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Week Two - How Romance Novels Are Sold

October 12, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (3)

Today, we’re going to talk about the romance market from the business side. If you followed all the links last week, you've already read a bunch about what I think makes a good romance novel, as well as RWA's definitions. We'll have another perspective from another guest on Friday.

This week, we’ll talk about the ways books are sold to consumers - not because I expect you to particularly care about the dynamics of the wholesale selling process, but because different marketing decisions shape different editorial policies (and maybe even reader expectations.) That will have implications for your book, and also for the best fit for your work in the marketplace.

There are several great divides in publishing - although these are most vehemently argued between writers - but one really big one that we need to discuss early is the difference between category romance and single title romance.

There have traditionally been two methods by which romance novels were sold. Neither exist in their pure form any longer, but we’ll look at them as if they are, just to get a better understanding of how they work. These two methods are single title and series (which is sometimes called category). The primary difference lies in how each kind of book is marketed to bookstores (and to some extent, to consumers).

In single title, books are sold on an individual basis (or, yup, by single title). This means that the sales team of any given house will take orders from their wholesale clients for each title in the list. It’s called “single title” because the bookstore/customer orders by individual title and can order as many or as few of any given title in the list at once.

In contrast, category books are sold by line or by type. In this sales model, books are fit into a marketing structure by the house - let’s say that there are four sexy contemporary romances published each month by the house. They will be packaged similarly and they will be distributed identically, in a pre-pack containing a fixed number of copies of each title in that line for that month.  In contrast to single title, book sales are not solicited individually in this model - they might even be calculated, based on the previous year’s sales volume for that line - and customers do not actively order or reorder specific titles.

Neither method is good or bad - they’re just different. What's important to you as a writer is that some romance novels fit in one place but not in the other.


• The first implication is packaging. (That means the cover of the book.) In a single title program, the house tries to build a brand based upon the author - the author name is the brand. The house’s art department will try to give the author’s books a distinctive look, one that communicates graphically the kind of book it is, but still differentiates the book from other author brands. This graphic branding isn’t easy to do, but when it works, it really works. (Take a look at my Dragonfire titles to see graphical branding in action.) And that makes sense, because the house wants to establish the individual author in the market - the author’s sales will drive future orders. In contrast, in a series program, the graphical look of the line is most important, so that the consumer can recognize that month’s books in a specific line from the package. These covers have banners or borders or specific styles of type - the distinction is that they are branded by line not by author. The previous year’s sales in that line in that month will drive the order volume, independent of which authors are published in the line in that month.

• A second implication is distribution. The category line is effectively sold into a number of outlets in advance, independent of who the author is of each book. (It may also be sold direct to consumer by line, like a magazine subscription.) That means that a baseline order level has been established, which diminishes the risk of launching a new author. It has also meant that there has been very good distribution for category books in non-traditional sales outlets - like bus stops and convenience stores, grocery stores and drug stores - because those outlets didn’t have to really understand the book business to sell books. They could just sign up to carry category lines and unpack the boxes when they arrived each month. Over time, this distribution method has been modified, with the same jobbers who distribute magazines also racking a variety of mass market paperbacks (both category and single title). But the fact remains that a new author may have a better distribution in category than in single title - actual results will depend upon the single title house’s enthusiasm for the book and success in marketing it.

• Because of this distribution model, a category author may be expected to do less self-promotion than a single title author. Generally, romance authors maintain their own websites and many blog, but I think you will find that single title authors tend to be more inclined to do more self-promotion than that and be more likely to hire a publicist. This is because there is more potential for upside - in the pure model of category sales, all of the books in the line in the same month will have the same distribution and print run. If one sells very quickly, then it’s just gone. In single title, of course, there is the option of not just shipping more copies but of active tracking the sales during the release month. Although series titles are also tracked by ISBN # now and there is some ability to restock, I’m not sure that there is the same focus on re-orders as in single title.

• Traditionally, there were also editorial distinctions between single title and category romance. A lot of this was because category romance tended to be shorter - when I wrote for Harlequin Historicals, for example, their max word count was about 95,000 words, while single title historical romances at that time were all in excess of 100,000 words, even 120,000 words. A shorter format requires a different balance of elements, perhaps fewer subplots or secondary characters, in order to ensure that the focus remains on the core romance.

There have also been particular editorial mixes and balances that sold well in category but had no echo in single title. Traditionally, there have been different assumptions in category, mostly about what the reader will find acceptable. It has been perceived that a category reader is more conservative, but I think those distinctions have been eroding over the past decade.

Differences? Sure. The point is that where an author’s work fits into the array of possibilities is a big part of the puzzle that each writer has to solve. The fact is that every house has its suite of assumptions in terms of what its editors believe reader expectation to be, as well as how it should best be fulfilled. That’s in addition to expectations about author self-promotion and sales patterns.

When you are writing your book, I think it's smart to consider where it will (or might) fit once you've finished it. If you intend to target any imprint or line or publisher with your work, you should read as much as possible in that house’s list. That’s the best way to get a good feel for what the house is buying. Focus on the work of newer authors in your research - or authors who are new to the house - as that will be more representative of what the house is currently acquiring.

What’s up this week?

Well, on Wednesday, we have pick-up posts from my blog, a few ideas about romance novels to keep you thinking.

And on Friday, our guest blogger is bestselling romance author Nancy Warren, talking about the elements of a great romance novel.


Toronto Public Library's Romance Writer-In-Residence Deborah Cooke discusses writing and getting published in the romance genre.

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