Romantic serials

There is a truism among the self-publishing fraternity that the way to make money is to write a series of books, make the first one free, and watch the cash roll in. As a side note, this advice is useless to me, since I am congenitally incapable of writing series.

But there is a problem with series in romance. A romance has to have a focus on the central relationship AND an emotionally satisfying ending, whether that’s Happy Ever After (HEA) or Happy For Now (HFN). So how do you write book 2, when you’ve already reached that ending in book 1? There are a number of solutions: use a different central couple in each book; write books in some other genre with a single romantic arc over the whole series (technically, these are probably novels with romantic elements, rather than romances); or write a series of books in which the same couple face different relationship challenges. This third option seems to be increasingly popular recently. Actually, I can’t think of any examples from more than about five years ago (please let me know in the comments if I’m wrong about this). Some authors who do this will end each book on a resolution, but others won’t even do that, keeping readers hanging until the next installment.

As the self-publishing forums will attest, these series are very popular. You hook the readers with the first (free) book and hope you can keep them through the whole series. I’ve read a few and been caught up in the need for the narrative conclusion. At four o’clock this morning I was ready to click buy on book 4 in the most recent series I’ve been reading, only stymied by the fact that it isn’t out yet. I needed to get to the end of the series, because the end of the book doesn’t feel like a real end. That’s the point, of course, because that’s what gets you to buy the next book. But as a reading experience, Book X of Y in a Series is completely different from Stand Alone Book.

Part of the reason I love reading romance is the promise of the happy ending. Whatever else happens in the book – whatever else is going on in the world – there is a promise that the central couple will end up together and happy. There’s a security in that ending which makes the reading experience safe for me. There’s a resolution to the narrative which leaves me satisfied as I put the Kindle down, turn the light off and go to sleep. That’s a really, really important part of the romance reading experience for me.

It’s also an important thing from a narrative point of view. A standalone romance tells a complete story: beginning, middle and end. It is the story of that couple. It’s not necessarily the story of their whole lives, but it is the story which defines their relationship. We know that whatever happened before was background, and whatever comes after will be the outworking of the events of the book. We might enjoy another glimpse of the characters if they appear in the first sort of series, as secondary characters in someone else’s story. We probably expect that they will have ups and downs in their relationship like everyone else. But we know that their story has been told.

What happens when you stop writing romances and start writing serials is that the promise implicit in the ending is broken. I can’t leave the couple at the end of the book (even if it appears to be a happy ending) secure within those pages, because I know that more is coming. Whatever the ending is, it’s only going to be provisional. For me, that means it is unsatisfying. The book doesn’t give me the same reading experience as a romance novel, even if in every other respect it looks like it fits the definition of a romance novel.

The other thing that happens when you stop writing romances and start writing serials, I think, is that the books inevitably take on a soap opera kind of character. Because there is no final resolution in most of the books, there’s always a forward drive. One storyline may appear to be resolved but another one will be left hanging. Or we’ll know that whatever resolution there appears to be, something will happen to threaten it in the future. So there’s never the same satisfaction in the resolutions, or the same fear in the black moments. Plots cycle round, dragging readers with them in a tumble dryer of emotional manipulation.

It’s addictive. You want to know what happens next. But ultimately for me, it’s never a satisfying reading experience. Even if the series is completed, I find that the repeated cycles of conflict and resolution leave me anxious and cynical. And sometimes bored. There was a huge outcry last year when Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series was extended from three to five books. I’d read the first two and been looking forward to the third, but when I heard that I didn’t buy it. Partly because I thought that was a cynical move on the part of Day and/or her publisher and partly because I’d already been through enough with that couple. I wanted resolution, not more dragging out of their story.

And, of course, that’s another danger with serials in progress – they may never be finished.

So I’m going to try to avoid serials from now on, and I’m going to hope that this trend will die a quiet death before too long.

What kind of happy ending?

