It used to be that romance was one genre in which you could judge a book by its cover. With the traditional clinch, the focus was right where it belonged, on the relationship. Those relationships, of course, are still key, but publishers are constantly seeking new ways to broaden their audience. Clearly, one way of doing this is to attract brand-new readers. Several publishers are reaching out to niche markets -- in many cases, to the growing numbers of African-American and Latino readers. Others are taking their cue from the growth of religious fiction and are publishing romances with a spiritual dimension.
Not that the basic romance components have changed -- a man, a woman and their ultimate bliss -- but today's romance novels have in general increased their scope in attempting to increase their readership. Bookstore romance sections are seeing more and more crossover contemporary women's fiction, relationship novels and such relatively unromantic issues as racism and single parenthood.
Not surprisingly, along with changing content and more realistic characters, including African-American and Latino women and men, today's romance novels have in many cases changed their look. The vivid cover of Delorys Welch-Tyson's Gingersnaps (Ballantine/One World) features two hip black women on the front, while Lori Copeland's inspirational Hope (Tyndale) pictures a sunrise.
Printers haven't closed down their foil-stamping and die-cutting operations, however. Historicals, Regencies, suspense and paranormals continue to dominate the field. But new subgenres, which often require new ways of reaching out, are starting to emerge, from romantic erotica to Spanish-language novels. Publishers are experimenting with new formats, too. They're adding more trade paperbacks and specially priced hardcovers to lists that have been traditionally dominated by mass market titles.
For Avon Books executive editor Carrie Ferron, the big news concerning romance is not so much its crossover appeal to readers of women's fiction, but the other way round. "I think," she says, "that romance is what's happening in women's fiction these days. If you look at the top, top people like Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown and Elizabeth Lowell, who writes for us, they all have their roots in romance."
Love African-American Style
Although the authors Ferron names are white, a growing number of African-American relationship writers, whose stories are influenced by romance, are starting to gain in readership. "We've had great success with Afro-American writers writing about multicultural relationships," comments Louise Burke, publisher of NAL. "We have Eric Jerome Dickey, who's really poised to take a big jump; Sharon Mitchell, who's just begun with us; and Sandra Kitt, who came from the romance community."
Kitt, whose most recent novel, Family Affairs (Signet), came out in May (and who has a story anthologized in HarperCollins's July release Girlfriends), has worked hard to lose the "romance" sobriquet. Despite the fact that she was the first African-American to publish with Harlequin and with Arabesque, the first line of African-American romance books published by a mainstream house (Kensington), she regards herself first and foremost as a women's fiction writer.
"My books are socially based," Kitt tells PW, "and I don't want that to be lost even though there are romance elements. Because I started out as a category writer, it's been hard to rise above that. I never ever saw my writing as romance. I saw it as mainstream fiction with a man, woman and relationship. When I came into the market in the 1980s, there wasn't even women's fiction; there was Harlequin. After 20 novels and 5 novellas, I feel I do have a mainstream voice."
While such African-American literary luminaries as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison are often credited with paving the way for commercial writers -- including Terry McMillan, Connie Brisc and Bebe Moore Campbell -- their efforts haven't entirely trickled down. "Some [African-American romance writers] are finally making their way out," says Kitt, "but it's not always easy. Many would rather go the route of self-publishing. They find the whole prospect of finding a publisher so daunting."
Evelyn Palfrey, a judge in Austin, Tex., is one who tried going it alone, and she even got her Moon Child Books on the Essence Blackboard bestseller list. Now Pocket has signed Palfrey to a multibook contract and will begin reissuing her work in trade paperback format, starting with The Price of Passion next August. "Palfrey works as a romance writer," comments Linda Marrow, editorial director of women's fiction at Pocket. "Her books each have a suspense plot, but the meat is the relationship."
