up the stairways Arabs in traditional dress, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese people, African Americans and people from the Caribbean to name a few, and thinking that almost everyone seemed to be in a good mood.
These days I live in Bethesda, Maryland, which boasts a wonderful library with an amazing childrens section. The building is closed right now for renovation. From what I understand they are feeling the pinch from the local Barnes and Noble and want to become a place that is just as much fun for teenagers as B&N. I smiled when I heard this. My dad would have agreed wholeheartedly. Get those kids into the library!
The Arnolds Mills Community House is no longer a library. In the seventies the town of Cumberland established a wonderful modern library. Its a great place and a far better resource than the tiny building with the old books. But I maintain a sentimental attachment to that library, which was my first.
Peggy had similar thoughts about her first library when she wrote:
“The library was my second home in childhood. I can still close my eyes and see the children’s section, where I methodically worked my way through every horse story in the place (and a few cat and dog ones also). When I was twelve, I was allowed to use the adult section (with a note from my mother). This was South Pasadena, California, and the main reading room and stacks were in a big Spanish style room, with a very high ceiling (before air conditioning it kept things cool), dark wood beams, and a faintly musty smell. There I read Georgette Heyer, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart, and lots of historical romances. I think my fascination with the place helped me decide to become a librarian. About 10 years ago I was back in town, and took a nostalgia trip to the library. There is now a new accessible, air conditioned addition with all the bells and whistles, but they saved the old reading room and turned it into a meeting place. When I told my story to one of the librarians, she kindly unlocked it for me, so I could go stand there and revel in nostalgia.”
Im with Peggy, there is just nothing like that first library, even when its not the best one. Contrast this feeling with that of Andy Rooney in a recent rant on libraries, in which he stated, “I would exclude books of fiction from a library. A library should be used for information, not entertainment. Go to the movies!”
Something tells me Andy isnt getting teary-eyed over memories of his first library unless he was one of those rare children who scarf down dictionaries and encyclopedias without a peep. (In Angelas Ashes, Frank McCourt reminisced about his days as a schoolboy finding the dirty parts in Lives of the Saints, so I guess anything is possible.) And, since Andy Rooney objects to novels in libraries I assume hed exclude Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins and even Yurtle-the-Turtle. Andy, Andy…lighten up.!
Two Sides…Same Mouth (LLB)
For the past several months, I’ve been telling readers to essentially “get over it!” when they decry the loss of an author who has gone on to write in a different arena. So, you don’t like Patricia Gaffney’s women’s fiction as much as you did her historical romances? Get over it and move on…find some other historical romance author to replace her. I’ve been brutal in naming names and talking about authors who have jumped the shark/jumped ship in this manner and have asked readers to do the same, to stop whining and get on with it.
I still feel the same way, although I see nothing wrong with celebrating those authors who used to shine in a particular sub-genre even though they’ve seemingly moved past it. For instance, I’ve been on a glom of Kasey Michaels’ traditional Regency Romances for the past couple of months (after Harlequin reprinted four of her earlier titles for what was once Avon’s Regency line). Before falling in love with her witty and crisp Regency Romance writing, I’d read a smattering of her later work in the historical and contemporary arenas. While her historical writing isn’t bad (B- level for me), I haven’t been enamored of her contemporary voice, and neither works as well for me as her traditional Regencies. It’s a shame she’s no longer writing these little gems, but I still have a considerable backlist to get through, and I’m grateful for that.
Elizabeth Bevarly is another author whose short-form work I’ve enjoyed more than her single titles. She’s been a comfort author for me, but only with her series romances, and though I don’t always give her series titles high marks, I often do. And yet her voice doesn’t work for me in the longer form. She’s definitely slowed down in terms of writing series romance, which is perfectly understandable given that she also writes single titles. I look forward to reading her next series title when it’s released.
