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Collecting and Selling Paperback Fiction

Romance 101
Part I

by Teresa Kopec

#61, 6 February 2006

Women with heaving bosoms, virile men with shirts ripped open, vows of undying love ... all of these images probably pass through your mind when you think about romance novels. Yet, for those of you who automatically sneer when passing the romance section at your local library sale, consider this: The modern romance novel can be directly traced to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Written in 1813, Austen's beloved book features many of the same elements that most modern romances do: a plucky, intelligent heroine; a misunderstood, handsome hero, and a variety of misunderstandings which keep the hero and heroine apart until they reach a happy ending in the last few pages. This and other classic romance novels such as Emily Brontė's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Brontė's Jane Eyre are widely taught in college English classes.

But let's be honest - most romances don't quite rise to this level. I won't try to argue that Janet Dailey is going to be taught in English 101 a hundred years from now. Nevertheless, romance novels constitute over fifty percent of paperback sales in America each year, and on any given day a hefty percentage of books at your local thrift store consist of romance novels. This two-part series will look at how to turn those paperbacks into easy cash. Today I'll look at the basic structure of the romance publishing industry and the types of books published. Next month, I'll focus on flashpoints and specifics to help you become a paperback profiteer!

All genre fiction has its basic formulas, and romance is no different. Two elements are necessary for every romance - a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and uplifting ending. The pleasure of genre fiction, whether it is mystery, westerns, or science fiction, is not in the formula. After all, romance readers know they will get a happy ending just as mystery readers know that the killer will be caught. The pleasure comes in finding out how the author plays with that formula and earns the ending.

Don't make the mistake of underestimating romance readers. Many have high standards. There are numerous web sites devoted to reviewing the latest romance releases, and reviews can be harsh. A common acronym used to describe a heroine is "TSTL" (translation: "too stupid to live.") Many sites sponsor "purple prose" contests mocking the worst writing the genre has to offer. These sites can be a good place to start researching books that hold potential resale value. Often they feature Top Ten lists of favorite books or wish lists of out of print books that the blogger would love to get her hands on. (And if she wants to get her hands on a copy, you can bet her readers do too!) Good web sites to check out include

The Romance Reader

Laurie Likes Books

Both have extensive links to related sites.

Currently, romances are published in two forms: category romances (also called series romances) and single title romances. Category romances are typically thinner books (250 pages or so) that have a number and/or date on the spine. They are published monthly and generally never reprinted.

Category romances are further divided among different lines. A line is a series of books with a distinct identity. The books in any given line share similar settings, time periods, levels of sensuality, or types of conflict. Publishers of category romances provide author's guidelines for each line to insure that readers know what to expect when picking up a particular book.

A growing trend in the last few years is to feature steamier and steamier sex scenes in category romances. Series with titles such as Blaze, Harlequin Temptation, and Silhouette Desire all reach somewhat advanced degrees of explicitness. The Blaze line, for example, often features light bondage, spanking, sex in public places, and oral sex (in graphic detail). I mention this because older, less explicit romances are sought after by certain eBay shoppers. Series can be easily identified by cover styles. The series line name will appear on the cover, and covers will be similar in style - i.e., all red spines or all white covers with a circle on the front. Cover art on series books often features the happy couple - or at least the hero or heroine.

Harlequin/Silhouette is presently the only major publisher of category romance, but Avalon and Avon are starting to push their own lines, which include Christian or inspirational romances - definitely not featuring bondage!

Single title romances are usually thicker, stand-alone novels that are not part of any particular line and average around 350 to 400 pages. Covers tend to be more abstract, featuring, for instance, an illustration of a flower or gate. Familiar bodice ripper style covers are harder to come by these days because most readers prefer something more discreet when reading in public. (No doubt there is a master's thesis in our future that will correlate tamer cover art with steamier contents!) Single title authors tend to be those who proved popular when writing series romance and have graduated to bigger and better things. And therein lies money making potential for the bookseller. I'll look at how to exploit that potential in my next column.

Although single title romances are not part of a line, popular authors often write books that are loosely connected to one another. For example, regency powerhouse writer Mary Balogh recently finished her Bedwyn series, in which each sibling in the aristocratic family finds the love of his or her life. All of the books could be read on their own, but recurring characters appear in all of them. And titles in these series tend to be similar - for example, Balogh's Slightly Wicked, Slightly Dangerous and Slightly Tempted. Similarly, Nora Roberts produced a series last year centering on three friends who owned a garden shop. Titles included Black Rose, Blue Dahlia, and Red Lily. Putting together book lots of related books is another way to profit from romance as a bookseller. I'll examine this process next month as well.

Publishers of single title romance novels include Kensington (under its Brava and Strapless imprints), Penguin-Putnam (Berkley, NAL, Jove, Onyx and Topaz imprints), Dorchester (Leisure and Love Spell imprints), Random House (Ballantine, Bantam, Dell, Del Rey and Ivy imprints) and Harper Collins (Avon imprint). Harlequin also publishes some single title romances under its HQN, Signature, Silhouette, and Mira imprints.

The recent boom in "chick lit" has blurred the lines between traditional romance and popular fiction. At its core, traditional romance focuses on couples and their relationships. Invariably, the story is told from the woman's point of view, and the man's motivations are often hidden from both her and the reader. (Is he using her for sex or is he in love? Is he a serial killer or just the victim of circumstantial evidence? Does he really come from the Middle Ages or does he just like dressing in doublets?) While Chick Lit heroines may eventually dump a boyfriend in favor of self-improvement, the traditional romance always brings the hero and heroine together at the end - and epilogues depicting them happily married with cute kids are common.

Crossing both category/series lines and single title books are sub-genres of romance. Important examples include:

Contemporary - set after the World Wars

Ethnic - romances featuring characters of different ethnicities

Historical - set before the World Wars

Inspirational - romances containing spiritual themes

Paranormal - romances featuring magic, science fiction elements

Regency - set in England in the early 1800's

Romantic suspense - romances featuring mystery and intrigue

Western - set in the 19th century American West

Time travel - featuring travel between two time periods, typically with the hero either coming forward in time or the heroine going backwards

Western - romances set in the American West, can be contemporary or historical

A working knowledge of these sub-genres is a necessity for putting together book lots on eBay. Most romance readers tend to like one sub-genre or another and are not interested in purchasing books that fall outside their area of interest. Fortunately, it is often easy enough to determine which sub-genre a given book falls in with a quick glance at the cover or from reading the plot summary on the back of the book.

Romance books are big business. Market research sponsored by Romance Writers of America (RWA) in 2005 showed that romance fiction accounted for $1.2 billion dollars in sales in 2004. Over 2,000 romance titles were published in 2004 alone. In 2004, 54% of ALL paperbacks sold in America were romance titles. Every week, the New York Times bestseller list features names like Jude Devereux, Fern Micheals, Nora Roberts, and Debbie MacComber.

A profile of the typical romance reader also may surprise you. According to the RWA's research, 42% of romance readers hold a bachelor's degree or higher. 40% of readers are between the ages of 35 and 54. What does that mean for you as a bookseller? Potential buyers have reasonable levels of internet savvy and lots of disposable income. Next month I'll look at how to tap into that potential.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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