The Great Big Romance Read, an annual book club event launched by a Los Angeles bookstore in 2018, has helped push The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite into its third printing since its late June release. Book clubs at bookstores, libraries, and private homes around the country will all read the Avon Impulse novel during the month of September, discussing it both online and offline. At least 22 book clubs have already signed up to participate in the event organized by the Ripped Bodice, a romance bookstore in Culver City, Los Angeles.
Waite’s novel brings the LGTBQ experience to the Regency romance, a romance subgenre of dialogue-driven love stories traditionally set in 19th Century England. In the new novel, a Countess and a brilliant unmarried woman fall in love while collaborating on a translation of an astronomical text, breaking social, occupational, and sexual taboos in the famously strict society. “That's where the hunger lies,” said The Ripped Bodice cofounder Leah Koch, explaining why readers respond to this book. “It has the classic romance conventions and tropes that people love, but opens it up to people who have not historically featured in these classic love stories.”
The book is published by Avon Impulse, a digital-first imprint at Avon that initially releases books with short print runs augmented by subsequent reprintings. After this initial flurry of enthusiasm, some booksellers worried that they could not stock the book in time for the September event. “We organize the Great Big Romance Read to assist other independent bookstores in highlighting the best of romance. It becomes difficult for us to advocate that our indie friends should be stocking romance when they can't even get the damn book!” read a long thread on the Ripped Bodice Twitter account.
“Our sales force has been liaising with accounts to make sure printed books are on hand,” said Pamela Jaffee, the senior director of publicity & brand development at Avon Books, replying to these concerns. “Stores are getting behind the book, and we are steadily reprinting to demand,” she said. The novel has been the focus title for the Avon Impulse team this season, and the publicity push included appearances for Waite at Emerald City Comic-Con and Avon’s upcoming KissCon convention in October.
“I would like to see them giving the full vote of confidence to inclusive titles,” said Koch, speaking to what she called Avon Impulse’s “let's wait and see how it does” model of digital-first release with small print runs followed by subsequent reprintings. “We like to see publishers investing in the book from the beginning.”
Koch has championed diversity and inclusivity since she opened the bookstore with her sister Bea, aided by a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $91,000 from nearly 600 backers. Every year, the bookstore publishes “The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report,” looking at representation across all romance titles. The 2018 study (released in March 2019) bemoaned the lack of change in the overall diversity in the romance publishing industry. “For every 100 books published by the leading romance publishers in 2018, only 7.7% were written by people of color. That compares to 6.2% in 2017 and 7.8% in 2016,” the report concluded.
The Ripped Bodice co-founder stressed that a push for diversity in romance publishing could dramatically increase readership and sales. The founders have already seen more romance-focused book clubs springing up at libraries and bookstores since they launched the program last September. “As emotional and personal as this all can get, we actually really try to look at it from a business standpoint,” said Koch, referring to the potential new readers who could be served by more diverse books. “We're leaving money on the table.”