Treat yourself to the AAR bookbag!

June 15 & 22, 2004 - Issue #182

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

This issue of At the Back Fence is presented in two parts, on two separate days. Part I focuses on an anlysis of my own library while Part II analyzes the results of our recent reader/publisher survey, the third of its kind since the column began in 1996. Work on the analysis of my own library took so long and was so involved that I could not tackle both sections and still meet the original deadline of June 15th. So the column was broken up into two parts and, after another week of culling through data, the second goes online today, June 22nd.

  Part I (06/15) Part II (06/22)

Laurie's Library

Last month we conducted a reader survey, the third over a period of eight years, on publishers and possible publisher preferences. A series of thirteen questions were posed - some of which had been asked before while others were new this time around. I'll be reporting on those survey results soon, but first I want to lay out for you a detailed look at my own library database. This is the third time I've analyzed my personal database. The first two instances were quite useful. It remained a useful exercise this time around, but one requiring far more analysis - and a whole lot more work given the sheer number of books entered into the database! In order to analyze the books I've read I looked at records comprising 836 books of which 678 were romances. 99.9% of the romances read are included in the database, but I've not always been so strenuous about entering non-romances, probably a good thing since it took four days simply to get through what was entered and analyze it.

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The aggregate data, upon first look, depressed me. It seemed as though four days of scut work showed little, other than what I already thought I knew. But as I looked deeper I noticed subtle differences that not only reflect my own personal reading journey over the past ten years, but things that could apply to most, if not all, romance readers given the changes we've seen in the publishing industry in terms of consolidations, the demise of certain imprints, other publishing trends, and author moves between publishers. I'm not quite enough of an anal-retentive perfectionist that I plan to do such a comprehensive look at my library again, but as the answers to some of the questions posed to readers in the survey are different for me after having taken this look than before, the time was well spent.

It's tough to present a piece like this without overdoing the statistics, and my own computerized spreadsheet for this project is incredibly complex, which at the very least afforded me the chance to use skills that have remained dormant for some years now. The tables included in the column are fairly straightforward and provide useful information. The first of these tables lists the percentage of books I've read, in ranked order, by publisher.

We're half-way through the reading year and now seems a good time for us to take a look at what we've read this year. Robin and I both do that, but from different angles. She considers some of the bigger releases of the year while I'll discuss my reading in general. Between the two segments I think we hit upon both widely read books and some experiences you all may relate/have related to at some point in your reading.

Publisher Books Read of Total
Harlequin
26%
Penguin-Putnam
17%
HarperCollins
17%
Random House
14%
Simon & Schuster
10%
Kensington
7%
Dorchester
3%
Macmillan
3%
Warner
3%
Listed at left are the main romance publishers and below ared their imprints; some imprints are discontinued.
  • Harlequin: Harlequin, Silhouette, MIRA, Red Dress Ink
  • HarperCollins: Harper, Avon, William Morrow
  • Penguin-Putnam: Berkley, Onyx, Jove, Signet, NAL, Topaz, Ace, ROC, Viking
  • Random House: Ballantine, Bantam, Broadway, Crown, Dell, Del Rey, Delacorte, Fawcett, Ivy
  • Simon & Schuster: Pocket, Atria, Downtown Press, Scribner
  • Kensington: Zebra, Pinnacle, Brava, Bouquet, Ballad
  • Dorchester: Leisure, LoveSpell Macmillan: St Martin's Press, Tor, Forge (for our purposes)
  • Warner: Warner, Little Brown, Mirimax

The two tables below each provide a different look based on grades given to books released by each of the publishing conglomerates. The first breaks out grades within each publishing house while the second compares grades between publishers. Read the first table horizontally and the second vertically.

Grades Within Each Publishing House (read horizontally)
Publisher
A
B
C
D
F
Total Books
Total Romances
Percent Romances
Harlequin
3%
42%
48%
13%
4%
219
219
100%
Penguin-Putnam
7%
52%
24%
11%
6%
144
107
74%
HarperCollins
9%
45%
34%
8%
4%
142
98
69%
Random House
7%
41%
49%
16%
7%
116
82
71%
Simon & Schuster
20%
34%
20%
22%
3%
88
67
76%
Kensington
7%
38%
36%
16%
4%
56
54
96%
Dorchester
0%
50%
18%
18%
14%
55
21
95%
Macmillan
0%
52%
26%
22%
0%
27
17
63%
Warner
0%
36%
32%
27%
5%
22
14
64%

Grades Between Publishers (read vertically)
Publisher
A
B
C
D
F
Harlequin
10%
25%
33%
25%
20%
Penguin-Putnam
17%
21%
13%
14%
23%
HarperCollins
22%
18%
19%
10%
17%
Random House
14%
13%
13%
20%
20%
Simon & Schuster
31%
8%
7%
16%
8%
Kensington
7%
6%
8%
8%
5%
Dorchester
0%
3%
2%
3%
8%
Macmillan
0%
4%
3%
5%
0%
Warner
0%
2%
3%
5%
3%
--Totals--
59
363
256
118
40

Even though all reading experiences are different, certain useful conclusions can be drawn from exploring my personal reading journey. For instance, most of my DIK's - eighteen books - were published by Simon & Schuster, but of those eighteen, ten were written by Julie Garwood, three by Kathryn Lynn Davis, and two by Jillian Hunter (Judith McNaught and Jill Barnett are responsible for the remaining two romance DIK's). Julie Garwood, of course, followed her editor to Ballantine some years ago. As a result of so many DIK's for these three authors combined, S&S is tops in terms of DIK's for me, at 31%. HarperCollins comes in second, with 22%, and the remaining publishers follow far behind S&S. Just over three-fourths of the S&S books I've read are romances - four non-romances earned DIK status (the three KLD's are Historical Fiction and Joy Fielding's The First Time is Women's Fiction). Most of the non-romances in the B range are Young Adult novels and Women's Fiction from Judy Blume.
This is somewhat of an aside, but I'm interested in seeing how many readers have clusters of authors like I have Garwood, KLD, and Hunter (other clusters are revealed later in the segment), and how much non-genre romance plays a part in your reading and reading enjoyment. When you think about it, this clustering really refers to glom-favorites, and don't we all have those? For instance, here's a quick table indicating how my reading is clustered - all authors represented earned three or more A's and B's from me (43 authors earned 2 A's or B's from me):

Books Enjoyed

3
4
5
6
7
10
12
15
16
25

234

Number of Authors

19
9
4
6
1
1
1
1
1
1

44

This shows my glomming habit. Of the 44 authors represented, 29 are in the table for books released by a single publisher. Fourteen authors are represented by two publishers, and the third, which surprisingly is not the author with 25 titles represented, has three publishers.

Moving on to HarperCollins now; they "tie" with Penguin-Putnam in publishing the second highest number of books I've read (Harlequin comes in first). Many years ago Harper published an established and substantial roster of romance authors. They phased out their romance program over a couple of years in the late-ish 1990's, and then bought Avon. Interestingly enough, as I perused the titles in my library I noticed that many Harper reads were fairly dark in tone, and of course, all that's gone now with the demise of the HarperMonogram imprint. Some authors I enjoyed in this imprint were Sharon Ihle (although her books weren't dark), Teresa Southwick, and Candace Camp, whose style changed drastically in the last few years with MIRA.

Thirteen HarperCollins titles earned DIK status from me over the years and all but one are romances; a Literary Fiction title has the 13th slot. Christina Dodd, Julia Quinn, Anne Stuart, and Katherine Sutcliffe (neither of these last two continue as Avon authors) each have two DIK's; Lisa Kleypas, Johanna Lindsey, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and Catherine Coulter (the majority of whose books have been published by Penguin-Putnam) each have one DIK. Seven of the twelve romance DIK's were published no later than the early/middle 1990's and are much darker in tone than the other five, more (relatively) recent releases.

