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At the Back Fence Issue #147

October 15, 2002 

Old School Heroes (Laurie Likes Books)

Forget for the moment that all it took for me to burst into tears was my father talking to me with that look on his face and remember that he always had a cleanly pressed white hankie with which I could dry my eyes. There’s something enormously comforting about a man with a hankie in his pocket. My dad’s been gone for a very long time now, but I’ll never forget his hankie, or the smell of his cologne, or the other “old school” mannerisms he had.

While I’d never say my dad was sexy, there’s a lot about the Old School man I do find sexy. One of my favorite old television shows – already in re-runs before I was born – was Father Knows Best. Jim Anderson, patriarch of the family, is the kind of TV dad we don’t see anymore. He wasn’t a buffoon – he was an earnest insurance man who took his business seriously, and who took his job as husband and father equally as seriously. He went to work in the morning wearing a suit and a hat, and when he came home at night, he took off his suit coat and put on an old tweed jacket with patches at the elbow. Would it be weird to say I find Jim Anderson sexy? (Or Heathcliff Huxtable, for that matter, a more recent TV dad?)

My husband does not carry a hankie, nor does he wear a hat, but he is enormously sexy, and part of his sex appeal is that he too has many “old school” ways about him. Some people may think that his use of wooden shoetrees each and every night is anal, but to me it shows that he cares for his belongings. He cares for his belongings and he cares for the people who “belong” to him – namely his wife and his daughter. Even the things he collects, fountain pens (which he uses daily, along with his Blackberry, laptop, and desktop computer), and beautiful watches, say “old school.”

But of course, “old school” is not really about hats, hankies, and fountain pens. It’s about being a man, the planning, the caring, and the doing involved in being responsible for self and family. And yes, I know women also plan, care, and are responsible, but this segment isn’t about us, it’s about men, whom we obviously must love or we wouldn’t read romance novels, would we?

I’ve been thinking about “old school” men a lot lately, partly because of a recent family event I discussed in a recent blogging, but also because of an article I read in my husband’s Men’s Health magazine. Let me say here and now – this is not an “old school” magazine in the way, say, Esquire magazine is (another magazine I enjoy – why can’t women’s magazines have the mix of content Esquire does?). But the article entitled “Old School Rules” caught my eye and after reading it, I continued to think about it.

As he was growing up, my husband was taught how to be a man. I don’t really know how this happened, and when I ask him for various details, he rarely has an answer. Regardless, he was brought up based on some definite Old School rules, and I’m quite thankful this was the case. I’m going to go through some of the “rules” as put forth in the October 2002 issue of Men’s Health, and then talk about them in terms of romance novel heroes.

The author of the article, Hugh O’Neill, defines the Old School in the following manner:

“Old School is plain old zest for being a man, for the whole gender-rich story. It embraces both the swagger of the Y chromosome – the strength, the lust, the appetites, the right to an opinion – and the obligations that come with cojones. To Old Schoolers, duties aren’t burdens at all; they’re reveille, rousing the better parts of us. Old school is proud of all the gender stuff – both the polished elegance of Cary Grant and the unvarnished frankness of your Uncle Stosh. Do these conflict? Sure. Nobody ever said it was simple to be a man. If it were, more guys would try it.”

As a woman I wouldn’t necessarily have said it that way, nor do I agree with all the Old School rules, or how they’re explained, but I’ll leave it to a man to list them, O’Neill himself:

      “Who Wants to Know? –

Old School resists today’s confessional, Rosie O’Donnell current that has virtual strangers sharing in vitro tales.”

“Left Foot, Right Foot – The question isn’t as windy as ‘to be or not to be,’ but to get the crops in. Old School starts, and then keeps on.”

“The Poor Bastard – Old School has zero tolerance for phony emotion…Old School husbands its sympathy and never endorses fake feelings.”

“What Can I Do for You? – Old School doesn’t ‘chat’ on the phone…all talk as a purpose…and Old School is to be of use…The world feels safe around men like this.”

“I’m a Lucky Man – Old School men are so self-aware that they feel like they’ve gotten away with something if they have the humblest of blessings; someone who cares about them…in a world shadowed by entitlement and presumption, humility shines a guiding light.”

“You Missed a Spot – Old School holds out for good performance. He expects a good effort. Sure, from you, but mostly from himself.”

“Hell of a Thing – Though often grumpy on the surface, Old School is optimistic bone-deep. Hell, what’s to worry? I’m a man. Whatever happens, I’ll deal.”

“What’s That Supposed to Mean? – Old School is oddly sensitive to slights…not because Old School gives a damn about your opinion, but because he believes in respect. Old School doesn’t tolerate careless talk about good people.” (Johnny Sack, the mobster who showed his tender side on The Sopranos last week when he caught his overweight wife with her stash of goodies in the basement definitely exhibited Old School tendencies when he sought a hit on Ralphie…and when he called it off.)

“The Hard is What Makes it Great – Resist shortcuts. Do it right.”

O’Neill’s article also lists the accoutrements for an Old School man, which include hankies, wooden shoetrees, and a “proper pen.” Tools don’t make the man, but somehow knowing that my husband has some of the tools of the Old School trade is comforting.

