You can't mistake a romance novel, with its richly illustrated cover -- usually depicting a beautiful woman and a handsome man in some type of embrace -- and a title that promises passion inside the covers -- Dead on the Dance Floor… Dangerous Affair… Learning Curves… Eye of a Hunter… Kiss and Make Up. But there's more to romance novels than romance; they're a source of entertainment, comfort, even spiritual inspiration. And they're a big part of the global publishing industry, as was easy to see at the 25th annual Romance Writers of America conference last month.
Some 2000 mostly female readers and writers of romance novels met in Reno, Nevada, to learn the ins and outs of publishing, to meet and mingle, and to hone their craft in writing workshops.
While some took their chances on slot machines at the hotel casino where the conference was held, others spent their time focused on the more certain -- and
happy -- outcome of romance novels. . The genre does not garner as much respect as other forms of literature… in fact, critics call it pure escapism. But Jessica Jiji, a romance novelist -- and news writer for the United Nations -- asks, what's wrong with that? "Sometimes I think we feel like we have to grapple with the heavy philosophical subjects of our day, but it's OK to indulge yourself a little in some sort of escape. I work at the United Nations. I deal with a lot of body counts. I write about AIDS, refugees, wars. I mean the worst blights on the planet. When I got home I really didn't want to read an analysis of the genocide in Rwanda; I wanted to read Cosmo. I think it keeps me sane," she admits.
In addition to providing millions of readers with escape, the romance novel industry also provides more than $1 billion in annual sales worldwide. It comprises 1/3 of all popular fiction sold in the United States. Large distributors like Harlequin Enterprises sell more than 4 books per second and about ½ of those sales are international. Romance novels are published in more than two-dozen languages, from Afrikaans to Korean.
The global popularity doesn't surprise best-selling author Heather Graham, who says emotions translate easily. A romance novel is less about language and more about the universal passion of human relationships. "There is no finer emotion than love," she says. "And I mean obviously it goes beyond a husband and wife. I mean you have your love for your parents, your love for your children. But as human beings very few of us want to spend our lives alone. Most people really want to find a companion who is their soul mate. The person you share your triumphs with, the person who's there when you're desperate to cry on someone's shoulder when you need help."
But romance novelist Rachel Gibson says even literature about passion must be
tempered with reason and it's important to know what's selling. "I think that to be successful you have to write what you love, but I think you have to pay attention to the market and what readers want to read at the moment."
Publishers also pay attention to that. Pamela Jaffee, Director of Publicity for Avon and William Morrow Books, says trends in the market have prompted booksellers to create sub-categories of romance, such as books geared toward older women, and ones with a Christian emphasis in addition to a love story. But Mrs. Jaffee says novels designed to appeal to 20- and 30-somethings -- young women of the so-called generation X and Y -- make up the best selling sub-category. "The point of those stories wasn't perhaps your typical happily every after where you ride off into the sunset with the man of your dreams. The purpose was more about self-realization, self-actualization, which goes more toward the Gen-X and Gen-Y age-groups who are so independent and strong and don't need Mr. Right. They need Mr. Right-Now."
Whether it's a novel for the Gen-X audience or a more mature crowd, Harlequin Books Executive Editor Leslie Wainger says romance authors "have to believe in the fantasy because if you don't, you can't fake it." At their core, she says, romances are about emotion. "They're about people falling in love and the reader has to experience the feeling of falling in love and you really can't fake that in fiction any more than you can in life."
According to historical romance novelist Julia Quinn, that emotional intensity can forge a special relationship between readers and authors. She recalls a letter she received from a woman who was sharing Ms. Quinn's book with her ailing mother, before her mother passed away. "When she went to the hospital to collect her things she saw the book and she realized that her mother had never finished the book. And so she took the book to her mother's gravesite and read the rest of the book to her. It just made me sob. I couldn't believe that someone would do that to something I had created. I can't even explain to you right now how it made me feel." She smiles sadly. "It's really very touching."
The market for love is an ever-evolving one and is no longer limited to the printed page. Romance enthusiasts can now download audio books onto their computers and even some cell phones and listen to the stories. As the authors, would-be authors and publishers at the Romance Writers' Conference considered what's next for their industry, they agreed whatever it is, it will end happily ever after.