Sunday, September 22, 2013

Romances, Indie Publishers, & The “Feel Good” Experience

Are We Seeing the Birth of a new Romance subgenre?  
Spousal abuse theme romance

"Romance Realism"

I think traditional publishers understand that romance readers are after a ‘feel good’ experience. Romances are about how the reader feels as the book is being read. This is emphasized by the reality that a happy ending is guaranteed. Fans don’t read to see how the story is going to turn out; they know how it is going to turn out. Some fans even read the last pages in a book before they buy it just to insure that it has the exact kind of happy ending they prefer. A reader would not do this if the pleasure of a book was in finding out how it ends. A mystery fan, however, would never do this since the whole idea is to figure out ‘who did it’ before the story ends. The reader wants to out smart the author.  

In romances the reader wants to enjoy pleasurable vicarious experiences. The reader wants to vicariously ‘feel’ loved, cherished, desired, sexy, appreciated, needed, important, and victorious. Vicarious feelings are real while they are being experienced. I call these feelings emotional vitamins. Humans need to experience these feelings to remain healthy.  

Hospice them romance
Literary fiction, on the other hand, tends to be the opposite of romance. Literary fiction seeks to have us experience reality. To have experiences that will change us and, perhaps, enlighten us so we actually become different people. Often these experiences are intentionally painful. It is almost as if critics believe the more painful and depressing a work is, the more literary value it has. Many of these critics don't even consider romances, with their happy endings, to even be literature. Literary fiction is in a very different world than the romance genre inhabits.


So here’s the point: some romance authors insist on writing romance realism. (Note: I do not want to use the terms, ‘romantic realism’ or ‘realistic romance’.)  Romance realism is  comprised of romance genre novels, complete with HEAs, but with often unpleasant real world themes.) Romance realism can, and often does, make readers feel bad or at least uncomfortable. In this sense it is much like literary fiction. Romance realism is also what many genre romance readers want to avoid.

 Reading a genre romance is like taking a bubble bath – a pleasant 'world all its own'. It’s a soothing experience where the reader is bathed in a swirl of welcome emotions and feelings that may be in short supply in the reader's ‘real’ life.  Bad feelings and unpleasant experiences are not part of this world – or are not part of it when a traditional publisher is on the job.

Child death adultery
theme romance
 When Traditional Publishers Take a Risk

Sometimes a traditional publisher will take a chance on  romance realism. Francine Rivers finally published a romance with an abortion theme, “The Atonement Child”, however, this book was of very high quality. Most of its most favorable critics were probably from outside the romance genre.

Another book like, “The Atonement Child”, is, “The Bossy Bridegroom”, by Mary Connealy. This romance is about spousal abuse and giving a wife abuser a second chance. The major view of characters in this book is ‘don’t be a fool! Don’t take him back.’  While "Bossy" has the literary quality of “The Atonement Child” it was not well received by those readers expecting a 'feel good' romance. "The Bossy Bridegroom" is an excellent book but it has the wrong title and the wrong publisher. I think it could achieve its full potential as an indie release with a different title (like the "Atonement Husband")
Child molestation
theme romance
Another very unlikely traditional romance is “Autumn Rains”  by Myra Johnson. This book has a hero just out of prison after serving many years for a crime he actually did commit and a heroine who is almost crippled by agoraphobia. This is another 5-star quality book literary critics love. It has won its share of awards. "Autumn Rains' is so well crafted that it even works as a genre romance (because of its sympathetic hero and heroine). I think this is why it was given a chance by its traditional publisher. It seems that if a romance realism novel is of exceptional quality it has at least a small chance of being published by a traditional publisher.

Abortion theme romance
Not published by a traditional publisher are “Running on Empty” and “Try, Try, Again” by Ruth Logan Herne. “Running on Empty” is a book about girl victims of a child molester.  It is more like the “Lovely Bones” than a genre romance. Of course, the “Lovely Bones” was  both a best seller and successful movie!

That’s just the my point: traditional publishers mayvturn down perfectly good books, even award winning best selling books, if they do not meet the expectations  of their readers.

“Try, Try, Again” is about how the death of a child destroyed a marriage and how decades later the adulterous husband wants a second chance. This is not exactly the good feeling experience of a traditional romance. Herne's two books mentioned here are romance realism novels. The author did published a traditional romance, “Winter’s End” about a very sad hospice experience. It had a subdued HEA but, since it also showed so much excellence, it made the cut and was accepted by a major traditional publisher.  Not many such books do.

