Why romance novelists are the rock stars of the literary world

Romance writing isn’t just a billion-dollar industry. It’s also the nicest meritocracy around.

Joseph Friedman/Blueberry Hill Productions

Joseph Friedman/Blueberry Hill Productions

When American filmmaker Laurie Kahn set out to make Love Between the Covers, a documentary about the women who read and write romance novels, she was struck by how often she heard the same story. It wasn’t a tale of beefy bodice rippers or love at first sight; it was a story about snobs. “I can’t tell you how many people I interviewed,” says Kahn, “who told me that people will walk up to them on a beach and say, ‘Why do you read that trash?’ ” Apparently, where lovers of romance novels go, contempt follows. Sometimes it’s subtle contempt—a raised eyebrow from a colleague, or a snarky comment from a friend (usually the kind of person who claims to read Harper’s on a beach vacation). Other times it’s more overt, even potentially damaging. When Mary Bly (pen name Eloisa James), an academic and New York Times bestselling author, began writing romance, she was advised to keep her fiction writing secret or risk not making tenure at the university where she worked.

For some reason, argues Kahn, perhaps because its subjects are female, romance novels are perceived as fundamentally silly, when other popular “genre fiction”—namely, fiction by and for men—is not. “Nobody,” she says, would walk up to “a man reading Stephen King, or a mystery or sci-fi novel” and scoff. And she’s right: Stephen King may write circles around romance novelist Nora Roberts, but mystery-thriller buffs James Patterson and Dean Koontz most certainly do not. Yet Roberts is the butt of jokes—a universal default example of “bad writing,” while her equally schlocky male contemporaries get a free pass.

A filmmaker whose previous work includes the Emmy-winning documentary A Midwife’s Tale, and Tupperware!, a film about American women of the 1950s who made small fortunes throwing Tupperware parties, Kahn wanted to explore not only the double standard faced by romance authors, but the wild success and collaborative nature of the romance community itself. Love Between the Covers, which premieres at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival at the end of the month, explores life from the perspective of the genre’s giants and veterans—the Nora Robertses and Beverly Jenkinses of the field (the latter a pioneer of African-American romance writing)—and its millions of readers and aspiring writers, some of whom work full-time jobs, yet write more than a thousand words every evening. (When Lenora Barot, pen name Radclyffe, began writing what would become groundbreaking lesbian romance fiction in the ’90s, she was a full-time plastic surgeon.) “It’s these untold stories of women that really appeal to me,” says Kahn. “Here is this community that is huge. It’s a multi-billion-dollar business and the women in it are writing a huge range of romantic fiction and no one gives them the time of day.”

The amazing thing is that this historically derided genre is not only wildly successful (it regularly outsells both mystery and sci-fi; Romance Writers of America estimates the genre made $1.08 billion in sales in 2013) but also preternaturally friendly.

In an age where women are constantly encouraged to “lean in” at predominantly male workspaces, there exists this frequently ignored, yet massive and diverse, woman-steered industry where writers literally tutor their competition. As Bly says early on in Kahn’s film, the romance industry may be one of the last meritocracies left on the planet.

And it’s a very functional one. The annual Romance Writers of America conference, where thousands of authors offer detailed advice to newbie writers on everything from where to pitch to how to find an agent, is unique in a publishing world in which authors are typically discouraged from discussing their contracts openly. Kahn attributes this friendly, inclusive atmosphere, in part, to the recent popularity and acceptance of self-publishing (formerly known as “vanity publishing”).

A common criticism expressed about major romance publisher Harlequin (which declined to comment for this story) is that it promotes the “line”—the type of romance novel, be it “historical” or “intrigue” or other—over the author. Apparently this has been an issue for a long time. “Because of this practice, romance authors have to hustle their own books and find their own markets,”writes Leslie W. Rabine in her 1985 essay, “Romance in the Age of Electronics: Harlequin Enterprises.” They can also have a difficult time getting royalties from publishers, they report, with waits of up to two years, Rabine adds. Today, many romance authors have turned that liability into a strength. If they’re going to do the hustle on their own, many writers figure, why not reap the bulk of the financial reward? Ironically, the entity that’s allowed them to do this is the biggest publishing behemoth of them all—Amazon. Kahn says that, in the three to four years in which she worked on the film, “There’s been a revolution in publishing, and it has upended everything. It used to be that the power was completely in the hands of the publishers, and authors were like hitchhikers waiting by the side of the road, hoping some agent would pick them up,” Kahn says. “When I was shooting, Amazon started Kindle Direct Publishing. That radically changed the picture.”

