When the April launch of The Happy Ever After Playlist by Abby Jimenez (Forever) pivoted from an in-store discussion at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis to a ticketed YouTube livestream from the author’s living room, Jimenez marshalled her many resources. With her husband behind the camera, her teenage daughter opened the event by performing three songs from the book’s playlist on her guitar. Then Jimenez chatted about the novel with Erin Campbell, Food Network Holiday Baking champ and general manager at Nadia Cakes bakery, which Jimenez owns.
The event was a hit—Magers & Quinn sold 700 books, Jimenez says—and Forever hopes to build on that success as it looks toward forthcoming releases, including Farrah Rochon’s The Boyfriend Project (June), which PW’s review called an “effortless rom-com.” Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans has run a preorder campaign for signed copies and on June 9 will host Rachon and Jimenez in conversation on the video platform Crowdcast. “We’re lucky as authors to have so many different tools to be able to do things like this,” Rochon says. “If this had happened a decade ago, I’m not sure how a book launch would have gone.”
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Romancelandia is reaching out to fans in creative ways. For this feature, PW spoke with authors and editors about how book tours and conferences have morphed into social media events, hashtags, Zoom meetups, and virtual bookstore visits, and what this means for readers and writers of romance.
The real thing
For She’s Faking It (Graydon House, July), which PW’s review called a “timely romance” that “skewers social media fantasies,” Kristin Rockaway had scheduled numerous in-person events, often alongside fellow HarperCollins authors such as Tessa Dare or Alisha Rai. She’s quickly adapted to the new normal: in April, she participated in an Instagram Live hangout with the owner of Bibliobar in Dallas and chatted with Lyssa Kay Adams (Crazy Stupid Bromance, Berkley, Nov.) in a Facebook Live event hosted by the Escondido (Calif.) Public Library and the podcast Tea & Strumpets. Virtual events may not be ideal, Rockaway says, but there’s a bright side: “Technology allows us to share the event afterward, and connect to readers beyond those who were there.”
The ability to connect across geographies appeals to authors who are disappointed about not being able to meet fans in person. “I’m hearing from readers who are excited that they get to be included in activities they often miss because they don’t happen to be held where they live,” says Sarah M. Eden, who writes for Shadow Mountain’s Proper Romance line. “We’re building this broader sense of community. That’s something we should continue to embrace; we can do a better job of expanding our reach.”
In March, Eden began posting YouTube videos of herself at home, reading a chapter a day from a 19th-century penny dreadful, The Mysteries of London by George W.M. Reynolds. The effort ties into 2019’s The Lady and the Highwayman, which PW’s review called a “sweet, lighthearted historical,” and its forthcoming follow-up, The Gentleman and the Thief (Nov.)—both books are set in the world of Victorian-era penny dreadful novelists. It’s also been a way to engage with fans, who listen along with their families and speculate online about what might happen in the next chapter. “Our readers’ lives are chaotic and uncertain, and people are concerned and worried,” Eden says. “Reaching out with sincerity has been helpful for me and my community.”
Nisha Sharma, whose contemporary romance The Legal Affair (Avon Impulse), second in the Singh Family trilogy, pubs in August, has been reassessing how best to show up for her readers and be accessible in a public virtual space. “I’ve always attempted to demonstrate my authentic self on all my platforms,” she says, “but I’m doing that more so now than ever.”
On April 30, Sharma and Andie J. Christopher, author of the recently released office rom-com Not That Kind of Guy (Berkley), chatted about the office romance trope on Instagram Live. A week earlier, also on Instagram Live, Sharma and Adriana Herrera, whose latest is the recently released American Sweethearts (Carina), delved into food culture, discussing Herrera’s Dominican American heritage and Sharma’s Indian roots. “People want to connect online in a way that is true to ourselves, instead of connecting with just a brand or an author who writes a book,” Sharma says. “Adriana and I can talk for hours about food as a cultural gateway. Her readers were introduced to me through our shared passion.”
Esi Sogah, executive editor at Kensington, has also seen authors work collaboratively and use technology to bolster fan engagement. “They’re creating teams to cross-promote their books, and working together to create events, like Zoom chats, where readers can get a behind-the-scenes look at the writerly life,” she says. “They’re working with independent bookstores, who also need a boost. Authors are providing content to readers where they are now.”
On May 1, Loyalty Bookstores in the D.C. metro area launched Date Night with Alyssa Cole, a ticketed online chat hosted by Cole, author of the Loyal League historicals (Kensington) and the Reluctant Royals and Runaway Royals contemporaries (Avon). The first discussion included Sharina Harris ([Im]perfectly Happy, Kensington), Mia Sosa (The Worst Best Man, Avon), and Rebekah Weatherspoon (the Cowboys of California series, Dafina). The second session, on May 15, included Kate Clayborn (Love Lettering, Kensington), Sonali Dev (Recipe for Persuasion, Morrow), and Priscilla Oliveras (Island Affair, Kensington).
It’s vital to engage readers beyond book sales, says Cindy Hwang, v-p and editorial director at Berkley. “It’s more about sharing than selling right now,” she says, referring to the hashtag #AllWeReadIsLove, which Berkley Romance began promoting in late April to encourage readers to connect online and share the books that have helped them through this social distancing period. “We want readers to be able to participate in community without that onus of having to buy in order to support an author.”
Happily ever after?
Without ignoring or minimizing the suffering that has come to pass and is yet to come, Romancelandia remains hopeful as the world finds a new equilibrium. Tyndale has a zeitgeisty release in September: Airborne by DiAnn Mills, a Christian romantic suspense novel in which an FBI agent works to track down the source of a dangerous virus. But Jan Stob, acquisitions editor, fiction, at Tyndale, says the pandemic has not affected the sorts of books she’s acquiring for 2021 and beyond. “Romance novels entertain,” she adds, “but they also offer hope, which will be very important going forward.”
Editors and writers remain steadfast in their belief that their genre is a necessary cultural product. “Romance gets a lot of flack for not being ‘important literature,’ ” She’s Faking It author Rockaway says. “But when reality is a dystopian novel, I’m proud we are, and will be, providing people a much-needed escape.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
Below, more about romance books.
A Wider Embrace: Romance Novels 2020
Mainstream romance publishers are expanding their LGBTQ options.
The Course of True Love: Romance Novels 2020
PW looks at summer romances that offer happily ever after—or despite—a news hook.