A Better Way to a Top 100?

When did you first learn about All About Romance‘s Top 100 poll—maybe when it was first assembled in 1998, or when it was recompiled in 2000, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2013, and most recently in 2018?

In my paper “History Ever After: Fabricated Historical Chronotopes in Romance Genre Fiction,” I examined the approach that one AAR reviewer took to historical romance outside the Regency. This kind of perceived “accuracy” is why I believed the top ten (above) chosen by their readers skewed toward British peers (white) in historicals. How books are reviewed by a site will have an impact on their readers’ opinions.

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For another examination of the final list, check out Book Thingo‘s recent podcast “All About Romance Lists,” with the always-entertaining Kat, Gabby, and Rudi. (Click on the image below for the link.) These reviewers make great points, but notice that they do not question the idea of making a list. In fact, Gabby and Rudi reminisce about using the AAR list like a reading challenge when they were younger. I did the same when I first discovered romance. People love lists, even when we know they are imperfect. How many articles are headlined, “Ten romances for the summer / winter / fall / dentist’s office / to read while avoiding your taxes” and so on? At their best, lists can bring new titles to romance readers everywhere.

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But just as important as the poll itself is how you compile the poll. Let’s look at the AAR process from a social science perspective. In stage one of the process, AAR did not initially include a single book by an African-American author—even though the site has given qualifying books A grades. Immediately when this was pointed out to AAR, they pulled this first list and added books by several authors of color. Unfortunately, they misspelled a few of the authors’ names in the process.

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A closer look at the first list distributed online:

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And here is a snapshot of the second list before all of the spelling corrections were made:

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Here’s the thing. AAR should not have started with a predetermined list in the first place—and it not only would saved them a lot of headache, it would have created a more objective poll. A predetermined list inevitably reflected the reviewers’ bias—and everyone has bias. Everyone. That is the foundation of social science research theory. AAR stated that their list was made out of: (1) past winners; (2) staff feedback, or books that their reviewers believed had merit; and (3) public reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

The first two are the problem. These two criteria bake into the poll a bias toward incumbents (predominantly white, cishet, traditionally-published books because look at romance publishing), and books that have scored high on their own subjective site. Yes, all reviews are subjective, and that is okay. (We writers need to remember that, as well as readers.) The problem here is not that AAR reviewers had opinions; it is that these opinions were conflated with gatekeeping. AAR did not blend reader suggestions with their own predetermined list until the third stage of voting—too late.

I think there is a better way. Now, to be clear, I am not a professional polling consultant. These are merely my humble amateur ideas drawn from a background in social science (bachelor’s and master’s degrees in International Affairs) and teaching 25 years’ worth of high school students how to assess the reliability of their sources.

Moreover, I am not volunteering to take AAR‘s place. As an author, maybe I should not even be suggesting any of this, but the social science teacher in me could not help but come up with these ideas. And of course I do not have enough of a blog platform to make these ideas work. But if someone wants to try it again in a few years, please consider these suggestions.

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assembling a reader top 100 romance poll:

Before you begin: For the year leading up to your poll, make sure that you are publicizing a wide variety of books. This should include a representative slate of authors, characters, subgenres, tropes, and publishers (including indie). Keep a careful eye on your reviews to make sure that your coverage is balanced and open-minded. This gives visibility to a wide range of books and authors, and it attracts to your site a nice mix of readers with a spectrum of tastes and preferences.

  1. Open your poll by asking for 20 books from each reader participant. Start with your readers’ suggestions. Is this still bias? Yes, but it is the readers’ bias, and this is a readers’ poll. Moreover, it is this year’s bias, not the last poll’s bias. Reader preferences do change as social mores and sensibilities change.
  2. Take the top 150 suggestions by rank—but do not release anything yet.
  3. Now it is the time for you, the professional, to check the bias of your readers. Pick between 20 to 50 more books to fill in gaps of representation, subgenre, and publishing market. Do not add just your faves; add what is missing. There is a difference.
  4. Release this list of up to 200 books to your readers for the second round of voting. I know 200 books is a lot of books. But think about this: should a top 100 grow to be 100? That means books are added, even though they have not been seen by all participants. Maybe people will like those better than what they would otherwise choose, or maybe they won’t. But you will not receive an objective survey of opinion without giving everyone the same choices. Unwieldy or not, the list should be cut to 100 by asking your readers to pick up to 30 books from this list—about one of every seven books listed. This requires people to make tough choices, and people will only be able to advocate for their very favorites.

You can now count the votes and release the results of the top 100 romance novels. You could hold another vote for the top ten, or you could release the rankings from point four above.

Personally, I would keep the number of voting solicitations down. You have only done it twice so far—less of a burden on readers and therefore more likely to give you even participation across the whole survey. (Four voting steps, which is what AAR attempted, are certainly too much to ask of your audience. If their interest dwindles by the third or fourth step, your results are less accurate. Because of the early mistakes that AAR made, I suspect that participation from readers who enjoy diverse books dropped off. And, in a reader poll, the readers who vote most often get to define the list.)

Someone with a big platform could make this happen, or something like it. Good luck!

The Book Thingo podcast!

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It was Kat’s “fault” that I ended up in Sydney. (Oh my, a “work trip” to a beautiful harbor city on the other side of the world, what a hardship!) While I was there, we were able to record a podcast chatting about historical romance, my Sugar Sun series, #UndressAndres, and more. Click on the image below to listen online, or stream Book Thingo on your favorite podcast service.

