As the summer winds down, an issue that seems to keep erupting for me in weather and reading choices is How hot is hot? First of all, the overall romance market is hot. The area of romance fiction generated $1.375 billion in U.S. sales in 2007, a five percent increase over 2006, making it the biggest fiction publishing category for that year, according to Business of Consumer Book Publishing. A recent article in The New York Times reported that Harlequin Enterprises had fourth-quarter earnings in 2008 that were up 32 percent over the same period a year ago. That’s hot!
However, I specifically refer to the level of heat I’ll find between the pages. The romance market is awash in names, titles, and scantily clad or just sweetly glowing covers. It’s hard—eh, difficult—to tell just how far the story arc is going to extend. Of course, the reader can writhe around at the various online romance sites (bit more difficult to do in an actual bookstore) to try to determine the romantic intentions of a prospective booklist. But that takes research. Readers would rather be reading. And they don’t want to waste money on a title that, ultimately, disappoints or shocks by its content. I’d like to see an industry-wide standard by which romance books reveal their moist inner core right there on the cover.
Heat meters certainly are nothing new. But I find them too generalized. For instance, you know you’ll get romance from Avon Books, but, as noted above, that’s a huge range. Avon also has Avon Red for erotic fiction. That’s a division of two. Not good enough. Harlequin has a bit better articulated system with various imprints, such as Blaze, Silhouette, and Harlequin Presents. Harlequin Blaze describes itself as: Stories have a contemporary feel and emphasize the physical relationship between the couple. Stories run from flirtatious to dark and sensual, and the line pushes boundaries in terms of characterization, plot, and explicitness. Okay, “pushes boundaries” is a good description, but the whole thing is too wordy and a reader would only discover this information after going to the Harlequin site. Harlequin Silhouette describes itself as passion, drama, sensual, scandalous. Yup, that covers a lot of ground and flesh. Harlequin Presents: passionate, seduction and passion guaranteed. Hmm. How is that different?
I really like the way All Romance eBooks defines the content of the titles they carry at their online store, which, incidentally, is also the system that my publisher, Sapphire Blue Publishing, abides by. The flame system:
If you buy your ebooks from All Romance, you know immediately what you’ve got coming. Can’t romance publishers have a consensus that such a system benefits the reader and may motivate them to buy more titles more quickly?
The flame system is taken. However, any series of icons could work. A 1-to-5 rating system seems to be sufficient, with 3 being the middle of the road and including your run-of-the mill nudity and thrusting. All Romance does a good job of describing the range of heat levels. Perhaps an icon structure that would use familiar symbols to convey those heat levels.
For example, level 1 could be a rose (sweet, for love); 2 could be a trailing ribbon (untied from a package or unwound from a bodice); 3 could be a bared breast (just kidding, but you get the idea); 4 could be a phallus of some sort (maybe an Egyptian obelisk, rounded tip please); and 5 could be a studded dog collar. Just throwing ideas out there. Would love to hear yours.
The thrust of this essay basically is—as in life and love—we humans desire to know what we’re in for. Well, it’s not feasible in reality. But in the romance publishing industry, it certainly is. Readers want to know what they’re going to get, and publishers should give it to them.
K. F. Zuzulo is the author of The Third Wish, a genie romance novella published by Sapphire Blue Publishing in June 2009. Her supernatural thriller A Genie in the House of Saud: Zubis Rises was a winner in the 2008 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Visit her site to learn more about the author, her writing, and genies.