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Tuning Into the Market for Romance Novels

Many aspiring writers sit down to tell a story without a clear idea about what kind of story they're writing, whether (and where) a market exists for it, or what they'll do with the manuscript when they're done writing. Now, it's not that the unplanned approach to writing never works, because a great deal of books get published every year, and some of them undoubtedly follow that path.

But if you want to write popular fiction in general and romance novels in particular, you can cut down the time you spend on both writing and submitting, as well as increase your odds of success, by researching the marketplace and paying attention to what readers and editors are looking for.

What makes a romance a romance?

A large portion of the fiction books that you find on store shelves — from mysteries, to science fiction, to horror, and pretty much everything else — have romantic elements in them. But they're not romances. If you want to define your book as a romance novel, you need to keep certain things in mind.

At its heart, a romance distinguishes itself from other forms of fiction because the romantic relationship is the focus of everything that happens — it's the driving force behind the story, the one thread that makes the entire tapestry fall apart if it's removed.

Romance readers are knowledgeable. They're very aware of the elements in a book that make them happy and the elements that make them unhappy. Romance readers have very specific expectations for every book that they pick up. They want to identify with the heroine and love the hero. They want to root for the relationship to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in its path, and at the end of the day, they want an interesting plot that delivers a happy ending. When you meet these expectations and focus on the central romantic relationship, your book becomes a romance novel.

Contrary to popular belief (a belief you've probably run up against, if you've been a romance reader for a while), romance novels do not follow a prescribed formula. You just have the reader's basic expectations, which means that, as a writer, you have a lot of freedom in what you write and how you satisfy those expectations.

Subdividing romances for fun and profit

Approximately 50 percent of all mass market paperbacks sold are romance novels, making romance the single most popular genre. But not all romances are the same. Within romance publishing in general, all kinds of distinctions exist. Each type of romance comes with its own set of reader expectations that you must meet, but every writer needs to know the two big distinctions:

  • Contemporary versus historical romances: The first big decision you need to make — one that affects every page of your novel from first to last — is whether to set your book in the past or the present.

Historical romance: Your readers expect your research — into clothes, everyday life, occupations, social structure, language, and everything else — to be accurate and your characters to behave in ways that are appropriate to their world and its society. Certain story lines and plot twists work perfectly in a historical context, while others are completely out of place — and it's your responsibility to know which is which.

Contemporary romance: These novels are set in your reader's own time, so they're often subject to even closer and more knowledgeable scrutiny. Slang that's even slightly out-of-date or characters who feel like they're from the 1950s (when women were expected to cook, clean, and do just what the man said), will turn a reader off faster than you can type "Chapter 1."

  • Category versus mainstream romances: This concept is based on the ways that books are packaged and marketed to the reader.

Category romance: Also known as series romances, these novels are published on a monthly schedule in groups, which usually consist of four or six novels. The groups are referred to as lines or series, and all the books in a given series are similar in certain basic ways such as length, editorial focus, and cover design.Series books appear together on store shelves and are marketed to readers as part of a series rather than as individual titles. Most series are contemporary romances, but that's always subject to change.

Mainstream romance: These novels are also known as single titles, which is an accurate description of how they're perceived and sold. Each book stands alone and fits its own individual vision, though that vision often identifies the book as belonging to a subgenre like romantic suspense, western, or Regency. A single title has unique packaging and is placed on the bookracks separately, usually in alphabetical order by the author's last name. Single titles almost always have larger page counts — sometimes substantially so — than series books, which allow them to have more complex plotting and a bigger cast of characters.

Beyond the basic distinctions listed above, the romance genre is also divided into all kinds of more specific subgenres. Subgenres can include romantic suspense, inspirational, western, romantic and comedy.

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