At the Back Fence Issue #256

February 26, 2007 – Issue #256

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

11th Annual Reader Poll Results!

The results in our 11th annual reader poll are in! This was a most amazing poll in that reader response was unbelievable. Throughout the five week polling period we received 60% more valid ballots than we did last year, a phenomenal increase. I wrote in a previous column that ballot box stuffing was disgustingly bad during the first part of the poll, but raising awareness curbed the problem somewhat. This year I was able to validate 75% of all ballots, a small decrease from last year’s validation rate of 80%.

While it’s true that ballot box stuffing resulted in my invalidating a fourth of all ballots received, the combination of so many of you participating in the poll in conjunction with my viewing every ballot under a cyber magnifying glass means that this year’s results are extremely representative of AAR’s readers. Are they representative of the general online romance readership? That’s hard to say, but the results belong to all of you – no author or her readers hijacked this poll.

Those of you who followed the interim results know how fluid the vote was throughout the polling period. Although I did not post any interim results in the final two weeks of polling, rest assured that volatility continued until the very final ballot was counted. In the last several hours during which I tallied ballots, the winners and/or honorable mentions in several categories changed at least once.

I’d like to extend hearty congratulations to all of the winning authors. Thank you for following your muse and writing the books we love! Six of you won/received honorable mention in multiple categories and another eight of you won in a single category. In total there were ten stand-alone wins, and in one category two authors tied. We would be honored if the winning authors placed our official “2007 AAR Reader Poll” award on your websites (click here for image choices and upload instructions).

A stand-alone win, btw, occurs when no finisher achieves 80% or more of the votes that a category’s winner earns. For instance, if, in Category A a book in first place earned 100 votes and the book in second place earned 70, the winner would be considered a stand-alone winner. If, on the other hand in Category B the first place finisher earned 100 votes, the second place finisher earned 82, and a third place finisher earned 80, those two other finishers would earn honorable mention. This is the second year in a row that particular threshold was applied; last year there were thirteen positive stand-alone wins (the loss of Best Regency is cancelled out by this year’s addition of Best Erotic Romance), a somewhat higher number than this year’s ten.

Thank you also to everyone who voted. Our ballot is lengthy, and it requires an effort to fill out. I spent over an hour working on my own ballot, and I keep records. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that some of you now keep records specifically so that you can participate in this annual poll. Those of you who don’t, please consider at least jotting down the names of the books you like best so that you won’t feel so overwhelmed when voting next year. A formal journal or computerized record isn’t necessary…a paper on your bulletin board would likely be enough of a reminder for the main categories.

Because Signet and Zebra stopped publishing trad Regencies, this year we discontinued the Best Regency Romance category. And because the Authors Others Love that You Don’t is not really an annual category, we discontinued it as well. But we added a new category this year, for Best Erotic Romance. Also unlike last year, we were able to award wins in each category (last year no short story met the minimum vote requirement and only an honorable mention was awarded). It was a squeaker for Best Series/Category Novel, but I am happy to announce a winner in that category. Fewer than 20% of those who voted submitted a title for Best Series Novel – and most of the titles submitted earned just one vote. Only the winning book met the minimum vote requirement – barely. Add that all together and you have a picture of a sub-genre in trouble.

Voting broke out into three distinct categories. The first group are those I’d call “traditionalists”, the second I consider “radicals” and the third are “combo readers”. The traditionalists may read and enjoy the occasional erotic romance or paranormal, but for the most part voted for old-guard authors with a smattering of other authors who tend to write in either more mainstream categories or mainstream styles. The radicals voted for paranormals and/or erotic romances almost exclusively. The third group seem to be somewhat more receptive to the changes we’re witnessing in romance than the traditionalists, and voted both for the old and new guard almost equally.

The phenomenon I mentioned on the ATBF Message Board a few weeks ago continued throughout the remainder of voting – since last year there has been a marked decrease in the percentage of readers voting in the “Worst Romance” category. The changed I noticed last year not only continued this year, it became more pronounced. Reasons you’ve supplied include these: 1) You don’t feel comfortable voting for a worst as it might hurt an author’s sales; 2) You are so careful these days about the books you buy and/or read that you don’t choose real clunkers; 3) You don’t know what criterion to use to choose a “worst” romance (although you do somehow know how to choose a “best”); and 4) It’s not a relevant category, or not as relevant as our “Most Disappointing Romance” category.

We reviewed nearly all of the books you chose as your favorites, and we came pretty close on most of them. Six of your favorites earned DIK status. Another four earned B+’s, one earned a straight B, and three remain unreviewed. And the books you disliked most didn’t earn great grades here either; one earned a C+ and the other earned a D-.