There are so many things I find fascinating about this article that it’s hard to know where to begin, but I’ll try anyway. First, I think, is the look inside the male of the species. Those of you involved with Old School men may have, as I did, nodded your heads at many of the rules listed above, but the reasoning behind some of the rules was like uncovering pieces of heretofore hidden puzzle. For many of us, a look inside a man’s psyche comes from reading romance novels, which are written by women. As much as we love the fantasy of how men think, getting the “real deal” from a guy is helpful.

Secondly, where do men learn these rules? I think my husband was truly blessed by an excellent teacher because he seems to have learned them by example and osmosis. I, on the other hand, would probably fail if there were a test given about Old School Rules for Women. We hear and read all about nurture versus nature, about biological reasons men differ from women, but exactly how and why men are the way they are is endlessly fascinating.

Next, how many men follow these rules to their detriment? The New School Rules for Men are supposed to lead to healthier relationships, healthier bodies, and healthier minds. They were created because many Old School Men dropped dead of Type-A personality heart attacks, were divorced by women for being cold and lacking in feeling, and had lousy relationships with their children because they focused so much on the “making a living” component of “being a man” that they failed to spend any time with their families.

And finally, what happens when you apply these rules to romance novel heroes? Even though women write romance novels, there are clearly a good number of women out there who understand what makes men tick. Of course, fiction being fiction, personal ethics and individual manners involved in the doing of things often become exaggerated when in a book at the same time as the raison d’etre behind an action or way of life is hidden. It’s up to the reader to figure it all out, but for me, the historical hero who seems over-obsessed with the family reputation makes more sense when I think about Old School Rules. So does the perfectionist hero, the hero who keeps things to himself, and the hero who bulldozes anyone and anything along his path toward a goal.

This is just the beginning of what I hope will be a major discussion about heroes looking at them through motivations rather than archetypes. I’m not going to get into specifics about particular heroes or the authors who write them at this time; that I’ll leave for you on our message board and the follow-up(s) that will be written later. And if you think considering heroes by this method is simply silly, you can let me know on the message board as well.

Regencies in Disguise (Robin Uncapher)

A few years ago I gave a copy of Carla Kelly’s With This Ring to a friend who reads romance but doesn’t ordinarily read traditional Regency Romances (for the remainder of this segment, a traditional Regency Romance will often be referred to as a “trad” or a “Regency” while a Regency-set historical will be called an “historical” or “Regency historical). Months later, dying to know what she thought, I asked her about it. She hadn’t read it. A few months later I asked her again. Same answer, she hadn’t gotten around to it. I raved about the book and she confessed. “I wanted to read the book but I honestly couldn’t. The print is just too small.”
That night I opened my copy of With This Ring and realized that Karen was right. The print of With This Ring is quite small and now, four years after reading it for the first time, I realized that my own eyesight was challenged with reading it. With This Ring is not really the length of a trad; the thickness of the book just makes it look that way. Though it has the cover of a trad, it is an historical romance, a very good one, stuffed between the cover of a Regency. To accomplish this, the publishers made the print very tiny. Not only is With this Ring longer than most trads, the setting and the story are more varied than that of the typical trad.

With This Ring has sex in it, but it’s very subtle. Still, it is far more sensual than most Regencies. I remember asking Carla Kelly why she wasn’t writing historicals and one prime reason was her reluctance to include more sex. What a shame, I had thought, given the fact that so many readers avoid traditional Regencies. With This Ring, subtle though it was, seemed like an historical in disguise.

That thought came back to me this year when I picked up Jo Beverley’s Hazard. Our first reviewer of this book, Sandy Coleman, had found it to be only an average read. I often agree with Sandy, but like many AAR reviewers I sometimes find something in a review, even a C review, that makes me want to read the book. Sandy found Hazard’s heroine dull, but the more I read the review the more I suspected that Anne might be my favorite kind of Regency heroine, a woman who is trying to make the best of the rules, but just isn’t succeeding in making her life satisfying. Another reason I suspected I would like that book was that Jo Beverley seems to be a foolproof author for me. I’ve read lots of her books and liked them all, albeit to varying degrees.

Sure enough – I loved Hazard. In comparison to the historicals I’d been reading (Gaelen Foley’s Lord of Fire and Lord of Ice, Connie Brockway’s The Bridal Season and Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mister Bridgerton) the voice telling the story of Hazard seemed less modern and more rooted in its time. It seemed more like a trad. For the most part the hero and heroine played by the rules and when they bent those rules, they seemed to have the misgivings that people during the Regency would feel. The language had that rhythm one associates with trads. People spoke formally and for the most part, without contractions.

At the time that I read Hazard we were talking quite a bit about the decline of the traditional Regency Romance. Blythe Barnhill, AAR’s Managing Editor, had returned from this year’s RWA conference and told all of us about presentations where problems with selling trads were discussed. During those discussions one could not help but notice that many of the best Regency writers: Mary Balogh, Jo Beverley and Diane Farr among them, leaving the Regency world to write historicals. The change was mourned.

