The Mainstreaming of M/M …. by Josh Lanyon

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 thenjosh logo - martini glass 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.

Now what?

 Chapter Two

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.

Huh???

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.

 

122 comments

  • Speaking of Ward, it was actually the angst between Quinn and Blay that pulled me in to the series after breaking down and borrowing “Lover Mine” from the library. I flipped through it as it was lengthy and complicated and a genre I hadn’t been into. I am glad she is going big with their story. The part that I think is so wrong and a betrayal is what she has done to the characters Vishous and Butch. How I read their story was that these two men deeply loved each other, and as with all true intimacy there was some sensual experiences due to how open and trusting they were with each other. As it was written, that was it. Story lines for both characters included them falling deeply in love and “bonding” with female characters and yet their strong bond with each other remained but it wasn’t sexual. But there have been some in the readership that are implying that they have had a sexual relationship, and I have been stunned to see where it took place, because it was not written into the published stories, and if it is it is so coded that only a certain few get it. What I think is readers though both these male characters were hot and wouldn’t it be hotter it they were together sexually, and if that’s the case I am left screaming “no that is not hot, that is false to what is actually being conveyed in the story, it cheapens their love IMO. And the real betrayal is the author in her side barring Facebook posts and book signings has supported the suggestion that more went on than we think. What is with that, either write the story as the story, don’t imply a whole other story line that you didn’t go with cause you weren’t ready or whatever reason. I honesty feel betrayed by the authors actions which is a bit ridiculous, but you either tell the story one way or another and then leave it. It is a betrayal to the emotional integrity of the story. IMO all the story lines related to these characters, published, implied, fanfiction are tarnished. 🙁 Well that felt good to get off my chest 🙂

    Reply
    • Mary, that’s fascinating. Starting with the point about angst — the emotional story — first grabbing your interest and attention. I think this can’t be overemphasized enough. There’s so much focus on the erotic content (and it’s vital, no question) that I think we sometimes forget that the emotional connection is what turns sex into lovemaking.

      As for the rest of your comment, I’m still working through the idea that the author is suggesting there’s an alternative storyline to the one she’s written. Wow!

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      • To make it clear – J.R. Ward is not suggesting that there is an alternative storyline….she is just teasing that there is more going on than she is writing.
        She actually has the whole world built like they are independent people – she is just the one to quasi report what they allow her.
        This rumor of V and Butch is based on a comment she had made at a book signing to the question if they would some day have sex with each other and her teasing answer was “Who says that they haven’t?”
        But that’s her style, she is doing that hinting and teasing thing in her signings and it’s all open to the interpretation of the readers.

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        • And, per my comments to Mary below, how successful that teasing is depends on the reader and how seriously they take authorial intent.

          I do think that it’s one thing to have fun with the idea that right now Jake and Adrien are unpacking boxes in their new home — that’s a future I’ve laid out in the existing books. But if I were to joke that right now Jake is at a club and Adrien is home alone having to unpack all the boxes…that would be disturbing for readers because it’s not the future I’ve intimated for them — and it’s not a future most readers want to contemplate.

          So I think it’s great that Ward has a sense of humor. But it’s tricky too!

          Reply
          • Thank you for giving such a perfect example. It would be heart breaking to come across that kind of info showing drifting from the growing intimacy and commitment between Adrien and Jake. In the interview you do after Dark Tide, you show them in deepening intimacy with the little, sacred touches of love. These type of timbits are delightful and further the appreciation of the whole story.
            I also so greatly appreciate your diplomacy and inclusiveness. you are a master storyteller.

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      • Thanks Josh. Your comments are very validating and assist in easing the gloss over of this issue. The reading journey is special and IMO deserves to be respected.

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        • Thanks for your comments Sunne, but how is that not hinting or teasing of an alternative story line? Why even bother teasing? To me there are two different story lines with different emotional attachments involved. How do you just slip in “oh yeah, maybe they do have sex together.” It is confusing and it just doesn’t work for me. Since this, the actual published story does not read the same for me and that makes me a bit sad. However I might be a minority in thinking this way.

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          • I think there’s actually a huge discussion here that would make a great topic all on its own. Authorial Intent.

            There are some readers for whom authorial intent is crucial (I’m one of them!) so a casual comment that maybe what we see in the books is not exactly what’s happening sends me reeling. 😀

            But for other readers, readers who are maybe better able to simply look at writing as the creative and intellectual exercise it is, they don’t care that much about authorial intent because they know for every given storyline there are dozens of possible alternative paths. So Ward’s teasing is just fun for them.

