Sunday 17 December 2017

Love and romance is still the write stuff for so many readers

It may no longer be hearts and flowers, but romantic fiction is alive and well - and selling by the truckload

There's no escaping the fact that romance is a female-dominated genre, with 84pc of romantic fiction read by women in America, however publishers are looking to increase diversity
There's no escaping the fact that romance is a female-dominated genre, with 84pc of romantic fiction read by women in America, however publishers are looking to increase diversity

Alison Walsh

Romance, like so many things these days, is changing. With the buff splendour of the contestants on reality TV show Love Island the hit of the summer, it would seem that there's no longer a place for the genteel skirt-rustling of the past.

But has this change filtered down to the world of books, and if so, is romantic fiction a thing of the past?

Well, yes and no. Nicola Cornick is Chair of the Romantic Novelists' Association, a trade union of sorts for the popular writing community. So long a beacon to ladies who lunch, the RNA is now changing.

"People outside the romance community are getting the message that romance is a really broad area. Really it's any story that has strong romantic elements. Life changes and relationships change, and the best books have something profound to say about relationships. Modern relationships are reflected in the kind of books that come through."

Cornick is referring to the RONAs, the annual awards granted by the RNA, whose 1971 winner was Mills & Boon's Flower of Silence by Joanne Marshall, but which now includes categories for paranormal romances, romantic comedy and YA.

Indeed, YA author Sophia Bennett's first-crush novel, Love Song, won the overall prize in this year's RONAs, the Goldsboro Books Romantic Novel of the Year.

However, there's no escaping the fact that 'romance' still seems to be a female-dominated genre - a 'ghetto' for lady writers. Perhaps this reflects the simple reality that more romance readers are women: according to the Romance Writers of America, 84pc of readers of the genre are women, but according to Nicola Cornick, that's changing, too.

"We are looking to increase our diversity and inclusivity generally. In fact, I've been looking at the entries this year and we have more men than ever before being entered by their publishers - a sign again of the direction we're moving in. Books that we see as part of the romantic fiction genre include authors like David Nicholls, or the paranormal - like Matt Haig's How to Stop Time - I would consider that to be romantic fiction."

And they're not all heterosexual romances either. Cornick gleefully cites RONA award-winner Max Seventeen by Kate Johnson, which 'made some headlines because it had a bisexual heroine in a space opera - to see that this had won a RONA came as a shock to some!'

One RONA award-winner is Irish author Kate Kerrigan, who won the "historical romantic novel category for novels set in a period before 1960" - for her novel, It Was Only Ever You, set in 1950s Ireland and New York, and the new world of rock 'n' roll.

"I was delighted,'' she says. ''I've no problem with being described as a romantic novelist whatsoever." Kerrigan feels that the 'women only' tag is really more of a marketing tool.

"The publishing industry is weighted towards selling as many books as possible. If you're going to try and sell books, and women buy the vast majority of books, and that includes crime or DIY... so the marketing is weighted towards women."

However, the ladylike tone to proceedings might also have to do with the way romantic fiction is consumed, with readers very much in the driving seat.

Lyn Vernham is publisher of independent romance house Choc Lit, which uses a reader panel to 'mark' manuscripts for publication.

"Readers read all the manuscripts that we decide to take a look at and rate them, and nine times out of 10, if they've read them and they've passed them, we'll publish them," says Vernham.

"We've been desperately looking for a male writer since day one, but because of the process we go through, our books are actually chosen by readers. We have a tasting panel, which is predominantly female - 100 women and one man."

It's hardly surprising, then, that their selections, which include Jane Lovering's Please Don't Stop the Music, an RNA award-winner in 2012, will have a female bias - but feminist arguments aside, reader panels deciding on marketable books has led to a sea change in what gets published in a literary genre that's increasingly demand-led.

According to Cornick, herself an author of "dual time-period novels" for HarperCollins: "For so many years, you were thinking, I love these books and publishers were saying, there isn't a demand for them, but suddenly, largely because of the internet, and the fact that on social media people can make their preferences so clear and drive that [change] ... readers are having much more of an impact on what they want to see and that's brilliant."

More change is coming with the rise of the self-published author, and the RONA shortlist last year contained a sprinkling of self-published novels, including category winner Max Seventeen.

"There's been the rise of the self-published but also the hybrid author, who is traditionally published but who also self-publishes in a different element of the genre," says Cornick, "which is why we changed the rules to allow self-published authors to submit their work. We are constantly looking at the industry... it's very fast moving."

Moving fast seems to be the watchword here, with the e-reader the favoured reading device of romance addicts.

As Kate Kerrigan astutely notes: "The people who are reading romance are not like the people who are reading the Booker shortlist. They are voracious readers and they are getting through a volume of books."

Nothing wrong with that, but value is very much part of the romance equation and it's something that self-published authors can exploit, publishing a book digitally for a fraction of the cost of print books - ideal for a consumer who will want half dozen books at a time.

According to the Romance Writers of America, of the $1.08bn market for romance books in 2015, 61pc were published as e-books and bestselling authors like Debbie Macomber and Diane Chamberlain began life as e-book authors before making the transition into print.

However, according to Lyn Vernham, the reason why romance is so prominent on Kindle is only partly the attractive price - it's also because traditional outlets can be a bit... well, resistant to romance:

"Our independent sales team go out to the trade to sell our print books and they're forever coming back saying, 'Look, Lyn, we can't get the bookshops to take any notice, as soon as you say it's romance'."

She can understand conventional bookshops' reluctance. "They are literary folk who are passionate about books - they want to read literary fiction, so they're not passionate about our product and don't want to put it in their stores. But bookshops shouldn't be closing the door, because if it's working online, surely they should want part of that market."

She cites the predominantly professional make-up of her reading panel as evidence for the fact that "romance" is a broad - and marketable - church.

However, after all of this talk of e-books and digital formats, look at any top 10 of the best romantic novels, and in the No.1 position is inevitably... Jane Austen.

In our world full of Instagram-ready babes, it seems that old-fashioned love wins the day.

As Kate Kerrigan says: "If you're writing about humanity, you're writing about love - and if you're writing about love, you're writing about romance. There's nothing else worth writing about."

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