The revolution in romance novels

Anne Collins,Nicholas Jennings May 23 1983

The revolution in romance novels

Anne Collins,Nicholas Jennings May 23 1983

The revolution in romance novels


Anne Collins

Leah flipped over onto her other side and stared at the wood paneling. So many men!... She couldn Ï have Jakob in the afternoons and Bob in the evenings. So what was she doing in bed with Bob Locke now?—from the novel Dancing Season by Carla A. Neggers

Leah’s last name is Bradstreet. She is 28 years old. She runs her own successful restaurant in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is not a virgin—in fact, she is sleeping with nice old tempting home-town Bob as well as with Jakob, an exquisitely beautiful ballet star.

She is independent, hot-tempered, not entirely gorgeous and rather lustful. Such a character would not merit special attention in any context other than the one in which she appears: between the lavender-bordered covers of a new line of romance novels called Finding Mr. Right, introduced by Avon Books in February. Seven new romance lines will air their wares by the end of 1983, with two appearing this month alone. While the other new imprints may not have loosened their conventions as much as Finding Mr. Right, the stock features of old-fashioned romance—the innocent and virginal heroine, the rich, masterful hero and the chaste premarital kiss—are largely banished from their pages.

The influences on the new 1980s style of romance are many: changed attitudes toward sex; market research on the actual desires of romance readers; and an unprecedented flurry of competition among publishers for feminine hearts and, especially, dollars. The outcome is a publishing onslaught. In April the doyen of the field, Toronto-based Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., introduced its first series edited in the United States, called, appropriately, American Romance, to add to its three Britishand Canadian-edited lines. This month Harlequin’s major competition, Silhouette, is strutting sensuous new stuff with Intimate Moments. At the same time, the U.S. paperback giant Bantam is making its second attempt to crack the market with a well-researched entry called Loveswept. New American Library’s Rapture Romances

are already on the racks, along with Avon’s Finding Mr. Right. In August Dell will attempt to expand its market share by introducing a longer, meatier version of its successful Candlelight Ecstasy line, called Ecstasy Supreme. And in October Jove will publish a real first in the business with To Have and to Hold, a series of romances that start at the point where the happily ever afters leave off: marriage.

Romance fiction is hardly respectable in any literary sense but it has become

the fastest-growing segment of the huge paperback book business. Last year’s sales accounted for an astounding 40 per cent of all paperback books sold in North America. Only four years ago the market belonged to Harlequin, then calmly celebrating its 30th anniversary as the inventor of the brandname romance with 80 per cent of the existing market. At that time the huge publisher had no desire to change its long-successful formula of hard-core decency. But in 1980 Harlequin decided to take over its own distribution in the United States and it dropped its former associate, Pocket Books. Still, Pocket Books had by then accumulated so much expertise in selling romance that it was

able to launch Silhouette and quickly grab 30 per cent of the market.

By 1982 romance publishing resembled the frantic franchising schemes of the expanded National Hockey League—not enough trained editors or talented writers but lots of desire on the publishers’ part to cash in on an extremely lucrative proposition. According to the U.S. trade magazine Publishers Weekly, no fewer than 10 brands were vying for the romance readers’ attention, each with four to six releases a month. By the end of 1983 there will be a total of at least 17 imprints on the racks.

One hot and heavy theme has been the mother of innovation in the burgeoning romance business—sex. Readers and editors alike tend to refer to it more circuitously as steaminess, spiciness or sensuality. Whatever it is called, it is not hinted at between the lines anymore but described in full and lingering detail. A tip sheet for writers of the new Rapture line advises: “We don’t want to know that his touch aroused her, we want to know that the rough feel of his callused fingertips as he wonderingly explored the outline of her face with featherlike caresses set her trembling as no arrogant and inescapable embrace could have.”

Heightened sensuality was very much on romance expert Kathryn Falk’s mind when she compiled How to Write a Romance and Get It Published, the first “how to” anthology in the field, to be released next month. In it veteran editor Vivian Stephens of Harlequin’s American Romance recommends what amounts to a sensuality training course to get writers in the mood for love. Stephens advises long, perfumed baths, negligees of silk or satin and fresh-cut flowers by the typewriter. In the same book, author Donna Kimel Vitek quotes a long love scene on a moonlit beach from one of her 14 published novels and confesses that halfway through, “I interrupted the writing ... to seduce my husband.” Vitek writes in a satin nightie.