Readers Want to Get What they Expect

If a reader reads a line of romance because she likes the tone, the level of sensual heat, and is comforted by the publisher’s guidelines, then one “Lovely Bones” in that line can turn off the reader for good. The reader will never know if another such book will pop-up. This experience is particularly deadly to lines like Harlequin which sell monthly subscriptions to its new releases. These subscribers trust the publisher to deliver the same quality stories month after month, year after year, all sight unseen. Traditional publishers are wise not to abuse this trust.

 Enter the Indie Publisher 

Ex-con & agoraphobia
theme romance
Authors who write good books that do not fit within a given genre or do not deliver the expected experiences of that specific genre's fans, can now offer their books outside the traditional distribution channel. Their books may still be genre romances with guaranteed HEAs but with a different set of vicarious feelings. This opens a new market. I call this the romance realism market.

What marketers may need to do now is determine how large the romance realism fan base really is and how to best flag the attention of these new readers so they will know these are books they will like.

In both traditional and indie publishing it is very important that readers get the type of books that they think they are getting.

For major reviews of these books click on the title below:
Autumn Rains (Book of theYear)
The Bossy Bridegroom
Winter’s End

Perhaps we will see the birth of more new subgenres like romance realism in the future.


  1. Great post, Vince! That's a good point about publishers like Harlequin who can't break trust with their readers - a perspective I hadn't thought a whole lot about, but one that makes a lot of sense. Just like authors have to brand themselves and their books, publishers have their own brand of sorts, as well. Readers need to have an idea of what to expect. Doesn't mean they need spoilers or anything, but disappointing a reader can be bad for both the reader and the author (or publisher). It results in a feeling of "wasted time" for the reader, and bad reviews for the author. It's one of the reasons I decided to include the line "Inspirational Historical Romance" at the end of my back-cover copies for my book - so that, while not being glaringly obvious so as to turn certain readers off, it adds to the genre categories I've placed it in, the cover, and the book description to give a proper idea of the type of story it is.

    The one wonderful thing about indie publishing is that - if done well - the author is the publisher and can therefore merge his/her own brand with his/her "publisher." I've named my "publisher" Seasons of a Story, to connect it with the online brand I've created through my editing/publicity business and my blog. It also works with the types of stories I'm currently writing - the theme of the seasons of life and love, and how we grow through them.

    Anyway, I think that Bleeding Heart and my client Sandra Leesmith's May release (Love's Miracles) fit in this subgenre you've discussed - and I am personally thrilled to see it finding a place. I definitely love an HEA - no question! But I also love to read stories that I can relate to, and ones that help me grow in my faith. It's one of the reasons I love the "sadder" Hallmark movies so much - they may make me cry a lot and make me feel bad for the characters, but they also cause me to step back and look at the bigger picture of life, to see what's really important and to ponder what lasts through hardships.

    Thanks for the great discussion, Vince!


  2. Vince, what a wonderful take on this new fun publishing pond so many of us have dipped our toes into! I think your thoughts are well-formed and spot on.

    When I'm working with little kids, I watch to see stages of development, who they tend to play with more, older kids, younger kids, kids their own age... what forms of play they prefer, solo or integrated with others. That helps me work with each child to strengthen their weak spots... and polish their strong ones!

    I love LaVyrle Spencer's body of work. That was "romance realism" to the max. I wouldn't have had a name for it, but you coined a great one. I like authors who don't beat around the bush with deep subjects, but allow the reader the roller coaster ride... With all the ups and downs. And Love Inspired has been really good about letting me do Ruthy-style roller coaster rides within their parameters, so I love my work there. And I love, love, love that my readers don't have to go broke to get a good book. High priced books annoy me for no small number of reasons... (we'll talk about that over coffee some time!!!) Deborah Smith was another romance realism style author... Karen White's work, too.... So I think I gravitate toward this style intrinsically but then I push to up the ante by defusing things with humor and some sarcasm... and hope, always hope because when you've experienced life on the wrong side of the tracks, faith and hope are your lifelines until you find that missing quotient: love. And that can come through faith and God, but that human love is a rare and wonderful thing!

    Spiritual inspiration is a big thing for me. You and I talk about pantsing vs. plotting and that's where spiritual inspiration comes in because sometimes I don't even have to "think" a book to fruition... it kind of unfolds itself in my head from a variety of things. Music, liturgy, Bible readings, visual stimulation (seeing something that plants the story and it grows from there)... Some folks call it a muse, but I know inherently that it's Spirit-led... not Ruthy-driven. And in those books I can let the bad things happen or be remembered because God is at the helm.

