I’ve been out of town the past week, and came home to find many great comments on my recent blogposts.Â Â Some of the best blog topics came straight from my readers, and here’s one I thought deserved a blog unto itself.Â The reader asked: “Is there an advantage to writingÂ for a romance publisher like Harlequin?Â Is that a way to launch a career?”
I’m sure that reader noticedÂ (as has anyone else who’s paying attention) that aÂ large number of big-name writersÂ who appear regularly onÂ the New York Times bestseller list are former romance authors.Â Nora Roberts, Tami Hoag, Lisa Gardner, Jayne Ann Krentz, Sandra Brown … my gosh,Â the list could go on and on.Â These ladies (and I’m one of them) all started off writing category romance books.Â In case you don’t know what I mean by “category romance,” I’m referring to the paperback books that are released once a month from such publishers as Harlequin, Silhouette, or Bantam.Â All the books in a particular line (for example,Â Harlequin Intrigue, which is the line I once wrote for) have similar covers and are on the stands for only that month, then they get replaced by the next month’s offerings.Â In the way they’re marketed and sold, they’re similar to monthly magazines.Â But yes, they really are books.Â And yes, many a now-famous novelist was once a romance author.
But it doesn’t mean that category romance is a good place for a novelist to “break in.”Â First, “breaking in”, whatever the genre,Â isn’t as easy as you’d think.Â I once heard a Harlequin editor say thatÂ in a single year, her office receivedÂ about a thousand unsolicited manuscripts — out of which they accepted two of them.Â So if you thought you could blithely pound out a 300-page boy-meets-girl story, sendÂ it off to Harlequin, and sit back andÂ wait for your royalty checks to arrive, you’ve got a rude awakening in store.Â Selling a romance novel isn’t easy.Â Â If you have no respect at all for the genre, trust me, the editor is going to sniff that out and all you’ll get back in the mail is a rejection letter.
But let’s suppose you do respect the genre and you have the chops to write a publishable book.Â Â Category romance does offer a few advantages as aÂ place to startÂ one’s career.Â First, your audience is already built in.Â Those readers who like the Harlequin Intrigue line will often buy from the line every single month, including books by authors they’ve never heard of.Â You’ll haveÂ good distribution throughout the U.S., in grocery stores and bookstores. You’ll probably have international distribution as well, with translations of your book showing up in countries around the world.Â If you write consistently and quickly, you’ll soon develop loyal readers who will buy your books no matter which companyÂ publishes you.Â You’ll also have the chance to develop and grow as both a writer and as a business person.Â You’ll learn the ropes of dealing with agents and editors, you’ll gain experience in the industry, and yes, you’ll even make a little money.
Ah, that money issue.Â Here’s where category romance publishingÂ presents a problem.Â There’s a glass ceiling when it comes to income, because your books, no matter how brilliant, are marketed and distributed exactly the same wayÂ as every other category author in your line.Â The great book isn’t pushed any harder than the mediocre book, and if you have aspirationsÂ of hitting bestseller lists, you’ll get frustrated when your print run always stays the same, even though your last books were fabulous.Â So your per-book income will pretty much stay the same within the line.Â When I was writing for Harlequin Intrigue, my highest advance was $10,000.Â Â I’d have to write a lot of books a year to send a kid to college. To be perfectly honest, romance isn’t that different from other genres.Â Whether you write paperback mysteries, westerns, orÂ science fiction, an advance of $10,000 isn’t unusual, and sometimes it’s much less.Â So if you want big contracts, if you want toÂ hit bestseller lists, you have to break out of category.
Another downside to writing category romance isn’t monetary, but emotional: you’ll have to suffer the slings and arrows of literary snobs who will never consider you a “real” writer.Â Yeah, I know we’re supposed to take pride in our work and forget the critics, but let’s be honest, it hurts to get asked when you’re going to write a “real” book.Â (And yes, I heard that comment more than once.Â In fact, I still hear it!)Â
If and when you move into a different genre — say, thrillers — that “ex-romance author” label will stick to you like Superglue.Â You’ll never get rid of it, andÂ unfairly or not,Â it will affect how critics review you, and how “serious” readers regard you.Â Which is why you’ll find that many former romance authors may get huffyÂ and refuse to talk about their old romance novels.Â They’ve been burned, that’s why.Â They want to be regarded as writers, period, and not hear snide comments and sarcasm.