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.

History-Ever-After-IASPR-presentation-2018

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.

AAR-top-100-problems-process-2018

A closer look at the first list distributed online:

AAR-top-100-problems-process-2018

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

AAR-top-100-problems-process-2018

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.

AAR-top-100-problems-process-2018

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!

History Ever After: Fabricated Historical Chronotopes in Romance Genre Fiction

I was honored to be able to present my research and ideas about the fabricated historical chronotopes in romance genre fiction at the 2018 IASPR conference in Sydney, Australia. My talk, broken into two pieces, can be found below:

History-Ever-After-IASPR-presentation-2018

Part one looks at how the bestsellers in historical romance are disproportionately: (1) set in Great Britain; (2) overpopulated with nobles; and (3) selective in their historical accuracy.

History-Ever-After-IASPR-presentation-2018

Part two looks at how the aggregate impact of these chronotopes can be harmful to our understanding of history, to the romance market as a whole, and particularly to authors of diverse books.

You can also download a flyer with some of my charts and my bibliography by clicking on this image:

History-Ever-After-IASPR-presentation-2018

Finally, here is a place where you can help me crowdsource books that fall outside this popular fabricated chronotope:

History-Ever-After-IASPR-presentation-2018

Thank you for reading!

Happy Mother’s Day to the Sugar Sun Moms

It is interesting that all my heroines end up with babies in their arms (or their bellies) by the end of my books because I never chose to have children myself. My life may be an unfair comparison since I have had modern science to help me avoid parenthood. Women in the Gilded Age had limited access to contraception, even if they were married and had a sterling reputation. My heroes would have had some access to condoms—called male safes or preventatives in nineteenth-century America—but even these would be harder to order in the Philippines.

Dr-Bonaparte-Patented-Male-Safe-Condom-Advertisement

But I may be missing the point here. All my heroines want babies. I feel their biological clocks ticking—tick, tick, TICK—even though my own is silent. Nor do I think babies are required for the HEA. Even marriage is not necessary. Nevertheless, the first thing I think about when writing an epilogue is: “What are the kids going to be named?” And I guess, when you get right down to it, this is part of the answer for me: I love names. I just love them. And I love naming future children and thinking about how that name will shape the kid as he or she grows up. I know, it’s weird. But here we are, with three heroines with (more than three) babies. And Happy Mother’s Day to them all, I say! And Happy Mother’s Day to you, even if like me your “child” has four legs and a tail. Or feathers. Or fins. Or whatever.

Let’s start with the latest novella, Tempting Hymn, which has a scene with a pet carrot…

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Here’s the epilogue from the opening novella in the series, Hotel Oriente:

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And since you’ve made it this far, I have a special treat for you: a snippet of Javier and Georgina’s daughter Pilar and son Jaime from the upcoming Sugar Moon. This is told from the point of view of Allegra Alazas, who visits her cousin-in-law Georgina after the birth of the second Altarejos child.

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You can find out all about Pilar’s “competitive” conception by reading Under the Sugar Sun. And doesn’t that sound like fun? Happy Mother’s Day, everyone!

History Ever After: The Historical Romance Market

One of the components of History Ever After at IASPR in Sydney, Australia, will be a market study of online retailers and their potential influence on chronotopes. (Chronotopes are literary representations of time and space, a term coined by Mikhail Bakhtin). The heavy-lifting of my analysis is still to come, but my data has given me a better snapshot of the industry right now.

Let’s look at the only two major retailers that have subcategories of historical romance are Amazon and Barnes & Noble:

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

Given how big Amazon is, I was surprised they did not have more variety in their categories. English history is relatively pinpointed: with Tudor, Regency, Scottish, and Victorian choices. But some of the other categories—Ancient World, Christian, and Medieval—are huge blocks of time. Moreover, calling something medieval (from the “middle age” between ancient and modern) is a Eurocentric view of history with potential negative connotations that do not fit other areas of the world. For example, the European “Dark Ages” were actually the height of the Islamic empires. China was pretty rocking, too. And, even in Europe, what does one do with a romance set in the Renaissance? And—side note—why aren’t there more Renaissance/Venetian romances?