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            • I agree that’s a tricky subject.
              J.R. Ward is teasing and from history of other book signings, her comments etc. it really is just to make the readers crazy. Nothing she had hinted had been exactly as people wanted it to interpret. E.g. she had hinted that V and Butch would be together in V’s penthouse (in Lover Unleashed) – well, yes, but there was absolutely no sexual content in that Sub/Dom scene.
              And about them having sex – Mary B – she never said they had, she just answered to the question: “Who said they never had?” It’s our interptretation that this implies that they had had sex.
              Most of her readers love the teasing and start to speculate. Me for myself I have made the experience that nothing gets eaten as hot as it gets cooked (duh..translated a German saying).

              Reply
  • Before we get too optimistic, we need to keep in mind that Ward and Foster a.) have enormous followings and b.) cannily tucked their m/m stories within very popular, well-established series. Readers are wildly devoted to those authors, Ward in particular, and deeply invested in their characters.

    The rest of us don’t have those advantages. And they’re considerable.

    Just keepin’ it real. 😎

    Reply
    • Yes indeed. It’s possible that no matter how much Ward and Brockmann and Foster’s readers love those m/m stories, they may only want more of the same from their favorite (trusted) authors.

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      • But they can’t wait another year for the next book….that was what in the end had happened to me. I wanted V and Butch to get toegether – I knew it wouldnn’t happen – then finally Qhuinn kisses Blay (man!!! That kiss in the PT-suite…*fans herself* best moment in Lover Enshrined…) and????? Nothing more??? My frustration found it’s valve in reading m/m. I was lucky, my first book was Keeping Promise Rock – so I started with a good author. And since then I’m soooo hooked.
        And I think that those who’ll love Blay and Qhuinn together will search for more books of that kind. They’ll probably will start with PNR – it makes it somehow easier if there are vampires or weres involved.
        But if they are avid readers – they can’t wait till one of their fav authors will finally produce another book.

        Reply
        • But if they are avid readers – they can’t wait till one of their fav authors will finally produce another book.

          This is absolutely true — the avid reader (and I speak as an avid reader here) is someone whose heartrate changes at the thought of a new book from a favorite author. 😀

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          • Yeah….and in this case you can imagine what will happen to my heartrate at the thought of “The Boy with the Painful Tattoo” 😀

            In the meantime…since I read about 200 books a year (I know – insane and only doable because I have my kindle)…I always have to find new authors and books. So mainstream isn’t enough for me. 🙂

            Reply
  • Thank you Josh for the interesting conversation. I started reading MM romance about a year ago and feel it has given me a glimpse of that community. I am happy that JR Ward has decided to give a full novel to these characters because I am counting on her excellent reputation as an author. It is important that for someone just being introduced into any new genre, that the story and sex be well-written. If the first MM I read had been poorly done, I would not have picked up another one.

    I found MM romance through Kate Douglas, who writes paranormal erotic romance. She is a huge advocate for the LGBT community and in her series Wolf Tales, the characters are all making love to each other (except familial). She opened the door for erotic romance and at the same time introduced MM sexual encounters to many readers.
    I would also like to mention that in the Crossfire Series, Bared To You etc., there is a prominent secondary character who is bisexual. The author has mentioned that Carey’s story is in the works and he will have his own book. I hope that does happen, because these novels have been so exquisitely done I cannot imagine the author to do any less for a MM novel. 🙂

    Reply
    • Kerry, thanks so much for sharing this information.

      You make an excellent point about a reader’s first experience with m/m. While I’m not saying that every reader would love m/m if she/he just started with the right book (what we each find romantic is too personal for that) I have seen enough reader comments to know that starting with a terrible book can end a reader’s interest in the entire genre right there.

      Reply
  • This is a combo of MHO & devil’s advocate. I think M/M will benefit from mainstream exposure but we will not see a glut of M/F writers jumping on the M/M bandwagon. I read mostly M/M now but I voraciously read pretty much everything before. I beta read and freelance edit and believe me, the leap from M/F to M/M is not the same as your editor saying to you, “romantic suspense is really hot, so put away your contemporaries for now” which has happened to a few of my writers.

    Foster is a case in point. She has mad writing skills and writes excellent & hot books but was not going to claim any expertise in the M/M genre. She is being penalized for introducing a fabulous gay character and the fact that her fans wanted closure on his story, not something she planned when writing the series or Chris’s character. What Chris Wants is the 6th book in the series, a novella of approx. 40 pages. It was meant to not only give Chris his romance but to tie up the series. Chris & Matt’s story and therefore the background was started in the previous books. It did it’s job for fans of the series (like me). I’m actually impressed that HQN was involved. I never expected this company who made it’s start on “fade to black” books to make this step, however small.

    People who would not normally read M/M may decide to check it out & will be looking for existing M/M books & authors. They won’t be waiting for Ward & Brockmann to write more books or for my fave M/F writers to make the switch to M/M. They’re going to want to read it by authors experienced & talented in the M/M genre.It’s about more exposure and it’s not a bad way to get it. IMHO of course. Maybe one day, I might even tell my mom I write M/M reviews – baby steps LOL.

