Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Primary Texts, Long Tails and Electronic Solutions

I've got a long post planned about politics in a particular historical romance, but I thought I'd wait a bit longer before posting it, since many of you will either be fed up hearing about current U.S. politics, or will still be glued to analysis of the results. We've had quite a lot of coverage of them here in the UK, and I'm sure there's interest in them all around the world. In previous years we heard a lot about pregnant, dimpled and hanging chads, as well as about irregularities concerning the electronic voting machines. Clearly electronic voting has both advantages and disadvantages.

Today, prompted by an item in the Dallas Morning News, Maya Reynolds was posting about e-books in classrooms, and she discussed their advantages and disadvantages. It seems unlikely that these students would be studying romance novels. Even at university level 'there are very few enlightened institutions of higher learning where romances are making up many of coursepacks', as Isabel Swift, Harlequin's VP, Author & Asset Development has observed.

One problem facing scholars who wish to study and teach romance is availability (or rather non-availability) of texts. While it may be possible for an individual to find second-hand copies on ebay, at Amazon or in second-hand book shops, they're not the most dependable sources if one wants to buy large quantities of primary texts. University libraries don't tend to have extensive collections of romance novels (I'd imagine that many university libraries have no mass-market romances at all), although there are a few exceptions, such as The Ray and Pat Browne Library for Popular Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University, which
holds a wide range of romance materials from novels to valentines. The collection includes more than 10,000 volumes of category romance series from publishers such as Harlequin, Silhouette, Loveswept, Candlelight Ecstasy, and others. The holdings also include a sizable collection of mass-market romance novels, including Georgian, regency, gothic, contemporary and historicals. Leading novelists like Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Eden, Faith Baldwin, Barbara Cartland, Janet Dailey and Jayne Ann Krentz, among others, are represented in the collection. (more details here)
and the University of Melbourne:
The Romance Fiction Collections is a comprehensive collection of paper-back fiction by Australian and New Zealand, as well as British and American romance novelists; published from the 1960s up until the present, by publishers such as Mills and Boon, Silhouette and the Women’s Weekly Library. (more details here)
A significant problem for romance scholarship, then, is availability of primary texts, and not just in university libraries, but in the quantities needed if the novels are to be bought and read by large groups of students. As Juliet Flesch has noted,
These days, romance novels are published with all the appurtenances of normal books: they have title-pages, printing histories, ISBNs and copyright statements. They have, however, a remarkably short shelf-life. Harlequin Enterprises, for example, keep a backlist of three months. After that, unless they are reprinted in a “classic” edition, the books are out of print. (Flesch 1997: 119)
While single-title romances may remain available in the bookshops somewhat longer, availability, particularly for non-current titles written by some of the less famous authors, or even for the earlier works of now-famous romance authors, can be problematic. And if an academic wishes to have students study a category romance, he or she is going to have to work fast to find the book, read it, analyse it, decide it's worth teaching and make sure that the students buy sufficient copies of it, all before the book is replaced by next month's batch of category romances.

There's been a lot of talk about the 'long tail' (see here, for example), whereby a book continues to be sold and read long after its publication date:
[Chris] Anderson [who coined the term] argued that products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters, if the store or distribution channel is large enough. Examples of such mega-stores include the online retailer and the online video rental service Netflix. The Long Tail is a potential market and, as the examples illustrate, the distribution and sales channel opportunities created by the Internet often enable businesses to tap into that market successfully. (Wikipedia)
There are two ways in which this relates to the romance genre. The first is due the rise of the e-book. Many romances are now being published or republished as e-books (though there are still problems with standardising formats and hardware). The second is the creation of the Espresso Book Machine:
which can print black-and-white text for a 300-page paperback with a four-color cover, and bind it together in three minutes. [...] "Our goal is to preserve the economic and ergonomic simplicity of the physical book," said Epstein, who laments the disappearance of backlist and ready access to books in other languages. By printing from digital files, ODB hopes to make warehousing—and much of today's distribution model—obsolete. "In theory," said Epstein, "every book printed will be digitized, which means the market will be radically decentralized. A bookstore with this technology, without any expense to themselves [other than the machine] can increase their footprint." [...] While the Espresso Book Machine can print original manuscripts [...], the ODB team has a more ambitious goal: they want stores and libraries to use the machine to print copies of slow-selling titles or books that have temporarily gone out of stock, as well as rare books. (Publishers Weekly)
I hope these new technologies will prove to be the perfect partners for the serious, detailed, in-depth academic study and teaching of individual modern romance novels.
  • Flesch, Juliet, 1997. ‘Not just housewives and old maids’, Collection Building, 16.3: 119-124.


