Leslie Gelbman: After Adirondack Chairs, What?

Leslie Gelbman, president and publisher of the Berkley Group, has worked in romance and women's fiction for more than 20 years—at Berkley for the last 12—and she sees the two categories as highly fluid, with one defining factor. "The difference between romance and women's fiction is not paperback versus hardcover," she explains. "The difference is that, in a romance, the romantic relationship between the hero and the heroine is the core of the book. In women's fiction, family relationships and friendships are just as important."

An author's switch from romance to women's fiction and from paperback to hardcover is an organic one, says Gelbman, usually indicated by both increased sales and new interests on the part of an author: "Take authors like Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz. They made the jump to hardcover because their numbers were growing and their interests were taking them in new directions."

While Gelbman acknowledges that once an author has moved from paperback to hardcover, she is unlikely to go back, she does point out that certain books are more natural paperbacks. Jayne Ann Krentz, for example, is a bestselling hardcover author, but has just published Dawn in Eclipse Bay, the second in a three-book mass market contemporary series. And Nora Roberts continues to write paperback originals as well as hardcovers. "Roberts writes Harlequin books, too," says Gelbman. "She's very loyal to her fans that way."

To signal to the romance audience that a certain work of fiction might appeal to them as well, Gelbman depends on savvy packaging. "If it's a novel for the women's fiction audience, but you know part of the romance audience will come to it, then you're going to use one or two elements that will help the romance reader recognize that it's for her, too. We might rely on a certain kind of typeface, or something in the colors and the way the illustration is rendered on the cover."

And what of the old stock romance cover? Must all romances still look the same? Says Gelbman, "There used to be a single standard, but now they've all melded, and all the publishers move together from one image to the next. Over time, the clutches became flowers, the flowers became houses, the houses became landscapes, and the landscapes became Adirondack chairs."

Kristin Hannah: More Than Happy Endings

Having just inked a two-book hardcover deal with Ballantine Books, Kristin Hannah may seem to have come full circle—her first novel, the mass market original romance A Handful of Heaven, was published by Ballantine in 1991. But as far as content is concerned, her hardcovers scarcely resemble the romances she wrote a decade ago. For ex-entertainment and antitrust lawyer Hannah, it's not just a matter of happy endings that separates those early paperbacks from the women's fiction she now writes, like this spring's Summer Island (Crown).

"I wrote seven historical romances that fit with the formula and expectations of romance," Hannah tells PW. "Really what defines a book as a romance is that it's about two people falling in love. That's the thrust of the novel, and to me, that's what makes something romance." She traces the turning point in her writing career back five years ago to the publication of Home Again, which, she explains, "straddled romance and women's fiction. It had very strong secondary characters and plotlines—and it dealt with some serious physical and spiritual issues. When I finished it, I wanted to write a story about one woman's journey, and I wanted to take her story anywhere it wanted to go."

At first, Hannah didn't realize how much she had been changed by Home Again. But when she sat down to write her next book, On Mystic Lake, which was originally sold as a paperback romance to Ballantine, "it was clear to everybody—me, my agent, my editor—that this book wasn't a romance." Ballantine published it in paperback anyway and it went on to become a national bestseller, but not before Ann Patty at Crown stepped in and acquired it as a hardcover. "She fell in love with the book," says Hannah, who credits Patty with helping her complete the switch from romance to women's fiction. "Ann really taught me to write a different kind of book while still being true to my roots and my sensibilities. For me, there's a difference in scope and in content."

To write romance, Hannah drew on many of the same skills that led her initially to a career in law. "I was very analytical and I wrote long synopses. I knew in advance how many pages each book would be," says Hannah. Her legal studies also gave her the discipline she needed to complete a whole book. For each romance, that meant nine months of researching and writing and two months of editing. As a women's fiction writer, however, she has come to look at herself as more of an editor. "I can't seem to grasp these books from the beginning. I take six months to write the first draft," Hannah estimates, "and eight months to edit." She regards the editing, or "reimagining," process as key to the success of her hardcovers.

For now, the author has no intention of going back to writing romance, although she adheres to the adage "never say never." Nor is she a writer who likes to mix genres. "With the rise of a lot of romance authors into the heavy-hitter bestseller ranks, it is trendy now to blur the lines between romance and women's fiction," Hannah observes. "I don't even know how effective the word 'women's' is. I'm trying to simply write fiction."

Dianne Moggy: Many Routes to Hardcover

"I've never viewed romance and women's fiction as different," says Dianne Moggy, editorial director of Mira Books. "I consider romance a subgenre of women's fiction."

