Issue #97 (July 1, 2000)

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Part I
Part II

Part I

Not too long ago on our canwetalk discussion list, a reader asked about publishers. Since the publishing landscape looks considerably different than it did four years ago, when I originally polled readers about possible publisher preferences, I thought it might be interesting to look at the subject again. If you don't know what the most current publishing alignment is, feel free to take this internal link to the bottom of the column; there's a return link back to the top of the page if you get lost.

Have I ever considered publishers? Only in a Monday-morning quarterback way. Periodically I take a look at what I've read, and see if anything jumps out at me, statistically speaking. I first considered reader/publisher preferences back in July 1996. At that time I looked at books reviewed at The Romance Reader, where I was writing at the time, books in my tbr library, books I'd read, books I'd kept, and those I'd traded. I also posted informal survey results of what readers shared with me about their own libraries.

Needless to say, TRR wasn't even a year old then, and had relatively few reviews online. Since then, of course, I've moved on, and AAR has far too many reviews to look at. So I went back to my own library, but not of tbr's this time - just of those romances I've read. My tbr library includes many authors who don't show up in the "read" column, or only make a brief showing.

After taking a look at my own library, I devised a series of survey questions to pose to our readers about their libraries. Since my own tastes are just that - my own - I was interested in learning what other readers would find by looking at the books they've read, kept, and traded. Were there any continuing trends since my last survey? Were there any new trends? Were there any trends at all?

This issue of At the Back Fence will look first at my own library. Then I'll share the questions used to survey readers, and will report their responses. I did my own analysis by looking at numbers - of romances read, kept, and traded. The analysis I did of other readers was based on the survey responses they provided. There's no hidden agenda - I'm not a rejected romance writer nor do I have any interest at all in which publishers, if any, are liked better or worse than any others. It's kind of a pain to have to even state that, but I took a lot of heat with one publisher when I published the results of the 1996 survey simply for reporting readers' comments. They thought I'd done a hatchet job even though my own personal comments about them were innocuous.

One thing you should know, however, is that this is a very lengthy column - longer than any other one we've ever done in its 4+ year history. Because of this, I strongly suggest you don't try to tackle it all in one sitting. I recommend you read the column in two sections. First read the intro (which you've already done), what I discovered about publishers from looking at my own library, and the section of survey results entitled Conceptions: Before and After. Then, come back later for the remainder of the column, which looks at the rest of the survey questions (beginning with Keepers and Trade-Ins), wraps things up, and lists the questions I'd like you to consider.

Laurie's Library:
Harlequin published just over a quarter of the romances I've read. Considering how I refused to read these for some time, this came as a big surprise, although now that I read them, I tend to read them like a kid eats candy. The Harlequin umbrella includes series titles by Harlequin, Harlequin Historicals, and Silhouette; MIRA original titles (often suspense and romantic suspense, not my thing), and MIRA reprints of series titles. Although I've granted Desert Isle Keeper (DIK) status to three Harlequin Historicals, I seem to prefer Silhouette series titles over Harlequin series titles. And though I didn't break them down into individual series lines, my preference is mostly for the Desire, Intimate Moments, and Special Editions lines.

I've granted DIK status to one Silhouette title and am considering bumping a B+ up to DIK status right now (that title would be Linda Howard's Duncan's Bride). Overall, more than half of the Silhouette's I've read received grades of B- or greater from me. Nearly another third received a grade in the C range. Only 15% of the Silhouette titles I've read received less than average grades from me. Nora Roberts and Linda Howard account for many of these good grades; to a lesser extent, so do Elizabeth Lowell, Ruth Wind, Leanne Banks, Justine Davis, and Elizabeth Bevarly. While authors Howard and Lowell have moved out of the series game, the others listed continue to flourish there.

In the Harlequin Historicals line, the titles are more widespread, but still better than the results I've had with other Harlequin series titles. Adding together the A's and B's in the HH line accounts for more than 50% of all the HH's I've read. Only three have resulted in less than passing grades. Deborah Simmons continues to write wonderful books while the author of my favorite medieval, Catherine Archer, has stumbled of late. And, though many prefer Merline Lovelace's series titles, I prefer her Harlequin Historicals. Other HH authors I've enjoyed include Cheryl St. John, the late Suzanne Barclay, and Ruth Langan.

Now for the other Harlequin series titles - I was surprised to discover that I've given less than a quarter grades in the B range (there were none in the A range). More than 40% received grades in the C range and another almost 40 percent (obviously), received less than passing grades. I think my general dissatisfaction with the Blaze line accounts for some of this. Authors I've enjoyed in the Harlequin line include Jayne Ann Krentz and Jennifer Crusie, both of whom no longer write series romance.

One last comment about the series lines - more authors work better for me as single title authors (historical or contemporary) than they do as series authors. The flip side is only occasionally true.

