Booksellers have enjoyed a long, mutually respectful relationship with the romance category, whose readers are voracious book buyers. "They buy five books a week," says Kathy Baker, assistant manager and romance expert at the Waldenbooks in Hurst, Tex., of her store's loyal romance readers.
Yet booksellers are discovering that, as in all relationships, money changes everything. If romance sales aren't blossoming the way they once were—and booksellers are divided in their assessments, with some reporting continued growth and others simply steady sales—that's as likely a result of the subdued economy as it is a loss of interest on the part of readers.
"If a romance buyer doesn't buy what she used to, it's because of finance," says Baker. At the three Tattered Cover stores in the Denver area, says buyer Carol Hellmers, "As a category it's as strong as it has been, but the climate for bookselling lately hasn't been as good as it has been."
Still, romance remains a good source of revenue for the majority of stores. At Baker's Waldenbooks, it is the topselling category, and Baker faults bookseller complacency as much as the economy if romance sales have stopped increasing. "A lot of bookstores aren't seeing the same volume and don't know how to merchandise," she says.
When asked how the category is performing at her store, Beth Anne Steckiel, owner of Beth Anne's Book Corner in Colorado Springs, Colo., responds, "It holds its own."
At Books Connection in Livonia, Mich., a general bookstore with about one-quarter of its space devoted to romance, bookseller Carol Anderson says, "It's growing faster than I can read." Debra Schreckengost, president and manager of the Book Depot in Kinston, N.C., says sales are "definitely increasing."
But at Octavia Books in New Orleans, La., romance books have been phased out completely. "It's basically because they weren't really moving off the shelves," says bookseller John Bayles. "It boiled down to us keeping an entire section for a few customers. Part of the problem is the margin. A few customers would come in a couple times a month and buy four or five books, and on the surface that looks good, but of course the books are $5.99 and $6.99 and the mass market discounts are smaller than those for hardcovers and trade paperbacks, so the margin is smaller."
There's Somebody New
Romance has always reinvigorated itself by generating new subcategories, and nearly all the booksellers PW interviewed agree that today's hot trend is paranormals. Zombies, werewolves and, above all, vampires populate the pages of today's romance novels. "The paranormal subgenre is extremely popular, as is time travel," says Susan Grimshaw, romance buyer for the Waldenbooks chain.
"We seem to have a cycle, and we're coming around to the paranormal and vampires. In a few years we'll switch back again and it'll be another cycle," says Hazel Wilson, salesperson and romance buyer at the Last Chapter, a new and used bookstore in Overland Park, Kans., where romance is about one-third of the stock.
"They're really buying the vampire stuff and any of the supernatural," says Debbie Buck, bookseller/newsletter editor at Vintage Books in Vancouver, Wash. Hellmers at Tattered Cover succinctly concurs: "It's the vampires and the undead." Says Baker of Waldenbooks, "That goes along with movie and TV trends. Look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and X-Men. Even video games are paranormal, with vampires and werewolves, and those things trend down into reading."
"I've noticed in the past year since Harlequin brought out the Luna imprint, any of the romance titles with fantasy aspects have been doing well, and part of that is crossover from the SF/fantasy section," says Schreckengost of the Book Depot.
The trend may be partially regional, however. Maureen Greene, a bookseller at the Borders in Naperville, Ill., and the 2004 Romance Writers of America Bookseller of the Year, says, "When I went down to the RWA conference, other booksellers were saying they couldn't keep the paranormals in stock. I haven't seen that, and I talked to another bookseller from the Midwest, and she said the same thing. It might be a regional thing. It's doing okay, but I didn't notice it sailing out of the store."
What is big in Naperville are romantic suspense and chick lit. Of the latter, Greene says, "They're catchy and interesting and readers like the—excuse my language—kick-ass aspect of it."
"The area that's really expanded is the suspense, like Christina Skye and the four-book series from Mariah Stewart, and light humor, and everybody's into vampires," observes Steckiel of Beth Anne's Book Corner. She adds that in Colorado, westerns are a perennial favorite. But Steckiel, like all the booksellers contacted by PW, is frustrated with the lemming-like rush to any subcategory that shows signs of success. She observes, "It's amazing how one of them will get a good idea and then all of a sudden everybody's going to do it, and they flood the market." When the inevitable backlash sets in, says Steckiel, "They wonder, 'Gee, why did this happen?' "
"A lot of the customers ask for humor in books," says Wilson of the Last Chapter. "That takes a special talent and all the authors try, but you either have it or you don't."