Launched in 1994, Mira is the mainstream fiction imprint of Harlequin Enterprises. Its focus, Moggy tells PW, "has been to publish quality women's fiction, and under that we've published big romance novels, relationship novels—both contemporary and historical—and thrillers that are a little more geared to female audience. It's been a range of editorial." One author who points up this range, says Moggy, is Debbie Macomber—"She's gone from writing big contemporary romances to Thursday at Eight, a hardcover relationship novel focusing on the friendship among four women."

Until last August, Mira published hardcovers only sporadically. That has changed, and going forward into 2002, "we're looking at doing two hardcover titles per month, and we see opportunity for more growth down the road," Moggy notes.

Why the change?

First, Moggy explains, the realization that "we were building many of our paperback original authors to the point that if we didn't publish them in hardcover, somebody else would come in and do it for us." Also, the house wanted to attract bestselling authors who were already published in hardcover, and the feeling was that women's fiction in general had been underrepresented in the marketplace. "It was the combination of these three elements that really encouraged us to enter the market," says Moggy.

So what exactly is it that determines whether a book is destined for paperback or hardcover? "Does the author come to you, do you go to the author—it's both of these things and more," Moggy explains. "Sometimes a book crosses your desk that you just know is a hardcover from the start."

She points to Alex Kava's debut novel, A Perfect Evil, the book with which Mira launched its hardcover program last August. "We know it was a bit of a risk but everyone was so excited about it in-house. Then you have an author such as Emilie Richards, who has more than 35 series romances. She's written five paperback originals for Mira, and we're going to publish her next book, Prospect Street, in hardcover in July 2002."

Richards is a clear case of an author whose work supported hardcover distribution, says Moggy. "She writes very strong relationship novels"—highly sought-after in the marketplace—and her paperback sales have seen steady growth. Plus, her June title, Fox River, received a starred review from PW. "We wanted to get her to the next level."

Also poised to make the leap to hardcover is Heather Graham. With a hardcover historical romance already under her belt with another publisher, Graham has built a strong readership for the bestselling contemporary romantic suspense novels she writes for Mira, says Moggy, and her Night of the Blackbird, due in October, will be followed in April by her first hardcover, Hurricane Bay.

Both Richards and Graham are "fairly traditional examples" of moving an author from paperback to hardcover, says Moggy, with paperback sales that have "propelled them to the level where hardcover distribution is the next natural step."

Of course, there are other routes to hardcover. "Obviously, publishers are faced on a number of occasions with the fact that if they don't publish an author in hardcover, somebody else will, so it becomes a negotiation point," Moggy admits. "Maybe that's not the right reason to take them to hardcover, but it's a fact of life."

And there are also unexpected breakout books. "Maybe the author isn't at the point where the next step naturally would be hardcover distribution, but suddenly you are presented with an opportunity." In cases like this, Moggy comments, "it's critical that the editorial supports hardcover distribution, because you are going to get review attention, and that can damage an author's career if you take the step without everything in place."

Jennifer Crusie: Mme Bovary as Romance Diva?

Jennifer Crusie never set out to be a writer.

A former art and English teacher, she was working on her Ph.D. at Ohio State University, studying the impact of gender on narrative strategy, when she needed to read something "intrinsically female." She picked up a romance novel. "I loved it," she recalls. "It was so feminist—the first fiction I'd read where the woman was truly at the center of the story, and won. You can have Madame Bovary or Hester Prynne at the center of the story, but they're not going to win."

It was also the first form of fiction she'd read that she was tempted to try writing herself. "I never wanted to write literary fiction, though I was fascinated by it," she says. "The women in Faulkner and Hemingway were not women I wanted to write about."

Crusie switched her dissertation to romance fiction, and a year later sold her first novel to Harlequin. Meanwhile, the Ph.D. was eventually put on hold while she pursued an MFA in fiction instead. "I wrote for Harlequin for a long while," she says. "It was a good place to learn to write, and I had very good editors who took very good care of me." A contract dispute and a new agent propelled her career in a different direction, however, and suddenly she was playing "a whole new ballgame" when St. Martin's Press picked up her first single title, Tell Me Lies (March 1998). "It was originally contracted as a paperback," Crusie explains. "Then I delivered it, and Jennifer Enderlin called and said 'We're going to take a gamble here and do it as a hardcover.' "

As Enderlin puts it, "Publishing is an art, not a science. We work so much on instinct, and when we first read the manuscript, something told us that this could reach women who read romance, women who don't consider themselves romance readers, and women who read general fiction."