    Reply
    • She is being penalized for introducing a fabulous gay character and the fact that her fans wanted closure on his story, not something she planned when writing the series or Chris’s character.

      Well, in fairness, she’s being penalized for writing an infomercial disguised as a romance novella. I give her credit for creating a fabulous gay character, but no writer should be pressured into writing what they don’t want to write or feel they can’t do justice to. I don’t see any shame in simply saying the truth. I don’t think I can do justice to this story.

      Reply
      • I’ve read the whole post & every comment so I’m missing something here. Was Foster’s book “sold” as an M/M novella? I’m not getting the “infomercial” thing.

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        • I’m guessing if I was a fan of Foster’s series — and if the relationship between Chris and Matt had been developed in the novella — the constant references to the other characters and their backtories would have read less like an infomercial and more like revisting old beloved friends.

          But since I’m unfamiliar with the series and characters, and since I bought the novella to read a romance about Chris and Matt, the fact that the relationship took place off-stage and that the characters spent more time talking to the supporting cast than each other, was quite a disappointment.

          It felt to me like its real purpose was simply to introduce potential readers to the proper series.

          Reply
  • Hi Josh! Great, thought provoking post. As an avid reader of both het and m/m romance, I share your concerns about mainstreaming. I’d hate to see the genre “adapted” to fit what authors think a larger audience would want (Read: watered down). I hope that doesn’t happen, and I hope Ward’s book has the desired effect of drawing reader attention to already established authors of the genre.

    For what it’s worth, also being a long-time JR Ward fan, I don’t believe she’ll go the fade to black route (I believe her “fandom” would crucify the book if that were the case), and as far as the story, it has already been developing throughout the series and is just as complex as all of the other characters’ stories

    I’ve also worried about the “50 Shades” effect, where a less-than-stellar (IMHO) example of a genre that is not mainstream, in that case erotica, is introduced to the larger audience who weren’t previously familiar with it. It trivializes all of the amazing authors who are already established that these people who are new to the genre aren’t familiar with.

    As a het paranormal romance author, I always include gay characters in each my stories because it is important for me to show my readers that this is normal, being somewhat of a LGBT activist in my real life. I was deeply gratified when my mother read my book in which there are two men who are long time partners, and she was pleasantly surprised that she liked that part…she’d said she’d never read about gay characters and it was interesting to her.

    I have entertained the idea of writing m/m novels for the gay secondary characters in my novels, but am hesitant because of the same concerns you voiced about Ward’s book, et. al. I do not want to do it until I know it will enhance and gain appreciation for the genre rather than be a detriment to it.

    Would you mind if I share your post on my blog and my response to it? I’d love to get a discussion going with some of my readers! TIA!

    Reply
    • Would you mind if I share your post on my blog and my response to it? I’d love to get a discussion going with some of my readers! TIA!

      Sure. Or at least, as long as Wave is okay with it, I am. I think the more discussion the better!

      Reply
  • I always assumed the commercial and critical success of Madeleine Miller’s THE SONG OF ACHILLES would be more of a benchmark crossover, since for all intents and purposes it is a gorgeously written m/m mythological fanfic. I’ve seen very few mentions of that in either mainstream or m/m venues, however. It’ll be interesting to see how this all shakes out.

    Reply
  • To be honest, I’m not too concerned if m/m goes mainstream. Of course, I like the upside of it – that good m/m writers will sell more books and get more recognition; that going mainstream will help to make reading m/m romance an everyday thing for anyone who’s interested. But I am not sure if it will necessarily help to improve m/m stories’ quality, which to me, as a reader, is more important. There are loads of badly written books (ok, bad books with less typos) in mainstream publishing, and I certainly don’t care for mainstream writers jumping into this genre just because it’s “trendy”. I’m sure many het erotica/BDSM genre readers are mad that “50 Shades” books giving their genre a bad name to the public.

    Reply
    • If it results in more quality fiction, I’m all for that. If it results in a further flooding of the genre with mediocre work penned by authors who figure mediocre will be good enough for this audience, that will not be a positive.

      Not even for readers who can’t keep up with tne new releases now.

      Reply
  • An interesting topic for M/M authors and readers.
    As a group, we’re all waiting to see what happens with JR Ward’s book. The consequences for other M/M authors may be boom or bust: discovery of great indie M/M authors (like Josh) or a flooding of the market with bad M/M romance from “jump on the bandwagon” authors who don’t have their hearts in the work.
    Josh is absolutely right–if your heart’s not in it, it’ll show. If you write het romance but don’t like writing M/M, it’s going to show.
    Success for JR Ward’s book will see new M/M indie publishers popping up everywhere—many of these the caliber of “Schnooky-Nooky Press.” These pubs will look to make a quick buck by riding the crest of the M/M wave and will care about quantity far more than quality. This will potentially hurt M/M romance.
    Whether any introduction is better than none remains to be seen. Presumably readers are intelligent enough to recognize this knee-jerk response in the publishing industry, and will suss out quality books.
    With the price of JR’s book (even on Kindle), I’ll wait until the reviews roll in before acquiring a copy.

