Category Close-Ups

According to figures compiled by the Book Industry Study Group and author Libby Hall, past president of Romance Writers of America, romance continues to be the most popular mass market category with 58.2% of the market in 1999. Romance's growth is an especially neat trick given how much the mass market has eroded. Romance also led all popular fiction, including hardcovers and paperbacks combined, with 38.8% of sales. It nosed out its next closest competitors by more than 10%: Mystery/detective/ suspense comprised 25.7% of popular fiction sales, while general fiction and science fiction/fantasy were 12.1% and 7.3%, respectively. (Please click here to view a variety of figures from the Romance Writers of America study.)

Approximately 2,523 romances were published in 1999, including 242 e-books and 63 YAs, generating a total of $1.35 billion in annual sales. This represents a hefty increase over 1995, when romance accounted for $950 million in sales and 37.1% of all popular fiction. With the increasing number of romance books going into hardcover, that category also grew to 11.1% of adult popular fiction sales in 1999, up from 7.2% in 1997 and 5.5% in 1996.

In This Article:
Also,Driving the Sales

In 1999, the sheer number of romances published jumped by 560 titles, or nearly 30%. Even so, some key players tightened their publishing belts. Torstar, the parent company of Harlequin, MIRA, Silhouette and Steeple Hill, cut its lists by 15% from 860 books in 1998 to 733 in 1999. Random House, which includes Bantam, Ballantine and Waterbrook, pruned its lists even more, nearly 32% from 186 books in 1998 to 127 in 1999.

To find out why romance gets readers to say "I do" about buying books, while other genres are left waiting at the point-of-purchase altar, PW talked with publishers and authors about what they're doing to keep readers coming back for more.

More Appealing Books

Among the first in Kensington's
new Brava line; a highly successful
Avon author.
The short answer to the question seems to be the authors. "I think the simple answer is because so many of the books are so darn good. We keep expanding the definition of what romance is," says bestselling author Susan Elizabeth Phillips, whose Lady Be Good (Avon)was voted RWA's #1 favorite book for 1999 and whose first hardcover, This Heart of Mine is due in January from Morrow.
"Everybody is looking to broaden the audience," concurs Debbie Macomber, whose sales near the $45 million mark. "We're always looking for new ways to grow." Her next hardcover, Thursdays at Eight (MIRA, June 2001), is about four women who meet for breakfast every week. It is one of many novels published in the last few years that straddle the line between romance, in which the relationship between a man and woman is front and center, and women's fiction, which deals with various types of relationships.

Recently Macomber's agent, Irene Goodman of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, has noticed much more crossover between romance and women's fiction and a general broadening out of the romance category. In today's book climate, she says, "I'm encouraging all the romance authors I have to break out and write the book of their heart."

Similarly, bestselling author Jennifer Crusie claims, "Everybody's becoming more open-minded about romance. It's so incredibly wide, from the really sweet to the hardcore erotica. It's so liberating for me, it's very optimistic and very empowering for women. I still feel like I'm writing romance fiction, whatever they put on the spine."

For Jennifer Enderlin, associate publisher and executive editor for St. Martin's Press, it all boils down to "reality" books, filled with deep emotion. "For years," she says, "publishers have been racking their brains about the trends. It comes down to four things: funny, sexy, scary and tear-jerking. What I'm looking for is the jugular." She characterizes Crusie, for instance, whose Welcome to Temptation hit the New York Times extended bestseller list in hardcover, as "really funny and really sexy." She plans a hard/soft cross-promotion for Welcome when it comes out in paperback in March, and Crusie's new hardcover, Fast Women.

"Female readers really like a tone and voice--a certain warmth, a benign worldview. I think that's the most seductive element of romance. So many romance writers are writing bigger and more complex stories," comments Maggie Crawford, editorial director of mass market at Warner. To draw in new readers for Susan Wiggs's paperback original The You I Never Knew (Jan. 2001), Warner gave away 2,000 advance readers copies at this summer's RWA convention, and is planning a radio satellite tour.

Last year Crawford's counterpart at Little, Brown, senior editor Judy Clain, staked her first claim in the romance crossover market with a $1.2 million two-book deal with Deborah Smith, a former newspaper-reporter-turned-romance-writer whose A Place to Call Home sold more than a half-million copies. "There's a big tradition of crossover in the romance genre," says Clain. "Smith really has that potential, which is why we decided to publish her in hardcover. We are not selling this book as a romance. Our goal is to move her away from romance but keep that audience." Part of the way Clain plans to break Smith out is by using an Anne Rivers Siddons-like cover, with a strong sense of place, for On Bear Mountain (Feb. 2001), which will have an initial printing of 80,000 copies.

