Love Between the Covers

27 April 2015

Why romance novelists are the rock stars of the literary world

27 April 2015

From Maclean’s:

When American filmmaker Laurie Kahn set out to make Love Between the Covers, a documentary about the women who read and write romance novels, she was struck by how often she heard the same story. It wasn’t a tale of beefy bodice rippers or love at first sight; it was a story about snobs. “I can’t tell you how many people I interviewed,” says Kahn, “who told me that people will walk up to them on a beach and say, ‘Why do you read that trash?’ ” Apparently, where lovers of romance novels go, contempt follows. Sometimes it’s subtle contempt—a raised eyebrow from a colleague, or a snarky comment from a friend (usually the kind of person who claims to read Harper’s on a beach vacation). Other times it’s more overt, even potentially damaging. When Mary Bly (pen name Eloisa James), an academic and New York Times bestselling author, began writing romance, she was advised to keep her fiction writing secret or risk not making tenure at the university where she worked.

For some reason, argues Kahn, perhaps because its subjects are female, romance novels are perceived as fundamentally silly, when other popular “genre fiction”—namely, fiction by and for men—is not. “Nobody,” she says, would walk up to “a man reading Stephen King, or a mystery or sci-fi novel” and scoff. And she’s right: Stephen King may write circles around romance novelist Nora Roberts, but mystery-thriller buffs James Patterson and Dean Koontz most certainly do not. Yet Roberts is the butt of jokes—a universal default example of “bad writing,” while her equally schlocky male contemporaries get a free pass.

. . . .

The amazing thing is that this historically derided genre is not only wildly successful (it regularly outsells both mystery and sci-fi; Romance Writers of America estimates the genre made $1.08 billion in sales in 2013) but also preternaturally friendly.

In an age where women are constantly encouraged to “lean in” at predominantly male workspaces, there exists this frequently ignored, yet massive and diverse, woman-steered industry where writers literally tutor their competition. As Bly says early on in Kahn’s film, the romance industry may be one of the last meritocracies left on the planet.

And it’s a very functional one. The annual Romance Writers of America conference, where thousands of authors offer detailed advice to newbie writers on everything from where to pitch to how to find an agent, is unique in a publishing world in which authors are typically discouraged from discussing their contracts openly. Kahn attributes this friendly, inclusive atmosphere, in part, to the recent popularity and acceptance of self-publishing (formerly known as “vanity publishing”).

A common criticism expressed about major romance publisher Harlequin (which declined to comment for this story) is that it promotes the “line”—the type of romance novel, be it “historical” or “intrigue” or other—over the author. Apparently this has been an issue for a long time. “Because of this practice, romance authors have to hustle their own books and find their own markets,”writes Leslie W. Rabine in her 1985 essay, “Romance in the Age of Electronics: Harlequin Enterprises.” They can also have a difficult time getting royalties from publishers, they report, with waits of up to two years, Rabine adds. Today, many romance authors have turned that liability into a strength. If they’re going to do the hustle on their own, many writers figure, why not reap the bulk of the financial reward? Ironically, the entity that’s allowed them to do this is the biggest publishing behemoth of them all—Amazon. Kahn says that, in the three to four years in which she worked on the film, “There’s been a revolution in publishing, and it has upended everything. It used to be that the power was completely in the hands of the publishers, and authors were like hitchhikers waiting by the side of the road, hoping some agent would pick them up,” Kahn says. “When I was shooting, Amazon started Kindle Direct Publishing. That radically changed the picture.”

Link to the rest at Maclean’s and thanks to Julia for the tip.

There Are Only Six Basic Book Plots, According to Computers

26 April 2015

From Motherboard:

In fiction, as in a cemetery, there’s a limited number of plots. We just aren’t sure how many. Carlos Gozzi, a 18th-century Italian playwright, thought there were 36 dramatic situations, but ever since then, the number has been going down, cratering with Christopher Booker’s popular 2004 The Seven Basic Plot Structures.

But now, with the help of CERN-level mathematics and computers, researchers have evidence that the appropriately named Booker was off by just one, probably.

“I did some distance similarity metric calculations and machine clustering to see if I could identify archetypal plot shapes,” Matthew Jockers told me over the phone. “The short answer is, yes I did, and there’s six or sometimes seven.”

That little ambiguity, Jockers explained, is because the data collecting and sorting technique “involves picking at random from 50,000.”

