Think of a writer known for creating one of the most popular and memorable vampire series in history—one with 17 million copies of her books in print in 35 countries, one whose fans are so devoted that in 2008 the annual convention honoring her sold out in less than three minutes, one who managed six #1 rankings on the New York Times bestseller list in just over a year. No, not Stephenie Meyer—this publishing phenomenon is the reigning queen of the wildly successful paranormal scene, Sherrilyn Kenyon.
Over the past decade, Kenyon's Dark-Hunter series has increased in popularity until the latest installment, Bad Moon Rising, is virtually assured to land at the top of the lists when it hits the shelves on August 4. Her editor at St. Martin's, Monique Patterson, says, “It's been amazing to watch her grow, literally by leaps and bounds. Dark-Hunter is a brand, a franchise, now. Sherrilyn has a sixth sense for what readers want in their characters, in their stories, and she knows how to speak to their emotions.”
Patterson promises that readers won't be disappointed by Bad Moon Rising, though they may be surprised. “It's a whole new arc in the story line. I can't say exactly what, but it's big.”
That's only one of several Kenyon releases this year. St. Martin's will be reissuing expanded versions of the first three books in her long-out-of-print League series—Born of Night, Born of Fire and Born of Ice—in a major back-to-back release beginning in late September. The publisher also launches the Dark-Hunter series into manga in June. While Avon had planned to release Darkness Within, the newest in Kenyon's Lords of Avalon series (previously published under the name Kinley MacGregor) in August, that title has been delayed for the moment.
Kenyon is just one example of arguably the most in-demand and prolific authors in America these days. Writers of all kinds of paranormal are experiencing a major surge, and the variety of work being published under the banners of paranormal romance and urban fantasy shows no sign of diminishing anytime soon.
Degrees of Difference
It's fairly easy to settle on a definition of what makes a book part of the current paranormal trend, because it can be anything with supernatural elements or that departs from reality. But even that broad definition is open to interpretation, says Chris Keesler, senior editor at Dorchester. “I think that booksellers and many romance readers tend to pigeonhole paranormal, defining the books by the most visible and successful of their type: the vampire romance. Werewolves and other monsters are also common.”
Often it is the most prominent paranormal element that's used to classify a book or series as part of a certain subgenre. In addition to vampires and shape-shifters, it's not hard to find books featuring witches or demons, psychics or time travel within the romance category and also in science fiction and fantasy.
In fact, the terms urban fantasy and paranormal romance are often used interchangeably. But most of the category's major editors work on books that fall into both categories and caution that while the two frequently cross over among audiences, there is a key distinction. Avon executive editor Erika Tsang explains: “In paranormal romance the relationship between the couple is the focus of the main plot. In urban fantasy, the world that the couple exists in is the focus.”
Figuring out the best category can sometimes be hard. Tsang remembers the fan reaction when she chose to publish Jeaniene Frost's Halfway to the Grave as romance rather than urban fantasy. “Readers were up in arms because the characters didn't end up together. But the relationship was essential to the story, so it's a romance to me,” says Tsang.
Choosing the category can be dangerous ground, says Heather Osborn, romance editor at Tor. She employs a simple standard for making the decision. “My number one consideration is if there's a resolution of the romance at the end of the book. If there's no resolution of the romance, and it's in the romance section, readers will let their anger be known.”
Osborn also identifies another factor that must be considered, which is the willingness of the different readerships to leave their home section of the bookstore. “We see romance readers go to the science fiction and fantasy section for the books. Fantasy readers will buy from displays, but not go into the romance section,” she says.
There are plenty of authors comfortable in both worlds, though. Marjorie Liu debuted with the paranormal romance series Dirk & Steele, which she describes as being about a “group of psychics and nonhumans (gargoyles, mermen, shape-shifters and so on) who band together to help others under the guise of working for an internationally respected detective agency.” The series' ninth installment, The Fire King, releases in August from Dorchester. But in 2008, Liu launched Hunter Kiss, a darker urban fantasy series, from Ace, with The Iron Hunt. The follow-up, Darkness Calls, is due out in late June.
“I think we worry way too much about where books should fit inside genres,” says Liu. “In a romance, the hero and heroine are on a journey together, and no matter how awful it gets, by the end of the book they'll be in love, with the probability of a happy ending.”
Viewing the trend in a more historical context helps explain its broad appeal to readers who prefer either type of book. Most editors say that Buffy the Vampire Slayer marked a turning point toward the new breed of paranormal, but that its roots are far older. “There are romantic tales in mythology and folklore with clear fantasy aspects to them,” says St. Martin's Patterson. “But everything is cyclical in terms of popularity. Eight or nine years ago, you couldn't give away paranormal romance.”