While 11 of the twelve romance DIK's are Regency-set historicals, until fairly recently Avon published what appears to be a more varied group of romances in terms of settings and style. That my more recent DIK's are lighter in tone is something I expected to find given that it seems there are weekly discussions online about how so many Avon releases are of the lighter variety. Another common discussion point with online readers is that most Avon releases seem to be 1800s England-set historicals (mostly set in the Regency) these days. In looking back at my library I find there were more westerns and medievals before; even Lorraine Heath, one of the best western writers out there, is now writing historicals set in England in the 1800s. And when I look at the reviews I post at AAR and the books I see listed in our Coming Attractions feature, what I notice about my library and what I've been hearing from readers is substantiated. It's not that there are no medievals or westerns being published by Avon, there simply seem to be fewer. And "darker" authors continue to be published by Avon, as witnessed by continued releases by Karen Ranney, Lisa Kleypas, and Lorraine Heath, but they seem in the minority. Are you among those readers who adore Avon's stable of authors or are you in that group who finds the authors somewhat interchangeable in terms of setting or tone?

This isn't something necessarily limited to Avon, BTW. Over at Random House, at Bantam, Madeline Hunter, who began a wonderful romance writing career in 2000, made that wonderful start writing medievals. In 2003 she switched from the Medieval to Regency era, and while a great writer is a great writer, her ability to make the Middle Ages come alive is sorely missed.

I buy a fairly significant number of Avon authors on a regular basis, in addition to those listed earlier, including Christie Ridgway and Victoria Alexander (Loretta Chase is a newer discovery for me and I also have her older Signet trads to look forward to now that they're being reissued); the allure of Stephanie Laurens unfortunately wore off after a few books. Although I read Ridgway and SEP, contemporary Avon romances are quite limited in my library. Bad experiences with Elaine Fox, Karen Kendall, and Sue Civil-Brown turned me off trying most others, although I plan to be first in line to buy former AAR reviewer/editor Marianne Stillings' July release. Interestingly enough, books by each of the three authors responsible for those bad experiences tried to win me over with romantic comedies - each failed. SEP also writes on the light side, though Dream a Little Dream was a departure, and her humor hits the spot. Ridgway definitely has humorous moments in her books, but they are darker in tone.

HarperCollins is a publisher I seem to turn to for non-romance; over 60% of the books I've graded B are not romances. Barbara Kingsolver, Colleen McCullough, Anne Rivers Siddons, Patricia Gaffney, and Louise Rennison account for most of these other books.

Another item to note regarding HarperCollins; in the "old days" Avon released traditional Regencies; 15% of the books earning B grades were old trads originally published by Avon and reissued a couple of years ago by Harlequin. I included these in Harper's numbers but know the "reissue by different publisher" phenomenon is tough to deal with, as is the "reissue by original publisher after the author hits it big." Are those earlier releases up to par with later books at different publishers, and/or does including these books force us too far back historically to be useful for our purposes?

Let's talk about Harlequin now, which for my purposes doesn't include the new Luna line or Red Dress Ink. As they published 26% of the books I've read, Harlequin represents my most-read publisher, and by a substantial amount; next in line are Penguin-Putnam and HarperCollins, tied at 17%. More than a hundred books separate Harlequin from P-P and HarperCollins. I'm not sure why I keep reading as many Harlequin-published books as I do - at least its contemporary category lines. What I should be doing is reading a whole lot more of their Harlequin Historicals. Four of the six Harlequins to have earned DIK status from me are HH's. Only one is a contemporary category release and the final to have earned DIK status is a MIRA title. More than half the HH's I've read are ones I've enjoyed; that's the case with fewer than half where Harlequin's contemporary category releases are concerned. I've read too few MIRA's to analyze them, but I think that's because so many of MIRA's titles are romantic suspense, which doesn't appeal to me. (The chart below features numbers rather than percentages because I didn't want to get into decimal points, which would have been necessary):

Harlequin Type A B C D F Total
Harlequin Historical
4
19
14
4
1
42
Harlequin/Silhouette
1
70
67
24
5
167
MIRA
1
3
3
1
2
10
--Totals--
6
92
84
29
8
219

Two of the HH's I loved were Regency-set historicals by Deborah Simmons, the third was a trad by Anne Gracie, and the final HH DIK was a Medieval by Catherine Archer. Anne Gracie's was released in 2001 while the others came out in the mid to late 1990s. My one contemporary category DIK is a 1986 Elizabeth Lowell; the MIRA belongs to Mary Alice Monroe and was published in 2002. I enjoyed Monroe's 2003 MIRA release as well, and one title each by Stef Ann Holm and Rachel Lee (out of several read by her or her aka Sue Civil-Brown).

In looking at the HH's I liked but did not love, Cheryl St. John, Julia Justiss, Kate Bridges, Merline Lovelace, Suzanne Barclay (she unfortunately passed away a few years ago), Rae Muir, Lynna Banning, (more) Deborah Simmons, (more Anne Gracie) and Ruth Langan are represented. Lovelace, Barclay, and Langan make multiple appearances, but the reason I mention all these authors, even those that appear only once, is to showcase HH's variety in terms of setting. St. John's and Banning's HH's are westerns, as are Kate Bridges, but the latter's westerns are set in Canada. Merline Lovelace's HH's spanned the millennia; settings include ancient Rome and Egypt, Medieval England, and the high seas of the 1800s. Rae Muir's The Pearl Stallion is another high seas romance, and Ruth Langan's historicals, like Suzanne Barclay's are Medieval. Deborah Simmons', Anne Gracie's and Julia Justiss' HH's are Regency-set.

Every month it seems as though there's a western, a medieval, and a couple of Regency-set historicals on sale, something I'm going to pay more attention to in the future. Excellent historical writing exists in the world of Harlequin, and because these historicals are generally shorter by about 40 pages than most other historicals, the padding you see in other historicals simply isn't there. There are no extra tacked-on sub-plots or final separations to keep the book going for a few more chapters. It's "the good stuff," and only the good stuff.

When it comes to contemporary category romances, most of my favorite H/S authors no longer write the format, although Leanne Banks, who's authored ten B reads (and some C's as well), still does. What appeals to me most about her is that she even manages to make those ridiculously contrived continuity series work fairly well. Other authors I continue to read in these lines include Sally Tyler Hayes, Ruth Langan, Christie Ridgway, Jennifer Greene, and Alison Kent. Each of these authors has written at least two category titles I enjoyed. A number of other authors have written one book I liked, but subsequent reads haven't worked so well.

The vast majority if the category titles I've liked were written by four authors who no longer write category; Nora Roberts tops out the group with 17 B's, and is followed by Linda Howard with six B's, and finally, Jayne Anne Krentz and Lowell tie - each with five B's. Krentz, though, has the distinction among this group of earning more C's and D's than she has B's in the category arena. Many of her older categories haven't aged well (to a far lesser extent the same can be said for Nora Roberts), making their reading an often cringe-inducing experience.

The authors often touted as the best and brightest in today's category romance whom I've tried have left me cold. And those who have written one reasonably good contemporary title, like Cheryl St. John, Gina Wilkins, Merline Lovelace (I much preferred her HH's), and Amy Fetzer, failed to capture my fancy the second time around. When I read beyond that one good book I saw the same flaws that annoy me in most category romances: because of their relatively short length everything is either accelerated or exaggerated, rendering them unbelievable. Either that or they bore me to tears, something that's happened with more than a couple of authors who came highly recommended, like Kathleen Creighton and Karen Templeton. Nora Roberts somehow managed to make a short book read like a longer one, and while Banks, Langan, Greene, and Kent don't, there's something about their style that works for me regardless.