Before going further, let me talk briefly about what it’s like to look at so many votes. Each year participation has steadily increased in this poll, but this year I revved up my efforts to promote the poll and encourage voting as far and wide as possible while still trying to assure that those who voted weren’t “fangirls” with an agenda. The result meant that the number of votes received by the winners and/or honorable mentions was far larger than I’d been used to working with, a giddy prospect for a statistics geek like me. For instance, this year’s Most Tortured Hero earned 340% more votes than last year’s winner in that category. And the Best Debut Author for 2006 earned nearly 75% more votes than last year’s winner. Wow.

Five of the books I included on my ballot made it into the winner’s circle. That may be a record for me – last year only three of my favorites won. Regardless of my own personal preferences, watching the results change daily, sometimes hourly, is incredibly exciting, and wondering how it all will end up led to some sleepless nights. In one instance the winner and honorable mention switched in the very last group of ballots tallied, and though I’d not read either book, I was disappointed when the book in first place ended up earning an honorable mention instead. And the ballots themselves make for some interesting reading, even after setting aside all the stuffed ones. Some earn a hearty “hurrah” from me, but others cause me to question if the voter took her meds that morning. How, for instance, did one voter come to the conclusion that her Best Heroine was also her Most Annoying Lead Character?

There are additional questions arising from this year’s slate of winners. In the Author Most Glommed category, previous winners – including Mary Balogh, Suzanne Brockmann, Mary Jo Putney, Nora Roberts, and Anne Stuart – all had extensive backlists. The winner with the shortest backlist until this year was Sherrilyn Kenyon, and at the time she won, she’d already had published eighteen books and short stories, with another nine as Kinley MacGregor. By contrast, this year’s winner sports a backlist with a grand total of a dozen titles, and just three under the name for which she won. Did those who voted for her base their vote on a three-book glom or a twelve-book glom, and if the former, is a three-book glom an actual glom? Should a new guideline be set providing a “glom threshold”? Also, can a book that was released in the last month of the year truly be considered a Buried Treasure? What about a book that was raved about on blog after blog after blog after blog…and earned DIK status at AAR? Finally, why is it that for every year we’ve asked, the Most Annoying Lead Character is the heroine and never the hero?

But enough of these questions for now. To see the full listing of awards, click here via jump link and a new window will open in your browser, allowing you to toggle back and forth between this column and the awards themselves.

Multiple Award Winners

J.R. Ward & Lover Awakened
Seven wins (four stand-alones)
One honorable mention Best Romance
Most Hanky Read
Most Glommed (s-a)
Best Paranormal (s-a)
Most Tortured Hero (s-a)
Strongest Heroine
Best Villain
Best Couple

Loretta Chase & Lord Perfect

Three wins (one stand-alone)
Four honorable mentions
Favorite Funny
Best Cabin/Road Romance (s-a)
Best Couple
Best Romance
Best Eur Hist
Strongest Heroine
Best Heroine

Lisa Kleypas & Devil in Winter

Three wins (one stand-alone)
Three honorable mentions Best Eur Hist
Best Hero (s-a)
Best Heroine   Luscious Love Story
Guilty Pleasure
Best Couple

Elizabeth Hoyt & The Raven Prince
Two wins (one stand-alone)
One honorable mention
Most Luscious Love Story
Best New Author (s-a)
Best Buried Treasure

Emma Holly
All U Can Eat
Two wins (one stand-alone)
Best Erotic Romace (s-a)
Best Guilty Pleasure
Prince of Ice
One negative mention
Dishon Mention – Purplest Prose

Linda Howard & Drop Dead Gorgeous
One win Two honorable mentions
One negative win (stand-alone)
Best Contemp Favorite Funny
Best Heroine
Most Annoying Lead (s-a)

Individual Award Winners

Jacquelyn Frank & Jacob
Best Buried Treasure

Anne Stuart & Cold as Ice
Best Romantic Suspense

Susan Carroll & The Silver Rose
Best Medieval/Renaissance (s-a)

Molly O’Keefe & Family at Stake
Best Series/Category Novel (s-a)

Jo Beverley & The Rogue’s Return
Best Western/Frontier (tie)
Partially set in Canada

Connie Brockway & Hot Dish
Best Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit

Maureen McKade & A Reason To Live
Best Western/Frontier (tie)

Jennifer Crusie & Hot Toy (Santa, Baby)
Best Short Story

For the first year since we’ve conducted this poll, your Best Romance of the year did not earn DIK status from its AAR reviewer. Instead, it earned a B+. It’s also the first year that a paranormal romance won in this category; as you all know unless you’ve been reading under a rock, Lover Awakened is a vampire romance. During the previous ten years of the poll, four of your Best Romances were European historicals, another four were romantic suspense novels, and three were contemporaries. How well do you think these Bests stand the test of time? Certainly J.R. Ward follows the trail blazed by Christine Feehan and Sherrilyn Kenyon, but the excitement surrounding Ward’s books seems to have assumed new proportions. To be honest, I haven’t seen the same level of excitement about the ascendancy of an author since Suzanne Brockmann exploded onto the scene, although she’d been published for many years before becoming an “overnight sensation”.

