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Where category lines are shelved

yhlee writes:

I have an unrelated question based on this comment of dark_geisha's on Harlequin. She said: 'With regards to the Bombshell line, the editor started a thread about marketing it. I'd brought up the point that if they want to attract a more mainstream audience, they needed to pull the books out of the category romance aisle in the bookstore …' and I asked, 'I'm under the impression that they could do several titles if not more a month -- couldn't they pull out one or two a month for a year or something and see what happens? Or does it not work like this?

-- any insights for us? I haven't a clue as to whether that's a feasible sort of marketing experiment, and dark_geisha doesn't know, either.

This one comes with a disclaimer. I am not a romance novelist, and I don't know a lot of romance novelists; I do know a few who have been kind enough to explain things when I have a particular question about the differences in publishing cultures. So some of this is my observation, some my experience, and some my interpretation of other experiences -- and the latter is bound to have holes, which are All Mine.

I started working in a bookstore in Canada in the time of the dinosaurs. It was part of a chain called Classics that, among other things, offered yearly indexed-to-inflation pay raises (i.e. inflation plus a small percent for merit) and thought managers of individual stores were important. Which is probably why it's gone now. Harlequin existed at that time. But you wouldn't know it by the bookstores; I think two of the several stores I worked at (part-timers often worked at several stores in the summer as fill-ins) had eight pockets devoted to their then 2 lines. Harlequin made most of its money by subscription, and most of the Harlequin titles carried in those stores were stripped; I think they offered them to stores because it was a way of getting readers who would then subscribe.

There was a stigma attached to romance novels. No one would argue that they sold when they were published by regular houses -- but they had those garish covers that are often called bodice-rippers. There were exceptions, even then -- when romance novels, like any other genre that sold well, were given Bestseller covers, which are generally a lot of type and either no art or a small graphic. But they were considered at best guilty pleasures -- in the sense that one should feel guilty for finding pleasure in them, and not in the sense it's used now. So.

Many genre writers -- well, my genre -- have struggled long and hard with the attitudes of non SF/F readers, reviewers, critics. There's been constant complaint that the genre is not taken seriously; that it's looked down upon, etc. While this may be true, we have nothing on the Romance writers in terms of suffering. And Romance writers waged a long battle to get covers that weren't embarrassing to be seen with. They waged battles against the commonly held truth that "no one will buy a romance in hardcover", and by slow degrees, romance novels became more common in bookstores, and of course, they sold there.

At the same time, the category lines -- and category is a term that refers to a particular line: Harlequin Romances, Harlequin Presents, Desire, ummm, etc -- expanded in number. Other companies did attempt to start their own category lines -- the Silhouette line wasn't started by Harlequin, although eventually they did own it. The rules and contracts that govern category novels are different from those that govern single titles; there are distinct rules about length, subject, the marital status of the protagonists, the amount of on-page sex, etc., for each line; each line has a mini-bible that has to be followed. Norah Roberts started out writing category novels, as did Janet Dailey and a number of other well known writers (I think Jennie Cruise did as well). Their novels actually sold better in the category lines than novels by lesser known or lesser loved writers who were in theory writing to the same formula, although there was some initial attempt to preserve the myth that all of the category books sold because of the category line and not the individual author.

Some of those authors eventually migrated to regular publishing houses. I'll skip a bunch of stuff here (the forced use of pseudonyms that could only be used for Harlequin titles, which has gone the way of the dinosaur, among others), and just say that Romance came of age in North American bookstores. Hardcover Romances did sell. And do. Quieter covers did sell, and do. And Romances? They outsell other fiction genres by, oh, lots. Yes, this isn't scientific. The figures I get from different sources vary, but it's never less than 50% -- as in, romance accounts for at least half of all novels sold.

Harlequin has slowly been losing ground; it's still right up there in terms of profits, but there's been a bit of a shake-up in the category lines, and also an attempt to gain ground in regular publishing folds by the introduction of what they refer to as Single Title imprints: Mira, Red Dress Ink, and Luna. While many of the categories still do well in translation, they don't do as well in the home market. Why?

Imho, it's because Romance has become more acceptable. Because readers can find it and buy it and not be subject to disdain while doing so. The need to subscribe to category lines is less pressing than it once was because of this; there's just more choice. Publishers make money because romance novels are generally shorter and romance readers read a lot. The scale of numbers is just different. I remember talking to one romance writer, years ago, who had been dropped because her numbers weren't good enough -- but they were three times what would have been considered "good enough" at an SF/F house. I was shocked, at the time; I asked her why it was that all publishers didn't just drop everything else and publish romance. In terms of money.

Along with changes in the way romance is perceived and sold came changes in the way it's written -- because in the old days, the alpha male idiot & plucky, pure virgin pairing was the only way to go. Now? It's completely different. Women don't want to read about passive perfect women they don't identify with, and the roles of the male characters differs as well.