Dorchester's Keesler says the coinciding rise of the supernatural across the entertainment spectrum has exerted a strong influence, creating a hunger for similar books. “How many people of the last few generations haven't seen Buffy or one of its spinoffs? Above all, I think every genre is driven and perpetuated by the talent of its most successful authors, authors who cater to the public, to their day and age's literary zeitgeist.”
Timing is everything in publishing, and pop culture's impact on readers is reflected by the age of the audience coming into the romance category. “TV and entertainment media are bringing in people in their 20s and 30s. Romance as a whole skews to an older audience,” observes Tor's Osborn. “People talk about the glut of vampire and werewolf romances, but there is always room for more. Romance readers read tons of books a month.”
Paranormal romance—like romance in general—is doing extremely well during a period when the economic meltdown has exiled much of publishing to severe doldrums. “What's going on in the world now has an impact. With wars and the economy, romance is fantasy—these books are the ultimate escape,” says Tsang from Avon. “Readers are always looking for something new.”
The Next Big Monster
The continuing Twilight mania and Alan Ball's adaptation of Charlaine Harris's novels into the HBO series True Blood may have injected an even longer life into books about vampires.
“It's clear that vampires have never been hotter in the romance genres,” says Claire Zion, editorial director of NAL. She cites the breakout success of J.R. Ward's Lover Avenged when it released earlier this month. The seventh Black Dagger Brotherhood novel and the first to be released in hardcover, Lover took high slots on several bestseller lists.
The paranormal field is in no danger of a vampire shortage. Other hot releases featuring bloodsuckers include Jeaniene Frost's Destined for an Early Grave (Avon, July), Lynsay Sands's The Renegade Hunter (Avon, Sept.), and Katie MacAlister's Crouching Vampire, Hidden Fang (Signet, May). Berkley plans a back-to-back release of Emma Holly's Kissing Midnight (June), Breaking Midnight (July) and Saving Midnight (Aug.).
There are also plenty of shape-shifters to be found this season. In another back-to-back release, Avon will launch Pamela Palmer's Feral Warriors series, beginning in July with Desire Untamed, followed by Obsession Untamed and Passion Untamed. Tor has high hopes for C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp's Cold Moon Rising (Aug.), blurbed by popular urban fantasy author Jim Butcher. Meanwhile, Kendra Leigh Castle's Wild Highland Magic (Sourcebooks, May) continues the MacInnes Werewolves series, and Patricia Briggs fans will no doubt snap up Hunting Ground (Ace, Aug.), which follows the developing love story between werewolves Anna and Charles.
Although werewolves and vampires are still tremendously popular, they better look out for the new trendsetters coming behind them. According to Dorchester's Leah Hultenschmidt, “Demons are the new vampires,” calling attention to the publisher's The Dangerous Book for Demon Slayers by Angie Fox, released this month. “I predict after demons come fallen angels.”
It's true that demon and angel-themed series are becoming more prevalent. Kensington has seen Richelle Mead's urban fantasy series featuring shape-shifting demon Georgina Kincaid take off; its fourth book, Succubus Heat, comes out in June. And Grand Central was so pleased with last year's reception for newcomer Larissa Ione's Pleasure Unbound that it released two follow-up Demonica novels, Desire Unchained and Passion Unleashed, in March and April. Both landed on various bestseller lists. “It's a sign that readers are still willing to take a chance on new authors,” says Amy Pierpont, editorial director of Grand Central's Forever line.
For those fallen angels, try J.R. Ward's hotly anticipated new spinoff series, kicking off with Covet (Signet, Oct.). And what about urban fantasy? Readers who want a little less romance and a lot more fantasy world-building can keep an eye out for titles like S.J. Day's Eve of Darkness (May), Eve of Destruction (June), and Eve of Chaos (June) from Tor, debut author Kelly Gay's The Better Part of Darkness (Pocket, Nov.) and Caitlin Kittredge's Street Magic (St. Martin's, June).
Not to mention Harlequin's first foray into young adult fiction. The new program launches with Rachel Vincent's My Soul to Take in August, with Intertwined by Gena Showalter to follow in September. “These books promise to have crossover appeal between young and adult women,” says Loriana Sacilotto, executive v-p of global editorial for Harlequin.
All this without getting into a number of other developing trends—faeries, immortal protectors and a little bit of anything else you can imagine. Kensington editor-in-chief John Scognamiglio says, “Paranormal romance remains red hot and shows no signs of stopping. Anything paranormal is immediately moved to the top of the submission pile.”
Readers may wonder if there's any creature that won't eventually end up in the role of leading man. The answer is yes—there's a strong consensus against zombies. “Zombies are not sexy. Romances don't feature zombies,” says Tsang, laughing. “Zombies are rotting dead flesh who eat brains. When you say vampire, you think David Boreanaz. Until David Boreanaz becomes a zombie—no way.”
For complete bibliographic information on books mentioned, see this article on the Web at /.