African-American novelist Eboni Sn , whose most recent contemporary romance, A Chance on Lovin' You, was published by Avon in September, now has no trouble getting published. But she recalls that, in 1991, when she finished her first book, "I was told nobody wants to read about African-Americans." Rather than self-publish, she sent it to Odyssey Books, a small Maryland-based African-American press founded by writer Leticia People in the late 1980s. Odyssey published Sn , along with a dozen other authors who have since gone on to become leaders in the romance field, including Donna Hill, Rochelle Alers and Francis Ray. The house, which lasted only a few years, is credited with breaking the romance color barrier and encouraging Kensington to create Arabesque in 1994.
Sn chose a pen name meaning "black and white" because, she explains, "love d sn't have color. I wanted people to realize that people of color were missing from this uplifting genre." Despite her success, she notes that "there aren't that many places for the Afro-American novel. I think it comes down to the money. You can say it's black-and-white, but mostly it's green."
In addition to Sn , Avon has new single-title African-American romances from Kathleen Cross, whose first novel, Skin Deep (Sept.), addressed a black woman's conflict with her identity, and Beverly Jenkins, whose historical romance Night Song won the 1995 Waldenbooks Award for Bestselling Multicultural Romance. Jenkins's The Taming of Jessi Rose, released last month, has been topping romance charts at such African-American bookstores as the Apple Book Center in Detroit, Mich.
Whether Avon will add more African-American romance authors to its list or introduce a full line of multicultural books is not certain. With the HarperCollins“Avon/Morrow merger still under way -- Avon just moved its offices into the HarperCollins building last month -- the status of the two houses' mass market divisions is still being determined. Ferron's only comment: "In the future we'll have more to say."
St. Martin's Press recently began pursuing African-American romance readers with its February publication of Rosie's Curl and Weave, an anthology of stories that take place in a Harlem beauty salon. According to editor Glenda Howard, who conceived the book's theme, the company is "seeking to actively grow African-American readership." She is planning two multicultural anthologies in the coming year: Delta's House of Style, a Rosie's sequel due in July, and Island Magic, slated for February. For St. Martin's mass market publisher Matthew Shear, the anthologies offer an appealing entrÃ©e to the romance/women's market. "We like the way we can build authors in anthologies. Our plan is to more aggressively publish women's fiction. We can take authors from the romance genre and grow them into the mainstream."
At present, Arabesque, which last year was bought by BET Holdings, a multimedia company that owns and operates Black Entertainment (BET), is the only line of African-American romance novels distributed by a major publisher, former owner Kensington. Under BET, Arabesque is growing its list and going Hollywood -- or at least heading for the small screen. Starting with Francis Ray's Incognito in September, it has begun airing a series of 10 Arabesque films, one a month, based on Arabesque novels, which are being reissued in tie-in editions. For the 1999/2000 fiscal year, BET will release 69 Arabesque books, an increase of more than 20% over last year.
Arabesque senior editor Karen Thomas says that under BET "the exposure has really increased. A lot of the books are being read by women who used to read Bebe Moore Campbell. We're getting out 200,000 books a month." Unlike many romance publishers, BET never lets its books go out of print. In fact, with movies in the picture, Thomas sees even more books going back to press.
Newly appointed Arabesque publisher Linda Gill is pleased with the partnership with Kensington. "The sales have been good," she notes. "I'm looking at extending the line this year and next under the BET imprint with magazines, television and the Internet. The authors are really developing a following."
Asked if she's worried about other publishers competing with Arabesque, Gill replies, "I don't know if the marketplace is strong enough right now for two major publishers to operate at the same level, [but] I always welcome competition. I always learn something when people step out and put their t in the water." For now, she says, "My main focus is to make sure that these women who have a great talent have a forum to do it. Whether you're Asian, Hispanic or Eskimo, you want your own love stories to be told."