Shelley Bates (pen names include Shelley Adina and Adina Senft), who writes steampunk and Amish romance fiction, was once one of those metaphorical hitchhikers waiting for an agent to pick up her new book series, Magnificent Devices, set, according to her website, “in an [alternative] Victorian age where steam-powered devices are capable of sending the adventurous to another city, another continent, or even another world.” Bates grew up on Vancouver Island, and today lives near San Francisco with her husband, where, in addition to writing fiction, she rescues chickens (some of them abandoned, others coming to her from people moving out of the area who “can’t take their birds with them”). She shopped her series around to 10 different publishers in 2010, all of which rejected her. She says the editorial department at a major U.K. publisher was really interested at one point, but eventually turned Magnificent Devices down because it wasn’t sure how to market steampunk.

Photograph by Erik Putz

Photograph by Erik Putz

“I put it out myself [on Amazon] in 2011,” says Bates, “and, eight books later, it’s going up like gangbusters. That’s what paid for the house.” Bates, who hired a graphic designer for the cover and marketed the book herself, says she made “six figures” in 2013, and again in 2014, success she attributes to self-publishing and the collaborative nature of her business model. “Suddenly I realized I could go directly to my readers. I bounced things off them on my blog,” she says. “It’s not writing by committee, but my readers are so invested. I’ll give them two cover options [for a book] and they’ll come back and tell me and that will be the cover.”

Romance writers may get little respect from the literary world, but they are, without a doubt, its rock stars. “We don’t really care what the establishment thinks, because we’re paying off our houses,” says Bates. “Readers vote with their wallets. I think the big-publisher business models will have to become more author-friendly if they want to retain their authors.”

Or perhaps they’ll have to embrace diversity. The notion that steampunk, for example, wouldn’t sell, or would be too difficult to market, is a sensibility at odds with other forms of popular entertainment—from television to Hollywood movies—where many producers have realized that diverse ideas and new voices do well in the mainstream. Because publishers sell books to retailers, as opposed to readers themselves, they have an often confused perception of what readers want and who reads what. This is a frustration Barot, who also publishes LGBT books, knows well. She says she’s seen some of her own books placed in the “cultural studies” section of major bookstores—the likely assumption on the part of retailers being that LGBT romance is too niche for general fiction. In other words, if you’re a run-of-the-mill heterosexual romance novel, you’re the subject of cheap ridicule, and if you’re an LGBT romance novel, you’re perceived as irrelevant outside the realm of esoteric academic study.

In the end, the most common assumption about romance novels, buoyed by the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, is that they are anti-feminist. And though the so-called bodice rippers of the 1970s (in which men who look like Fabio ravish passive sweethearts) are still quite popular, the genre has also expanded rapidly in recent years to include fiction of the paranormal, gay, evangelical, steampunk, time travel and Gothic variety (and many more). Its female leads, in many contexts, have evolved with the times, rendering the notion that romance novels are full of oppressed, unthinking women, profoundly ignorant. Not only is the industry itself rife with female entrepreneurs; its heroines always get what they want. In fact, the only formula that rings true across all romance novels is the HEA: the Happily Ever After. It is unanimously believed to be the defining principle of the genre. “The women always win,” says Kahn. “And that doesn’t happen in most places.”


Why romance novelists are the rock stars of the literary world

  1. I do believe that romance novels/movies are the equivalent of porn for men.There is a self fantasy/idealization meant to fulfill unrealistic expectations of the other sex .
    As porn objectifies women as servants for the man,romance make the man an object of ego and self fulfillment for the woman.
    Clearly the body parts are hidden below the surface but the unrealistic fantasy makes the focus negative for the present relation.
    Better off communicating with respect and tenderness .
    Happiness is made through both’s efforts not through luck

    • Really? So, based on your response you really didn’t read this article (as you have responded in a way that the author is rallying against) and you REALLY have never read romance. It’s interesting when ignorant people assume to know everything for which they speak and then go about telling everyone about it.
      Let me guess, you have read romance, once when you were in college. Am I right? And now you base all your judgement on that one book for an entire billion dollar a year genre as if every romance author writes the same thing, the same way with the same characters. I think your words speak more about you then the genre you claim to be the equivalent of porn for men.

    • You believe romance novels are for women what porn is for men…hmmm, I believe you are wrong. Men who immerse themselves in porn don’t revitalize their marriages as a result. In fact, often the opposite occurs where they become obsessed and they lose all intimacy with their partners. On the other hand, it is well documented that 50 Shades of Grey sparked a return to intimacy for many middle-aged couples and it wasn’t the men who were the instigators. Perhaps you are unaware of the explosion of 50 Shades themed romantic getaways, etc. and the fact that hardware stores were selling out of rope and chains. Woman are using romance novels to rediscover themselves as sexually exciting individuals and they are sharing their confidence in themselves with their partners. What could possibly be wrong with that?