Because romantic suspense just isn’t my cup of tea, many favorite authors have moved beyond me, including Elizabeth Lowell, Julie Garwood, and Linda Howard. I’ve found Lowell’s best work in some of her series titles and medievals. Though many readers adore her contemporary romantic suspense novels, I won’t be among them. Where Julie Garwood is concerned, I know that I’ll be taking nearly a dozen of her medieval and regency-set historicals to the desert isle, and that’s as much as I can ask of her. Linda Howard has become a boffo blockbuster author of romantic suspense, but not for me. I’ll kick back and enjoy her series titles (even the ones with a strong suspense sub-plot), and that’s enough for me.
Many readers, including Peg, wish Mary Balogh had never started writing longer historicals; they find her traditional Regency Romances incomparable. It’s a good thing she was so very prolific and left such a long backlist. While I enjoy Nora Roberts, reader Sarah prefers her J.D. Robb books. She preferred Iris Johansen’s romances to the straight suspense she’s now writing, and feels Suzanne Forster’s best books are behind her as well. And I’m sure she hopes Dara Joy and Dorchester come to an agreement on the Matrix of Destiny series; she’s preferred the books in that series over anything else Joy has written.
As she was for me, Julie Garwood was an auto-buy for Cindy until she started to write contemporary romantic suspense. Unlike me, however, Cindy prefers Linda Howard’s single titles over most of her series titles, which is a good thing for her since that’s the direction Howard’s taken. She prefers JAK’s contemporary voice to her historical voice, and believes Justine Davis/Dare writes better series titles than she does single titles.
On a discussion list I’m on for readers of traditional Regency Romance, we’ve lately been discussing Edith Layton, who used to write “trads” but now writes single title historicals. Most of the readers involved in the discussion seem to believe her “trads” are better, as does Susan, who posted on our Potpourri Message Board that she has yet to be able to finish reading a full-length Layton. Peg also loved Layton’s trads but hasn’t been enamored of her single titles. She adored Joan Wolf’s traditional Regency Romances but not so her single title historicals. In fact, many “trad” readers prefer the sub-genre to any other type of romance and believe that the Regencies written by Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley, and Kasey Michaels were their best work.
The lines in the sand generally form between short-length to long-length, straight romance to either romantic suspense or straight suspense, or romance to women’s fiction. But some readers draw even finer lines, including myself. While I’ve enjoyed Amanda Quick’s older historicals when they are set in the Regency, I won’t read her historicals set in the Medieval period. Same goes for Catherine Coulter, albeit for different reasons. It seems, though, that for most readers, it’s the break between historical to contemporary that is at issue. Patricia Rice and Patricia Gaffney, for instance, used to be auto-buys for Barbara; she simply finds their contemporaries “lifeless,” adding, “some writers can change genres or sub-genres and maintain their distinctive voice, but other writers become unrecognizable to me.”
And yet, there’s always something in an author’s later writing that still has that indefinable something or most of the authors mentioned above would not be having the recent success they’re having. I did enjoy Kasey Michaels’ historicals and will continue to read them even after discovering I like her trads better. Jayne Ann Krentz continues to make best-seller lists even if I think her best contemporaries are behind her. The point is, enjoy what you like and if you like no more, move on. I’ve got an entire box full of Kasey Michaels trads still waiting for me to read them; after the five I’ve already read, it’s time for a break, but what a treat I’ve got forthcoming!
The Internet is so good for just this reason; you can not only learn about the hidden gems an author has in her history, but you can find them and buy them as well. In looking at our Favorite Books by Favorite Authors page, I can see that many of Balogh’s and Michaels’ traditional Regencies are listed. For Elizabeth Bevarly and Justine Davis, the majority of titles listed are their series titles. For Elizabeth Lowell, only four recent titles made the list. So I encourage you, when looking for an author to try, look for the work that most resonates with readers before either settling for their lesser work or passing them by completely. But also, know yourself. Half of Linda Howard’s listing on the Faves page are her series titles; the other half are her romantic suspense novels. I know which half is for me!