Harlequin and Silhouette's individual contemporary lines are written to attract specific markets; you'll find romantic suspense in the Intrigue line, inspirational romance in the Steeple Hill line, and romantica in the Blaze line. I paid less attention when looking at my library to which specific line was most represented within each grade group because I already have a strong sense of this and read within only a few lines, and then by author. The vast majority of category romance I've enjoyed are Desires, SIM's, SSE's, the very occasional Temptation, and quite rarely, a Blaze. Authors recommended to me in the Superromance line haven't proven worth reading, and both Harlequin and Silhouette's Romance line truly read to me more like YA romance than anything else. Harlequin, in its fashion, does try to keep up with certain publishing and societal trends, but I think it's more successful when it does so outside category parameters. Cravings for Chick Lit and romantica, it seems to me, work better in non-category arenas such as Red Dress Ink than the relatively new Flip-Side line, and thus far I've only found one Blaze author - Alison Kent - whose romantica is truly erotic and not Harlequin's version of it.

What do you like best - and least - about the short format of Harlequin's contemporary category lines? Are you an HH reader or think you should be? Are you reading Luna, Red Dress Ink, and/or MIRA, and if so, which authors are you reading? Finally, which H/S lines work best - or worst - for you, or do they all succeed or fail?

Penguin-Putnam ties with HarperCollins as the publisher of the second highest number of books I've read. Ten of my DIK's were published by Penguin-Putnam - nine were romances and the tenth truly a romance, but not a genre book as it was written many, many years ago - Mrs. Mike (see our DIK review of this classic, Jennifer Greene wrote it for us). Of those nine remaining DIK's, four were written by Nora Roberts, four by Catherine Coulter, and one by Jill Marie Landis.

P-P's various imprints seem distinctive to me. The old Topaz line, which ended several years ago, featured books lush in style and serious in tone while the Onyx line has mostly been a flop for me in terms of romance novels (my least favorite Coulter, Sutcliffe, and Kleypas titles were published by Onyx, although my favorite Mary Jo Putney title was an Onyx release). Jove and Berkley titles are among those I can almost always pick out as P-P books, although after reading MaryJanice Davidson's Undead and Unwed I did a double-take when I saw the publisher was Berkley; I just don't associate them with so much snark.

Penguin-Putnam publishes a great deal of genre fiction, but until 2001 I hadn't really read other genres besides romance. But beginning that year Ace and ROC, P-P's Fantasy and SF imprints, began to appear in my library, mostly as written by Laurell K Hamilton and Charlaine Harris, which extended my Fantasy/Horror reading beyond Anne Rice.

2001 was an important reading year for me, again courtesy of Penguin-Putnam. While I read a smattering of Signet Regencies prior to 2001, approximately half-way through that year I seriously "discovered" the traditional Regency. As one of two publishers to continue to regularly publish Regencies (the other being Zebra), I've come to better appreciate Penguin-Putnam, even though many of the trads I've enjoyed aren't brand-spanking new. And yet, even though I've only been reading trads for three years, they now account for fully half the B's I awarded to P-P romances. Many of the authors I've grown to love in the trad sub-genre no longer write them (Mary Balogh and Diane Farr now write full-length historicals, Karen Harbaugh moved beyond trads as well, and Patricia Oliver died in 2002 or 2003), but the tradition from Signet is certainly there, and I continue to hope that new talent will emerge from the line. Some of my favorite recently published Signet Regencies (2003 - current) were written by Melinda McRae (who's been a favorite for a few years now), Nancy Butler, Laura Matthews, Elizabeth Powell, Rhonda Woodward, and Amanda McCabe, although I understand Butler is no longer writing Regencies.

Random House comprises the largest number of previous separate publishers, and I find it most difficult to analyze my experiences because of this. Long ago Bantam reminded me quite a bit of Pocket, and when Bantam joined Dell as part of BDD (Bantam, Doubleday, Dell), I didn't have a problem reconciling them as a single entity in my mind. Now, though, I am constantly having to remind myself which other publishers now fall under the umbrella of Random House.

I think it's Ballantine's addition to the umbrella that triggers this difficulty for me. Ballantine didn't always have a romance program (or much of one), but it certainly became significant just about the time editor Linda Marrow left S&S for Ballantine. Some of her authors, when they made the jump with her, also switched from writing historicals to romantic suspense; not surprisingly I don't read all that many Ballantines. Indeed, Ballantine now publishes one of the biggest romantic suspense novelists of all - Suzanne Brockmann - although she was not a former Pocket author. BTW, an author I do read who is published by Ballantine also writes romantic suspense - Jane Graves.

Many of the Ballantine's historical romance authors write in what I consider an overblown style, something that's shared with romance authors in another Random House imprint - Dell. Nicole Jordan and Gaelen Foley come immediately to mind (and over at Dell, Karen Marie Moning); I basically stopped reading Jordan when she moved to Ballantine and though Gaelen Foley has impressed me in the past, her overblown style eventually turned me off. Anne Rice, who also writes for Ballantine, has a style that is occasionally (okay, maybe more than just "occasionally") overblown...at times it's actually self-indulgent.

In preparing for this column I realized that Random House has published the largest percentage of non-romances I've liked or loved; that's when I saw who Anne Rice's publisher was. In addition to Rice, Random House has published a number of Young Adult novels by Caroline Cooney, the two Traveling Pants novels (one earned DIK status, the other a B+), quite a bit of well-favored Literary Fiction, another of LKH's series, and at least a couple of Calvin Trillin favorites.

I awarded eight Random House books DIK status; six were romances, and none were published by Ballantine. Three - The Bargain, Scoundrel, and Once an Angel - were Bantams and the other three - A Basket of Wishes, My Dearest Enemy, and A Dove at Midnight - were published by Dell. Each of these were books published in the 1990's; Brockway remains at Dell, Becnel moved to SMP, Medeiros is now with Avon, and Jane Ashford, Rebecca Paisley, and Elizabeth Elliott have not been published in years. Not mentioned on this list is Amanda Quick (aka Jayne Ann Krentz), who writes for Bantam. I've read 11 Quick titles and while the vast majority earned B's from me, none reached DIK status.

In the late 1990s - not long after I discovered I didn't hate category romances - Bantam discontinued its Loveswept line. But a few I found at the UBS were good, and soon I was buying more. That turns out to have been something of a mistake, much like the error I've made in reading as many H/S categories as I have. No Loveswept title earned DIK status from me, and while just about two in ten earned B grades from me, if you double that you'll know how many earned C's. My favorite Loveswept author, Donna Kauffman, moved on to write category romance for Harlequin, Chick Lit and paranormal romance for Random House, and Chick Lit and romantica for Brava. Another good Loveswept author, Marcia Evanick, later wrote for H/S (I didn't enjoy her H/S's nearly as well as her Loveswepts) and is now at Kensington.

Kensington is the largest privately owned publisher in the U.S., and one of two publishers still releasing traditional Regency Romances. Nearly half of the Kensington novels I've read earned grades of A or B. Until 2001 I'd never awarded a Kensington novel DIK status; since then I've awarded four, and all four were for traditional Regencies. Interestingly enough, my only DIK trads are these four; two written by Donna Simpson, a third by Catherine Blair, and the fourth by Nonnie St. George, the latter being the only romp of the bunch. I've enjoyed a number of additional Zebra Regencies by authors Shannon Donnelly, and Donna Simpson and Nonnie St. George (again). After two trads, St. George is already moving beyond the sub-genre.

Kensington tries to garner market share through innovation for its genre romances. They dabbled in a WalMart-only line for a few years, published category historicals and contemporaries (Jacque D'Alessandro and Maddie James both wrote fun books for Zebra's Bouquet line), and created the first "multi-cultural" line. More recently they've gotten into the romantica market, first with anthologies and now the Brava line (which also releases some Chick Lit), and some of their new authors - whether romantica or romance - have made a big splash. This is all to their credit. On the other hand, Kensington is known as a publisher for authors at the start or the end of their careers and as a publisher that doesn't edit strongly enough. In other words, they may discover talent only to lose it to another publisher who pays better, or may sign authors who've already jumped the shark.

