“No, You’re Not the First!”: Erasure and False Advertising as Marketing in Trade Paperback Romance

The last year or two has seen romance go “mainstream” to an extent, even more so than the slight push it got from the Fifty Shades series. And on the surface, it seems to be somewhat positive. More romances are being optioned for film and television than before, largely thanks to streaming, from the hotly anticipated Bridgertons Netflix series, helmed by Shonda Rhimes, The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, and even some projects being developed by Leah and Bea Koch, owners of the Culver City-based indie romance bookstore, The Ripped Bodice. 

And publishers are trying hard to reach a wider audience as well, with many embracing the cartoon cover trend. While there are myriad issues with them, like how they might misrepresent the contents, lead readers to confuse the books which chick-lit, and debates around the higher price point, I tend to like them and the variety they add to the romance section. 

But it’s this new marketing trend that has led to a side effect of some newer authors either promoting themselves, or being promoted by others (whether they be publishers, reviewers, or whoever) as “revolutionary,” when it’s not the case at all. And one of the main authors who is often at the center of such controversial pieces these days is Jasmine Guillory.

I enjoy Guillory’s work, and find them charming rom-coms, but I don’t get why they are being hyped up as this big thing for Black romance readers, or the romance community in general, with the most recent offense occurring in this tone-deaf piece. Publishing has a diversity problem, but that doesn’t mean she’s the first to portray successful Black characters. To say that spits in the face of those who came before her, like Beverly Jenkins (especialyr), and those who are coming up in the industry at relatively the same time in the last few years, like Alyssa Cole. I’m glad Guillory is part of bringing romance to a broader audience of readers, but even I know there are even more names out there that I may not have read, but are beloved by others, and my reading of Black romance authors is sadly limited by what the Hawaii-based library can buy and a few supplemental personal purchases.  And the Romance Writers of America Trailblazers page and video serves as further proof that racially diverse romance was very much a thing throughout romance history, and there very much indeed is a gap between Fabio and Fifty Shades people are missing, to cite the arguments of Kirkus reviewer Jennifer Prokop, who called out think pieces from uneducated newbies to the romance genre and the actions of authors like Guillory who don’t bother to do their research. 

Speaking of authors being praised for being different, but aren’t really doing anything new…we have Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore, where the blurb suggests the heroine is a feminist trying to convert a conservative duke. Lots of people mentioned how great it was, how Dunmore “makes an old trope her own,” and if there was a critique, it concerned the amount of “politics” in the book. 

But sadly, the politics is the best part of this book. I love when you see aristocratic heroes actually do things aside from just be autocratic and lord over everyone, and, even if I didn’t agree with his views, I found the Duke of Montgomery’s work the best part about him. His first scene involves him meeting with the Queen…how cool is that?! And while Annabelle’s beliefs do feel a little on the modern side, they still felt believable in the context of the suffrage movement.

If either or both had been more explored instead of being forgotten about as soon as they developed the hots for each other, I think it would have been marginally better. But it devolved…fast…after she was confined at his estate due to circumstances beyond her control, and what unfolds is an unfortunate #MeToo-power disparity tale. I got as far as him propositioning her to be his mistress, and while she refused, he apparently wouldn’t let the issue drop. While he apparently does have some saving grace moments later in the book, she apparently gives up her fight to…be a lazy duchess? *shaking my head so hard*

One of the worst parts is that other authors have done the alpha duke/commoner feminist heroine so much better, including Eva Leigh, who coincidentally blurbed this book. Her Dare to Love a Duke incorporates the agency I found missing in Dunmore’s book, both sexually (the heroine is a courtesan) and in terms of her career, and got a lot of flack for it, at least from one reviewer. Dunmore’s book strikes me as wanting to appeal to modern feminist sensibilities, without ruffling the feathers of the more “traditional” readers, to its detriment. 

I don’t have a personal  beef with either Guillory or Dunmore personally, and even like Guillory as an author, even if I feel like the hype around her is largely undeserved, when it gives her credit that rightly belongs to so many others who came before her. And both Dunmore and Guillory seem to be subject to the narrative that their books are doing something major for pom, ,were dynamics in their respective genres, when that could not be further from the truth. People at all levels of marketing, from the authors themselves, their publicists, people writing “puff pieces” on these new romance authors, and even reviewers (particularly those less well versed in romance history)  need to be more self-aware about how they’re speaking about books.