Smith is hoping to profit in other ways from crossover interest in her fiction. Last year she partnered with romance writers Debra Dixon, Donna Ball, Sandra Chastain and Virginia Ellis and playwright Nancy Knight to form BelleBooks. "We publish Southern fiction, not romance," explains Smith, who handles marketing for the tiny company. "We publish what Pat Conroy called 'When the hogs ate Willie' stuff. We don't expect to make much money at it, but we have a great time." Berkley bought mass market rights to BelleBooks's first book, a trade paperback anthology featuring the founders' writing, Sweet Tea and Jesus Sh s (May 2000). A second collection, The Seasons of Mossy Creek, is due out next spring, and Smith hopes to sign up other literary works by romance friends in the coming year.

Crossover can cut both ways and help build women's fiction sales. NAL is counting on the strong loyalty of romance readers to grow an audience for Jeanne Ray's recently released Julie and Romeo. "It will say fiction on the spine, and it's going to be published at the very top of our list. But I'm hoping that some bookstores will put it in the romance section as well. It seems like a natural to cross over," says executive editor Ellen Edwards.

Finding Romance in Different PlacesWhile the readership of romance may be broadening, the outlets have not necessarily kept pace. "There aren't really any new outlets for romance novels," says Brooke Borneman, sales and marketing manager at Dorchester Publishing. "Dorchester focuses on the traditionally strong romance markets, including Target, Wal-Mart and Kmart. The buyers at these chains appreciate and continue to support the genre with both adequate rack space and positioning."

Other houses have had good luck at price clubs and have created special packaging or groupings of books to meet their higher price-point needs. "I've been seeing more mass market in the price clubs. But they are still tough to get into," comments Caroline Tolley, executive editor at Pocket Books.

"We have better visibility in airport book shops," notes Katherine Orr, v-p of public relations at Harlequin, singling out the company's new MIRA line. "MIRA's been a great success for us. We got out 75,000 copies of Alex Kava's A Perfect Evil (Aug. 2000), and she's a first-time author."

Nor has romance been immune from the Internet's effect on sales. "Amazon has certainly helped sell books," according to Gail Fortune, senior editor at the Berkley Publishing Group, whose authors and readers are extraordinarily Internet savvy. She also credits online retailers with boosting backlist sales by enabling readers who discover new authors to find their older books easily.

Wooing African-AmericansFor Linda Gill Cater, v-p and publisher of Arabesque/BET Books, "African-American romance is hot, hot, hot. It's an underserved market." In part it all comes down to demographics. Citing statistics from the Selig Center for Economic Growth, Cater notes a 72.9% increase in black buying power in the past decade, up from $308 billion in 1990 to $533 billion in 1999. She also points to a BISG study of African-American book buyers. "The survey," she says, "showed that an astounding 92% purchased one to 10 books in the last 90 days."
Targeting the African-American
niche, from BET Books and
HarperTorch's new series.
Cater believes that books like Arabesque's, with "stories that are culturally relevant and include portraits of her s and heroines that accurately reflect African-American life, will fly off the shelves," and she has the sales to back her up. Last year Arabesque experienced double-digit growth. "We had twice the increase we had the year before," says Cater, who intends to push the envelope by increasing the number of titles by 13% this year. In addition, Arabesque, which is owned by media giant BET, will add a BET Books imprint to publish hardcovers, trade paperback and inspirational books.
Arabesque will continue to cross-market with BET's other divisions, including magazines, the Internet and television. In the spring, BET-TV, which has a viewership of 60 million households, will air three made-for-TV movies based on Arabesque novels: Fire and Ice by Carla Fredd; Commitments by Carmen Green; and One Special Moment by Brenda Jackson. Originally published between 1995 and 1998, the books will be rejacketed and repromoted as movie tie-ins.

Other mainstream publishers are also trying to reach the African-American market. HarperCollins, which recently teamed up with BET.com to launch a book channel on the BET Web site and to partner on an online bookstore for African-American books in various genres, will inaugurate a line of African-American romances early next year. The first in HarperTorch's new series will be If You Want Me (Feb. 2001)by Kayla Perrin.

The Erotica FactorRomantic erotica is also going strong. "Sexier books are really hot and really doing well," says Ballantine senior editor Shauna Summers. Still, she adds, "what romance can bring to the table is a really great story, not just sex scenes. Our line is very diverse." What she looks for in a writer is "somebody who is a really great storyteller," no matter how high, or low, the heat.

