Friday, January 19, 2007

Romancing the Atlantic

If Black Lace was a slice of cake, some of the lovely ladies here would be dark chocolate curls, the luscious cherries soaked in brandy and the tart coffee center. My place would be the fluffy pink frosting on the top. I’m basically a boring person with a wild imagination, so I apologize if this blog isn’t as scintillating and edgy as usual!

I write erotic romance even if my idea of what constitutes a happy ending isn’t the conventional one woman one man anymore. Growing up in England, my romance reading was confined to Mills & Boon and the gritty northern sagas by such writers as Catherine Cookson. I sensed even then that something was missing. I tried to write my own sagas but I kept morphing into a bad imitation of Jane Austen with sex and somehow I couldn’t quite get it right.

Then my big sisters discovered Kathleen Woodiwiss. I’d hide in the bottom bunk bed and listen to them read the books aloud to each other while giggling uncontrollably. After mulling over what I’d heard, I’d invariably have to ask my mum a few questions: such as what does phallic mean and what exactly is a burning tinderbox of love? She did her best to answer me and I knew I was getting somewhere.

I kept writing through university and the early years of marriage, still not getting it right. Feedback was at least consistent. Too much sex and not enough gritty angst. I stopped writing.

Fast forward to the late 1990’s and I get to move to California with my lovely family. Of course the first thing I do is head for a bookstore and I find a huge section labeled ROMANCE. I pick up the first book I see, which happens to be a Catherine Coulter, and I start reading. This book has SEX in it and a happy ending. A light exploded in my skull and I realized I’d found my audience.

I wrote a note to Catherine Coulter and she kindly replied and pointed me in the direction of Romance Writers of America. I was on my way to finding my peeps. Just in case you don’t know, RWA has over 9000 members both published and unpublished, including Nora Roberts. Romance in the U.S. accounts for over 51% of paperback sales and generates approximately 1.2 billion dollars in sales a year. That is a big number and makes the romance industry a force to be reckoned with. Every time someone sneers at what I do, and it’s not just men, I drop those numbers into the conversation and it usually makes them pause.

A romance section in an American bookstore is vast. It contains every sub-genre possible from inspirational, contemporary, paranormal, science fiction, historical, futuristic and of course, erotic. It’s a constantly mutating and developing market place.

When I first moved here, Black Lace books were shelved in some very strange places that included not only the erotica section but sexual therapy and ethics. Now they have proudly taken their place in the romance section as the American market has become hotter and hotter.

Some of that change has come from the internet publishers such as Ellora’s Cave, New Concepts Publishing and Amber Quill. They gave American women the opportunity to buy very hot romance novels as downloads which avoided a trip to the local bookstore and the potential snottiness of a sales assistant who considered all romance trashy porn. (and what’s wrong with that anyway?) Now most of the New York publishers have their own erotic romance lines. Kensington Aphrodisia (I’m also contracted to write for them) makes no apologies for publishing erotica. They chose to call it erotic romance in order to get it shelved in romance.

These publishers pushed the envelope and took their readers along with them. Of course, Black Lace had been merrily doing that for years. For me, my journey as a writer took me to Ellora’s Cave and then back in a nice cosmically pleasing circle to Black Lace and Cheek. As BL seek a bigger market share in the U.S. will the erotica publishers here reciprocate and send their books over the pond and how will they be received?

I’ve never quite understood why the huge Romance section available in an American bookstore hasn’t worked its way across the Atlantic yet. I know that it’s beginning to. My five sisters have converted a lot of people since I ‘showed them the way’.

When I lived in Britain, the word ‘romance’ conjured up Mills & Boon and that was it. Now it makes me think of a multitude of different sub-genres and a market that keeps on growing alongside an increasingly sophisticated audience. Will romance ever explode in Britain or is the word too clichéd to reflect the variety now available? It will be interesting to see.

Oh, and wish me a happy birthday-I’m… another year older. As my friend said on my card: “We’ll still be friends when we’re old and mysteriously not at all gray.”

Kate Pearce


Alison Tyler said...

Happy birthday, Kate!

When I was first buying BL, I actually got a kick out of standing next to all the horny guys in "those sections" of the bookstores. (I'm also the sort of girl who would go to the back of Max's Smoke Shop and buy all the dirty magazines, just for the thrill of placing the stack on the counter and watching the check-out boy's eyes bulge. Yes, eyes.)