2006 DIK Mr. Impossible (Eur Hist – Chase) 2001 DIK Winter Garden (Eur Hist – Ashworth) 2005 DIK Bet Me (Contemp – Crusie) 2000 DIK The Lady’s Tutor (Eur Hist – Schone) 2004 DIK Gone Too Far (Rom Susp – Brockmann) 1999 DIK Sea Swept (Contemp – Roberts) 2003 DIK Out of Control (Rom Susp – Brockmann) 1998 N/A Nobody’s Baby But Mine (Contemp – SEP) 2002 DIK Over the Edge (Rom Susp – Brockmann) 1997 N/A Shattered Rainbows (Eur Hist – MJP)

If any author suffered in 2006, it was Julia Quinn, who earned dishonorable mention as the Author You Gave Up On in 2006, and whose On the Way to the Wedding struck a strong negative chord with readers. Not only did the book “win” as your Most Disappointing Romance and your Worst Romance, both were stand-alone “wins”. Two years ago Quinn’s When He Was Wicked won as a stand-alone win for Most Hanky Read, but it also earned dishonorable mention as Most Disappointing Romance. Prior to that Quinn had only earned positive wins and honorable mentions.

A book earning both positive and negative acclaim is something we’ve seen before, and something no doubt we’ll see again. The character of Blair Mallory, for instance, was this year’s Most Annoying Lead Character. She also earned honorable mention as Best Heroine – and last year was not only the “Most Annoying”, she won as “Best Heroine”. But the dichotomy stretches back for years in the history of our poll. Not only did Lisa Valdez earn three wins, two honorable mentions, and two negative wins in last year’s poll for her debut romance, Passion, two years before that, Suzanne Brockmann’s Gone Too Far was not only your choice for Best Romance of the year, it was also voted Worst Romance of the year.

Given that the vast majority of our awards are positive, I don’t want to dwell on the negative and instead will share with you comments by some of the winners. I emailed thirteen of the fourteen authors listed in this column (the fourteenth has no email address I could locate) and provided general questions to each of them. To most I added some specific questions. Here’s what they had to say, starting with J.R. Ward (I asked her to focus on her tortured hero, if she was surprised at how her series captured the imagination of readers, and how she feels for being known as an author who has brought a breath of fresh air to romance):

J.R. Ward (Seven Wins and Three Honorable Mentions: Lover Awakened)

Of all the heroes I’ve ever seen in my head, Zsadist was the one that got to me the most – so much so that when planning the BDB series, I switched the order of the books. Originally Z was going to be the last one, but then I realized I would be heartbroken if I didn’t write him. So I moved him up, figuring that if the BDB didn’t find an audience, at least I would still get him on the page. I’m proud of Lover Awakened as a book, but I haven’t reread it. Usually I do. With him? Can’t. Parts of that book gutted me to write them and I just don’t want to go back there. But I did love the ending- he got what he was due at the end.

As for the revitalization of romance, I think the genre was pretty dayumed vital before I came along LOL. I do believe that more mainstream voices are finding acceptance and that paranormals have opened up some new conflicts to explore. But I believe there are many writers out there putting excellent stuff on the shelves for all of us to enjoy- and there will be more coming up behind me and my generation of authors. Romance is the place to be, as far as I’m concerned!

I had no clue that the BDB was going to be so popular. No clue. Thing was, the whole concept of the series was a kind of Hail Mary pass – I’d decided to take a chance, throw out my preconceived notions of romance and reinvent myself by writing a book just for me. Dark Lover, the first BDB book, was a private endeavor in a lot of ways and I was worried that it and the series wouldn’t find a publisher because it was a little out there in places. That the BDB has garnered readers has made me so very grateful- because it means as the author, I get to keep going with the kind of books I so desperately want to write.

In the beginning, the series was going to be ten books… but you know, as I’ve moved forward, there are a number of other stories I’d like to tell. So right now it’s open ended.