I read Courtney Milan’s latest book last night and this morning. I really, really liked it. One of the things I like about it is the way it ends. I’m not going to spoil it for you but I am going to say what I did on twitter earlier. I think Free epitomises the ‘undiminished heroine’. That is, she ends the book with more opportunities and choices than she had at the start. She has her man, yes, of course. She has love, deep and fierce and real. She’s had to make choices and compromises. But when Edward says to his brother, “Haven’t you figured it out? I married her to unleash her on the world, not to keep her under wraps” we know that he means it, and that Free as Edward’s wife will be herself, only more so. He’s in a position to open doors for her at a practical level, but more importantly he doesn’t want her to change who she is, he wants to give her freedom to flourish. It’s not all about her, of course. He will be stronger and better with Free at his side than he would have been alone, and that is important too.

Something about the undiminished heroine trope speaks very strongly to me. It is the ultimate romantic fantasy for me. Not only that a woman should be loved so deeply and strongly, but also that being loved does not take away her choices. As Ridley put it on twitter, it’s a question of agency. The undiminished heroine does not lose agency by virtue of loving and being loved. She doesn’t always get to have it all, but she gets to make her own choices and compromises, and she will expect her man to do the same. Where there are compromises to be made, it won’t be assumed that she will be the one making them. Both parties will be stronger together and will work to give each other their dreams, whatever they happen to be. It’s not always about her getting the career or the external validation, but it is about self-realisation. She gets to decide who she will be. I want that. I want the fantasy that says I can be loved without giving up any of my dreams.

But there are other fantasies too and sometimes I want those. Miss Bates mentioned Betty Neels and it’s true, her heroines do not really fit into the undiminished mould. Whatever their aspirations are at the start of the book, however competent they are to achieve them, by the end they are given over wholly to the hero. A Betty Neels heroine always ends up as a wife, whose role is to run the house and have children. She’ll have gifts lavished upon her and all sorts of luxuries. She’ll be taken care of and provided for. She’ll be rescued.

When I’m tired. When life is hard. When I’m lonely or sad. When I’m not sure how I’m going to pay next month’s bills. That’s when I want a Betty Neels book. That’s when I want this sort of ending. To lie back and trust someone else to look after me. It sounds blissful, for about five minutes. And then I remember the sort of person that I am and realise that actually, I don’t want that life at all. I don’t want someone who’ll make all my decisions for me, on the assumption that he knows me better than myself. I don’t want everything that I am to be subsumed into my love for another person. I still want to be me.

How about a more realistic ending? One that does involve sacrifice. One that means making hard choices and giving up things that are important, because the relationship is more important. I like those books, too. I like heroes and heroines who have to talk about stuff like grown ups and can’t find an easy way to solve all the problems. I like that they have to commit to each other and forge a relationship based on compromise. I think those endings can be very satisfying, but for me, they aren’t quite the fantasy. They’re hopeful, because they paint a picture of what life might really be like, but they do leave me yearning for a better world.

That’s something that Free says, too. She isn’t turning the world upside down. It’s already upside down and she’s trying to set it straight. I think romance novels can do that, a little bit. At least they can show us what the world could be like, rather than what it is like.

By nature, I’m a hopeless idealist. I can’t get my head round politics because I just want to throw it all out and start from scratch. I’m not very good at working out the best way to deal with how things are, and I much prefer to think about how they ought to be. So I guess that’s why I like best the endings which offer me the fullest promise. I want to believe, at least for the time that it takes me to read a book, that the world can be re-made in order to make two lovers happy.

Category, continuity and familiarity

At the RNA conference I talked to several authors who write for the Harlequin Kiss/M&B Modern Tempted line. Or at least, authors who used to write for that line, since it’s being pulled. It’s had a chequered history, further complicated by the way it’s been marketed differently in different geographical markets. In a twitter discussion earlier, I wondered where writers like Kelly Hunter would now find their niche and several people said that her books used to be published as Presents/Modern. I was surprised by that, so I did a little googling.

I think her career is illustrative of the problems that Harlequin/M&B have had with marketing these younger, less angsty, less fantasy romances, so I’m going to take a little time to outline it.* Hunter’s one of my favourite contemporary romance writers and her books have won many accolades. I don’t know why she’s had so many rebrands, re-titled books, and moves across line but it sucks. She’s not the only one, of course. All of that contributes to the confusion surrounding the different lines and none of it is the author’s fault.

(The dates are UK release. Sometimes this was before the US release, sometimes later.)