Now, sometimes the books seem to be with romance and sometimes with erotica. I think I prefer the erotica section, personally. But I don't really know why...

Keziah Hill said...

Australia is the same Kate. Until the arrival of Borders it was hard to get a range of romances. I think it also has something to do with a publishing agreement that divides up the world into the UK part and the American part. I don't really understand how it works, but I know Australia is in the UK part. Books here are outrageously expensive. A standard romance paperback varies between $15-19AUS. A Spice is $30. Which makes ebooks all the more attractive.

Mathilde Madden said...

I *think* I prefer the books being in the romance section. I think most Black Lace novels have more in common with erotic romance than erotica. I have days when I think differently, though.

It's good to have a choice of marketing platforms, I guess. Sometimes I can get more attention for my work by calling it erotica, porn or smut. Sometimes its best to call it paranormal romance. I think even writers of literary fiction battle with ideas of genre and fashion and nebulous concepts of what readers want.

(I mean, did any publisher, in the early 1990s deduce that what readers wanted was a wizarding-school saga?)

I'll be honest, I am proud of what I do and I want it read. I want it shelved where it will sell best.

Nikki Magennis said...

Happy Birthday Kate! I love your post, partly because I love the thought of cake in any form. Have a big chocolate-and-cherry-and-rum-and-icing one for yourself today!

Burning tinderbox of love. Fabulous.

As for the genre stuff. a writer, I couldn't really give much of a monkey's where my book is shelved, as long as it's got a nice cover and it's in the shop somewhere.

That's not true. I'd like to be squashed in between Steve Almond and Dan Rhodes. (geeky author crushes).

But then, if I think of the readers - I don't know. I don't know if someone looking for romance would like my writing. I like love, and I like relationships, and I like sex. Is that enough? I also like detailed description and off-beam stories, and what some call a literary flavour. I take it as a compliment, but I know it's not always meant that way.

I suppose the classifying is all about helping readers to find what books they will enjoy. The whole romance/not romance thang is a vast subject. And I don't know much about contemporary romance. I wouldn't pick a book because it's got 'romance' on the spine. I'd pick it maybe because it had one of those eggshell covers or a cool picture of a stormy beach, or because the back cover mentioned time-travel or libraries or botany...

Does that make any sense? It's a thorny subject, because I know on one side of the fence people sneer at romance, and the other side are quite defensive, and personally, I like to straddle fences.

Did I just write that? Sheesh.

What I'd like to know is - what constitutes romance? Is 'The time traveller's wife' romance? Or 'Towards the End of time', because there's love in there somewhere?

What constitutes not-romance? I have my own preconceived ideas about romance, but I'm happy to have them overturned. Does there have to be a conventional love story? A happy ending? Come on, romancers, throw me some surprising titles that make me question my prejudices...(I'm not really looking for the classics, I'm curious about contemporary work.)

Mathilde Madden said...

It's hard to think of a book that isn't a romance in one way or another. Maybe that is what makes the catagorisation so tricky. 'Time Traveller's Wife' is a good example. Is 'Dracula' a romance? - guess what I'm writing write now to make me think that. Yep, its my hokey old-skool vampires.

I have often thought that the reason for that huge 51% of sales figure in the US is because almost everything that can call itself romance does, like Laurell K Hamilton, Lisa Gardner and Janet Evanovitch - none of which are shelved in romance over here.

Nikki Magennis said...

Janet Evanovich? Romance??? Oh right, because there's both men and women in the book and some of them love each other, right? But she's a bounty hunter! It's like a detective story!

Now I'm very confused.

Is it - anything without a black cover and gold embossed lettering? But then, Patricia Cornwell has a love story in it - is that classed as romance?

The word 'roman' (novel) and romance share the same roots, don't they? I don't know my arsus from my Latin elbow, though, so don't quote me. And perhaps that's semantics, when I think we're talking economics, really, aren't we?

Nikki Magennis said...

- oh yeah, and Kate, I think as far as the cake goes, I've decided I must be the lush soaked in brandy.

: )

Alison Tyler said...

Hey Nikki,

I think it is a thorny subject! I was told to tone down my style a bit for "Something About Workmen," and then I got slammed in several reviews for not including enough sex.

But several of my "erotic romance" titles have been labeled as too hot. So who knows? I guess I have to fall back on that "you can't please all the people..." concept. But I think I'm definitely more of an erotica reader than a romance reader. Unless the subjects have fully blended now to become one.

