A good friend of mine proofs for a small firm that publishes category romances. Her social media commentary about it is hilarious (and most of it unprintable in a family blog like this one, though recently I learned the word throbbing, among others, is currently out of fashion in the romance novel biz).
It’s a time-honored, legitimate publishing endeavor, the writing of romances—and whether they are PG or sexy or hard-core, there’s a huge fan base of smart, savvy romance readers out there. Don’t believe me? Check out the Smart Bitches Trashy Books website, which has been doing a booming review business for ten years now.
If you’re a writer, then, this is a huge market you might want to tap, n’est-ce pas?
Oui. As Entertainment Weekly notes, “Romance novels were once the book world’s dirty little secret. No more. Thanks in part to e-readers and Fifty Shades of Grey, they’re now the hottest fiction genre going.” Even Jane Friedman, to whose blog I subscribe, wrote a piece about a highly successful self-published author, Bella Andre, and what other writers could learn from her path to success.
Who is this Bella Andre? I wondered. EW says,
In 2010 Bella Andre was dropped by Random House after her firefighter romance series failed to generate sales. She’d spent the previous seven years shuffling between publishers, and now it seemed that her career was over. … Some friends and romance readers encouraged the writer to self-publish. So in July 2010 she uploaded the fittingly titled Love Me—a sequel that her then publisher, Simon & Schuster, had never wanted to put out. She sent personal notes to every fan who’d ever contacted her during her career, urging them to seek out the new book on Amazon. “I probably made $8,000 that month, which was bigger than the advance of $5,000 I’d been offered by Plume, and I retained all the rights,” she says. Five months later she self-published another sequel, and within weeks she became the first self-published author to hit the top 25 on Barnes & Noble’s Nook best-seller list, selling 1,000 books a day.
I didn’t know that when I read Friedman’s piece, though. So I looked up this woman’s best-selling books. They must be good, I thought. And I bought one, in spite of the dreadful cover. (That should have been my first clue.)
It’s at this point I should remind you that romance isn’t generally my first choice, but I enjoy it as a part of my smorgasbord-style reading, particularly if the writing’s good. (You already know how I feel about bad writing—look here, for an example.) But the runaway success of books like the Twilight series or the Fifty Shades series shows that thousands (actually, millions, probably) of romance readers (it’s a broad category) don’t appear to care as much about good writing as I do. (And lest you think I’m a prude, I’m not conflating “trashy book” with “bad writing” here. I have no quarrel with trashy. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t be good writing. There’s no reason to disrespect readers by churning out swill and asking them to pay for it.)
Unfortunately, the Bella Andre title I read (and I quit about a third of the way in) was laughably awful (and I suspect they all are). Full of throbbing and clenching and tongues, and many of the things my friend in the romance business had mentioned are passé or just overused to the point of ridiculousness. And worse, other editorial mistakes: there’s nothing believable in the circumstances, including (but not limited to) the amount of sex that occurs between virtual strangers: at one point—again, in the first third of the book—the protagonists (and I’m using that term loosely) are (ahem) going at it in a commercial refrigerator that has glass bottles on the shelves—they rattle, fall, break. I don’t know a lot about the food industry, but I am pretty sure that plastic is the preferred method of storage these days. At one point the male protagonist puts on a condom (good!) twice in the same scene, about four paragraphs apart. (This is what we call a continuity error.) I could go on and on (I did make a list) but you get the idea. It’s sloppy, at best.
I quit reading when I became convinced that the author was just making it up as she went along and not bothering to even give it a second pass before she uploaded, such were the number of continuity issues and other ridiculousnesses. As Truman Capote once said about a much better author, “That’s not writing, it’s typing.”
My point here isn’t to belittle this author or the women who buy her books; that lots of romance readers may not care as much as I do about “good” writing (subjective as that is) is fine with me. Different strokes for different folks. But I’m already distressed about the amount of sheer and utter crap that gets “published,” and as it does, it becomes more difficult to distinguish what might actually be good from the 99.9 percent that isn’t worth anyone’s time or money. I’m further distressed that an industry thought leader like Jane Friedman appears to endorse this author (though I suspect she didn’t do a taste test, as I did). In effect, though, she’s legitimized a hack.
I have several friends who write for the romance market; some of them have traditional publishers, some are hybrids like Andre, and some are going straight to digital release. But none of them are hacks. None of them are typing out six “books” a year. They are writing; they are sweating the details. All of these authors work with editors to shape their manuscripts to standards they can be proud of.
Isn’t that the way we’re taught to work? To take pride in it? To do it to the best of our ability? That’s certainly how I was raised. But a book like Candy Store by Bella Andre makes me think she cares nothing for standards and only for the money. And no doubt she is laughing at me—and her readers—on her way to the bank.
There are some great romance writers out there practicing the craft. I challenge you to be one of them.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”