Dell’s Candlelight Ecstasy was the first line of books to meet the readers’ expressed desire for sexier, spicier books. Introduced in 1981, it inspired strong brand loyalty in readers. The series, says Vivien Lee Jennings, editor of

the weekly industry newsletter Boy Meets Girl, is still “the only romance line guaranteed to sell out in many bookstores on the same day the shipment is received.” The successful formula of Ecstasy was not based solely on sex, according to Jennings: “Fudge does have chocolate in it, but it’s not all chocolate. Ecstasys had sex in them, yes, but it’s how you cook it. There were elements of humor and suspense. The books were fresher and more contemporary than the standard Harlequins and the first Silhouettes. Ecstasy and then Jove’s first line, Second Chance at Love—which features older and more experienced heroines, sometimes divorced or widowed—really brought us into the 1980s.”

The chaste staples of the market are still the “sweet romances.” Jennings, who owns and operates six bookstores in her home town of Kansas City, analyses romance trends in her newsletter and devised and sold the new concept of married love stories to Jove. But she still rushes to open her mail-order package of Harlequin Romances each month. “They are tried-and-true standbys, the staple of romance,” says Jennings. “Comfort food—that’s what they are.” But, says Karen Solem, New Yorkbased editor in chief of Silhouette Books, “even the sweet romances now reflect realistic situations, what women and society have gone through, how we have changed and how the relationships between men and women have changed.”

The change has been startlingly swift, says Abra Taylor, a Canadian writer who published seven books with Harlequin before switching to Silhouette this year. Just five years ago, when she first began to read the books in order to figure out how to write them, the heroines were at least 10 years younger than the heroes and worked at such traditionally female jobs as nursing and teaching. “And the heroes,” says Taylor, “were all fabulously wealthy Greek shipping magnates. Now there is a little more realism. They do not have to be Greek gods.”

As well, more of the women have lives of their own. In Sweetheart Contract by Pat Wallace (one of Intimate Moments’ first releases), the heroine owns her own trucking company—and falls disastrously in love with the chief contract negotiator for the local truckers’ union. The ultimate twist on the old formula is that the man gives up his career in order to save the happy ending. Certainly a different romantic dream is at work: the hero has become a perfect male feminist whose gentle understanding is mixed with wild passion.

With longer, more realistic books becoming popular, the romance novel is moving steadily closer to mainstream

fiction. But it is a path that editors walk very carefully. “Our readers are not the women who watch soap operas,” says Solem. “They do not want anything depressing.” The heroine may be blind, infertile, a workaholic, on the verge of a mastectomy or over 45 but she has to have love and hope. “There has to be a happy ending,” says Jennings, “and reality has to have rose-colored edges.”

The market for romance books, because of the onslaught of major advertising by competing publishers and the changing nature of the books themselves, has expanded from an estimated 15 million readers in 1979 to 25 million readers in North America in 1982. The extent of that market growth is reflected in Harlequin’s sales. In 1979, when it had 80 per cent of the market, the publisher sold $110 million worth of romances; in 1982, with only a 58-percent share of the market, it nevertheless increased its revenue to $145 million. But only the most optimistic marketing managers in the business predict huge gains in the future. Book buyers and other “romance mavens” point to the increasingly discriminating tastes of romance consumers as proof that the market may be reaching its saturation point. Most readers cannot afford to buy everything now on the shelves and as a result they are beginning to buy by author as much as by the line.

Finding Mr. Right takes the genre to the farthest edge of an expanded market. It aims for the woman who reads Glamour and Cosmopolitan, as well as the regular romance reader. But it is meeting some resistance. “With the heroines sleeping with two men, Mr. Right walks a very thin line between what is promiscuous and what is being, I guess you would say, overcome,” says

Jennings, who test-marketed the product. “And that is a problem for the largest portion of romance readers.”

Alyson Drysdale would agree. The 31year-old Vancouver freelance filmmaker and mother of two has been reading romances for most of her life, starting with True Confessions magazine under the bedcovers and working through the Bronte sisters to today’s modern romances. She prefers the new romances because they deal “with real grit and are not simply made in heaven.” That grittiness, however, has its limits. “I like novels to have a lot of sexual innuendo,” says Drysdale, “but graphic details are not as important. The heroine does not have to be professional or glamorous as long as she is a strong, self-motivated sort who is goodlooking and there is one man in her life whom she is looking for and finds.” Indeed, sex may be depicted realistically, but the two absolutes of the romance reader that remain are her optimism and her traditional values. To Have and to Hold, for one, will deal with all marital problems except the most painful one: adultery. Commitment, marriage and monogamy are crucial to the enjoyment of the reader, in some ways a fantasy more overpowering than any Cinderella story. The romance business, no matter how sensational its new 1980s trappings are, remains caught in the same touching time warp.

Nicholas Jennings