Independent Genesis Press, founded by Wil Colom and his wife, Judge Dorothy Colom, in Columbus, Miss., was also an early proponent of African-American romance. Founded in part because Judge Colom couldn't find any romances that spoke to her directly, she and her husband began publishing African-American romances in trade paperback in 1995 under the Indigo imprint. Genesis provided a venue for emerging authors such as Donna Hill, who also publishes with Arabesque. According to Steve Pieschel, who handles sales and marketing, many authors continue to publish with both because "they want to support us as a pioneer in Afro-American romance." Currently, Genesis issues one Indigo romance title a month but hopes to double that next year.
The Many Colors of Love
Genesis is growing in other ways. It recently added a Love Spectrum line of interracial romances between African-Americans and whites, which, according to Pieschel, has been especially popular with writers. "We've got more submissions in that line," he says, "than we can publish through 2000." In addition, Genesis was the first to establish a line of Hispanic-American romance, Tango 2, which began last year. The books, four to date, explore cross-cultural love between Hispanic-American women and Anglo men. "They're just starting to go," notes Pieschel, who expects to do more advertising and promotion for Tango 2 once it has reached a critical mass of 5“10 books. He adds that Genesis has tentative plans to launch Red Slipper, a line of Asian-American romances, sometime next year.
Since it takes two to tango, Harlequin has been testing the Spanish-language romance market for the last few years with two lines. According to public relations manager Stacy Widdrington, Deseo books are sexier than traditional romances, while Bianca books are sweet. Both are written in English and then translated.
However, the Latino-oriented romance line publishers are watching most closely is Kensington's Encanto, which features her s and heroines from Latin countries. Unlike many African-American romances, Encanto titles are "too short to deal with issues," according to editor Diane Stockwell, though she notes that "immigration d s come up sometimes." The first four Encanto titles went on sale in August, followed by four in October. The next four -- Cecilia Romero Cooper's Pearl/La Perla, Rebeca Aguilar's Cristina's Secret/El Secreto de Cristina, Berta Platas Fuller's Miami Heat/PasiÃ³n en Miami and Sylvia Mendoza's On Fire/Al Rojo Vivo -- are due out next month. In a year and a half, Stockwell anticipates increasing the series to four a month. Initial print runs have been relatively large: 40,000 for bilingual editions and 35,000 for Spanish-only books (marketed in Puerto Rico, Mexico and Latin America).
Because of the popularity of soap operas in the Latin market, Stockwell has contracted with Audio Libros del Mundo to publish audio editions starting in December. Her long-term plans, she tells PW, also include movies.
In the meantime, Pocket's Marrow, who witnessed the phenomenal success of her company's bilingual biography of Selena, would like to add Latino romance to her product mix: "When we did the biography, we didn't have a system in place to do that, [but] I'm hoping it will be in place soon."
While the Latino and African-American markets are predicted to dominate the U.S. in the near future, the Christian market is already coming into its own. If the success of Assassins (Tyndale), the sixth book in Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins's Left Behind series, is any indication, there are a huge number of fiction readers who hunger for a spiritual dimension to their books. In August, Assassins sold one million copies the first week it was on sale; an additional half million copies have been sold in the intervening months.
Lisa Bergren, executive editor for fiction at WaterBrook Press, the three-year-old autonomous division of Random House located in Colorado Springs, Colo., and herself an inspirational author with more than half a million copies of her books in print, was one of the early pioneers of Christian romance. As a founding editor of Palisades, the romance line of Multnomah Publishers, in 1994, she was one of the first to publish religious romance.
"Our whole goal," says Bergren, discussing not just WaterBrook romance but inspirationals in general, "is not to get up on a soapbox and preach. What we give our readers is ultimately hopeful. I don't want it all to be neat and tidy, because life d sn't happen that way." Among the WaterBrook authors she singles out are Robin Lee Hatcher, author of the September release Whispers from Yesterday. A past president of the RWA (Romance Writers of America), Hatcher's last ABA book, The Forgiving Hour (HarperCollins), won an inspirational RITA award and has been optioned for film. WaterBrook has also done well with two romantic comedy series: September saw the third entry in Shari MacDonald's the Salinger Sisters series, The Perfect Wife, and the second title in Annie Jones's Route 66 series, Cupid's Corner. Back in June, a WaterBrook anthology, Porch Swings and Picket Fences: Love in a Small Town, was a CBA bestseller.
