At the Back Fence Issue #233

August 7, 2006

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books

Video Killed the Radio Star

Our regularly scheduled column for today will not appear due to illness. Look for a special ATBF, as promised last month, to appear next week. Instead, here is a more impromptu essay, one based on ideas floating around in my head since attending RWA’s national conference at the end of July. We’ve talked about some of these ideas before, but I hope to bring them together in a new way, so be patient as this is very much on the fly.

Rarely does more than a week go by without a thread appearing on either our Reviews or Potpourri Message Boards about editing issues. Last month Anne Marble wrote an ATBF entitled Where Have All the Historicals Gone?, and many of the posts to our ATBF Message Board were complaints about the dearth of time and place settings today, and the “Avonization” of historical romance, so named because of Julia Quinn’s success at Avon, and the seeming direction Avon has taken with many of its historical romance authors since she hit it big. And yet, it’s important to remember: before there was a Julia Quinn, there was an Amanda Quick, and while the latter’s books always had more of a mystery component, the two authors share a similar, extremely effective light style. What’s more, we don’t speak of the “Bantamization” of historical romance.

During the week of the historical discussion, I went back into our archives and found an early Laurie’s News & Views (the original name of this column) written more than nine years ago that sets out as two complaints romance readers have about romances: editing problems and a dearth of time and place settings.

Yes, we’ve been talking about these two issues – and others, such as baby and cowboy books – for nearly a decade. Everything old is new again. Have these problems become even more pronounced, or is there simply an internal alarm within a reader’s mind that eventually sounds off after having read some magical number of romances? Are newbie romance readers today as enthusiastic about romance as newbie readers five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago? This is a corollary of sorts to a working theory I’ve had for years, and it explains why a long-time reader of an author is non-committal about – or downright bored with – a new release while newbie readers, or simply readers new to that same author, think that same book is fabulous enough that she goes on a glom. In other words, a spark of that author’s magic still exists, even if, after reading several of her books, others think it’s long been extinguished. Which, of course, is also a corollary to another working theory I’ve had for years: the first as favorites theory

Long-time fans often complain that an author’s newer books aren’t as good as the earlier books. This begs the question – were the earlier books better, or were they better because they were the first ones the reader discovered by that author? My first Julie Garwood was Castles, and to this day it remains my favorite. Yet many readers who’d discovered her years earlier believe she’d peaked long before 1993 when the book was released. My first – and favorite – Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ was Lady Be Good, but many long-time SEP readers find it derivative of her older work. When we recently posted our review of the newest Janet Evanovich, more than one reader was surprised at the grade the book earned. While the reviewer found much to like in Twelve Sharp, she felt as though she’d read the book several times before, and so her final grade was a C-.

Not long ago Anne read almost every title in a long-running suspense series, beginning with the three most recent. It’s only later that she went back to read the earlier releases. After her glom-read, she learned that many of the series’ core fans don’t like the recent books and prefer the older books. And yet the newer books sell better than the older books did. This may be what happens with a lot of romance writers. An author’s earlier books help market the new ones. When Anne decided to buy that most recent thriller, she’d already heard of the series. When a new reader decides to buy the latest Quinn or Feehan, she may have seen the books in the store or seen ads for the books. A new reader who decides to buy something by an author will have a hard time finding anything but that author’s latest books in the stores, unless that author is one of the big names. After all, it’s all new to her, even if to the fans, it’s the same old same old.

Two years ago at the Dallas conference, I had breakfast with a Major Big Time author, one who has earned multiple DIKs (more than you can count on one hand, which means she’s one of the twenty authors with at least six DIK’s from our Did You Know…? page). She mentioned at that time how frightened she was for her career, believing that her type of writing was being pushed out for lighter historicals. At the Atlanta conference last month, I met with another best-selling author, and for the first time in her lengthy career, she is currently without a writing contract. She believes that if she agreed to write a Paranormal romance, she’d have no trouble being published, but Paranormals are not the books of her heart.

But throwing things out there in the hope that something will stick does not seem to be to be the best of business plans. Apparently Chick Lit is so five minutes ago…unless, as the Dorchester spotlight hinted, it’s combined with some Paranormal aspect. At least one Chick Lit imprint has been cancelled, and just a few years ago wasn’t it the Next Big Thing? The current buzz words are “Paranormal”, “Romantica/Erotic Romance”, and “More Sex”. It’s odd, isn’t it, that two of the growing romance sub-genres are Inspirationals and Romantica? But then, given how polarized our nation is politically, perhaps it’s not so strange.

