Congratulations and continued success to all the winners in our eighth annual reader’s poll, and a huge thank you to Shelley Dodge, AAR’s pollster, for tabulating the ballots. With 25 positive and 6 negative categories, it’s a tough job.
Please click here and open the full results page; this is a jump link that will allow you to toggle back and forth between the column and the results. It’s truly the best way to understand both the column and the results (the column itself does not list all the winners).
In past years I’ve laid out the results, done a little bit of analysis, and presented comments from the various winning authors. This year I’m approaching things differently. As the results came in I got the distinct impression that we are in a period of transition, with certain once-beloved authors fading in popularity in favor of other authors who may or may not have stamina. The final tally doesn’t tell the whole picture; individual ballots lead me to believe that hybrid novels, non-genre romances, and mid-list authors are filling the void left by authors who have either fallen from favor or whom did not have 2003 releases. Will these other authors have staying power, and will the hybrid continue to gain strength in popularity?
Even though the final tally does tend toward many of the same lead authors we’re used to seeing and their continued popularity among readers, it also provides a glimpse into the transition I think we’re in. While there were more “stand-alone” winners this year than we’ve seen in some time, in several categories top vote-getters were more clumped together than usual. The former observation would lead a person to believe that 2003 was a year of boffo blockbuster romances while the latter observation stands in contradiction. My best guess is that romance readers are going the way of cable and satellite television watchers. We’re not just reading the romance novel equivalents of ABC, CBS, and NBC anymore, and for a variety of reasons. Our favorite romance novelists have moved on, we’ve moved beyond them, the large marketplace of viewpoints opened up by the Internet creates new and different choices, and/or cravings for something different are leading us elsewhere. All these reasons, frankly, fit with the “season of discontent” Blythe mentioned in her Reviewer’s Choice column. 2003 was simply not a year for blockbusters in the world of romance, and as a result we readers went our separate ways to find satisfaction at times we did while at others we did not (I think more individual titles were submitted in the “worst” and “disappointing” categories than ever before.)
That’s not to say certain well-established authors don’t continue to hold sway. Consider Linda Howard, who has appeared as a winner or received honorable mention every year since we began these awards. She is our big winner this year and takes away four wins along with two honorable mentions. Her best year previous to this was in 2000, when she had two releases, won in three categories, and received honorable mention in three others. This time around she did it with just one book – Cry No More. That’s very significant; many of the biggest winners throughout the history of our poll have done so with one, two, or even three releases in a single year.
Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb is another author who’s appeared every year to date; most often as Robb. But along with her wins and honorable mentions almost always come negative wins/dishonorable mentions (but never as Robb). Her best year was 1998, when she received four wins and five honorable mentions. In 1999 she won in six categories but received her first dishonorable mention. This year she wins in two categories, receives two honorable mentions, but also has a negative “win.”
Suzanne Brockmann is, once again, perhaps the biggest “story” in this year’s awards even if she isn’t the biggest winner. She had a single title release and a series release in the poll and, for the first time in the history of our awards, the same book – Gone Too Far – won for both Best Romance and Worst Romance, signaling yet again the polarizing affect this author has on the online readership for whatever reason. All in all Brockmann takes away three wins, one honorable mention, one negative win and one dishonorable mention. Last year she won in six categories and also “won” or placed in two negative categories; the year before she swept the awards with eight wins and one tie, and also received a negative award.
An author enjoying a resurgence in recent years is Lisa Kleypas, who first won readers over in the early/mid 1990’s only to falter later in that decade. But she’s made a comeback and entered our winner’s circle for each of the last three years. Julia Quinn, whose books are among those that perhaps best typify the light Regency-historical, returns to the winner’s circle as well, where she’s appeared for every year since 1997.
As occurs every year, there are “stand-alone” winners, categories for which the winning author and/or book is so far ahead of the competition that we do not award honorable mention. There was one tie for 2003 (the heroes from Fallen From Grace and Dance with the Devil shared the Most Tortured Hero award), and 11 categories for which there were no honorable mentions awarded. That’s significantly higher than for the past two years, when there were no honorable mentions in only seven categories. There were 11 stand-alone winners in 2000 and fifteen in 1999. But in some categories this year the votes were so clumped together that the winner won by the most infinitesimal of margins. That Tortured Hero category was one such category; not only was there a tie, but of the titles listed as winner/honorable mention, only two votes separated the top five vote getters.