“There’s six about 90 percent of the time,” Jockers said. “Ten percent of the time, the computer says there’s a seventh [plot shape].”

. . . .

With the help of friends in the physics department, Jockers figured out how to chart the emotional valence by drawing from a “controlled vocabulary of positive and negative sentiment markers collected by Bing Liu of the University of Illinois at Chicago” and a machine model that Jockers built “to identify and score passages as positive or negative,” he wrote on his blog.

. . . .


Most books that measure the number of plots seem aimed at writers and would-be writers, but Jockers’s work has implications for readers, librarians, and even literature snobs, or anyone who wants to put snobs in their places.

As he was charting plots, Jockers noticed that some genres that are derided for being “formulaic,” like romance, aren’t just relying on boy-meets-girl.

“Romance showed some proclivity for two of the six plot shapes, but it wasn’t an overwhelming case of all the plots falling into one,” Jockers said. “It was a much more evenly distributed from these six shapes.”

Link to the rest at Motherboard

Romance Unlaced: Interview with Elizabeth Hoyt

23 April 2015

From USA Today:

I first read bestselling author Elizabeth Hoyt’s writing before almost anyone else did. I had agreed to serve as a finalist judge in a contest for unpublished authors some years ago, and one of her manuscripts was among those sent to me.

Editors often talk about how they just *know* when they will want a story, from the first page. I read her first pages, and I *knew* this author would be in print very, very soon. She was that good. I was expected to write a critique of this contest entry, and I had precious little to criticize. I scrounged up something or other, but my cover letter was honest and I admitted it had not been easy.

That manuscript became Elizabeth Hoyt’s first published book.

. . . .

MH: Please tell us about the new book.

EH: Lady Phoebe is pretty, vivacious and blind. Her over-protective brother, the Duke of Wakefield, has hired Captain James Trevillion, a former dragoon, to guard her at all times. Phoebe chafes at constantly being shadowed by the dour captain, but when someone makes plans to kidnap her, she turns to Trevillion to protect her.

. . . .

MH: If you were not a romance writer, what genre might you be writing?

EH: Probably some type of thriller or mystery, since that’s a genre I read a lot. But really, I feel that I’m most suited to writing romance — and particularly historical romance.

MH: Tell us something about your career’s trajectory. Have you held other jobs while writing? How many books have you published?

EH: Well, I was a full-time, stay-at-home mom when I started writing, so in a sense I’ve always “held” that job. I realized when my youngest (now in college!!) started kindergarten that I had an opportunity that I might never have again in my life: to try writing. I didn’t have a career outside the family to go back to or to try and fit writing around. I told my husband to give me five years and if I hadn’t gotten a book published in that time I’d get a “real” job. Of course I had NO idea about publishing — many, many successful authors take way more than five years to publish — but I did sell and publish The Raven Prince almost exactly five years later. Since then I’ve written pretty steadily, selling three contemporary romances (under the name Julia Harper), one novella and 14 historical romances. Dearest Rogue will be my 18th book.

MH: Have you done any self-publishing? Is that in your future?

EH: Nope, not yet! But I think self-pubbing is in every author’s future, don’t you?

Link to the rest at USA Today

Here’s a link to Elizabeth Hoyt’s books



Romance Novels Are Primed To Make An Impact On Society, So Stop Calling Them “Trashy,” OK?

19 April 2015

From author Lauren Billings AKA Christina Lauren (a pen name shared by Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings) via Bustle:

I left my research career in the pharmaceutical industry to write romance novels.

This is my spiel now, and I’ve heard a lot of great responses to it, but my favorite might be the one delivered at my son’s soccer game. “Oh, how wonderful!” a grandmother of a teammate said, clapping. “Are they formulaic? I simply love trashy books!” I enjoyed that she claimed to love them, but the assumption that romance is, by default, “trashy” left me struggling for a reply that wouldn’t draw blood.

This conversation isn’t a new one. Society has often viewed romance as below other literary work. Smart, educated, opinionated, empowered women reading and writing romance are beginning to rebrand the genre as one with more heft, but still the refrain remains, “put down the books — and pick up reality.”

For 18 years, my life was neuroscience research on neurodegeneration. I’m a relatively goofy person, and upon hearing what I did for a living, many people seemed to view me differently — with surprise first, and then, respect. But I’ve always loved to write for fun — fanfic, stories for myself, and, eventually, actual books with my coauthor, Christina. Between February and November 2013, we released six New York Times bestsellers, all while working full time in our “more serious” careers. I honestly couldn’t do both anymore, and — after much hand-wringing deliberation — I chose the career that made me spring from bed and dance to the coffee machine every morning.