Wife For a Week/The Trouble With Valentine’s: Modern Extra/Presents
Priceless/Bedded for Diamonds: Modern Extra/Presents

Sleeping Partner/Trouble in a Pinstripe Suit: Modern Extra/Presents Extra

Taken by the Bad Boy/The Maverick’s Greek Island Mistress: Modern Heat/Presents

Exposed: Misbehaving with the Magnate: Modern Heat/Presents
Revealed: A Prince and a Pregnancy: Modern Heat/Presents
Playboy Boss, Live In Mistress: Modern Heat/Presents

Untameable Rogue/Single Girl Abroad: Modern Heat/Presents Extra
Red-Hot Renegade/Her Singapore Fling/Single Girl Abroad: Modern Heat/Presents Extra

The Man She Loves to Hate: RIVA/Presents Extra
Flirting With Intent: RIVA/Presents Extra

Cracking the Dating Code: RIVA/Presents Extra
With This Fling: RIVA/Presents Extra

The One That Got Away: Modern/Kiss
What The Bride Didn’t Know: Modern Tempted/Kiss

40% (6/15) of her books have had more than one title. That’s tough to deal with when you’re trying to build a brand. Fortunately, the re-titling seems to have mostly stopped.

In the UK, she’s written for Modern Extra, Modern Heat, RIVA and Modern Tempted. One of her most recent books, The One That Got Away, came out as a Modern. With that exception, all her books have actually come out in the same line here since Modern Extra, Modern Heat, RIVA and Modern Tempted are renamed, rebranded versions of more-or-less the same thing. At some points they have been branded to look very similar to the Modern line and at other times they have been branded completely differently. With the shift to RIVA, the line expanded to include some authors who had previously written for Romance, and thus had a lower heat level than the Modern Heat books. But the overall feel of the line was much the same. I’ve written before about the distinction between Modern and Modern Heat (and how it’s nothing to do with heat).

Four rebrands for that line in 8 years. That’s a LOT. No wonder readers are confused. There were periods when the line disappeared altogether. There were times when books with old and new covers were available simultaneously. You had to work hard to follow what was going on. And it seems, since the line is finally being pulled, that none of the re-launches had the desired effect of reaching a new (younger?) audience. It’s impossible to know what would have happened if they’d messed around with the branding less, but I can’t feel that the chopping and changing helped.

In the US, it is even more complicated. Several of Hunter’s books were Presents and several were Presents Extra. The One That Got Away was one of the launch titles for the Kiss line, which was somewhat unfortunate since it’s really much darker than most of Hunter’s books and didn’t suit the line at all. And was given a massively inappropriate cover.

The One That Got Away UK cover:

The One That Got Away US cover:
There are no yellow balloons in that book.

Presents Extra was always a mix of some books that were M&B Modern and some that were Modern Extra/Heat/RIVA. I think that must have been incredibly frustrating and confusing, since the two lines really are quite different. Kelly Hunter’s books and Lynne Graham’s books, much as I love them both, have virtually nothing in common. If you’re hoping for something Graham-esque and you get something Hunter-esque, you have every right to be disappointed.

So, I have no idea what the future is. It’s not obvious to me, from here in the UK, that Hunter would write for Modern, since she’s only had one Modern title before, and that was somewhat atypical of her style. I can see exactly why US readers might expect her to write for Presents, though, since her books have always been divided between Presents and Presents Extra. I’ve always thought of her voice as the epitome of the RIVA/Kiss/Extra line – it’s fun, it’s contemporary, it’s intelligent, it’s sexy but it’s not high-fantasy laden with dramatic emotional intensity. It’s not what I’m expecting when I buy a Modern.

And that’s the thing. Category romance is predicated on the idea of selling a consistent product. People want to know what they’re getting when they buy a Presents or a RIVA or a Modern Extra Hot Pepperoni. Rebranding and remixing the lines is ALWAYS going to have some negative fallout because it removes that confidence. When a category line is new – or looks new – it’s unfamiliar and it’s uncertain. So if you’re going to launch a new line, you’ve got to be sure the positive gains will outweigh that. You need – through your branding and your titles – to make it crystal clear what promise the line makes to its readers. And, I think, you have to give the new line enough time to settle in and become familiar.