Historicals, long a romance mainstay, are not nearly as popular as they used to be. "I like to think historical is going to come back," says Greene of the Naperville Borders. "But now we're in a more contemporary frame of mind." Baker of Waldenbooks says, "Historicals are taking a hard hit right now, and a lot of the big historical writers—Iris Johansen, Karen Robards—are writing contemporary suspense. Plus, it's all Regency, and that's become monotonous. We need to see a good gothic trend come back in."
What's Old Is New Again
Romance readers are game to try new subcategories, but they're not as quick to cotton to new authors. "Old established authors seem to be the ones that sell, and I know that and I get lots of copies," says Greene. "A lot of people have been burned and they're reluctant to spend the money, which is kind of sad because I love to see new authors take off."
"Sometimes new authors do get squeezed out," admits Schreckengost of the Book Depot. "It depends on the type of book."
"Usually the first book is good, but the second book is lousy," says Steckiel, who cites Angela Knight—Jane's Warlord (Berkley, May), Master of the Night (Berkley, Oct.) and The Forever Kiss (Red Sage, July)—as an exception. "There's room for new authors if it's good reading material. Some books are really terrible."
Readers may steer clear of new authors for reasons other than reliability. Anderson of Books Connection says, "People are more leery of picking up books by new authors because they're not sure what they're going to be like. You pick up a new author and you don't know whether it's going to be clean or real raunchy."
Indeed, many booksellers report that longtime romance readers are turned off rather than on by the excessive sex in recent books. Steckiel of Beth Anne's Book Corner says, "They have a lot of sex in them, and some of them are hitting that pornography a bit. You have a market for that, but the average person isn't looking for it. You can have sex in your book. You can have details, but sometimes it goes overboard, and they lose readership that way."
Recent developments in Christian and inspirational romance help fill the void. Schreckengost of the Book Depot says, "Some customers have been saying that they don't appreciate the sex or the language, but then I steer them toward the religious fiction section because that has a lot of romance in it and is nice and clean. Harlequin has come out with a lot of it, and that's really taken care of that issue."
While many general booksellers leave the inspirational romance to Christian bookstores or gather them in a separate section, Baker of Waldenbooks says, "I sell people like Karen Kingsbury in my romance section. It's how you put it together. It's really thinking outside the box, cross-shelving."
"I remember thinking publishers were missing the boat on inspirational romances, and now they have branched out because it was doing so well," says Greene of the Naperville Borders.
But for other readers, the problem remains. Anderson of Books Connection says, "We have a lot of older readers who don't want too much sex. They want good, clean books, but they don't want the church issues."
Ironically, given the resistance to trying new authors, if customers have one recurring complaint, say booksellers, it's that the plots in romance titles are too repetitive. "They like unique stories. They get tired of the same old, same old," says Greene.
To make matters worse, sometimes when a plot is so familiar that a reader could swear she's already seen it, she's right. Greene continues, "One of my pet peeves is that they will republish or repackage a book, and it will have come out years ago in paperback. A lot of people love Nora Roberts and will read anything she publishes in hardcover, and the person buys the book thinking it's a new book." (One publisher has recently solved that problem: beginning with last month's Northern Lights, new Nora Roberts titles from Berkley bear a small logo—a circle with the initials NR inside—on their covers to indicate that they are new releases and to distinguish them from reissues.)
"Publishers republish a book and they change the cover and don't tell you they wrote it 20 years ago," agrees Buck of Vintage Books.
And while both television and in-person reading groups and book clubs have had an enormous impact in terms of introducing new writers and making bestsellers out of classics, they don't have the impact in the romance category that they do on fiction at large. "Reading groups stick with more highbrow fiction," as Schreckengost of the Book Depot puts it.
At Tattered Cover, book club coordinator Ellie Hellis says, "There's a club on mysteries and one alternates between fiction and nonfiction, generally in paperback. The other groups seem to primarily do paperback fiction. I did have a customer call and ask about a book club to join. She mentioned her favorite writers and they weren't familiar to me. I looked them up and they were romance writers, and she asked, 'Do you think I could bend the club members to my will?' Other than that, we really have not had folks that have requested or inquired about romance book clubs."
