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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.

Comments

msagara
Nov. 8th, 2004 08:21 am (UTC)
Re: sales question
Wrt romance sales -- would you say some of that is due to "brand loyalty," or rather, author loyalty?

Not any more than any other author's sales are due to brand loyalty. Which is to say, at one point in its early history, Harlequin defended the sales as a product of brand loyalty -- and it can be argued that category novels had a basic number. But... as many category novelists kind of broke out and began to sell -better- than their category peers ... I would put it this way:

You get the first chance for free because you're category (if you are) and if the reader has subscribed at that time; you get the rest the same way anyone else does -- by writing a novel that appeals enough to its audience they're willing to go along for a second book. And they'll follow you at that point, the way anyone who appreciates or loves the work of any author in any genre does.