So. Harlequin has introduced and experimented with different things: new category lines (like Bombshell) and their Single Title lines.

This is the long-winded background for the answer to the question. I come in at the Luna stage of their development, because I've sold three novels to Luna. And although Luna is a line that's been touted as a Fantasy line, and one with BISAC codes that indicate it's a fantasy line, it's still shelved mostly in the romance sections of bookstores. Where the author is Misty Lackey, the books are more likely to be shelved with her regular fantasy titles -- but I've seen the Asaro and Zettel novels in the Romance sections of the big box stores here as well. Luna authors with a previous romance history are shelved there.

For a line like Bombshell, which is a category line (as I understand it -- if anyone corrects me, I'll accept that correction), it would be harder to get it shelved elsewhere. Even if it were sold as something mainstream, the likelihood that it would be shelved in a non-romance fiction section is vanishingly small. I think Harlequin publishes on order of 100+ titles a month, so it's not a question of the quantity of titles; that's not why they're shelved where they are. It's a question of the bookbuyer (not reader, but the person who orders the books from the sales rep)/bookstore perspective when choosing the section for which they're buying the books in the first place. And to most places, Harlequin=romance.

Given that the romance audience is large, and demonstrably buys books, the need -- on the part of the bookseller -- to change the way the books are shelved, is not going to be considered a big priority. And given that the feeling is that Harlequin readers will look for Harlequin titles in the romance section, overcoming the tendency to code them so that they're shelved there is an uphill battle. Given what's already been achieved in the last forty years, I wouldn't say it's impossible -- but it's not going to happen overnight, and the bombshell line is relatively new.

My Luna novels are fantasy novels, so I'm watching this with interest, as in, I'm not a disinterested party. More as it unfolds.


Nov. 7th, 2004 08:44 pm (UTC)
Luna novels get shelved in fantasy if they're not by a recognizable romance name. I gather this doesn't affect the numbers--they seem to be running consistently several times higher than the usual fantasy numbers, with a pretty nice sell-through for this day and age.

My own experience has been that if you're trying out an unknown name, the line carries it--people collect the set. Doesn't hurt to be the only Luna release of that month, either. You can't buy placement like that from the sf/f side unless you're super lucky and get to the top of the shrinking but still sizable heap.

It is a drop from romance numbers--but sf/f carries so much more prestige per square inch that Harlequin seems to be satisfied.
Nov. 7th, 2004 09:30 pm (UTC)
Luna novels get shelved in fantasy if they're not by a recognizable romance name. I gather this doesn't affect the numbers--they seem to be running consistently several times higher than the usual fantasy numbers, with a pretty nice sell-through for this day and age.

So far, this hasn't been my experience -- but I'm in Canada. If they're being shelved in the Fantasy sections in the US, I'm happy to hear it.

We have one book chain, and the orders are done entirely through head office; head office designates the section the book is to be shelved under, and the staff isn't to change that, even if it's inaccurate. So the Luna books have been shelved as romance novels here. In the last two months, this may have changed.

Lackey was the only Luna author shelved with the Fantasy (the SF section is also separate in the chains) when I last checked; the advantage -- or disadvantage -- in the way the books are coded by head office means that if it's in one section in one store, it will be in the same section in the others. Asaro, whose entire history has been SF, was shelved in the Romance section.

I don't know what the independents are doing with the Luna titles, though. I know we carry them, and obviously there's no separate fiction sections (we also shelve SF and Fantasy in one continuous section) because we're a specialty store. Or rather, SF, Fantasy and Horror novels and single author collections are shelved alphabetically by author's last name. Media tie-ins and Gaming tie-ins are shelved separately, as are YAs and anthologies.
Nov. 7th, 2004 09:51 pm (UTC)
Borders has been doing as I said--romance names in romance, fantasy names in fantasy, and so far mine (with a "debut" name) in fantasy.

Barnes and Noble ditto.

Review notice however seems to be heavily skewed toward romance. Misty did make the Booklist top 10--for romance. I'd have called her book fantasy, myself. But then I got a Romantic Times kudo for Mainstream, which I canNOT figure out. What is mainstream about magical horses in a fictionalized late Roman Empire?

I would say the market is confoozled. But it's also consistently producing good numbers, so wherever the books are, they're selling awfully well by fantasy standards. Perhaps because they're being distributed widely by fantasy standards? Luna's got triple the print run and half again the sell-through of comparable fantasy titles. Something's working somewhere, relatively speaking.
Nov. 7th, 2004 10:58 pm (UTC)
Luna novels get shelved in fantasy if they're not by a recognizable romance name.

Barnes & Noble, at least up here, has been putting all the Luna titles in fantasy. Borders has been splitting them by author name; Deborah Hale, Michele Hauf, and Susan Krinard have been in romance, while everybody else (at least that I can think of at this hour) has been in SF/F.

I found Susan's book in Waldenbooks under romance, but then, Waldenbooks and Borders are the same company, so no surprise there.