I was among the mourners, but reading Hazard gave me new hope. Who cares what the covers look like if trads survive? Hazard, to me, is a “Regency in disguise.” As a reader I don’t see a substantial difference between it and Jo Beverley’s early trads such as An Arranged Marriage and An Unwilling Bride. In fact, Beverley herself has pointed out that those books now being packaged and published as historicals. This is particularly interesting as Jo Beverley was one of the first writers of traditional Regencies to write longer Regencies, Regencies that would push the envelope of acceptable content.

This week, as I was considering this idea of some books that are basically long trads being published as historicals, I wrote to Jo Beverley and asked about books that are regencies being marketed as historicals. She responded as follows:

“My early Rogues books, An Arranged Marriage, Unwilling Bride, and Christmas Angel, were sold as Regencies, then reissued recently as historicals without objection. But that’s a reflection of a changing market. Back in the early ’90s the idea of the Regency historical was only just taking shape. A society-based Regency was considered automatically to be a “Regency.” If a book in that period was published as a historical, it was probably based outside society with highwaymen, pirates, world travel etc. This brings up the question of what is a traditional Regency and what is a regency historical. To my mind, the trad is sweet – ie little or no sex, and that only in marriage, and also is rooted in the mores of society. The plot will spring mainly from those mores, even if there is some adventure along the way, and the characters will observe the rules or suffer the consequences. I think this is why traditional Regency fans are so picky about accuracy. If the rules really matter, they have to be right. Having a heroine wandering the night streets of London alone, or spitting in the hero’s face in the middle of a ball can’t simply be ignored. She can do it, but there must be consequences or an explanation of why not. “A Regency historical, OTOH, can have a wider palette. The action can be away from society and involved areas where the rules don’t matter so much, though I personally don’t think the author should disregard them. The plot might not have much to do with social rules and organization.

“But it doesn’t have to be that way. I would say that all my regency historicals fit within an admirably stable society, use society’s rules as major features, and frame the couple’s happy ending with their fit within that society. The big difference is the greater length that allows for more external plot, and, of course, the sex, sometimes very much breaking society’s rules. However, I would not ignore society’s retribution if the truth came out. There’s always been a difference between sinning and being found out.

Although I generally agree with what Jo says about the wider palette, my reading lately suggests that with most historicals there are noticeable differences in the writing styles of trads and historicals, not to mention less sex. Hazard felt like a Regency to me because Jo Beverley’s voice did not sound as modern as those of many historical writers, because she is picky about details and because the sex was so subtle. But Jo understood what I was saying explained why Hazard felt so much like a Regency to me:

“I’m glad you liked Hazard so much. Ever since I started clearly writing Regency-set historicals with Forbidden Magic, I have been trying to write the traditional Regency form and expand it. As I said, I don’t think it’s sex per se that’s the key, but what happens to cause/allow the sex. In my books I try to make it believable in terms of both the risk and repercussions, and the motivations of the characters. “I don’t believe most respectable unmarried ladies of Regency society would risk everything for uncommitted sex, and I don’t believe any true gentleman would put a woman he respects in that danger. That’s why marriage of convenience stories are so much fun! Thus Clarissa, in The Devil’s Heiress, pretty well has to seduce Hawk, and he only weakens because they’re on their way to their wedding, ie committed. The situation in similar in Hazard, but works out a bit better. Susan, in The Dragon’s Bride, is older and has already made some free-spirited choices but it still messes things up a lot. Maria in the novella The Demon’s Mistress is a widow who thinks she is barren. She is free to succumb to temptation.

“In addition to the above, the Regency does allow enjoy playing with the social mores, the class distinctions, and the eccentric characters. It also, traditionally, uses wit as a means of flirtation and even seduction. To me those are the chief charms.”

I asked Jo what differences, if any, she saw between Hazard and a traditional Regency Romance. She wrote:

“In that case it almost could be published as a trad if they hadn’t had sex in that attic. It is probably closest to traditional form of any of my historicals. A lot of the action and motivation comes straight out of the rules of Anne’s world. In fact I would say it all does. There’s no external plot, and no real villain. Society is the antagonist which cannot be simply ignored and still give them a happy ending. They have to either vanquish it or succeed from within, whichever you prefer. “In fact, this is one of the main appeals for me as a reader and a writer – working within those rules to get the tangled couple to the believable happy ending. Simply disregarding the rules seems to me to be as much fun as winning at cards by changing the rules each deal to suit my hand.”

After I finished Hazard I put the thoughts of “Regencies in disguise” aside for a while. A few months later, I bought Mary Balogh’s A Summer to Remember. Mary Balogh is an auto-buy for me and has been since I started reading romance. I have enjoyed most of the Balogh’s I have read. My very favorites are her trads, especially The Notorious Rake, A Precious Jewel, Lord Carew’s Bride and The Obedient Wife. I’ve enjoyed her historicals too – Heartless, Thief of Dreams and Longing all sit on my keeper shelf. But as much as I’ve enjoyed Mary Balogh’s historicals, none match her best trads. Though I certainly understand why a writer of Mary Balogh’s popularity would give up writing books in this sub-genre given their low sales figures, it seems a terrible shame that one of the best writers of trads would give up writing them.

