Love stories are at least as old as Adam and Eve, so in order to keep longtime fans satisfied—and pique the interest of new readers—successful romance publishers need to offer fresh ideas while delivering on the happily-ever-after promise.
Sourcebooks, which for the past four years has been working with online writing community Wattpad to find new voices in YA, recently cast its net wider to embrace adult romance. In 2015, the publisher began soliciting adult romance submissions through Wattpad via the campaign #submit2sourcebooks.
“Most of the writers on Wattpad are writing from the heart,” says Cat Clyne, an editor at Sourcebooks, “so they’re not trying to conform to specific ideas of what a romance novel is.” Her first discovery through the hashtag was Dating the Undead by Juliet Lyons, which Sourcebooks Casablanca published in May. Romancing the Undead, the second book in Lyons’s Undead Dating Service series (which Clyne calls “Bridget Jones with vampires”), pubs in October.
After a busy year and a half spent reading and responding to manuscripts, Sourcebooks pulled the hashtag and now relies on Wattpad’s content team to identify trending titles. Ashley Gardner, head of content at Wattpad Studios, recently got in touch with Sourcebooks Casablanca to point out Chasing Red by Isabelle Ronin, the platform’s top story of 2016.
On Wattpad, Ronin’s contemporary romance had attracted more than one million readers, many of whom read the story more than once, and earned more than 4.6 million positive votes for various chapters. The publisher offered Ronin a two-book deal, splitting the 170,000-word story into two volumes. Sourcebooks Casablanca will publish Chasing Red in September, followed by Always Red in November. Wattpad, which owns the translation rights in six languages, will copromote the books.
Ronin is working on a third title, based on secondary characters from Chasing Red. As she did with earlier volumes, the nurse-by-day/writer-by-night will post chapters on Wattpad as she writes them.
Other publishers, too, are capitalizing on social engagement. Harlequin launched its online writing contest, So You Think You Can Write?, in 2010. What began as a monthlong annual event has evolved into an ongoing series of contests that Joanne Grant, editorial director at Harlequin Series Romance, describes as “more focused blitzes.”
The publisher puts out a call on its blog and on Twitter for, say, Amish romances, and editors outline what they are looking for. In 2016, for instance, the Harlequin Desire line’s #SexyBlitz encouraged writers to submit 50,000 words of an unpublished manuscript that met these parameters: steamy, contemporary, set in an urban or exotic locale, and written in first or third person.
Harlequin has signed 35 authors through its online outreach, and some of these authors have gone on to write multiple books for the publisher. Contemporary romance writer Kat Cantrell, for instance, was a contest winner in 2011 for Marriage with Benefits, the story of a couple faking a marriage for personal gain; the book pubbed in 2013. Her new In Name Only trilogy launches in July with Best Friend Bride.
If an author is fortunate enough to develop a fan base, it’s tempting to think that those readers will follow her anywhere. But although an established author who delves into a different subgenre may attract new readers, she also runs the risk of losing existing fans.
One way to ease readers into a new direction is with a lower-cost entry point. Molly Harper, best known for paranormal romance, is launching a new contemporary romance series, Southern Eclectic, with Simon & Schuster. In October, S&S’s Pocket Star imprint will release the e-novella Save a Truck, Ride a Redneck to introduce the series and Harper’s new direction. A full-length trade paperback original, Sweet Tea and Sympathy (Gallery), follows in November.
“Because Molly’s fan base includes a significant portion of dedicated e-book purchasers, it made sense to introduce the new series to them where they live,” says Abby Zidle, associate director of marketing and senior editor at Gallery Books. “But since we’re seeing a number of contemporary romance authors begin shifting to a trade paperback format, we felt the time was right for Molly” to follow suit.
When Regency romance author Julie Anne Long concluded her 11-novel Pennyroyal Green series, she knew her next move was going to be to contemporary romance. So with the final volume of the series, The Legend of Lyon Redmond (Avon, 2015), she included an epilogue set in the present, starring descendants of her well-known characters. May Chen, executive editor at Avon, says the goal was to prepare readers for Long’s forthcoming shift to a modern period.
Fans’ reaction online was mixed—some were confused, some intrigued, and a few understood it for the segue it was. “It’s hard enough to take readers with you when you switch series within the same time period, let alone switching series in an entirely different time period,” Chen says.
Long’s contemporary Hellcat Canyon series, featuring entirely new characters, launched in 2016 with Hot in Hellcat Canyon and Wild at Whiskey Creek. In spite of the epilogue’s reception, Goodreads reviews were as positive as the average Pennyroyal Green review, and PW starred both books. The next installment, Dirty Dancing at Devil’s Leap, pubs in August.
For some authors, what seems like a big shift may turn out to be more of a variation on theme. Monica McCarty, who’s known for her Scottish historical romances, told fans about her new direction in a November 2016 Facebook post, after PW announced her six-book deal for a contemporary romantic suspense series starring Navy SEALs.
“It’s basically many of the things I hope you enjoyed about the Highland Guard series in a contemporary setting,” she wrote of the forthcoming Lost Platoon books, which Berkley is launching in September with Going Dark. “I love ‘band of brothers’ type books, sexy alpha heroes, and political intrigue, and this will have all that.”