  1. Laura, isn't it possible to go to the publishers, in this case? It's possible that they don't warehouse the massive quantities of books they put out, but if it was fairly recent, they might. The ebook solution is a good idea, but if my professor needs to use a book that is out of print, we get permission from the publisher to have it copied in a coursepack. (And if we can't get permission, he sometimes does it at his own expense, anyway, but don't tell.)

  2. I know I've seen 'sold out' banners across some of the books on the Harlequin and Mills & Boon websites, so presumably that means that they have sold out. Though possibly they'd have some returns. I don't know how that works. And presumably they do have some copies of the books that haven't sold out, but I don't know how long they'd keep them for. I don't think it can be a very long time. I did a quick search on eHarlequin, for example, and the only Crusie book they have available is the one reissued in January 2006, but they have Nora Roberts' books which were published (reissued?) in June 2004.

    So yes, you're right, they may be available for quite a bit longer than I thought.

    I can't imagine a publisher would be very happy about entire novels being photocopied, though I could be wrong. And from a purely practical point of view it would be a pain to do. But yes, it is another possibility.

  3. Every new reader is a potential new buyer, right? At least, if the publisher was smart, that's what they'd think.

    Actually, I think it might be an interesting experiment in this "course" to ask each student to go out and find (buy or borrow) their own category romance. Then, they would make a short presentation to the class, which would then compare and contrast the books. What about the blurb appealed to them? Unless it was a large class, it would be fairly easy, as most of these books can be read in two or three hours. I'll bet you could even put an add in the paper or in church or at the library asking for donations of Mills & Boon "classics" and you could amass a library for your class to choose from.

  4. Yes, that's another possibility, but there are a few problems with it. The first is that students might end up with a novel that is a very poor example of the genre (even I will admit that there are some very boring, badly written romances out there, much as it pains me to make that admission ;-) ) If that's their first exposure to a category romance, it might also turn out to be their last, and it won't do much to raise the profile of the genre.

    The second problem is that if you're looking at themes in the genre and comparing and contrasting various novels (I think this is what Eric's been doing, for example, using selected single-title romances) then choosing a category romance at random might mean it doesn't particularly relate to the single titles, and this might create a perception that single-titles are more 'serious' and worthy of individual study than category romances.

    The third problem is that this method doesn't guarantee that all the students are going to be able to pick up the themes/ideas in the novel. (1) Some students may simply be unlucky and pick a novel which has fairly cardboard characters, a plot and little else and (2) some students may not be very good at analysing novels without guidance from the lecturer. This will be a problem in the above scenario, given that the lecturer will not have read the book.

    The fourth problem is that, in general, this is not a normal approach to the study of literary texts, at least not in my experience. Yes, one sometimes studies a poem chosen somewhat at random from a selection, but poems are much shorter, and it's easy to photocopy them so that the whole class can read them, and the selection is generally made from a collection of poems which the lecturer has chosen. So that might raise questions about why romance is treated differently.

    Maybe I'm being very pessimistic and emphasising the negatives here. And, of course, as I have never taught a course on the genre, I'm just speculating, not drawing on any experience of teaching romance. You probably know far more about teaching methods at universities than I do.