I’ve always been a horror fan so vampires have been a source of interest and amazement for years – although it was unfortunate that so many of them were the bad guys! I just didn’t think there would be a market out there for the kind of dark romance I was interested in writing- turned out I was wrong, thank God. I can’t tell you how much I love penning these books.

(As a postscript I asked for her thoughts on the homo-erotic vibe some readers pick up – including this one – from the series):

All I can say is that I write what’s in my head and what I see. I don’t make value judgments about healthy relationships – if they are based on love, than that’s what’s important.

Next we hear from Loretta Chase, addressing her move back to Avon, and on the Road Romance.

Loretta Chase (Three wins and four honorable mentions: Lord Perfect)

Laurie, this is a really impressive showing. Accounting for reader enthusiasm is way too tricky for me. What I can say is that I set myself a fun and challenging task with the Carsington series as a whole, and tried to tackle something different in each book – whether it was a different setting, a different issue, or simply a different approach to the writing. The strong showings do seem to lean toward the areas where my writing strengths seem to lie. I do work hard to develop the characters, getting the right personality mixes, trying to make sure the love between hero & heroine feels inevitable. And dialogue is my favorite thing. So these elements may be key to keeping readers interested and entertained.

The matter of trying something different brings me to the question about Avon. Not Quite a Lady, the last Carsington book (for now at least – I’m still thinking about a book for Olivia and Peregrine of Lord Perfect) and the first in a new series (dealing with Fallen Women) is an Avon book. As always, there was a major as well as several minor writerly challenges I wanted to tackle in the book and in the series as a whole, and this Not Quite a Lady a bit different from those that came before, just as the Carsington series was a bit different from the books that came before.

Regarding what happens to authors at Avon, I can only speak from my own experience. I had a shorter word count in this contract than in previous ones. The other historical authors I communicate with have had the same experience, regardless of publisher. All of us are hearing that the books need to be sexy, but no one’s been telling me I need to do more than what I usually do. Not Quite a Lady, is, I think, a more emotional book than anything I’ve done so far – again, because of the issues I’m dealing with in this new series. Certainly no one at Avon dictated or even hinted at how I should write or what I should write. So if the book doesn’t “achieve the heights” of its predecessors, I guess the author has to take the blame. And if it does achieve any heights, then she’ll happily accept the praise.

The allure of the road romance is twofold. One is that you have your protagonists stuck together for most of the story, and proximity makes for friction, and thus combustibility. The other allure for me is the adventure of travel. Egypt, of course, had its built-in dangers and the romance of traveling up the Nile, and the famous sights along the way. But the English coaching roads are like the Nile to me. Many of the old inns are still there, various stories are attached to various places – it just gives me interesting material to work with, and a way to test my characters. Wait a minute – I think that’s three allures: taking the characters outside their comfort zone is a great way to explore and test them. Plus (oh, I’m up to four now), it’s a good excuse to move away from the more common settings–so the readers get something a bit different. The new new book, as yet untitled, starts in Venice.

Lisa Kleypas is next, who talks, among other things, about career longevity and transforming a villain into a hero.

Lisa Kleypas (Three wins and three honorable mentions: Devil in Winter)

I think the key to longevity in this career (or any career, really) is maintaining your own excitement about what you’re doing. After you’ve written a certain number of books, you have to find new ways to challenge yourself and stay motivated. With each novel I look for new kinds of plots, settings that require more research, and especially characters with interesting eccentricities, problems and abilities.

Even though Devil In Winter is a darker book, and there are some gritty scenes and elements of real loss and grief . . . there is quite a lot of humor in it too! When I was writing it, that combination of darkness and humor and sexiness just seemed to click. In It Happened One Autumn, the character of St. Vincent was the villain, and since he was a minor player, I wasn’t able to make him fully dimensional. In Winter it was really satisfying to show more of his emotions and desires, the fear of abandonment, his own surprise at finally discovering he is capable of loving someone else more than he loves himself. His instant fascination with Evie comes with the discovery that in spite of her apparent frailty, she won’t let him push her around. She forces him to respect her, and that causes him to regard her as an equal. And one of the seismic shifts in their relationship occurs when she tells him that his looks don’t matter to her – it is the first time any woman has really seen him as a person.

The main thing that changed St. Vincent from a villain in one book to a hero in the next is that most of the characters in Winter, especially Evie, are expecting and demanding more of him. Responsibility is forced on him, and he reluctantly shoulders it because there is no one around to bail him out. I think St. Vincent is essentially a man who longs to be needed. He was a challenging character for me to write, not only because of the twists and turns in his nature, but also because of his fondness for wordplay. I do think he’s the most talkative hero I’ve ever created! And I hoped that pairing him with the shy, stuttering character of Evie would result in believable chemistry.

