Juno Books

The Paranormal Paradox

An Informal Essay by Paula Guran

[January 2007]

Since it has been publicly alleged on some blog posts here and there (I'll let you track them down yourselves) that I don't know what romance is, allow me to clear that up first: I most certainly do understand what "romance" is when it comes to the marketing category called "romance". Although romance scholar Pamela Regis, for example, has expostulated a more complete literary definition, the short version is: a romance is a love story between two people (usually a man and a woman) that ends happily or on a note of optimism. The happy ending -- shorthanded as "HEA" (happily ever after) -- is essential.

I know and respect this definition. I knew it long before Juno Books existed. Anyone who picks up BEST NEW PARANORMAL ROMANCE and glances at the introduction will realize this.

However, just as with any genre, few folks outside the romance community are aware of the definition. Few outside the science fiction community understand its debates (over what sf is and what to properly call whatever it is that can't be defined, whether "sci-fi" is derogatory, if "speculative fiction" is appropriate, etc.). Few outside fantasy know anything about topics considered vital to fantasy. (Just try to get a hot conversation about non-Tokienesque fantasy going at your local bar!) The debates about horror -- a genre that defies definition and may not even be a genre and, whether it is or isn't, at least was once a marketing category even though no one is sure if it is still a marketing category -- rage on.

But no one is really concerned with any of this except folks deeply into the pertinent subjects.

Overall, genre -- any genre -- doesn't get much attention or respect from the publishing world. Romance is probably the most disrespected of all. Yet, romance sells Very Large Numbers of Books. It sells more books than any other kind of fiction.

Publishing is a business and numbers are all important. So for all the disdain, the lack of attention, the dearth of respect, and the ignorance -- the industry is quite aware of the numbers of romance books that are sold. But publishing also knows that what applies to romance readers does not apply elsewhere. Romance is the invisible 800 pound gorilla that cannot be duplicated. Publishing as a whole might lust after its readership but, for a long time (and maybe still), there wasn't much they could do to market anything else to those readers.

Let me pause here to mention -- for those who think the phrase means something else -- that the terms "publishing" or "publishing industry" (or variations I may use here) mean more than "publishers" as in "firms in the publishing business". By publishing industry, in this context, I mean authors, agents, editors, those individuals designated as "publishers" within the hierarchy of a publishing firm, marketers, publicists, sales teams, distributors, reviewers (and critics and pundits and observers and journalists), those who report news concerning books and publishing, and, to some extent, booksellers -- especially the buyers for the major chains. I'm sure there are job titles I've left out, but I think this conveys what I mean.

And, as you've probably started to realize, I am trying to provide background and context here that you may already know and find tedious. But background and context are sometimes missing when people are rapidly and briefly expressing opinions online. So, I beg your indulgence

Back to numbers. When you can attach big numbers to an author, publishing takes note. Really big numbers mean an author becomes a brand name -- the holy grail of the publishing business and something it is constantly trying to produce, especially nowadays when American publishing is driven by profit-minded conglomerates.

Sometimes you can attach big numbers to a word or term. Back in the seventies a certain type of novel and popular films made from that type of novel, gave a certain word -- "horror" -- a lot of marketing value. Horror, you may recall, was a big deal for a while.

Just as it likes brand-name authors who sell millions of books, the publishing business likes handy terms that can be used to sell large numbers of books. And remember -- selling books is what publishing, as a business, is all about.

That extremely attractive 800-pound romance-reading gorilla, as noted, buys many, many books. One type of romance that has been selling well lately is "paranormal romance". It's been around for quite a while as a romance subgenre and it has its own (sometimes crossing, sometimes arguable) subdivisions like futuristic, fantasy, time travel, and vampires.

A lot of other books -- similar to these paranormal romances, but not category romance -- are also selling well.

"Paranormal romance" per se had its beginnings in romance. The popular-but-nameless type of fiction borrows from romance, but it has roots elsewhere as well. The "elsewhere" this type of fiction has grown from is usually several elsewheres -- fantasy (of several varieties), science fiction (of several varieties, mystery (of several varieties), action-adventure (but feminized), gothic literature, mythology, folk tales, suspense, thrillers, horror, and Lord knows what else.

So, there are cross-genre books with elements of the supernatural or paranormal and romance and/or the erotic elements that are "romance" and that there are cross-genre books with elements of the supernatural or paranormal and romance and/or the erotic elements that are "not romance".

