There's no new way to say it, except possibly en francais, the language of love. Paranormal is le dernier cri in the romance category—its hold on readers and publishers alike defies any logic or explanation. In its first year it was a phase, then it became a definite trend. Now, it's a sea change, with no evidence that the tide's waning. So, sure, everybody agrees about the Pword, but what, exactly, is its appeal— why is this romance genre so, er, bloody popular?
As Deb Werksman, Sourcebooks senior acquisitions editor, puts it, "Humans have their limits—the sweet guy we go home to at night is maybe going a little bald and getting a little paunchy and certainly doesn't have fangs, feathers, or fur. We can escape into a hot paranormal romance story where heroes have remarkable sexual powers and then project them onto our own all too human sweethearts."
According to Sarah Wendell, cofounder of smartbitchestrashybooks.com, "Paranormal romance, in all its incarnations, often represents the ultimate in impossible love. He might desire to both kiss and exsanguinate the heroine. She may have a slight depilatory issue when the moon is full. One or both can see ghosts, fairies, selkies, or elves, or be ghosts, fairies, selkies, or elves. Whatever the challenge in a paranormal, it'll be overcome and with superhuman—literally—power. So it's no wonder that the genre hasn't run out of steam. Or fangs."
The success of paranormals, however, rests on more than humorous references and "undead" jokes, say many industry players. Says Wendell, "Paranormal stories also reflect many of humanity's continuing struggles. Vampires represent our struggle with mortality, and werewolves and shape-shifters our struggle with rage and insanity. These are enduring themes in fiction, and romance is no exception." Bantam Dell senior editor Shauna Summers takes a broader view: "The demand and popularity of the paranormal is really pervasive through all of pop culture—movies, television, as well as books, which is part of why it continues to be so hot within romance. I think part of the appeal is the freshness and creativity that paranormal writers bring to their storytelling, which is due at least in part to the fact that with this subgenre they're only limited by their imaginations. There is less of a need to make the books realistic; instead, it's all about character development and world-building. I think there's also an appeal post-9/11 of good triumphing in a dark and dangerous world."
At Grand Central, Amy Pierpont, the editorial director of Forever, also credits the writers' imaginations. "Authors are creating such spectacular worlds for their otherworldly characters that readers become entranced not only with the heroes and heroines of paranormal romance but the secondary characters, the setting, the special powers and abilities, all of which create a new, fantastical world where everyday trials and triumphs play out in a way that is satisfying and familiar. To watch beloved characters triumph over adversity of a paranormal sort makes the everyday trials we readers face seem perhaps a little more manageable."
Long Live the P-Word
The category shows no signs of dying off— nor, of course, do its characters, though some already have. Kensington editorial director Alicia Condon admits to being surprised at how long paranormals have remained on top. "I've been in publishing for 30 years and have seen many trends come and go, but paranormals have lasted longer than many of us expected because they exploit such powerful fantasies."
Writers of paranormal romance, she says, are able to manipulate their fictional worlds "to heighten the experience of falling in love, and authors aren't limited to what's physically true even as they explore emotional truths that resonate with all of us."
"When first introduced to paranormal romances, I think readers are surprised by the compelling, mythic worlds the characters live in," says Silhouette Nocturne senior executive editor Tara Gavin. "They're impressed by the well-developed characters, which are often archetypes of different age-old longings. The werewolf often is part of a pack, and the whole sense of community and family and loyalty are examined. In the vampire—sensuality, power, and protectiveness are symbolized."
The ability of writers to create "completely new worlds and new rules" is key for Dorchester editorial director Leah Hultenschmidt. "Paranormal also lends itself to series, so readers who glom onto a group of characters can't get enough. Everyone in our office keeps asking me who the next characters are going to be in Elisabeth Naughton's new Eternal Guardians series and offering advice on who would make the best couple. You'd think we were talking about a soap opera. And it's that kind of rabid following that keeps paranormals so viable in the market."
Paranormals: Fueled by New Young Readers?
One question to be asked when exploring the continuing popularity of paranormal romance is the role played by the Harry Potter generation. Are paranormal sales being fueled by these new fans or are they built on a firm foundation of traditional romance readers? For an eyes-on-theground answer, we consulted former RWA's Bookseller of the Year Kathy Baker. The romance buyer at Legacy Books in Plano, Tex., Baker oversees one of the country's largest romance sections—including five six-foot bays crammed with paranormal titles. So who does Baker see standing in front of all those bays: Twilight-addicted teens or Regency readers in disguise? The widest range of buyers you can imagine, she reports. "We see readers as young as 15 and 16 who are coming out of YA, as well as traditional romance fans in their 30s, 40s, or 50s looking for a darker, edgier book and finding it in paranormal."
