Welcome to the first of a yearlong series of lectures on different romance fiction sub-genres. One Monday each month, Crafting Your Career will be dedicated to this topic, and today’s post focuses on the contemporary romance. Those of us who’ve been around know sub-genres wax and wane in popularity, so which “w” word applies to contemporaries in the current publishing climate?
Today, New York Times bestselling author Carly Phillips and literary agent Laura Bradford are here to share their insights and predictions. RU crew, hang tough as this is a long post, but 100% worth the time to read! Carly and Laura will also check in throughout the day to answer questions.
NOTE: This interview was primarily directed toward the single title—rather than category—romance, but feel free to ask category related questions in the comment section.
Welcome, Carly and Laura!
Kelsey: Carly and Laura, What are your opinions of the state of contemporary romance today, especially single titles?
Carly: I admit to being biased in my interest on the state of contemporary romance today. I answer with two hats, as an author who writes contemporary romance and as a reader who loves reading contemporary romance. In order to answer the question, I think you need to define contemporary romance – for my purposes, contemporary romance is a story set in the present day and the characters and their journey is what drives the story and the hero and heroine towards their happily ever after. There are other sub-genres within contemporary romance that really are genres in their own right, such as romantic suspense. This is not the same as the suspense in a contemporary romance that I write – where the “light” suspense plot helps move the characters along, but the thrust of the story is the romance and the characters and their emotional journey.
So what is the state of contemporary romance today? I believe contemporary romance is on the cusp of becoming big again. For the last few years, paranormal has taken over the larger market share and as a result, contemporary romance has struggled for audience in comparison. As a reader, over the last year when I would go into a bookstore and look for a good, light contemporary romance, they were few and far between. Yes, the staple authors of the genre put out their contemporary romance novels, but for fast readers like me, there weren’t enough contemporaries to sustain my appetite. With the advent of “soft romance”, character driven stories in smaller town settings (Robin Carr, Susan Wiggs, Debbie Macomber, Susan Mallery), we are seeing a rebirth and regrowth of contemporary romance.
I’ve always preferred to write (and read) light contemporary stories – in this category I also include Rachel Gibson, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Toni Blake, Susan Andersen, Jill Shalvis, Kate Angell, Lori Wilde, among many talented others who forgive me for not mentioning. In other words, the staple authors are continuing to do what they do and do it well. And I believe finally the market will begin to open up for newer authors again, just not at the rate which we saw a few years ago.
Laura: I have been finding them pretty consistently difficult to sell for some time. I think when paranormal boomed, contemporary romance got squeezed out a bit and it hasn’t completely cycled back around yet. Contemporary romance isn’t at all an unpopular genre, but there are a number of established contemporary authors that have been dominating for a while (Rachel Gibson, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Nora Roberts and others). So while paranormal has been the “It” romance genre lately and the (theoretically) reduced contemporary romance readership has been satisfied by the established contemporary romance authors already being published, there just hasn’t been as much room for new contemporary romance authors to enter the field. Of course, what editors and publishers are looking to acquire more of is (again, in theory) what the major accounts buyers tell them is selling the best. If book buyers are spending their money on genres other than contemporary, then it makes perfect sense that editors might be more resistant to acquiring more contemporary. However, there are a few newer contemporary authors that have made the cut (like Victoria Dahl) and hopefully they will bring about some renewed interest in the genre. I have been a consistent fan of contemporary myself and I have continued to pitch it throughout this “low period”. If we don’t continue to try with contemporary, there won’t be anything new out there to buy in a couple of years. Things could be really different in a couple of years.
Kelsey: Carly and Laura, how do you think this sub-genre has changed in the last five years?
Carly: Five years ago, contemporary romance went through a boom period along with the rest of the country, where everything just seemed easier, more prosperous even. Contemporaries were all over, everyone wanted to write one, and the opportunities seemed to exist in all publishing houses for talented writers to break in. That’s not to say getting published was easy, but there were more slots for contemporaries. When the paranormal craze caught on, it changed how readers think when they read. As a result of world-building and new types of characters and plots, readers learned to be more demanding of content and complexity in books and the straight contemporary suffered as a result. This is just my opinion, mind you. But what went along with this change was also that by virtue of more paranormals being published, there was less room for other genres. Again, the straight contemporary suffered as a result. When there is the new “hot” thing, everyone tries to jump on the bandwagon and there becomes a glut in the marketplace as we saw with paranormal romances. But eventually, the cream rises to the top, the great books and authors stand out and withstand the test of time, and others fall away. Sometimes talented authors suffer as a result of a bad market. I know plenty of talented contemporary writers whose sales did not match their talent. And that’s a shame because it resulted in the lack of contemporaries I spoke about earlier.