At St. Martin's, Enderlin has dabbled in what she calls "sexy and escapist" romance. Last holiday season, she published the anthology Naughty, Naughty and will follow it with All I Want for Christmas this month. A third collection, Hot and Bothered, is slated for the summer.

Enderlin finds that sweeter romance works fine, too, especially if it's got a nonfiction publicity twist. For example, in Stephanie Bond's Our Husband (Nov. 2000), three women find out that they're all married to the same man, who is then murdered. "We're able to get a nonfiction hook," she says, because Bond's a private investigator. "She's doing publicity under the header 'How to Check Him Out.' "

Kensington first tested the erotica waters with the trade paperback anthology Captivated last year. Its follow-up collection, Fascinated (Oct. 2000), is already on the USA Today list, and editorial director Kate Duffy anticipates "over 100% sell through. These books have momentum the likes of which I've never seen before." In February, Kensington will debut its Brava line of erotica with Intrigued, by Bertrice Small. The first books in the line will be by the authors showcased in Fascinated: Susan Johnson, Thea Devine, Robin Schone and Small.

"Our Harlequin sexier series (Temptation and Blaze) are performing well, and Regencies and historical are emerging out of series into the blockbuster arena," says Orr. Blaze, which has been published each month under the Temptation logo since 1984, has been doing so well in fact that it's about to spin off as a separate series in August.

Fortune at Berkley finds that "the great thing about romance these days is that there really are so many subcategories. We publish a lot of paranormals and a lot of historicals. In general we really try to maintain our list across the board." Even so, Berkley jumped on the heated romance bandwagon this September with Rebecca Hagen Lee's A Hint of Heather to launch Seduction, a line with stronger, sexier her s. This month it will publish its second Seduction title, first-time author Hope Tarr's A Rogue's Pleasure.

Rating the SubcategoriesAt Dorchester, says Borneman, "Historical romance continues to be a very strong category, but we have noticed that paranormal romances--especially vampires and werewolves--are extremely hot." All five of Christine Feehan's contemporary Carpathian novels, published over the past 15 months, have been successful for the house. "In addition," adds Borneman, "we have noticed a growing demand for gothic romance and are launching a new series in January called Candleglow."

NAL, too, relies on historicals for a lot of its business. But, acknowledges executive editor Audrey LaFehr, "historical romance is not going gangbusters. I would love to reach younger women." One way NAL is trying to do that is by making historicals more contemporary through anthologies like In Praise of Younger Men (Signet, Mar. 2001). It includes a novella by Jo Beverly, whom LaFehr terms "one of romance's brightest stars," which is linked to her next full-length book, The Dragon's Bride (Apr. 2001).

England and Scotland have become popular settings for historical romances as well as contemporaries. Last February, Berkley launched Irish Eyes. "The line has done very very well for us," comments Fortune, who was especially pleased with sales for the inaugural title, The Irish Devil, by Donna Fletcher.

And, of course, contemporaries continue to be a strong part of the romance market. According to Hall's survey, contemporaries accounted for 60.5% of all romance published in 1999. "Contemporaries are so happening right now, the light and fluffies, especially," says Duffy at Kensington, who divides the category into romantic suspense, light and fluffy, and heartfelt, character-driven stories. "When I came here five years ago, you couldn't call it romantic suspense, but that's done a 180," she remarks. "When something hits, it changes in a heartbeat."

In a Clinch: Packaging, Format and PriceDuffy credits Avon's illustrated covers with helping drive contemporary sales, up from 51.7% of the romance market in 1998. "I tip my hat to them, for capturing a feel for a market that no one's been able to do."

But while the question of "light and fluffy" packaging may have been resolved, there's no consensus on jackets or covers for other subgenres. "I really think the audience is split on what kind of cover they want," remarks Tolley of Pocket. "I think it's possible to be successful without a lot of bells and whistles on the cover." If she's noticed a trend at all it's toward what she calls the "real-estate covers" used on Nora Roberts's books, which picture something evocative of home.

Crawford at Warner has also noticed the Maeve Binchy/Rosamund Pilcher effect. "With historical now," she says, "you see more landscapes than you did five years ago, more atmosphere. The covers reflect the change in editorial content."

According to Nita Taublib, senior v-p and deputy publisher of Bantam Dell, today's covers also reflect a change in buying patterns at the wholesale level. "You used to put the covers on a table and the buyers at the wholesalers, mostly men, would pick the ones they wanted," she says. "When the wholesalers started buying by track record, you started seeing a lot less bosom and a lot more men."

Ironically, while the front cover remains key, a reader survey that the RWA commissioned in March last year found that 75% of readers consider the description on the back cover to be important, versus 15% who use cover art, in helping them deciden what to read. Even so, the traditional romance cover image gets a lot of people in publishing hot and bothered. (To view figures from the study, please click here.)