An assessment with which Sourcebook's Werksman agrees. "The crossover of young readers from fantasy/sci-fi certainly doesn't hurt, but I think the subgenre is so imaginative and rich that the old guard reader is also finding something to sink her teeth into."
Dorchester's Hultenschmidt has a somewhat different take. She believes adult paranormal romance authors are doing just as much to fuel a new generation of readers. "Writers suddenly saw a huge opening in the YA market and moved in to take advantage. Look at P.C. Cast or Rachel Vincent. I don't think YA readers are crossing over into the adult genre as much as adult writers are crossing over into YA projects."
Critters and Cupcakes and Books, Oh, My
One thing everyone does agree upon: readers of paranormal romance have an insatiable appetite for something new. Today's writers must compete in a world filled with an ever-changing cast of creatures—both human and inhuman. "Paranormal is morphing to include subgenres that were unheard of a year or two ago," says Tor Romance editor Heather Osborn. "Things like steampunk and zombies are keeping the genre fresh and exciting." Tor's upping the ante with The Wish List by Gabi Stevens (May), in which a young CPA discovers she's about to become a fairy godmother, and Rebel (Sept.), the third book in Claire Delacroix's Time of Transition series.
At Kensington, there are high hopes for a tough-talking yet vulnerable succubus. "It's hard to fall in love when your role in life is taking people's souls," says Condon of Richelle Mead's Succubus Blues (Aug.). And "funny, human and accessible" shape-shifting dragons take center stage in G.A. Aiken's Last Dragon Standing (Zebra, Sept.).
Once readers find that something new,be it a creature or a world, they want to read about it again and again—there may be nothing hotter in paranormal than the series. At Harlequin, reports Silhouette Nocturne's Gavin, Gena Showalter's next Lords of the Underworld title, The Darkest Passion, is due next month. And the new Keepers series— "three sisters who maintain order between the vampires, shape-shifters, and werewolves in modern-day New Orleans"— kicks off in October with Heather Graham's aptly titled Keepers. The first book in Janet Evanovich's Diesel series, Wicked Appetite (Sept.), is described by St. Martin's associate publisher Jennifer Enderlin as a tantalizing mix of "an underground group called the Unmentionables, extrasensory powers, a secret government... and magic cupcakes."
In October, J.R. Ward continues her bestselling Fallen Angels series with Crave (Signet). "The power of the fallen angel backstory is twofold," says NAL editor Kerry Donovan. "Their imperfections make them more relatable to us, and it also brings them into our world where they walk among us as intriguing heroes. Readers love a hero who needs to earn his way back to grace and needs the love of a good woman to find redemption."
Dorchester's testing the limits with Erin Kellison's forthcoming Shadow series. "When the Shadow books passed through the office, we all knew we held something special," says Hultenschmidt. Shadow Bound and Shadow Fall "break the mold of the traditional paranormal romance" with an intriguing combination of Celtic mythology, religion, urban fantasy, and "a hint of Sleeping Beauty." (Going for the balletomanes, perhaps.)
When it comes to vampires, once the life blood of paranormal, the love affair continues. At Pocket, quips executive editor Lauren McKenna, "our passion for vampires is undying." Demon from the Dark (Aug.), the 10th in Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series, will have the author's highest ship numbers to date, while this month's Enemy Lover, the first in Karin Harlow's series about a Black Ops team, offers "the perfect combination of vampires and alpha males." For Avon executive editor Erika Tsang, there's a simple reason Lynsay Sands's Argeneau series has kept readers enthralled through 12 books (the 13th, Born to Bite, is due in September): "there's something to be said about a vampire who pledges his everlasting and eternal love for you... you know he means it."
Beyond Beyond the Grave
And what about the other tried and true romance categories in this age of the paranormal—can a sales matchup between a Regency rake and a legion of the undead really be a fair fight? Very possibly, says Bantam Dell's Summers. "Regency romances provide the same appeal as paranormal romance but in an opposite kind of way. The Regency world is safe and romantic, where everyone knows what is expected of them, whether or not they actually live by those rules."
Two publishers are putting their money on that safe world and those stylish gentlemen from Georgian and Victorian England. "We've been hearing for the past year or so that historicals are making a comeback," reports Grand Central's Pierpont. Poised to take advantage of that trend are bestselling suspense writer Eileen Dreyer (see "Why I Write," p. 27), who makes her romance debut with July's Barely a Lady, and Elizabeth Hoyt's Wicked Intentions (Aug.), the first entry in her Maiden Lane series.
