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Writer To Reader

Guest Post from Elizabeth Boyle
May 2004

Elizabeth Boyle is the NY Times bestselling author of eighteen novels and two novellas. Having successfully hunted software pirates for a living, Elizabeth feels equally qualified to delve into the antics of rakes, spies and privateers in her writing life.

Where Have All The Regencies Gone . . .

Elizabeth BoyleLet me say first and foremost, I love traditional Regency romances. Sparkling dialogue, sizzling sexual tension, characters that make me laugh out loud or have me considering their follies for days after. Short, tight stories that as a mother of toddlers I can read in an evening. These books allow me to go beyond my well played video tape of Pride & Prejudice and experience the Regency over and over and over. And considering the continued popularity of the A&E version of Jane Austen's masterpiece it would seem to go hand in hand that traditional regencies have shared in this popularity. But instead, they've become a victim of all the things that make them wonderful: their size, their very name, and coupled with a tight market, they seem to be fading like my VCR tape (which had to be replaced, by the way, by a DVD.) So what has happened and what can be done before they become as obsolete as VHS, or worse, BETA?

Finding Regencies
The main problem, I believe, is the difficulty in finding the books, and that is due in part to the squeeze for shelf space. Grocery stores, drug stores and variety stores, where large numbers of books are sold, have slowly wheedled away at the available space allotted to popular fiction, while at the same time raising prices for that diminished space. distributors who stock these shelves (and in turn rent that shelf space) are more inclined to fill them with NYT bestsellers, backlist and books by authors with proven sell-through. The smaller, lower priced Regencies with their niche market just don't have the clout that Nora Roberts' or Danielle Steele's backlist carries. (BTW, I've always wondered just how many copies of Crossings and/or Malice does one reader need?) Beyond the grocery store crunch, traditional bricks and mortar booksellers haven't done the genre any favors, either. I've heard countless complaints from readers who have been obliged to humble themselves on hands and knees to locate their favorite books--which have been relegated to the bottom shelf at their local chain store, or worse, mixed into the regular romance books rather than separated out like category romances. This is where traditional regencies could learn a lesson from their category shelf mates. Category readers know exactly when their favorite lines are shelved and buy them religiously. Why is it that the publishers and booksellers aren't using this proven marketing example for traditional regencies? The readers are a loyal lot, but if they can't find the books, they can't buy them... and so begins the vicious circle that makes print runs decline and publishers throw up their hands and act like there is no market. The solution seems obvious, but obvious doesn't always seem to stick in publishing. Signet, Kensington? Are you listening? Really, truly, make these books easily accessible and available like clockwork and the loyal readers will buy them.

Regency By Any Other Name
Even if readers could find the books, the question is still whether or not they would buy them. While their longer, single title Regency historical sisters regularly make the bestseller lists, traditional Regencies are frequenty treated like the little ugly stepsister, standing in the wings and ignored by the voracious Regency historical fans. The solution: it may be just as simple as removing the "Regency" label on the cover and spine that distinguishes them from other Regency set books. A romance is a romance is a romance. One of the finest writers in this genre, Mary Balogh, maintains that the "Regency" label is what is killing this genre and I agree with her completely. For some reason this label has the undeserved stigma in the marketplace as the last bastion of books only your great Aunt Milly who can't abide even a hint of sex would read. Again, the answer is as simple as removing that label and the audience that devours Julia Quinn and Stephanie Laurens may be lured into reading these fabulous stories. Some will argue that readers are attracted to the longer, more complex stories of single title historicals, but if that were true, would the publishers be having such a resounding success with the varied anthologies set in the Regency time period? A well written romance will find an audience no matter the size. However, here's the other rub-they have to first get past the packaging.

Covers - One For All And All The Same

Here is the loudest complaint about these books. The covers are as dull as dishwater and all look alike. Can you tell a Signet Regency from a Kensington? I can't. There is a genuine lack of imagination in making a traditional Regency stand out. And while prop covers or wallpaper covers have never worked for this genre, something needs to be done so they don't look like a Regency version of the bad high school prom picture. Gads, not even the YA market tolerates such saccharine, so why should books written for modern women who have the intelligence to discern? These covers have become locked in some worn and archaic time warp. It's time for a completely new look to catch hold of a new audience.

You were probably wondering when I was going to get to this, but actually I think this is the least of the genre's problems. We all have our preferences when it comes to books, but what defines a great book that we recommend over and over is never the sex scenes. It is the characters, the wonderful story that tosses them together, the chemistry between the couple that makes us smile when they share their first kiss. Sex, in my humble opinion, is never what makes a book better or greater. Characters, true to their hearts and full of life, will always rule the day. If they have sex along the way, it's really up to them.

Lost Authors Found . . . Writing Elsewhere
As this market has diminished and print runs shrunk, many of the best authors of traditional Regencies have moved on to writing single title historical romances. Don't get me wrong, I love their books in any form, and I understand why they've chosen to take their careers in a different path for a variety of reasons, none of which I can fault them for. For some, it is the lure of writing larger, more complex stories, for others it is the lone fact that single title pays better. And writers, like everyone else, have mortgages, kids in college, and all the other cold realities of life that demand making something that resembles a living wage. But that doesn't mean new authors don't appear every year, and if they have the chance to be introduced to a larger market, they may be able to stay true to the stories that drew them to writing and live the fantasy of making a living from following their dreams.

My Final Not So Humble Opinion
As I look over everything I've written, I realize that traditional Regencies aren't so much missing as they are languishing under an outdated sense of obligation to go down with the ship. And the greatest irony of all is that there is an audience for them, a huge voracious, romance loving, Colin Firth lusting lot of readers that will never find these books until the publishers toss out their uninspired covers, erase that "Regency" label from the spine, and get the stores to put them front and center. Unless, that is, they like seeing their books and authors continue to be relegated to the bottom shelf, as dusty and forgettable as that sugar coated milquetoast couple on the cover.

Here is my final word to New York: take a lesson from Hollywood. Ever noticed that when you go to buy a DVD to replace a video, you discover your favorite movie has a cover that's different from the old VHS tape? And beneath this shiny new facade, updated and looking hip, is the same great movie you've always loved, or perhaps never tried until they put the fancy updated wrapping on it. Pretty simple, eh?

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