The gamble paid off, and Tell Me Lies launched Crusie as a rising star, garnering her comparisons to writers like Susan Isaacs. Its paperback reprint hit the bestseller lists, as have all of her subsequent titles (Crazy for You, Welcome to Temptation and Fast Women).

As for the difference between romance and women's fiction, Crusie say she just writes the books that come, and leaves the rest to her editor. "My stuff is very difficult to describe—I call it romantic comedy, but a lot of people say it's mystery," she notes. "Jen Enderlin is a fabulous editor, and so smart about the marketing angle."

While Enderlin notes that people might call Crusie a women's fiction author because she's in hardcover, and that it's a term often used when someone has reached a certain level in sales, "in fact, her books have romance at the core—the emphasis is on a male/female relationship. Women's friendships and family relationships also play an integral role in her books."

Crusie also appreciates the freedom Enderlin gives her as an author. "In Tell Me Lies, for instance, the heroine commits adultery, and a lot of romance editors would say, 'No, you can't do that,' " Crusie explains. "Jen didn't force me to follow outmoded romance traditions. We both know I'm writing romance and I'm happy writing romance, but she's not going to say, 'Don't do that, it might annoy a reader.' She looks at a book as a whole, and that's huge in this business, as it's not at all uncommon for a romance editor to develop tunnel vision."

Carrie Feron: It's Plot vs. Relationships

In the words of Avon executive editor Carrie Feron, "If the plot is more important, it's romance. If the emphasis is on relationships, then it's women's fiction." She hastens to add, however, that it's rarely that simple. "It's so difficult to tell where the boundaries of romance end and women's fiction begin. After all, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte were contemporary romance writers."

Avon nurtures its romance writers carefully through its ladder program, moving them from the first rung (Avon Romance, with covers depicting a man and a woman and target sales of about 50,000 copies) up the notches into bigger and bigger sales brackets: Avon Romance progresses to Avon Treasure (the lovers are on the back cover, and there's a more mainstream look on the front; 100,000 copies) to Avon Superleaders (stepbacks on the cover; 150,000—300,000 copies). "We know where authors are in their careers and keep an eye on them for when they're ready to move up," says Feron. "We grow their numbers from book to book. We often make the decision to put a romance author into hardcover more due to the momentum of the career rather than the merits of one particular book."

From the approximately 70 writers in Avon's mass market program, five have made the transition to hardcover in the six years since the publisher began its crossover program: Elizabeth Lowell (Moving Target), Johanna Lindsay (Heart of a Warrior), Susan Elizabeth Phillips (This Heart of Mine), Kathleen Eagle (The Last Good Man) and Stephanie Laurens, whose first appearance will be in the fall with the Christmas title A Promise in a Kiss. In Feron's words, "Either the velocity of their sales made it clear they are ready—this happened with Phillips—or else their work no longer fit within the romance genre, as happened with Lowell. She now does more romantic suspense." There are no hard rules as to who or what or when they should move. "We analyze potential sales: Have they built such a reputation that a hardcover will be viable? Or is the book strong enough to be able to be in a hardcover format? It all starts with the author—she has to have a great voice, a feel for character. Women's fiction relies more on great character than complex plot."

Still, the writing itself doesn't necessarily change just because the format does. "Phillips still does warm stories about communities and relationships, though her storyline is more mature. There are more secondary characters, but the core is still the male-female relationship," Feron says, noting that Phillips's sales increased from fewer than 200,000 copies in mass market to more than 500,000 before she moved into hardcover. The print run for This Heart of Mine, Phillips's hardcover debut, was 100,000. The book spent four weeks on PW's charts, hit #7 on the New York Times list and was reviewed in People magazine. "That's the holy grail of the field," Feron says: "More attention, reviews, a bigger audience."

Patricia Gaffney: Addressing a Variety of Relationships

Patricia Gaffney made her debut in 1989 with Sweet Treason, a historical romance set in Scotland; her editor at the time described the book as filled with "fire and passion." A late starter, Gaffney was spurred to becoming a novelist by a bout with breast cancer. "I had always wanted to be a writer," she says. "When I was diagnosed, I thought it was the end of me. Then I thought, if I'm dying, I'd like to pick the kind of book that would be the most fun to write."

Twelve historical romances later and with a clean bill of health, she started to run out of steam: "I began to feel I had exhausted my storehouse of stories that centered around a man and a woman—courtship stories." But in a timely coincidence, editor Marjorie Braman at Dell picked up one of Gaffney's paperbacks and, taken by her skill with storytelling and characters, suggested to agent Aaron Priest that his client try writing mainstream women's fiction to be published in hardcover.

