What is Amazon up to with *Romance Literary Fiction*?

Genre is a subject I have successfully avoided for years. I purposefully stopped writing about terms like ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘bodice-ripper’ because it felt like a useless exercise. Opinions about romance novels seem to be carved in stone.

“I’m not really into espionage novels,” is something you might hear someone say. No censure, just a simple statement of preference.  I have a hard time imagining the same person saying “I’m not really into romance novels.” To say ‘romance novel’ to most people who consider themselves educated and well read is like a Texas border guard demanding papers. People scramble to prove they are worthy, and that means disassociating themselves in no uncertain terms. When it comes to romance, you’re far more likely to hear “I don’t read trashy novels.”

At the same time it’s true that genres – or the reception of genres — evolve. Hard-boiled detective fiction was once a secret vice; now authors like Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos are held in high regard. Larry McMurtry and Elmore Leonard brought westerns out of the shadows.

The question is, will the same happen for romance fiction? Could it be happening now?   I started thinking about this when I noticed that Amazon had come up with a new and (in my opinion) awkward classification: Romance Literary Fiction.

Amazon.com
Amazon.com

So I did some googling. 

In 2014 there was a Huffington Post article with the provocative title “How I Learned to Stop Being a Literary Snob and Love Romance.” It was written not by a person, but by a corporate entity: Zola Books, which has a website called Bookish, where the object is to sell books. What’s off-putting about this is the way the anonymous author claims authority:

Then, in my second week on the job, I was invited to a romance author luncheon. I faked my way through conversations about “my first Julie Garwood“ and was delighted to discover that the authors I met were sharp, outspoken, well-read ladies. (I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t expect I’d be able to talk to the women about Internet culture, body image and other non-romance topics.) Six months later, I was moderating a panel with those two of those authors, talking about fans’ tendencies to scold heroines over heroes, the ideal of the happily-ever-after (including when or when not to employ it) and other intricacies of the romance genre.

Bookish has no insights to offer, clearly.  

The article “The Lure of Romance Writing (and Earnings) for the Literary Set” (2015) also did not do anything to clarify for me what’s going on in the genre.  Jane Friedman is a professional consultant to writers; I haven’t met her or worked with her, and I know nothing about her, good or bad. But I have to say  that she  doesn’t really seem to understand the inner workings of the genre.  She knows that writers want to be published, and that they hope to make a living do that, but here’s what she says about an author who trained in a traditional academic MFA program who turned to romance writing:

And Iva liked the romance community she found, comprising women who she says are warm and outgoing, vibrant and middle class, who reminded her of the women she grew up with. “I felt at home with them. The literary world is much more introverted, and much more bitter, cynical, and weary to some degree. There’s a vast amount of transparency in the romance world. That’s how women operate; it’s a women-dominated field.”

In the romance industry, emerging authors don’t have to search out advice or mentor-shop, Iva said. Experienced authors and peers will tell you how it works, repeat what they told you, then take you by the hand and show you. “You could call that mothering,” Iva said. “It’s just how they do it.”

I re-read this about twenty times trying to pinpoint what bothers me. Some of this is from the author Friedman is interviewing, but it’s presented without commentary and so I wonder:  Do the author and Friedman really see romance novelists as middle-class females? Do they see writers in other genres as upper class or working class?  Is it expected that a writer of romance novels will be kind and supportive of one another and selfless in promoting each other?  I know some romance novelists who are like this, but not many. Most of us are regular people, and we do not all get along. Believe me when I tell you that you do not want examples. And if you do want examples, do a little searching here for “Dear Author” and “Smart Bitches” to see how less-than-motherly things can be.

Friedman goes on to discuss how an MFA can be useful to a writer of romance novels: 

Iva says she owes her skill at the craft to her MFA program, and other romance writers I talked to who have MFA degrees—including Marina Adair and Kait Ballenger—emphasized the value of their degrees in teaching them the craft and how to accept feedback and criticism. The combination of disciplined writing chops and romance’s marketability certainly appears to be rocket fuel for a publishing career. Adair sold seven romances while earning her MFA from San José State University; while she started out in screenwriting, focusing on family films and teen comedies, she says she can’t imagine writing anything else now except romance. Ballenger also signed traditional publishing deals while enrolled in a low-residency program at Spalding University, and now has multiple romance books out, with more on the way. Before pursuing romance, Ballenger focused on writing and publishing young adult novels (her degree concentration is children’s/YA), and she continues to pursue both genres. But romance is now paying her bills, and she doesn’t have a YA deal yet.