Kensington also reissues older books of authors no longer with them who've now "made it big." This is something of a crap-shoot, but with authors like Betina Krahn it's been a boon for me. Harlequin, btw, also reissues a number of its once or current biggest authors, and for those of us looking to fill out backlists for authors like Linda Howard, Nora Roberts, Barbara Delinsky, and Suzanne Brockmann, this can be helpful. Unfortunately, as soon as Roberts left Silhouette they glutted the market with her reissues, and some of the titles they've chosen to reissue for Howard and Delinsky are extremely dated. They may show how far these authors have come, but that's not why I read books.

Some of Kensington's authors I've enjoyed in the past no longer appear to be writing, including Jane Kidder and Elizabeth Graham; Linda Madl was published as recently as 2003. MaryJanice Davidson, who has a number of books out this year, is published both by Penguin-Putnam and Kensington and I look for more good things from her.

I think Kensington was very smart in how they grew their Brava line, first signing well-established authors of very steamy romance to essentially corner that end of the market. Then they began to discover and develop new talent for the line, which is all well and good if romantica is your thing. It isn't mine, although MaryJanice Davidson's The Royal Treatment was published by Brava, and it was lots of fun, and we've also given good reviews to some of Brava's Chick Lit novels. My main concern is that Kensington continue to publish Regencies; while I've read a fair amount of mediocre Zebra Regency Romances, they've got some good authors and are better than some readers think.

I've never graded a Macmillan novel (most of you are more used to the St Martin's Press name, but it, along with Tor and Forge, is owned by Macmillan) an A, although just over half have earned B's. Over a third of those B's are not romances - one of my favorite non-romance authors who's had several books released by SMP is the Irish historical fiction author Morgan Llywelyn.

I've read relatively few St Martin's Press/Tor/Forge novels in comparison to most of the other publishers represented here. Those who read a great deal of SF or Fantasy or Mystery will likely have read many more books by this publisher. SMP has a substantial number of romance authors in its stable; I just don't seem to read many of them beyond Rexanne Becnel, who earlier wrote for Dell, and Alexis Harrington. Haywood Smith, with her unique historical voice, has unfortunately moved on to Women's Fiction (I say this is unfortunate because her debut WF novel disappointed me). And Suzanne Simmons, whose record with me was spotty anyway, I believe moved on to Penguin-Putnam. SMP authors I don't much care for include Beverly Brandt, Marianne Willman, and Brenda Joyce. The latter two authors have distinctive styles that simply don't work for me; I didn't like Brandt's contemporary debut for several reasons.

I've also read relatively few Dorchester (Leisure and LoveSpell) and Warner releases. The former makes sense given that a good chunk of their books are paranormal romances. Dorchester, like Kensington, has a reputation among readers as a publisher willing to release books varied in setting, but also as a publisher that finds talent but doesn't necessarily cultivate it, as well as for signing authors who peaked years earlier for other publishers. I think that's changing, but unfortunately, it's mostly changing in the paranormal sub-genre, which doesn't do me a lot of good since I don't read it much beyond the occasional Susan Grant. Dorchester also strives to take advantage of trends by trying some innovative mini-series, something unusual, but whether this is just another form of stunt publishing is something I can't answer. Reviews were mixed for their James Bondian (B.L.I.S.S.) mini-series, but their new futuristic 2176 mini-series has proven a hit thus far.

Not only does Dorchester continue to publish a variety of historical settings, they also take some chances I appreciate. Judith E French's The Conqueror, for instance, was quite unique in that it read like a hybrid between historical fiction and historical romance; French isn't the only author to do this, but there aren't all that many, nor are there all that many I want to read because too often authors get the mix wrong, but French got it right.

In recent years both Lynsay Sands (in her medieval guise) and Carolyn Jewel have occasionally worked to me, but Julie Moffett and Debra Dier, earlier faves, are, I believe elsewhere now. Dorchester has had a fairly bad reputation among authors in the past; this may have changed at least editorially, but as far as the business goes, I think authors remain wary. Robin Lee Hatcher was forced to take legal action against the company, and Dara Joy is currently embroiled in a legal drama as well. Dorchester's earlier arrangement with BMI to reissue older releases with low royalty rates also created animus among many authors.

No Dorchester or Warner release has earned DIK status from me, although more than half of the former and over a third of the latter earned B's. Warner's romance program isn't as large as other publishers' programs, but I think they're growing the contemporary side of it, and using Harlequin/Silhouette authors to do so. I've been somewhat impressed by newer titles from Leanne Banks and Lori Wilde, but was less impressed by Carly Phillips' splashy Reading with Ripa debut and liked her more as a category author. After reading an advance copy of Lori Wilde's zippy Charmed and Dangerous I read a series of four mean-spirited YA novels by Cecily von Ziegesar, and found them interesting enough that I read all four back to back.

In putting together the previous portion of this column I made a conscious choice not to look at the July 1, 2000 issue of ATBF or the July 30, 1996 issue - the two issues wherein which we've delved into reader-publisher preferences in the past. Each of these two columns, although written about the same subject, had different focuses. The 1996 segment mainly addressed romances bought and read, while the 2000 column went into more detail as far as specific authors were concerned. This time around, because I wanted to use my experience to draw more broad conclusions, I tried to use publishers as a whole as the focus, albeit through my particular lense.

I know that for myself the publisher of a book, most particularly a romance, does play somewhat of a part in terms of what I'll buy. Most of this is based on past experience, but some is based on the same reader comments that influence many of us. Much of this influence is negative, or perhaps I should say that most of the reader input I've paid much attention to in the past is negative; based on my experience with Harlequin Historicals and more limited experience with Dorchester and Kensington, I plan to pay more attention to positive reader comments in the future.

It's difficult not to be swayed by negative comments, particularly when repeated over and over. Although I'm a huge fan of frothy romances, the "Avon authors are interchangeable in their humorous, Regency-set historicals" drumbeat has taken its toll on me. It took going back to where I think it all started at Avon, with Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels to remind myself how good a truly excellent, funny and sexy Regency-historical can be. (1996, btw, was the same year S&S published Julie Garwood's first Regency-set historical (Rebellious Desire) - the first Amanda Quick Regency-historical in comparison didn't come out until 1990.) Why, I might even go and pull out some of my Garwood favorites to finish erasing that drumbeat.

Of course, that there are so many lighter historicals than perhaps in the past is also attributable to books like those by Chase and Garwood and Quick. Had their books not captured our imaginations, we wouldn't have seen the bandwagon effect. And I wouldn't trade my Quinns or Simmons - or St. Georges, for that matter - for anything. Funny is good, dark is good, but variety is best.

I think there's an awful lot of homogeneity these days, and I appreciate that publishers such as Kensington with its Brava line and Dorchester with LoveSpell are trying hard to expand parameters by creating definite niches. Though many readers - including me at times - resist books by what I call "second-tier publishers," those of us who complain that the market is oversaturated need to be more willing to get over it, to try more HH's and Zebras and Leisures. I'm willing to overlook copy editing problems when I sense freshness, and sometimes freshness can be found simply by venturing into the lesser-read areas. For those of you who as yet don't read traditional Regencies, that may mean trying several; once they "click," as they did for me, they open up a wonderful new set of books to read. But timing is likely critical here; the traditional Regency, I fear, continues its slow death even though brilliant new authors continue to debut.

