Go to Homepage   Joanne K. Morse: Unplanned Publisher

Joanne K. Morse, publisher of Rubenesque Romances (Photo by Donna Andrews)

Hampton University Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Joanne K, Morse, Ph.D., never planned to become a romance publisher. She worked ten years to transform herself from an empty nest mom who worked in a high school cafeteria to a doctor of neuroscience. She wanted to write fiction too, but even scientists know that publishing is what someone else does for you. 

But what happens when the stories you write belong to a genre lots of people want to read, but no one wants to print? One thing about cafeteria work, it teaches you a lot about the science of supply and demand. Academic publishing immerses you in the printing process. And a graduate degree in motherhood qualifies you as an expert in meeting all kinds of needs -- including the need for a new kind of romance line. 

Crescent Blues: What inspired you to create Rubenesque Romances? 

Joanne K. Morse: I was writing a very humorous story about a cop falling in love with a fat ex-hooker (In God's Eye, one of the first Rubenesque Romance releases). And I thought, once I started, "Why am I writing this? Who's going to take it? Where's it going to go from here?" The questions made me recognize that we needed to develop a specific line that would accept large heroines as the norm, and so I decided to start one. 

I like art. I knew of Rubens' paintings. I knew he painted fat ladies. And I thought, "Rubenesque," that's the term to use: the woman is Rubenesque. "Rubenesque Romances" rolls right off the tongue. That's a great name for a line of books. That started the ball rolling. 

For a logo, I went to the library and looked at Rubens paintings. I felt I should keep that line of thinking together. I thought Rubens' "Three Graces" would be perfect. They were nude, so I put bikinis on them. [Laughs.] Sorry, I still think it's amusing, but I wanted to make sure nobody could say anything against the line. Also, the bikinis make it more modern. If you've got nudes, people are going to think it's all historical fiction. 

Crescent Blues: In addition to your research and academic writing, your short stories and non-fiction have been published in Extra Woman and elsewhere. At the Virginia Romance Writers Conference March 27, you mentioned you started 12 romance novels during the first six months of your fiction writing career. Have you placed any of those novels in traditional fiction markets? 

Joanne K. Morse: No, because I decided to publish the novels I finished as Rubenesque Romances. They were never sent anywhere else. When I started writing there were four ideas I knew would never sell to traditional markets. I haven't finished the fourth one. So, three novels in the Rubenesque line are mine.  

The idea behind Rubenesque Romances was to make it a line of books -- not my books. I wasn't trying to self-publish, but the only way to get the line started was to self-publish. Once I did that, I went looking for other writers. I advertised, got manuscripts and started putting them in the line. 

Crescent Blues: Which is why you published those three original Rubenesque books under a pseudonym, Abigail Sommers.

Joanne K. Morse: The pseudonym is actually the names of my two granddaughters -- Sommer and Abigail -- put together. The only reason I decided to use a pseudonym that is I am a scientist, and you publish a lot in your scientific community. And though my colleagues all know I publish romance, and they think it's a riot, you do want to be taken seriously in your professional community. So I felt it was probably better to take a pseudonym. And also, a light romance by "Joanne K. Morse, Ph.D." is not going to work. 

I use my full name for my science fiction and other things, but for the light romances I put down Abigail Sommers. The light romances should be separate. 

I work at Hampton University, teaching neuroscience for the School of Pharmacy. When the school got wind of my articles and the articles about Rubenesque appearing in The Wall Street Journal and Good Housekeeping, they decided to do an article on me too, which I thought was funny. 

Crescent Blues: So you've experienced no professional difficulties as a result of starting a romance line? 

Joanne K. Morse: You mean a problem with my job? Oh no, not at all, they've actually been very interested in it at the university. I used to work in a pharmaceutical company, and they never said anything one way or another, although personal friends, obviously, asked about how the line was doing. But on the job, one thing had nothing to do with the other. 

But when I came to Hampton University, [Rubenesque Romances] came up in the interview. The interviewer thought it was great. He said, "You're a well-rounded personality, you're doing different things, you're out in the public eye, and you've published instead of perished." Believe it or not, I got a couple of extra points on my evaluation because of this. 

Crescent Blues: How long have Rubenesque Romances been on the market? 

Joanne K. Morse: I have to check my journal. [Laughs.] It's the thing that's kept me together as I went along…. In 1992 to 1994, I was writing the romances. In 1994, I developed the logo. In October of 1994, I started the trademark process. So we started in the beginning of 1995. And the first story about us appeared in Extra Woman in March 1995. 

Crescent Blues: Do you have any staff or do you do all the work yourself? 

Joanne K. Morse: Until two years ago, I did it entirely myself. Then it became more than I could handle. As a scientist, I do research. It's never a nine-to-five job; we're talking a lot of hours. 

My daughter and I worked out an arrangement where a few times a year I would travel down with box loads of books that were not cut. They were 8 ½ by 11-inch sheets. Then from home, every week, I would type the orders into an email, email it to her, and she would put the books together and mail out the orders. She became my order department. 

I also employ a couple of different freelance editors. A few times a year I send them whatever books we're getting ready to publish, and pay them a fee for doing each book. And of course, I go through all the books myself. I'm not an editor, but I can catch some of the obvious things. Still, the books need to be professionally edited before printing. 

Crescent Blues: Lately, have you noticed a ground swell of interest in large-sized romance heroines, either from writers or traditional publishers? 

Joanne K. Morse: It's very small at the moment, but I have gotten an inkling that this is happening. People are beginning to want to be more realistic. That's the key. The Perfect 10 is not a realistic heroine; this is the dream of who you would like to be. But it's hard to change this large a group quickly. It's a very slow process, one person at a time recognizing this is worthwhile. 