 And I include myself in that as well. I believe I said in my review for Guillory’s The Wedding Date that, while some  elements of the relationship development bothered me, it was “refreshing” to read about a couple on an equal playing field, under the misguided impression that, much like every hero in historicals was a duke, or at least a member of the aristocracy, billionaires vastly dominated the contemporary genre, usually paired with women of a much lower social or economic standing. And while that is a very popular trope, and one that got something of a shakeup in the wake of #MeToo,  it’s not the only one, and Guillory did not invent this. It was a lesson that I will take with me going forward, along with my growing awareness of the wide array of amazing trailblazers who paved the way for the authors we have today. 

Colorblind Casting, Racism, and “Historical Accuracy”: Unpacking the Bridgerton Casting “Controversy”

Last week, casting news for  The Little Mermaid live-action remake began making waves (hehe) on the Internet, and it was followed up this week by the casting announcement for Shonda Rhimes Bridgerton  Netflix series. And while both pieces of news had me excited, due to Little Mermaid being my childhood favorite and the Bridgertons being my all-time favorite historical romance series…other people weren’t so happy. And setting aside the understandable reservations that some have about the casting of the Bridgertons series, such as the implied changes and new characters, many of the worst comments shared a similar theme with The Little Mermaid’s casting reactions in being focused on the race of some of the actors. 

Among the cast, we have Regé-Jean Page playing Simon and Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury, those being the choices that have been the targets of the biggest race-related comments, due to the characters’ prominence in the book series. 

Most, like with the Ariel comments, chose to make it about “historical accuracy,” accusing Shonda of “changing [history] to fit her narrative,” with others questioning why the change was done when Julia Quinn did not make them POC in the first place, pulling the “create original stories” card, which are very familiar to anyone who was following the insanity from the Ariel casting last week. 

` And I just find it laughable and sickening at the same time. Laughable because historical accuracy is their excuse, but neither Disney nor JQ are necessarily known for their strict adherence to historical accuracy. And it’s even funny for historical romance readers to cry about that stuff, because they’re totally fine with thousands of young, virile dukes (a complete fiction), not to mention some of the anachronistic shenanigans of historical romance books, but an aristocratic historical romance hero (or heroine)  portrayed as a person of color? Pitchforks! 

Also, I’ve seen the claim touted that if black people existed at all during the Regency, they were servants or slaves. Vanessa Riley (and many serious historians) would beg to differ, having written a number of books set in the period, with black people in different walks of life, from servant to aristocrat, and featuring a wealth of information about Black people in the Regency on her website. 

For the most part, it all goes back to colorblind casting and each of the people chosen being who they felt captured the spirit of the role. The main  defense given for Halle Bailey as Ariel is her killer pipes, and I have to agree, especially given the fact that some people’s ideal casting choices don’t come close to hitting her range vocally. And while I’m not familiar with any of the cast for the Bridgertons series, I don’t think it’s out of character for Shonda Rhimes, who has produced diverse series like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, to cast people of color here either, and am open to giving all of the cast a chance to prove what they can do, instead of passing judgment prematurely. 

But regardless of who’s in charge, it’s just disheartening to see so much hatred over the casting of fictional characters, especially since the accusations are the same every time (like, legitimately, I heard the same things come up in response to both Ariel and the Bridgertons, and every other colorblind re-casting)? Becoming “too PC?” Heard that one before. “Black people should make their own show?” What do you think they’ve been trying to do for decades? “Not historically accurate?” See above. 

It’s sad that we still have people who hold these antiquated beliefs in 2019. I understand having a love for a childhood classic film or a beloved book series, and dreading changes when a remake or new adaptation comes around. But that’s no reason to be hateful and exclusionary to others, especially to entire groups of people who have put up with decades of not being represented in media, due to systemic barriers in their way.

#CopyPasteCris and the Amazon Algorithm

It’s been a while since I posted about book community drama and issues, and while I could have posed about #CockyGate or The Blood Heir, or some of the other controversies that have come up in the past year, I resisted, out of a sense of either not knowing the subject well enough, feeling it was explained better by others, or just not knowing what my voice contributed to the matter. But while those two aforementioned scandals were rather single-minded, if a bit divisive (particularly in the second case), this one is multilayered in a way I did not expect it to be, bringing to light issues that have long lurked in the underbelly of the book world.  