Or something like that.

Another digression: The word "romance" has been part of the English language since around 1300. For a fuller definition of romance in a traditional literary sense see the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition (2002) summarizes "romance":

In traditional literary terms, a narration of the extraordinary exploits of heroes, often in exotic or mysterious settings. Most of the stories of King Arthur and his knights are romances.

1) The term romance has also been used for stories of mysterious adventures, not necessarily of heroes. Like the heroic kind of romance, however, these adventure romances usually are set in distant places. William Shakespeare's play The Tempest is this kind of romance.

2) Today, a novel concerned mainly with love is often called a romance. Romances are frequently published in paperback series.

Number two there pretty much sums up what the general public probably considers romance novels to be, if they consider them at all (and if they aren't turning their noses up and thinking, no matter how mistakenly, worse). And, of course, they don't know "rules" about what it is or isn't.

The Romance Writers of America has long had a definition of the genre on their Web site, but RWA evidently has always had three definitions of romance: one applied toward publisher recognition, another for the RITAs, and a third used in a general mission statement. In 2004, the RWA board set up a task force to come up with several definitions that could be adapted to a changing culture and a changing marketplace; a task force was formed to come up with a few possibilities. The "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending" turned out to be the easy part. Whether the "two people" had to be one male and one female was the controversial part. (And did they even think about love stories between humans and non-humans? Hmm?)

I don't think any definition has ever been adopted as "official". The current public-but-not-necessarily-adhered-to definition can be found on the RWA Web site along with probably equivocal subgenre definitions.

Where were we...oh, yeah: two kinds of paranormal novels -- "romance" and "not romance."

Publishing folks like marketers and editors and reviewers saw the popularity of cross-genre paranormals. I suspect that at least some of them were clueless about definitions of romance. (Actually, I might say "most" if weren't trying to be judicious here.) They saw a chance to market to that extremely attractive 800-pound gorilla they'd been dying to date or at least understanding her.

Maybe dedicated romance readers have never heard Laurell K. Hamilton's books referred to a "paranormal romance". But -- trust me on this* -- Laurel K. Hamilton was the first name that many in the publishing industry and outside it associated with the term. When she hit the New York Times hardcover fiction list, people noticed. Readers, reviewers, and others have attached the term to non-romance paranormal romance. They also now see books by writers like Charlaine Harris or Sherrilyn Kenyon (or many others) as paranormal romance. (And, yes, thanks, I know the Anita Blake books Hamilton is now writing are not like those she originally wrote.)

Even though we who know about the category romance definition might all agree that our nameless-paranormal novels are not paranormal romance, that hasn't stopped the rest of the world from lumping all the "paranormal whatever" together and calling it "paranormal romance." It's become a descriptive term outside the romance field. I am not trying to fit the term to my personal definition. I've observed, read, listened, and discussed that the term seems to have more than one meaning.

Now, don't jump on my case and tell me that's "wrong". There is no wrong and right here. There are words. There are perceptions. The fact that the "wrong" label of paranormal romance is used to describe novels that aren't even in the romance section was not calculated -- is just happened.

Has there been an effort made to intentionally market non-romance as romance in order to tap all those romance book buyers? You bet. Diana Gabaldon is a premiere example. Are some publishers trying to sneak onto romance shelves with non-romance titles these days? I don't know. I don't have access to their marketing plans nor do I read every book published. Is Juno involved in this type of subterfuge? Unequivocally no, but we will get back to that later.

There's also been some discussion about how mislabeling a book as romance might disappoint readers and/or lessen an author's chance for success. The idea is that if Jane Reader buys Paranormal Passion by Ann Author, a book labeled "romance", and it ends unhappily (or whatever) she may never trust that author again. That author, she feels, doesn't deliver what Reader feels was "advertised".

True enough. Of course there are romance readers who don't feel that way and who might be delighted with Paranormal Passion and buy everything Ann Author ever writes. Paranormal Passion may be so good that some romance readers will re-think their iron-clad definition or at least make an exception. (I think Diana Gabaldon is a good example of someone many romance readers flocked to, despite it not being "romance". And, as mentioned, she was initially marketed as "romance" because the publisher knew romance sold best. The ploy worked.)