I think and hope the success of Devil In Winter on the bookstands was a sign of changes happening in the historical romance marketplace. It seemed for a while that the lighter, less intense romances were more in demand than the darker ones, and that as a result there was sometimes a “homogenized” feeling to the available selections. I enjoy both varieties, but I’ve always felt that a deeper, more intense romance novel can reach different places in your heart than the lighter ones . . . and readers certainly deserve to have a choice. I think (and this is just my opinion) that no matter what the genre or subgenre, readers right now are asking for an intensity of experience, that they would rather authors err on the side of “too much” rather than blandness.”

Elizabeth Hoyt comments on winning as Best Debut Author as well as writing earthy characters (and earthy sex), and when Simon Iddesleigh gets a romance of his own.

Elizabeth Hoyt (Two Wins and One Honorable Mention: The Raven Prince)

WHEEEE! Oh, wait, you probably want something a little more dignified. How about: I’m so excited and honored that AAR’s Annual Reader Poll chose The Ravel Prince as Most Luscious Love Story and me as best new author! Thank you! And the Honorable Mention in Best Buried Treasure is nothing to sneeze at either.

Comments on breaking into romance in a “huge way.”: Hunh. You know, to be quite honest, I’m still taken aback by the “huge way” stuff. I’ve got to tell you that it took me totally by surprise (in a good way) when TRP did so well. After all, it had taken my agent and me 1 1/2 years to sell it, and we’d garnered plenty of rejections on the way. The hero was too angry, too ugly, and not “heroic” enough. And historicals were dead. Dead. Dead. Dead, I tell you! (And they did tell me.) By the time we sent it to Warner, I was ready to shelve it and move on to my second historical. Or maybe start writing contemporaries. Fortunately, my agent is a whole lot smarter than me. And Devi Pillai, the editor at Warner Forever who bought TRP (she’s since moved on to Little & Brown) is, of course, an absolute genius.

Comments on characters, earthiness and sex: It’s all about the characters for me as a writer. Actually, it’s all about the hero. I like heroes who are three dimensional guys who sometimes do dopey guy things. And then I when I’m writing the book, I want to know everything about the hero, including how he reacts to sex. Like, what turns him on? The heroine, obviously, but why? And does he have any quirks? Is he shy about sexual intimacy? (So far in my books, NO, but you never know.) Is he good in bed and does he know how to perform cunnilingus properly? (So far in my books, YES, but wouldn’t that make an interesting love scene–the heroine teaching the hero how to do it?) These are important questions! And all kidding aside, I think sex is the great revelation about character. You definitely know my heroes after a love scene.

Comments on what’s next: Well, right now I’m finishing my fourth historical romance (hopefully today – goodness, I’m ready to start something new!) which will kick off a new four book series. A little closer in time: in April comes The Leopard Prince, Harry Pye’s story. A lot of readers don’t really remember much of Harry from TRP – he does kind of blend into the woodwork – but watch out, still waters do run deep. Everyone does remember Simon Iddesleigh, the elegant viscount and Edward’s second at the end of TRP. I’ve saved the best for last so his book comes out in September and is called, The Serpent Prince. When rakes fall, they fall hard!

Lind Howard’s comments follow, both on why readers seem to love or hate Blair Mallory (I love her, myself), and, since has a series romance coming out this spring (is she the last of the super-duper bestsellers who will still write them?), what she has to say about the seemingly sorry state of the series novel.

Linda Howard (One win, two honorable mentions, and one negative win: Drop Dead Gorgeous)

I got another laugh from your reader poll. Blair does it again! But aren’t these results just like the character herself? She isn’t sweet, isn’t above fighting dirty – in fact, she enjoys it – but she is kind and loyal, has a wicked sense of humor, and doesn’t take herself seriously. She has a great time with her blondness, her cuteness, and her brains, using all three to get her own way. Could this be annoying? Oh, yeah.

You know my personal opinion on how subjective reading tastes are, that what’s gold for one person may be dross for another. I can definitely see Blair getting on some readers’ nerves, to put it mildly. She’s over the top. She’s manipulative, and has fun with it. She’s inventive, believes in vengeance, and is snarky. When she’s making dumb blonde remarks is when she has her tongue firmly planted in her cheek – for the most part. Some times she’s dead serious.