. . . .

The voices in this genre are busy telling the world what matters to women. Yes, we care about career, work-life balance, respect — obviously critically important things. But what if, the authors of these books are beginning to ask with their themes, we take those things as given and then ask for more: to be seen as sexual creatures who are in no way delicate, who come in every flavor and color, who like people, actions, or genders society tells them they ought not to? 

Link to the rest at Bustle and thanks to Cora for the tip.

Here’s a link to Christina Lauren’s books.

Genre Exploitation or Unreasonable Reader Expectations?

9 April 2015

From Dear Author:

Last week I linked to an essay by Remittance Girl for the DA news, in which she argued extensively against the Clean Reader application, which replaces so-called “dirty” words with “clean” versions. Remittance Girl’s post covers a great deal of terrain, from the moral rights of authors to her frustration with what she sees as the crass commercialization of fiction, which has prompted her to pull her books from the commercial market. Among her concerns is her belief that Romance readers are penalizing erotic fiction for not providing “a formulaic recipe that can be repeated over and over again with minor changes.” She goes on to essentially equate that formula with “buying a manufactured product” akin to fast food:

Before we lay all the blame at the door of publishers and retailers, consider that some genres of writing, like Regency Romance or Post-Apocalyptic Zombie novels abound with such precise conventions and tropes that, for many writers, they are essentially a formulaic recipe that can be repeated over and over again, with minor changes. Readers of this sort of work not only like this, they expect it, they demand it. They are the customer and have been taught to believe the customer is always right.  More recently, with the massive popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, sold as erotica, readers consistently punish erotica writers with scathing comments and one star reviews when they do not provide a central romantic plot and a happy ending, because those readers believe they are buying a manufactured product that will offer them the predictable experience they might assume from a Big Mac or a Skinny, Venti, Caramel Latte from Starbucks.

While I respect Remittance Girl’s decision to refuse participation in a market she finds detrimental to her creative agency, I find her equation of genre formulae with crass commercialism and fast food to be deeply and offensively unfair. Generic formula do not amount to a lack of quality or creativity; in fact, anyone who writes or appreciates reading sonnets understands the extent to which formal limitations provide a challenge that can yield some daring and ingenious expressions of creativity.

Her post does raise the question of how genre expectations shape reader response, though, and how reader response, in turn, can shape genre expressions. Romance, in particular, is subject to these questions, in part because it is so profitable that many authors want access to its very loyal and enthusiastic reader base. We saw this not too long ago, when an author unfamiliar with the genre was touting his book as revolutionary, even though a cursory examination of the genre undermined the claim.

Link to the rest at Dear Author and thanks to Felix for the tip.

The Secret of the Jane Austen Industry

28 March 2015

From The Wall Street Journal:

The poet W.H. Auden said of Sigmund Freud that he was no longer just a person but had become a climate of opinion. That is about as effusive a compliment as one can imagine, and there are very few thinkers or writers who merit it. But one who undoubtedly does isJane Austen. She is not only a climate of opinion, she is a movement, a mood, a lifestyle, an attitude and, perhaps most tellingly of all, a fridge magnet.

What explains the continued popularity of Jane Austen and the handful of novels she wrote? It is, after all, rather remarkable that a woman who spent her life in quiet provincial circumstances in early 19th-century England should become, posthumously, a literary celebrity outshining every author since then, bar none. Tolstoy, Dickens and Proust are all remembered, and still read, but they do not have countless fans throughout the world who reread their books each year, who eagerly await the latest television or movie adaptation, who attend conventions in period costume, and who no doubt dream about the heroes and heroines of their novels.

And it gets better. Although the literary sequel is an established genre, there are no other writers who have quite so many imitators. Each publishing year brings its crop of Austen novels, whether they are prequels, sequels or fresh treatments of a plot from a new perspective.

. . . .

The continued life of the Jane Austen industry must have a secret. At the heart of it is probably the simple, persistent appeal of romance. Austen is about women engaging with men in the eternal dance of attraction between the sexes. That, it would seem, is what people want to read about and to see portrayed one way or another on the screen. The woman identifies her man or he identifies her. They encounter obstacles, whether personal or social, but, if it is meant to be, they overcome them and are happily paired at the end. So resolution and happiness are thrown into the mix, and however jaded we are, it seems we can never get enough of those.