Context

By now, you’ve probably heard about #copypastecris from other sources, whether it be when it trended on Twitter, when author Courtney Milan posted about it on her blog, or when Nora Roberts made three killer blog posts of her own. But in case you have not, in summary, a person calling themselves Cristiane Serruya (it’s debatable whether it’s one person working alone or part of a larger group of scammers, or whether she is who she claims she is), publicly lauded as a USA Today Bestselling author, has been revealed to have copied and pasted passages from a multitude of sources, with the current totals adding up to fifty-one books by thirty-four authors (Milan and Roberts having multiple titles among this number, with other prominent names including Tessa Dare, Christi Caldwell, and, most recently, Julia Quinn and Diana Gabaldon), three articles from web and magazine sources (including one called, quite ironically, “Law, Grace and Redemption in Les Miserables”), two recipes, a Wikipedia article, and a Wattpad story across her backlist, all of which were compiled into a growing list by the amazing @CaffeinatedFae on Twitter on the #copypastecrislist hashtag as more and more are uncovered.

In short, the fact that she copied and pasted passages from others should make this an easy, black-and-white situation with little to debate upon. However, in the last several days, more and more layers have been brought to light about the issue, which has made it more complex and divisive.

The first is the use of ghostwriters when writing fiction. This came about when Serruya, in a tweet on her now-deleted Twitter account, cast the blame on a ghostwriter she hired on Fiverr (it should be noted, for those few that are unfamiliar with the story, that this came out when only a few authors, such as Milan and Tessa Dare, were revealed to have been plagiarized and the only work of Serruya’s in question at the time was Royal Love, so this tweet was written in the context of it being a one-time thing that she could blame on a shoddy ghostwriter). However, two ghostwriters subsequently reached out to Milan, independent of one another, stating that they were given bits and pieces by Serruya for them to rework, thus making them at worst only irresponsible for not confirming the words not plagiarized.

However, in reaction to Serruya, many authors began to post the affirmation that they “write their own books.” And I don’t disagree with this response, given the way that many in the community, some of whom are legitimately fast writers and put out a book every few months, or even a book a month because of their writing speed, get shamed and subjected to false accusations.

But it does also feed into this anti-ghostwriter narrative. And while I do feel that, much like any other profession, if you can’t write fiction, you probably shouldn’t do it, I also see where ghostwriters are coming from when they talk about the reasons they ghostwrite, like it pays the bills, or they don’t want to deal with the business aspects of writing. But there should be some acknowledgment of the contributor’s hard work, whether it be on the cover, as is often the case with many works “co-authored” by James Patterson, or at least a mention of them within the acknowledgments. More transparency is needed to ensure readers aren’t being duped, especially as readers today crave that connection to their favorite authors, and the feeling that they are real people they can connect with. That, does, of course, bring about its own issues, meaning authors need to be mindful of the personas they curate online, but that is another topic for another post. Now, onto the most polarizing aspect of the issue that gradually has come to be discussed more frankly.

The Readers, the Authors, and the Algorithms

Another issue that has come up is one concerning Amazon’s broken algorithms. I have numerous issues with Amazon, like the way they’re a huge conglomerate and authors depend on reviews for promotional purposes, yet limit those who can post reviews of their products to those who make purchases of $50 or more with a credit or debit card, thus making it impossible for people who don’t have consistent access to that to help their favorites in this way, among other reasons I may go into later.

Admittedly, because of my lack of experience with Amazon, I’m a little out of my depth in terms of describing the specific scams some readers have been discussing, both in this case, and in previous cases, like #CockyGate, but I do understand the implications of something like a click farm could be used to game the already imperfect Kindle Unlimited program, thus meaning that scammers gain more money from the “pot” allotted to be distributed among authors with books in the program.

And it’s also an issue of the reader’s perspective, and what they are willing to pay for a book, especially by an author that’s new to them. Several people took issue with a statement in Roberts’ second blog post:

“And to readers, those of you who keep pushing for more and cheaper books, just stop it. Writing, real writing, is work, it takes time and talent and effort. By snapping up a book just because it’s ninety-nine cents on line, you’re encouraging this. The creator and the content they work so hard to produce is devalued.

Pay the artist, for God’s sake, or the artist can’t create. What you end up with is rushed from a desperate writer struggling to keep up to pay the bills. Or mass-produced crap thrown together by scammers.”