Rambling. Sorry.

Lewis said...

I'm not a published author, but checking the dictionary shows romance originally meant "written in the vernacular" (as opposed to in Latin) and was later used for all works of fiction, then later again became tied in with romantic love stories.

Speaking as a man that reads the writing of at least some of you lot as authors... I don't skim the romance section of the bookshop. I also don't look shifty when in the erotica section. Speaking as a brit, I'm happy to find my Laurell K. Hamilton in the horror section, even though some of her books are smutty as you can think of.

About what's romance, and what's not:

I'm not sure there's a good definition to be honest. I can think of things that aren't (Dracula's relationship with Lucy isn't romantic) and equally of things that are (D's relationship with Mina is more about romance). I think one of the differences is about time: romance is slower, erotica faster. Even if, after romancing them, the actual sex is hard, fast and lots of fun, there's a lot of build up that's not (necessarily) overtly sexual. Taking someone out for a meal, then to the theatre (taking you lot to the cinema is too dangerous!) and then taking them home sounds like romance to me, even if, once the doors are shut you tear each other's clothes off. Coming home from work to have your clothes ripped off as you shut the door for a night of wild sex sounds like a fantasy come true, but it's not romance if that's the entire story.

There are blurry bits in there. You could use what I've written to claim a story about a stalker is a romance, and I don't think stalking is at all romantic, but a stalker just might I guess. Waiting for your partner to get home and slowly seducing them - is that romance or erotica? Erotica can certainly be written about people in a long term relationship, but perhaps erotica focusses more on the sex, romances on the relationship?

But there's always going to be an issue with categories: Pick a middle to late Anita Blake book. Horror (it's got werewolves, vampires and other "horror" monsters)? Fantasy (it's a world in which they're not "creatures of the night", it's a parallel world more, with good and bad witches, faeries and things)? Detective/Police story (there's nearly always tracking down some bad guy)? Erotica (she sure has a lot of sex, increasingly with a number of partners, and for the last 5 or so books is sleeping most nights between two men, well two wereleopards)? Romance (she's in a polyamourous situation, but she has romantic nights out, and is really a fan of long term relationships rather than casual sex)?

Whatever the categories, more power to your libidoes, word processors and imaginations! Maybe I'll have to start checking out the romance shelves too!

Kate Pearce said...

yes, the lines are blurring and it's hard to know what defines a romance these day-the RWA tried to define it a few years ago and we all know what happened then!
L K Hamilton is shelved in horror/fantasy here as well but the books imo, are very erotic. Publishers are excited about this blending of elements but choosing whether to call a book a romance, erotica or something completely different is probably a marketing nightmare.
Some authors use the romance conventions and then insist their book isn't 'one of those bodice rippers')Why so defensive? What's wrong with writing about love in all it's many splendid forms?

Nikki Magennis said...

Thanks, lewis, for your input. And good on you for managing to look forthright and proud in all sections of the book shop!

I used to turn bright pink in the erotica section. I'd kind of sidle up to it from the 'health & fitness' shelves, sideways, then put on a serious face like I was doing some incredibly important research, before dashing in, plucking a book from the shelf and cannon-balling to the tills.

But then I got all world-weary and jaded...

Sabrina Luna said...

Happy Birthday Kate --May you have your cake & eat it too! ;)

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

Happy Birthday, Kate! Really liked your piece in SaS.

What an interesting post. Much of what I do relates directly to defining romance for viewers, rather than defending it. I look readers, the market, and writers to help do that, because as one of you wrote, categorizing helps readers find what they're looking for, and that helps authors make money.

Defining what is romance (genre) fiction is sticky if we don't delineate what we mean by "romantic." Do we mean vernacular, from roman, in that the novels appeal to the general populace, the pulp-fiction-y connotation that is often applied here in the states? Do we apply to the genre the term Romantic, as in the exact style of the 19th Century mvmt?

Do we give props to Woodiwiss et al, and apply to our definition her's and her colleagues styles, drawing back to Mills/Boone?

I like to think romance fiction today, the contemporary romance, as it were, draws on all those because of the influence they've had on today's authors.

Yet at the heart of a novel that can be marketed authentically as a romance today must be a love story between two individuals (you know me better than to think I believe it only can be one man/one woman, but we're talking the general romance-buying public here)which ends in a strong or soft Happily Ever After. That's it, kids, and the reader has to be thinking about how that couple's gonna get together as their primary experience while reading the novel.