  2. Great article and I’m interested in seeing the documentary when it’s done!

    As a romance novelist, I’ve had the honor of readers telling me that my books changed their lives. One reader in particular shared that she had always thought the failures in her relationships were because she did something wrong or that something was wrong with her. She told me the relationship between my two main characters in my Bonded By Blood Vampire Chronicles helped her realize she was just with the wrong men. “For the first time in twelve years,” she said, “You’ve given me the courage to start dating again…and I met a really nice man because I wasn’t going to settle for second best anymore. I have better respect for myself now.”

    Needless to say, I was in tears, overjoyed that my novels helped her feel better about herself…which is exactly what I set out to do with my books: show women what a healthy relationship looks like and what it means to respect yourself. Yeah, my hero is a vampire…but the very heart of my character and the way he treats his true love and soul mate is modeled after my own husband and how my characters interact is very human indeed.

    And for many people who are still nay-sayers of the genre and equate it to “porn for women” haven’t read a good romance novel. Many people who actually dive in and read a few are ALWAYS surprised. I was one of them who called them bodice rippers and trashy books…until I read one. Now I write them.

  3. No. Self-publishing and Vanity Publishing are not the same thing.

    Vanity publishing is an industry which preys on new authors and bills them for the “privilege” of being published. An author undergoes no selection process, yet is told that they have been chosen from thousands of hopefuls, and for the one-time bargain price of $XXX they can hold a number of precious copies of their books in their very own hands. It’s a total swindle.

    Self-publishing may include the vanity press output, but the far greater portion of it is authors producing work, hiring editors and proofreaders as well as cover designers, assembling the best product that they can, and then putting it out there for readers to decide whether it succeeds or fails.

    The conflation of these two things helps contribute to the “all self-published material is dross” rhetoric which bounces around whenever people wish to add to the denigration of romance authors’ work.

  4. I’m a debut romance novelist and also a scientist. I had a hard time deciding if my novel should be scifi or romance. I went with romance because it’s a nice industry and as you pointed out, the female always wins. Also, I like to think there’s a passion shared between science and romance. Have you read about all the fighting over the scifi Hugo Awards? I’m glad to have made the decision to go with a happy genre where women support each other. And as someone who was once part of a Shakespeare festival, I can tell you that those happy endings are a lot more challenging than the sad ones.

  5. This doc sounds like it rehashes a very good one done recently by two talented Winnipeg filmmakers who incidentally did get an interview with Harlequin. It is based on the fact Harlequin started out in Winnipeg and is called “Born out of Love”. Maybe the author should have done a bit more research and found out the Winnipeg connection but this magazine tends to like to trash the City instead.

  6. I published my first romance novel in 1996 via subsidy publishing. It took me two years to find a ‘real’ publisher who wanted my second novel…and anything else I could write for them. THE turning point for a lot of romance writers has been e-publishing. You might not get an advance at most e-pubs but at least you don’t have to pay to have your book pubbed. That has helped many women get a foot in the door and a lot of them have gone on to traditional NY publishers.

    Just last week my 99th and 100th publisher-released novels came out. I pay my mortgage, utilities and taxes from the books I write. It is a career, a profession for me. It is one of my great joys in life. I have been lucky in that when I started writing for Ellora’s Cave…arguably the top of the line in erotic romance…I was our church’s parish secretary and admin assistant to our priest. This is a small midwestern town yet no one blinked an eye, rolled an eye or insulted me over what I did in my spare time. Indeed, I am one of the lucky ones. In the nearly 20 years since my first book was put into the hands of readers, I’ve never once been criticized for writing romance.

    I’m 66 years old and I still like a good old bodice ripper because that’s what I cut my teeth on in my mid-twenties. If it’s female porn, so be it. Everybody has to have a hobby. :)

  7. More drivel…I wonder what literary prowess
    you waste on this subject matter

  8. Romance novelists have been helping each other since long before indie publishing came along. My first book came out in 1992, and I was amazed at the information passed on to me by published authors before I sold my first book.

    And it doesn’t end there. We believe that my success doesn’t mean you will be less successful, and yours doesn’t take anything away from mine. I think that cooperative, supportive business model is one of the things that helped grow our genre to where it is today.

    As for the dismissive comments we receive, I think it’s that we live in a world where what women want, what we need, what’s important to us is routinely mocked and belittled.

    Not in the world of romance novels. Women fight for what they want instead of apologizing for it. They don’t let anyone belittled their dreams, and in the end, the woman wins.

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