WaterBrook differs from many of its Christian counterparts in its ready access to trade stores via the Random House sales force. Most Christian publishers sell their books almost exclusively through Christian Book Association (CBA) stores, which, because of their fixturing, prefer trade paperbacks. Twenty-year-old Barbour Publishing (in Uhrichsville, Ohio) is one house that has broken that particular rule. Its line of wholesome romances, Heartsong Presents, are printed in mass market and are distributed primarily through the company's mail-order book club.
At Tyndale, the three-year-old Heart Quest series carries the tag line "romance the way it's meant to be." According to Rebekah Nesbitt, acquisition director for women's fiction, "Our books celebrate faith and family values and the relationship between a man and a woman. Our readers are looking for encouragement in their faith walk." Among her authors with 1999 releases are Lori Copeland (Hope, Oct.), Catherine Palmer (Prairie Storm, Apr.) and Francine Rivers (Leota's Garden, Aug.).
"Our print runs are very similar to the rest of CBA," continues Nesbitt. "We're backlist oriented; we have low initial print runs and we reprint." For her, moving into the trade market has been "a tough nut to crack, because general retailers like the mass market." Instead, she has concentrated her efforts on creating a separate space for Heart Quest in CBA stores. "A byproduct of that," she says, "is CBA stores are starting to create romance sections."
Tracy Farrell, senior editor and editorial coordinator of Steeple Hill, Harlequin's inspirational line that debuted in September 1998, finds that "individual CBA stores have been receptive" to the new line, despite its availability in mass market. "A lot of CBA stores are not only bookstores, they're gift stores," Farrell explains, "and Steeple Hill books are a popular gift item. A lot of our readers are romance readers that are happy to find inspirational romances." Recent entries in Steeple Hill's Love Inspired romance series include An Angel for Dry Creek by Janet Tronstad and Gifts of Grace by Lynn Bulock.
Farrell, who also edits historical romances for Harlequin, says she enjoys the inspirational books because they get back to the heart of true romance. "Since there's no sex, there's more time to develop the characters and more sexual tension between the characters. For me, that has been one of the interesting things about these writers. They are writing real romances."
While most inspirationals are published for the CBA market, general trade stores with strong romance sections. such as Dickens Discount Books in Gurnee, Ill., have also done well with them. Dickens recently created a separate inspirational romance section and started carrying WaterBrook and Tyndale as well. "It might be why inspiration is taking off," comments assistant manager Cathy Niermann. At New and Recycled Romances in Long Beach, Calif., owner Toni Bruner characterizes the books as "very sweet stories. We do carry them, but I would say only four customers out of 150 buy them." Instead, her customers prefer erotic Regencies, future time travel and romances featuring older women.
A Many Splendored Thing
Kensington editorial director Kate Duffy, who calls herself "Jane Q. Romance," thinks the next big trade trend will be anything but sweet. "What I want to read is erotic romance. We're going hot, hot, hot," she exclaims in the wake of the success of the erotic anthology Captivated (Sept.). Kensington plans to bring out four erotic titles next year under an as-yet-unnamed imprint, followed by 13 in 2001.
Alicia Condon, editorial director of Dorchester Publishing's Leisure/Love Spell, has several new series that she thinks will be a turn-on for romance readers. Humor, which has always been an important element in romance books, takes center stage in the Wink & A Kiss books. The series kicked off in July with The Bewitched Viking by Sandra Hill, about a handsome Viking who falls for a fair maiden who is followed everywhere by a flock of sheep. Condon credits Hill with convincing her that laughter would be a good addition to a list that tends more toward heavy breathing. "Hill," she tells PW, "is known for her zaniness. Why not showcase the humor in her romances? We decided not to do cartoony covers but to go with the traditional clinch. Through the expressions on their faces and their positioning, you can see the humor."