I guess the decision will be different for all the Kiss authors. Maybe some will move back to Romance/Cherish. Others to the intensity of Modern/Presents. Maybe some will move to single title, or another publisher. A few have written Cosmo Red Hot Reads and I can see that being a natural home for some of these voices. I’ll read whatever Kelly Hunter writes next, but I’ll be a bit sad if there isn’t a home for books like hers in a Harlequin/M&B category line any more.

*I’m slightly worried that this post comes across as obsessively stalkerish and I don’t mean it to be! I thought it was helpful to talk about the category changes in terms of a single author’s career because it’s much easier to understand in concrete terms. And I picked Hunter because I’ve read all her books, I think she has a very distinctive voice, and she’s gone through a lot of the changes I wanted to talk about. It’s not really meant to be a post about Kelly Hunter. I’m sure she understands her own career better than I do! Also, because it’s a post about Harlequin/M&B, I haven’t included the details of her other books.

Big Fat Book week one

I said on twitter a couple of days ago that I’m enjoying my BFB read so much it almost feels like cheating. After reading Wolf Hall in the spring, Bring Up The Bodies is wonderfully familiar and I am lapping it up. It’s not just knowing the characters and the setting (and indeed many of the events, since this is historical fiction). It’s also feeling comfortable with Mantel’s prose. These books are very different from my normal genre fare and it did take quite a lot of perseverance a the beginning of Wolf Hall. Miss Bates is reading Wolf Hall for this BFB challenge and she has some characteristically insightful comments about how she has found the exercise. I am happy that Miss Bates is persevering and being won over by the book.

Earlier today, there was a twitter conversation about the appeal of the familiar vs. the challenge of the new. I admit, familiarity is one of the main things which appeals to me about genre fiction. I love to know that I can find a particular reading experience, a particular emotional satisfaction, a particular kind of comfort. I used to be a big re-reader, and I am a bit sad that since the arrival of the Kindle I’ve mostly stopped re-reading. New ebooks are much cheaper and more readily available. If I want, I can buy a new book when I’m already in my pyjamas without having to leave the house. I am not good at resisting that sort of temptation, so I buy a lot more new books now. But even when I’m reading new books, I am choosing authors who are known to me, category lines I am familiar with, tropes that are tried and tested. I am a cautious reader and it takes a concerted effort to make me try something different.

So I’m glad for the BFB challenge which made me pick up Wolf Hall in March. I sort of wish I’d read Bring Up The Bodies earlier and chosen something else new this time. I won’t abandon my choice now, though, since I know I’ll be away with limited reading time from July 20th to 30th. I do think I am going to try to be more deliberate in reading outside my comfort zone in the future though. I’m going to compile a short list of non-genre books I want to read and try for one every other month.

How are you getting on with your BFBs? I know Sunita had one false start but is now racing away with her second choice. Feel free to check in with your progress (or lack of it) here, or link to posts elsewhere. But don’t worry if you haven’t got far, there’s still plenty of time.

What’s on my kindle and a call for recommendations

Here’s what I’ve been reading in the last few weeks:

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
I finished! On April 1st, which was not too bad at all, considering how busy March was for me. It was an absolute joy to read. Mantel is a master of characterisation and has incredible skill with her prose. I most appreciated the unexpected, fierce flashes of humour that lit up the book every so often. I will be downloading Bringing Up The Bodies very soon indeed. I am a complete convert to e-reading for large books like this. Easier to carry around, easier to mark progress, easier on the hands.

Her Favourite Rival by Sarah Mayberry
I enjoyed this very much. It’s an office romance, with just enough conflict to keep it going. Both hero and heroine have complicated families (this is a Superromance, but there are no kids, yay!). I would have liked a bit more time to explore the dynamics of her family and the resolution with her sister felt a bit too neat for plausibility. But on the other hand, nothing about the hero’s family was neatly tied up. And I really liked the ending, especially in light of the next book I read…

Just The Sexiest Man Alive by Julie James

I suggested this as a twitter readalong because I’d never read James and JTSMA was on sale. The Sexiest Man Alive (TM) is a Hollywood superstar whose next film role is as a lawyer. He pulls strings to shadow the heroine. He messes her around, manipulates her by his influence over her company, and assumes she’ll fall at his feet like every other woman in the world. The good part is that she doesn’t. I genuinely enjoyed several of the early scenes between the two of them where she gets to show why she’s such a good lawyer and gets the better of him each time. But, sadly the book did not live up to its early promise. The dynamic between Jason and Taylor never changes. At the end he’s still assuming she’ll fall in with his plans. He’s still manipulating her for his own ends. And she… well, she goes along with it.