The Barnes & Noble categories do add more variety, particularly some needed U.S. representation, including: Southern U.S., Native Americans, and Western and Frontier. Also, props for the Prehistoric category: Clan of the Cave Bear, baby! There are two Vikings options. One also includes pirates and sailors, taking it out of northern Europe and thus making it more inclusive. Plus there are some genre-crossing categories: Paranormal Historical, Suspense & Intrigue, and Time Travel. Still, there is not a whole lot of non-Western representation, if you really look at it.

Should these retailers re-examine their categories? I have been observing bestseller lists for over three months now to learn what is selling in the largest quantities. Truthfully, historical romance does not hit the trade lists very often. Contemporary (both adult and young/new adult) and romantic suspense are the biggest sellers. In the first quarter of 2018, only one book—Lisa Kleypas’s Hello Stranger—made the New York Times list.

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

For those historicals that do make the retailers’ charts, they do so more often on Barnes & Noble than Amazon. This does not mean that B&N sells more overall, but a higher proportion of what they sell are historicals. By the way, those historicals are about a half as likely to include the words duke or duchess in the title if charting on B&N’s top 20 Regencies than in Amazon’s top 20 Regencies.

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

Most bestsellers—no matter which list they are on—are Anglocentric. In the first quarter of 2018, 46% were Regencies, 23% were Scottish (any time period), 18% were Victorian, 5% were Georgian, and 2% were English medievals.

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

Note that some books listed across two categories, such as Victorian and Scottish, and they were counted in both. Also note that the “Twentieth Century” category is inflated by the appearance of a book entitled White Rose, Black Forest. This romance of a German dissenter and Allied spy during WWII was published by Amazon’s own imprint (Lake Union). Amazon gave it away as a Kindle First read, which means any Amazon Prime member could have downloaded it in the month of February (but it technically wasn’t free). Great for that author, but not so realistic a picture of twentieth-century romance’s market share.

I have also noticed that Amazon stats are heavily impacted by paid newsletter services, like BookBub. I am starting to compile some statistics on just how much. (Stay tuned.)

What about award winners? Looking at 2018 RITA nominees, Regency and Scottish romance are even more heavily represented. Only two historicals on the entire list were not one or both of these categories:

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

All nominees receive that recognition because they have written a great book, which took a lot of hard work. I will be looking at the last few years of historical winners to see if 2018 was an aberration, but certainly we can say that—paired with the market data—it is a reflection of reader preferences (and, in this case, author preferences, since authors were the judges).

In the end, what do readers want? They want it all. Here’s a wishlist of sorts from the survey I conducted in February 2018:

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

The best sellers may be the most traditional time periods, but there are readers out there for everybody. Or, at least, that is how I choose to see it.

 

Discoverability: A Sneak Peek from the History Ever After Survey

(In preparation for my presentation, “History Ever After: Fabricated Historical Chronotopes in Romance Genre Fiction,” I created two surveys, one for readers of historical romance and one for those producing it. Now the results are in. Do you want to sneak a peek?

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

I am not going to spoil the whole presentation now, but I will show you a little bit from the reader’s survey. Here were the questions asked:

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

Question four is my topic of the day: discoverability. That’s the toughest nut to crack in today’s market so authors, listen up! Below are the options available to the respondents. (They also had a write-in option.)

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

I wish I had a drum roll for the big reveal here, but since I don’t here goes…

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

I know what you’re thinking: Social media recommendations won? Woot woot! I’m gonna throw promo around my favorite Facebook groups like graffiti! Well, hold on there, friend. Let me make an important disclaimer before you do. My survey link was distributed via social media, especially Facebook groups and, to a lesser extent, Twitter.

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

It makes sense, then, that the survey respondents would take book recommendations via the very same channel that suggested the survey, right? So let’s not overvalue that response. But what can we learn from the results?

