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Wal-Mart's Precious Gems Romances

Cover of Still the One, Joan Reeves' current Precious Gem contemporary romance. (Image courtesy of Joan Reeves)

Even before the first Precious Gems, Wal-Mart's ® exclusive line of paperback romances, appeared on the shelves, they made news. 

Unlike traditional romance lines, Precious Gems paid a flat fee for the novels it purchased. Some authors and author groups objected strenuously to this policy, because they erroneously believed it created a "work for hire" situation. 

Precious Gems editorial director Kate Duffy is quick to correct this misunderstanding. The flat fee applies only to sales in the U. S., and Precious Gem authors retain subsidiary rights and keep the copyright in their own name. 

But Duffy probably doesn't need to worry. As if to prove there is no such thing as bad publicity, "the Gempire" flourished in spite of the controversy. Patty Fuentes, who heads the Precious Gems distribution effort, noted: "The books were well received from the beginning, but author promotion has really made the public aware of the books. Gems compete well with the other category offerings and have an asset the others don't have -- the low price point, only $1.96. A romance reader can get three Precious Gems contemporary romances for the price of one of the other category books." 

Precious Gem publishes eight contemporary books roughly every six weeks. The contemporary romances proved so popular that in January 1999, the line started a corresponding program to publish four historical romances in the same six-week cycle. The longer books cost readers $2.56. Kensington Publishing, the last remaining independent publisher in the United States, views the price as a very successful ploy to attract new readers. 

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Wal-Mart's in-store radio system advertises the new releases -- contemporary and historical -- during their respective six-week cycles. In the continental United States, Alaska, and Puerto Rico, the exclusive market for these romance novels consists of 2,000 Wal-Mart stores, a formidable distribution outlet. 

Editorial director Duffy; consulting editor Hilary Sares, who has responsibility for the Precious Gems contemporary line; and editor Amy Garvey, who acquires for the Precious Gems historical line, agree the low price contributes greatly to Precious Gems' success. But they also cite the books' varied story lines as an important element of their appeal. The marketing hooks (e.g., secret babies, cowboys, ranches, instant families, etc.), which appear to determine the story lines for established category lines, do not play a part in the Precious Gems acquisition strategy.  

In addition, Precious Gems benefits from the wealth of experience these editors bring to the line. Duffy, a veteran in romance publishing celebrated her 25th year in publishing in 1999. Although working in series romance was not part of Duffy's plan when she joined the Kensington team, Duffy found she could not forego the opportunities presented when Kensington President Walter Zacharius created the Precious Gems program. 

Duffy said, "I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for books that didn't fit into the strict guidelines of the established category lines as well as an opportunity to introduce new readers to romance." It's no surprise, given Duffy's background with the Tapestry line (a historical romance line created by another publisher several years ago), that Precious Gems launched its Historicals within three years of releasing its first contemporary novels. 

To a certain extent, initial opposition to Precious Gems' flat fee policy may have helped the editors, because it kept Duffy and her colleagues focused on their goals. Duffy, for example, did her best to ignore the "nay sayers" and concentrated on publishing good books. "I saw it as a way to bring new voices to publishing and new content to the readers," she said. 

Duffy openly admires Kensington president Zacharius, a noted innovator in the publishing industry. "Walter Zacharius created this opportunity with Wal-Mart for a product that wasn't there before." 

In addition, Duffy noted, her peers in the publishing world perceive Precious Gems as something close to a sure thing. "They aren't surprised by Walter Zacharius's success," she said. "A friend in Simon and Schuster marketing told me that '[Precious Gems] was just a brilliant idea.'" 

But Duffy recognizes that long-term publishing success requires more than brilliant ideas. "I'm very grateful for every author in this program because it is not widely understood by other authors. And I can't say enough good things about Hilary Sares who puts out eight quality books month after month. And Amy Garvey is phenomenal too in putting out four of the Gem historicals in addition to other books she acquires and edits," Duffy added. 

Precious Gems contemporary line editor Hilary Sares began her career at Simon and Schuster, then worked as a freelance editor while she raised her children. She joined the Kensington "family" specifically to handle its innovative contemporary line. 