    So far my reader response to these books has been wonderful and uplifting, but I'm watching (like you are) to see how the winds shift. But if one person gets helped by a book like "Running on Empty".... if one couple sees themselves in a book like "Try, Try Again"... then I think the risk is negligible because that's the goal, right? To uplift hearts and souls... especially for those who need it most.

    I agree with Amber that I prefer the deeper Hallmark presentations... although sometimes I like to sit and laugh!

    But the deeper ones inspire me to be a better person and I like that in a book, too.

    What a great examination of this, Vince!!!! And you managed to feature no small number of my books, so I will hug you when I see you! God bless you, my friend!


  3. Hi Amber:

    I really like the name “Seasons of the Story”. I’d like it even if it did not relate to your website or business.

    About feeling bad for the characters and bad feelings as reading, I see two ways for that to go. 1) the reader actually feels bad. Things are depressing. As such the reader is feeling bad herself – at least vicariously. 2) the story deals with a depressing topic but the reader feels good while reading it. This takes great skill on the part of the writer. It’s like when the heroine keeps being dealt a bad hand at poker but still wins by her attitude and clever playing. That is, the inspirational and hope inspiring depressing story as opposed to the ongoing depressing story that only sees an upturn at the end with the HEA. That to me is a bad experience.

    Thanks, I enjoyed your comments.


  4. Hi Ruth:

    Wow! You have so many good insights in your comments that it would make a good article in a literary magazine.

    It is said that experience is the best teacher. That may be true but many experiences are not possible to have. Others are too dangerous.

    Literary fiction is said to be a way to experience other lives and thus gain experiences that will help us grow in knowledge, character and wisdom – all without the risks. Sometimes this means a whole book is a bad feeling experience.

    The romance genre is different. With its guaranteed HEA ending, it is primarily about how the reader feels as she is reading the book. It very much is a form of escapism. It’s a way for a short time to experience a world where the reader, vicariously, is loved, desired, appreciated, pretty, admired, and enjoys so many other ‘good feeling’ emotions. For this ‘feel good’ experience depressing topics are best avoided. The reader gets enough of that in real life.

    In literature the bad feeling experiences -- often pulled from the headlines -- are desired. Kids growing up often have a strong desire to experience the worse. Many love dystopias. I think these feelings make a younger person feel older and more worldly experienced.

    Now we have romance genre books complete with HEAs that want to do more of what literary fiction has always done – educate the reader and render the reader better able to meet the challenges of this ever more hectic world. It is as if the writer wants her cake and eat it too. She wants both a romance with a HEA and a piece of literary fiction with a more meaningful experimental impact. The latter is not an experience many romance genre readers want to have. (It’s like preparing them a wonderful bubble bath with icy water with a few pebbles at the bottom of the tub. It’s like saying: “Don’t get too comfortable: even when you fantasize you are still in the real world.”

    I think this new type of romance, romance realism, needs to have its own subgenre. Romance realism is like ‘hard’ SF where everthing that happens needs to be possible within the current laws of science. No magic. No fantasy. Readers who want and like hard SF know where to look. If you add magic to the hard SF novel, it ruins it for the unsuspecting reader.

    In any event: you and some others are now in the first major vanguard of romance realism. I don’t know how big the market is or how large it can grow but I believe at the start there will be many more fans than there are authors to supply the demand. Now is the time to establish your name in this field and develop your fan base.

    Knowing just what this is about will be a decided advantage in doing just that. You are off to a great start.

    Thanks for your comments. I love it when you make me think deep and hard about what you said.


  5. Hi, Vince. Thanks for throwing Bossy Bridegroom in with your list. It was a departure wasn't it? What was I thinking? :D

  6. Vince, you always have such insightful takes on the romance genre! Delighted to be included in your list of examples. I've been told more than once that my romances don't fit the typical mold, and actually, that makes me very happy.

    Of course, it does make it harder to find a home with traditional romance publishers. One day soon I may try Ruthy's route and see what kind of response a few of my "shelved" book manuscripts get.

  7. Hi Mary:
    I think “The Bossy Bridegroom” is timeless and has the best chance of being ‘discovered’ in the future. When romance realism gets more established as a subgenre, I believe that “The Bossy Bridegroom” will be one of the pioneer classics of the category. I think this book shows you can write anything well.


  8. Hi Myra:

    It is not only Ruthy’s route, many are going Indie and it is working. It would be interesting to run all the romance realism books in one ad. That why readers who like this type of romance, which really does not fit in the traditional mold, will see that this is a soild and growing new area of romance. I might even do such an ad myself. Amber and Sandra have what also might be included in this category. I’ll have to look into it.

    I still think “Autumn Rains” is one of the best romances I’ve ever read and I have read over 1,200 of them.