I expected A Summer to Remember to be excellent, not only because I like books but because AAR Reviewer and editor Ellen Michelliti had liked it so much. But nothing prepared me for my reaction to the book. I didn’t just like A Summer to Remember – I loved it. But just as important I was stunned. In A Summer to Remember Mary Balogh had once again written a traditional Regency! The only difference that I could see between A Summer to Remember and Balogh’s earlier trads was the length and the cover. Was it my imagination? I posted on our internal reviewer’s loop and asked Ellen what she thought. As a Regency aficionado I knew she would have noticed the similarity. Ellen wrote “Isn’t it good? It’s lighter than her other hardcovers, but since this is Balogh, there is angst too (poor Syd!). But overall, it was like one of her best Signet Regencies writ large. It and Jo Beverly’s Hazard are my favorite historical romances so far this year.”

Hmm. Interesting coincidence. Ellen, who loves trads as I do, loved both these books. The more I thought about A Summer to Remember, the more excited I got. Were we onto something? Was Mary Balogh writing Regencies again? In preparing this segment I wrote to her and asked about the similarities. Imagine my delight when I got this answer in my inbox:

“It is no accident that A Summer to Remember reads more like the Regencies I used to write than most of my other historicals do. When I first moved into historical writing, the expectation was that I would write “bigger” books in more than just length. I was pleased with what I wrote, but readers kept telling me that they preferred the old Signet Regencies, and I couldn’t help agreeing! “Then suddenly I acquired an enlightened editor. I sent her a synopsis for a complex historical over which I had labored a long time, and she rejected it. I was devastated, but ten minutes later, when I hung up at the end of the phone call, I was absolutely elated. She had told me that she had just read a few of my old Signets (she hadn’t read any of my Regencies before that) and she said to me something like, “Mary, this is what I want you to write for us at Dell.” She gave me leave to forget about historicals and to write Regencies again. The only difference would be that they would be slightly longer and would be packaged and marketed as historicals. By the following morning I had the synopsis for More than a Mistress on her desk.

“She loved it!

More than a Mistress and No Man’s Mistress were really very like my old Regencies, but I think I really got back into the old stride with A Summer to Remember and the six-book Bedwyn series that has developed from it. I have abandoned all ideas of making the books “bigger” with complex plots and have reverted to writing tightly plotted, character-driven books in which the emphasis is on the love story passionately told from the deep interior point of view of my hero and heroine. A number of readers have told me that they think Summer is one of my best books.

“The sales of these Regencies-in-disguise are, of course, very much higher than those of the traditional Regencies. Many readers think that they do not like Regencies, but ironically historicals set in the Regency era have long been very popular indeed. I seem to have found my way into the best of all worlds, in which I can write what I love writing but tap into that larger market. The ones I am writing now are not in any way more sexy than most of the Regencies I used to write. It’s just that they had a small print run and many readers didn’t even give the books a try – they assumed they would be that dull, bland old thing, a Regency Romance!

“Regencies are not necessarily dull. In fact, I think that most are not dull at all! But somehow that perception of them has developed among many readers of romance. My publisher has found a way of demonstrating those readers that it just is not so. Lucky me!”

There was one more 2002 historical romance that had me thinking it was a trad in disguise. It was Diane Farr’s The Fortune Hunter, a book with a feisty, independent heroine who also manages to be true to the period. I’ve enjoyed Diane Farr’s trads, especially The Nobody and Fair Game but I was unprepared for how much I would like The Fortune Hunter. Though its hard to put my finger on why I preferred this book to her others my reaction to it was that it was simply more compelling and read more quickly than her previous books. At the same time The Fortune Hunter had the period flavor that I like so much in trads. Much of the dialogue had me laughing and I graded it an “A” on the list of books I keep on my computer. 

The Fortune Hunter has very little sex and is, possibly, even more subtle than Carla Kelly’s With This Ring. As I read it I could not help but reflect that somebody reading the manuscript must have noticed this. It was interesting, and refreshing to see that Diane Farr had not been pressured into putting more sex into the book than she felt the story required. Was it a “Regency in disguise?” I thought it was but wrote and asked Diane Farr to be sure. In response Diane wrote::

“Of the writers you are asking, I seem to have jumped the fastest from writing traditional Regencies to “Regency-set historicals,” so my observations may be slightly different from theirs. I was first published in 1999, when the lines were already clearly drawn between the two types of book, and a writer wrote either one thing or the other. And yet, between the covers of the actual books, the boundaries were not so clear. Traditional Regencies were taking risks, including (at times) more sexual content than had previously been considered acceptable, elements of mystery or suspense, paranormal elements, etc. etc. – to the point where many of them were reading more like historicals. Historicals with more complex, old-fashioned and/or passive voice sentence structure … occasionally … and more attention to period detail … usually … and a blatant attempt to sound more English than American … perhaps … and an emphasis on wit and humor … sometimes. And they were, of course, shorter … supposedly. “So, in what way do my historicals differ from my Regencies? It’s hard to define (gee, can you tell?), but there is a difference. The stories I tell in my historicals are, probably, the same stories I would tell in Regency format. And I do make a conscious effort to set them squarely in the period and not to let blatant anachronisms (or Americanisms) slip into my characters’ speech. But the tone of the books is more modern. By that I mean, for one thing, shorter sentences. For another, more accessible language. The “feel” of the book no longer contributes to the period experience. (I hope this makes sense.) An historical must take place in the period setting, but can be written with an unabashedly modern voice, as if the author were time-traveling and reporting a tale she observes with her own, modern, eyes. In writing a Regency, the object of the author’s game is let the reader time-travel.