Yet there is far more to Austen than that. There are plenty of superficial romantic novels that are forgotten as soon as they are read. Austen is far from superficial. Although her books are set exclusively within the confines of a certain class, she provides a fascinating picture of the ways of that slice of society and the confines within which its members, particularly women, are obliged to live. She is also extremely funny, able to paint the foibles of characters with a dry wit that has dated very little. Her books are intimate and compelling. She has a voice that somehow seems to chime even with a modern sensibility. She is, in essence, timeless.

Lind to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

Conversations in Private Author Loops

27 March 2015

From author Courtney Milan via Smart Bitches, Trashy Books:

Courtney Milan says:

Look, there’s a reason I haven’t said much. I’m still untangling things. There are a lot of things that I need to untangle. I’m sorry that’s not convenient–I conveniently wish I could untangle this easily, too.

But here is one thread of about 45 tangled threads that I think I’m finally clear on: There is an intersection between Jane being on author loops and the lawsuit.

Everything that crosses Jane’s eye about Ellora’s Cave is discoverable by Tina Engler–someone who has allegedly inflated the 1099s of former editors who testified in the suit in retaliation for their testimony, an action that will cost them time and money to correct. A lot of authors–and I mean a LOT–are being very cautious about what they say because they don’t want to be retaliated against. I understand that worry and I’m not going to tell people to put their careers on the line when they’ve got a living to make.

Now we come to those private author loops. Because that’s where we do a lot of processing behind the scenes, including processing of the questions regarding the EC suit. On private author loops, authors have asked each other questions like this: Do I say something in public? Is it worth the risk? They still have six of my books, and they’re still paying me and I need that money to pay rent. Or, maybe the calculus goes, They haven’t paid me yet but I think they will and I can’t afford not to get it. I can’t speak up.

Ellora’s Cave is going to ask for discovery of any and all communications received by Jane in any form regarding Ellora’s Cave. If Jane was on any of those loops? That stuff is discoverable. Even if Jane as Jen didn’t respond or instigate the discussion. Even if she never used the information.

It is a huge risk to speak frankly in front of someone who may be compelled by court order to report your speech to the person you are talking about. There’s even the risk that, as a result of that speech, you may be compelled by subpoena to testify in court. These are risks that are vastly different in kind than the risks authors normally assume–and Jane spent six months on authors’ loops not disclosing that a court could compel her to put everything said in front of her about Ellora’s Cave in front of Tina Engler.

Link to the rest at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and thanks to Phoenix and several others for the tip.

Here’s a link to Courtney Milan’s books

​How Harlequin Became the Most Famous Name in Romance

20 March 2015

From Pictorial:

For the average person, romance novels bring to mind one word: Harlequin.

Of course, it’s not a very illustrious name. It’s treated as a punchline, a smutty innuendo. God forbid it pass your lips in literary circles. Despite the company’s frankly astounding financial history, generations of journalists have treated any related assignment as an excuse to do their best impression of its novels’ distinctive style. (Those impressions are generally abysmal.) People who haven’t cracked a book open in years feel fully qualified to sneer at Harlequins.

But very few people seem to have a good grasp on what, exactly, a Harlequin romance novel actually is. I’d go so far as to say that everything you think you know about the company is probably wrong. They’re not raunchy “bodice rippers,” a dismissive term that more properly refers to the historical romances of the 1970s, which were never Harlequin specialties, anyway. They’re not “pornography for women,” either—Harlequins were long quite prim, holding the line against premarital sex until the 1980s, and to this day, the company’s offerings are often mild in comparison to the gloriously filthy stuff that’s readily available on Amazon. To dismiss them as “trash” is lazy and intellectually incurious.

Harlequin’s bread and butter has always been a very specific type of book: the category romance, a distinctive corner of the publishing business. Typically less than 200 pages, their print editions are like magazines, with a limited shelf life (though particularly successful titles are repackaged and released). Harlequin sells many clearly branded “lines” of category romance, and editors of each have specific guidelines for aspiring writers. Each book must deliver on its promises about the level of sensuality, the preferred sort of settings, the overall emotional tenor, whether it’s angsty or lighthearted. They’re formulaic compared to single-title romances, but that doesn’t mean identical, and in fact they vary wildly—because when you’re so constrained by space, you’ve got to get creative if you want to stand out. Nora Roberts once compared writing categories to “Swan Lake in a phone booth.”

. . . .