For Carrie Feron, executive editor at Morrow/Avon, it still has its place. "We use it on the stepback and on covers for new authors. Once readers buy primarily by author, it becomes less necessary."

"The fact remains that the die-hard romance reader appreciates seeing the hero and heroine on the front cover," maintains Borneman of Dorchester. "She d sn't want ambiguity about the plot. She wants the cover to tell her who the hero and heroine are, where the book is set, if it is sexy or sweet."

Covers and subject matter aren't all that's changing in the romance genre. Publishers are also experimenting with formats and price. "At Avon," says director of marketing Libby Jordan, citing a doubling of sales from book to book for authors such as Susan Andersen (All Shook Up, Jan. 2001), Stephanie Laurens (All About Love, Feb. 2001) and Julia Quinn (The Viscount Who Loved Me, Dec. 2000), "we are committed to growing our romance authors." This includes, she adds, moving authors into hardcover earlier. "Now there's no reason to wait. There d sn't seem to be price resistance to hardcovers."

Likewise, Summers at Ballantine finds that "putting authors into hardcover is happening a lot earlier, before they've hit the top 10. It gives you better review attention. We're doing more hardcovers in the coming year. Jill Marie Landis will debut in August with Summer Moon." However, hardcover can have its drawbacks, she admits: "Is a reader going to be willing to plunk down the 20 bucks or 15 bucks?"

Incentive is often the name of the game. At Morrow/Avon, "we're constantly offering every single month a rebate, and people know to look for it," says Jordan. NAL recently created a two-for-one discount program for its Regency line, which enables readers to buy two books bound together for $5.50. To encourage younger readers to rediscover Regency classics and older readers to replace their "keepers," NAL is coupling new books with older titles that have been out of print for up to 10 years.

Pocket has tried a different tack, moving up its schedule for linked books to heighten interest. Last year's experiment with publishing Andrea's Kane's The Gold Coin and The Silver Coin back-to-back was so successful that they will be reissued in an omnibus edition next June. Pocket is also hoping for similarly strong sales for Miranda Jarrett's back-to-back Starlight (Oct. 2000) and Star Bright (Nov. 2000).

Like most romance publishers, Pocket is tinkering with formats to get the right romantic mix. "We've been doing hardcovers for the past 10 years," says Tolley. "We were actually one of the first publishers to break out authors in this format with Judith McNaught, Julie Garwood and Linda Howard. I think it still depends on the book. We're doing that with Jill Barnett's Sentimental Journey (Mar. 2001). If the story is there, it's not like you have to have five bestsellers under your belt."

Tolley is considering moving more romance into trade paperback. "We had such success with Clive Cussler in trade paperback that Judith Kerr, our publisher, wants to explore that for women's fiction." Simultaneous large-print editions in trade paperback and e-books are also in the works for 2001.

Bantam Dell's Taublib is one of the few unrepentant believers in rack-size paperbacks. "We value mass market; we think it's the way people will find authors. We believe it's here to stay." One of her strategies has been to publish linked books just a few months apart. For example, Madeline Hunter debuted her trilogy set in 14th-century London with By Arrangement in June, and book two, By Possession, came out three months later. The third and final volume, By Design, is due in January 2001.

Nor is Taublib convinced that hardcover is always the right format for long-time authors. In the case of Kay Hooper, who started in romance but is now regarded as more of a suspense writer, Taublib decided to move her back into mass market. "We weren't growing and we weren't making the links we wanted to make," says Taublib. Hooper's first two paperbacks--Stealing Shadows and Hiding in the Shadows --hit PW's bestseller list, and Taublib expects the next, Out of the Shadows, to do the same. "It's not the format," she explains, "it's how you promote it and what's between the covers."

At Berkley, "trilogies are working really well, along with writers that have a particular family or families that they write about," comments Fortune, who attributes much of the success to Nora Roberts. The final installment in Roberts's Irish trilogy, Heart of the Sea, will be released in December. Bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz is also in the middle of a trilogy, set in the Pacific Northwest, Dawn on Eclipse Bay (May 2001). As a further example, Fortune cites the popularity of Jodi Thomas's McLain Brothers trilogy, which has been expanded to five books. Book four, Twilight in Texas, is due next March.

Selling RomancePublishers and authors alike note that RWA and its communications manager, Charis McEachern, deserve credit for driving romance sales. "You have to give RWA credit," says author Phillips. "It commissioned reports that publishers weren't doing." RWA's Web site (www.rwanational.com) also provides links to authors and publishers to help promote the genre.