Now, my understanding of British audiences is that they find suspect the facile ending. Is there a demo of British women who enjoy reading about emotional justice gained by finding a well-endowed dream lover who wants to spend his life with one special chick?

Who is she, and how can you find her?

Kate Pearce said...

actually I got a tiramisu cake from Whole Foods-it looks yummy!

Mathilde Madden said...

I think the ending thing might the big difference. Only because you hear stories all the time about how such-and-such a film had to have a the ending changed so it was happy for US audiences.

This comment would be much better if I had even one single example to back it up.

Anonymous said...

Mathilde Madden said...
I think the ending thing might the big difference. Only because you hear stories all the time about how such-and-such a film had to have a the ending changed so it was happy for US audiences.

This comment would be much better if I had even one single example to back it up.

Blade Runner for sure, and for all the geeks out there AND for a bit of romance (even if not all that sexy). Although not quite the same, Lord of the Rings had a pretty big change to introduce Arwen as a really rather significant character and a love interest. In the books she's mentioned once in the main text and a few times in the appendix. (I'm a geek AND a nerd, is there no hope for me?)

The American version of Nikita does too (I think it's called The Assassin of something).

Alison Tyler said...

I read that the original script for Risky Business ended with the main character losing the girl and not getting into Princeton but keeping the $$. I don't know if that's just an urban legend, though.

I've heard of other movies changed, as well. Didn't Fatal Attraction originally have a different ending?

But I do have to admit that the one Elmore Leonard book I disliked was the one where the main female character was killed. I expected the standard finale where the man and woman end up together, and I was horrified when the girl was killed.

Nikki Magennis said...

I had no idea they changed the endings for different audiences! God, I'm so clueless.

How fascinating. Does that mean Americans are more optimistic than us? I spose Britishers are the most cynical of peoples. Maybe we could do the same with our books. Two different ends to choose from.

Anyone read Alina Reyes' Labyrinth? The reader has to keep choosing which path to take.

Thanks, Michelle, for clearing it up so eloquently.

Pretty much it comes down to the ending, eh? Hmm. I think it was on Romancing the Blog that I heard from people who read the last page first to make sure the book has a Happy Ever After, and I have to say that shocked me. Deeply!

Oh, and how did we get back onto films, eh? ; )

Fiona Locke said...

I've just learned that 'Over the Knee' is on the Amazon romance genre sublist, which shocked the hell out of me! I've always considered what I write to be erotica, porn, smut, etc. Definitely not romance. But when I look at the book, it does have some of the elements you guys are saying defines romance. (Even if 'I love you' is never even said once!)

Personally, I want shelving in the erotica section rather than romance. It seems like false advertising to me otherwise.

Mathilde Madden said...

I would buy a book that had over the knee spanking and lots of 'I love you's. That would suit me very well.

kristina lloyd said...

Belated birthday greetings, Kate. I hope you’re full of cake.

Great post. I’ve learned stuff from hearing this. I think the concern for me is not so much what is or isn’t romance/erotica etc but who’s leading the dance? Booksellers or authors? It would be nice to think that writers will do what they’ve always done - write - and the headache of how to classify belongs to publishers and booksellers. However, I worry about a situation arising where authors are encouraged to, or feel compelled to, write books which meet predominant industry categorisations, otherwise they won’t get the shelf space. I like to think my smut has something in common with both romance and suspense/thrillers. I like delving into relationships so I guess that makes it romance rather than straight erotica. I also like dealing in dark sinister storylines but it’s not necessarily crime or paranormal. Are readers going to feel cheated if they pick me up in romance (ahem)? Am I going to feel pressured into upping the romance quota or adding HEAs in order to meet expectations? Asking for Trouble is regarded by some as being little more than a sleazy fuckfest. I don’t believe it is because the central m/f relationship is very intense and obsessive, although I wouldn't call it love. The book recently earned a 4 ½ star review in Romantic Times so I guess I’m doing something right. I suspect all this is something a lot of us are having to think about as the marketplace shifts. We want to sell our books, yes, but we also want them to be, essentially, our books for our imagined readers.

