In a profession that tends to attract folks for whom the glass is half full, Irene Goodman, of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, is an agent for whom it is closer to three-quarters—and it's filled with something a lot nicer than tap water. Undaunted by the softness of the mass-market segment of the book business, Goodman finds it neither harder nor easier to sell romance novels today. "There's always something," she says, acknowledging that the genre has changed—a sentiment echoed by her colleagues. Nor is change necessarily bad. The bodice-rippers of the 1980s are gone, replaced with stories about women who are much more in control sexually as well as in other aspects of their lives. As Goodman puts it, "The heroine of today is a woman who says I like it, I want it, get used to it."

"How many death-bed pronouncements [about this category] have we heard?" asks Nancy Yost of Lowenstein-Yost Associates. "Sometimes categories get overgrown and get weeded." What Yost sees as the biggest change in romance is that "the line is blurred. When does a contemporary romance become chick lit? At a certain point, mysteries have gradually expanded and embraced romance. Vampires are a strong crossover. It's all in the eye of the reader; it's so subjective."

For Natasha Kern of Natasha Kern Literary Agency, the main change is that "there really aren't categories anymore. Now I think it's a wide open area. Romance novels have a bigger impact than they ever did on our world. They focus on voice more than how to fill a slot. I don't take new writers because they write a particular category. I'm looking for a literary perfect pitch, an instinct for scenes."

Getting Fresh

If there is any irony about what agents—and publishers—want, it's the frequency with which the word "fresh" comes up. It's used so often that it's almost a cliché. "When new romances come to me, we're looking for the fresh, the new, the outrageous, the gimmick, very often a blending of two or more genres likes chick lit and suspense," says novelist and agent Evan Marshall at the Evan Marshall Agency. "At one time, if a book was well-written and fit solidly within the parameters of the various lines—historical, short sensual or time-travel romance—we could sell it. A solid, workmanlike romance is not enough," he observes. "Publishers are more receptive than ever to books that don't fit into any genre at all."

One of the challenges of selling romance today is not just finding fresh, new work, but also finding a slot for new authors on publishers' lists. As Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency points out, although Berkley Sensation and NAL Eclipse showcase three or four titles a month, they reserve most of those spaces for authors they've previously published. "There's really only one monthly slot," says Nelson, or 12 slots a year. "Ballantine and Warner don't have a formal showcase structure in place. But it wouldn't surprise me if they did in the future. They're really narrowing their lines and only taking on authors they think they can build. On the other hand, you have houses like Kensington, where they have a special price program."

Earlier this summer Paula Reed, whom Nelson represents, launched that program, which is designed to encourage readers to try new authors by offering new mass markets at the price of a used book. Sales comparisons aren't available yet for Reed's Into His Arms (Zebra), which came out in June at $3.99, and her October release, For Her Love, which was published at full price, $5.99, but Nelson is impressed, she says, with the idea of selling a book for less than a latte.

For Steve Axelrod of the Axelrod Agency, the key thing about romance novels, and all fiction for that matter, is "a gripping story and a strong voice. It's enormously meritocratic. Good books sell. Maybe it's not going to happen as fast nowadays and the trajectory won't have quite as big an arc." Where Axelrod sees much of today's innovation coming from is in the vampire and paranormal subgenres.

"There's always a flavor of the month in publishing," says Robin Rue of Writers House. Using a cooking analogy for checking when pasta is al dente, she adds, "You hurtle that book against the wall and see if anything sticks." While Rue also regards chick lit, paranormal and romantic suspense as the chocolate, vanilla and coffee ice cream of romance, in the end, she says, "the romance reader is a very loyal reader." And that's the one she—and all agents—ultimately seek to please.

Driving Sales: Mass Appeal and Promotion

"Fresh is good, that's what we all want," concurs Claudia Cross of Sterling Lord Literistic, who finds today's market so "intensely competitive" that books that don't seem new or original can be much harder to sell. For readers, format can contribute to that freshness. While most agents agree that mass market is still the format of choice when it comes to romance, chick lit and trade paper are just about synonymous. Irene Goodman only half facetiously lobbies for relabeling the entire subgenre "trade paper fiction," including hardcovers like Lolly Winston's Good Grief (Warner).