The "new" HarperCollins comes in second in terms of romances I've read, at just over 17%. The vast majority are Avon titles, which account for 85%, followed by those from the now-defunct HarperMonogram line. Nearly 20% of the Avon's I've read have been granted Desert Isle Keeper status and more than another third have gotten grades in the B range from me. (Two of the authors who each wrote two romances I granted DIK status for when they were at Avon, Katherine Sutcliffe and Anne Stuart, have since moved to other publishers.) In all, more than 80% of the Avon titles I've read have gotten passing grades. The old HarperMonogram line worked fairly well for me - the lowest grade I gave a romance in this line was in the C range. More than half earned grades in the B range from me.

The "new" Random House comes in third in terms of romances I've read, at just over 16%. Nearly 40% of those are full-length Bantam books. Nearly 30% are by Dell while the defunct Bantam Loveswept series line accounts for nearly 25%. With the Bantam titles, nearly 60% received grades of B- or above (many are earlier Amanda Quick titles); none received failing grades of F. Dell titles are another story. While I graded close to half of their titles B- or higher, another 35% received grades less than average (in the D or F range). Many of the authors they've debuted in recent years have not done a thing for me, including Kim Lewis (Loving Becky), Sherri Browning (The Scoundrel's Vow), and Karen Marie Moning (Beyond the Highland Mist). As far as the Loveswept titles go, I was surprised to find that I've enjoyed fewer than a third of them. When I run across a big selection at the UBS now, I'll be far more discriminating.

The "new" Penguin-Putnam comes in fourth in terms of romances I've read, at just under 16%. Jove makes up the largest of this group, followed by the defunct Topaz, and then both Onyx and Signet. Nearly 60% of the Signet's I've read received grades in the B range - most are Patricia Oliver Regencies. Onyx, on the other hand, though it is the publisher for some of my Mary Jo Putney collection, is still very poorly represented. Two-thirds of their romances received grades in the D or F range from me. On the other hand, Jove titles did very well - nearly 20% of Jove titles earned DIK status from me. Another close to 50% earned grades in the B range. Only one Jove title got a failing grade from me. The Topaz line added three DIK titles to my library and an additional 50% of Topaz titles received grades in the B range. I have noticed that several authors I've enjoyed, including Lorraine Heath and Patricia Rice, left Topaz long before its demise. Nora Roberts has always written single titles for Jove, and continues to do so, which is good, very, very good. Catherine Coulter has written for a variety of imprints at Penguin-Putnam; this is both good and bad. I've loved several of her books but hated an equal number.

Then there's Pocket - of the romances I've read, just over 12% are Pocket books, even though they account for more keepers than any other imprint or publisher. One-third of the Pocket titles I've read have earned DIK status from me. Julie Garwood, my favorite romance author, accounts for most of these A's, although Kathryn Lynn Davis, my favorite author earned a few as well. Jillian Hunter, Jill Barnett, and Judith McNaught also write for Pocket - they've also earned DIK status from me too. Another nearly 30% of Pocket titles received grades in the B range. On the other end of the Pocket spectrum, roughly 20% of their titles earned less than passing grades from me. None of my often-read Pocket authors, with the exception of Jayne Ann Krentz, has left Pocket. She recently moved to Jove. While often a great "comfort read," I haven't read her more recent releases, which were more mystery and less romance.

I've not read enough romances by other publishers to be statistically significant. Kensington (Kensington, Zebra, and Pinnacle titles) accounts for less than 5% of the romances I've read while Dorchester titles (Leisure and LoveSpell) add up to just 3%. While Anne Stuart has written a couple of really good romances for Zebra, I preferred her older titles for Avon. Although perhaps best known now for its authors of "burning" romance, including Bertrice Small, Thea Devine, Robin Schone, and the just-signed Susan Johnson, there's also the quietly consistent Elizabeth Graham and Donna Simpson, whose debut romance, the Regency Romance Lord St. Claire's Angel, earned DIK status from us. And though Dara Joy is likely the most famous Dorchester author (she's since moved on to Avon), my favorite author at this publisher is Susan Grant. Her debut romance, a time travel, out early this year, earned a B+ from me. Her second romance, a SF romance will be out in December and also earned a B+ from me.

With less than 3% of the titles I've read are St. Martin's Press, Warner's, Arabesque, and various and sundry e-publishers. Rexanne Becnel, who used to write for Dell, is now at SMP, as is Kat Martin. Both these authors can be good (Becnel earned DIK status for one of her Dell titles from me), albeit inconsistent. A more consistent SMP author for me is Haywood Smith.

Looking at all my titles differently, I discover that 40% of the titles granted DIK status are by Pocket books authors. Another 25% are by Avon authors. Just under 30% of the romances I've graded in the B range are published under Harlequin's umbrella. Mega-publishers HarperCollins (mostly Avons) and Penguin-Putnam (mostly Jove) each account for 16% of the romances I've given grades of B. Of those romances I've graded in the C range, Harlequin's lines account for nearly 1/3; HarperCollins imprints (again, mostly Avon), account for another 20%.