Booksellers are increasingly powerful, and this does worry me. In the UK, the ending of the net book agreement in ‘97 (where books could only be sold at RRP) resulted in many independent booksellers going to the wall. The big guys could afford to buy in bulk and negotiate high discounts from the publishers. The smaller guys couldn’t and were priced out. We have a ridiculous situation now in the UK where the surviving indies buy discounted stock from supermarkets in order to sell in their own shops. Bookstore chains and publishers love big-hitters. It’s cheaper to produce and market fewer bestselling titles than to offer a range of mid-volume titles. Variety is being lost in our bookshops. Publishers are increasingly reluctant to take risks because if the bookchains don’t look favourably on what they’re offering, it’s not going to reach its readership. The trade talks about the death of the ‘mid-list’ author, those small steady sellers who will never make the headlines and who will never get on the front table in a 3 for 2 promotion. There are some great popular books but there are also some great unpopular books, slowly dying because they’re being crowded out.

I recognise bookselling is a commercial enterprise but to see books being treated as tins of beans – pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap – is a travesty. Maybe I’m a romantic old fool, but I think bookselling ought to be treated as a special case in a capitalist economy. Someone, somewhere is making a huge profit (and it ain’t the authors), and we’re being sold more and more of the same.

If you can, support the indies, support diversity. Take a look at Nikki and Alison’s comments below about difficulties at Cleis press and bag yourself a bargain. Buy porn (or whatever you want to call it) for the health of the book industry!

Apologies for veering off-topic and not being very sexy. Here endeth the rant.

Oh, and in my local WHSmiths, erotic fiction is shelved under Crime. Hmmm, now what does that say about us?

ADR Forte said...

Call me cranky or lazy, probably both, but walking into a bookstore- all big chains around here, we have no small indie sellers- and trying to find a title makes my head hurt. Trying to figure out what the hell I'm writing is even more of a pain.

Recently I went looking for a copy of Sex and Music in Borders. It wasn't shelved in erotica. It wasn't in romance. Twenty minutes later with the tireless assistance of the friendly Borders Boy on Duty we found it in a subsection of romance- not series but not the main section either. Borders Boy was as lost as I was.

Also not long ago I asked an acquaintance if she'd like to beta read one of my novel manuscripts- I know she's a huge fan of romance and erotic romance. She said she'd have to decline because didn't read erotica, only er. Going by the current definition of er- love story, hea, lots of sex- I'm not sure how that differs from the "erotica" I'm writing.

And let's not even get into whether it's porn or erotica.

While I'm all for categorizing books so that readers can find what they're looking for easily, my experience as a reader is that it ain't happenin'. Fantasy and sf are the only things that make sense off in their little 2-row section. The rest of it is just one big puzzle.

The system- if there is one- isn't exactly user friendly to either writer or reader. For example, if a writer has a trilogy, the bookstore tracking system tracks and orders by total sales so Book 1 will get hits and get restocked.

While folks are reading Book 1, Book 2 doesn't get many orders so the system doesn't restock it. Readers pick up Book 3 instead and so the system restocks that. Book 2 is still unavailable and the system doesn't restock because it's getting no sales.... huh?

The point is authors and readers are largely at the mercy of what the booksellers do and the bottomline mindset of retail sales. The whole system is a pain in the ass and it doesn't help anybody. And I suppose I am ranting and I should stop.

Besides why am I complaining when I get to spend so much more time at the customer service counter getting err... "help" from the cute staff? Maybe I should have told Borders Boy I had a story in the anthology. Damn. Hindsight's always 20/20 isn't it?

Nikki Magennis said...

This is why I dream of owning a little bookshop one day. I will know where all the books are and just from looking at a customer will be able to deduce exactly what they need.

Maybe I'll classify them by the colour of their spines, so I get rainbow shelves.

On another note, re the book industry as a whole - I have a suspicion the POD thing will become as big as itunes and downloaded music, and in future we'll sell pretty much direct to readers.

Kate Pearce said...

adr-your Borders boy story reminded me of my Kinko's experience (that's a printing store before anyone gets excited)
I took a disc copy of my ebook "Eden's Pleasure" to Kinkos- (I think it's FedEx kinkos's now)to get a paper copy made for a review in RT. The guy who 'helped' me was about 19, pimply and quite cute.
He wanted to know the word count and I couldn't remember so he took the disc and went off to check it out.
All I could see was his back. The cover flashed up and then the first page and a tide of crimson swept up from his neck to his face. When he turned round he was grinning like a loon and was extra extra helpful.
I get fab service in there now!