Fast forward a few years. Paranormal romance has settled, here to stay, but publishing houses are being more selective in how they publish them. As a result, other genres, such as historicals, are becoming stronger again. We’ve heard a lot about the “death” of the contemporary romance, but I think reports have been greatly exaggerated. Peaks and valleys are normal in any business and I hope contemporary romance will emerge stronger than ever – but the form it shows up in may differ, just as covers differ. Remember the years of the cartoon covers when contemporary romance was booming, to the straight hero on the covers, to something a little different going forward.
I have always maintained contemporary romance is the backbone of all romances and won’t go away forever. In fact, contemporary romance is due to see a resurgence. As I mentioned above, the straight contemporary romance books may segue into more “soft” romance books, valuing community, emotion, and character above all else, but character driven, contemporary romance stories will flourish.
Laura: I think that everything having to do with the romance subgenres is cyclical. For a long time, in the 90’s, I think historical romance was very much the dominant subgenre. Then romantic suspense and romantic comedy became hugely popular. Remember when Julie Garwood stopped writing historicals and started writing romantic suspense? Remember when Avon first started doing those “cartoon”-style contemporary covers? They were a huge hit and that is what everyone started buying. Of course today, saying the words romantic comedy is like the kiss of death…even if there are authors out there successfully writing it. If I have to refer to it now, I call it humorous contemporary romance. More recently paranormal romance boomed and that boom is really still happening, I think. Contemporary romance has not really gone away in the meantime…if you look at the shelves, there is still plenty of it out there to buy. Are there fewer contemporaries on the shelves than there were 5 years ago? Yes.
Kelsey: Carly, why do you write contemporaries, and do you write in other sub-genres?
Carly: I write contemporaries because I love them. As a reader, when I walk into a bookstore, that’s what I want to pick up and read. As a result, writing them for me is pure joy. I lean towards a mix of the romantic light fun contemporaries as well as hitting on small town stories with eclectic secondary character elements. Occasionally I’ll also set a story in New York City for a more sophisticated feel. For me, it’s all about “write what you know and love” and that’s what I do.
I don’t write in other subgenres. I like to say that I have a very linear mind – that’s how I think, in straight lines – and complicated plot as in romantic suspense, or alternate worlds as in paranormal – might make my brain explode. Never say never, but I say do what you do and do it the best you can, learning and growing along the way. So right now, I’m loving and living contemporary romance.
Kelsey: What do readers tell you they love about your contemporaries?
Carly: A lot of readers tell me they love my characters, the stories and the journeys they take. Most comments are about character and I believe that character is at the heart of any good fiction book but most especially contemporary romance. My first editor, Brenda Chin at Harlequin, gave me valuable advice that I have tried to apply to every story I write: Readers have to be able to relate to your heroine and fall in love with your hero. Characters must have flaws that the reader understands but in some ways the characters should be larger than life, too. The reader should feel they are transported to another place, living that character’s life and feeling what they feel. So when readers tell me they enjoy my characters, that’s the greatest compliment I can get.
Kelsey: Carly, do you have any insight on “contemporary friendly” agents and publishers?
Carly: Good question! I would hope that a good story would trump anything else and an editor or agent who is looking for talent will find it no matter what they think their preference might be. That said, nothing replaces research. You don’t want to submit a contemporary to a publisher only interested in historical. So although I don’t have specific editors or agents to mention, I can suggest a game plan. In light of the ever changing market, I would say to people looking to break in, to research the most recent books on the shelves, see which publishers are putting out consistent contemporary romances. This shows they have a commitment to the genre. The same with agents. Ask other contemporary romance writers who represents them to get a feel for who is contemporary friendly.
Kelsey: Carly and Laura, what advice do you have for writers who want to break into this sub-genre? Any trends writers should avoid or embrace?
Carly: When I “broke into” romance, the one thing everyone told me at every conference I attended was “athletes don’t sell.” Well, the one thing I wanted to write was an athlete. So I waited until I was established and pitched “The Hot Zone Series” (the first of which, HOT STUFF, is repackaged and in stores now) and it sold. I loved writing those stories because they were stories of my heart. So the answer is, don’t write to the trends, write from your heart. But don’t place a brick wall in your way, either. I may not have any specific trends to say writers should avoid because frankly I haven’t heard of any no-no’s or taboos lately. But if you do hear of one, don’t deliberately write one to buck authority and prove people wrong, because you’re wasting time working on something you’ve clearly been warned will not sell. Unless that story is embedded in your heart and your mind and you can’t not write it. Then you should write it because at the end of the day, it will probably be the best story of your life and with a little luck, some smart editor or agent will realize that and if not, you move on to the next story and keep on writing!