Speaking of Linda Howard…(don’t worry, we’ll get there).
Anakin Skywalker and Han Solo (LLB and Linda Howard)
I saw Attack of the Clones over the weekend. The scenes wherein a tortured Anakin Skywalker pours out his heart to Padmé Amidala didn’t do much for me, I’m afraid, particularly not in comparison to that single moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Princess Leia, fearing Han Solo may die, tells him she loves him. What does he say in response – “I love you, too”? Hell, no. As Suzanne Brockmann detailed in a Write Byte some years ago, “Han stands there perhaps about to die, a hard, strong alpha male to the end with his head held high, and says, ‘I know.'”
The chemistry between Han and Leia was there, based on the strength of both their characters, but definitely given a boost by Han’s laconic masculine arrogance. When Padmé sees the now-all-grown-up Anikan and says that, to her, he’ll always be “little Ani,” I cringed. Ani – I’ve met Han Solo, and you are no Han Solo. Although my daughter had a goofy grin on her face during all the lovely falling-in-love scenes Anikan and Padmé shared, the grown-ups sitting on either side of her were bored senseless, something this Star Wars fan never thought possible in a Star Wars movie. There was far more chemistry between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anikan than there was between Anikan and Padmé.
Chemistry between characters, that undefinable something that sparks between a hero and heroine, is not as easy to create as it would seem. Some books lay it on so thick that instead of burning, the spark is buried under a torrential storm of purple prose. Other books go too far the other way; instead of a hero and heroine with chemistry, there is never a spark at all – instead of Han and Leia there is the brother-and-sister team of Luke and Leia.
As for what makes palpable chemistry, I went to one of the masters of its creation – Linda Howard. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve never read any book by Linda Howard wherein the chemistry between the hero and heroine was anything but real, and incendiary at that. When I try to analyze just how she does this in book after book, I always come back to her heroes, who are arrogant, sexual beings. I may not want to live with an arrogant man sporting an erection 24/7, but reading about them definitely gives me a charge. The heroes she writes are so potently male that their “want” sucks all the air out of a room, leaving nothing but the want in its wake. How does she do this?
“There’s physical chemistry, and there’s mental chemistry. I think for things to really zing between two characters, there has to be both. Physical attraction can and often does hit immediately, and I guess that’s probably a true chemical reaction, two sets of pheromones recognizing each other and going, ‘Whoo baby!’ Mental chemistry, though, when two people know and appreciate the person the other is inside, is something that develops with time and knowledge. The process is speeded up in fiction, of course – though sometimes real life is pretty darn fast.”You say my guys are ‘potently male.’ Maybe they’re potent because they’re unabashed. They don’t apologize for being men, and they’re pretty much guys on top of that. They like guy things, they’re fairly simple in their wants and needs – woman (only that one woman, though), food, sports. Beer is optional. But regular guys are naturally heroic, and all it takes is circumstance to bring it out. 9-11 showed that to the world. The firemen and cops and rescue personnel were all regular guys, and I’m saying guys because while there may have been a handful of women going up those stairs, the vast majority were men. The men who overtook the terrorists on Flight 93 were regular guys. I was in New York during the attacks, only blocks from the WTC, and my first thought when the first tower came down was, ‘Oh my God, the firemen.’
“Anyway, back to chemistry. The readers seem to like to best when the hero is a fairly uncomplicated person, which means he’s very straight-forward in his wants and needs. I’ve told the stories of complicated men before (John Medina is one) and most readers didn’t like the complicated guys as well. Notice I said I told the story, not I developed. I don’t develop these characters as much as meet them, and then I tell their stories. The books aren’t my stories, they belong to the characters. Maybe the characters don’t act the way the reader thinks they should, but they act the way the character would in each circumstance. Sometimes I don’t like it, either . But my regular guys . . . they don’t think about it too much. They go on instinct. They see, they want, they pursue. The best part about it is that the heroine returns the interest and they mesh both physically and mentally. It’s way cool when that happens.”