"It sounded good," Gaffney tells PW. "My contract with Penguin was just finished. I went to New York and met with Carole Baron and others at Dell. I went home [to Pennsylvania] and wrote a bit, sent it in and everyone hated it. They said it was 'too small and romancy.' Then I got it. I wrote a story about a women's group based on my own 15-year-old women's group. I sent it to Marjorie, who had moved to HarperCollins. She made a preempt bid and published The Saving Graces in 1999. The book is about four women; there are four love stories, but it's really about the women and their friendships." The hardcover edition, Braman reports, "took off like a flash," racking up sales in the 100,000-copy range after 10 trips back to press. Sales of the mass market, which landed high on both the PW and New York Times lists, are well over a million copies. Circle of Three came out in hardcover last year with a hefty first printing and ended up with sales over 100,000; the mass market edition, just out, had an initial printing of 800,000.

Gaffney says the transition from romance books to women's fiction was "kind of like a miracle," getting her out of her midlist position and freeing her as well to tackle stories with more personal meaning. "Romance, by definition, focuses 100% on the man-woman relationship," she says. "This is a huge part of life, but it's not everything. There's also the mother-daughter relationship, marriage, infidelity, illness, death. You just can't do these things in romance; that's not what it's about."

Gaffney sees a healthy overlap now between popular women's fiction and genre romance. "At times there's a certain dreariness in mainstream books, a gratuitous hopelessness. This can be a turnoff to a broad spectrum of readers looking for something hopeful. When you combine genres you come out with something very nice, a hybrid, a mix between Anne Tyler and LaVyrle Spencer." This crossover could have taken place sooner, she thinks, if art departments had avoided covers with "that look." "Mainstream readers are not embarrassed to read Jennifer Crusie's Welcome to Temptation because the cover is so cute," she says.

Gaffney does not expect to return to the highly defined world of paperback romance, with its strict conventions, but she says she would enjoy doing a "straight love story," which, she says "doesn't have to end in marriage or lifetime commitment. It could involve things that are taboo. In romance, neither protagonist can have an affair while they're together. In a love story, you don't have to follow that rule."

What about rules in women's fiction? "I don't know what women's fiction is," she says, "unless it's a marketing tool. Yeah, you have to have women in it. I've been told there are rules, but I don't buy it."

Nita Taublib: No Hard and Fast Rules

When it comes to the difference between romance and women's fiction, "there are no hard and fast rules," according to Nita Taublib, deputy publisher of the Bantam Dell Publishing Group. "There's such an invisible line; it's hard to define. Is it a style of writing? I don't think so." Nor does she regard romance or women's fiction as a matter of format, paperback versus hardcover. "On mass market books, you have instant categorization of books noted on the spine. But I bet you dollars to donuts that if you went into a hardcover fiction section in a bookstore, there would be as many titles most people would consider romance as fiction.

"At Bantam Dell," she continues, "we don't have lists we have to fill, which is why we don't have a line of books, per se. If I were doing a hardcover, I would just call it fiction. If you look at the success of people like Nicholas Sparks [The Notebook] or Robert James Waller [The Bridges of Madison County]—this is going back—what are these books if not romances?! And I'm sure most booksellers put them in the fiction section."

But it's not just where romances are shelved that has changed. Real-estate covers—with houses and scenic mood paintings—dominate today. "For many years, we heard lots of stories about women on buses and trains not wanting to be seen with half-naked people on the covers of their books. After all, it's not about sex in these books, it's about characterization and storytelling."

At the same time that many of the boundaries between romance and fiction have blurred, a number of houses have cut back on category romance. Gone are the days when new authors cut their publishing teeth by writing a book or more a year. "There is no place for people to get a start like that," says Taublib, noting that a decade ago, between 50 and 75 new romances were published each month.

So what can romance publishers do to foster writers? In the case of Kay Hooper, that meant moving her back into paperback. "Kay has been writing for more than 20 years," says Taublib. "We did the reverse of what everyone else does." By holding back all three volumes in Hooper's The Shadows Trilogy last fall, Taublib was able to build excitement by releasing a new book each month. Each hit the New York Times bestsellers list, and tripled Hooper's previous sales.

Similarly, to give a seasoned historical romance writer a fresh start, Taublib is publishing a trio of paperbacks under the pseudonym Josie Litton. "We decided to publish two 400-page books together, Dream of Me and Believe in Me in October. The feedback from our major accounts is phenomenal," she adds. The two-in-one book will have a foil front cover and a separate cover with special effects for each books. The final volume, Come to Me, will be released a month later.