“Hardcore readers of traditional Regencies are, in my experience, history buffs who are actively seeking a time-travel vacation. An author writing for that audience makes an attempt to write more – uh – gracefully? I am scratching my head over how to express this! I don’t mean to imply that historicals are clumsily written. But a traditional Regency written in an intrusively modern voice annoys the core readers. It interferes with their ability to immerse themselves in the period. The whole idea, no matter what you are writing, is to please the audience. And the audiences for the two sub-genres are different. There is cross-over, of course, but a traditional Regency must be written to please the core group of Regency readers who never read historicals. And an historical must be written to please the core group of historical readers who never read Regencies. In order to please one audience or the other, an author must understand what Regency readers find objectionable about historicals. As you can see, I have a foot in each camp.

Reading this letter gave me an excellent picture of why Diane Farr was such an instant hit writing trads. Though I understand what she is saying I also believe that her standards for what makes for a good Regency Romance are higher than those of many of the lesser writers of traditional Regencies writers I have come across. Certainly my experience reading the posts of Regency readers on various discussion lists bears out her assumption that the core Regency Romance audience has a taste for historical accuracy that probably exceeds that of the wider historical audience. Many of the readers have an astonishing expertise in period customs, laws and other details. Similarly the books that they admire most are books that exemplify those standards.

Nevertheless Diane is right that trads have changed in the last ten years and that many writers, such as Mary Balogh, have pushed the envelope. A Diane Farr Regency Romance, in my experience plays within the rules. So when Diane Farr sees herself as bending the rules in a historical, she is often bending them less than some of the Regency writers producing books today.

Any reader of Regency Romances can regale you with stories of huge gaffs in within the pages of traditional Regencies. I once read an Emily Hendrickson, Miss Haycroft’s Suitors, featuring a hero wondering if the villain was planning to marry the heroine and then divorce her immediately afterward, as if that were possible. Blythe Barnhill read and reviewed another of her books, The Dangerous Baron Leigh, wherein the hero walked in and out of the heroine’s bedroom constantly. Yet Emily Hendrickson is often cited as an example of historical accuracy in Regencies, even though her reputation as a story-teller isn’t all it could be.

Why is this? I think the key is that trads usually sound different from historicals even when they are not more accurate. Diane’s comment on the use of passive voice is illuminating because some Regencies often “sound” historical or English to the American ear. Passive voice can make a story sound old-fashioned. Too much passive voice can put a reader to sleep. My personal feeling about passive voice is that most of the time it is a sign of poor, difficult to read, writing. Jane Austen may have been able to get away with paragraph after paragraph of sentence using verbs of being and passive voice but the modern writer should avoid it at all costs. What was delightful to me about Hazard, The Fortune Hunter and A Summer to Remember is that for the most part, they are trads in disguise. They sound more like trads than many historicals even though the use of passive voice is limited. I don’t want every historical to be a Regency Romance in disguise. Too much of anything gets dull and I want my Gaelan Foley’s, Connie Brockway’s and Julia Quinn’s too. But its nice to know that the best regency writers have an avenue into the wider historical market.

Book Signing Horror Stories (Anne Marble)

Book signings sound like a great, fun idea for authors – but they can be very difficult. Many chains are now putting limits on book signings. For example, some chains refuse to allow book signings for print on demand books because those books can’t be returned if they don’t sell. Even authors published by small publishers who are not POD publishers are running into trouble because of this rule. Also, any author who can’t sell at least 50 copies of her mass market paperback at one signing is out of luck if she wants to have a signing at Waldenbooks, thanks to new rules.

As if that weren’t enough, other things can go wrong during a book signing. Imagine that you’re an author, and you’re going to have a book signing in a store that day. Of course, you’re excited about it. But what if you went to that store and learned that they didn’t know you’re having a signing.

That’s what happened to Robin Schone, best-selling author of erotic romances.

“By far the most horrible experience I have ever had was a book signing at a local Barnes & Noble. It was a beautiful day – not too hot, a little windy – the kind of day that makes shopping a pleasure (as attested by the crowded parking lot). A good omen, I thought. Well, I go inside … and look around in total confusion. There was no sign advertising my book signing (at every B&N signing I had ever participated in there had always been a sign up front informing customers of the book signing, including the date, time and author[s]). Okay. I take a deep breath and go back to the information counter. Literally I grab a sales clerk who is running to and fro helping customers. She asked if I needed help. I said I was Robin Schone. She asked if there was a book she could help me find. I said no, but she could help me find the person who is in charge of my book signing. At which point a total look of surprise suffused her face and she exclaimed, “OH! Didn’t you get a call telling you the signing had been canceled due to illness on part of the Community Director?” In my most reasonable voice I said no, if I had, I wouldn’t be here, now would I? She said no problem, I could still have my book signing.”Before I knew it, I was plunked down at a table at the very far end of the cafeteria (needless to say, the cafeteria was totally empty – all the customers were out shopping in the store), with about four copies of my latest book in front of me. She asked what I would like – coffee or whatever – I said water, and that was the last I saw of her. Or anyone else, aside from the person behind the food counter. I almost walked out. In the end I was glad I didn’t because a couple of fans found me – one of whom drove sixty miles to come see me (I had notified fans via my newsletter that I would be signing at such and such store on such and such date – the only form of advertisement that poor little book signing got).”