While sales have always been key in determining the longevity of an author's future, any particular author's treatment by her publisher during dry spells depends upon the publisher. Avon, for instance, will rename authors and allow them to re-build a readership while other publishers may not do so. Most of the publishing houses have decided, it seems to me, that the readership for romance is skewing older with each passing year, and are attempting to create ever-more hybrids to stave this off. I think that's why they're publishing romances that incorporate elements such as Chick Lit like they did some years ago with romances featuring strong SF/Fantasy and other paranormal elements. I'm not convinced that this is the best remedy, but am not opposed to hybrids as long as they incorporate what's best rather than what's easiest. And it's important not to over-do; some of the problems we see in today's romance are a result of jumping on certain bandwagons (and not only the "humor" one) some years back.

Other publishers may simply decide to segregate romance readers and stay the course. This is rather like burying one's head in the sand in that there are definitely areas in which genre romance can improve. My sense is that introducing a more modern sensibility into the world of category and contemporary romance is a middle ground between these two options and would allow romance to be romance while reflecting current societal and cultural realities rather than pigeon-holing them in the past. It seems to me there must be a way to capture the interest of a more youthful audience without losing the essence of the genre itself.

As for me, I want tight writing and plotting, strong dialogue, intriguing characters whom I can love, humor that works, and pathos that isn't melodramatic. But what makes me happy most of all is both quality and variety.

Survey Results

The initial idea behind surveying readers on publishers is to determine whether, subconsciously or not, publishers affect buying decisions in any way. This isn't precisely a literal question; it's not as though I believe that readers go into bookstores and ask, "Hmm, I wonder which books Bantam put out this month so I can buy them?" It's more that, over the years I've learned that there are subtle and not-so-subtle influences upon readers, and one of the subtle influences is often which publishing house released a book. Sometimes, as I indicated in the analysis of my own library above, that influence is a negative one. A reader may decide not to buy a book if it's released by a publisher they've either heard puts out sub-par books or they've decided themselves puts out sub-par books. But there are other instances in which a reader may decide, if on the fence about a book, to buy that book if it was published by a so-called "good" publisher, or one they've had positive experiences with in the past: "Hmm, I've never read this author before, but they're published by Dell, which puts out books by my favorite author. I think I'll give it a shot." This is not as far-fetched as it may seem; one respondent used these words practically verbatim when mentioning two publishers in particular. I think there are actually three sets of readers; the first have keepers across most publishers; the second don't necessarily believe publishers affect their decisions and yet when they check the books they like, some publishers are represented strongly while others are most definitely not; and the third are readers who do believe publishers affect their purchasing choices.

More recently readers have observed that certain publishers appear to publish similar kinds of romances, which is logical in that editors buy books for their publishing houses and obviously have individual tastes. But the kind of grumblings about this have gotten louder over the past couple of years, and about one of the romance powerhouses - Avon - so I was particularly interested in learning what readers who participated in the survey had to say about this possibility.

This is by no means a scientific poll, and the results will not be presented in terms of percentages or standard deviations. Instead I've restated the questions and provided a variety of answers received, indicating, of course, when those answers were in accordance with a majority of other readers.

Survey Questions

Without going back and checking your bookshelves and/or keeper shelves, tell us whether you consider the publisher when buying romances? If yes, explain and share the name of the publisher(s). If no, explain. Now take a look at your bookshelves, your keeper shelves, and your tbb list. Can you discern any buying habits in terms of publishers? Are many of the authors you like published by the same house(s)? If yes, which house(s)? Has this changed over the years, and if so, what might account for it?

Continue this look at your keeper shelves. Are any publishers are more strongly represented than others? If, for instance, Berkley is in the lead because all the J.D. Robb books are among your keepers, note that. And, if you notice a cluster of publishers you keep, indicate which ones they are. Finally, are there any publishers that are less represented on your keeper shelf?

Do some publishers put out a higher quality product? If your answer is yes, explain what you mean (better copy editing, better story editing, nicer covers, "better" authors, etc.), and share the name of the publisher(s).

Are there particular publishers that release a more varied set of romances than others, and has this changed over time? In other words, does Publisher X, in your opinion, tend to release a variety of styles, settings, and types or does Publisher X seem to release a great many romances featuring a similar style, setting, or type? Regardless of whether or not you've said "yes" or "no," has this publisher changed in this aspect over time? Do some publishers rely or over-rely on certain themes, devices, or storylines?

Some publishers seem to have many well-known (and/or) excellent authors, strong editing and beautiful covers, while others seem to have a reputation for publishing authors and books that seem unpolished. Some have a reputation for books that are less sophisticated. Others sometimes publish books that are poorly edited - the writing isn't as polished, the editing less well done, etc. Which publishers have you heard of as having good reputations? Are these good reputations deserved? If not, did you used to think so but have noticed they no longer do? And, are there publishers who put out a better quality of romance now than they used to? If the answer to that last question is yes, does that publisher still have a bad rep?

If you have a bag of books to trade in, take a look at it. Are any publishers more highly represented than any others? If yes, which publisher(s)? If you don't have any books to trade at the moment, try to remember some past trades and whether or not any publisher(s) seemed highly represented. And, do you think there are some publishers with a "bad reputation?" If so, which publishers would you so categorize, and are those bad reps deserved?

Do you find that some imprints/lines/series work consistently well or poorly for you? For instance, do you generally enjoy the Brava line or most books put out by Harlequin Temptations? Similarly, are there lines and or imprints that have disappointed you over time?

Several years ago many publishing houses merged, and the fear was that by doing so, quality and/or variety would get lost in the shuffle. Has this fear been born out as far as you're concerned? Have you noticed any changes in the romances you are reading as a result of this? And, speculate on what the future holds.

Publishers try to maintain and attract new readers in a variety of ways. Some create new imprints for specific romance sub-genres, others create new sub-genres, and others have launched new imprints that feature strong romantic subplots but that aren't genre romances per se. And still other publishers have stopped publishing certain sub-genres, or are rumored to be doing so. Let's consider all of this in terms of publisher commitment. Do you believe all, most, some, or few of the romance publishers we know today remain as committed to the genre as they were five years ago? Feel free to rank the publishers from most to least committed if that helps.

Are all, some, or few publishers of genre romance "modern" enough or too modern for you in terms of today's culture? Depending on your answer, is this a good thing, a bad thing, or something that you find unimportant?

Now that you've had a chance to think about the questions asked and given your answers, would you say there is a difference for you among the various publishers? What are those differences? Finally, did you learn something that you hadn't expected?

There were three distinct answers to this group of questions. Karen probably represents the first in that she never considers a publisher when buying a romance. She buys romances when she's loved an author's previous books, when the word of mouth is great, and when the settings or characters intrigue her. Her favorite authors are published by a variety of publishing houses and she auto-buys romances by Emma Holly (Berkley) and Robin Schone (Kensington). Patricia's response was similar to Karen's; she "never considers publishers when buying any book." A couple of authors are highly represented on her keeper shelf (Jane Feather and Madeline Hunter), which means there are more Bantams than other publishers, but "every publisher I can think of (and several who not longer publish) are on my keeper shelf."

The reader who doesn't consider publishers at all is, by far, the most represented type of reader from the survey. Vanessa mirrored Karen's response when she wrote, "I buy according to author, reviews, and genre," as did Becky, who answered, "The publisher is not a consideration. The author is a big one. Storyline if I am unfamiliar with the author."

Of course most readers rely on their experience with the author, whether or not the storyline appeals, word of mouth, setting, or reviews to help them determine which books to buy. Again, I was interested in whether or not less conscious thoughts went into book-buying decisions. After all, if three of your favorite authors, contributing half of your keeper shelf, are all signed to the same publishing house, it seems reasonable to assume that might affect you in some way.

Nancy's answer spoke for the second type of common reader; one who didn't necessarily think she noticed the publisher. But it turns out that Avon represents the largest part of her book shelf; "it's not that I buy all of their books, but I've noticed that they publish many of my favorite authors," particularly Rachel Gibson and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. MIRA, LoveSpell, Zebra, and Jove also seem to publish many of the romances she reads. Like Nancy, Becky doesn't believe she pays attention to which publisher released a book, and yet, like Nancy, a majority of her favorite authors - 80% actually - are Avon authors.

