Romantic Intentions Quarterly, a new e-zine about romance, interviewed our Publisher, Dabney Grinnan, for their second issue. With their permission, we are sharing the interview.
RIQ: All About Romance is one of the most respected romance-related websites in the world. Can you tell us how it came to be?
DG: I began writing for the site in 2011 after becoming an AAR reader in 2009 so I can only speak to my sense of AAR’s history. My understanding is that AAR was started by Laurie Gold in the 1990s. She was a visionary. She created the complex review database we still use to this day. From the beginning, she not only reviewed books, she cataloged them by grade, genre, author, title, etc.… Her early work is extraordinary and without it, AAR would never have been able to amass its many thousand deep catalog of romance reviews. Over the years many others have worked to make AAR what it is today, almost all simply because they loved the genre. It’s amazing to think that the site has been around for well over 20 years, all thanks to the work of dedicated volunteers.
RIQ: You kicked off in 1996, when the internet was still in its infancy – how different was the site back then? What has been the most significant change since?
DG: Well, for starters, the internet has become the place for cultural critiques. Today, it’s the norm for millions to log on and read and discuss romance. In 1996, not so much! The sheer volume of information about romance is huge today—think of the bazillions of bloggers there are now! When AAR began, most of our readers got their information about romance from print sources. Now, there are almost no such dedicated venues left.
In my own time at AAR, the biggest change has been a big shift in how we choose the books we review. When I started AAR was sent print books from traditional publishers and those print books were then sent out to reviewers. In a given month, we might have, as a staff, chosen from a hundred or so books. Today, thanks to Netgalley, Edelweiss, and author initiative, our staff can pick from so many more sources. My staff now reviews what calls to them as opposed to what publishers send out although of course we still review many many books from the big houses. This reviewer-centric model has meant that AAR reviews all sorts of books from all sorts of sources.
RIQ: One of the core values of AAR is your commitment to unbiased reviews, which is why it is such a trusted source for readers. Given that you also advertise books on the site, has that ever been a difficult line for you to hold?
DG: Not really. We are upfront with our advertisers that an advertisement with us guarantees them the exposure our site brings and nothing else. We do offer them the ability to write a guest post for us—it’s published on our blog—and most take us up on that. We don’t see that as a conflict—we also publish guest posts from other authors who don’t advertise with us. I don’t tell my staff who is advertising with us so when they review a book, the staff doesn’t have any reason to feel pressured.
RIQ: Is it especially difficult to remain unbiased when you (or one of your staff members) happen to really like, or dislike, an author, as a person? How much of a reviewer’s opinion of a work is, or should be, influenced by that author’s real-world self, do you think? Is it simply inevitable?
DG: We don’t all see this the same way at AAR which, I think, is a good thing! Some think art stands on its own and that to judge a work of art by the behavior of its creator isn’t the job of a critic. Others feel differently—they believe the behavior of the artist matters. I have reviewers that opt not to review certain writers on the latter grounds. I support my staff no matter which option they choose.
RIQ: Are there any authors whom you have blacklisted in your own life? Are there any who AAR would not give column space to, due to their actions?
DG: Well, there are certainly authors whom I choose never to read but, for me personally, that decision is based on their work. If I read a work that I think is itself awful, either in its craft or in its view of the world, I’m unlikely to read that author again. Currently, there are no authors blacklisted by AAR and I confess the idea of a blacklist—which is in its own way book banning–makes me uncomfortable.
RIQ: For example, indie author Faleena Hopkins has become infamous over the #cockygate scandal, in her attempt to stop all other romance authors from using the word “cocky” in their book titles. Do you think you’d be able to separate this behaviour from her work? Have you read any of it, either before or after the trademark dispute broke? What did you think?
DG: Like most everyone else, I had never heard of Faleena Hopkins before the #cockygate scandal. Neither I nor anyone one the staff has read her not, to the best of knowledge, do we have any interest in doing so. That said, if one of my reviewers said she really wanted to check what all the fuss is about and wanted to review Hopkins, I doubt I’d say no.
RIQ: What was your reaction to the #cockygate – and author Heidi McLaughlin’s similar overreach with the word “forever” – news? How did you feel about the reaction of the romance community?
DG: I honestly haven’t followed #cockygate or #forevergate (is that a thing?) very closely. I have seen authors that I respect greatly say that Hopkins’ claims are dangerous to the industry and I don’t disbelieve them. It seems that most of the reaction of the romance community played out on Twitter which I try and avoid as much as possible—there’s just too much rage there for me.
RIQ: Another topic of much discussion lately has been diversity in romance, and the demonstrable lack of representation among authors and in titles alike. In fact, your 2018 AAR Top 100 poll was completely reissued, after the absence of black authors from the list was pointed out. How has this powerful discussion affected you, both as a publisher and as a reader?
DG: AAR has done a Top 100 poll for over 20 years in which the readers have voted. The poll has never been curated in the past. But the way the poll was done in the past was tremendously time-consuming and the staffers—all volunteer—who had done it in the past are no longer at AAR—they retired a few years ago. In previous polls, all the entrees were written in and every single one had to be entered into a database. We wanted to move at least a part of the poll to a less labor-intensive effort so we decided to offer a list, mostly taken from the last poll, done in 2013. I asked the staff to submit other books they thought should make the top 50 and we voted on all the choices and put up the list. This was part one of a four-part process. When the list was published, we were roundly and fairly criticized for the list being too white and I realized since the list was just a starting off point of suggested choices—there several opportunities for readers to write in choices throughout the poll—AAR could suggest whatever we wanted to and that we should certainly suggest a more diverse list. So, we did. We then let readers make all the other choices and our new AAR Top 100 List came from their write-ins and votes.
If you were to ask me to submit my own personal top 100 romances list, it wouldn’t be the one we’ve ended up with and I think everyone who writes for AAR would say the same. If we ever do this poll again, I’d rename it the AAR Top 100 Readers’ Romances Poll because that is what it is. And, as a publisher, I think there is a place for a reader generated list. That said, I have found the criticism directed at us hugely helpful. We need to do even more to showcase authors of color and non-white, non-heteronormative stories. And we will.
RIQ: What are your personal favorite subgenres of romance? Do you have auto-buy authors? Who are they?
DG: I read historical romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense, and women’s fiction equally. I’ve never been a big sci-fi reader and I spent so much of the last 20 years reading fantasy to my kids—Rowling, Pullman, McKinley, Nix, etc.…. —that I rarely read it on my own. Auto-buy authors? Sherry Thomas, Kristan Higgins, Loreth Anne White, Caroline Linden, Anne Calhoun, Sonali Dev, and Julie Anne Long are authors I’ve read and enjoyed for years. And some newer (to me) authors I plan to read whatever they write include Helen Hoang, Talia Hibbert, and Sandhya Menon.
RIQ: And finally, as a trend-spotter and taste-maker when it comes to the genre, what do you think will be the next big thing in Romance?
DG:I predict an explosion of interracial love stories—which I adore so maybe I’m just hopeful—over the next few years. I think we will also see more romances featuring men and women who work in politics whether they be elected officials or administrative staff. And I think we will see far more book covers that don’t feature airbrushed perfect bodies. (It’s time for the eight-pack to die.)
You can buy Romantic Intentions Quarterly at Amazon.