St. Martin's superstar Lisa Kleypas has back-to-back novels set in Victorian England with Married by Morning (June) and Love in the Afternoon (July). It's Kleypas's "extraordinary world-building," says Enderlin, that will give her the edge in a contest with vampires and shape-shifters. And the Scottish Highlands have a powerful magic of their own, says Pocket's McKenna—powerful enough to bring bestselling author Teresa Medeiros "back to her historical roots" for The Devil Wears Plaid (Aug.).
While a sword-wielding Scot may frighten the life out of a fallen angel or werewolf, the odds do seem stacked against a nice guy romantic hero from smalltown America. In the midst of readers' ongoing love affair with critters undead, does a guy with a gentle touch and a Honda in his driveway stand a chance? "Smalltown contemporary romances like Sherryl Woods's Sweet Tea at Sunrise [three weeks on PW's mass market chart] are giving paranormals a real run for their money," reports Margaret O'Neill Marbury, Harlequin single title editorial director. The contemporaries, she adds, "have never gone away, and their recent popularity only means that more and more people are finding their way to the genre."
The same can be said for what Berkley executive editor Wendy McCurdy calls the "gentle fiction" exemplified by Jodi Thomas's Harmony series, which launches in July with Welcome to Harmony. Avon's Tsang agrees that contemporary romances like Toni Blake's Sugar Creek (June) are hitting the mark with readers. "In a world where not a whole lot is making sense, you want something warm and fuzzy to hold on to, and what's more warm and fuzzy than home? But in that same vein, it's another reason why paranormals are popular. There's that fantasy of being able to fix all that's wrong with the world through magic and supernatural paranormal that's extremely appealing right now."
For readers wanting a somewhat earthier contemporary, there's the Honky Tonk series from Sourcebooks, the first country music–themed romance series, which launches next month. It's all about "ranches, cowboys, and beer joints," says Werksman of Carolyn Brown's first title, I Love This Bar. Similar elements—a tall stranger in a cowboy hat, a movie set in a dusty Arizona town—mark Ballantine's Infamous ̧ the first mass market original in six years from bestselling author Suzanne Brockmann.
Life After the Succubi
So whither goest these oddly assorted denizens? "I see the genre evolving and changing with readers' tastes," says Tor's Osborn. "As for topping unusual creatures like zombies and succubi, I really don't think the object of the game should be to continually outdo one another—it would be exhausting for both the readers and the author." Osborn's more interested in seeing writers put unique spins on established genres. "After all, isn't that what paranormal romance did for romance? Taking the expected ‘boy meets girl' and switching it up to ‘vampire meets girl'? Now it's time to switch it up to ‘psychic vampire meets psychotherapist.' " Sarah Wendell agrees that it need not be a race to create the next creature and that authors should be encouraged to explore "the amazing depth in the folklore and mythologies of different cultures that can serve as a backdrop for paranormal romance. There's no limit to what could come next—as long as it all ends happily. Furrily, maybe, but also happily."
Branding and Promotion, 2010–Style
Romance writers and publishers were among the first to understand the power of social media in forging deep and long-lasting relationships with their readers. But even some publishers are surprised at how powerful—and immediate—the connection has become. "Less than 24 hours after we posted our fall 2010 catalogue to our Web site," reports Sourcebooks publisher Dominique Raccah, "I found a blog on Twitter reviewing our new books. That was just shocking. This is a completely new future." And at Harlequin, they aren't leaving that future to chance. Malle Vallik, director of digital content and social media, reports that the company holds biweekly virtual training sessions for authors on how to create and use blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter, and promotional videos.
Avon's editors are interacting with readers at the newly relaunched Avon Blog (www.avonromance.com), chatting about books, inviting contributions to fan-fiction story lines, and hosting "Ask an Editor Fridays." This month, Avon, Eos, and HarperTeen/Inkpop did a crossover event on their respective blogs, introducing readers to authors from other categories and drawing a record number of daily hits for the blogs. In July, Tor's "agnostic" Web site, which promotes science fiction and fantasy from a variety of publishers, will host a Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy month. And the Penguin Group's online series "Project Paranormal" features author interviews and an "Editor's Corner" in which the editors who specialize in paranormal and urban fantasy discuss their authors, hot trends in the genre, and what they look for in a great read.
