In my writing career, I've won several national awards for investigative journalism, been the first woman editor of two newspapers and written a weekly column for 12 years. But the accomplishment in which I take greatest pride is writing romance novels.
When my first novel was released in March 2003, I approached my local bookstore, hoping to schedule a signing.
"Sorry," the event manager told me. "We don't do romance."
Indignant, I persisted, and the store eventually gave in. The event was standing room only, and my book sold out in five minutes. Since then, the store has sold almost 200 copies of my novels, which have twice hit the store bestseller list. However, the management still refuses to carry romance as a category.
Some booksellers, it seems, have an aversion to making money. But whatever opinions people have about romantic fiction, one fact is irrefutable: romance novels sell.
According to Romance Writers of America (RWA), a 9,500-member organization of published and aspiring romance novelists, some 64.6 million people read romantic fiction. Romance novels earned $1.2 billion in sales in 2004 and accounted for 54.9% of all popular paperback fiction sold in North America. Romance novels also add to a bookstore's bottom line in other ways.
"The romance reader is usually the mother, the wife, the businesswoman," says Kay Meriam-Vamvakias, store manager at B. Dalton Booksellers in Houston, Tex., and RWA's Bookseller of the Year for 2003. "She is the one who buys the children's books, the gift books, the business books, the husband's books and her books. And if she finds her books, she's going to shop at the same store for everything."
In public libraries that carry romance, only CDs, DVDs and children's books are more popular with patrons, says librarian Shelley Mosley, who has worked the stacks in a few library systems for 25 years. Yet Mosley, who writes romantic comedy with Deborah Mazoyer under the name Deborah Shelley, had to fight to persuade the Glendale Public Library system, where she worked until recently in Glendale, Ariz., to list romances in their catalogue.
If romance novels are so popular and profitable, why do so many bookstores and libraries spurn them? Ask anyone who doesn't read romance, and they'll tell you: romance novels are "trashy," "unrealistic" and "formulaic." They're fantasy for desperate housewives not lucky enough to look like Eva Longoria. Whatever they are, they're not real literature.
"I think there's still a bias because it's an industry largely run by women for women," says Nicole Kennedy, public relations manager for RWA. She adds that many industry professionals hold outdated notions about romance fiction, unaware that today's novels are written by successful, educated women. These former military officers, attorneys, engineers and professors reflect their authors in strong, intelligent heroines who are less likely to cling to a man than to stand beside him—or even rescue him.
Far from being "bodice-rippers," romance novels are more about women improving their lives than about sex. In Colorado, battered women's shelters distribute romances to clients in hope the stories will help women view relationships with men from a healthier perspective. Romance novels are increasingly finding their way into women's studies and literature classes in places like Duke University, Wheaton College and Michigan State.
As with all forms of literature, romance novels vary in quality. Critics of the genre might be surprised to learn, however, that romance novelists put substantial effort into original research and writing, using primary sources, conducting interviews and constantly honing their craft. The average romance novelist spends five years writing her first book. It took me seven—hardly an act of filling in the blanks.
At best, dismissing romance novels is literary snobbery fueled by the genre's popularity and the strange cultural belief that the only good authors are either dead or starving. At worst, it's a form of discrimination—"blatant sexism," Mosley calls it—that fails to take seriously books written to please women. But you don't have to take my word for it. The best remedy for anyone who thinks romance novels are trite and unworthy of shelf space is to read one.
Pamela Clare writes historical romances and romantic suspense. Her next release is Surrender (Leisure Books, Mar. 2006). Under her real name—Pamela White—she received the prestigious National Journalism Award for Public Service Reporting.