I had mixed feelings upon reading this passage. I could understand why people were a little hurt, as the way she worded it felt like she was putting part of the blame for this on the readers, believing all they care about is free books, and not considering they may not always have the money to purchase a book, because it’s often either that or the basic necessities. There was also an argument that Roberts was a hypocrite, due to the fact that her publisher advertised some of her early “In Death” titles for $1.99, never mind that this, like many an eBook sale, was done for promotional reasons, and might entice readers to shell out more on future titles.

Bit I could also see where she was coming from, as an injured party in this awful mess. And I understand, from what she states elsewhere, both in this post and her previous one, that she understands her place of privilege as a bestselling author who has not only a lengthy backlist, but funds and clout enough to defend not only herself, but can take on the fight for others who may not as well.

And readers do have the power of choice of authors to invest their time in, and I believe that is why Roberts puts so much responsibility at their door. There is a difference between promoting a quality product through a sale with hopes of hooking the reader, which is the intent of a legitimate author or publisher’s goal in marking down a book’s price either temporarily or permanently, and there is enticing the reader purely through the price point to consume cheap crap, which is usually the domain of a scammer so they can profit off it. And if all a legit author, whether it be Nora Roberts or Courtney Milan or anyone else,  cared about was making more money, why would so many authors promote libraries, with many of them that I’ve spoken to being excited to see their work represented in library collections? In fact, the library came up as a valid, legal alternative to purchasing books in the comments section of this blog post, including from Roberts herself, when responding to a commenter of the mindset to clap back at her for criticizing people who pick up books for free or on sale, and essentially that because Roberts has a “fortune,” it should not be something she should lecture readers about, especially if they are on a budget, among other claims, which Roberts refuted splendidly. Given that this is also a sore spot for her, with readers taking issue with the prices of her books (something she does not control, as she works with a publisher), I can understand her outrage here, regardless of any initial (albeit slight) agreement I may have had with the opposing arguments without thinking about it within the context of this situation.

And this sense of entitlement feeds it to the bigger issue in our Internet-saturated culture that has allowed scammy, illegal behavior to thrive. When watching all this play out, I could not help but be reminded of Taylor Swift taking issue with streaming services, who I also recall being criticized for being overly money-grubbing in spite of her vast fortune when she pulled her catalog from Spotify. In both cases, there was a sense of entitlement on the part of the consumer, that because they were on a fixed budget, they should not be obliged support the creators they enjoyed in a fair and legitimate way, essentially devaluing the art the creators create. And while yes, both Roberts and Swift are successful in their respective fields, this entitlement creates an problems for the struggling up-and-coming author or musician, who genuinely loves to write or perform, and would love to make a full-time career of it, but is denied this dream due to the fact that their career isn’t profitable.

Roberts then made a third blog post earlier today as of this writing, confirming all of my suppositions that I posited earlier and shutting down her detractors in the best way. Unfortunately, in subsequent keyword searches on Twitter for people talking about “Nora Roberts,” I saw that the post either did not alter their opinion that books should have value, or they did not bother to read it.

“Trashy Books?”: The Widening Debate Between Quality and Quantity

Upon reflection, however, I did find this a strange conversation to come to light in the romance community, especially when so many readers and authors are champions for the genre and its place as equally important to any other work of fiction. This debate around the idea of “quality” is at the root of several romance aficionados’ forays into academic studies of the genre. Author Maya Rodale wrote of the long history of the dismissal of romance novels in her book, Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. She  spoke about the romance industry as being very focused as being a system where “high volume = low cost = less risk,” (71) writing of the promotional tactics of a series, hooking a reader with book one at lower price, thus making it more likely they may buy the second (and the third and so on), which is a very familiar model that has already been discussed, and unfortunately, exploited, in this discussion on cheap books. But the argument for cheap books dismisses Rodale’s other claim of the close bond formed between an author and a reader, as well as the ways the genre has been dismissed to no avail throughout history due to its presentation, in a similar way that these readers are ironically devaluing a genre they claim to love.  

The lack of perceived lasting value of romance novels in society is one that other scholars have also confronted, like Australian Library and Information Science (LIS) scholar Vassiliki Veros. In an article, “A Matter of Meta: Category Romance Fiction and the Interplay of Paratext and Library Metadata” (2015), Veros wrote about the contrasting values of libraries and librarians toward books with cultural capital (which also can be symbolized by any intellectual romance detractor who views romance as “trash”) and the vast economic capital generated in the romance industry. While her argument pertains more specifically to the way in which libraries devalue romance novels, especially category romance, and don’t catalog them correctly, the general gist of her explanation surrounding economic vs. cultural capital is how I assumed it stood prior to the explosion of this scandal. But to have people so firmly in the economic capital camp that they think of books of any type as disposable and not worth paying for at any point is crazy to me, especially since scamming has become such a prevalent thing in the book industry.

