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Monday, March 21, 2005

The State of Romance

There's a discussion concerning romance heroines on Romancing the Blog that I read last night. I discovered I don't have an opinion on that particular topic, which amazed me, but I was able to see and agree with both sides. Plus, reading is so subjective. One person's TSTL is another person's brave heroine, which is a totally different topic. :-)

The thread I found most interesting was kind of a side note, an argument thrown into the mix and largely not pursued. The state of romance.

Romance sales are down--that's fact--it's the whys that are open to debate. As someone who's been reading romance since junior high, I have a definite opinion about this. :-) And I'm going to try to lay it out in less than 10 minutes because I have to get ready for work.

There was a time, maybe 10-13 years ago, where romance was thriving. There was a board on the old Prodigy Classic that was only about romance READING. (At that time there was a separate board for writing. Later, the two boards would combine into one, all-purpose romance board.) It would take hours to read through all the notes. I had more fab authors recommended to me there and this is where my TBR (To Be Read) pile shot up from about a dozen titles to over a thousand.

The readers on the boards couldn't wait each month for the next month's books to arrive in bookstores. We all raced to the bookstores on the release date and grabbed the books the minute they hit the shelves. Sometimes before they hit the shelves. I'm not the only one who found herself unpacking books when she didn't work for the bookstore, but hey, we HAD to have those books right away!

Back then (1992, 1993, 1994), I probably averaged 30 books a month, half of them Harlequin/Silhouette category romances and there were readers who bought more books than I did. My book list for this month? Two titles. That's it.

So what happened? What changed between then and now? This is my opinion as a reader. I have no inside knowledge, no facts other than my own perceptions and what I've heard other readers say.

Back then, there were a huge range of books available that covered every topic you could think of. Writers were pushing the envelope, testing their wings, and while not everything worked, it was exciting as a reader to be part of this. Even category romance was edgy. This is when Debra Dixon wrote Bad to the Bone for Bantam Loveswept and I consider this book one of the best series romances ever written. And talk about edgy, the heroine was a retired assassin! That's right, long before Bombshell was ever conceived, writers had kick ass heroines. (BTW, if you can find a copy of this book, read it. It holds up even after 10 years.)

This was also a time when category romance was filled with strong voices--Jayne Ann Krentz, Nora Roberts, Linda Howard, Rachel Lee, Alicia Scott, Sandra Brown. Every month seemed more exciting than the month before and it just kept coming and coming.

It started slowly, insidiously. The trends. It hit category romance first and it certainly didn't help when Loveswept closed up shop. Everything seemed to have a cowboy, a doctor, a pregnant heroine, a baby. We voiced our dissatisfaction with the hope that next month would be better, but it was more of the same. The strong voices left, but aside from a few notable exceptions, there weren't any new voices stepping into fill the openings. There was a blandness to the new voices in category romance. Nothing about them stood out or was memorable to read.

But at least there was still single title. For a while.

Then the same homogeneity started to spread there. The boom in paranormal and futuristic died. No publisher was touching either subgenre with a twenty foot pole. (To be fair, some really poorly written futuristics killed that spurt before it had a chance to really grow.) All the historicals seemed to be Regency set. All the contemporaries seemed to have the same heroine, the same hero and they didn't do anything interesting.

So readers stopped buying all the romances they once bought. The publishers weren't giving them anything new. No one was pushing the envelope. Blah, blah, bland.

I went from buying 15 category romances a month to buying none. I used to try new authors if their story sounded interesting--I no longer trust the judgment of the editors for H/S. If a new author doesn't have half a dozen readers swearing the book is good, I don't buy it.

I went from buying 15 single title romances to buying a few each month. This month I have 2 books on my TBB List (To Be Bought) Both of them are "New Reality." I don't read historical romances at all anymore, but to be fair, I grew bored with them before they became so much the same.

So many of my favorite authors have dropped off my must-buy list. Too much suspense, not enough time spent on the relationship. I don't read Sandra Brown at all any longer. She doesn't write what I want to read. I want more Slow Heat In Heaven, not more Fat Tuesday. It seems like whenever any romance writer goes to hardcover, it's just a matter of time before we lose too much romance and only get the suspense or women's fiction elements. Again, there was a long stretch with very few strong, new voices coming up.

So to sum up--and I'm running late--the problem isn't romance or its readers. The problem is that publishers played it too safe for too long--and many still are. They bored the reader into other genres. What do I think will bring romance readers back to romance? My suggestion is for the publishers.

PUSH THE ENVELOPE! Let your writers free to come up with something new. Don't be afraid of strong voices. Take chances! Sure, some of those risks aren't going to work, but when they do... Ah, when they do, there is a vibrant and healthy romance genre. It was true in the early to mid-90's and it can be true again.

Give the readers choice. Lots and lots of choice. The problem isn't that readers are tired of romance, the problem is that readers are tired of the SAME OLD romance. Chick Lit and Hen Lit and Chick Lit with Guns are nice additions, but they're not the answer. Freedom. Choices. Variety. Risks. Strong writers with strong voices. Those are the answers. I speak from experience. I'm the reader you lost. I'm the reader you want back. I'm waiting.

MN Weather Report: 28 degrees. Wind Chill: 16 degrees.