Of the stand-alone wins, some were huge. Kinley MacGregor’s Born in Sin received more than four times the number of votes as the second favorite medieval, and more than three times the number of readers voted Mary Balogh Most Glommed as the second most glommed author. But how to compare these wins with Linda Howard’s win in the Most Hanky category? Her win was with a slightly less than 2-to-1 margin, but the number of votes she received in that category just about equal the number of votes both Balogh and MacGregor received in those other categories when added together.
Now that we’ve got so many years worth of polling data I thought it might be interesting to look back and compare the big winners (and some losers). Do these books and their authors stand the test of time? Were these authors are the start of their ascendance, at the apex, or at the end? Let’s start with this year’s results and take a look back:
Our Big Winners
Linda Howard – Cry No More (Four wins, two honorable mentions)
Best Romantic Suspense
Honorable Mention – Romance
Honorable Mention – Hero
Suzanne Brockmann – Gone Too Far and Night Watch (Three wins, one honorable mention, one negative award, one dishonorable mention)
Best Series Romance
Honorable Mention – Cabin/Road
Dis-honorable Mention – Authors Others Love that You Don’t
Mary Balogh – Slightly Married, Slightly Scandalous, and the novella A Family Christmas (Two wins, two honorable mentions)
Best European Historical
Author Most Glommed
Honorable Mention – Short Story
Honorable Mention – Villain
J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts – Portrait in Death and Remember When (Two wins, two honorable mentions, one negative award)
Best Alternate Reality
Honorable Mention – Heroine
Honorable Mention – Couple
Authors Others Love that You Don’t
Sherrilyn Kenyon/Kinley MacGregor – Dance with the Devil and Born in Sin (Two wins, one honorable mention)
Most Tortured Hero (Tie)
Honorable Mention – Tortured Hero
Laura Leone – Fallen From Grace (Two wins, one honorable mention)
Best Buried Treasure
Most Tortured Hero (Tie)
Honorable Mention – Contemporary
Shannon McKenna – Standing in the Shadows (Two wins)
One of the most interesting categories we poll for each year is the Author Most Glommed. As you can see to your right, only four authors have captured this title in the last eight years, with two authors each holding sway for three consecutive years.
Of this group I find Balogh’s presence most interesting. A much-beloved writer of traditional Regencies, she made the transition to full-length historicals several years ago. There used to be two groups of Balogh fans; those who preferred her trads (obviously less widely read) and those who preferred her historicals. With her most recent releases being “Regencies in disguise,” perhaps the two are coming together? Regardless, Balogh had her best year ever in our awards for 2003 with two wins and two honorable mentions (prior to 2003 she’d received a total of two wins and five honorable mentions). Though Balogh has received twelve DIK’s at AAR (and 11 of those were written by review staff), neither of her two 2003 books voted for by our readers earned DIK status from our staff; Slightly Married earned a B+ while Slightly Scandalous earned a B.
Always intriguing is the Best New Author category. For the first three years of the poll (1997, 1998, and 1999) we didn’t have this category. In 1998 we created the Best New Discovery category, but it was not limited to debuting authors – it was simply the author each reader “discovered” for herself that year. Not until 2000 did we differentiate between debut and existing authors by adding another category specifically for debuting authors, so Adele Ashworth’s placement for 1999 comes from her honorable mention in the New Discovery category (the winner in this category was an already-published author). FYI, in 2000 the New Discovery category morphed into New Discovery/Buried Treasure. It morphed again in 2003 into Buried Treasure.
While analyzing the results certain categories stuck out. Many readers questioned the dearth of good medieval romances in 2003. 2003, as we know, is the year Madeline Hunter moved from the Medieval to the Regency era, and I think that loss showed. The win in the medieval category was huge and I believe reflected not only how much readers enjoyed Born in Sin, but how few choices there were. Hunter has pretty much owned the medieval category since 2001, although she shared it in 2002 with Susan Squires, whose 2003 Medieval came in an extremely distant second to MacGregor’s book. And speaking of Kinley MacGregor, aka Sherrilyn Kenyon – she tied to win in the Tortured Hero category for her Kenyon title and received honorable mention for her MacGregor release.
The character of Eve Dallas from J.D. Robb’s long-running In Death series is probably the winningest character we’ve ever seen, although Robb’s Roarke comes close (Eve may have an “unfair advantage” in that she gets votes for both Best Heroine and Strongest Heroine while Roarke “only” gets votes for Best Hero and not Tortured Hero). This year, as in three previous years, Roarke’s been our readers’ Best Hero, and in three other years he received honorable mention in this category. Roarke and Eve are the winningest couple in romance and have been our readers’ Best Couple for five of the past eight years, knocked off the throne in 2002 by Sam and Alyssa, who were secondary characters in that year for Suzanne Brockmann. Eve and Roarke won honorable mention in 2003 to Julia Quinn’s Colin and Penelope and win honorable mention again this year to Brockmann’s Sam and Alyssa as leads in their own (finally!) story.