Fern Michaels: The Best of Both Worlds

Kensington author Fern Michaels is prolific, in both the paperback romance and hardcover women's fiction genres. "It's a relief to do both. It's like you're taking a deep breath and doing something different—that's the way it is for me." Her approach to both styles of writing is the same. "My first thought is, 'Oh, boy, let's work.' For the paperbacks, the stories seem to be a little lighter in tone. There's not quite as many characters in a paperback. And the plot is not really mind-boggling."

Michaels's preparation for both genres is similar. "I do the same kind of character sketch for the softcovers as I do for the hardcovers—you have to get to know the characters. If you don't know them, it doesn't matter what you write, because it's not going to be any good."

A major departure for Michaels's romance books is that they don't necessarily have a happy ending; "Not everybody rides off into the sunset." She used to write such endings for all her books, but about six years ago, she received a scathing letter from a fan who complained, "Life just isn't 'happy-ever-after.' "

"I really took it to heart," Michaels tells PW. "I think today's readers are looking for more story—more depth, more meat to it. I have so many people who say, 'I'm tired of reading five pages of sex in every chapter.' So I only put it in if the story really calls for it. And you know what? I'm tired of writing it, too. I don't think it's hurt me; if anything, I think it's helped."

As for women's fiction, "They want a more savvy kind of book, more timely, topical—whatever's going on in the world—like when I did one on spousal abuse, What You Wish For. I knew a lot of romance readers would read it and it was a pretty touchy thing. That was a heavy book for me to write. And I got a lot of e-mail on that one—most of it complimentary."

The author takes particular pride in her hardcover heroines. "I did not personally have an easy life. I am where I am now because I worked very, very hard. All the main characters in my hardcovers may not start out particularly strong—as a matter of fact, some of them are downright mushy. But, by God, by the end of the book, they are their own women. I really love writing about strong women who persevere and prevail, because if I hadn't done that, maybe I'd be working in Woolworth's or something. I guess in a way I'm constantly telling my own story. Do I have a message? Yeah, anything's possible, you have to believe in yourself and if you persevere you will prevail."

Maggie Crawford: Romances Today Look Less 'Category'

As Pocket Books Women's Fiction editorial director Maggie Crawford sees it, the main difference between romance paperbacks and women's fiction is the book's focus. "In a romance novel there's the hero and the heroine, and it's the story of their relationship. In women's fiction, there can be a romantic element, but it's often about other parts of a woman's life—her relationships with family, with work—whether it be a high-powered career or something she does individually. There's a broader canvas, more whole-life stories."

Crawford notes there are subtle differences in marketing the two genres. "With the romance novels, we really focus on distribution and cover presentation. With hardcover, and also when we do larger paperbacks when the numbers really get higher, we do some print advertising. It's not the advertising that necessarily changes; it's more of the publicity and the exposure that they get in terms of reviews. Reviewers seem to be more receptive to women's fiction because those books speak more to the audience of the magazines and the newspapers."

Yet Crawford, who has edited many romance novels, has great respect for the romance genre. "The basic formula may sound very simple, but it is not simplistic. Good romance novels are not easy to write. There isn't as much plot as in women's fiction, but the character development requires just as much insight, just as much wit. I think that the dialogue in some romance novels is just first-rate."

Crawford believes that the gap between the two types of books has lessened in recent years. "The new trend in romance covers is to go more mainstream, to make it appealing to readers of women's fiction, with all of the real-estate covers that are on the books now. Years ago, there used to be a man and a woman gazing at each other passionately, and that was a very clear signal that this was a romance novel and oftentimes it was very sexy. It still exists but, interestingly, those covers are not what people respond to in the marketplace."

Although romances are primarily published as paperback originals, Crawford is quick to tell PW about exceptions. "Jude Deveraux is a good example. We will be reissuing A Knight in Shining Armor, which was originally published in hardcover in 1989. This was seminal. Jude was the first mass market paperback original writer to write a romance novel and be published in hardcover and it became a natural bestseller. That really caught the attention of everyone in the industry."

Crawford sees a promising future for today's paperback romance writers who want to break into hardcover women's fiction. "I have encountered writers who are still in the romance genre, still in paperback originals, and they are really on their way to writing hardcovers, because they are examining feelings and relationships in an interesting and complex way. I think they are really going to push the genre in that regard—with the depth and the fine quality of the writing."