 How did a humble Canadian publisher—which got its start reprinting other companys’ books—become the name most associated with romance? It’s a long story, involving a peripatetic former fur trader and his opinionated socialite wife, a Procter-and-Gamble-trained Harvard MBA, some jilted Americans and a whole crowd of damned scribbling women.

. . . .

Harlequin, born in Winnipeg, released its first title in 1949. Founder Richard Bonnycastle had spent several years criss-crossing the frozen Canadian backcountry as a fur-trading employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. But it was a perilous life for a family man, so he eventually settled down managing a printing firm. Suddenly, he had access to a bunch of printing presses that were perfect if, say, you wanted to create a publishing house specializing in paperback reprints. And so Harlequin was born as a sideline, “a filler for a nice, steady business,” Bonnycastle’s right-hand woman Ruth Palmour told Paul Grescoe in an interview for his gleeful history of the company, The Merchants of Venus.

It’s Palmour and Bonnycastle’s wife Mary who deserve much of the credit for getting Harlequin off the ground. At first, the company published a mishmash of genres, with mixed success. Palmour, who ran much of the business day-to-day, noticed “nice little romances” were performing particularly well. Meanwhile, Mary, a socially polished stay-at-home mother, had agreed to read over the company’s titles for errors. She began establishing her preferences (she didn’t much hold with “sex books,” for instance), and soon emerged as de facto editor-in-chief.

Medical romances in particular did well for the company, and over the course of the early ’50s, both women noticed that a British firm, Mills & Boon, was churning out good work in the genre. In 1957, Palmour pitched a partnership, sending their reprint rates and suggesting Harlequin would be keen on “some of your doctor and nurse titles.”

When they received Ms. Palmour’s letter, Mills & Boon was 50 years old, with a tried-and-true recipe for light romantic fiction, the company specialty. In his history of the company, Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon, Joseph McAleer outlines two rules established by co-founder Charles Boon in the 1930s that reverberate even today: There was “Lubbock’s Law,” which said to write from the heroine’s perspective; and there was “the Alphaman,” which insisted heroes be strong top-of-the-heap types, paragons of stereotypical masculinity. The company also pioneered lasting sales tactics: uniform covers playing up the Mills & Boon name over the author’s, dedicating the back pages to promoting their other titles.

Link to the rest at Pictorial and thanks to Will for the tip.

A Dream Fulfilled: Deborah Bladon’s Indie Success

17 March 2015

From Publishers Weekly:

Deborah Bladon remembers sending a proposal for a romance novel to Harlequin Desire many years ago. She eventually received a polite rejection letter, and though she continued writing, she shelved her dream of becoming a professional romance writer—until New Year’s Eve 2013. That night, Bladon made a New Year’s resolution: to self-publish—something that hadn’t been an option previously. And, on February 21, 2014, her first title, Obsessed, went live on Amazon.

A year later, Bladon is a New York Times bestselling author with 21 self-published novellas across six series (Obsessed, Exposed, Pulse, Vain, Ruin, and Gone) with more planned for 2015. She’s made the New York Times e-book bestseller list 14 times and the USA Today list 21 times, as well as being a Kindle Top 100 author in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. “I made a promise to myself that I’d put one novella up and it just snowballed from there,” she says.

In its first week of release, Obsessed—about a jewelry designer who falls for a powerful bad boy—sold 107 copies. “I knew that I didn’t know all the people who bought it, so I was ecstatic,” she says. The book soon reached the Top 100 chart on in her native Canada. But the moment she knew “something really shifted” was when her readers started emailing her and posting on Facebook about when the next book in the series would be released. “The first time it happened I remember staring at the message on Facebook. I was in awe that anyone was invested enough in the Obsessed series to want to know what was happening next,” she says. “Then I released the Exposed series and sales soared.”

. . . .

While serialization is nothing new, self-publishing does lend itself to the format—indie authors have control over their publishing schedules and can release installments quickly to keep readers on the hook. For Bladon, once each series of three or four titles is complete, the next step is bundling the novellas and offering them as a single book in both e-book and print formats. Bladon uses Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace, while tapping Draft2Digital for distribution to iBooks, NOOK, and Kobo.

“I chose to self-publish because the opportunity was there,” says Bladon. “I saw it as the most convenient route for sharing my work with potential readers and it also allowed me to retain complete control over all the aspects that are important to me including my release schedule, covers, etc.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Here’s a link to Deborah Bladon’s books

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