On the other hand, Elaine is somewhat skeptical when it comes to Avon releases (and Leisures as well). Although both have some fine authors, she finds that she needs "to consider their 'unknown' authors more carefully." Elaine believes that Avon's publications are more uniform than other publishers, with "not enough surprise and variety." Her issue with Leisure is that their new authors can be wildcards, which sometimes turns out wonderfully, but only sometimes. Harlequin Historicals is a line she's reaching for more and more these days; she considers herself a reader who is influenced by publisher. She speaks for a third type of reader, but this group is the smallest; most fall into the first or second categories, unless, of course, the consideration of publisher is a negative consideration.

Zeba is another reader whose consideration of publisher is often negative; while she likes St Martin's Press and Berkley releases, she's "gone off Avon books" and though she might look twice at Dorchester "because it is home to Lisa Cach," she's not really enjoyed their other releases.

Sarah too finds that, to some degree, publishers influence her decision-making. Random House and Penguin-Putnam are more represented among her purchases and keepers than other publishers. Next in line are Pocket and Avon, less often Dorchester and Harlequin Historicals, and "almost never," Zebra. She believes that Random House is now almost solely focused on established authors such as Jane Feather, Mary Jo Putney, and Mary Balogh, which works well for her as their books are "consistently good reads." On the other hand, she "can't remember the last time" she bought a historical romance from Kensington "outside the occasional [traditional] Regency." Part of that, though, may be because her local bookstores rarely stock Zebra titles; she was forced to order Nonnie St. George's debut from Amazon as it was stocked nowhere nearby. This is an observation made more than once by those surveyed; Elaine's local bookstores don't seem to stock as many Zebra titles as they do from other publishers. At the independent bookstore I frequent the owner generally orders minimal copies of Zebra titles; she often must special-order those I'm interested in if she's sold the one or two copies of a particular title I'd like.

For Diana, publishers can earn her respect and possibly sell her additional books by other authors. Kensington and the Brava line earned her respect by publishing Pam Rosenthal, and Berkley by publishing Julia Ross. Among her other keepers are those released by St Martin's Press, clustered around Janet Evanovich, Laura Joh Rowland, and Susan Donovan.

Because of the sort of niche publishing Dorchester does with paranormals, it's garnered much good will from readers who enjoy this type of romance. Karen, for instance, gravitates "toward time-travel and paranormals," and when she sees "the word LoveSpell [she] always picks up the book and most always purchases it." For Jennifer, many LoveSpell romances are on her keeper shelf, and she thinks that Harlequin's new Luna line will work for her equally well because she's reading quite a bit of SF/F these days. And yet, for Danielle, who has also been impressed thus far by the Luna line, to buy a Dorchester release it "takes a lot of recommendations and above average reviews [because] terribly poor editing has given [it] a distinctly amateurish flavour." Carolyn reports that while her keeper shelves are populated by a variety of publishers, she has "nothing by Dorchester or Kensington."

Readers who are interested in more specialty-type romances tend to be the most willing to overlook the types of negative bias expressed by other readers. Readers who want paranormals are bound to buy LoveSpell releases and those who really enjoy historical periods that seem out of favor will read Harlequin Historicals, Leisures, and Zebras to fulfill those cravings. Jessica, for instance, applauds, "Dorchester and Harlequin Historical for publishing historical romances outside of that time period. If anything, publishers are pushing books into print that are carbon copies of other books that have been big sellers by successful authors. Avon has been pushing their authors to copy Julia Quinn and SEP and none of the other authors has captured what makes those two authors' books special." And as AAR's own Lynn Spencer noted, "Dorchester, Kensington and Harlequin Historicals all seem to allow authors to use a variety of settings and the authors seem to be permitted to have very distinctive voices. In historical romances (the subgenre I read most), these run the gamut from farce to very serious/dark books. Other publishers seem to be more limited in terms of the time/place settings that they will allow... The books start to seem interchangeable after a while, and this makes me less likely to want to try a new author. After all, I just can read the same thing from more established authors that I already know I like."

Something I definitely noticed in looking at reader responses was that for every publisher disliked by a reader, another reader preferred that publisher best. While Lynn believes Harlequin Historicals have improved in recent years, Morwen thinks they've "gone precipitously downhill" in that same period. Steffany thinks Kensington's Brava imprint publishes good books while Debbi wishes the imprint would "go away." Jennifer is on the fence: "I've found myself slightly disappointed by the Brava line. They are beginning to read much the same. There doesn't feel like there is much variety in them." Part of this disappointment, though, may have to do with the fact that Brava books are published in trade size, with a price tag far higher than the basic paperback, a sentiment voiced by Avrey, who wrote, "I am disappointed with the Kensington/Brava line. Most of those oversized and pricey paperbacks do not warrant a price of fifteen dollars."

Dick finds Warner releases amateurish while for Melissa Warner releases are almost always guaranteed good reads. A great many books on Shelby's shelves are those published by either Kensington or MIRA, a single-title arm of Harlequin that seems to release quite a lot of romantic suspense. And as for the idea that Avon publishes "too many" lighter romances, that's just fine for Mary; "Avon comes to mind as one of my favorites" even if she only turns to them when "in a light mood because it seems like most...not all, but most Avon books are fluffier." And yet not only does she read lighter Avon authors like Quinn and Gibson, she also reads their darker authors such as Kleypas, Ashworth, and Heath.

Kate concurs; many of her purchases are Avon romances because she believes "they are the best in the industry [and] have one of the best romance writer rosters out there. Most of my Keepers are from Avon." Katherine is also in agreement; while she doesn't consciously consider publishers, she thinks she may, subconsciously. Avon, for instance, "is definitely at the top of my mental list" and she has "more books (on my keeper shelf and on my tbb list) by Avon authors than by any other authors by quite a long way." And for Nancy, whose preference is romantic comedy, Avon hits the spot nicely.

The readers who complain about Avon did not participate heavily in this survey, btw, although I did hear from Gail, who believes "Avon is largely responsible for the homogenizing of the romance genre and the trend toward mass production," adding, "when authors get signed by that house, their careers may be boosted but for me they lose their writing 'edge.'. Whatever budding talent such authors may have exhibited previously certainly does not get a chance to develop in its own unique way." And remember how important perception is; although Avon publishes some incredibly dark authors, that a vocal group of readers thinks they predominantly publish "fluff," for want of a better word, makes that valuation true for an even larger number.

It's not just the "lightness" trend at Avon that annoys some long-time readers, including those who were long-time Avon readers. Wendy, for instance, has turned to Dorchester and Harlequin Historicals to fulfill her craving for Westerns. She wrote, "I get so depressed when I think about Avon; [they] have since abandoned the sub genre to churn out one Regency historical after another." And yet, Carol buys "lots of Avons" and her keeper shelves are filled with books by Kleypas, Ivory, Layton, Hern, Quinn, Gibson, and Andersen. Interestingly enough, Ivory and Andersen are authors who "lightened-up" after signing with Avon.

Among readers who enjoy traditional Regencies, most respondents in the survey preferred Signet to Zebra. Carol is prone to choose Signets and only likes two of Zebra's trad authors, although, interestingly enough, several of her favorite Regency authors no longer write Regencies. Melissa too turns to Signets over Zebras when it comes to traditional Regencies, perhaps because she finds "the Signet covers, titles and back blurbs more appealing than the Zebras." And AAR's own Blythe Barnhill is "more likely to choose a Signet Regency by a new author rather than a Zebra Regency," as she is "leery of Zebra in general, though they do have occasional gems." I think this leeriness of Kensington really hurts its Regency authors, some of whom have been and are just as good as the best Signet has to offer.