Starting in December, Dorchester is reissuing Lair of the Wolf, a serial novel (each chapter was written by a different author) originally published by Romance Communications on the Net (see sidebar, p. 40). Set in medieval Wales, Lair of the Wolf will be published chapter-by-chapter in different Dorchester titles over the course of a year, starting with Elaine Fox's Compulsion. "It was submitted to me to do as a regular book, but it was written as a serial, and I thought it should be published that way," says Condon. "We're including it in the work of authors we're trying to grow, and it will be a bonus for our club members."
Subgenres or No Subgenres?
Though subgenres within the romance arena have proved increasingly popular -- and an effective way to broaden this market -- not all players are convinced of their effectiveness. For Ballantine senior editor Shauna Summers, the problem with subgenres is that they can disappear fast. "For writers or publishers to get too hung up on subgenres is a mistake. Trends often fade out before they get started. That's what happened with time travel." Summers tells PW that her goal "is to publish well-written, fresh, sophisticated love stories." She singles out paranormal writer Susan Carroll, whose most recent hardcover, The Night Drifter, came out in April, for giving that ever-popular subgenre an original twist -- with magic.
Wendy McCurdy, senior editor at Bantam Dell, also likes to view each romance individually, without slotting it into a subgenre. "We treat romances like any other books. We see them as mainstream. We look at it as we're building the author, almost turning the author into a line." A case in point is Jane Feather, whose 13th mass market original, The Accidental Bride (July), was her first to be a New York Times bestseller. According to McCurdy, Bantam worked hard to grow Feather's audience the old-fashioned way. It sent chocolate champagne bottles and copies of Feather's A Valentine Wedding to key accounts in February. Then, for The Accidental Bride, it created a point-of-sale contest to win a nightshirt with the saying "Romance Readers Never Go to Bed Alone." In January, Bantam will kick off the final book in the series, The Least Likely Bride, as a specially priced ($15.95) hardcover; in-store displays will feature all three of the titles.
For large chain stores, most romance subgenres barely register on in-store bestsellers lists. "The publication of these kinds of romances is certainly on the rise," notes Borders romance buyer Leah Book. Still, she says, "Almost more than 50% of our top 10 romance bestsellers this year are contemporaries, a trend that is unique to Borders." The subgenres she sees her customers wanting most -- in addition to the perennially popular Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel, who together have six places on Borders' top 10 for 1999 -- is time travel. (An observation, interestingly, which contradicts Summers's point, above.) "Our customers in particular seem to flock to them. I think the reason for this is fairly simple -- Borders traditionally d s better with contemporary romances rather than historicals. Time travel, however, lets you transport someone with modern sensibilities into the past."
At Waldenbooks, customers' tastes are more eclectic, although Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb for several Berkley titles (the most recent, Loyalty in Death, has spent two weeks on PW's mass market list), tops their 1999 bestsellers list. "African-American romance is continuing to grow in popularity with the BET/Kensington Arabesque line doing the best," notes romance buyer Anne Marie Tallberg. She also singles out Genesis Press's Indigo line as well as the relationship novels of E. Lynn Harris and Eric Jerome Dickey. What Tallberg's customers want, but just can't find, are futuristics, which she characterizes as "too few and far between. The popularity of J.D. Robb and Jayne Castle [a.k.a. Jayne Ann Krentz], both synonyms for bestselling authors, should inspire others to write for a market that is clearly there. Surprisingly, despite the emphasis on nontraditional romance, the subgenre that we are in danger of underproducing -- or losing -- is the slim, no sex, comedy of manners Regencies."
What's happening in romance? Whether the characters are African-American, Latino or Martian, whether the tone of the book is sexy, sweet or spiritual, some ingredients in this recipe remain constant -- the hottest romances seem to be those that place the emphasis squarely on the relationship between a man and a woman. As Claire Zion, executive editor of Warner Books, notes, "What we're always looking for is a strong narrative voice, one that can render an emotionally compelling love story that any reader can be moved by."