There was another book signing that didn’t go very well for Robin. However, she saw the humor in it.

“On the funny side, just two weeks earlier I had done a book signing at a Walden bookstore. They positioned me right in the doorway. That end of the shopping mall was under renovation, so there were few and far people meandering about. I smiled at each and every one of them. Toward the end of the signing, this guy with a big grin came up to me and said, “You’re pretty.” I gulped, smiled, and returned, “Thank you. Would you like a bookmark?” He ignored my bookmark. Instead he asked–still wearing that big grin, “Would you like to go out with me?” Thinking quickly, I said, “I’m sorry, but I have to stay and sign books.” He goes, “Oh. That’s okay. You smiled at me, so I figured you wanted to go out with me.”

After doing numerous book signings, Robin has experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly of signings.

“In my experience, the best signings are those in which the bookstore manager makes a concerted effort to draw people in by advertising the event in local newspapers and radio. The best book signing I ever had occurred at another local Barnes & Noble. The manager was very savvy, and notified the suburban entertainment section of the Chicago Tribune about the upcoming signing. As a result, I sold every book (25) I had in twenty-minutes – a clerk was sent to surrounding stores to grab more. That occurred with my first published book in 1995.”

Yet six years later, a signing at the same store did not go so well. Why? For starters, there was a different manager and a “Community Director” who promised to take care of everything. In other words, there were no notices in the newspaper, only ads in the store and in the monthly newsletter. Robin still sold a lot of books, but only because she worked the crowd. However, her final experience with that “Community Director” wasn’t pleasant.

“…the real clincher came after the book signing when the Community Director asked me to sign the remaining books. No problem (a lot of autographed books are sold after a signing – it is a major mistake for managers to strip/return books simply because they don’t sell in a one/two hour long book signing as many people are too shy to confront an author and will later pick up signed book[s] either for themselves or as gifts), but … He slapped a sticker over my name at the bottom. I said, “Hey! No one can see my last name, how are people who might be looking for my books know that they’re written by me?” He said Barnes & Noble policy – book signed stickers go on the bottom right corner of a book and there are no exceptions. Great for authors whose name is on the top of a book, not great at all for authors whose name is on the bottom of a book.”

Being a romance author comes with its own problems. Sometimes the staff doesn’t respect you. For example, historical romance author Laura Kinsale mentioned an experience involving a rude clerk at a signing. “I was sitting there with no customers (of course) talking to some older man, and he mentioned Kafka, and the bookstore clerk said, ‘She’s a romance writer; she’s never heard of Kafka.’ Laura Kinsale admitted that this was one of those times when she thought of all her good comebacks the next day. Instead, she managed to say something along the order of “Yes I have!”

However, she managed to work the incident into her book The Shadow and the Star. “Right after the big sword fight, in which the heroine is a bystander, the heroine says. ‘I wish – I wish I would have thought of something very sharp and cutting to say to those men! To be sure I will tomorrow, when it will be too late!'”

So many authors, romance authors or not, have similar stories about book signings. Most common of all, authors report sitting at a table without selling a single books, becoming the object of rude comments (as happened to Laura Kinsale), and weird, ever-changing store policies that aren’t friendly to authors.

So are book signings worth the trouble for authors? Helma Clark has written both romantic suspense and a book called Snot Bubbles! A Football Primer for Moms, Wives and Significant Others. Helma admits that she has decided not to do any more signings at bookstores. Helma explains, “I think I can comfortably say all my ‘signings’ have been horror stories. That’s not to say that I haven’t met some wonderful people at every signing, It’s just that I’m not book signing material.”

Helma hates having to sit, but loves the chance to give a talk as a part of her signings. For example, she has given a lot of Snot Bubbles parties at bookstores – these are parties where she teaches the basics of football to football widows and football mothers. She didn’t sell that many books at these events because she gave away a lot of the information. However, about a week after the signing, those stores would start selling more copies of her books. Word of mouth was hard at work.

On the other hand, regular book signings where she had to sit and wait for people to come by were another thing entirely.

“Every time I have agreed to a straight signing, I have spent two hours in hell. With the exception of the few souls who are kind enough to stop by the table with curiosity, most patrons want nothing more from me than to direct them to the sale table or the bathroom. (I am now an expert on being able to tell who wants which as soon as they get through the door.)”

Experiences like this finally turned Helma against book signings. Giving speeches is another thing altogether.

“I spend a lot of time in book stores. Of all the authors I’ve met who are signing books, I’ve never remembered one name. But I always remember people who give me information. Over the last couple of years, I’ve spent a lot of time and money on book signings that did no one any good. I’ve also spent a fair amount on giving speeches. But the laughter and the smiles make it worth every minute and every penny. So no more book store signings for me. If someone at Barnes & Noble needs to know where the bathrooms are, they’ll have to ask someone else.”

Readers Rant on Authors and Promotion (Anne Marble)

Okay, they really don’t rant, but my original title was boring… anyway, after the ATBF column on author and fan behavior on-line, several readers were happy to discuss the best ways authors can go about promoting their books on the Internet.