Because authors move between publishers many readers thoroughly discount the idea that a certain publisher may affect their enjoyment of a book, and for many readers Avon still gets the "credit" for publishing Laura Kinsale even though the author moved to Berkley at least as far back as 1997. A decade ago when there were more distinct imprints and fewer conglomerates, it was perhaps easier to "type" a romance than it is today. But authors have always moved between publishers; sometimes when their long-time editor jumps houses, and at other times when they feel a different house will better help steer their career and/or earn them more money. And yet, as noted above, some authors actually change their style when they jump. Even for those authors whose style didn't change, I personally believe certain publishers, for whatever reason, are responsible for handling that author better than other houses. Anne Stuart, for instance, has had single titles published by Avon, Zebra, MIRA, and Onyx, and yet, for readers like Karen and myself, her Avons stand out.

Making this even more complicated is the fact that certain authors write different types of romances/fiction for different publishers. Nora Roberts, for instance, wrote dozens and dozens of contemporary category titles for Harlequin. Her other publisher has been Penguin-Putnam, for whom she's written single title contemporaries, romantic suspense, and a whole set of futuristic romantic suspense novels as J.D. Robb that many bookstores don't even shelve with the other romances. Jayne Ann Krentz for many years wrote, in addition to her category romances for Harlequin, single title contemporary and other non-historical titles for Simon and Schuster while writing her historicals as Amanda Quick for Bantam. In recent years her non- historical single titles have been published by P-P. My own favorite romance author, Julie Garwood, moved to Ballantine from Pocket, and when she moved she stopped writing historicals and began to write romantic suspense. I haven't read a one of them.

And then there are those myriad of authors who wrote traditional Regencies for Signet and then moved on to single title romances. Mary Jo Putney first moved to Topaz, another P-P imprint, eventually landing at Ballantine for her historicals while her more recent releases, contemporaries, have been published by Berkley, yet another P-P imprint. Jo Beverley, who was published as a trad author by Zebra, moved to Signet for her longer historicals. And Patricia Rice moved from Signet to other Penguin-Putnam imprints for historical releases while her contemporaries have been published at Random House (Ivy, Fawcett, and Ballantine). Mary Balogh moved to Dell for her single title historicals after years as a trad writer at Signet. And the list goes on.

The number of romances published and the number of romance publishers varies over time. There used to be more category publishers than there are today, and for existing publishers the number of monthly romance releases has changed. This too is bound to affect what people are buying - and keeping. More than a couple of readers noted that Bantam seems to be publishing fewer romances than in the past - and this observation has nothing to do with the late 1990's demise of the Bantam Loveswept line. Dell too is publishing fewer romances, and yet, as Bantam and Dell are part of Random House and Ballantine, another Random House imprint, has beefed up its romance program, it's hard to say whether there are fewer romances coming out of Random House or simply fewer coming out of the Bantam, Doubleday, Dell component.

When we move into the physical look of the book there's little agreement on what constitutes a quality product; again, most of the agreement concerns the negative. Some readers like Avon's covers, others don't - because of the clinches and/or sameness in some cases and the lack of a back cover-blurb in others (each month's Romantic Treasure instead of a back-cover blur has the same information inside the book.) Most readers don't care for Kensington covers - but some enjoy the Brava covers. And while the vast majority of readers ascribe only negative adjectives to Dorchester covers, at least one reader likes them. Some readers hate all Harlequin covers; for some the Harlequin Historicals have improved in recent years. Others find that certain authors "get" good covers - these are likely lead authors - whereas for authors lower down the list, a good cover is a hit-or-miss proposition. The only publisher whose covers received only positive adjectives was St. Martin's Press.

As for editing - story as well as copy-editing - it's somewhat the same story. Dorchester and Zebra get a fairly bad rap here, although most readers find typos across the board; whether certain publishers are truly worse than others or if typos simply bother certain readers is unknown. Perhaps Nancy speaks for most when she pronounces that "Poor editing is now the norm." Nancy's views are echoed elsewhere; Diana wrote, "The major problem I see is poor editing - books that should have been sent back for a final gloss." Still, Berkley and Jove get the highest marks from readers, which I find interesting in that in the past Berkley in particular was known as a publisher who, like Dorchester and Zebra, found good talent, but didn't spend the effort or money to polish releases.

Both Dorchester and Kensington have reputations among some readers as "picking up the droppings from better publishers" (although it's also rumored that Avon dropped Johanna Lindsey after poor sales; Lindsey was then signed by Pocket). Lee is one such reader; she wrote, "Dorchester and Kensington seem to pick up authors who, in their prime, were with other publishers...I don't purchase the 'past prime' books." While I've noticed authors on their way down the popularity/quality ladder picked up by these two publishers, I also notice, as have readers like Sarah, that Dorchester's discovery of authors like Susan Squires and the leeway offered to established authors like Judith E. French regarding her recent historical fiction/historical romance hybrid The Conqueror, can only be considered a good thing.

Harlequin is now such a large publisher of fiction for women that it's difficult to talk about it as one entity. It's probably fair to say that its single title imprints are looked at very differently than its category lines. Harlequin's category lines are known as having quite specific requirements aspiring writers must adhere to in order to be published by that line. Although each publisher has requirements, it's the specificity of Harlequin's guidelines that for many in the mainstream gives romance its assembly-line reputation.

These requirements, though, are rather vague when compared to many of the actual books we see for sale by Harlequin. There's nothing, for instance, in any of the lines' guidelines having to do with "Mediterranean millionaires," as Zeba noted, or as Carol mentioned, the "huge emphasis on babies and the military."

For many, Harlequin has a cheesy reputation, while for others it's synonymous with "romance," And yet more respondents were like Mary, for whom "Harlequins seem cheap [and] unclassy," and though in some instances it's simply the covers that turn some readers off, there's definitely a cheese factor for a group of romance readers. Carolyn and Karen both addressed the issue, but from different angles, pointing out that the sheer size of Harlequin, the vast number of books it publishes each month, may contribute to the whole cookie-cutter idea. Karen points out, "Because of their sheer size, it's safe to say nobody produces a wider variety of romances than Harlequin...and while obviously Harlequin relies very heavily on many tried-and-true plot devices, it's hard to accuse them of 'over-relying' on hooks that continue to sell extremely well." And yet, as Carolyn argues, "The juggernaut that is Harlequin, through the sheer number of lines and single titles it produces on a monthly basis, seems to uphold the ideal of variety. However, many of the lines have a great deal of sameness."

As for whether or not certain lines are more appealing to readers than others, Harlequin must watch this very closely as they are not adverse to adding and subtracting lines, as we've seen in the past, most particularly where specifically "humorous" romances are concerned. And my sense from the variety of results to the survey seem to bear this out; there was little uniformity among readers as to which lines are "best," although there was some slight agreement on the quality of the SIM's line and a dislike of Harlequin Presents - "not modern enough" for Tina and heroes too "overbearing" for Karen seems to be the consensus of the line.

Harlequin has built its category business on the idea that readers will "buy the line," and this can be the case - readers looking for inspirational romance will find them in Steeple Hill. Those looking for the hottest category reads will look to Blaze, romantic suspense category readers may well focus on Harlequin Intrigues. But other lines are not as strongly delineated; readers may find after the fact that they've gravitated toward a specific line or two, but only because it turns out Author X or Author Y writes for that line (sound familiar?) And many readers buy by author, and even a reader who dislikes a certain line will continue to read a favorite author who writes for that line. Marlene, for instance, usually steers clear of Harlequin Presents, but reads them when written by Sandra Marton.

It's clear from the survey's results that readers are all over the place when it comes to preferences, likes, and dislikes. One thing that varies, though, is the intensity of reader responses. Most who took the survey are passionate about reading, but some responses were extremely passionate, well thought-out, and extensive. And, as you might imagine, these were responses of the negative variety for the most part - those who are displeased with Harlequin or Avon or Kensington or Dorchester are very displeased.

