About a year ago I was invited to be a guest author at JR Ward’s Goodreads group. If you’re not familiar with Ward – and I confess I was not then familiar with her work – she writes the enormously popular Black Dagger Brotherhood series about vampire soldiers battling against…well, that part isn’t really important. The important part was that Ward, a #1 New York Times and USAToday Best Selling author of erotic paranormal romance, had decided to give two of her gay characters, Qhuinn and Blay, their own full-length novel love story, and to warm up for the big event, Ward’s Goodreads group invited a series of M/M authors to come and chat about M/M romance to virgin readers.
Now granted, Ward was not the first #1 New York Times and USAToday Best Selling author of contemporary romance to dare to write a front and center gay love story for her mainstream audience (that honor goes to Suze Brockmann for the Jules and Robin storyline in her Troubleshooters series) and, granted, Ward’s series is paranormal, and spec fiction writers have been writing gay characters and gay relationships for decades, but it was still big news – and it continues to be big news.
If Lover at Last — due out March 26th of this year — does well, if a significant portion of Ward’s huge mainstream audience likes what it reads, those readers may seek out more of the same, they may look for other romances featuring male/male relationships, and that could be a very big deal for writers of M/M romance. Particularly writers of M/M paranormal romance.
That’s the theory, anyway.
The timing is much more auspicious for Ward’s book than it was when Brockmann came out with Hot Target. An audience for M/M romance already exists – in fact, Ward’s fan base pushed her to give the Qhuinn/Blay storyline a full treatment and not shortchange them with a novella – indie and epublishers like Carina Press, Samhain, etc. regularly publish mainstream quality same sex fiction; romance sites like Dear Author — and even Publisher’s Weekly – now review these titles; a GLBT Chapter of RWA exists; and we have an increasing number of writers working within the genre producing professional level work. In fact, the timing couldn’t be better.
But even with the best timing in the world, is it realistic to expect that a successful M/M release from an already bestselling mainstream author will translate into a boom for indie M/M authors? Won’t much of that enthusiasm be chilled when these readers purchase their first badly-edited piece of schlock from Schnooky-Nooky Press? Is it not likely that these enthusiastic new readers will look for more offerings from already established mainstream authors?
Those mainstream offerings are coming. I recently had the opportunity (“misfortune” sounds so harsh, but yeesh!) to read Lori Foster’s What Chris Wants. Word is Foster was pushed by fans into writing an M/M story for recurring series character Chris Chapey. I guess this infomercial disguised as a novella was her revenge.
Grinning, shirt and shoes in hand, Matt slogged through the water behind him. “I’ll stay.”
“Good.” And though Chris didn’t want to admit it, relief lifted the tension from his chest.
Dressed in his usual aged and faded T-shirt with comfortably loose shorts, his feet bare and his hair finger-combed, Chris stared at the bed.
Or more precisely, the man in his bed.
I’ve seen reviews where readers took Foster to task for skipping over the implied sex (this is an often expressed concern about the upcoming Ward book – will she water down the erotic content?), but more to the point, where the hell is the romance? Where the hell is the STORY? It’s one thing to fade to black when it comes to scenes of sexual intimacy. When it comes to what should be the heart of the plot? That’s not okay. It’s not okay to skip the dialog and the getting to know each other and the falling in love. And if Foster’s half-hearted effort is a sample of things to come, our mainstream colleagues may not be doing us any favors by dipping their toes in the genre.
This probably sounds like I’m not thrilled about the mainstreaming of M/M, whereas in fact, I’m both excited and hopeful about the possibilities. But I don’t want to get carried away. There have always been successful standalone gay romance novels, from Renault’s The Charioteer to Laura Argiri’s The God in Flight, but these are literary novels, not genre fiction. Previous attempts to mainstream male/male contemporary genre romance have been, at least by the publisher’s standards, unsuccessful. Remember Time-Warner’s 2004 launch of the Romentics novels? Or how about Running Press’s 2009 foray into historical male/male romance? These were brave endeavors that crashed and burned because mainstream calculates success on a different scale from indie publishing.
Nor is every M/M author thrilled to see the big guns of mainstream poaching on our little and already crowded game preserve. I’ve had more than one writing friend express nervous qualms about some big name romance author swanning in with all the might of an HQN or Random House behind her and taking up more than her fair share of cyber shelf. Can we compete against professional mainstream authors? That’s what they’re really asking – and it’s a good question. Some of us can. Some of us can’t. But isn’t that the current situation?
Of course the flip side of that insecurity is M/M authors hoping that an unexpected success with male/male romance by a Ward or Foster or Brockmann will lead mainstream publishers to take a chance on an unknown. And there are promising signs that this may come to pass. In January, ZA Maxfield signed a two-book deal with Berkley InterMix. This is Berkley’s first foray into M/M romance and it’s encouraging. Of course the assumption is that mainstream publishing is where the real money and prestige lie. It may be true about the prestige, but it would require moving one heck of a lot of books to beat the money of indie publishing. Still, being mainstream published offers a great opportunity to lure new readers to an existing backlist and might be well-worth the tradeoff. Assuming there is any tradeoff. Maybe Maxfield will move 50,000 units. I hope she does!
It’s too soon to draw any conclusions, but to me, two things are obvious: our already crowded genre is about to get a lot more crowded. Part of that crowd may – or may not be – new readers. I was surprised to find how many existing fans I had in Ward’s Goodreads group. But did I win over new readers? That, I couldn’t say. The second thing that is clear to me, is that everyone needs to bring his or her best game because here on out the competition for both old and new readers is only going to get…yes, I’ll say it…stiffer.