After To Die For, she just kept talking in my head – in this lightly sarcastic drawl – and wouldn’t shut up! She had commentary on everything. I’ve never before had a character who refused to go away after his/her book was written, but Blair stayed. And talked. And talked. That’s how I knew I had to write another Blair book – just to shut her up. So I did, and sure enough, she was quiet then…for a couple of months. Then one morning, while I was drying my hair, out of nowhere she said (in a very snippy tone), “Everyone knows – blondes with cute haircuts do not carry bombs on planes.” I almost dropped my hair dryer. With a line like that, I just knew she was about to start chattering away, but —

That’s it. That’s all she said. Not another word since. Heaven only knows what she was doing.

It’s been twenty-seven years since I sold my first book, but it seems like maybe five years, at the most. I can’t explain my longevity in the business, except that I’m blessed with something that Patricia Rice calls “the commercial mindset.” The fiction I write is commercial, for whatever reason. That’s all I’ve ever wanted – to write popular fiction. The Great American Novel? Not interested. That always struck me as a dead-end ambition, because once you’ve written it, then what? There would be no point in writing anything else. I want to write whatever story has grabbed me at the time, regardless of how light it is, or how heavy, or how off the wall. I want to tell the stories of the people who live in my head (though, thankfully, unlike Blair most of them move out as soon as the book is written). That’s all. That’s the limit of my ambition, career-wise. I’ve never dissected a book, never worked out things like story arcs or themes, never paid any attention to the market. I am, and I write. It isn’t any more complicated than that.

I do have a Nocturne coming out in May – Book One of the Raintree: Inferno. Beverly Barton, Linda Winstead Jones, and I began playing with the idea of the Raintree clan about five years ago. We had a great time with it. We have pages and pages and pages of notes, working out the clan history, what powers each character had, even who their guardian angels are. I don’t remember why we thought that was important, because the guardian angels didn’t figure in our books, but there they are in my notes. I’ve never done that with a book before. We weren’t world-building, we were sort of layering an alternate world on top of the real world, but it was fun. We divvied up the characters. I had Dante, the dranir (king) of the Raintree clan; LJ (Linda Winstead Jones) had Gideon, the cop (the main characters, Dante, Gideon, and Mercy, are brothers and sister) and Beverly had Mercy, the Guardian of the homeplace. Of course we gave them a big bad enemy, then we twisted the concept by having the action in all three books taking place simultaneously, which led to a complication. My book ends abruptly. LJ’s book, which is Haunted, ends abruptly. It’s all tied up in the ending of Beverly’s book, Sanctuary. In hindsight, this was one big headache, but with the action taking place simultaneously and the overall villain twined through all three books, obviously the great big ending could take place only in one book – the last one.

What does this have to do with category romance? What we did was a little different. I worry about the state of category romance because I don’t find much that’s different, now. I understand the concept behind the marketing: If the reading public really loves book X, then give them a lot of books like book X. It’s a sound business concept – except publishing, and reading, is like no traditional business concept. Some people are very comfortable reading just one type of books; it’s what they like, so why should they change? But if you’re putting out eight books a month that are very similar, why should the reading public buy all eight? One will do. And if they’re similar enough, after a while the reader begins to think, “Haven’t I already read this?” So it’s a fine line, and one that’s difficult to tread. There isn’t a one-prong solution to any of the problems that beset publishing. I do hope category romance will swing back toward individuality, though. The homogenization has stopped working.

Next up is Jacquelyn Frank, whose debut romance, also a paranormal, featured a virgin librarian.

Jacquelyn Frank (Best Buried Treasure: Jacob)

I don’t know what to say other than I am so excited and shockingly pleased! Jacob has been doing such surprising things, and I am so pleased those who had read the book kept it in mind for mentioning in something as special as this. I owe a huge debt to Kensington and my editor Kate Duffy. She is the true force behind distributing Jacob to readers everywhere. She always says she just wants others to enjoy it as much as she does! In that way we have something in common. I just want everyone to know and love the Nightwalker cultures and its people as much as I do. And I am so very happy that it seems to be happening. Thank you thank you thank you!

As for the increasing role of paranormals in the romance genre… Trends have always come and gone and always in waves no one can quite predict or explain. All I know about it is that it is my favorite to read and my favorite to write. As to why, I can only answer for myself. Exotic and, often, erotic forms of escapism. There’s something inherently dangerous in those creatures who are supernatural. In our minds they are just a couple of steps closer to animals…and perhaps even closer than that to something sinful or dark. Sometimes I just want to walk that edge, feel how sexy it is, and figure out how to coax the borderline badness over the line into love and romance. I guess that’s my POV in a nutshell. Thank you for asking

As for virgin librarians….it’s that whole ‘brains are sexy’ thing. Except only really savvy and sensitive guys seem to figure it out.