The debate about the relative worth of MFA programs is an old one, and fraught. Some successful writers (with and without MFAs) will tell you that it’s a waste of money. Writers who teach in MFA programs will tell you the opposite.  I have a PhD and not an MFA; I sometimes teach at conferences and I taught fiction as a regular faculty member at two universities, but never in an MFA program. My feelings are mixed, though I do agree that learning to accept feedback and criticism is crucial to developing as a writer. 

And I’m still no closer to understanding what is meant by Romance Literary Fiction, which Amazon thinks I write. It is  clear to me that as a for-profit corporation, Amazon only changes things if they see a potential for increased sales.  That’s not something to complain about, on the face of it. What is less clear to me is whether they made this decision based on trends they were seeing, or if they are trying to start something. A google search for “Romance Literary Fiction” in quotes provides a partial answer:  it shows up only on Amazon.com.  So they are trying to start something, but what?

Pig in a Poke, revisited: Amazon Shenanigans

The first version of this post went up in January 2013. I’m revising and reposting it because Amazon is bungling editions, in a rather deceptive and (to me) infuriating way. The update is followed by the original post.


Amazon has a newish feature I actually like, called Kindle Match. If you bought a hard copy of a book from them in the past — and it can be way, way past, fifteen years ago even, you may be able to get the Kindle edition for anywhere between nothing and ten bucks. Most of the titles seem to be at $2.99 or less. 

So I was looking through this list and I come across the fact that I bought the Norton Critical Edition of Price and Prejudice in 2006. Why I did that is a different question — I can’t remember why I wanted yet another copy. But as you see here  I did indeed buy it in 2006: 

Kindle Match
Kindle Match

A critical edition is the queen of all editions for any book that is considered classic, and the subject of study by academics and scholars. Wikipedia provides a concise description of how critical editions come to be: 

Textual criticism is a branch of textual scholarship, philology, and literary criticism that is concerned with the identification and removal of transcription errors in texts, both manuscripts and printed books. Ancient scribes made errors or alterations when copying manuscripts by hand.[1] Given a manuscript copy, several or many copies, but not the original document, the textual critic seeks to reconstruct the original text (the archetype or autograph) as closely as possible. The same processes can be used to attempt to reconstruct intermediate editions, or recensions, of a document’s transcription history.[2] The ultimate objective of the textual critic’s work is the production of a “critical edition” containing a text most closely approximating the original.

Critical editions almost always have additional materials: essays by the editors and/or other scholars, about the book and its history, the author, the time period, and anything else you can think of.  There will also be footnotes to clarify terms that may not be familiar to a current day reader.  Given all this, it probably won’t surprise you that a critical edition costs more than the run-of-the-mill edition.

To clarify what I mean by ‘run-of-the-mill’ edition (or see this post, in which I was totally cranky, but still on target):

Because P&P is long out of print and copyright, anybody can put out a new edition without paying the author or the author’s estate anything. The result is many, many hundreds of editions of P&P put out on cheap paper, with little or no attention to the quality or accuracy of the text, all in the hope of a bit of a profit. You can find new copies of this novel for a buck, and then used copies of that same edition for a penny. 

Do I want the Norton edition as a Kindle book? Need you ask? So I click on the “Get Kindle Edition” button  you see, and this is what comes up:

Not the Norton Critical Edition
Not the Norton Critical Edition

Here is what the page for the critical edition actually looks like:

This is the real Norton Critical Edition
This is the real Norton Critical Edition

 

You see that the critical edition has an editor (Donald J. Gray) and also that I bought it in 2006. But what I was offered as a part of Kindle Match was a crappy movie-tie in edition, one I never bought in soft cover. 

To take this one step further (because it gets worse), if I click on the “Kindle Edition” tab on the Norton edition page, this is what I get:

Still not the critical edition
Still not the critical edition

Note that this was not published by Norton, but by “Top Five Classics” — one of the many companies that specialize in run-of-the-mill cheap editions.  At this point it occurs to me that there may not  even be a Kindle version of the Norton Critical Edition, so I pop over to the Norton website and have a look at the P&P page. And in fact, it’s only put out in trade paper format.  (Click on the link if you want to see what all goes into a critical edition.) 

In a nutshell: if I pay for the critical edition, I want it. I want it for all the reasons touched on above.  If another reader doesn’t care about the edition, s/he won’t even notice the switch. But people should care, because the practice is (a) deceptive and (b) wasteful. I hate to think of all the paper that has gone into crappy editions of this particular novel, one of many.  My guess is that you could repeat this process I’m showing you for everything from Gulliver’s Travels to A Room with a View.

