Sex, Romance and the Happy Ever After

It was on the final evening of the Romance Writers of America Annual Conference that I finally faced feelings of inadequacy.
The queen herself. 

It was on Saturday night, the fourth and final evening of the Romance Writers of America Annual Conference, that I finally faced feelings of inadequacy.

In retrospect, it was an inevitable crisis, but not for the reasons I would have expected. It had (almost) nothing to do with that Friday workshop filled with more than 100 women discussing Alpha Heroes (strong, possessive men who love passionately) and why they -- romance readers and writers -- love them. Or with the tall, handsome cowboys that roamed Amazon’s party on Thursday night while I stood in a corner, nursing a bottle of water.

The RWA conference, which took place this year in San Antonio, is a largely female affair. This year it attracted more than 2,100 writers, editors, publishers, publicists, and anyone else with an artistic and/or commercial interest in the (extraordinarily) popular book genre. According to the RWA, 91 percent of those who buy romance books are women and so I, expecting to be marginalized to some degree, wasn’t surprised -- or much disturbed -- when I was.

What actually shook me were the sales numbers announced as various literary luminaries took the stage Saturday evening at the RITA awards -- named for Rita Clay Estrada, the RWA's first president, and more or less the Oscars of the romance genre. (The blow to my confidence came particularly from comparing these figures with the sales numbers from my own recent book.)

To offer just one example: The author Stella Cameron's online biography was read before she arrived onstage to present this year’s RITA for"Romantic Suspense." It opens, “Stella Cameron is a New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author. With over fourteen million copies of her books in print….”

That's not the kind of number that you generally hear being widely thrown around at other book industry conferences. In my genre of so-called “serious” non-fiction, selling 1,000 copies of an e-book per month is highly respectable. In the hyper-charged world of romance, that’s often barely a start. Of the roughly a dozen workshops that I attended at this year’s RWA conference, it felt like all but a few had a New York Times or USA Today bestselling author on the panel.

None of this should come as a surprise. According to the RWA’s website (which cites "Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2013" as its source), in 2012 “romance fiction” held the largest share -- 16.7 percent -- of any genre in the U.S. consumer book market. That amounted to almost $1.438 billion in U.S. sales in 2012. Romance fiction “was the top-performing category on the best-seller lists in 2012 (across the NYT, USA Today, and PW best-seller lists)." This year the genre even infatuated Rupert Murdoch: In May, News Corporation announced it would buy Harlequin Enterprises, one of the world’s biggest romance publishers, for C$455 million.

But for all its commercial and cultural importance, the romance genre often feels as though it doesn’t get its due from mainstream cultural media. Last year, when the New York Times Book Review asked 15 writers to answers questions regarding sex and writing for its “Sex Issue,” not one romance writer was in the mix. New York Times bestselling romance writer Sarah MacLean expressed her dismay in a letter to the editor.

Neither elite opinion nor sales numbers seemed to be an outward concern of those at the conference. Everyone seemed to be having too much fun talking about how to write and sell romance novels. The end goal is to achieve the Happily Ever After (a term of art in the genre). The hard work of getting there -- taking two people and figuring out how to resolve their conflicts in a way that leaves the reader satisfied -- is the business of modern romance writers.

It is, in fact, a more interesting and better written business than tired stereotypes and “Fifty Shades of Grey” might suggest. Linda Francis Lee and Eloisa James led my Alpha Hero workshop; the real Eloisa James (that's a pen name) is a tenured Shakespeare scholar at Fordham University. The next day, in an adjoining room, the standing-room-only “How to Write Hot Sex” panel was immediately followed by the more literary and historically-based, “Angst and Affability: Using Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice to Craft New Adult and Contemporary Romance.”

At the RWA conference, there seemed no hint of doubt that the future of the industry looks just as bright as the past. Romance publishers are at the cutting edge of e-books. At least according to one study, digital is the most popular format in which romances are now purchased (after all, e-readers cover up the oftentimes sexy covers that embarrass many romance buyers). The RWA just launched an app for iOS and Android that connects readers and writers to an interactive database of romance.

Romance queen Nora Roberts -- 210 novels and millions of dollars to her name -- summarized her decades of work during a “chat” for star-struck attendees: In the end it all comes down to “happily ever after, good overcomes evil.” It’s a simple message, but in a world that seems increasingly bereft of happy endings, it’s one whose appeal seems only to be growing.

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