That Secret Shame

You don't have to be embarrassed to read romance novels anymore. With modern themes and better writing, Bay Area authors are helping to make the genre almost (gasp!) respectable.

Writing regencies, as with all category romances, is no way to make money. The highest advance for a category regency is $5,000, with a small royalty attached (usually about 6 percent). There's no promotional budget; Hern has paid for all the advertisements she's taken out, and organized all of her own signings. It's quite easy to get lost in the shuffle, but Hern's books have sold through their print runs -- usually around 30,000 copies -- and she has received good reviews from the more discriminating outlets. Her books have also done well overseas.

But the category regency is currently in decline. Where once eight publishers were putting out regencies regularly, there are now three; where the print runs 20 years ago were upward of 90,000 copies, they're now as low as 20,000. Hilary Ross, the longtime éminence grise of the regency genre, attributes the drop to a series of factors: the consolidation of distributors, the lack of innovative stories, and a lack of promotion for regencies, which are still considered the province of older readers who don't want anything too sexy. Hern sees that lack of promotion as the industry's Achilles' heel. "It's assumed that the audiences will never grow, that it's just there, which I think is a stupid thing," she says. "To treat the regency subgenre in that way has hurt them, because they completely missed the Jane Austen bonanza that hit the movie screens in the past few years. If they'd jumped on that bandwagon, they would've gotten a bigger audience, but no, they kept their print runs the same."

Making enough money to write full time means climbing out of the 200-page category regency and expanding into the longer, 300- to 400-page historical romance; there, the print runs leapfrog into six figures, and the advances are in the $50,000 range. Jumping from Signet to Avon, Hern recently finished her first long regency -- in industry parlance, a historical single-title. For The Bride Sale, which is set in Cornwall, she went into deep research, calling upon her collection of history books and all but wallpapering her basement office with photos, maps, and drawings from the time and place. Her previous novels were comic reads, full of verbal sparring between the hero and heroine, but The Bride Sale is almost the opposite, opening with a woman being auctioned among the poor masses at a Cornwall market, watched by James, a noble:

"Give us a better look at 'er, then!" a man's voice shouted.

Old Moody tugged on the halter attached to the woman's neck, causing her head to jerk up for a brief moment. "C'mon, dearie," he said. "Show 'em wot yer offerin'."

She looked younger than James had expected, perhaps in her mid-twenties. Darkish hair was just barely visible beneath her bonnet. Her eyes appeared to be dark as well, though James was not close enough to be certain. She again lowered her gaze, and appeared to be terrified. No, not quite terrified, he decided as he studied her further. Fear drained her face of all color, but there was also the merest hint of defiance in the tight jaw and in the square set of her shoulders when Moody pulled on the halter. And in the way she jerked her neck and pulled right back, causing Moody to bobble, unbalanced, for a moment. Good for her, James thought. Good for her.

Writing a longer book often means assuming a darker tone, though not the boorish savagery of the old days. With so many books demanding new and interesting twists, even the regency has had to push a few envelopes. Upping the sensual ante is one way -- Miss Lacey's Last Fling featured a lengthy sex scene, relatively rare for a category regency -- or incorporating themes that are more reflective of contemporary life. A character in The Bride Sale comes out of the closet in the later stages of the book; though Hern can't recall a regency with a gay or lesbian hero or heroine, these characters have begun cropping up in secondary roles, if only to point out that in the Regency era, homosexuality could get you hanged.

Currently, Hern's working on her next novel, tentatively titled The Busybody. A sort of Miss Lonelyhearts for the regency set, it's about the man charged with writing the advice-to-the-lovelorn column for a London women's magazine. There's no guarantee that she'll sell it, though she's not too concerned yet. She has a good reputation among regency readers and enough money saved to concentrate on writing and finishing the book.

"Hopefully I can get through a year," she says. "Boy, once you quit doing that [commute] every day, it's hard to go back. It would kill me to have to do that again."

In some ways, the romance novel hasn't matured. The infamous "clinch covers" have diminished, but they're still there, and the romance world's reporting on itself can be intensely boosterish. Romantic Times, the leading magazine for romance readers, has a tendency to accentuate the positive (star ratings range from "acceptable" to "exceptional"), and advertisements for books have a nasty habit of appearing adjacent to their rave reviews. Every year, Romantic Times also hosts a convention in Florida for romance fans; each morning begins at 8 a.m. sharp with a "power walk" led by a male cover model.

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