Making Bookstores Welcoming to Romance Readers

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How to create positive and welcoming spaces for romance readers was the focus of the BookExpo America 2016 panel discussion “Creating a Safe Space for Genre Readers in Traditional Literary Strongholds.” The session, on Thursday, May 12, at McCormick Place in Chicago, was moderated by Pamela Jaffee, senior director of publicity and brand development for HarperCollins’ Avon Books and Harper Voyager imprints.

The panel featured Stephani Fry, education and programs manager at Romance Writers of America (RWA); Emily Hall, co-owner of Main Street Books in St. Charles, Missouri; romance author Susan Elizabeth Phillips; Whitney Spotts, promotions coordinator at Schuler Books in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Mary Beth Thomas, vice president and deputy director of sales for HarperCollins Publishers.

At HarperCollins, which also owns Harlequin, Jaffee and Thomas have been working on an initiative to promote the romance genre to independent bookstores. Thomas told booksellers they need to set aside the idea that genre literature is not “real literature” and realize just how much of a cash cow genre readers can be, no matter whether they are fans of romance, thrillers, mystery, fantasy, or science fiction.

“Your genre readers are your voracious readers,” Thomas said. “Those are the people who are coming and buying five or six books at a time and are coming back next week and buying five or six more books. I think sometimes indie bookstores can get a little caught up in the idea of being more highbrow and I think that is a big mistake.”

Some of the common phrases heard from romance detractors, said Jaffee, include “All romance books are exactly the same”; “The endings are so predictable”; and “It’s basically mommy porn, right?” But the truth is that the romance novel, which includes the subgenres of historical, paranormal, fantasy, gothic, suspense, regency, and erotica, cannot be pinned down — and, said Fry, neither can its readers.

“The largest grouping of romance book consumers are white females ages 30 – 44, but if you look at it more closely there is actually a very good mix of all people, all races,” said Fry, pointing to statistics on the romance genre collected by Nielsen in its consumer study “Nielsen Books & Consumers – FY 2014 & 2015.” According to the study, out of 8,100 readers surveyed in 2014, 17 percent of romance readers were male, and of 7,648 surveyed in 2015, 16 percent were male. “I bet some of you are surprised by how large the male percentages are, because most people assume all romance readers are female,” Fry said.

When it comes to print books, the number of romance titles that are discovered in physical bookstores is also growing: the frequency of discovering a print romance title in-store on a display or shelf increased 33 percent from last year, according to Nielsen, which also found that seven percent of all romance titles that were purchased in 2015 were discovered in independent bookstores, a number that grew from five percent in 2014. While many romance fans also read e-books, that number decreased by 13 percent last year, according to Nielsen.

Once booksellers decide to take on the challenge and create their own romance starter collection in-store, the first step is to assess the space they have to work with and make room. The second step is to actually choose the books. But Phillips, whose book tours bring her to stores around the country, said that she often sees booksellers who feel overwhelmed by the genre’s breadth.

“When I walk into an independent store that doesn’t have a romance collection and I introduce myself and ask where their romance collection is, I don’t see snobbism so much as [a sense of], ‘I don’t even know where to start.’” said Phillips.

To combat this, Jaffee played a video from historical romance author and genre enthusiast Sarah MacLean, who provided some tips for booksellers who are stumped when it comes to starting a romance collection.

“You may not know a whole lot about the romance genre but someone in your midst definitely does,” said MacLean, author of the Scandal & Scoundrel series and a monthly romance column in the Washington Post. “It may be one of your staff; it may be a customer who comes in all the time and tends to order a certain kind of fiction, like women’s fiction; it could be someone you know who read Fifty Shades a couple years ago. They’re a good place to start.”

MacLean said booksellers will inevitably find that romance readers (some of whom may also be aspiring romance writers) are very excited to talk about the books they’ve read, and once booksellers start asking questions, they will want to share every book that they’ve ever loved, she said.

“The key thing to remember is that romance readers really want to talk about the genre. They want to talk about their love for the books, just like any other book group,” said MacLean. “So put on events that give them the opportunity to be part of a larger community of romance readers, and then your store will be a welcoming space for romance readers, which is really valuable to building a romance collection and moving books out the door.”

Just as the YA community is very interactive, Spotts said the romance community is much the same. At Schuler Books, she has staged many romance author signings, readings, and related events, some of which have drawn more than a hundred people. Events have included an educational night on BDSM and erotica and a monthly “Girls’ Night Out.” Advertising that wine or cupcakes will be served is especially effective in attracting attendees, as is giving away bags of ARCs, Spotts added.

“These people know each other, they go to conventions, they talk on Twitter, they’ve got discussion groups on Goodreads, and so they are spreading the word as much among themselves as you are to them,” she said. “It does create this sort of viral thing going on and if you can tap into it, it’s awesome.”

When it comes to connecting on social media, romance authors and readers have always been pioneers, said Phillips, whose own e-mail list boasts 80,000 names. Advertising author appearances on social media and tagging the author or the publisher will likely lead to them retweeting or reposting, she said, and this built-in reciprocity makes it easy to foster connectivity with these authors’ followers and to use their social platforms to promote your store.

Fry told booksellers it is also a good idea to connect with their local RWA chapter by visiting the RWA website, which has a section of chapter listings. Many of these chapters do multi-author events at bookstores and libraries, Fry said.

Though now a proud purveyor of the genre in her own right, Hall said she was often made fun of in college for reading romance novels and she reminded booksellers, once again, to be sensitive.

“When you’re sitting behind your desk and you’re waiting for someone to come and ask you about a book, the important thing to remember is that every single person in your store is a reader and that is pretty much all you need to know,” said Hall. “It doesn’t matter if they read fantasy. It doesn’t matter if they read romance. It doesn’t matter if they read sci-fi… So it’s important to just be nice to everybody.”

Spotts echoed this, referring to the movie High Fidelity and the brand of pretentiousness that can tend to arise among book and record store staff.

“The snobbishness that can occur in record shops or in bookstores is something to be very aware of with your staff,” said Spotts. If you’ve got staff “who are dismissive, you have to call them out on it and say, you can’t make people feel bad about the choices that they’re making or they’re not going to come back. You shouldn’t be judging their reading. They’re still reading. That’s all that matters.”

As the session wrapped up, Jaffee and Thomas gave out stickers branded with the words “Judgment-Free Reading Zone,” to demonstrate the point that booksellers must silence the detractors and empower romance readers to see their stores as safe spaces where they can fully embrace their love of the genre.

Jaffee also cited some resources booksellers can use to find books that will get a romance collection started, including NPR’s 100 Swoonworthy Romances, a list of RWA RITA award-winners past and present, books like Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell (Touchstone), and MacLean’s list of her 100 top romance picks.