| Sweet nothings
Romantic fiction is a large part of the mass down-market, accounting for nearly 10 per cent of sales every year. The readers are nearly all women. They come from all social groups, though they are unlikely to be highly educated. Even those who dismiss the simplistic format — boy and girl meet, fall out, come together, live happily ever after — cannot deny the success of romance. But is it just the story line and the reader-friendly style that help sell the books or does the trade, backed by the multiplicity of sitcom teleserials based on romantic fiction, play an equally important part to boost sales'
It is a simple truth that no publisher can succeed today without the active cooperation of the book trade. However extensive a publisher’s reach, however exhaustive its direct mailing lists, it cannot replace trade outlets that quite often cater not merely to literary requirements but also daily needs, especially in remote areas. Customers get there to do their essential shopping for the day and maybe buy a book on the side. The bookshop is a vital link in the distribution chain; the alternative of going it alone is very expensive both in time and money.
But the marketing and selling of books is a very different ballgame than sales of middlebrow and up-market fiction. Here copies are not sold in ones and twos but in bulk because the retailer and the reader know that the story is much the same in all the books, give or take a little.
In fact, Mills & Boon, the market leader in romantic fiction has reduced the writing to an art form with four identifiable ingredients: characterization, dialogue, plot and background. MB novels have to be written almost exclusively by women because “men find it almost impossible to identify with a woman’s fantasies.” A sympathetic woman is desirable because readers are liable to get impatient if they don’t like the main character. She doesn’t have to be beautiful but she should be young — in the mid-20s range — with a mind of her own. Men don’t have to be machos but should have a compelling personality, be achievers and successful in their own field. No woman wants to marry a wimp but he doesn’t have to be aggressive or domineering.
To come to the plot. The golden rule is that a romance must have a conflict and a happy ending. The plot falls into two types: internal and external. For the external plot, the heroine’s father has financial problems with his business, so the hero buys in to bail him out. The heroine resents this because it reduces her father’s self-respect. It is an issue that falls outside their lives but impinges with some force, changing the course it would normally take.
An internal plot involves character type — some emotional or moral issue which puts the hero and heroine at odds with each other and their sense of integrity. These issues are resolved, sometimes with great heart-searching, by an acceptance of each other’s differences, their basic needs and a willingness to compromise without destroying their beliefs. Conflict must not overwhelm the love interest. Jack and Jill must embrace each other!
But forget the story line because down-market publishing is not about books but about money. And the money is big because the terms of trade are different from what is offered for serious fiction: 33 to 40 per cent trade discount with a credit of 30 to 45 days from the date of invoice.
In romantic fiction these are upped to a minimum of 40 per cent, going up to 50 per cent, a credit of 60 days with the proviso that all unsold copies will be returned back to the publisher and a credit given to the bookseller. Romantic fiction is a perishable commodity and the bookseller has to be covered from all risks.
But the real money for romance, intermingled with a little violence, now comes from the sale of TV serial and film rights and which is why it is having a field run. There has been a slight change of tack — more uncertainty with close run-ins with the villain — but don’t worry it all works out beautifully in the end.