What stands out most in the Best Western/American Historical category is that the top two vote getters were not romances at all. While Lorraine Heath, our biggest past winner (with three wins and two honorable mentions) in this category, did not have an American Historical out this year, our second biggest past winner, Maggie Osborne (with two wins and one honorable mention) did – and she was not a top vote-getter this time. Even so, Carla Kelly’s historical anthology Here’s to the Ladies and P.B. Ryan’s (Patricia Ryan) mystery Still Life with Murder placed first and second in this category respectively.
In almost every year the book that wins as Best Romance either wins or receives honorable mention in the time setting category as well (because readers often choose two books to honor, sometimes the Best Romance “only” receives honorable mention in the setting category). But that’s not always the case. This year is an anomaly, and so was 2000:
* We did not award by setting in 1997/Links to yearly awards are jump links
This year’s poll indicates AAR’s reviews matched our readers very well; each of the top four vote-getters in the Best Romance category, for instance, received DIK status. 17 category winners received DIK status; the other eight received grades in the B range, which means that all the winners in positive categories received some level of recommendation from our review staff. In the far fewer negative categories, though, there was more disparity. Obviously there’s Brockmann’s Gone Too Far, which was both Best Romance and Worst Romance – it received DIK status from us. And then there’s Thompson’s Nerd in Shining Armor, given a grade of B at AAR. The heroine from this book was voted Most Annoying Lead Character and the book itself was voted Biggest Disappointment.
Results in the Best Series Romance category reminded me of the Medieval results. The winner and honorable mention received so many more votes than the title next in line that it begs the question: were Brockmann and Korbel’s books that good or were the pickings that slim in 2004? On the other hand, the Short Story category results required a photo-finish among the top four vote-getters.
If for no other reason than it allows me to bring up Audrey Niffenegger, let’s now turn to the Alternate Reality results. For the second time J.D. Robb won the category, but Audrey Niffenegger, whose The Time Traveler’s Wife is not a genre romance, receives honorable mention. She was among the top vote-getters in five categories. Other less-known authors who were top vote-getters in multiple categories include Candice Proctor, Marsha Moyer, and Laura Leone, who was a top vote-getter in six categories (one less than Mary Balogh, who appeared in more positive categories [only] than any other author).
We at AAR don’t believe it’s possible to talk about the best without also discussing the worst, a widespread practice throughout the media in discussions of movies, books, and music. Let’s begin with the Author You Gave Up On category, which has been “won” by some of the biggest names in romance over the years:
2000 Coulter (Perhaps so many people had given up on her by 1999 that there was nobody left to give up thereafter?)
I think there’s fairly widespread agreement that Coulter and Deveraux’s best days are behind them, but Quick’s latest book surprised many readers. Is there still life for Laurens as well? Reviews are mixed.
When we began this poll in 1997 we included a Most Disappointing Read category but not one for Worst Read; that wasn’t added until 1999. We’ve always polled for Purple-est Prose, even if some interpret the category or the results as “sexiest writing” rather than most flowery and over-the-top in terms of description and style. Last year Anne Marble wrote an ATBF segment on an AARList discussion about negative awards and whether or not there is a need for them. As Anne reported at the time, while some members of AARList (comprised of both readers and authors) believe negative awards are “schoolyard” and detrimental, others find them useful as a counterbalance to provide weight to the winning entries. Negative awards also offer a way for readers to vent about authors they don’t “get” and can help us see trends over time. Let’s list all three categories here and see if their disappointment, awfulness, and purple-tude stand the test of time:
* We did not award by setting in 1997/Links to yearly awards are jump links
The choice of Suzanne Brockmann’s Gone Too Far as Worst Romance quite frankly stunned me, particularly since it was also Best Romance. There were a lot of stinkers out there in the pool of 2003 releases, and it’s hard to imagine her book was actually the worst among them all. Might readers have chosen it as some sort of rebellious statement against hardcover romances, a series gone on too long, or an author whom some readers love to hate? As my co-columnist Robin Uncapher said, “If Gone Too Far was the worst book readers read in 2003, they’re lucky that they’re not reading what we’re reading.” That said, earlier “winners” in this category earned miserable grades at AAR and in a couple of instances were harbingers of shark-jumping for the author, so clearly Brockmann is someone we’ll be watching closely.