Cindy Hwang, v-p and editorial director at Berkley Publishing Group, says that McCarty retained another key element of her Highland romances, marooning her modern SEALs in the Western Isles of Scotland. “It helps that she’s continuing with the Scottish setting, which has always been a big draw for readers,” Hwang says.
Ali Vali typically sets her novels in New Orleans, even as she jumps from paranormal romance to romantic thriller to contemporary romance. She’s the author of several series, but she also writes a standalone romance every few years. Her next, Beauty and the Boss (Bold Strokes, Sept.), is a workplace romance set in the world of high fashion design.
Ruth Sternglantz, editorial and marketing consultant at Bold Strokes, says the standalones can be a good way in for new readers. “Someone who has never heard of an author before,” she says, “is more likely to pick up a standalone contemporary romance than volume seven in an ongoing series.”
Whether a publisher is launching a series or releasing a standalone title, a new author direction demands a new cover concept, so that readers know what kind of book they’re getting—especially if they already have an idea about the kinds of books the author writes.
Alexandra Ivy, known for paranormal romance with bright, steamy covers showing lots of skin, has a more atmospheric cover for her next book, Pretend You’re Safe (Zebra, Sept.), a work of romantic suspense. The moody jacket shows a leafless tree on a country road. John Scognamiglio, editor-in-chief at Zebra parent company Kensington, says the design alludes to the suspenseful elements of the story, in hopes of drawing readers who don’t normally gravitate toward the romance genre.
Jenn McKinlay’s Bluff Point series, which Berkley launched at the end of May with About a Dog, is the cozy mystery author’s first foray into romance, and the covers reflect the shift. Her mystery jackets tend to highlight the story’s setting—a library or bakery, for instance. Covers of books in the new series, in which pets play matchmaker, play up the romantic element by depicting the couple.
Pets are a through line for McKinley: the cover of the second Bluff Point romance, Barking Up the Wrong Tree (Oct.), depicts the leads with a golden retriever. Death in the Stacks (Nov.), new to the Library Lover’s mystery series, shows the heroine’s dog nosing around a display.
Sometimes a new direction has more to do with format than content. Waterhouse Press, which launched in 2014 and has had great success in e-book and trade paperback, is delving into hardcover. The multiauthor Misadventures series, conceived by Waterhouse author Meredith Wild, launches in September, with seven books publishing in the fall and more scheduled starting in February.
Given that hardcovers represent a fraction of romance book sales, why go in this direction now? “We needed a buy-in not just from our marketing team, but also from distribution” in order to successfully publish in hardcover, says David Grishman, CEO of Waterhouse. “Now that we’ve established ourselves, we have the capital and the support to pull something like this off.” He says that a lot of readers buy Waterhouse books in more than one format: an e-book to read and a print book for display.
Classics with a Twist
There’s a reason that a “fairy-tale ending” is synonymous with romance. Many readers in the genre gravitate toward notions of true love depicted in classic fairy tales or the Disney versions.
“Fairy tales are so intrinsic to romance,” says Alicia Condon, editorial director at Kensington. “They play on deep-seated psychological realities that are a part of our culture, and that are expressed in our romantic ideals.”
Sarah Price had published several Amish retellings of Jane Austen and Brontë sisters books for Realms, an imprint of Charisma House, when she approached Zebra to do another of those adaptations. But the publisher wanted her to do something new, so the concept evolved into Amish retellings of fairy tales. Belle (Zebra, Oct.) transports “Beauty and the Beast” to a present-day Amish community; Ella, Price’s Amish take on “Cinderella,” arrives in June 2018.
Condon says that Amish culture turns out to be a good fit with fairy tales: both involve strict sets of rules. “In fairy tales, you have [the heroine] sweeping and scrubbing the floor,” she says. “That’s something that Amish women really have to do.” The books’ covers play up the Amish reality over the fairy tale: Belle’s features a buggy and Ella’s a laundry line.
Christian publisher Revell is experimenting with another popular plot: an author as heroine. In The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck by Bethany Turner (Oct.), the main character, a bestselling writer of steamy romances, begins exploring her newfound faith—and falling for her pastor—neither of which is compatible with her successful career. The conflict in the book, Revell editor Kelsey Bowen says, grows out of the character trying to reconcile her two worlds. This approach allows Turner to amp up the tension while keeping the content appropriate for a Christian romance.
Harlequin is developing a new series based on a theme that’s a proven winner among readers: pregnancy. When Stacy Boyd, a senior editor at Harlequin’s Desire line, noticed an uptick in sales of romance titles with a pregnancy plotline, she commissioned a series in which the heroine of each book is pregnant. The Little Secrets series kicks off in July with His Unexpected Heir by Maureen Child; six books will follow through January 2018, each by a different author.
The books upend the ultimate romantic truism—first comes love, then comes marriage, then there’s a baby in a baby carriage: in each Little Secrets story, the heroine falls for her guy while she has a child on the way. That’s a new kind of happily ever after.
Dianna Dilworth is a freelance journalist living in Switzerland, and author of the forthcoming Mellodrama: The Mellotron Book (Bazillion Points, 2018).
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