If Harlequin is represented highly among romances I've graded B and C (I have a very tough time granting a series title DIK status), it is the leader for those in the D range, at nearly 25%. Onyx titles at Penguin-Putnam put P-P in second place for most D's; third place goes to HarperCollins (nearly all Avons). Those Onyx's were a killer in the F grade range as well. No other imprint or publisher received so many F's from me as did Onyx, accounting for nearly 20% of all F's received.

Survey Results:
I keep my ears open about what authors and readers say about various publishers. Avon seems to be the most positively mentioned publisher these days. I hear less about Pocket than I used to and more about the series lines. Zebra and Leisure/LoveSpell continue to be complained about in terms of quality; on the other hand, these two publishers do publish a lot of authors that move on to so-called "better" publishers, as do authors once published by Berkley. Is it true that Zebra, Dorchester, Berkley, and some of Jove's mini-lines tend to be less heavily edited? Are there really differences between publishers? Have some publishers gotten better? Have others gotten worse? Do some publishers have over or under deserved reputations? Finally, what impact have all the publisher consolidations had on the genre, and what might be expected in the future?

In the reader survey I just conducted about publishers, I asked seven specific questions, and then providing a "catch-all" comment field. Among those questions asked were whether readers whether they consider publishers at all in their romance buying/reading; what readers' keeper shelves looked like; what their trade-ins were comprised of; publisher reputations (good and/or bad and deserved and/or undeserved); publisher consistency; what effect all the publisher realignments in recent years have (or may) have; and then, after thinking about it and answering the other questions, does the publisher really matter?

Rather than taking the survey in order, let's look at both the first and final questions as readers consider their conceptions both before taking the survey and after reading and answering it.

Conceptions: Before and After

Readers are all over the place when considering which publishers are their favorites. The most frequently mentioned publisher of quality romance was Avon, although Bantam, Dell, Pocket, Signet, Berkley, and Jove were also mentioned often. Dorchester was the only publisher that was not a favorite with any reader, although there are some authors they publish whom readers do enjoy. Kensington was mentioned as the favorite publisher for a few of our readers, which was surprising only in that both Kensington and Dorchester were most often listed as the least favored publisher among readers. Many readers took pains to point this out.

First and foremost, readers choose books based on who wrote them. Other than one reader who loves Patricia Gaffney but plans to wait for her new hardcovers to be released in paperback because she hates to see Rupert Murdoch take any of her money (he owns HarperCollins), readers will follow their favorite authors to any publishing house. It is interesting, though, to track the careers of some authors as they rise in popularity, and then begin to fall off - I can think of one author who used to be published by a fairly "good" publisher, was dropped by them, went to Zebra for a couple of books, and is currently at Leisure. From what I gather, this is the reverse trajectory than would be hoped for.

I certainly don't think readers go into bookstores and buy books because they are published by certain publishers - I've never thought that was the case. I do think, however, that based on our own preferences and biases, we tend to gravitate toward certain publishers and to shy away from others, and weigh that as we look at books we are considering buying if we are unfamiliar with an author. While readers base their book-buying decisions on the author first, then the storyline, then perhaps reviews, what if the author is new to us?

It's clear that no publisher will work for any reader all of the time. it's also clear that most publishers are represented in some fashion on their keeper shelf. Editors, whose job it is not only to edit books, but also to buy them for their publisher, move between houses fairly often. As they move, they take their likes and dislikes with them. While authors sometime move with their editors, this is a more common occurrence higher up the food chain than romance authors are generally relegated. More often than not, editors and authors move independently of one another.

Here are some readers’ impressions to two of our survey questions regarding publisher preferences, both before and after taking our survey:

Have you ever considered publishers? Does a romance's publisher play any part in your buying of romances? If yes, explain, and share the name of the publisher(s). If no, explain. And, have you noticed that authors you like tend to be published by the same house(s)? If yes, which house(s)? Finally, does it seem as though some publishers put out a more 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).
After Thinking About It - 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?

Avrey discovered a couple of years ago that most of the romances she bought were Bantam books. Bantam published many of her favorite authors, including Elizabeth Thornton and Susan Johnson. She also enjoyed Bantam's Loveswept line of series romances. Since that line was ended, she's begun to read Silhouette Intimate Moments. While she's read some Zebra and Leisure books, she finds them most inconsistent, in particular, Leisure. She thinks of late that Avon and Ballantine are making a "concerted effort to invest in their romance line," and it shows.

For Sharon, however, Avon, along with Dell and BET, are uneven publishers. She now prefers books published by Jove, Genesis (a small publisher focusing on various ethnic lines, such as their Indigo line of African-American romances and their Red Slipper line of Asian romances), and Signet (non-Regencies). Overall, though, she doesn't think there's much of a difference between publishers since so many imprints are now part of larger parent companies.