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If you would like to read my paper on “History Ever After: Fabricated Historical Chronotopes in Romance Genre Fiction” click on the following image. This page is where I talk about how and why Regency romance is deliberately artificial world—and why this is not necessarily a bad thing. But it can become a bad thing when perceived accuracy is used as a weapon against authors of historical romance outside this chronotope, particularly against authors of diverse books.

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The book we talk the most about on the podcast is Under the Sugar Sun. I followed the Regency model in creating my own chronotope of 20th century Philippines in which real political, social, and economic strife exists, but there is still room for a cross-cultural happily ever after. Hacienda Altarejos exists in a world of magical realism; the real world is just outside. By the way, if you own this ebook, please follow these instructions to update your version:

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Thank you for reading and listening!

Media Kit for Jennifer Hallock

It is 1901 in the Philippines. Guerrillas and revolutionaries blanket the countryside. The Americans are fighting to hold onto their first overseas colony, but disease, drought, and recession belie the fruits of the promised “civilization.” Yankee honor is on the line.

It is the beginning of the American Century, and it does not look promising…so let’s add some kissing and see how that goes. Welcome to the Sugar Sun romance series.


Hotel Oriente by Jennifer Hallock novella one in the steamy Sugar Sun historical romance seriesReviews of Hotel Oriente, the Prequel Novella (Book One) of the Sugar Sun series:

“The strength of this book, aside from the lyricism with which it describes Manila in what was arguably its heyday, is the intimacy between Della and Moss.” (Five-star review from Kat at Book Thingo)

“…a stellar novella…[with] political intrigue, a sexy hard-working hero, and fascinating details about early 20th century Philippines. Her stories are beautifully-written and painstakingly-researched.” (Penny Watson, author of A Taste of Heaven, reviewed on Goodreads)


Reviews of Under the Sugar Sun, Book Two in the Sugar Sun series:

“If you’re looking for a meaty historical romance that will transport you somewhere you’ve never been, Jennifer Hallock’s books…are must-reads.” (Courtney Milan, author of The Duchess War.)

“Intensely absorbing…the charged political climate of the day is drawn with refreshing nuance.” (Laura Fahey, Historical Novel Society)

“Two pages in and I was utterly hooked. I sensed the voice of a confident writer and spied the shorelines of a diligently-researched world. I finished it this weekend, hungry for more.” (Bea Pantoja, blogger)

“It will take me a few days to recover from reading Jennifer Hallock’s beautifully written novel. It was vivid, funny, unflinching, poignant, and sexy…. I didn’t want to say goodbye to Georgie and Javier.” (Suzette de Borja, author of The Princess Finds Her Match, reviewed on Facebook)

“Oh my god this book!…And I’m usually not into the high-stakes romance because my heart doesn’t want to handle it, but this guy…” (Mina V. Esguerra, author of Tempting Victoria).

“It’s a perfect read for those who love their romance with a little more plot, and for history buffs who want to see a different perspective on the Philippines.” (Carla de Guzman, Spot.ph on “10 Books That Will Take You Around the Philippines”)

“…Under the Sugar Sun was also just a great romance, the kind that makes you feel squiffy in the stomach when you remember it at odd moments during the day…grand in scope in the same way old-school romances were, but with a very modern presentation of race, class and gender.” (Dani St. Clair, Romancing the Social Sciences)


Reviews of Tempting Hymn, a novella (Book Three) in the Sugar Sun series:

Tempting Hymn manages to give adequate breathing room to the harsh historical realities of American colonial rule in the Philippines, while delivering a romance that is sweet, realistic and – above all – emotional….Hallock doesn’t pull any punches in Tempting Hymn, with either the romance or the historical detail. She does her setting and her characters justice, delivering a story that is raw and unflinching, but never too dark, because it has an engaging and touching romance at its core. [And] all the sex scenes here are insanely hot, just like in Under a Sugar Sun.” (Dani St. Clair, Romancing the Social Sciences)

“This novella does a hell of a lot of work between the lines. It’s actually breathtaking.” (Kat at BookThingo, posted on Twitter)

“The pairing here is American man/Filipino woman and that is a tricky, sensitive trope…but it’s handled with deft and care. And dignity.” (Mina V. Esguerra, author of Iris After the Incident, reviewed on Facebook)

“…the first love scene between Jonas and Rosa is a master class.” (Bianca Mori, author of the Takedown trilogy, reviewed on Goodreads)


Author Bio:

Jennifer Hallock spends her days teaching history and her nights writing historical happily-ever-afters. She has lived and worked in the Philippines, but she currently writes at her little brick house on a New England homestead—kept company by her husband, a growing flock of chickens, and a border collie mutt puppy who likes to chew computer power cords.

Jennifer Hallock, author of Sugar Sun steamy cross-cultural historical romance series. History ever after.

Author Details:

Jennifer is available for speaking engagements, interviews, and appearances. She is also happy to speak to reading and writing groups via telephone or Skype.

She presents on the history of America in the Philippines: How is a war you have never heard of more important than ever today?

She also presents to writers’ groups on how to research effectively: The History Games: Using Real Events to Write the Best Fiction in Any Genre

Contact Info:

Jennifer Hallock — jen at jenniferhallock dot com
Mailing List — bit.ly/sugarsunnews
Twitter — @jen_hallock
Facebook — jenniferhallockbooks
Instagram — jen_hallock
Amazon author page — bit.ly/jenniferhallock

author-cover-photos-webPhotos:

Author photo: download here
Hotel Oriente cover: download here
Under the Sugar Sun cover: download here
Tempting Hymn cover: download here