Final Thoughts

As this situation continues to develop on all sides of the issue, I don’t know what the outcome will be, or if it’s possible for their to be one that will end peacefully for everyone who’s since gotten involved. The main hope that I hope to see materialize is that Cristiane Serruya is fully taken down and the lengthy list of authors, both notable and unknown, get some recompense for this. But as many have noted it’s not just a problem of just one scammer messing with the system, but many who are taking advantage of algorithms to get ahead and crush legitimate authors, many of whom are working hard for little reward. Contrary to what some readers believe, we can and should do better to stop this and show that this won’t be tolerated. And hopefully, if all our voices are loud enough, Amazon may finally listen.

Sources:

#copypastecris and #copypastecrislist on Twitter (special shout-out to @CaffeinatedFae)

Various tweets and Twitter threads

Courtney Milan’s blog post: http://www.courtneymilan.com/ramblings/2019/02/18/cristiane-serruya-is-a-copyright-infringer-a-plagiarist-and-an-idiot/

Nora’s first blog post: http://fallintothestory.com/plagiarism-then-and-now/

Nora’s second blog post: http://fallintothestory.com/not-a-rant-but-a-promise/

Nora’s third blog post: http://fallintothestory.com/let-me-address-this/

Article on Taylor Swift and streaming services for context: https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/9/15767986/taylor-swift-apple-music-spotify-statements-timeline

Maya Rodale, Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained (2015)

Vassiliki Veros, “A Matter of Meta: Category Romance Fiction and the Interplay of Paratext and Library Metadata,” In the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, 5.1 (2015), 1-13

Romance in the News: Romance Readers vs. Clinton

Note: This is a political post. But as always, I shall remain as non-partisan as possible. 

This year has been an interesting one for the romance genre. Between the romance genre being a source of comfort (and resistance) for readers in the aftermath of the 2016 election and the evolving conversation around consent and the role of the alpha male hero in romance that has only become more pronounced in the second half of the year as sexual harassment allegations dominated the headlines, I don’t think the genre has has been as talked about, within the community and outside of it.

But even a woman who, for some, embodies female empowerment, can be ill-informed about romance and the progress that has been made. Ironically, she compared the much-beloved genre to the tales of sexual harassment from the headlines, stating, “The whole romance novel industry is about women being grabbed and thrown on a horse and ridden off into the distance.”

Romance readers and authors, of course, did not take kindly to the comment. #RomancenovelsforHillary became a hashtag on Twitter. One author, Cecelia Mecca, wrote, “If you honestly believe a woman w/ a Ph.D. in education raised by a strong single mother would make a career writing literature that subjugates women, the only logical conclusion I can draw is that you haven’t read a romance novel lately.” Christopher Rice, while not calling out Hillary directly, wrote, “I continue to be astonished by the speed and ease with which those who have apparently never read a romance novel use the term ‘romance novels’ as a slur against pretty much anything they don’t like.” And both Lisa Kleypas and Maya Rodale wrote their own letters to her to her in major publications, through which they hoped to educate her about the value of romance for empowered women.

However, very mention of the name “Hillary Clinton” might get two reactions. Rodale declares herself a Clinton supporter in her piece, but whether you support her or not should not affect your opinion of her comments. People were quick to contradict Kleypas’ naming Clinton a romance heroine in the title of her piece, with one commenter stating, that she is “definitely not a romance heroine that I would want to read about. But not surprising that she is still casting blame all over the place.” Another commenter said, “That woman is only a heroine to un/undereducated fools. Her days outside lockup are numbered.” However, another injected some levity into the conversation, saying, “Dear H, so sorry your knight in shinning armor turned out to be an a-hole in tinfoil. But don’t be trying to brainwash our girls from ever knowing what a real prince is.”

But underneath the comedy of it all, this commenter may be right.  Hillary wields influence as a political figure, and with the negative image of romance novels still lingering, a comment from someone with political power and/or media presence could further shift the public perception about romance novels, and keep people from discovering the truth about this wonderful genre that empowers both women and men.