Sue says that Avon "very often has the kind of book I want." She does tend to avoid MIRA, however; with all the reissues they do, she never knows what's new and what's old. On the other hand, Lily enjoys these MIRA releases, using the opportunity to reconnect with old favorites. Lily adds that she loves Avon's contemporary romantic comedies but hates their historicals. She turns to Pocket for romantic suspense.

AAR Reviewer Jennifer has been "struck by the number of really good books" she has by Avon. She writes, "If I ever find myself in a bookstore, without a clue what to buy, I'm more likely now to pick up a book by a writer with that publishing company." She adds that reading some very pedestrian suspense novels published by MIRA (we both read Catherine Lanigan's odious California Moon, now tied as the worst romance I've ever read) have put doubts in her mind about this arm of Harlequin. For Jennifer, the fact that some authors are published by several houses is confusing. She notes that her favorite author, Mary Jo Putney, has books by Signet, Onyx, Berkley (now all Penguin-Putnam lines) and Fawcett (now folded in under the Ivy imprint and a part of Ballantine).

Violet mentions the mini-lines once published by Berkley and now published by Jove. She finds them "gimmicky." Several readers mentioned that they did not care for these mini-themed lines. I've not had much luck with them myself, but were it not for the Sons and Daughters line, would we have the amazing talent of Lorraine Heath, or Linda Francis Lee for that matter?

As with many readers, Violet mentioned "cheesy" covers. While she mentioned them in conjunction with Dorchester, "cheesy" covers and back cover blurbs have always been a problem for many readers. Karen says that when she first started to read romance, she browsed a lot and was very influenced by covers and blurbs, and, by extension, publishers. She writes:

"I always hated the clinch covers, particularly the "tacky" clinch covers that Zebra, Leisure and Topaz used to have. I was even more influenced by the back blurbs. So many of these blurbs were completely unhelpful "their love was passionate...they could not be denied". How could you tell what a book was really about when your only clues (cover and blurb) were so awful?

"However, since I discovered the Internet, my reading has changed. I buy strictly based on reviews and recommendations, and hardly ever browse any more. I ended up having to go back and buy a lot of those books that I passed by because the covers and blurbs were so tacky - it turned out they were really great on the inside, I just couldn't tell it from the outside! Looking at my TBR (1500+) every publisher is represented, and there isn't one that doesn't publish at least one great author. Today, I never look at the publishers, and a lot of times I won't even look at the cover before I buy, I make up a list and stick to it.

"Publishers have become much less important to me as I've gone past the 'marketing that the publishers do, in the form of covers and blurbs. Some publishers seem to still be in the dark ages, trying to sell romance with covers and blurbs that are insulting to my intelligence. I can't help but think that their poor judgement in terms of the package has to spill over into their judgement in choosing authors, editing, and so forth. So I look twice at certain books, usually by publishers such as Zebra and Leisure, but I'll still buy them based on recommendations."

For many readers, the series lines are either trash or treasure. Some cannot resist being able to read a book in a single evening. Others, like Maryann, "expect trash from Harlequin." According to Lynn, who used to love Temptations and SIM's, she very rarely buys them anymore "because they so seldom veer from the Cowboy/Baby thing."

It's difficult not to over-elaborate on the negative views readers have about both Dorchester and Kensington. Aside from some good comments about Robin Schone, most of the comments about Kensington were tepid at best and scathing at worst. Audrey called their releases "duds" with "embarrassingly lascivious covers." Susan mentioned that she strongly prefers Signet Regencies to Zebra Regencies, which she felt had too many historical errors and silly anachronisms. Timlynn came down on both Kensington and Dorchester, as did Linda. Timlynn called both "unsatisfying and amateurishly written" while Linda referred to Kensington romances as having "less quality and more variety." She added that she can "only think of one author who writes for Dorchester whose books I read."

But what about the opportunity these publishers provide to new authors? While Monthiti, and Delores, my bookseller, mentioned that they first discovered Susan Andersen at Avon, Andersen got her start at Zebra writing straight (not comedic) romantic suspense. One of these earlier books, Exposure, earned DIK status from us. Many other authors also got their start at Kensington, including Judith Ivory and Karen Ranney.

Timlynn is not impressed by this argument. She writes:

" Zebra and Leisure's reputations for poorer quality are defended by some readers as giving new authors a chance when other companies would have been unwilling to do so. I can't find that argument persuasive because I want to see quality in Romance novels and there are too many writers out there already who give romance novels a bad name. Until I can read romance with out being embarrassed by cliched, formulaic plots and clinch covers and ghastly titles, I will continue to boycott the worst offenders."

Linda looks at it in this way, considering the publishing house as one of many factors. She noticed some time ago that she seems to prefer books published by Avon. She enjoys their covers, thinks they do a good job copyediting (although many of our other readers would disagree!), and thinks their authors are allowed to be "risk-takers." She adds, "I almost never buy a Zebra book because I have been burned so many times by them. They might be a good house for an author to get her start with, but if an author has more than three or so books published with them, look out!"

This is where I suggest you take a break.