I've not included comments about all the publishers, not because readers didn't write in about them or because readers universally love or hate these publishers, but because I wanted to show the strongest reactions I saw, and the strongest reactions that provoked reverse reactions. A reader like Avrey, for instance, finds that few people in real life speak, dress, and act like characters in contemporary romance. Diana agrees that there's a culture lag but would prefer to "complain about historical characters who are too modern." Some readers are excited about romantica while others prefer less overt sensuality in their reading. Much of this crosses publishing lines, although certain publishers were criticized more than others, Avon, for one, getting the historical anachronistic rap more often and Harlequin being blamed most for being in a time-warp.

Longtime online romance readers were warned years ago that the consolidation - first of distributors and then of publishers - would negatively affect what's available to buy on a monthly basis. It's something I think took a long time coming, but as I culled through people's responses it popped out at me that as time goes on, the Cassandra-like prophecies about the homogenization of romance as a result of consolidation may finally have worked its way through the system. Even the least interested film-goer is now aware that the first week's box-office for a movie can "make or break it," that most movies are made to cater to a young, male demographic, and/or the foreign market, which means action is king and actual story-telling has taken a backseat to special effects. Movie-making has become more homogenized; indeed, a point made in the recent Peter Biskind book is that even independent movie-houses like Mirimax are making more mainstream movies these days.

Contrast this with television. It's true that the broadcast networks look more and more alike these days, but the proliferation of cable channels has allowed for a great deal of specialization; if you like comedy there's a channel for you. Interested in health issues, DIY, history, cooking, animals? You'll find channels specifically for each of these topics.

Some readers point to e-publishers as those best suited to stepping up to the plate to counteract what seems like more and more of the same old, same old. When cable exploded it was unclear whether or not people would really want to watch a network devoted to food and cooking, for instance. I don't know about you, but in our house, the Food Network (my husband's favorite - he was in ecstasy earlier this month when they devoted three weeks to barbecue), Comedy Central, History International, A&E, MTV, Trio, and VH1 are almost always on. So it's possible that in years to come e-publishers may be where we turn for variety, but for now most of us are either happy or happy enough with the big publishers, or have a lot to complain about but don't see quality coming from other quarters.

Most readers believe that as publishers become mega-publishers, either through merges or determined growth, the result is that there is less variety, fewer chances are taken, and readers are stereotyped by publishers. It's true that the publishing business is a business, but as romance has become more of a cash cow for publishers, many readers fear it's become more of a commodity and less of an art where there's more of a "can we build a series around this idea" mind-set than "this is a great book" excitement over wonderful writing. Essentially, what some readers theorize is that romance is suffering from its success, that in trying to meet what is believed to be the demands of the market quality is compromised. It seems to many that it is out of a combination of greed and desperation that publishers glom onto trends. But not all readers view this merging as a bad thing. Patricia, for instance, argues that "it has the tendency to weed out the weaker product from the better product," and certainly, with the number of romances on sale each month one can't really say there's not enough quantity. And yet, Patricia herself thinks the traditional Regency was doomed when Fawcett stopped publishing them, and that was, of course, the same year the German publishing conglomerate Bertelsmann bought Random House.

We've all noticed that many a store that sells books will have vast amounts of space devoted to the biggest-selling authors. This becomes more of an issue when, as we've also seen, more and more books are reissued and available in mass quantities while the "great little book by an unknown author" is so difficult to find it must be ordered online. This is exacerbated when that big-selling author is one seen widely as having jumped the shark two years ago, and the natural defensive posture of romance readers means that for some, this is an insult to their intelligence and proof that publishers are taking romance readers for granted.

A number of readers noted that publishers know how importance romance is to their bottom line, it's just how they respond to that reality that creates the problem. The consensus is that there's just not enough long-term thinking, because if there were, publishers would not glut the market with similar kinds of books and would realize that a few years down the line readers will have gotten sick of them and need to move onto something new. The same sort of thinking goes into pushing an established author instead of devoting more energy into developing new talent. As Jessica noted, given that publishing is a business, "a copy-cat book is a surer thing to produce income than an original book." And these copy-cat books often sell, but again, unless publishers are looking long-term they fail to realize that all trends eventually wear out their welcome.

Finally, it must be noted that online readers quite possibly do not represent the majority of the romance reading public. Blythe argues that there may be less variety these days, but if, say, "American historicals were selling big, they'd be publishing more of them." You and I may not be reading secret babies of sheik ranchers, but you can bet somebody is.

Back when I first surveyed readers about publishers, the landscape looked quite a bit different than it does today. Pocket was at the height of its popularity, and Avon was well on its way to ascending the romance publisher's throne. Dorchester and Kensington were fighting the same criticisms they fight today, but fewer accolades could be heard in the wilderness. HarperCollins had not yet bought Avon in 1996 nor had Random House bought Bantam, Doubleday, Dell. By 2000 Pocket had been eclipsed by Avon, although the first grumblings of "Avon lacks substance" was beginning to be heard. In 2004 Avon is still being talked about - either they're a favorite publisher or they're publishing too many similar books.

In 1996 Harlequin only published category titles. By 2000 they'd begun publishing new material for their MIRA imprint (which debuted with three series reissues in 1995; they began publishing "new and true" single titles in earnest in 1997), and by 2004 additional single-title imprints were being published - first Red Dress Ink, than Luna. Penguin-Putnam looked different in 1996 than it does today. First, the Topaz imprint is no more. And many of those first-Berkley-than-Jove mini-lines that sometimes garnered disdain are nowhere to be found.

Publishers that innovate - yes, even Jove's Quilting line was innovative - are apt to do better in the long run than those that are all about maintenance. That's why even if you as a reader don't care for Red Dress Ink and think it's all part of Harlequin's mad plan to control the universe, in the long run it's better than failing to try anything new and simply resting on your laurels. Perhaps that's what happened with Pocket, and perhaps Avon (as regards their romance program) ought to take note.

Time to Post to the Message Board

Here are the questions we'd like to have you consider for Part I, the majority of which are not related to my library specifically ('cause wouldn't that be egotistical?):Here are the questions we'd like you to consider this time:
How much of your reading is romance? How much is other fiction or non-fiction? Are you reading a mix these days, or something in particular?
How many romances and non-romances would you say you've read? Outside of romance, what else do you best like to read?
How anal-retentive are you when it comes to keeping track of your library? What's your system?
What percentage of romances (and non-romances) have you granted DIK status? What about B's, C's, D's, and F's?
Anyone is welcome to answer here, but I'm hoping to really hear from those who didn't participate in the publisher survey last month. Is one particular (or two or three) publisher more represented in terms of your DIK's, or books you hated?
Do you have "clusters" of authors in your library? How much of your library is taken up by cluster authors, and how many of these authors did you enjoy three or more of their books?
Obviously everyone has different tastes, and my conclusions about particular publishers are bound to be different than yours. What are areas for agreement and disagreement that stand out most for you?
If you find that you won't buy a book by a particular publisher, are you more apt to do so after reading the first part of this column?

And these are my questions for Part II:

Which of the results match your own experience, and which do not?
Are you surprised at the general lack of uniformity in the responses, particularly if you've read the earlier survey results that were less "all over the place?"
Do you enjoy Avon's releases or do you find they are publishing mostly Regency-era fluff?
Are the efforts publishers like Harlequin, Dorchester, and Kensington are making to both specialize and broaden the audience of readers something you appreciate or does it cause you to question their goals?
How can readers' goals and publishers' goals move closer together? How can we find a good balance between art and commerce?
If you're happy with romance as it currently is, talk about how it works for you. If you're dissatisfied, why? And, how long have you been reading romance?

 

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

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