We’ve talked a great deal about repeater authors, authors who have shown up in these results year after year, and authors who “win” in negative categories. What about those who are new and those who have dropped off? Laura Leone, for instance, makes her first appearance in our winner’s circle this time around, as does Nonnie St. George. Leone, whose book was not released by a major retail publisher, won in two categories and received honorable mention in a third (lending credence to my TV analogy, as does Carla Kelly’s showing for her university press released Here’s to the Ladies) while St. George, a debuting author, received one win and one honorable mention.
Some past-winning authors were ineligible for this year’s poll because they did not have a 2003 U.S. release, including Connie Brockway, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Crusie, and Judith Ivory. Authors Dara Joy and Robin Schone also did not have 2003 releases, but I wonder whether or not these authors have already peaked. Sometimes the loss of momentum, regardless of the reason, can do damage to a career. But other authors with longer writing histories, such as Mary Jo Putney and Stephanie Laurens, did have eligible books. Putney was a must-read historical author in the mid-to-late 1990’s. Many believe she later lost her footing but in 2002 she had a resurgence with The Spiral Path. But the majority of votes she received in this poll were in negative categories. As for Laurens, in 2003 she “won” two negative awards and received “dis”-honorable mention in a third. In 2004 again she’s only a negative winner.
What stands out most to me when I look over the last eight year’s worth of favorite romances is what a smart group of books we’ve chosen, written mainly by authors with a certain amount of longevity. What conclusions do you draw from this year’s poll, and about the results going back to 1997? I can’t wait to hear from you on our ATBF Message Board, and also to see which books, authors, and characters you loved or didn’t.
We again congratulate all those authors who won or received honorable mention in our eighth annual reader poll. We’ve contacted all but Candice Proctor and asked that they email me with their comments for me to share with you or for them to directly post their thoughts on winning/placing on our ATBF Message Board. Each winner also received our newly designed poll award, shown at right, to place on their web page if they so choose. (If you know Candice Proctor, send her our way!)
Our Eighth Anniversary
Today marks the eighth anniversary of this column, originally known as Laurie’s News and Views. Each year on the anniversary of the column I like to check in with readers to find out if it’s still relevant or should be put out to pasture. Keeping it fresh after so long wouldn’t be possible with the able assistance of my two co-columnists – Robin Uncapher and Anne Marble. Robin has been my co-columnist for four years now; it’s Anne’s second anniversary.
I like to think the success of ATBF relates to its organic nature as well as the brilliance of those who contribute to it. But given the length of time we’ve been doing the column, we need to take its pulse every so often to make sure it isn’t dead, near dead, or needs to be put to death. Let us know, okay, and help us reminisce about your favorite columns/segments.
Time to Post to the Message Board
Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:
What did your own ballot look like? How many of the books listed had you read? With what percentage of the final tally did you agree? Are you inclined to read any of the books that did well that are in your tbr (or possibly tbb) pile? And, if you are one of those many readers who didn’t read a tremendous number of 2003-published romances, do you now feel as though you missed something?
Do you believe we’re in a period of transition?
Every year the question is raised that not enough mid-list authors made it into the winner’s circle. We would counter that there’s a reasonable mix here, and also that it’s logical that good books by lead authors would receive more votes than good books by lesser-known authors. What do you think about this year’s break-down of better-known/lesser-known authors and books?
What are the big surprises in this year’s results as far as you’re concerned? Which results didn’t surprise you at all?
If you were handing out these awards based on your own votes, which books/authors would have won?
Were we to include an additional category for next year, what would you like to see added? And should we change Strongest Heroine to Most Tormented Heroine to better “match” the Tormented Hero we already poll for?
Fill in the blank: Author _____ did not have a release for 2003 and it was sorely missed.
Looking back over the information presented for the past eight years, what do you think about it? Any surprises in terms of authors/books that won, won big, or lost? Do the big winners and/or big losers stand the test of time? What trends, if any, do you see?
Every year at this time when this column passes another anniversary, I ask our readers how it’s doing, whether it still providing interesting and thought-provoking commentary on the romance genre, its authors, and its readers. Now’s your chance to give me some your feedback – good, bad, indifferent – on At the Back Fence throughout the last year.
Take a stroll down memory lane and help us reminisce about previous issues and/or segments of the ATBF column you particularly recall.
TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books
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