Part II

Keepers and Trade-ins

There are some readers who keep just about everything they read. Others rarely keep any book, even if they've loved it. Others keep only the creme de la creme. As for me, I keep every book I've given a grade in the A or B range even though only the A's are what I consider "true keepers," that is, re-readers. Everything else goes to the UBS for credit. I used to keep more books than this if they were part of a series, but became more ruthless when I realized my library was getting out of hand - perhaps I should have married a carpenter rather than a lawyer?

Let's eavesdrop on what our readers had to say about what they keep and what they trade, and if there are any trends about publishers we can discern:

Your Keeper Shelf - Take a look at your keeper shelf/shelves and see if any publishers are more highly represented than any others are. 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?
What You Trade - If you have a bag of books to trade in, take a look at it. Are any publishers more highly represented than any others are? If yes, which publisher(s)? If you don't have any books to trade at the moment, try to remember some past trades and any publisher(s) that stood out. 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?

For many readers, the vast number of series titles out every month is both a blessing and a curse, as is their relatively low cost. Many readers read several series titles a month. Fewer in number are those who subscribe to one or more series lines or buy all the titles in a line every month. With some 75 series titles released each and every month, how many are going to be keepers and how many are going to be trade-ins?

For Andrea, this is a definite issue. She writes, "I'm obviously stuck in the Harlequin/Silhouette rut and read too many romances! I buy a great deal of these books and only enjoy a minor amount but can't seem to stop reading them. As for Malvina, whose keeper shelves are filled with Avon regency-set historicals, her trade-ins are mostly Harlequin releases. She writes, "Because they're cheaper I tend to buy a lot of them and do enjoy them, but keep only the absolute best of them. Hence there's always more of them to trade in."

Terri notes that she has many SIMs and Harlequin Presents on her keeper shelves, as well as Linda Howard's single titles for Pocket. She tends to trade Harlequin Presents, Harlequin Temptations, SIMs, Desires, and Special Editions by what is for her a "second-tier" of series authors such as Lori Foster and Paula Detmer Riggs. The authors on her "first tier" of series authors, such as Linda Howard and Beverly Barton, are ones she'd never trade in.

Ruth, who keeps the books of 68 authors spread among many publishers, including Avon, Warner, Pocket, Zebra, and "many Silhouette/Harlequins." trades mostly Harlequin Presents and Harlequin Romance titles. She says, "I wouldn't say they're bad, just not deep enough to hold my interest, sort of same old, same old." She also notes that the only Berkley's she's kept are those by J.D. Robb.

Oddly enough, (another) Jennifer notes that the only Jove keepers she has are by Nora Roberts (aka J.D. Robb). For Jill as well, Jove and Berkley are represented on her keeper shelves with Roberts and Robb titles. The same can be said for Connie.

Mary Jo relays that the number one publisher on her keeper shelf is Harlequin/Silhouette. She trades many H/S titles, as well, however, because she reads roughly 20 a month. The publisher least represented on her keeper shelf is Leisure. And, she adds, she tends to trade Leisure and Zebra titles quite often. Which publishers have a bad rep in her mind? She says, "Zebra still comes to mind. My first exposure to Zebra books were really horribly edited stories - the ones with the hologram. Deserved? At the time, oh, yes! The titles were pretty stupid, and the back cover blurbs were even more so. I think they have come a long way, though. Leisure/Lovespell is coming up right behind them."

Patricia's keeper shelf is filled with Signet Regency Romances, primarily those by Mary Balogh and Carla Kelly. A fan of Theresa Weir, she has Bantam and Harper titles as well. Her love of Anne Stuart, Loretta Chase, Susan Andersen, Rachael Gibson, and (newer) Christina Dodd puts many Avons on her keeper shelf as well. As for trades, she has found Zebra titles somewhat disappointing because "they tend to publish what I consider the older style romance novels."

AARlist moderator and reviewer Anne Marble also loves Regency Romances, Theresa Weir, and Anne Stuart, so she has many Signets and Harpers on her shelves as well. She's more likely to trade Leisure and Zebra titles, but also trades Avon historicals, noting that they "have some great authors, but they also have some who are good but not great." She adds, "Zebra and Leisure have bad reputations, but they're not always deserved. Some people pass up the lower-priced Zebra historicals (the line that used to be called Heartfire) because of the 'generic' look to the covers and/or bad experiences in the past. Then, when one of those authors turns out to be great, those same readers end up paying hart-to-find prices for those books. (Does the name Robin Schone ring a bell?)"

As popular as Avon has become, some readers find many of the books they publish lacking in substance; the kinds of books they enjoy while reading but quick to forget once finished. Pat, for instance, has many Avon keepers on her shelves, but says, "I seem to trade in my Avon's I buy which are new authors to me. They seem shallow and nonsubstantive." Elaine, whose keeper shelves are comprised of Warner, Forge, and as she notes - surprise - Kensington, notes that she has very few keepers from Avon, and only one published by them in the past couple of years. And, Elaine adds, she believes Leisure has a bad reputation, as does Kensington, which she attributes to "lighter editing." Is this reputation deserved? Not necessarily, she says, "Many of their books are very good, if you like Westerns."