  5. Not really. I was only thinking out loud. I didn't mean to imply this would be the only methodology in the class, merely an interesting experiment to use in conjunction with more orthodox study of assigned texts. The thing is, romances are so particular to the reader. If the professor assigned particular categories I didn't like (for example, cowboy romances, "marriage of convenience" plots which I think are quite silly, not to mention outdated) I might be turned off.

    Perhaps this would be a good end-of-term exercise, after the lecturer has already had a chance to set up the genre and its themes. After all, how can you tell a class, "This is an example of a worthy category romance" when there are really no guidelines to avoiding less-than-stellar ones unless you absolutely stick to the same authors? The "choose your own" experiment allows the students to see the wide variety of romances out there, from the silly to the sublime.

    Personally, I'm not as impressed as you are by category romances, as you probably know. There are some I remember fondly from my youth. "The experiment" gives the student a chance to go out, read blurbs, and find that romance set in Nova Scotia or Tierra del Fuego, for him/herself, learn that first impressions are always wrong, that ex-girlfriends are always liars, and that a simple question would have prevented that horrible misunderstanding. :)

  6. Oh, you're being so cruel to me, Jennifer. Now I want to go and find examples of first impressions which are correct, ex-girlfriends who tell the truth and couples who discuss their misunderstandings. There are quite a lot of these scenarios out there, I know there are.

    Laura stamps her foot, tosses her long tresses and storms out of the room, her violet-coloured eyes flashing.


    But really, there are lots and lots of category romances out there in which the characters behave in sensible ways.

  7. But really, there are lots and lots of category romances out there in which the characters behave in sensible ways.

    You mean where the heroine isn't bribed or blackmailed into a marriage with a rich Romeo for his family's/business' sake only to find out he was really in love with her all along and just too insecure/arrogant to tell her? :) There probably are a few.

  8. Hey - this is absolutely wonderful! I keep insisting that someone should study romantic novels, specially the 180 page, standard romance, from mills and boon, loveswept, harlequin, silhouette - who are all personal favourites. There is a lot of chaff, but occasionally you come across absolute winners. If formulas like the agatha christie mystery can become classics, it's not inconceivable that there would be many good writers of prescriptive romance.

    what are you looking at, specifically?

    To add to your list of places with romantic novel collections, The University of Rochester has a very extensive collection of Silhouette desire. Just one specific sub category - but about five years of worth of four books a month - it's a great way to see themes growing more popular over time. If you, your class have the time, you can actually trace the progress of a single author, and see how they refine their characters, and then, once they hit a formula, how closely their characters resemble each other.

    (I was the only person at the UofR who borrowed them, I think it's their deep dark secret)

  9. Hello, Cripes, and welcome to the blog.

    There is a lot of chaff, but occasionally you come across absolute winners.

    I agree, I've read some really, really good category romances. There has been some positive academic analysis done of Mills & Boon romances - jay Dixon's The Romantic Fiction Of Mills & Boon: 1909-1995, for example, but she does cover a relatively long period, so there isn't a detailed analysis of individual books. It's more of an overview of certain themes in M&B romances and how they've developed over the period 1909-1995. There's a link to the index and the first few pages of the introduction here, and then click on 'Search Inside' (the first page (the front cover) is black, for some reason, and there's one blank page, but the rest are readable).

    Do you have any recommendations for specific novels/authors?

    what are you looking at, specifically?

    Right at the moment I'm working on Jennifer Crusie's Sizzle. It's only a novella, in fact, about 90 pages long, published by Harlequin, so even shorter than usual for a category romance. I'd like to do work on other category romances in the future. I've done a bit of that on the blog: I've got posts on Betty Neels' Discovering Daisy, Jessica Hart's Mistletoe Marriage and Julie Cohen's Being a Bad Girl, (the analysis got rather long, so it's in 2 parts - Part 1 and Part 2. Most of my other posts where I've analysed romance have included a lot of Mills & Boon romances because that's what I can get hold of easily in my local library and shops.