Fact is, we readers face a lot of "mislabeling" in a variety of ways. I'm sure we've all had moments of feeling cheated when we've bought a book on the strength of a good review, or cover copy, or blurbs, or appealing advertising, or even because we enjoyed another book by the same author -- and it didn't live up to our expectations.

(It's not just books, of course. Marketing any product means trying to label it as something that should be bought for some compelling reason. I'm sure that some beer drinkers have been highly offended that drinking the right brand didn't enhance their sex appeal and consequently switched brands.)

As for damaging authors -- unfortunately there are many ways that an author's chances for success can be damaged. Bad covers, no promotional support, lack of editing, poor release dates, and unfair reviews are just a few examples. Once upon a time, some authors were allowed to "grow" over the course of several books; nowadays a debut author may get only one chance at success. Even a too-large advance can doom a writer's career if sales don't soar.

Personally, I found THE DA VINCI CODE to be execrable, but that doesn't mean I will never buy another Doubleday book. If I'm badly "burned" by an author, I might avoid them in the future, but not because the book was labeled as "A" or "B". On the other hand, I also have come to enjoy authors I, at first taste, did not much care for.

Hardcore romance readers may, however, feel differently than I do. They know "romance" on the spine guarantees an HEA ending and must fit their expectations. They feel cheated if it doesn't.

That's why "romance" is not on the spine of BEST NEW PARANORMAL ROMANCE or any other Juno book. Yes, "romance" is in the title of the anthology, but that's it.

I could say that "romance" is part of the title of The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, The Romance of Arthur, Neil Gaiman's Stardust: Being a Romance Within the Realms of Faerie, Learning the World: a Scientific Romance by Ken Macleod, and The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance by H.G. Wells ("scientific romance" is another interesting term), and numerous other books. But that's not really applicable.

The real point is that some primarily romance readers feel "paranormal romance" means only what they say it does. Others feel "paranormal romance" means something broader.

When the idea for Juno was hatched, I wasn't present. But I do know the those involved had no idea about HEA or any romance definitions. They had, however, heard of paranormal romance and they were enthused about the idea of the imprint. In later discussions with the distributor, the two names I recall being mentioned as paranormal romance were Laurell K. Hamilton (not romance) and Marjorie M. Liu (romance); the two lines mentioned were Harlequin's Luna (fantasy from the leading romance publisher) and Tor Paranormal Romance (pr from a publisher best known for sf/f/h). Books that Wildside or Prime had already purchased they felt should be Juno books included Beyond the Hedge (time-travel romance), Jade Tiger (romantic, has an HEA, but the plot is action-adventure), Rags & Old Iron (first published as horror, although an odd romance is a key element as is a not-so-odd romance), and Blood Matters (maybe romance, maybe not).

When the idea for the anthology now known as BEST NEW PARANORMAL ROMANCE came about, several titles were considered. (I touch on that in its introduction, too.) We stuck with BNPR. Obviously, it was felt it would sell more books than the alternatives offered.

And yes, I did mention the "romance definition" and the probably negative comments we would eventually receive. They didn't get it. Nor should they have. There was really no need to understand the romance genre. Juno--despite the chatter about a paranormal imprint--was always intended as a fantasy/cross-genre imprint, never a romance line.

Juno books have BISAC codes (the code by which, generally, books are shelved) of FIC009000 and (Fiction/Fantasy/General), FIC009010 (Fiction/Fantasy/Contemporary), FIC009030 (Fiction/Fantasy/Historical) except in the case of BEST NEW PARANORMAL ROMANCE which is FIC003000 [Fiction/Anthology (multiple author)].

If stores want to shelve our books as romance, we are happy to be there, but we hope they are shelving us in fantasy, too. For all we know, some future titles might be shelved as "mystery", "science fiction," "suspense", or in other categories.

In coming up with copy and guidelines for Juno Books I tried to convey its direction. Despite my theorizing that paranormal romance may be a "new genre", I never called the line "paranormal romance". The closest I came was saying that some MIGHT call it such and then defined what the two words COULD also mean.

There's no handy phrase to cover "a variety of fantasy focused on female protagonists, stories of strong women or women becoming empowered, and stories that are not within other categories with elements of romance". The term "adventure for women...and romance is part of a woman's idea of adventure" was well-received by some writers who seemed to be inspired by it, but it is hardly a good marketing term and certainly not anywhere near a category. And, again, a lot of people I communicate with understood paranormal romance as something other than a lot of romance readers do.