The Web, in general, has given romance a major boost, from mega-publisher sites like eHarlequin.com to the Avon Ladies, an ad hoc group of Morrow/Avon authors who are all linked on the Internet thanks to author Judith Ivory. With all the Web activity, it's no surprise that e-book romance publishers like Hard Shell Word Factory and Avid Press have sprung up in the past few years, or that e-books from mainstream publishers are continuing to grow.

"I find that the authors are getting more and more savvy in a much more effective way," notes Summers of Ballantine. Many authors, for instance, have stepped in to create their own promotions. For This Heart of Mine, Phillips got her younger son, a regular on the coffee-house circuit in the Chicago area where she lives, to write and record a CD based on the book. The songs all feature the book's characters and will be used in conjunction with Phillips's tour and on her Web site. Similarly NAL author Lauren Royal put her jewelry-making skills to use to create a pearl and amethyst necklace for Amethyst (Feb. 2000) as a hook for a contest on her Web site. Now she's doing the same for Emerald (Oct. 2000).

Macomber, who encourages letters and e-mails from her readers so that she can let them know when her new books are out, now has 20,000 names on her personal mailing list. For her, the mail helps in other ways. "Reader feedback is invaluable," she remarks. "Two years in a row I did Christmas stories value-priced at $12. I got feedback that this was a lot of money for a short book. So for the next book, Return to Promise (Oct. 2000), I gave them twice the story."

She g s out of her way to woo booksellers as well. "Every Valentine's Day I take out my local booksellers for lunch," says Macomber, who also sends annual gifts to booksellers around the country. This year it was a red calculator with "Calculate Your Profits" on a flip-up panel. Inside, above the screen, it says "Debbie Macomber Sells."

But no matter what publishers or authors do to actively promote this genre, the books themselves ultimately make the selling difference. As Morrow/Avon's Feron points out, "These are the stories that people have been telling each other since the beginning of time. So many fairy tales are romances and p ms. Even every Disney movie. The romance itself is what's so enduring."

All Aboard! Driving the Sales

For the Chas. Levy Company in Chicago, the largest privately owned full-service wholesaler distributing books and magazines in the U.S. and Canada, the bus stops here--literally-- when it comes to moving romance books. In September, it coordinated an ambitious week-long bus tour through the Midwest with 21 romance writers. Among the "passengers" were Julie Beard, Judy Christenberry, Lisa Jackson, Merline Lovelace and Linda Lael Miller. The tour was a cooperative effort with publishers, including Kensington, Harlequin, Pocket Books and Leisure.

With a nod to the American Association of Publishers' literacy campaign, the 16-city tour, which started in Cincinnati, Ohio, and ended in Stevensville, Mich., was themed Get Caught Reading Romance. Each stop, which was solely at mass market grocery retailers such as Meijer, Biggs, Foodtown and Buehler's, was guaranteed no less than 14 authors and a maximum of 19. The bus was packed with goodie bags that were raffled by the retailers at each stop and used as radio giveaways. The black one-strap tote bags were stuffed with Get Caught Reading Romance T-shirts, mugs, sewing kits, pens and--what else?--lots of mass market romances.
The Girls on the Bus -- titles by two
of the touring authors (Signet, Pocket).
Only nine die-hard authors rode the bus for the whole week, others dropped in for just a few days. Suzanne Brockman, author of The Unsung Hero (Ivy, June 2000), found the tour "far more exhausting than I imagined, but it was a lot of fun. It is a different kind of thing than I do normally. I'm used to working alone. I have a lot of fans in the Midwest, and I jumped at the chance to go." The authors who brought a stack of books to read on the tour/vacation were respectful of those working on deadline. Brockman, for one, teaches an online writing class, which meant she had to spend a couple of hours every day at her laptop. The authors joked about voting people off the bus à la Survivor, and at one point in the tour Kensington sent a survival kit packed with water pistols, games, magazines and a bottle of hard liquor.
Those off the bus also had fun--and sold a lot of books. "It was fabulous," enthused Pat Nowak, director of public relations for Foodtown, who arranged for the authors to meet students at Springfield High School in Toledo, Ohio, in addition to signing at two local Foodtowns. "I was very impressed with the school and the authors. A lot of fans came to Foodtown. We always sell a lot of books"

Similarly, Jeff Wardford, v-p of sales for Chas. Levy, was pleased with the tour. "It was wonderful. We had people in Ohio who had driven from as far as New York. They read about it on the Internet. Obviously we sold some product, which is always the objective. It was a good opportunity to make an impact at the point of sales. We've already had customers that were not part of the tour say that they want to come on board."
--Judith Rosen