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Editorial: The Business of Love

 

Face it, love is big business. Flowers cost more on Valentines Day -- and sell in greater numbers -- than on any other day. The promise of love sells everything from instant coffee to the tooth whiteners needed to remove the stains from the coffee you bought because of all those romantic commercials. 

Love also sells books. Romance accounts for around 50 percent of all fiction sold. Romance queen Nora Roberts boasts over 85 million books in print. Anne McCaffrey, who occupies a similar position in the world of science fiction and fantasy, can call only 18 million books her own. And you can't explain the difference entirely in terms of output. 

Similarly, you can't blame the size of the romance market on a shadow nation of professionally unfulfilled housewives located exactly 53 miles west of Peoria. The Environmental Protection Agency placed the American housewife on the endangered species list in 1984, and the long-term survival forecast looks grim.  

No, the people who buy romances are the same people who buy mysteries, suspense, science fiction, fantasy, westerns and mainstream fiction. So why do they buy more romances? What makes this genre the top seller? 

It isn't just the thrill of a good love story. Most fiction incorporates some form of romance. Romantic complications drive too many conflicts to fail to make their mark on all forms of writing. So what makes romance different? 

This is where I step out on a limb and offer my particular heresy: romance doesn't sell because it offers something completely different from other genres. It sells because it offers more of what people want in all their fiction. And I don't mean happy endings. 

Open any book on writing romance, and the first thing you'll learn is a successful romance relies more on characters than on plot. If your readers don't identify with, yearn for and lust after your characters, your story is dead before it hits the page. 

Therefore, the first and most important ingredient in a romance isn't the love story, it's the hero. A romance prospers or withers on the strength of its hero. It doesn't matter what he looks like, or the particular elements that combine in the chemistry of his charm, he must sweep a reader into the fantasy and never let go until "The End." 

But is it so different in other genres? Think of the characters that populate the landscape of your imagination: James Bond, Jack Fleming, Inspector Morse, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Miles Vorkosigan, Sam Spade, Dracula, Ice Falcon, Brother Cadfael, Captain Blood, Sherlock Holmes, Peter Shandy, Lestat... Devout mystery readers could add a number of women to that list, but mystery is the only genre where a strong female lead sells as well as a man. 

What's more surprising is that the increasing number of women writers in all fields has not shifted popular interest from the strong male lead. Yet romance is the only genre that sets all its writers the task of creating compelling heroes -- heroes both men and women identify with. 

Which raises another interesting question: What's so different about mysteries? 

Jean Marie Ward

 

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