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Where Romance Has the Advantage, Hands Down

Image - iStockphoto: AH 86
Image – iStockphoto: AH 86

A Minority-Run Industry

Nielsen staged its inaugural Romance Book Summit [1] yesterday (July 14) at the Romance Writers of America’s (RWA) conference in San Diego. We knew we’d see plenty of good statistical research and a lot of thoughtful, intelligent speakers.

Kristen McLean
Kristen McLean

The program’s lead, Nielsen’s director of new business development Kristen McLean [2], over the years has become an increasingly compelling industry analyst, focusing first mostly on YA and children’s literature and now looking with hard compassion at romance.

And we saw was a formidable show of willing self-examination, a group of publishers and authors working together constructively.

The tone was set by the author Caridad Piñeiro’s [3] keynote, which she called “Setting the Table: Why There’s Room for Everyone in the Ever-Evolving Romance Business.”

Based on an anecdote around the first Christmas meal for her Cuban-Italian marriage and family members, Piñeiro echoed what she’d said to Jane Friedman and me in a May interview for The Hot Sheet [4]:

“I am proud to be a member of one of the largest minority-run industries in the country.  At every level, from publisher to editor to agent, author, and reader, women dominate the romance book business.  Because of that, romance novels provide a wealth of opportunities for women at all levels and speak to women in very unique ways.”

And while she’s right on these points, Piñeiro was winding up into a look at how romance needs to “find a place at the table” for all its people. Since she spoke of women, here’s one instance of interest: sixteen percent of the romance readership, Nielsen’s research shows, is male. And most of that group identifies as heterosexual, not gay. How many of the writers of romance are male?—Nielsen’s figure is 3 percent.

Another intriguing data point McLean would bring out: Nielsen’s research shows that 55 percent of all romance readers asked said that it was more important that imprints and/or series reflect diverse backgrounds than that they reflect the readers’ specific ethnic backgrounds, and this finding seemed strongest in the younger spectrum, those aged 13 to 29. On the other hand, 41 percent of minority readers of romance said they preferred buying their books from imprints and/or series reflecting a diverse background, compared to 23 percent of white readers who said this.

Caridad Pineiro [3]
Caridad Piñeiro

As Piñeiro pointed out, romance is “ever-evolving” because sub-genres wax and wane in popularity. One example: a renewed uptake these days for western romance, as many writers at RWA can tell you, is cowboys. And what began to emerge as the day went on, was an understanding that the diversity of sub-genres in romance itself may point to its capability to lead the way in publishing’s industry-wide crisis of needed diversity.

My provocation for you today has two elements to it.

First, I suggest that romance may be the genre best ready to lead with deep, society-reflecting diversity ahead of other genres, for the very reason that its writers and readers are accustomed to exploring and accommodating variety. When Radclyffe, the influential lesbian author and publisher, told us that five years ago she could still get a note from a publisher saying that a same-sex story line is “not romance,” the room saw in sharp relief just how quickly romance is adapting to the world, adopting more range: Nielsen’s McLean told us that LGBT romance is among the fastest growing sub-sectors, it’s not your imagination.

Second, I’d suggest that romance’s position as a sometimes maligned minority field of genres—the fact that it’s seen by many as peopled by “feather headed” readers and writers of happy-ending, formulaic mass entertainment—may be a strength. It’s striking how supportive is the RWA context of us-against-the-world, despite romance’s vast reach. “We have to stick together” is a productive concept for this genre’s people.

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh [5]
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

‘Most Disdained’

Two summers ago, our Writer Unboxed colleague, Barbara O’Neal, a RITA winner, herself, wrote The Perplexing Problem of Romance [6]:

“Romance novels continue to be the most disdained of all genres. Often not just disdained or dismissed, but reviled with an unbridled hatred that oozes and splutters. Why is that? Serious question.

More power to O’Neal for calling the question. The perceptual problem remains seriously challenging for the genre and its writers.

At the conference, Piñeiro and her colleagues leveraged the experience of that energy, however, searching for how romance can “find a place at the table” for people who aren’t served by what Nielsen is tracking as heavily white and heterosexual, which mirrors the overwhelming truth about overall publishing today.

