PLAYING THE FIELD
Publishers are conducting an ardent affair with the much maligned romance genre, writes Rosemary Neill
NIKKI Logan thought long and hard before telling her colleagues she was moonlighting as a romance writer. After much hesitation, the West Australian public servant ‘‘ came out’’ several years ago about her covert literary life.
The author of 14 titles including Lights, Camera . . . Kiss the Boss, Wild Encounter and Shipwrecked with Mr Wrong reveals that romance authors commonly put off telling friends and family about their writing careers rather than face their scorn and scepticism. She says: ‘‘ We kind of refer to it as coming out, when you come out to people about being a romance writer. It’s not on the same scale as coming out about same-sex sexuality, but it’s hard. It’s a hard thing to do to come out to people when you fear that they might have a very loud and public, negative reaction.’’
Her voice subdued, she recalls how, ‘‘ for me, telling people in the workplace was challenging’’. Still, with one or two exceptions, the reactions of Logan’s workmates in the small government agency where she still works part time were positive.
Now president of Romance Writers of Australia, Logan believes ‘‘ we are seeing a turnaround’’ in attitudes towards the Western world’s biggest selling yet most mocked fiction genre. (Germaine Greer once accused Mills & Boon readers of ‘‘ cherishing the shackles of their bondage’’.) Logan says: ‘‘ It’s such a relief to be able to talk about what you do without having to do it in code. Being a romance writer is not something that people laugh at any more.’’
Certainly, in the wake of E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey spankbuster, there are compelling signs that romance — we’re talking a Mills & Boon aesthetic rather than Anna Karenina or Bridget Jones’s Diary — is no longer a dirty word. Novels featuring pretty, feisty heroines on husband hunts, and handsome alpha males who exude ‘‘ unbearable masculinity’’ are being embraced as never before by readers, bloggers and, especially, mainstream publishers.
Penguin has just launched its Destiny label, an e-book romance imprint. It is kicking off the series with four e-books — Wish is a rural romance by established author Kelly Hunter while the other three ( The Convenient Bride, Small Town Storm and Harbinger) are debut novels. Penguin is planning to release a further two e-romances each month. ‘‘ It’s a pretty big publishing program,’’ says Carol George, who is overseeing the Destiny series with her colleague Sarah Fairhall. ‘‘ We don’t want to just publish them [the new authors], we actually want to help them develop as writers and as names.’’
Fairhall agrees that, until recently, romance fiction was derided here. She says: ‘‘ Certainly in Australia I think there’s been a bit of a stigma attached to romance. That hasn’t been the case in the US, and I think Australia is now finally embracing romance and realising what big business it can be.’’
She and George point out that they were working on Penguin’s romance imprint before the first volume of James’s bondage and submission trilogy started demolishing sales records. ‘‘ Fifty Shades has focused attention on what was already a really successful genre,’’ they contend.
This turbo-charged bestseller was recently described by a British journalist and selfconfessed submissive as ‘‘ Mills & Boon with butt plugs’’. In fact, it was published by Random House and last month became the biggest selling book in Australia since Nielsen BookScan starting tracking retail sales in 2003. James’s depiction of an affair between a naive young woman and her tycoon boyfriend, who wants her to be his sex slave, sold 1.28 million copies here in print and e-book editions between May and August.
As Fifty Shades and its two sequels rocketed up bestseller lists faster than you could say ‘‘ red room of pain’’, publishers sought to cash in. They have recently published a plethora of erotic romances with bondage and submission themes including Bared to You (Penguin) and Destined to Play (HarperCollins). Buffeted by the rise of the internet and decline of