Here’s the question: Is Amazon just tremendously sloppy and unwilling to pay attention to something as simple as an ISBN, or is this a way to lure in less-than-attentive buyers?  

One of the first things you learn in graduate school is to never walk into a seminar where a particular novel is going to be discussed  holding a movie-tie in edition rather than the critical edition. You will not be treated kindly. Also, it’s disrespectful to the editors who put in years of work to make sure the edition is as authentic and error free as possible.

So I’m done venting. I doubt anybody at Amazon will pay attention to my squeaking, but I’m going to keep an eye on this. 

January 2013 Post:

I love all things electronic, but when it comes to buying and selling books on the internet I see room for improvement. To be fair, that improvement is coming along nicely. In most areas.

Don't make Jane angry. You wouldn't like her when she's angry.
Don’t make Jane angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.

I’ll demonstrate with (what else?) Pride & Prejudice. There must be a couple hundred editions of P&P in English alone. Poorly done editions, leather-bound editions (and sometimes those two things aren’t mutually exclusive), editions on paper so cheap it makes your fingers itch just to turn the page, critical editions (put together by academics with special care to detail and authenticity), abbreviated and illustrated and annotated editions. Most people don’t realize how different editions can be, or that one might be better than another. If you’ve read one copy of Pride & Prejudice you’ve read them all, is the general belief. This is a widely held misconception, and one that technology is not doing anything to rectify. Just the opposite. Continue reading “Pig in a Poke, revisited: Amazon Shenanigans”

how published / published how?

I’m cross posting this to FaceBook because I’m hoping to get some real feedback.

All in all I think the huge jump in self publishing is a good thing, but at the moment it’s a little bit like the wild west: lawless and unpredictable. There are self published books that are very good and that deserve to have found a traditional publisher, but there are also many, many pretty awful self published novels.

Now here’s the problem: It’s my sense (and correct me if I’m wrong) that self-published people don’t make a point of that in their bios or blurbs. So when I come across a blurb about another author that reads: author of x novels, or published x novels, I now have to stop to wonder about the how.  Are we talking Norton or Penguin or Tor, or is this Amazon self-publishing? Further complicating the matter, there are some trends I’ve noticed about self publishing on Amazon  that I don’t know how to interpret. If a novel  out for less than a year (especially a romance novel) has 5,000+ comments and 96 percent of them are 5 stars, that novel is very likely to be self published, as far as I’ve been able to determine. I’m not sure what this means; I could make some guesses, but only guesses.

At this point when I come across a new novel, again, especially on Amazon, there’s no way to know if this novel is self published unless i go look at the details and dig deeper.  Of course, I’m free to do that or not; it’s my loss if I pass up a good novel.

So now, I find myself worrying about my own blurbs. If somebody reads a bio or blurb about one of my novels or me, will they think, oh, probably self published? Which is why I’ve changed the blurb (when I’m asked for one). I now put down something like: nine novels in print with major publishers.
That may solve one problem, but it creates another one. It sounds snooty.

So what do you think is there a way to do this without (1) sounding stuck up and (2) adding a lot of details about the exact publishing houses?  Or should I just stop worrying about it? I admit there’s a bit of pride at work here. It’s not easy getting published, and I would like to be acknowledged for the fact that I have. But at the same time, I don’t want to dismiss all self published work on general principles.

Thoughts?

 

never buy a pig in a poke: the bookish adaptation

I love all things electronic, but when it comes to buying and selling books on the internet I see room for improvement. To be fair, that improvement is coming along nicely. In most areas.

Don't make Jane angry. You wouldn't like her when she's angry.
Don’t make Jane angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.

I’ll demonstrate with (what else?) Pride & Prejudice. There must be a couple hundred editions of P&P in English alone. Poorly done editions, leather-bound editions (and sometimes those two things aren’t mutually exclusive), editions on paper so cheap it makes your fingers itch just to turn the page, critical editions (put together by academics with special care to detail and authenticity), abbreviated and illustrated and annotated editions. Most people don’t realize how different editions can be, or that one might be better than another. If you’ve read one copy of Pride & Prejudice you’ve read them all, is the general belief. This is a widely held misconception, and one that technology is not doing anything to rectify. Just the opposite. Continue reading “never buy a pig in a poke: the bookish adaptation”