My panel last weekend at the Nebula conference was about romance and science fiction/fantasy. As usual, I thought of all the good things to say in the middle of the night days after the panel, so I’ll discuss the topic here.
I’ll admit that I have mixed feelings about being put on the romance and sf panel every year, at just about every convention. I don’t mind so much at the Nebulas, since I probably do have more expertise in that area than most people at that conference, having actually written romance novels, and that conference is aimed at writers. But I also feel like I’m getting “typecast” by the industry in general, both at conventions and by publishers, and the fact that I keep ending up on the romance or paranormal romance panels may perpetuate that typecasting.
The thing is, I last wrote romance more than 20 years ago. I haven’t been involved with Romance Writers of America for about a decade. The books I write now could not be shelved as romance and wouldn’t even be considered by a romance publisher. The Enchanted, Inc. books got shelved as general fiction because they were published as “chick lit,” which is not romance, and that publisher keeps doing Book Bub ads (which is good) for them as paranormal romance, which they aren’t (which is not so good). When you look at that book, the heroine has bad dates with multiple guys, and just has a bit of attraction to the guy who ends up being the romantic interest for the series. There’s not even a kiss until book two. I said on the panel that I write “shipper bait” because the romantic content is more about readers wanting my characters to get together than it is about actual romance on the page. People consider my books romantic, but I think that’s mostly because they make readers feel romantic. It’s not because there’s that much romance in the books.
When it comes to readers, I don’t care how they consider the books, as long as they’re reading them. The problem I have is when it comes to publishers, because they persist in seeing me as a romance writer. As I mentioned, the publisher for Enchanted, Inc. promotes it as paranormal romance. If someone is really looking for paranormal romance, they’d be disappointed in this book, in which the only real romantic content is a general sense that you like this guy the heroine has no romantic relationship with and you want them to get together. Some readers are cool with that. I’m sure others are disappointed, and then there are all the readers who might like it because they aren’t looking for romance, but they aren’t being promoted to so they don’t find it or know about it. Then the fact that it’s promoted as paranormal romance means that the people who buy it also buy paranormal romances, and that triggers the bookselling algorithms, so it’s recommended to people who also bought paranormal romances, who are less likely to actually like it, and it’s not being promoted to people who might like it.
Then there’s the way publishers see other things I write. A Fairy Tale was rejected by multiple fantasy publishers, most of them with the comment that it was “too romancey.” This is a book without a single romantic relationship in it. There’s a little sexual tension between a couple of secondary characters, but the most that happens between the two main characters is that they both have moments in which they each admit to themselves that they find the other somewhat intriguing. There’s not even a kiss in the book. I’m not sure what’s “too romancey” about that. I suspect they read the first few chapters, saw that a man and a woman met, and assumed it was a romance because I have written romance and because they see Enchanted, Inc. as romantic. In at least once case, I’m pretty sure it’s because the editor “shipped” Owen and Katie, so she saw Enchanted, Inc. as romantic and classed me as a romance writer. Maybe there were other issues with that book that made them decide against it, but the reason they gave was that it was “too romancey” to be published as fantasy. The same thing happened with Rebel Mechanics. It was initially submitted to fantasy publishers, and at least one suggested I submit it to a romance publisher instead. Never mind that, again, the only real romantic content relating to the love interest is an awareness of attraction and the other relationship is strictly related to the non-romantic plot. A book that doesn’t even have a kiss between the hero and heroine wouldn’t sell to any romance publisher. I was eventually able to sell it to a young adult publisher.
And that’s an issue for a lot of authors. Women authors are more likely to get shoved into YA with their sf/fantasy books, even if they aren’t really YA stories. If the main character is young and female, it’s more likely to end up published as YA. Not that this is entirely a bad thing, since YA sells very well and there are a lot of adult readers who choose to read YA, but there’s also the problem that because so many books that really could or should be adult fantasy/sf are being published as YA, there’s less real YA being published. Librarians and teachers are complaining about not being able to find books for the 6th-8th grade readers.
It’s not entirely sexism, as I’ve certainly read books with far more romance than I write that are written by female authors and published as adult sf/f. In some cases, it seems like a female author who establishes herself in fantasy with a male main character and with little to no romantic content can then go on to write something that’s a lot more romantic. But then I know of at least one book by a female first-time author that was published by a fantasy publisher in spite of it being something that could just as easily have been published as paranormal romance. I don’t know what the difference is, why the same editor who said Rebel Mechanics was too romancey and should be submitted to a romance publisher would have had no problems publishing a book that had kissing and sexy sparring between the hero and heroine in chapter two.
I’ve been reading an Old School epic fantasy saga, and the way romance is handled in it does make you wonder. In book one, the young male hero is joined on part of his journey by a girl. There’s maybe 50 pages of them traveling together in a 700-page book. After they reach their destination in the last third of the book, they split off into separate journeys, and he spends the rest of the book and the next two books pining over her and longing for her, thinking of the time they spent together, as though they’d established a deep, meaningful romance. I had to flip back through to look at the part they spent together because I’d missed it entirely. He didn’t show signs of admiring her in any way. There was very little awareness of her. He did do a little posturing, but it came across to me more as him competing with her in trying to impress others with them than trying to impress her. They are actually around each other in the last book, which is described as being “a romantic journey,” but I can’t tell why these characters like each other, aside from him being the main character and her being the only girl his age in the series. If those 50 pages of being around each other without really thinking about each other are supposed to establish an epic romance, then I can see where editors used to that sort of thing might be like, “Whew, better send this to a romance publisher,” when there are characters who actually show signs of attraction.
The nice thing about publishing for myself is that I can classify my books however I want, but I still have to try to find readers who might have trouble discovering my earlier works. I’ve started turning down romance-related panels at most conventions (not that there are a lot of in-person conventions right now). I’ll keep doing the romance panel at the Nebulas because we get into this sort of issue. I’m not opposed to romance. It’s just that I don’t really write it, and being classified that way has hurt my career.