    Reply
    • With the price of JR’s book (even on Kindle), I’ll wait until the reviews roll in before acquiring a copy.

      An interesting point. Pricing. The big six don’t tend to underprice anything except what they regard as “throwaway” shorts and novellas.

      Reply
      • I don’t know how Penguin justifies charging $18.72 for Lover at Last in Kindle format when the hardcover is $16.44 on sale. I might wait to see if the book comes down in price rather than buying it as soon as it’s released.

        Reply
          • You guys… There’s this crazy place called the “Library”. All you have to do is check it out and promise to return it on time. 😉 That’s what I usually do because the only thing keeping me still reading that series is Blay & Qhuinn, and no way am I paying a gazillion dollars for the minor page time they’ve been getting the last couple of books. That said, I did, uh…. preorder this one.

            She better do them justice! :strike:

            Ward and her BDB series are what led me to MM, btw. So, I’d like to think it will have a positive impact, not just in bringing an influx of new readers, but opening the door to equality and acceptance much wider. Of course, the story and characters need to be fully developed so we care about them. As with any story.

            Reply
            • Very true.

              On another note, I was reading a somewhat depressing article on libraries — the point being that libraries basically have two to three years to figure out how to stay relevant in this rapidly changing publishing environment.

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        • Amazon has it listed at 14.99 but the publisher’s list price is 27.95!! It really doesn’t matter to me. I’ve already preordered it and I’d pay twice that just so i can start reading it right at midnight.

          Reply
            • Yes, it’s an interesting side topic here, isn’t it? What will the market bear?
              I love to watch a new release download at midnight on my Kindle, and then stay up way too late reading.
              That said, I have to keep that pleasure in the context of my monthly book-buying budget. the bucks for JR Ward’s book would buy several Lanyons (an author whom I know will deliver the M/M read I want).
              The public library may end up being the JR Ward vendor for me , unless a well-respected M/M reviewers gives the book such a glowing review I’m unequivocally reassured buying won’t lead to regrets.
              There’s always returns, but that can hurt the author more than not buying in the first place.

              Reply
  • I’m a huge Ward-fan and my greatest fear is, that she’ll not be able to deliver Blay’s and Qhuinn’s story.
    I’m quite sure she won’t shy away from the sex, she already has written a small scene in the last book. In general she only fades to black with couples who are not the main focus on her books so I feel sure to say that we’ll read about Blay and Qhuinn in action.
    What I’m afraid of is – that after reading so many good m/m books – I maybe won’t like her action. 😕

    But – and here I have to defend at least her – J.R. Ward was the author who inspired me to read m/m. And not only me, I know a lot other m/m readers who started reading m/m because of Vishous and Butch and because of Blay and Qhuinn. If you ask around…you’d be astonished. Post a poll in the goodreads m/m group – I wonder how many but I think a lot started reading m/m because of J.R. Ward or Suzanne Brockmann. So mainstream already had an effect.

    The effect that mainstream will have on the quality? I don’t think there will be one…seriously, there are a lot of really crappy written books already published. There is even a publisher I avoid because I’ve been dissapointed nearly every time I bought a book (only if I already know the author I buy Silver).
    So if bigger houses print m/m…at least we can hope the books have seen a good editor.
    What’s quality and what’s not, what will entertain and what not? It’s not in our hands anyway. I mean seriously, let’s mention 50 Shades again. Did anyone expect it to be such a sucess? Do we understand why? (I mean, I have a theory…all these Twilight fans were looking for their next swoon-fix).
    So – there will be readers who will swoon over books that will make us shudder…this has happened in the past and will in the future.

    Let’s just hope that increasing popularity of m/m will help to more equality (I assume it will lead to more tolerance and will actually bring people to accept homosexuality who so far hadn’t had an opinion) and to higer sales for those authors who deliver first class m/m.

    It will make boards where you can read honest reviews more important. As they already grew more and more important with the constant increasing new releases.

    Reply
    • Let’s just hope that increasing popularity of m/m will help to more equality (I assume it will lead to more tolerance and will actually bring people to accept homosexuality who so far hadn’t had an opinion) and to higer sales for those authors who deliver first class m/m.

      I think those are two almost certain benefits of mainstreaming — the pressure to edit and an increasing acceptance that will ideally turn into blase response to the idea of same sex romance.

      Reply

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