    To add to your list of places with romantic novel collections, The University of Rochester has a very extensive collection of Silhouette desire.

    That's interesting. I wonder why that collection was started/who made the decision to order them. I looked it up in their catalogue and I found an entry for 'Silhouette desire' with a 'Holdings Summary: no.1-324, 326-630' and an entry for 'Silhouette romance' with a 'Holdings Summary: no. 1-30, no.32-117, no.119-554, no.556-566, no.568-783'. They seem to have begun collecting them in 1982 and 1980 respectively.

  10. This is only an offhand thought, but sometimes it really is hard to reconcile the idea of category romance as important literature with a backlist only three months long. Such a backlist says to me that the publisher, at least, thinks their books are widgets. Each widget can be replaced by the next widget every three months and no one will particularly care.

    Of course, one can't judge literary or social value exclusively by the behavior of the publishing corporation.

    I was going to say that one gets the same impression when a Nora Roberts can turn out 3, 4, 5 books a year. If Book X is really so wonderful, it seems like you would want to spend some time on its creation. However, 1) on the other hand, one of my favorite books is The Count of Monte Cristo and my understanding is that Dumas tossed out new works every three days, some times with assistant writers filling in his plot outlines, and 2) if Roberts can sit down and write 6 hours a day, why does that make her work worse than someone who can only write for 30 minutes and takes 2 days off before writing the next paragraph.

    I don't know.

    But it does seem like works of value should have staying power, while the category romance industry routinely acts as if one romance is just like another - to be written and published and replaced as fast as possible.

  11. the category romance industry routinely acts as if one romance is just like another - to be written and published and replaced as fast as possible.

    Yes, that's true, and Crusie's commented on this:

    category publishers treat the form as if they were selling soup, and it's hard to get respect for soup. Even so, the soup approach to romance is not intrinsically bad as long as it stays in marketing where it belongs. When a publisher does a good job of marketing, he sells a lot of books, and his writers make money, and everybody's happy.

    The problem comes when the publisher starts to think he really is selling soup.

    Publishers of category romance do in fact reprint some of the stories. I'm assuming that these are the ones that did best the first time round and/or are by favourite authors. Jenny Crusie's Manhunting, for example, first came out in September 1993, it was republished in 2000 and is coming out again early next year.

    Also, as Crusie points out, a lot of this has to do with marketing. The high numbers of books sold and the speed with which they're replaced could have a lot to do with their popularity and the voracious reading habits of those who buy them. Many romance readers read a lot of books, and they want new ones frequently. Publishers supply that demand, and given that with category romances many people will buy an entire line's output every month, there's a logic behind why there isn't much point (from the publisher's point of view) in keeping older books on the shelves. They can assume that most of their customers select books to buy each month. Customers who buy that line regularly know the books won't be around for long, and so make sure to buy them in the time-period available.

    As you say, many of the works we now consider great literature were produced quickly and/or in serialised form. I'm not convinced that the speed or the way a work is first published is therefore a good indicator of a work's quality. Fernando de Rojas claims to have written most of the Comedia de Calisto y Melibea , later revised and now known as Celestina, in only fifteen days, 'quinze días de vnas vacaciones' (I say most, because according to Rojas the initial portion was copied from some papers he found but which left the story unfinished. There is plenty of critical discussion about whether any of this is true.) But regardless of the speed with which it's written, or the form in which it's published, a work has to have exposure to people who will praise it and recommend it, and who have the authority to call it 'great literature', before it will even be considered for 'classic' status.

    I'm not sure who decides what is and what isn't a great work. You're probably right that most romance publishers don't think of their books in this light. And they're probably right too - there will be very few romances which are truly great, because great works are rare in any period and genre. But I think there may be some which are (though it's impossible for me to predict which books will stand the test of time). And the quality of the others will vary, with a great number being very good and very entertaining and another large quantity being not so good, and some being dire (although even then, there will be someone out there who will be entertained by them and perhaps greatly prefer them to some of the books I'd think were 'better').