Romance Novels Sweep Readers Off Their Feet With Predictability At $1.4 billion, romance is by far the biggest sector of the publishing industry. Harper's editor Jesse Barron looked into the business of romance and its peculiarities for this month's issue. He says the key is copying the elements that made other authors successful — down to the cover model's pose.

Romance Novels Sweep Readers Off Their Feet With Predictability

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We talk about a lot of serious books on this show. In fact, we've got a great one coming up in a bit. And we know you like that sort of thing. But my dear NPR listener, I have to tell you that the most profitable part of the publishing world, by far, is romance. Romance novels are a $1.4 billion industry; literary titles, just 400 million.

Jesse Barron is a writer at Harper's magazine. And last summer, he went to the RNC. That's the Romance Novel Convention in Las Vegas. The master of ceremonies wasn't a writer. It was a cover model.

JESSE BARRON: A very handsome guy who looks sort of like Patrick Dempsey, but a little more soap opera. And he welcomed maybe 300 women - with a few husbands - but mostly married, white women in middle age, in a huge ballroom in the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. The initial kickoff was really surprisingly sexy and explicit. There was a cover model who did a pretty heavy striptease to "Wanted Dead or Alive," by Bon Jovi, and that sort of set the tone.

RATH: So the character who's running this thing, this organizer Jimmy Thomas...


RATH: ...he's a cover model for these romance novels, right? So the only other one I've heard of before - that would be Fabio.

BARRON: Yeah. He is like Fabio. And I think he experiences a professional rivalry, or at least he experiences it. Fabio obviously is not experiencing it. But he's in that lineage of men who make money off this completely - otherwise almost completely female-dominated genre. I mean, romance is published, written, edited, bought by women. Ninety to 95 percent of romance readers are women.

The one exception in the industry is male cover models. These are guys who sell stock photos to writers directly, or sometimes to editors, to put on the covers of these e-books. And the stock photos sell from - anywhere from maybe 15 bucks to $300.

RATH: So did Jimmy have any tips for what makes a good cover, what'll sell books?

BARRON: Yes, he does. For all of the aspiring romance writers out there, the biggest thing that you should do is go look at the No. 1 most commercial, most successful romance, and copy that exactly. He's figured out what does best. So for example, a cover where a man is dipping a woman down and kissing her will do slightly less well than a cover where a woman is being dipped down and the man is about to kiss her neck.

And there's all of these types of - sort of oddly specific arrangements that Jimmy has figured out. And the end goal, of course, is something that will catch the eye of someone browsing on the Amazon store or Kobo, or the Sony bookstore.

RATH: How big a slice of the romance market now are e-books?

BARRON: It's estimated that about 60 percent of all romance novels are e-books, and that's compared with about 40 percent of trade fiction. I think one thing is that literary fiction does not get along well with e-books in self-publishing because it takes too long to write, and e-books are cheap. So e-books will favor writers who can write schematically, quickly. It's low overhead, it's high quantity; and the cover price is 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 bucks.

So a writer who knows that they're dealing with 24 chapters and turning points and so on, and then they're going to get to a happily-ever-after ending - or a happily for now, an HFN, if they're writing serially - that writer who can produce two or three books a year is going to do really, really well in an economy where the cover prices are low, and they get a huge amount of the cover price returned, which is the e-book model.

So that model is fantastic for romance. Detective fiction also does well in e-books. But the literary production world that's based in New York, I think, will never be able to exploit e-books the way genre fiction does. And it's because those writers know what they're doing, every time.

RATH: You obviously picked up on some things while you were there, sprinkled into this article. Are there any other tips you can share with us?

BARRON: Yeah. Well, I mean, one thing that you have to understand, if you're going to get into writing romance, is that the things that are valued in that genre are not the same things that are valued when we read something like literary fiction. So you're going to want to hone your prose until it's extremely clear; it's very, very fast; the dialogue is funny; and the plots are really engaging.

But you also have to keep in mind that you don't have total freedom when it comes to your main character, and that's your heroine. She's got to be tough, but she can't be cold. She can't be whiney. She can't be a (BLEEP). And if she's got those walls up, you must show her vulnerability. She is just like the reader. And once you wrap your mind around that, you'll start writing characters that people will recognize as romance heroes and heroines.

And then you have to think about what is going to happen in your book, and what the plot is. And it's really important to remember - again - that there's not infinite options. A typical romance will begin when the heroine decides that she wants the hero. They're not narratives where the hero is cheating around and having a bunch of different women and then ultimately, deciding on his person.

Heroes and heroines in romances never, ever cheat. So you don't have the option of these kinds of - like, a novel based around dating, or something like that, could never be transposed into romance. It's really about the relationship between two people, and the way that they gradually become more vulnerable to each other over time.

RATH: That's Jesse Barron. His article "Bad Romance" is in this month's issue of Harper's magazine. Thanks, Jesse.

BARRON: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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