Like many readers, Rosario has no problem with authors mentioning their books on a list, as long as they contribute to that list. “I don’t mind authors posting about their books if, and only if, they have been active in the group. I hate it when they just pop in, announce their book and then disappear until their next one is released.”

CAB has seen – and experienced – the negative side of author interactions with readers.

“…I thought (naive me) when I first starting posting that authors didn’t interact with their fans or anti-fans because you know authors and other artistic types who put themselves out in the public eye and ask us to buy their wares would know better than to take to heart what every Jane, Jill and Joanne has to say about their book/product. I mean surely they realize that not everyone is going to like their books, right? Can you imagine if say you bought a Donna Karan something or other and posted somewhere on the fashion net that you didn’t like it and Ms. Karan and her minions barking your head off because of what you had to say about her? Or since we’re talking books, Maya Angelo doing battle with a reader over that reader’s displeasure with her books? It’s crazy sometimes the way romance authors and fans will trample a poster because of her negative opinion on said author’s book. So I’m wondering is this just a Romance Genre phenomenon or have you seen Ann Rice or John Grisham and/or fans go ape over a bad review or opinion? Maybe they do, I haven’t been over to their sites/board?”

Can an author’s behavior on a list or message board affect whether some readers refuse to buy her books? It can be an issue. SK Heaton says, “I won’t say I would never buy a book by an author that attacks the reviewers or readers. But with so many books on the shelves and a limited amount of time and money, the author’s behavior can be a factor.” However, word of mouth persuaded her to try Jo Beverley’s books for the first time, and she is now a fan. She also admires “Jo’s professionalism on the boards.”

So how can an author bring up her new book? Shinjinee reinforced what SK Heaton mentioned, that the best type of promotion is word of mouth – something the author herself can often do nothing about. Shinjinee adds, “In general, I prefer a subtler hint to open promos. If the author has been active on my reading groups/ mailing lists, it is OK for her to announce (briefly) that her latest book is coming out. Better still if someone else does that for her. As for posting on message boards, all I would say is that authors should post with great care. Sometimes controversy helps sell books, sometimes it does not. Short brief and polite posts almost always work.”

Readers Rant about Readers Ranting about Authors (Anne Marble)

Give me a minute while I take that title outside and bury it. See, I won’t mind if you tell me it’s silly.

What about on-line controversies when it’s an author’s angry fans who contribute the most to the fracas? But supporting a favorite author is one thing, turning a discussion into a fight is another. Many fans are upset when they believe their favorite authors are being attacked, and as they see negative reviews and AAR discussions as “attacks,” they often take their frustrations out on both the staff and fans of AAR.

Sandy C (Sandy C from New Bern as opposed to AAR Reviewer Sandy Coleman) has lived through the Dark Side of author/fan interactions, not to mention the Dark Side of fan/fan interactions. Because of her experiences, she makes a distinction between three types of message boards. The first two are fan boards – boards on official author sites and fan boards hosted by fans or groups that are friendly to authors. As Sandy C explains:

“From personal experience, I think someone is wasting their breath and considered rude by most posters if you post something negative or controversial on this type of board. I don’t waste my time with these types of boards unless I just want to compliment the author about a book I enjoyed or find out new information about an upcoming release. I look at this type of board as more of a promotional tool for the writer and a place for fans of that writer to come together in fandom.”

Finally, there are boards on sites dedicated to interaction from all readers, such as AAR. Or as Sandy C explains, “Here, it is not considered rude to dissect a book or post how you really feel about a book. It is what the site was developed for.”

Can angry fans become a promotional tool, however? Misty suggests that is a possibility.

“After reading the latest column I began to realize that maybe some authors have found that in complaining about the bad reviews, it creates more promotion for her/his book. For example, when an author sees Mrs. Giggles give her book a bad review and goes into public forums to complain, it sets into motion talk about not just Mrs Giggles, but the book. The name starts to get out there, and pretty soon you see all the outraged fangirls going on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and anywhere else they can to promote the book (many times before it has even reached the stores). And the side effects can be endless. It might make the reviewer look bad, but from where I sit, it only makes the author look like a whiner. It also makes them seem manipulative, especially from the ones who love telling half truths to fans who believe ever word they say.”I have a personal habit of wanting to know about things that tick me off to no end, strange I know, but it gets me revved and thinking to hear another point of view that isn’t my own. However, when one goes to these places that one knows isn’t all loving and happy thoughts about ones books, I would think that one would not go there any longer. Is it morbid curiosity? Maybe a little. I tend to think, lately anyway, that it’s more about the author wanting to capitalize on a potentially bad review. What better way to get the juices of ready fangirls out by having them react to a nasty reviews. I don’t mind when an author comes out to promote a book on sites where it’s a normal thing, but I do mind when it doesn’t quite seem above board.”

In response to Misty’s post, our own LLB weighed in with this:

“There’s that old saying about there being no such thing as bad PR, and the other quote, ‘I don’t care if they say good or bad, as long as they spell my name right.'”But I do think there are some authors who seem to make a stink no matter what. Some are masters of it; they can insert themselves into a discussion that isn’t about them, they can sound as though they are complimentary when they are actually digging the knife in, and, as you say, they sometimes pout about something any and everywhere, and if they have a large enough fan base, their fans will spread the word far and wide of yet another bout of mistreatment for their beloved author.