However, Baker at Waldenbooks in Hurst, Tex., reports that she runs two "huge" romance reading groups, one that meets at the store and one that meets at a local library. And Wilson of the Last Chapter says of that store's monthly meetings, "I have a romance group, and I think women like to talk about romances, but it's different than book groups. Romance people usually have bought several books in a month."
Beauty Is Only Skin Deep
The bodice-ripper is dead, at least when it comes to book covers. Fresher today are covers depicting modern life, or hunky men who aren't caught in a clinch.
"We seem to be past the bodice-ripping stage finally, and the Fabio hair. It seems like the ones with the cartoony, artsy drawings are a little more attractive than the old pictures posing the person this way and that way," says Buck of Vintage Books. "I rarely see any of the bodice-rippers anymore," says Greene of Borders. "And if you have a really interesting male on the cover, it's going to sell."
"Anything hero-driven or suspense, and since 9/11 anything with firefighters," says Baker of Waldenbooks. "The cover has got to sell itself."
"I'm glad they got away from the clinch covers, and I like the way they've simplified the covers. If they're too cluttered, nobody looks at them," says Steckiel.
Tattered Cover's Hellmers says, "They're doing plainer covers, and I think that's probably a good thing. That way, there's less of a stigma attached. I just think it's a win-win for everyone to move away from the pictures that used to be on them and move toward your basic title, author and nice little graphic."
Schreckengost of the Book Depot says, "The usual one where you've got the guy and the girl, the old type of romance cover, tends not to sell anymore. They're looking for covers that are drawn, like for chick lit, or unusual ones. Diane Chamberlain's first, Courage Tree [Mira, 2002], had the most beautiful tree on the cover. Really pretty nature scenes get attention."
Chances are those covers are on mass market paperbacks. While publishers are offering more and more trade paperbacks and even hardcovers in the category, readers resist their higher prices. "Romance readers indicate that they prefer the mass market format for romance novels," says Grimshaw of Waldenbooks.
"Mass market will always be the favorite because the ladies can put it in their purse. Trade paperback is still the cost of two mass markets, and more for the buck is always going to win out," says Baker of Waldenbooks.
Greene of Borders refers to the increase in trade paperback titles as "a publisher thing" and notes that sales for such titles have generally been disappointing.
"This is an economically depressed area," says Schreckengost of the Book Depot. "It depends on the popularity of the author, but it is a little harder to sell those trades. If it's an unknown author, you're taking a bit of a chance."
"They don't want to pay for the trade," says Anderson of Books Connection. "It kills me when I go to buy a book and it's only out in trade. That's as bad as it being only out in hardcover."
"Pricewise, they want mass market," says Buck of Vintage books. "People are more willing than they were to get the trade paperback, but they still come out with a huge stack of mass markets." Hardcover is even further out of reach. "The romance readers I have are voracious," says Greene of the Naperville Borders. "If they're going to spend $20 on a hardcover, they could get four to five mass markets for the same amount. It's much more reasonable to assume they're going to buy a mass market."
Although an attractive cover and an economical price may draw in readers, booksellers think that this is one category where handselling is crucial. They rely on a steady stream of advance reader copies in order to remain up-to-date. "The publishing houses send out ARCs three months in advance, and I read a book a night," says Baker of Waldenbooks.
Indeed, shelf-talkers, bookmarks and other promotional gambits are all well and good, but as Wilson of the Last Chapter puts it, "The best thing for us is when we get advance copies." At the Borders in Naperville, Greene relies on ARCs in order to write reviews for the romance newsletter she offers.
Booksellers note, however, that big-name authors receive the lion's share of marketing support. Says Steckiel, "[Publishers] do a lot for the authors who are up there, like Nora [Roberts]. I'd like to see them push the midlist more. When they cut the midlist about five years ago, the publishing companies lost money. I would like to see more promotional materials or more ARCs done on those than I would the bigger names, because the bigger names are going to sell because of their position. That way a person like me may run across an author with a fairly good book, and I may order more of that book if I get a chance to read it before it comes out."