  1. As you might expect, book blogs do sell books. If you can get reviewed by several of these sites, especially the big ones, terrific! (It does not matter the grade they give you, believe it or not. I have heard both Sarah Wendell and RedHeaded Girl from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books say that—according to author feedback—the books with the biggest sales boosts might be those with the lowest-scoring reviews. Keep in mind that while the reviewer might not like bear-shifter-billionaire-alpha-hole-holiday-baby-surprise books, Jane the Reader might want to devour them like, well, a bear.
  2. Beyond book blogs, though, almost as many people find books through random browsing online. You can pay to promote on retail sites like Amazon, and how often your ad shows up depends on how much you bid for the spot. The real gold mine, though, is when a retailer promotes your book for free, especially in search results. To do this, you need to make friends with a nasty beast: the algorithm. How? Well, being a bestseller already is good. That’s helpful, right? To sell books you need to have sold books. Great, Jen. Thanks. Okay, how about this: a connection to another bestselling novel helps, too—those coveted “also bought” features. Outside of this survey, I have been tracking bestseller lists for three months, and I have noticed that sales on Amazon are strongly affected by our next marketing tool…
  3. Promotional newsletters like BookBub, Bargain Booksy, and others have changed the publishing industry. Initially, BookBub was a resource targeted at independent authors, but its tremendous success (millions of subscribers) meant that bricks and mortar publishers quickly got on board. While the big New York houses do not like to discount their books too close to publication date, they do use BookBub and others for their backlists. For example, Julie Garwood’s The Wedding, first published in 1996, was discounted to $1.99 this past week, advertised on BookBub on Tuesday, and now (on Thursday) it is still number 67 in the Kindle Store. That means it is on target to sell approximately 1500 copies today, according to Dave Chesson’s Kindlepreneur calculator. Before you rush to submit to BookBub, know that they do not accept everyone’s request for promotion. And, even if they do take your book deal, a spot in their newsletter is not cheap: from $66 to $4,000, depending on your genre, market (US or international), or book sale price. Is this worth it for an indie author? Maybe, after you have enough other books in a series to sell at full price to the new readers you attract.
  4. Speaking of newsletters, an author’s newsletter still has cache! (Did you know that you can sign up for mine here? Just checking.) In fact, author newsletters came in above promotional newsletters in the survey, but I put the paid ones first on this list because of their success in pushing sales. (By the way, I will be writing more about my bestseller tracking results after IASPR this summer.) Just keep emailing your readers—and do recommend the books that you enjoy reading, too, because people are listening. Read on…
  5. Fourteen people wrote in “recommendations by other authors.” This result could be compromised by the place I solicited for responses—two of which were big author pages—but I do think it is interesting that four percent of my respondents wrote in the very same idea (and that they felt it was distinct from other social media recommendations). So endorsements work. But you need to find an author with a big enough following to matter, and this is not always easy for debut authors without the support of a good agent or large publisher.
  6. Giveaways are popular in this survey, too, but I have a question about those: will entrants buy your book if they lose the giveaway? Anecdotal evidence from my friends says not necessarily, but I imagine that if your goal is to create name recognition, a giveaway on a site like Goodreads could work for you. I have no data to back this up, other than the relatively strong showing on this survey.
  7. Even digital people have a real life. The next response people gave was browsing in bookstores, superstores, grocery stores, libraries, and (yes!) yard sales. Obviously, this distribution channel favors print books; those who publish digital-only miss out. The deck is also stacked for traditional publishers who have distribution networks that reach into Walmart, Target, Barnes and Noble, and more.

That’s all for now. I am still analyzing the results of this survey, and these are just my first thoughts. Do remember that this is a survey for historical romance, and the results may have been different for readers of contemporary, erotic, inspirational, paranormal, or other romance subgenres. I will put this survey together with my other research to examine the most popular settings, plots, and characterizations in bestselling historical romance—the chronotopes—and see how flexible the market is. More to come!

[Background photo used in header taken by Jerzy Gorecki, used with permission under the Creative Commons CC0 Universal Public Domain Dedication 1.0 license.]