Jo Beverley (Tied for Best Western/Frontier Romance: The Rogue’s Return)

When I first saw The Rogue’s Return [in the] Best Frontier/Western [category], I was surprised, but of course, you sharp readers are exactly right. That’s just what it is. York (now Toronto) Upper Canada was definitely a frontier town in 1816. It consisted of about 1,000 people, mostly military and sat in a clearing hacked out of the surrounding forest. One of the residents of the time who traveled to England mentioned missing the constant noise of the trees.

As a setting, it is different in many ways to most American frontier books because the British administration and social system went with expansion, but many of the challenges the characters face are the same.

Thank you to everyone who voted for The Rogue’s Return, and for Simon and Jancy’s adventures in the “wild west” and on their voyage home. As you probably know, that book was followed by To Rescue a Rogue, set back in England and about Lord Darius Debenham, my opium-addicted Rogue. In June, Dare’s sister Thea gets involved with a man who hates the Rogues in Lady Beware. But almost right now, something completely different – The Dragon and the Virgin Princess in the anthology Dragon Lovers.

This is one of my forays into SF/F, when I let loose and do something really different. This time I have a Sacrificial Virgin Princess. You know, the one who’s supposed to be offered to a marauding dragon in chains? Mine can’t wait for a dragon to come because it’s only a symbolic sacrifice and then she can finally, finally cease to be V. Except someone’s changed the rules and it’s not symbolic anymore. Whoops!

Maureen McKade (whose Mail-Order Bride is among my favorite westerns), who tied with Jo Beverley, comments on how the western seems to be on “life-support”:

Maureen McKade (Tied for Best Western/Frontier Romance: A Reason To Live)

OMG!!!! Can you hear me screaming? :D This is such great news. I’m very proud of A Reason to Live – it was one of those stories that reached out to me and wouldn’t let me go until I wrote it. It was also a very difficult one to write because of the intense emotions, but it was worth every moment. Thank you all who voted for my book!

Your description of the western romance sub-genre seeming to be on life support is so accurate. Ever since my first western came out in 1997, it’s been an uphill battle. I wrote six western romances for Avon, but sales continued to fall. I buckled to the pressure and wrote a romantic suspense proposal along with a western proposal, both of which Berkley bought. My first western with them – To Find You Again – did very well. However, my next two books were romantic suspense and when my next western, A Reason to Live, came out, sales again were down. Yet even with the declining popularity of the western romance, I’m too stubborn to let it go. It’s a sub-genre I love passionately and I believe it shows in my books. The men and women of the nineteenth century frontier experienced the same human challenges that we do in today’s world, and they faced them without the support we take for granted today. In A Reason to Live, it was a Civil War nurse struggling with what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s that independence and courage which I strive to show in my books–men and women who faced their challenges and conquered them with the strength of love.

A Reason to Live is the first of a trilogy of books about the three Forrester brothers. The second book, A Reason to Believe, is the youngest brother Rye’s story, and that book will be released in August. I’m currently writing the third and final book, A Reason to Sin, which will be the middle brother, Slater’s, story. Yes, these are all westerns, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to write them.

Perhaps I’m being naive, but I believe the western romance will always be around. It too often gets overshadowed by the current trends, but the western is unique to America’s past. I can’t accept that the cowboy hero and his strong-willed heroine will ride off into the sunset, never to be seen again. The challenge is to get the word out to readers that there are western romances out there, and there is a place for them among the vampires, werewolves, lords, and ladies.

Molly O’Keefe’s comments follow; I asked her about the state of series novels in a year when until the last moment it appeared that no book had earned enough votes to win as Best.

Molly O’Keefe (Best Series Novel: Family at Stake)

Fantastic! Thanks so much for the email – it made my day. I’d be happy to comment and will certainly be posting the news and award image on Tuesday!

I’m thrilled. All About Romance has a reputation for honest (sometimes brutally so) reviews in an industry that often serves up sound bites and fan-friendly reviews. To be considered the best series book by the website and its readers means a great deal! Thank you.

After a few years of trying to gain a new audience with lines I thought were pretty exciting for the reader – Flipside and Bombshell – Harlequin/Silhouette is again focusing on what they do best. Romance. So, without those different series story lines and characters, for me, the choices seem pretty homogenized right now. Lots of cowboys and secret babies.

But at the same time the Editors are making good on their oft-repeated chorus of “we’re looking for something fresh and different.” The new Everlasting line is an excellent example of this – the Harlequin promise of Happily Ever After combined with some interesting and different story telling. It seems to me more new writers are being bought every day, and new story lines are showing up everywhere. I know next year I have an alcoholic heroine and a physically handicapped journalist – two characters I wouldn’t have been able to sell a few years ago. (Not in the same book – that would be a bit of a downer.)