In the case of Rachel Gibson (The Trouble with Valentine's Day, Avon, Jan. 2005), whose mass market books could be very appealing to a chick lit audience, Avon is working on moving her backlist into trade paperback to give them a fresh appeal. "She writes books that are clever and entertaining," says Gibson's agent, Claudia Cross. "New readers of Rachel's work feel they've found a distinctive and satisfying voice. So we're hoping more people will discover her that way."

"I think the younger market really likes trade paper. It works with chick lit and erotic fiction," adds Robin Rue. However, "Lisa Jackson (Kiss of the Moon, Pocket, Dec.) is flowering in mass market. Right now, with the numbers being so hard, with paperback sales being so soft, you're lucky to get a house and editor committed to an author."

Sometimes publishers aren't sure which approach is best for a particular book—mass or trade—especially for books that cut across subgenres. Kristin Nelson recently sold a debut novel by Ally Carter, Cheating at Solitaire, to Berkley for publication in fall 2005 as a trade paperback. The book, which Nelson describes as "a hybrid between romantic comedy à la Jennifer Crusie and chick lit," had also engendered interest from another house, but as a mass market publication.

Hardcover continues to be the holy grail in romance publishing. "When your author reaches a certain level," says Nelson, "you want them to go to hardcover. But you don't want them to fail." Although hardcover tends to be used more frequently for subgenres such as contemporaries and romantic suspense, Harlequin's HQN imprint is trying to turn Linda Lael Miller into a female Larry McMurtry, or "Loretta" McMurtry, by doing her upcoming historical, McKettrick's Choice (June 2005), in hardcover. The book's cover is also getting a more ambiguous treatment, which could be contemporary rather than historical, according to her agent, Irene Goodman.

"Paperback to hardcover is a difficult transition," says Karen Solem of Spencerhill Associates. "What complicates it is that you have a lot of major accounts out there like Wal-Mart that don't want the hardcover. I find the change from mass market to trade paperback can be easier. I try to be very involved, but it ends up ultimately being the publisher's decision."

The Role of the Agent

Most agents take an active role in deciding on hardcover versus paper and other aspects of their writers' careers. "You have to be involved in building nowadays. Growing an author is everything," says Robin Rue. One agent likes to call it "back-seat publishing."

For Natasha Kern, that level of involvement—from titles to cover treatments—also extends to marketing. "I often set up promotions for authors," she says, noting that agents are called on more and more to help with marketing and Web sites. She recently handled negotiations with Ben & Jerry's for author Leslie Banks to use their flavors in an upcoming novel.

"My challenge as an agent," says Karen Solem, "is to help my authors see that there are other opportunities beyond romance." She compares authors' willingness to adapt to the changes in the romance market to that of people who have been laid off and need to retrain themselves. When authors see the possibilities, it can work out well all around. "I had a wonderful sale this summer with Monica Pradhan, who had previously sold to Silhouette," reports Solem. "Pradhan wrote a terrific proposal for an Indian novel in the tradition of TheJoy Luck Club, and Bantam is going to publish her book The Hindi-Bindi Club in hardcover in 2006."

What strong sales numbers giveth—like the opportunity to move into hardcover—low numbers taketh away. What most agents view as the tyranny of computerized inventory systems makes it easier for them to sell newer novelists without a significant track record, like Pradhan, as well as big-name writers, whose numbers keep going up. "A publisher can get excited about a new author because they're not swimming upstream against the numbers," says Writers House's Rue. But Solem recalls a time in the not-so-distant past when she could convince wholesalers that a book sold well and the wholesaler knew no different. "Now those numbers are tracked and held against you," she says. "Writers used to be able to change publishers for a fresh start, but publisher B gets the same numbers."

To dodge low sales, many writers simply change their names. "Authors are like cats; they have nine lives or more," says Evan Marshall. "If the author isn't going to bring over enough readers to a new genre, we change the name, so bookstores won't look into their infernal computers and see the sales." Of course, authors who have built up a following in one subgenre will want their readers to follow them in a new direction. When Bobbi Smith, who began writing historicals, moved to inspiration, she took the name Julie Marshall. The cover of Haven (Leisure, Jan. 2005) lists the author, in big letters, as Bobbi Smith, "writing as Julie Marshall," in much tinier ones.

However involved an agent gets in the process, "all we can look for," says Kristin Nelson, "is a really good story well told." There may be more risk-taking in the future for genre blends; romance with a women's fiction feel may have more room to expand; and there may be more romances from women of color. At the end of the day, though, it's always about the story and the voice, no matter what the format.

For more on romance, click here to get a look at the growing category of teen chick lit.