Recognizing early progress of romance in “opening doors to diverse women,” Piñeiro said, “We have to keep on moving forward in order to keep the romance industry thriving.”

One of the key premises of the Nielsen project is McLean’s recognition that no genre seems to have been more heavily impacted than romance by the digital dynamic. And to her credit, Piñeiro went on to question what digital means, both positive and otherwise: “For authors it means more opportunity, but also a lot more competition in a crowded digital landscape. It means trying to find a way to rise above the babble of voices screaming ‘Buy me, buy me, buy me.’ It also means spending more time on the business side of writing instead of what I think many authors want to do which is to write, write, write.”

Pricing in the digital era, she noted, has become a sharp double-edged sword:

“As authors we have to understand that our actions have impacted on publishing professionals in many ways. In our zeal to offer free books, 99-cents box sets, and other incentives in order to be noticed, we’ve changed how publishing professionals can effectively grow and nurture the authors that are essential to their existence. We’ve also impacted on how we earn our income and have created a situation where a work that takes months to create can be bought for less than a cup of coffee made in a few minutes…Those pricing strategies and others have had their effect on traditional publishers.”

On bookstores: “I find that I’m more and more dismayed as I walk through big box stores, department stores, and supermarkets and find less and less shelf space for books and far fewer romances. It’s even more upsetting to walk into certain chain, airport, and independent booksellers and find barely any romance. Not even bestselling authors.”

And when it comes to opportunities for diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, Piñeiro recalled having inadvertently become “a poster child for Latina romance.” Her first language is English. And if she was read in Spanish, the translation had been done by another writer. And yet: “I had Anglo readers ask if I was still writing those Spanish books. And I had Latina writers who thought I should only write books with Latinos.”

iStock_64214673_MEDIUM Kiefer Pix
Image – iStockphoto: Keifer Pix

Community and the Rest of the World

The us-against-the-world dynamic of romance isn’t without its pitfalls, of course. Criticism from outside can loom larger in the imagination than it really is in the world. And as Nielsen tracks the same gradual decline for overall fiction that traditionally published romance is seeing since 2013, it’s probably good not to let the “maligned minority” theme run away with the debate.

One of Thursday’s speakers lauded the importance of story, for example, using the word story as if it were a special penicillin that only romance writers can prescribe. But this is a world glutted with stories, they’re the token of the commercial realm, and this will impinge on romance, as on all literature, as entertainment competition intensifies.

Piñeiro said she sees hope in her more recent work with publishers. Grand Central and Sourcebooks, she said, “have given me the opportunity to share works with characters that have diverse social, ethnic, and racial backgrounds.” She called on Nielsen’s Romance Book Summit to ask the hard questions:

“Just how do we define diversity in romance novels and when does a novel go from one that has diverse characters to one that is multicultural? In my opinion, it’s an important distinction to make for various reasons. Much as we would not expect a publisher to sell a sexy, dark romantic suspense in a line specifically intended for romantic comedies, can we expect publishers to market multicultural works as mainstream fiction?”

Those willing to engage in these issues on Thursday came through the experience with  candidly shared observations. No one could sound the trumpet of victory: romance has yet to accomplish a lot of what its authors and writers want to see in terms of diversity, just as the rest of publishing does. There’s a long way to go. But there was a sense in the room that being authentically engaged was more important than making points for angle or another.

The romance writers and publishers programmed by McLean and her co-chair Kat Meyer [7]of BISG were on-message. As I told McLean after I moderated a panel of publishers, we were able to bring up issues of self-publishing with far less worry than usual about emotional distractions and turf skirmishes.

At Nielsen’s Romance Book Summit, anyone who might have arrived with a “poor us” nugget of complaint saw it transmuted into a nobler alloy of serious consideration: real exchange. It was a good day.

So what’s your sense of romance’s potential? Can its long reach into so many parts of society’s layers make it especially adept at framing the wider industry’s struggle with diversity issues? Or is it too firmly relegated to an idea of “lesser literature” by critics to speak to the broader context?

I’ve published an additional story from Nielsen’s Romance Book Summit at Publishing Perspectives, on a “publishers talk shop” panel I moderated at the event. That story is here. [8] —PA

About Porter Anderson [5]

@Porter_Anderson [9] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [10], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [11] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [12]