We’ve all heard over the years that publishers pressure authors to write according to trends, but when you ask an editor, they generally deny that. Well, if there’s one thing I heard over and over again at RWA from authors – and established ones at that – is that it’s true, publishers really do push them into writing certain types of books. While writing this, Julie Kenner popped onto one of our boards to say that not all authors who are writing Paranormals these days are doing so out of pressure, and she’s absolutely right. Many authors – Kenner and Susan Grant included – once found it hard to get Paranormals published. What’s of more concern is that there are and will be many “slots” that publishers will want to fill with Paranormals, and that perhaps some that would not have otherwise have been published will be published just to fill a perceived need.

An argument I’ve made for years is this: Publishers are as quick to jump on the bandwagon as broadcast networks and movie studios are. But just because a particular book or TV show or film hits it big doesn’t mean ten or twenty or fifty written in a similar vein will also hit it big. While romances continue to account for 55% of all dollars spent on paperbacks, over the years I think the lack of far-sightedness has had an effect, exacerbated by the consolidation of publishers and distributors. When Regency-set historicals really took off, we saw a slow death in trad Regencies, Westerns, and Medievals, although apparently at least Avon is interested in publishing more Medievals.

Readers eventually get bored with the same old, same old. Whether or not you love light Regency-set historicals, if they comprise 90% of your historical reading, over time you will no longer have the same enthusiasm for them. But having set that direction, publishers seem to exhibit tunnel vision and a lack of foresight into the future. I think it’s fine for publishers to focus on a time and place that sells, but they need to think to the future as well, and what happens when readers want something different. I believe publishers traditionally wait too long to think about this aspect, which exacerbates the problem and creates too long a lag time for the Next Big Thing.

The current situation is reminiscent of the old Gothics, from what Anne tells me, and that’s worrisome. At one time – and for a very long time – the Gothic novel ruled the landscape. But many publishers jumped on the bandwagon, and as with networks, not all publishers are equal. Remember several years ago when ABC ran Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? into the ground by running it six nights a week? At one or two nights a week it was “event TV” and everyone watched. When it was every night but one, only Regis was still excited by it. Apply that analogy to the history of Gothic novels…Anne recalls one author who published more than forty linked books! Of course, with that many Gothics being published, mediocre (and outright crappy) books were published to fill in the slots in the schedule. Publishers got desperate. If there was a slot to fill, and someone missed a deadline, they could (and did) call in someone to write a Gothic in a couple of weeks. Is it any wonder readers started turning away from Gothics in droves? It’s always a question of quality over quantity, and this is a point the publishers – and others in entertainment industries – gloss over. Seinfeld worked because it was brilliant. The Single Guy failed because it was not. Even Dick Wolf has learned this, the hard way. Do we see the same thing happening in historical romance? Will it also happen in the Paranormal sub-genre?

The lag time in publishing fiction is longer than it is for TV. If a show fails, they pull it off the air almost immediately, and it doesn’t take long for an entire failed set of shows to be yanked. Publishing slots are filled months and months in advance of release date, so that by the time publishers realize they need to switch course, it’ll take quite a bit longer to fix the problem.

Jill Marie Landis had something very interesting to say when we met in Atlanta. In her view some of the aspects that drew many readers into reading romance initially are so politically incorrect at this point that they dare not be used any longer. So when readers crave something that’s missing from their current reading, they’re actually missing what they think they don’t want. And that plays, in part, into the current emphasis on Paranormals…and Romantica too.

I know that many of the Romantica stories I’ve been drawn to in the year and a half since beginning to read them feature extremely Alpha heroes. Hell, some of them feature Dominance/submission, although rarely as a “lifestyle”. In a strong sense these stories feed into the same fantasy as the bodice-rippers and forced seduction of years past, which, as we know plays into the fantasy of being forced to accept pleasure. Women are generally the caretakers of the world – yes, we are the ones who eat the heels of a loaf of bread – and we often have a hard time accepting our own sexual needs as they can seem “selfish”. So for many, the idea of a dominant hero forcing us to be pleasured works. As a reader wrote years ago at AAR, “We don’t have to feel guilty for needing more than a man does to be satisfied. We are forced to lie there and take it until we can’t take it anymore. Tie me up and kill me with pleasure.”

The fantasy extends beyond the sexual too. I’m all for the Alan Alda-type man in reality, and often in romance, just as I am a strong, kick-ass kind of heroine. But at times reading an ultra Alpha hero who simply takes charge and assures the safety of the heroine in no uncertain terms is my choice as well.

Years ago, when Futuristics and Paranormals were struggling, readers complained that they were the last refuge of the Alpha hero. At this time most of the Futuristics were about space warriors, pirates, etc. Some of them were great, but the worst came across as wallpaper historicals with a thin Futuristic veneer. Who wanted to read that when you could read real, meaty historicals about warriors, pirates, and so forth? Then again, with historicals sounding more alike, with fewer Medieval warriors, and fewer politically incorrect, readers who missed that type of hero rediscovered them in Paranormals. Another thing many Paranormals have in common is the concept of “pair bonding.” Just think of it…you find a powerful alien or a vampire who’s hundreds of years old. He may have played the field quite a bit. Then he meets you, and you’re the only one he wants. Not only that, but falling in love with you saves him from becoming an evil creature. Talk about a powerful fantasy for many women – the ultimate reformed rake combined with the healing power of the heroine.

