Saturday, June 23, 2007

Are the Big Boys Ruining Erotic Romance?

The continued success of erotic romance depends on expanding the reader base, enticing more mainstream romance readers to this genre. But are the big New York print publishers turning off readers who give erotic romance a try?

Remember the days when almost the only place to get quality erotic romance was online from e-publishers? Although print publishers like Red Sage (the Secrets anthologies started in 1995) and Black Lace had been around for a while, they weren’t in the forefront of most romance readers’ recognition. Ellora’s Cave basically launched the erotic romance trend in 2000 after author/founder Jaid Black was told by NY publishers that women would not want to read her sexually explicit romances. EC became (and still is) the big fish in this pond. Other e-pubs and small presses jumped into the water and found it a good place to be. Sales went up and up – clearly, women DID want to read ErRom. Then a couple of years ago, EC went into print and hit the Borders bookshelves in a big way. That’s when NY print publishers really began to notice that this could be a lucrative market segment, and now all the big boys have joined the party. Kensington Aphrodisia, Harlequin Spice, Avon Red, Berkley Heat. ErRom is THE booming genre in romance. But will it last, or how long until the boom goes bust, and what will determine whether the trend stays with us?

Now I get to give you my not-so-humble opinion. Join in and post your thoughts.

I’ve heard a lot of muttering that the ErRom market is getting swamped, flooded, overcrowded—whatever you want to call it. In other words, too many books coming out. For some reason, people think that will overwhelm readers, drive them away from the genre. I don’t get it. Why would having lots of choices make readers less likely to buy books in the genre? Yes, it means more competition amongst authors/books, possibly lowering the sales figures on each individual book. After all, if a reader buys, say, six ErRom books each a month, and there are only six new ones released – well, you know yours will be bought. BUT if there are twelve new titles to choose from, your book may only get picked up by half the people. HOWEVER, the overall number of ErRom books purchased didn’t go down.

In fact, I believe having more titles available could increase the popularity of the genre. Readers will have different types and subgenres and author writing styles to select from, are more likely to find things they really like, and therefore will keep reading the genre.

But I think there are two factors that COULD seriously damage the ability of ErRom to spread to a much bigger segment of the mainstream romance readers. And both are being caused by the frantic efforts of the big NY publishers to get in on this trend and milk as much out of it as quickly as possible, even if they end up killing it off. After all, there will always be another trend for them to chase…

(1) Blurring the line between erotic romance and erotica.
The epubs stressed the difference between the two. If something was labeled “erotic romance”, it was a ROMANCE--focus on the relationship between hero and heroine, ending with that emotionally satisfying committed HEA (to paraphrase the RWA definition). ErRom added explicit sex as part of the development of the relationship and the plot. “Erotica” can be fun and sexy and even have romance – but the focus is on the sexual relationship, not the emotional one, and the hero and heroine are not necessarily monogamous and may not be committed to each other at the end of the story. Some readers like both genres, some prefer one or the other only.

The NY boys are trying to have it both ways. Their advertising and labels on the books can’t be trusted to correctly identify ErRom versus erotica. Maybe they don’t understand the distinction. A lot of authors say it’s hard to figure out what these publishers want to see submitted, because the publishers don’t know themselves. They’re still trying to figure out what sells best. Maybe these publishers don’t WANT to let romance readers know that some of those stories are erotica, not romance – because that could lower sales. So this leads to confusion, dissatisfaction, and disillusionment amongst readers new to the genre, those trying it out to see if they like it. If you want to read a romance, you’re going to be disappointed if that “erotic romance” you bought isn’t “romantic”. You may conclude the whole genre is lacking, and you won’t waste your money buying any more books.

Failing to clearly define and appropriately identify erotic romance versus erotica is turning off the mainstream romance readers who are new to trying this genre.

(2) Putting out poor quality stories in the rush to cash in on this trend as quickly as possible.
With all the NY pubs in the act now, “resources” are stretched thin to fill all those releases. In this case, the resources are authors who can produce great ErRom stories. First the big boys raided the epublishers for experienced authors already proven to be fan favorites. (Several EC authors told me the story of how it sure looked like editors at Avon Red took the list of authors off the EC website and alphabetically started contacting almost all, soliciting submissions.)

Now publishers are “running out of resources”. There’s been much speculation that editors at some of the NY pub erotic romance lines are lowering standards, desperately accepting books, sliding them through the editing process, and generally putting out a lot of not-so-good stories—just because they need books to release. What is one to think when a brand new, never-published author brags online that she just got a three-book contract from a major NY ErRom publisher based on a couple of pages of synopsis and the first few chapters of one unfinished book? What drove that editor to accept this, since she can’t tell if the author is even capable of completing a full book, let alone by deadline, and whether the author can sustain the quality throughout, not just is those first couple polished-over-and-over chapters? Well, the editor likely accepted it because, yes, she loved the story concept; but also because she’s under pressure to get lots of ErRom out there while the market is hot, and is competing against all the other ErRom lines trying to find authors. So the editor may not have the time to ask to see a full manuscript like one normally would. I’ve read the advance promo for this book and series, it sounds very intriguing. But will the writing and stories measure up, given the author’s inexperience and the pressure the editor may be under to get anything that can be labeled ErROm, no matter how poorly written or edited, out onto the bookshelves?

I hear constant comments from readers and from other authors that there are some books they really enjoy in the NY ErRom lines, but find far too many amateurish, poorly written, poorly edited. Giving new authors their shot is a great thing, but does require extra time and effort from the editor/publisher to work with the author on the first books. And that doesn’t seem to be happening in the rush to put out ErRom while the trend is still hot.

A mainstream romance reader just trying out erotic romance is unfortunately likely to start with one of these not-so-great books, and be turned off the genre as a whole.

Conclusion: I firmly believe erotic romance as a genre is a permanent part of the landscape. Like trends in past, its popularity will blaze for a while, then cool down. But the best writers and publishers will continue, and in fact will likely do even better once the fad-following publishers eventually move on to something else. IF those big boys don't irreparably damage the genre's reputation and marketability with mainstream romance readers.


Jaynie R said...

Great post. I agree NY is doing both #1 and #2 and it really annoys me - especially #1 *sigh*

Raelene G. said...

I have to agree on most of this. I'm really bugged by erotica being labeled as erotic romance. Nothing wrong with erotica - great to read, IF you know you're reading for the sex, not the romance. But if I buy something labeled erotic romance, I want ROMANCE.

And even erotica still needs a good plot and excellent characterization, not just sex scenes. Otherwise isn't it just, umm, porn?

Anonymous said...

I prefer erotic romance and have avoided the big publishing houses and their books since it isn't always clear that the two go together in their books.