Accounts coming out of the Romance Writers of America® National Conference last week point toward the sagging economy finally effecting what some considered a bulletproof sector of the publishing industry. Though there is no clear consensus, authors and bloggers have commented about their uncertainty as to the future of romance, where it’s going, how it’s evolving, how well it’s really doing.
Just fine, thank you, is the answer for those with contracts and sales. After all, it’s the one market that isn’t zinging off a cliff, and in today’s world, that’s saying something.
Those with doom and gloom on their minds, might spot certain signs of contraction in the market. An annual dinner scaled back to a cocktail party at the conference. New authors learning they need to prove themselves in two or three books, and if they don’t, being told a name change is indicated. Advances for print novels at New York publishers shrinking, and in one rumored case even falling below the $1000 RWA minimum per book.
Others see not disaster, exactly, but indicators of a certain crispy, overdoneness around the edges. Maybe too much paranormal romance out there. Erotica in decline. Editors and agents saying they’re looking for fresh material, something new from authors to sweep aside the sameness they bemoan continues to cross their desks.
Of course, editors and agents have been saying this for decades. If you went back through the archives of interviews and conference panel transcripts for, say, the past two millennia, could you find an agent or editor who wasn’t looking for something new, the next breakout book, author, subgenre?
Question: Can you tell me what you’re buying right now?
Agent/Editor: Oh, you know, same old, same old. Boy meets girl. Girl and boy have conflict. Conflict leads to crisis. Throw in some hot monkey love. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget the Happily-Ever-After.
I mean, come on. Even if that’s exactly what they wanted, needed, and were happy to buy, they’re not going to say it out loud. What I believe is often meant here is something new, but not too new. Certain elements are givens of the genre.
Romance readers want happy endings or else they’d all be buying Annie Proulx and watching creepy animations of a deceased Sylvia Plath reading poetry. Because they sell, publishers, editors, and agents all want HEAs, as well.
It’s the way we get to the happy ending, though, that matters. Contrary to what critics say, there is a deep level of craft involved in writing bestselling romance. If the voice isn’t distinctive enough, it’s tough to stand out. If an author doesn’t write from a place of conviction, it shows. If readers think an author has stepped over the line, they won’t hesitate to say so.
Überstar Christine Feehan’s latest novel, Hidden Currents, in which the heroine’s weeks-long torture and repeated rape is culminated in a brutal killing during forced oral sex, is a recent example. Some readers applauded Feehan’s bravery in tackling darker elements, while others left dozens of negative reviews about the book on a major bookseller’s website.
Such examples illustrate the difficulty inherent in not only finding new ground, a patch of untilled literary earth that isn’t already paved over by those who have gone before, but in trusting that ground’s stability beneath your feet.
A handful of new submarkets are showing promise. Stephenie Meyer of the Twilight phenom, has spawned a demi-category filled with vampires and other hunky ghoulies for teens. Even adult romance readers have co-opted the trend and are consuming books intended for readers half their age. Romance authors who’ve found themselves hooked on the novels of Charles de Lint and Emma Bull, are now working in Urban Fantasy, though it’s not always easy to separate UF romance from the vampire stuff. Another group would like Steampunk—the intersection of romance and the Victorian fascination with weird steam-driven contraptions that probably wouldn’t work in real life but are super cool anyway—to be the next Big Thing.
Vampires, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, I love them all and will happily write the same, but, yes, I’d like to see something else, surprisingly different, come along. I sometimes wonder if we, the secret, collective we, ever become bored with the product in the pipeline. We’ve seen it before, I imagine us thinking.
Which brings me back to agents and editors asking writers to please, puh-lease send them something new. Do I think they mean it, really mean it?
I do. And I believe the reason partly stems from a factor almost completely unrelated to the stories romance writers tell. In comparison to other media, publishing is a dinosaur. Depending on how it impacts your life at any given moment, it can feel like T-Rex on a tear or a plush, non-Barney dino you want hang onto for dear life. My point is that the digital age is presently dragging an industry, whose very roots are grounded in wood pulp, lurching into the 21st century whether it likes it or not.
If romance publishing can find a new, truly fresh literary thing, it doesn’t have to worry so much about the implications of digital. The success of the one could offset the potential risks of the other, especially if this new thing finds a unique way to help publishing embrace and profit from the future of the book.
Opinions in the industry vary…To some, eBooks are a drab little segment of the market that doesn’t merit much attention. To others, they’re a way to market, though not necessarily sell books. For romance writers who haven’t yet gotten past the guardians at the gate and into print, or who choose to ignore print all together, eBooks equal money, a way to make a living, though not, as yet, complete legitimacy as an author.
Questions with no answers are many…Will digital book reading catch hold and find the same popularity as music downloads? Will electronic publishing have a Napster on its hands? How can the eBook model work in a traditional publishing environment? Could some Big Name Author publisher herself just as well in eBooks and POD formats, without a publisher, and put me out of a job next Tuesday?
Meh…I don’t know. My crystal ball is on the fritz and though I’ve called tech support, all I’m getting is someone in Sri Lanka who speaks English with a thick Lithuanian accent and is reading me the manual in its original Chinese.
I’ll tell you this, though. It’s not going to be next Tuesday. We’ve got time to sort this thing out. Publishing, steeped in old school business models as it is, has shown itself to be a less than nimble player. It tries, but it’s a vehicle with a lousy turning radius. Heck, there are still agents out there who don’t accept electronic queries or manuscripts, and insist on submissions that require, quite unbelievably so, postage.
I don’t think we’re going to see winds of change blowing through here any time soon. More like a turgid breeze.