It may well be that political correctness, along with the definition many readers have of the Alpha hero is at fault. Some eight years ago several authors engaged in a debate in this column about what precisely an Alpha hero is, and Connie Brockway made the point that what is commonly known as the Alpha heel or Alpha jerk or Alpha ass is, instead, a “Rogue” hero. She wrote:

“An Alpha male is a leader, the dominant personality in a proscribed social order. He appears in romance novels most often in soldiers’ roles: war hero, a mercenary, special ops leader. The important factor in defining their Alpha status is that these men, like all alpha males, are an integral part of their specific society. They are called by nature and genetics to lead (and its attendant characteristic, ‘dominate’) others in order that their society might achieve its goals.

“Interestingly, females are rarely part of those societies. Females become involved with these Alphas only by chance or incidentally, after whatever action the alpha and his society have engaged in has been completed and the Alpha is attempting to repair subsequent damage; to himself (physically, emotionally and/or spiritually) or to another – a beta, or follower. Often repair is made by way of recompense, revenge, debts of honor. We’ve all read the story of the captain who returns from battle and saves his lieutenant’s sister/daughter/widow from whatever. This is an alpha male.

“The Rogue male is quite different. He’s challenged authority, often by breaking his society’s rules and/or defying the alpha male (king, commander, father). He’s been ousted from society (family, community, armed forces, police force) as a result. His reasons for challenging the status quo are often excellent (like the captain of police is on the take) but the important factor to note here is that the rogue is not the alpha, he is not allowed back into the society from which he’s been banished until he can usurp the current alpha or become reconciled to the alpha. He isn’t leading anyone. He’s egocentric and ruthless and aggressive – because if he weren’t he’d be content to remain quietly malcontent. The rogue is an outsider, a dark horse and an unknown quantity. Often the heroine’s role in these rogue hero romances is to reconcile the hero to society, to return him to a state of grace by allowing him to prove himself, usurp the alpha, or temper his nature to the extent that it can peacefully reside in society once again.”

Essentially Alpha heroes have gotten a lot of abuse by people who don’t really understand what they are. Many readers simply equate Alpha behavior with cruelty. I agree with much of Brockway’s assessment, with the exception of the heroine’s role. Both in reality and fiction, I often think that an Alpha hero needs an Alpha heroine, and vice versa. Which is, of course, precisely the opposite of my earlier view, but it goes to show that readers don’t want a steady diet of one thing…we want variety.

As for the current and growing emphasis on Paranormals, I have a theory on that too. By world-building with “monsters” or aliens, the constraints of human nature are lifted. Which plays into the growing Romantica field as well. Authors can “get away with” things many of us consider taboo – sexually or otherwise, or at the very least, beyond our comfort zones – because their characters are not human beings, but instead werewolves or beings from another planet, with far different cultural mores.

Publishers are extremely concerned that Romance is dying…but if it is, I think they are killing it. Books should not be interchangeable in the way detergent is, but it feels as though both are viewed the same by the few conglomerates that publish and distribute them. A genuine sense of panic was palpable at the Atlanta conference. I heard over and over that print runs are way down except for those authors who regularly sell in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands, and more and more best-selling authors are worried about the genre, and their place in it. There’s a bit of szichophrenia at work. Publishers covet a younger demographic, even though that demographic reads fewer novels than in the past, while risking the alienation of an existing readership who feel taken for granted. Authors are insecure over what they see as stronger and stronger attempts to force them to change their styles or sub-genres and feel as though confronted by either an out with the old, in with the new or a my way or the highway attitude.

Earlier in this column I mentioned that we’ve more or less talked about the problems confronting romance almost since I began writing online. If there is a common thread, it is this: Readers want and continue to want variety in their reading. It’s fine for publishers to release lots of Regency-set historicals, but in the long run they shouldn’t run a sub-genre into the ground. Instead they should think ahead so that it is not necessary to essentially “force” authors into writing the Next Big Thing. It’s fine for publishers to release light historicals or Paranormals or romances featuring Rogue heroes, but don’t narrow the scope. I like the light, but I like the dark too. Paranormals can be fun, but not at the expense of other sub-genres, and just because it worked with Author X doesn’t mean it will work when applied to Authors A – W. Readers are greedy and don’t always know what we want until we don’t have it, or don’t have it any more.

I invite you to weigh in on any of the multitude of subjects and theories I’ve written about today. It should make for an interesting message board, don’t you think? I look forward to it.


TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

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