To Sares, the books she acquires and edits offer more original, non-generic plots and greater variety than other category books. She avoids books with the standard marketing hooks. In addition, she added with a laugh, "Precious Gems also tend to be sexier."  

But Sares emphasized, there is one important similarity between the books she acquires and the offerings from the established category lines: Gems "give the same satisfying read as the competition." 

Precious Gems authors Joan Reeves (left), Adelaide Ferguson (center) and Sharon Murphy, owner of the Paperback Trader bookstore.  Second-hand bookstores like the Paperback Trader serve as good sources for older Precious Gems titles.
(Photo courtesy of Joan Reeves)

Sares looks for "a good story, strongly written, that's loving and happy. I don't like static plots. I like strong characters. Every heroine could be my girl friend. I like stories with humor, and maybe a little different flavor." 

Sares views Precious Gems romances as "a little vacation in a busy woman's day. Reading a romance is an intimate act between reader and author. A singular experience that generates a lot of word of mouth about the books." 

Amy Garvey worked at Kensington once before. When she moved back to New York, she returned to the Kensington family. She sees a Precious Gems Historical as a book with a unique voice and situation. Garvey doesn't have a lot of rules about setting and time, and tries to purchase a mix of light and dramatic stories.  

What characterizes a Precious Gems romance -- contemporary or historical? According to Garvey, Precious Gems readers -- and editors -- like a shorter read that focuses on the relationship, not subplots. "It's a nice, close, in-depth look at two people falling in love," Garvey said. 

Beyond that, editors and authors both praise the high quality packaging and covers. The books feature different locations, different tones (though many of the contemporaries tend to be romantic comedies), and in the case of historicals, different time periods.  

The authors without exception seem pleased to be part of the Precious Gem program. Deborah Matthews, whose first novel Bold and Bonny was published in April 1999, said, "Lady Luck smiled on me. Amy Garvey is wonderful to work with and wants more than the usual settings. I also enjoy writing the shorter historicals. Readers tell me they love the Precious Gems Historicals because they are compelling stores -- and they like the price!" 

Typical Precious Gems Historical cover.  (Image courtesy of Joan Reeves)

Rita Herron submitted to Precious Gems because the line actively sought stories which might not fit the marketing mold of the established category houses. "I think romance readers are hungry for all kinds of interesting love stories, so Precious Gems is gearing itself to the needs of readers and a slightly different audience."  

Though published by Harlequin Intrigue and Harlequin American, with books scheduled for release in the spring of 2000, Herron plans to continue writing Gems, because she "likes the fast response and publication time but also the variety of stories the line offers, ranging from emotional to comedy."  

Silhouette author Becky Barker continues writing for Precious Gems for the same reasons. So do Adelaide Ferguson, Leslie Knowles, and Terry Blain, all of whom got their first break with Precious Gems. 

Karen Whiddon, author of four Precious Gems romances, continues writing for the line because she loves "short turn around time, wonderful covers, and the money up front." She doesn't see much difference between Gems and the other category books except that there isn't a long time from submission to publication for authors, and Precious Gem is more open to varied story lines. 

Most authors cite the reputation of the editors as well. Charlene Swink (Must Be Magic, released in June 1999) who writes as Charlene Summers said, "I'd heard good things about the editors Hilary Sares and Kate Duffy. The response time was relatively quick and what I liked most was that they were willing to use different types of stories. I like the freedom awarded me in writing." 

Jo Ann Ferguson, author of over 50 romance novels, said, "I have had the luxury of writing in many different times and places -- from 11th century England to turn-of-the-century Seattle. That is the one thing I like best about working with Kensington." She also "adores the Gems historical covers. They are romantic and sensual and eye-catching." She ended her remarks with a statement that seems to typify how everyone involved in the Precious Gem program feels: "I'm proud to have my name on them." 

Joan Reeves 

Joan Reeves published her first romance novel in 1993. Over the next nine months four of her Precious Gems romances will hit the shelves at Wal-mart, including Still the One (September 1999) and Love Will Find a Way (Christmas 1999).