Laura: I don’t really know that it is good to advocate following a trend…my feelings are that an author’s voice is an author’s voice and if she has “it” with contemporary romance than that is what she should write. Maybe the timing isn’t fabulous for an author’s particular style…it happens…and the author does have a few options that might help set her apart from the pack. First off, I would never tell an author to write anything that is contrary to her vision for the story, but I think a smart author looks at all the angles and tries to find an edge. I have found that contemporaries with secondary hooks are easier to find homes for than those that do not have secondary hooks. By secondary hook, I mean a contemporary romance that also has a dominant suspense angle. Or a contemporary that is really, really sexy and explicit (though not necessarily erotic). The market for very, very hot romances is really good right now across all the subgenres. I have also heard from several editors that they are looking for that kind of contemporary romance-women’s fiction hybrid ala Debbie Macomber, Sheryll Woods, Lisa Kleypas.
Kelsey: Carly, what do you think it takes to be a NYT bestselling author of contemporary romances?
Carly: The same thing it takes to be an aspiring writer of contemporary romance: persistence, dedication, and the willingness to dig in for the long haul no matter what obstacles present themselves on your journey. I’m the same person today that I was when THE BACHELOR was picked by Kelly Ripa for her Reading with Ripa Bookclub and I hit the New York Times for the first time. I’m just a lot more battle scarred and jaded. Treat every release as if it were your first one. It’s your baby and no one – and I do mean NO ONE – loves it as much as you do – so do whatever you think is necessary to make it succeed, which includes playing nice with others. Success won’t always happen. You won’t always achieve your goals. In fact, I’d venture a guess that more times than not you’ll be disappointed, but then something will happen that makes it all worthwhile. When I was unpublished, an editor rejecting my book but saying, “I’d like to read something else” was cause for celebration. Now that I’m a NYT bestselling author, there’s just more pressure to succeed, to hit higher on lists, sell more books, etc. Too many times I forget to take a deep breath and say, “So I didn’t hit where I wanted, but there are people who would kill to be where I am.” So celebrate all the little achievements and then get back into the trenches. If there’s a bestselling writer out there who has no problems, no issues, no disappointments, I’d like to meet them!
Kelsey: And finally, ladies, what are your predictions for contemporary romance in the next one to three years?
Carly: I wish I had that crystal ball, I really do. The reason I was thrilled when you asked me to do this series with you is that I’ve been questioning the state of contemporary romance myself. Questioning what I write, asking myself what I could do differently to change the status quo, or whether it’s the market itself that has to change first.
Unfortunately, as I write this, I just don’t know. I predict though, that contemporaries will experience a resurgence along with the economy – at least I hope so! And the light, fun, take me away storylines that I love so much will continue to resonate with readers like me, who want more of them.
Laura: I think it will gain popularity again. There are plenty of readers out there like me who love a good contemporary read and at some point everyone will get tired of it feeling like there is nothing out there to buy except paranormals. We’ll be looking for some new contemporary authors to reinvigorate the genre and to keep everything from getting stagnant.
So RU readers, what are your opinions of the state of the contemporary romance? Would you like to see more? Who are your favorite authors in this sub-genre? And please remember that Laura and Carly are available to answer questions. Long live the contemporary!
Be sure to check in with us Wednesday when Wayne Levine discusses how to have the “sex talk” with boys/sons. Bet we all know men who would have benefited from a better one!
New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author Carly Phillips has written over 28 romance novels with contemporary characters and plotlines that today’s readers identify with and enjoy. She sold her first novel, BRAZEN to Harlequin Temptation in 1998 and has continued to write for Harlequin ever since. Carly’s life is filled with a devoted energy and passion to romance, family and career. Carly lives in Purchase, New York, with her husband, two daughters and two soft-coated wheaten terriers. More information on Carly can be found at her newly redesigned website: www.carlyphillips.com.
Laura Bradford has fifteen years of professional experience as a literary agent, editor, writer and bookseller. Laura began her career as a literary agent at Manus and Associates Literary Agency and formed Bradford Literary Agency in 2001. She considers herself an editorial-focused agent and takes a hands-on approach to developing proposals and manuscripts with her authors for the most appropriate markets. The mission of Bradford Literary Agency is to form true partnerships with their clients and build long-term relationships that extend from writing the first draft through the length of the author’s career. Her recent sales include books placed with Berkley, Grand Central, Harlequin/Silhouette, Kensington, Spice Books, Pocket, Virgin Books, Avon, Dorchester, Hyperion, NAL, Eos, Macmillan and Mira Books. She continues to actively build her client list and is currently seeking work in the following genres: Romance (historical, romantic suspense, paranormal, category, contemporary, erotic), urban fantasy, women’s fiction, mystery, thrillers and young adult as well as some select non-fiction.
She is a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) and Romance Writers of America and she is an RWA-recognized agent.
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