As with the earlier set of survey questions, both Kensington and Dorchester were most mentioned in a negative light. Mariel, for instance, remarked on the BMI romances often seen in remainder bins at grocery and drug stores. BMI is not a publisher of new books, but through a deal with Dorchester, often reissues old Leisure titles, apparently at a horrible royalty rate for the author. For Mariel, who sells her non-keepers at auction, those Leisure-cum-BMI titles are the most difficult to sell. Kerri remarks that if it weren't for Dara Joy, she'd have no Dorchester titles at all. And for Lisbeth-Ann, Zebra is the least represented publisher on her keeper shelf, preferring Avon, Penguin-Putnam, and Pocket titles.

Deirdre writes that while she collects "vintage" Zebras for Betina Krahn, Judy Cuevas, and Deana James, she's "been burned too often with bad books" by them and is no longer willing to take a chance on their new releases. She adds that, "Leisure is also a publisher who has provided a large number of clunkers I've traded in - when I was trying out futuristics I became firmly convinced that someone at Leisure had a tin ear when it came to picking books." And for Rebecca, who finds that Avon and Berkley tend to publish the writers she reads, "Leisure and Zebra publish very few authors that I read I am usually disappointed in the quality of writing when I read books from those publishing houses. Very few Zebra and Leisure books are keepers."

What's the Current Buzz?

Just as authors tend to go in and out of vogue, so, apparently, do publishers. When I first looked at publishers four years ago, Pocket seemed to be at the top of their game. This time around it seems to be Avon. What might the difference be? While Pocket has rejuvenated in terms of some romance authors - don't they get credit for their Sonnet line? - some of their really "big" romance authors seem to be resting on their laurels now. I haven't heard much good about Jude Deveraux, for instance, going back several books. Then there's Judith McNaught, whose release delays increase the anticipation of her books, which then have a hard time competing with that heightened excitement when eventually released.

Some publishers have a good reputation while others have bad reputations. Are these reputations based on reality, or are they undeserved? Let's listen to what some readers had to say about:

Changing Reputations - 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?
Consistency - Do you find that some imprints/lines/series work consistently well or poorly for you? For instance, do you generally enjoy Jove's Quilting Line or most books put out by Harlequin Temptations? Similarly, are there lines and or imprints that have disappointed you?

According to Lily, the bad reputation Zebra has is deserved. She believes their English historicals and Regency Romances are riddled with, "Historical bloopers, implausible plots, mindboggling (il)logic, dodgy copy editing (once I read a historical that had a dog called Zound but throughout the book, he was also known as Zonnd, Zoun, Zoud, Zeound and Hound), and poor research." She adds that Avon used to be almost as bad as Zebra in "issuing awful historicals," but that "lately they have improved." Ruth has found that Zebra really is getting better. She writes, "I was surprised that I liked that many Zebra authors. I used to give most Zebra books away"

Violet thinks that Zebra's books are getting better as well, but that Leisure still "has a reputation for being substandard." As for those mini-lines, she found Jove's Quilting line "boring" and hasn't been interested in many of the other mini-lines she's come across, with the exception of Dorchester's Fairy Tale line. Unfortunately, she feels the execution of the stories didn't live up to their promise and wishes Avon had come up with the idea instead.

Readers of series romance seem to form attachments to certain lines fairly early on. There are certain series authors I read, and they all tend to write in the Desires, SIM, and SSE lines. Some of these authors write for one or more of these three lines. Now that I've found one Blaze author I enjoyed (Carly Phillips), I'll be interested in seeing what else she writes.

Barbara began to read SSE and SIM titles in 1981 and says "they have never let me down." As far as single title romances, Pocket and Avon seem most consistent for her. According to Carol, Deborah Simmons is the only HH author worth reading; the most consistent series lines for her is Temptations and Desire. On the other hand, Mary finds that, among the series lines she reads, there is no consistency. In particular, she hasn't enjoyed the Temptations line, finding the dialogue simplistic and plots poorly executed. But since she likes to see authors push the envelope as Stephanie Bond recently did, she'll occasionally try a Temptation Blaze title.

The MIRA imprint of Harlequin seems to be quite inconsistent for readers. Heavy on romantic suspense, suspense, and women's fiction titles, with a smattering of historical romance and straight romance thrown in, some titles are terrific while others are questionable. This line was jump-started when Debbie Macomber signed a multi-million dollar contract a few years ago. Candace Camp has received some good reviews from us for her recent MIRA historicals. Of course, their bread and butter might be their reissues of earlier series titles by some of the biggest romance writers around. I'm not sure MIRA has found its true niche yet, a feeling I get from other readers as well.