Part of the problem is that if you are a large woman, and you're writing in the romance genre, you already know no one wants to take that kind of book. So you're really stuck with writing what people will accept if you want to get published. 

I guess it comes down to a question of what you want most: to write or to make a statement. I'm making a statement. I write, but getting myself published is not as important as making this statement. But that's an issue that everybody has to address on their own. 

I have one writer who wrote me: "It just never entered my mind to make a heroine look like me. This is so exciting." 

And that's the point. Normally, when a writer writes, they're just writing the canned romance. Even though people say that's changing, I had people tell me at romance conventions that their books wouldn't be accepted unless they changed this passage from this page to that page. 

I guess I feel that's an insult. When publishers do that, they're saying a reader will put the book down if they don't get their sex scene right on this page. [Quotes an imaginary martinet:] They know it's coming, and it should be here. It's crazy. Reading romances doesn't make women stupid. It certainly doesn't prevent a woman from recognizing a good story when she sees one. 

Women who read romances don't necessarily only read romances, yet that's the way romances are marketed. They market romances as if romances are read by this little group that will only read them if everything is exactly where it's supposed to be, so that they know exactly what they're going to get.  

I don't agree with that. I think there is a greater number of readers out there who would enjoy the change, would enjoy the freshness of reading books that are slightly different and not written to a canned formula.  

Right from the beginning I made the decision that I would not buy a book that told me how to write a romance novel -- or any other kind of novel. I thought, why would I need one? I'm writing a story here. It's creative; it's from the heart. What makes a book flow, what makes a book have character is that you put your life into it. You put some part of you, some experience, some person you've known, something that's happened or you've heard about. That's what gives a book reality. Otherwise, it's sitting in a vacuum. 

The cop in In God's Eye was based on my father and my brother-in-law. My father was from Brooklyn, and he had the thickest Brooklyn accent. It cracked me up all my life. "Toity-toid Steet" -- that's the way he talked. My brother-in-law is Italian. I grew up around Italian families. I know what they're like. All that comes into In God's Eye. That's what makes the book fun. 

I don't know any hookers, so I don't do much on the hooker side of it. But the point is, the heroine's an ex-hooker that night. You have to read the beginning of the book to see what I'm talking about. I had so much fun writing those first couple of pages. It was so funny. 

That's why I say you have to really enjoy the creative process, rather than write to be published. If you catch me at my computer, I'm laughing myself silly over what I'm writing. Publishing should be the icing on the cake if you've had fun putting the story together. 

Which brings me back to what I was saying about making a statement. By publishing, I'm telling the industry, we can do it without you. We can get this out there. We can do something different. 

I don't do canned romance. People don't send me canned romance. And because it is a small line, people know they're not going to be making much money out of it. 

I probably don't get the cream of the crop. I've had writers write to me and ask me how much money I offer. When I tell them, they say, "Sorry, not interested." They're out to make money. There is a difference. 

The women who write for me are like me. They're there because they want to make this statement too. The money isn't the most important thing. They'd love to make money at this. It would be fun. 

Crescent Blues: But you're not a vanity publisher. You pay royalties. 

Joanne K. Morse: Oh yes, the writers get their royalties! Not much, but this year there will be more, and this is good. 

Crescent Blues: You have a rather unique format for the books; they're spiral bound. How did that come about? 

Joanne K. Morse: It's cheaper. It's all I could afford. Seriously, I can do this at home with a GBC binder. Every book is done by hand, so we're having a hard time keeping up with the large orders, but we're getting there. 

It's probably cheaper, per book, to bind a book the traditional way. But you have to do so many books; I can't afford the lump sum.  

Crescent Blues: Have you tried non-traditional marketing, such as hospitals and greeting card shops? 

Joanne K. Morse: I haven't tried that, though I tried to go to large-size dress shops. One manager at a store in New York, where I was living at the time, got really excited about the idea. I said: "How about if we have a book signing tied to a local author when you're having a sale at a time like Valentines or Easter? Then you'll get romantic clothes, romantic books." 

The manager thought this was a great idea, but she had to talk to the home office. This takes time. Everything takes time. 

The next time I went into the shop, the manager had been replaced. Somebody else was there, and they weren't interested. How do you make someone see the potential for something? It's a major conundrum. 

The other issue for me is I work full-time. How do I get the time to run around to all these places to meet with people to arrange these ideas? They're good ideas, but… That's been a problem. 

Crescent Blues: Anything else you'd like to add. 

Joanne K. Morse: There's a movement in the country to gain acceptance for weight. I think the time has come.  

In fact, I met a woman who was planning to do an article stating that fat people should pay less for airline seats. Those seats are made for the "average" person. If you make something for an "average" person, that means 50 percent of people can fit, and 50 percent can't. You're deliberately taking 50 percent of the population, who you know don't fit, and forcing them to squeeze in the seats anyway. This writer said those who have to squeeze into the seats made for the "average" person should be paid for their inconvenience. It should be a fun article. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating staying fat. That is not my point. I'm not saying you shouldn't be fat. I'm not saying you should be fat. My point is, we are what we are, and wherever we are at, we deserve to be loved and not looked at in terms of: "She's so fat." If you like me for my personality, my weight shouldn't have anything to do with it. 

If you need to lose weight because you're unhealthy, that's fine. But don't lose weight because you need to be loved. You should be loved for who you are. 

Jean Marie Ward

Thank you so much for doing a profile on Rubenesque Romance publisher Joanne K. Morse. Her work is not only inspiring to women like us, but also to anyone who can relate to feeling unattractive, underappreciated, or even unloved. The work of Joanne and that of people like her is not only nice to have around, but life-affirming. Thanks again!

Cassendre Xavier