I said on twitter that the ending of this book made me angry. It still does. Taylor is portrayed as a strong heroine, who excels at her job, who has her life in her own hands and yet Jason’s assumption is that she will give up her job, her friends, her family and her life in Chicago in order to move to LA to be with him. Taylor initially refuses – because she’s afraid he’ll cheat on her like a previous boyfriend did. But when she does decide she wants to be with Jason, well then, she gives up her job, her friends, her family and her life in Chicago without so much as a thought. That was what really got me. Not that she ends up in LA, but that at no point does she (or Jason, for that matter) consider any other outcome. His career is still assumed to be more important than hers (just like it was at the beginning of the book when she’s expected to clear her schedule for him, and then he doesn’t even bother to show up). He never once offers to relocate, and nor does she contemplate it. He’s met her Chicago friends, and yet he doesn’t even ask whether she’ll miss them. He knows her family are there, but it never occurs to him that might be a reason why she might prefer not to relocate. She makes partner at her Chicago law firm – and turns it down to stay in LA. It’s FINE if she wants to give all that up, but the book never makes it an option for her not to. And it NEVER makes it an option for Jason to give anything up at all. He’s the movie star. Why couldn’t he move to Chicago and take his private jet wherever he’s filming? Or cut back on his schedule to spend more time with Taylor? Or at least think about the possibility that he might have to make some compromises?

Oh right, because he’s the guy.

Neanderthal Meets Human, Friends Without Benefits, Love Hacked by Penny Reid

I normally avoid books about knitting clubs. Someone always has cancer and dies at the end. But not in these books! These are real knitters who know the value of a Madelinetosh limited edition colourway and aren’t afraid to use it. But also, they’re fun, interesting, clever people who have romances to match. The books are funny, unpredictable, a little bit sexy, and very romantic. There are some editing issues, especially in the first one, but I think they’re worth persevering with despite that. Also, there are no actual neanderthals. I realise probably no one else thought there might be, but I have read too much Jasper Fforde to be sure on that point. And, well, that was part of the reason I hadn’t picked up the first book before someone told me about the knitting. So, yeah, no neanderthals.

And now I need your help. I need recommendations of books to read on my holiday. Anything set in Iceland, DC, Philly, NYC or on a cruise ship! I have Emma Barry’s Special Interests in mind for the DC part of the trip, but would love some more ideas.

Don’t buy my books

Not this week, anyway.

This week I want you to buy someone else’s books.

Friend, and fellow Entangled author, Jackie Barbosa had the worst news imaginable last week. Her teenage son died in a car crash on the way to school. The family have set up a memorial fund in his name, to be used as a scholarship fund. You can donate to it here.

Jackie has more important things to be doing right now than promoting her books, which is why Beverley Kendall and Courtney Milan are co-ordinating responses from bloggers, authors, reviewers and anyone else who wants to help, to make sure that we can carry that small burden for her at the moment.

She’s written some great books, especially if you like your romance a little on the sexy side. Her Entangled title is Skin in the Game. I really enjoyed Hot Under The Collar – a historical novella about a rakish vicar!

She’s got a couple of free stories available too, if you’d like to give her work a try. (Scroll down to the bottom of this page for a couple of other free stories on her website.)

It’s hard to know how to help an online friend who lives so far away when tragedy hits. I’m glad to be able to do at least this small thing for Jackie. And because I really, really want you to buy and read her books, I’m going to add a little incentive. Leave a comment to this post before April 1st telling me you’ve bought one of Jackie’s books this week, and I’ll enter you into a draw for a $10 Amazon gift card.

ETA (because I should have known what everyone would say) that I will match the prize with a donation to the memorial fund, of course. But I’d still like you to buy more books!

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