“There are less than five authors I can count who regularly engage in these shenanigans. It seems that each time they do it, a few more readers ‘catch on’ to their game, but by then there are a few more of their fans to hang on their every word.”

Just Say Yes (Laurie Likes Books)

Every so often I’ll read a book that blows me away because it’s so different from my usual fare. Well, I read Betina Krahn’s Just Say Yes recently, and it blew me away. Just Say Yes is the reissue of 1989 release entitled Passion’s Treasure and is set in Maryland and England during Colonial times. Heroine Treasure Barrett is a “thinker,” a very young woman who has solved the villagers’ problems for years. When it was discovered at a very early age how “special” her gifts were, she was given great latitude in the village. She was given an extensive education by the English squire in the great house, she was allowed to roam the area day and night, she was allowed to ask any question she had about anything, and because of her special status, none of the young men in the area dared to think of her as a women.

When the squire dies his estranged son, Sterling Renville, comes from England to dispose of his father’s estate. He plans on liquidating all properties, leaving the wretched colonies, and returning to his beloved England (and his fiancée) as soon as possible. Sterling and Treasure meet on a night when she’s returning books to the squire’s library. He assumes she’s a thief, and if not a thief than obviously a woman of little virtue. She’s practically given it up when she hauls off and smacks him, more insulted because he’s referred to their physical activities as “sport” than anything else, and when he goes to report her as a thief, he doesn’t at all know what to make of this business of Treasure being a “thinker.”

Treasure stymies all his attempts to collect his father’s debts, and it slowly dawns upon Sterling that she’s behind his failures. What’s driving him crazy, though, is that he constantly thinks about her – she’s a lot more stimulating than his fiancée, after all – but how to teach her a lesson she’ll never forget? As for Treasure, she’d never thought of herself as a woman, and Sterling’s driving her crazy every time he kisses and caresses her. But she’ll never marry, after all, she’s a “thinker.”

The two are tricked into a marriage that Sterling vows to have annulled, and yet what he thinks he wants and what he really wants are apparently two different things. The course he set for himself does not include Treasure, and though other people find her refreshing, he’s only embarrassed by her straightforward ways. Although he keeps doing things that keep them together, his anger at the change to his life’s path keeps him angry with her. It’s only after he hurts her feelings, sees his behavior through her eyes, that he cannot keep a lid on his lust. And so they go, angry, regretful, lustful, and then angry again. Eventually Sterling comes to his senses, even though there’s enough condemnation left in his demeanor that Treasure doesn’t really trust his love, even though she’s determined by this time that Sterling’s a “thinker” too. As if all this weren’t enough, there’s the slow growth of a secondary romance that develops throughout the latter half of the book.

Although this book isn’t a DIK for me, it’s darn close. I teared up several times while reading, fully aware but not bothered that the author was manipulating my emotions. Every time Sterling did something mean to Treasure, I got tears in my eyes. Every time Sterling regretted his behavior, I got tears in my eyes. There’s the time he practically accused her of being a slut when it’s his fault she was nearly raped. And then there’s that incident on the voyage between Maryland and England when he’d forced her to stay in her cabin so as not to embarrass him, only to learn the next day that she’d been violently ill with seasickness. And then there’s the time he complained to his friend that being married to a “penniless bumpkin” is like being “yoked to a bloody sow” and Treasure overhears his tirade. And finally, there’s that important party (following a lengthy separation) during which Treasure endures yet another of Sterling’s tirades after having attempted to live up to his expectations.

I can’t say Sterling did much for me at any point throughout the book… except that since Treasure loved him, I did too. Say what you will about stereotypical heroines, I loved Treasure. She was smart, beautiful, and though she was naive, she didn’t grate on my last nerve the way some naive heroines do. I did not hold against her that she allowed Sterling to treat her in a hateful fashion. Instead I rooted for her to redeem and transform him. And, there’s enough humor based on Treasure’s personality, Sterling’s anger, and the intense and immediate bond between the two that softened some of the harshness of the book. I think readers who believe many new romances are peopled by politically correct characters would enjoy this book at least as well as I did.

These last paragraphs have not been meant to review the book, but to set up points for discussion about romances in general, such as:

  • Are there romances you’ve read wherein you are perfectly aware the author is yanking your emotions but you don’t mind?
  • Are there certain scenes that “get to you” over and over again such as the scene wherein the hero causes the heroine real emotional pain and feels rotten about it or the heroine becomes ill, the hero feels rotten, and then nurses her back to health?
  • Which romances have you read wherein the heroine transforms herself during a separation in order to live up to the hero’s standards (and did she succeed or fail to impress him)?
  • How “different” can a heroine be before she’s annoying rather than interesting and/or fun to read about?

Time to Post to the Message Board

We usually provide specific questions for you to consider, but occasionally stray from this routine. That’s what we’re going to do this time around. Please feel free to comment and/or question any of the interesting topics we’ve brought you in this column. And if you’re wondering about the two survey questions we posed in the last issue, look for those results next time.


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