Fans of author Larissa Ione's Demonica series (the final book, Sin Undone, is due in September) are so passionate about her characters they created a Facebook Underworld General Hospital fan page that's the home site for a role-playing group with 482 members. To help those fans navigate her legion of characters, Grand Central created the Demonica Compendium, a widget guide that can be grabbed from Ione's Web site.
Judging a Book by Its Editor... Virtually
"In watching readers chat via Twitter with our editors," says Avon publicity director Pam Jaffe, "we were surprised to see postings that editors were becoming tastemakers. Readers who followed an imprint online were discovering the voices behind the imprint and beginning to correlate them with their favorite (and soon-to-be new favorite) authors." One of those Avon editors, Erika Tsang, likens following an editor on Twitter to asking for a friend's reading recommendation. "And who better than that author's editor to make book recommendations? By following that editor, a reader sees what else they may have in common and can be introduced to a whole new world."
Kensington assistant editor Megan Records tweets "about my life in general and my daily life as an editor. I tweet about book giveaways, share mistakes I see in query letters (please never do this!) and hopefully give some insights into the editor brain." Among her followers are a number of aspiring authors and, not surprisingly, Records reports a huge response when she tweeted "aspiring authors, let me know about your book."
Senior editor Natashya Wilson tweets for Harlequin Teen, where a sizable number of followers are YA bloggers. In addition to posting review links,
Wilson also tries to demystify the publishing world: "I'll tweet if I've finished a line edit and am really excited about the project or had an interesting lunch with an editor." Berkley/NAL executive editor Anne Sowards edits "everything from urban fantasy to military science fiction—and one cozy mystery series" and has followers from a wide variety of genres. Every month she tweets "My Books You Can Read Now" with links to sample chapters. And Grand Central's Amy Pierpont was able to give fans of author Elizabeth Hoyt a real insider's look when she tweeted pictures from a photo shoot for Hoyt's spring 2011 novel, Notorious Pleasures.
Wendell at Smart Bitches Trashy Books sees twittering editors having a positive effect on readers' buying habits, including her own. "I follow Esi Sogah from Avon, and since I know her sense of humor is close to my own, I notice what books she mentions on Twitter." A recommendation from someone a reader has conversed with on Twitter, Wendell believes, can go a long way toward motivating a purchase instantly online or later on at a bookstore. "There's a reason Amazon has the See What Others Have Bought feature on its product pages. When editors you enjoy talk about books they've bought and loved, it's the same influence directing an informed sale."
While Tor's Heather Osborn notes that Twitter makes it easy for an editor to chat about upcoming releases and promote titles, she doesn't think editors will maintain many followers if their tweets are solely business based. "Twitter needs to be an interaction between you and your followers. I talk about books, movies, TV shows, what I want for lunch, and what I think about current events. Every once in a while I'll give away a book or two, hold a brief contest, or talk about an upcoming release—but that isn't the main reason I use Twitter. Twitter only works if you are interested in connecting with others. If you use it as just another place to blast promo links, then you won't maintain real followers."
Entering the romance market might seem an unlikely choice for a publisher best known for the original Chicken Soup for the Soul series, but HCI has taken the plunge with its reality-based True Vows series, in which each novel is based on a real couple's true life romance. The series debuts in October, with first printings of 50,000 for each of the first three titles: Hard to Hold from bestselling author Julie Leto, The Icing on the Cake from Alison Kent, and Meet Me in Manhattan from Judith Arnold. A fourth novel will be out in January, with subsequent titles being released every other month. HCI, editorial director Michele Matrisciani remembers, was determined the publisher's romantic debut be made "without stepping on toes, pretending to be something we are not, competing with the genre's powerhouses, or reinventing the wheel. And we've been blown away by the support and enthusiasm exhibited by our novelists as well as the romance community as a whole."
The newest entrant into LGBT romance publishing is Enlightenment Press, cofounded by two women with their own unorthodox love story. Shamim Sarif is a British Muslim and her wife, Hanan Kattan, a Palestinian Christian from Jordan. "Starting Enlightenment Press was daunting," says Sarif, "but we decided to be fearless and jump in with both feet. The romance community has been very receptive, especially the LGBT crowd and independents. The world is opening up for LGBT publishing, and we're so excited to have the opportunity to influence the market with intelligent romance that is less escapist than aspirational." Enlightenment will publish its first two titles this September, both lesbian romances written by Sarif. The World Unseen is set in 1950s South Africa and I Can't Think Straight, based on Sarif and Kattan's own romance, moves between high society in Jordan and London's West End.