I feel that last year was the crossroads of those two decisions (cutting the lines that were different and focusing on interesting storytelling) and the staff at All About Romance weren’t the only readers scratching their heads. But I think the future of series romance looks exciting, fresh and hopefully satisfying.

Next is up Anne Stuart, who, among other things, discusses the hoopla after her interview with me last year.

Anne Stuart (Best Romantic Suspense: Black Ice)

Well, of course I’m totally thrilled that readers voted Cold as Ice as the best romantic suspense of 2006. Writers spend so much time in isolation, writing the stories that we love, and outside validation is wonderful. Particularly since CAI had a particularly tricky situation with its hero. Other romantic suspense writers sell more than I do, so this must be driven by passion for the book, and that’s sweet indeed.

I’ve just finished writing the fourth book in the series, and I’m starting the fifth, and the thing that surprises me is how important Peter Jensen is in all of them. He’s the rock, the center of everything, even when he only appears briefly. In Ice Blue (April 2007) he shows up towards the end, but he’s in part the deus ex machina, though my hero does his bit to overcome evil, and he’s pretty central to Ice Storm (November 2007).

It’s been a fascinating process – I’ve seldom written series before (just the Catspaw series and the Maggie Bennetts) and there’s something deeply fulfilling about it. About knowing the characters, living with them, seeing them grow even when they’re off the page.

Ice Blue has a half-Japanese hero, Takashi O’Brien, who, while not as sexually flexible as Peter (that was Publisher’s Weekly euphemism and I love it), he’s a complex, fascinating character, who has to balance his orders to kill the heroine with his own growing attachment to her.

And Ice Storm is quite the surprise, with Isobel Lambert and all her secrets (including the fact that she’s only 37 years old) and the hero, Killian, the most dangerous man in the world. I just finished this one, and I loved it so much I immediately started the next one because I couldn’t bear to part from my characters. Though I’m afraid Reno, the hero of the one I’m just starting (who first shows up in Ice Blue) is going waaaay too far for many readers.

The feedback on Cold as Ice has been wonderful, and it’s my first book to reach the New York Times bestseller list (number 33 on the extended list and I’m thrilled). The only drawback was the fuss that was kicked up by my [interview] on AAR. And then, of course, everyone forgot. It would be nice if I learned discretion in my old age, but the cool thing about being in this business for 33 years is that you’ve seen it all, and no matter how people mope and fuss, there’s still not much they can do to you if the books are good.

So I’m just hoping my books are going to keep being as good as I feel they are (and I freaking love them!) and keep being open.

And now, Connie Brockway, whom I asked about the move from historicals to contemporaries.

Connie Brockway (Best Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit: Hot Dish)

When I moved from historical romance to women’s fiction I was worried about whether or not my voice would translate to a contemporary setting. Receiving this award now, just I am finishing up the revisions on my second “quirky contemporary” Skinny-Dipping (Onyx January ’08) could not come at a more welcome time. Thank you so much for letting me know in this very nice way that you approve where I am going in my career and you’re not only willing but you are enjoying taking the trip with me. You’ve giving my confidence such a boost. It’s always easier to write a book when you know for a fact that there are readers out there waiting for it.

AAR’s annual reader poll is the highlight of the year for me for many reasons, chief among them that it brings me into closer contact with you, the reader, than at any other point during the year. This is particularly important because I “cyber-know” many of you, and seeing your choices brings me closer to you. Because so much of my day to day action at AAR is limited to administrative functions, this intimacy is critical to me.

It’s also immensely gratifying that so many of you voted this year. Although it’s a long slog to enter your ballots into my database, the fun for me comes when tallying the results, which I did just about daily throughout the duration of this year’s poll. I hope you found the results as interesting as I did, and will have lots to say about them – as well as the questions I posed throughout the column – on our At the Back Fence Message Board.

One note about commenting: the poll results page was uploaded to have direct commenting ability, which means that you have not one but two places to post. I did that for a few reasons, the first being that some people will read the column but not view the results page while others will look at the results and not read the column. Also, the ATBF Message Board is wiped clean with each new column, and I’d like for you to have a more permanent reminder of the discussions relating to the poll. Then too, the poll results page provides a different kind of information about the results than this page of analysis and author comments. The hope is…two different venues…two different discussions. But I don’t want anyone to worry about posting in the “wrong” place; try to make the proper discernment, but don’t feel as though you’ll be chided if you don’t.

Because of the poll’s importance, we won’t be posting our next ATBF column until two weeks from today.

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

2007 AAR Reader Awards

Interim Results