The “Courting the Romance Reader” panel at Winter Institute 13 in Memphis took a closer look at marketing and selling titles in the romance genre, which, at 23 percent in 2016, has one of the highest shares of fiction sales in the U.S. market, according to NPD Book.
Moderated by Christine Onorati, owner of WORD Bookstores in Brooklyn, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey, the panel of booksellers and publishers discussed best practices for developing a successful relationship with the romance reader as well as tips for marketing romance titles in a general bookstore.
The panel featured Pamela Jaffee, senior publishing and brand development director at HarperCollins; Heidi Weiland, director of trade sales for Sourcebooks; Billie Bloebaum, a bookseller and buyer at Third Street Books in McMinnville, Oregon; and Rachel Person, the events manager for Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Onorati told booksellers that she first began to focus on selling romance titles at WORD after noticing that there weren’t many indie bookstores in the region that were embracing romance readers. This, she said, seemed like a missed opportunity for stores like hers.
“This idea went along with how we’ve always operated at WORD, which is that when I hire somebody, the first thing I tell them is that there’s no room for pretension — we are here to welcome all readers, whatever they read,” Onorati said. “I think the days of pretentiousness in bookselling are done. Especially in this day and age, when it can be so hard to get people into our stores, we have to welcome them for whatever they are reading. And to be honest with you, genre readers and romance readers are a really big part of the market, and with us not embracing them, we’re really losing opportunities.”
WORD reached out to local romance author Sarah MacLean, who helped the store curate their new romance section, which they shelved in the fiction section to start; they also collected pre-orders for MacLean’s latest book. After that, MacLean, who also reviews romance titles for the Washington Post, went on to provide the store with monthly suggestions for new books.
To market romance titles, WORD creates social media posts that are re-broadcast by the book’s publisher and author, puts on events featuring romance authors, and includes MacLean’s monthly title picks in the store’s newsletter. The store also has its own romance book club as well as a subscription program for romance titles.
Jaffee, who is in charge of Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins that primarily publishes romance, encouraged booksellers to do as WORD did and find local authors to help them curate their own sections. Authors can be found through their community’s local chapter of Romance Writers of America (RWA).
WORD was the pilot store that Avon Books used as a model for its romance marketing program designed for indie bookstores, Jaffee added. “Most of these authors have vibrant social media, as do their publishers, so what [WORD did] is take those monthly selections from Sarah [MacLean] and push them out via social media,” she said. “This is the model we have now rolled out across the country to five or six indies because it was so successful.”
When it comes time for a store to buckle down and curate their new romance section, Weiland said that most indie bookstores likely already have people on staff who know and love romance and can help.
“They may not have told you, but I can pretty much guarantee that there is someone on your staff who loves to read romance and would feel pretty tickled to curate for your store in the beginning, and possibly [help curate] subscription boxes and book clubs,” said Weiland, adding that this same person could also be a loyal customer who, if utilized, would be a great asset and advocate for the store.
Weiland also told booksellers that if they are planning for their first romance event to serve as a sort of grand opening for their new romance section, whether that section is a shelf or multiple shelves, the event will set the tone for how romance readers view the store, so it is very important to make sure they feel welcomed.
“This is going to be your inaugural event with them, so you want to make them feel like this is not just a one-off — that this is going to be something and that they are now part of your community in your store,” said Weiland.
Jaffee suggested inviting a minimum of three authors, including a marquee author to serve as a bigger draw for readers. The more people who come to an event, the more e-mail addresses the store will capture and be able to remarket to, helping to create that desired community of romance readers.
When it comes to events at Third Street Books, Bloebaum said that while her store does not do many in-store events, they do partner with their local library to provide the books for After Dark, an event that features activities and titles that are a little more risqué. This partnership has already helped the store’s branding efforts and has increased the visibility of romance titles at the store, said Bloebaum, who is also a personal fan of the genre.
“That’s a great way to get your feet wet without a lot of risk to the store itself and without you having to put a lot of effort into the event,” said Bloebaum. “Then you know who your customers are and you can start marketing to them and bringing them into the store if you choose to do events. So libraries are your friends — make friends with your local librarians.”
For romance events at Northshire Bookstore, Person said she will do more marketing outreach than what she normally does. First, she will e-mail the head of her local RWA chapter, who gets member authors to tweet and post about the event on social media. Person also does paid Facebook ads to make sure her message is far-reaching, boosting posts and targeting them to fans of similar authors.
“Facebook is also powerful because romance authors are probably the most powerful authors on Facebook,” said Jaffee. “If you are hosting a romance event, I would say put it on a calendar tagged with the publisher as your partner so that we can share it and share it with the author because you’re going to get the majority of your new customers from the author.”
Onorati also suggested that booksellers do campaigns with local authors in which customers can preorder signed copies through the store. At WORD’s first romance event, she said she was amazed by the gratefulness of the attendees, many of whom felt marginalized by their love of romance novels, especially in New York City, which can be a snobbish literary environment.
“There was this feeling that they don’t have a home and that is exactly what we are supposed to be providing: that feeling of community and of comfort,” said Onorati. “That is why they shop on online: because they don’t have to answer to anyone or get snarky comments online. They can have a community of online readers that they find on social media in different ways.”
Working at Northshire, Person, who is a great fan of romance, said it can be hard to convince booksellers who are embarrassed to recommend these titles to their customers.
“I get that it sometimes feels a little weird in our culture to be out and proud as a romance reader, but all the genres of books, and I include literary fiction as a genre, have really good writing and really awful writing,” said Person. “We know this, yet romance is the only one that the culture has judged entirely on the worst of it. It is also the only one that is 90 percent by and for women, and I do not think that is coincidental. We are taught to be ashamed of romance because it is for women.”
Jaffee added that many people also don’t understand that romance is no longer a bodice-ripper genre; its authors are feminist and political, and their work encourages readers to embrace their sexuality. Though the romance genre was born in the ’70s, its first feminist heroines appeared in the ’90s, said Jaffee, and in the past five or six years, the scope of HarperCollins’ romance publishing venture has also increased to include more Own Voices titles and more titles for LGBTQ+ readers.
Booksellers who are looking to expand romance inventory and programming in their store can find their local RWA chapter here and visit BookWeb for more resources, including statistics on romance readers and helpful websites.