Because Pocket has so many of the big "J" writers - Julie Garwood, Jude Deveraux, Judith McNaught, Jill Barnett, and, until last year, Jayne Ann Krentz, it has good reputation. Aside from Julie Garwood and Jill Barnett's latest releases (both of which we granted DIK status), however, when was the last truly great Deveraux, McNaught, or Krentz you read? And, the number of romances released by Pocket is less than almost every other publisher with the exception of SMP and Warner. Yes, they started their Sonnet line to grow mid-list authors, but last year's stunt-publishing of Lip Service and the two hardcover disappointments by Michelle Jaffe have put a red flag next to Pocket in more minds than my own. A third Jennifer, for example, writes, "I notice I'm stepping way from Pocket Books. I'm not sure if their product is changing or my taste is. But it seems like their romances are geared more towards what was popular in the 80s."

Avon, which seems to have several levels of romance authors, and seems to have the most positive buzz these days, is also the publisher of Kathleen Woodiwiss, whose romance style went out of vogue quite long ago. Johanna Lindsey, another long-time romance writer and long-time Avon author stopped showing up on many romance readers' radar some years ago. Though they seem to be developing new talent nicely (Julia Quinn, as a prime example), they've been very smart at the authors they've snapped up from other publishers, including Stephanie Laurens, Karen Ranney, Susan Andersen, and Elizabeth Bevarly, to name a few). One criticism of Avon cropped up in more than a few surveys of readers who, Karen Ranney aside, think they are overly focused on "light" romances at the expense of darker and more intense reads.

As far as Regency Romances are concerned, only two publishers have Regency lines - Signet and Zebra. For the most part, readers prefer Signet to Zebra in terms of consistency, quality, and creativity. However, our own Anne Marble points out that "Zebra certainly has a greater number of good writers than they used to have. Some of that is because they dare to take on the new, unpolished authors. Another reason is because they went out and acquired some really good authors (such as Anne Stuart) who weren't getting the attention they deserved. I hope this proves to be a success in the long run." She also says that Zebra Regencies have improved in the past couple of years. People are finding keepers among them."

The Current Publishing Landscape

Publisher Alignment - Many publishing houses have merged in the past few years and changed their romance lines. For instance: Harper ended its Monogram line and bought Avon/William Morrow; Penguin and Putnam merged and the Topaz line ended; and Random House bought Bantam (which ended its Loveswept line), Doubleday, Dell. On the other hand, Harlequin/Silhouette has begun to publish single title romances with their MIRA imprint, and Kensington has gotten into the series game. Have you noticed any changes in the romances you are reading as a result of this? And, speculate on what the future holds as such consolidation continues.

The focus on big-name authors at all the publishers contrasts with an ominous feeling many readers have about presenting and supporting new talent, especially at the most popular publishing houses. On the other hand, those publishers most known for publishing new talent often fail to take advantage of this by not presenting their new finds well, or by presenting them at the "low end" of the romance food chain. Every time I am asked whether or not we should cut new authors some slack, I respond that, as long as some new authors are writing Desert Isle Keepers their first time out, why should we, as readers, have to lower our expectations?

Kensington, which has focused a lot on niche marketing, has also developed several lines of series romance, and low-priced romance. Their Precious Gems line, available only at Wal-Mart, which caused a furor with RWA because of the flat-rate/no-royalties feature, are very inexpensive and very short. Although initially only featuring contemporary stories, they now include historicals as well, which I believe is a detriment to any historical storyteller. How can a historical setting be presented well, in addition to creating strong characters and developing a creative story, in less than 200 pages?

Frankly, Kensington isn't alone in this - Pocket has featured "mini-historicals" by both Julie Garwood and Linda Lael Miller. But Kensington takes the majority of criticism; several readers had this to say about the Precious Gems line: "You get what you pay for."

In general, however, most concerns about the new publisher alignments and consolidations is that as these companies combine, there comes an even stronger emphasis on fast profits as opposed to development of talent. There is the fear that creativity and writerly innovation will take a back seat to homogeneity. Rather than an office building filled with men in gray flannel suits, there'll be an office building filled with women writers in gray flannel suits, so to speak, all writing books about pregnant amnesiacs in love with cowboys who secretly fathered their babies. Then too, there are worries that as larger companies gobble up smaller ones, their strengths will be subsumed. As one unnamed reader writes, "I find it all very confusing. I see that there are fewer romances being published. I don't miss some of the lines they cut, but fear they will be pickier when it comes to publishing new authors and their guidelines may become too rigid or conservative. I like some variety in my reading."

Those comments are echoed by Susan, who hates to see mergers in any industry because, "the closer you get to a monopoly, the less choice there is for the consumer. Fewer publishers means less variety and fewer opportunities for new authors." Could that be why so many contemporary romances these days are of the romantic suspense variety? On the other hand, there are more lines being published these days for niche markets and by small publishers. The Internet could have a tremendous impact here, as could on-demand publishing.