As I was reading stories for the anthology, I did more thinking and research that resulted in the book's introduction. I put forth this idea that maybe "paranormal romance" has come to mean something more than books that could be defined as romance, but hardly in an unequivocal way.

Some of the stories in BNPR are definitely "romances". Some aren't. There are stories that *might* be defined as romance; others can't. They could all be called fantasy or science fiction -- if you are broad-minded about those terms. Some are humorous. They are all romantic. All are damned good stories.

I don't know if hardcore romance readers will like BNPR. Even if they don't, I doubt they can fault the quality of the writing. If they read the introduction they might disagree with me -- I'm not sure I agree with me -- but they will also see that there is no attempt to deceive or mislead.

If any of our authors are being "mislabeled", it may be those who have written books that could be categorized as romance. If anything, I worry fantasy readers will think these books should not be found on fantasy shelves.

Will romance readers who are so inclined buy Juno Books? We hope so. We certainly want to make them aware of our books. We were told that "romance readers will cross the aisle" for fantasy, but that fantasy readers will not venture into the romance section. We don't know if that is true.

Are the bookstores going to add a section called "romantic fantasy" or "paranormal" or anything similar? I doubt it.

BISAC currently has categories called fantasy/romance--that means it usually goes on the fantasy shelves. There's also romance/fantasy--which usually goes to the romance section -- and fiction/romance/paranormal (shelved as romance). None of these labels conveys what "paranormals"--as a whole and for the readership--are. Some paranormals are science fictional, some what you might call magical realism, others are fantasy.

"Paranormals" might send the right clue to fans of the fiction, but when referring to "paranormal" books and topics, most people mean "strange or anomalous phenomena" of the Fortean variety.

And, of course, if books started being shelved as "paranormals" or whatever the term, there would be further consternation. Some authors/publishers/marketers would want their books to remain in the romance section; others would feel the same about fantasy or mystery. Perhaps everyone would be happy with being doubly (or triple) shelved -- except the booksellers who are already hard-pressed to accommodate books in a single section.

Meanwhile, many are using the term "urban fantasy" to describes non-romance paranormals. Again, the label applies to some and not to others. Not, of course, that there is a single, never-changing, all-inclusive meaning for "urban fantasy"...but we won't go there.

Juno has happened very quickly. In publishing terms, it has been almost instantaneous. We went from zero to a line-up of 28 books (and more to come) scheduled over 16 months in less than seven months.

One of the most exciting things about this opportunity is that we are being allowed some space to experiment. As 2007 continues we get closer to -- if you are labeling -- various types of fantasy and further away from romance. However, the romantic or relationship aspect will remain. So will the focus on female protagonists.

As you are probably figuring out -- those of us involved in Juno are not all that comfortable with the romance world to start with. We're basically "sf/f/h people" and we are not sure the "romance world" is friendly to such aliens.

The poor souls who, unlike me, didn't really understand what to expect from some in the romance-reading community have been quite surprised at some of the "discussion". As you might imagine, their first impression has been rather negative. Being accused of fraud, deception, lying, conspiracy, stupidity, and other crimes never committed puts one off the idea of becoming better acquainted with any community.

And the title BEST NEW PARANORMAL ROMANCE? We're deciding that now.

[Added Later:
It was, of course, eventually decided and became BEST NEW ROMANTIC FANTASY. After that second volume, I dropped the series entirely. Two primary reasons: (1) We were switching to mass market paperbacks and an anthology of this type probably would not sell well enough in that format to make it worthwhile. (2) Reader response was mixed. Although the anthos did acquaint readers with "new-to-them" authors, it was also obvious that a lot of readers just don't much care for the short form.

There another, too. consideration. Unlike the sf/f/h community where "year's best" reprint anthologies abound, they are not well-known quantity by agents and publishers who deal with mostly romance. Instead of being seen as an "honor" with a token fee, asking for nonexclusive reprint rights was seen as a source of revenue and stories were priced too highly for us to obtain. This is understandable, but it also made obtaining some of "the best" stories impossible for us.]

* You have to trust me on this because nobody is paying me to do research and substantiate it, even if that were possible. I give a few examples in BNPR. I have a few more that I continue to collect as I run across them. My own experiences in talking to others can't, of course, be proven. Further, I could provide a few references who will vouch I am not a complete ignoramus. So, trust me.

Juno Books
copyright ©2007