But there’s more to chemistry than simply sexual chemistry. Think back to some classic “buddy movies” like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Sting. Isn’t the chemistry between Paul Newman and Robert Redford wonderful? You’ll find lots of buddy chemistry in romance novels too, although I think perhaps Nora Roberts does this best – mostly with men – but on a smaller scale she also explores female “buddies.” Chemistry, whether via friendship or sex, is what draws the reader into the story, takes mere words on a page and makes reading a three-dimensional experience where the reader is almost part of the action. Without chemistry, I doubt we’d read romance.
There are many moments in Roberts’ Chesapeake Bay series involving the three Quinn “brothers” – Cam, Ethan, and Phillip that exhibit incredibly strong chemistry. These are some of my favorite scenes in these books. Likewise, Jude, Darcy, and Brenna have so much fun in Jewels of the Sun that I wish I could have joined their hilarious and drunken hen party. And the chemistry between friends and family is one of the reasons I fell in love with Julie Garwood lo those many years ago.
Many romances set out to create buddies as part of their premises; if characters aren’t brothers or sisters or cousins, then they’re firefighters, police officers, spies, or warriors. Let’s explore some of the great buddy chemistry we’ve read, in addition to some of the great hero/heroine chemistry, shall we?
Time to Post to the Message Board
Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:
The Fox and the Hen House – How do you feel about Borders decision to allow publishers to pay to captain a category and co-manage the category? What do you think will be the outcome of this decision?
Marketing – When you go shopping – either to your local grocery store or book store, are you aware of the strategies used to get you to buy certain things? When you look at magazines, are you always aware of sales content (as opposed to editorial content)? Did you, for instance, know that RT is paid for covers shown on their cover?
Buying Books – How often do you go shopping for books? What is your reaction to our mini-survey? When you go to the bookstore is it a planned event? How much time do you spend in terms of time and/or money when you go to the bookstore?
Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board Memories of the Library – Do you feel like genuflecting when you visit a library? What was your first library? What are you special library memories?
Is Andy Off Base? – Andy Rooney’s ideas on libraries didn’t fit with Robin’s. Do you have any ideas on what purpose a library should serve? Should it provide communities solely with educational and other reference material? What about best sellers or older books that are no longer available? Should libraries be buying up all the copies of The Bobbsey Twins or should they be directing children and adults toward “better” choices? Do you use the library now? How are you received as a romance reader? How are the romances in your library shelved?
Getting Over It & Moving On – There are a number of authors whose new books I don’t read because I prefer their older style and/or sub-genre. Is this true for you? Which authors are these? What changed about their writing – the sub-genre, the style, the length?
Looking for Hidden Gems – I’ve been scouring the Internet for Kasey Michaels’ traditional Regency Romances; last year it was Patricia Oliver’s backlist. What authors have you been glomming lately? Is the Internet helpful in this regard? Do you sometimes find yourself adding more authors to your list of authors to try because of the Internet (via message boards, discussion lists, reviews, and/or online bookstores/trade services)?
Man-Woman Chemistry – How do authors concoct chemistry? Linda Howard talks about physical chemistry and mental chemistry in regards to the chemistry between a man and a woman. Do you agree with her? What makes for each? What couples in romance do you feel have the best chemistry? Explain why. Finally, in which books have an author’s attempts to create chemistry failed? Was it overblown or tepid, and why?
“Buddy” Chemistry – There’s more than simply sexual chemistry in many romances; the chemistry between friends and/or family is often what makes a good book a great one. How do authors concoct chemistry between friends and/or family? Then talk about this often overlooked type of chemistry; which books have done that the best for you. Finally, in which books have an author’s attempts to create “buddy” chemistry failed, and why do you think it failed?
Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board