Two participants in the survey named Linda make interesting points. The first Linda writes that, "I have to admit I see more "sameness" in the books coming out now. Looking at my keeper shelf, I'm depressed to see how many of them are from the late eighties and early nineties, or authors I discovered during that period. I can only expect consolidation to extend this trend." The second Linda, who tries not to worry about the future too much, writes, "I wasn't aware of all these mergers until now. I do think that the quality of romance has improved vastly in the last 10 years. The authors are better at dialogue, the storylines less angst-filled and warmer, witty, and just plain more fun to read. I think the future looks very good for romance, the quality just keeps improving and it's low reputation in general is rising."

In-between these two Lindas are other, perhaps less alarmist readers, like Carol, who agree that publishing is like other businesses, "continually going through a cycle of many startups, expansion, and consolidation. As consolidation happens, there is less pushing the envelope, more traditional things done, until some upstarts come along to start the cycle all over again. I suspect that the current conservative trend will continue for awhile, before something will happen to shatter the myths and start new ones."

Finally, some readers believe that these mergers are improving the quality of the writing we're seeing. Certainly romance writing is better than it was 20 to 25 years ago when publishers discovered the then untapped romance market. Patricia, for instance, points out that even though there are fewer companies publishing romance these days, there are still plenty of good romances to be found. She adds, "I actually think these mergers have improved writing quality, but of course there are also minuses. For instance, I think book prices have been rising partly because there is less competition out there than there used to be."

Let's Wrap Things Up:
Before we move on to the questions I'd like to have you consider, let me try to sum up what I learned while surveying readers and taking a look at my own library. For me personally, the sheer numbers took me aback - had anyone told me six years ago that I'd have read nearly 500 romances in that time, I'd have thought they were loony tunes. Even more surprising is that I didn't start to read series romances until about three years ago - that I've read more than a hundred seems phenomenal.

As for those who participated in the survey, I think the fairly consistent enjoyment of Avon books over all other publishers was somewhat of a surprise. While Avon was certainly at the top of the heap four years ago, they seem to have pulled out in front, alone, albeit not without detractors who find many Avon releases lacking in substance. And, not to be denied is the continual influence of Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb. For many readers, her single title contemporaries and novels of romantic suspense/futuristic romantic suspense comprise the only Berkley and Jove titles on their keeper shelves. She is truly a one-woman empire.

Perhaps not as surprising was the bad reputations both Kensington and Dorchester continue to have. While some readers believe one if not both of these publishers have improved in recent years, our collective memory seems to be the strongest force working here.

While it seems more and more readers are concerned about the mergers publishers have gone through in recent years, others feel the merger trend is just that - a trend - or that the mergers are good for the genre by forcing better writing. Certainly, e-publishing and publishing-on-demand of out of print books are two trends to watch as they grow. Might they mitigate some of the fears we have about conformity?

A very interesting post was made to one of our boards that really fits in well; I've made it our "letter of the moment," which may be a new feature here at the site. If you've got the time, please read it and post about it on the ATBF Message Board.

I've presented a tremendous amount of material in this column, and didn't take every fork in the road readers presented. What I tried to do was get a handle on the core topics dominating most of the surveys. There's an awful lot here, so let's consider the following for you to respond to on the message board.

When you look over your library, as I did, what conclusions can you draw about the link between various publishers and the kinds books you like to read?
Do you find that some authors work better as single title authors (historical or contemporary) than they do as series authors? Which authors work better? Are there some others that work better for you as series authors? Which ones?
Karen said that when she first started to read romance she was more influenced by covers and blurbs than she is today. Nowadays she seldom browses in bookstores and the reason is the Internet. Has the Internet affected your browsing and buying habits? Are you less influenced by packaging than you used to be? Please tell us about it.
Whose comments resonated most with you of those quoted in the column? And, were you to answer the survey questions (or perhaps you did and your responses were not revealed here), which of your answers would be similar or different to those included in the column?
Finally, rather than restating for you to respond to individual survey questions, let me just open the floor to any other comments and/or questions you may have regarding the column or the Letter of the Moment.

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

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Current Publishing Alignment

  • BET
    • Arabesque
  • Harlequin
    • Harlequin Series Lines
    • Silhouette Series Lines
    • Harlequin Historicals
    • MIRA (new releases and reissues of older series titles)
  • HarperCollins
    • Avon
    • Harper
    • HarperMonogram (discontinued)
    • William Morrow
  • Kensington
    • Kensington
    • Zebra
    • Pinnacle
      • Denise Little Presents (discontinued)
  • Dorchester
    • Leisure
    • LoveSpell
  • Penguin-Putnam
    • Berkley
    • Jove
    • Onyx
    • Signet
    • Topaz (discontinued)
    • Putnam
  • Random House
    • Ballantine
    • Bantam
      • Bantam Loveswept (discontinued)
    • Delacourte
    • Dell
    • Fawcett
      • Fawcett Regency (discontinued)
    • Ivy
  • Simon & Schuster
    • Pocket
      • Sonnet
  • St Martin's Press
  • Warner Books

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