Book Review: Hunting Ground
August 27, 2009
Saturday Speculation: Gothic Horror and Romance
August 29, 2009

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.


  1. Book Dragon says:

    I agree. I love the flames and do use them when shopping at AllRomance. Some of the other ebook publishers have something similar.

    I recently reviewed a BDSM book. BDSM should tell you what your getting. sigh, shakes head… I didn't get paddles and whips, I got humiliation and piss play. Maybe we need levels within levels 😉

    The publisher can tell us a lot unless you purchase from a middle man. For instance, I purchased a shapeshifter book from amazon without realizing it was published by Ellora's Cave. EC would have told me all I need to know and I wouldn't have purchased the print book.

    I don't know if we'll ever get them to agree but it is a nice idea.

  2. Leontine says:

    Two thumbs up for the flame system of All Romance e-books. That is very direct and understandable. When I purchase books I usually look at the publishers imprint like Spice and such, or erotica publishers and then even that doesn't guarantee me getting what I want.

  3. sonomalass says:

    While a heat-level rating might be useful for some readers, I'm not sure it's the main thing all of us look for. There are so many other "surprises" waiting in a book. Do we also need a "how stupid is the heroine" meter? How about "how alpha is the hero"? What about a violence/gore rating (esp. in romantic suspense and paranormal)? Those are just some of the issues that have caused me to be disappointed in a romance lately, and none of them had to do with the sex scenes or lack thereof.

    On reflection, though, while I'd like to avoid buyer's remorse over books, I don't think you can really quantify where tastes differ. I don't think I'd want a "nutrition facts" label on the back of every book telling me about the contents.

    And these days, I think it's easier than ever to guess whether a book will not be to my taste. Reviewers I trust, along with excerpts on authors' and publishers' web sites, work kind of like wine tasting or those lovely "sample ladies" at the grocery store, giving me a taste of a new author so I can see if I like the flavor.

  4. I like the idea of a rating system. I'm personally open to all levels of heat, but it is nice to know what to expect before you open it. I had to delve into harlequin's line descriptions because I'm writing a category romance and needed to know where mine would fit. I agree that the descriptions can be a bit confusing. I eventually figured out I'm writing at the Blaze level. 🙂

  5. Anonymous says:

    Ratings systems inevitably lead to censorship. Any reader who values variety and choice will oppose any attempt to impose a ratings system.

    Think about it. Not only is there the issue of subjectivity – one woman's ruffled feathers is another woman's fave bedtime story – but then there's the issue of distribution. Ratings make it easy for retailers to discriminate. If retailers want to appear "family-friendly" they might refuse to carry the spiciest rated books outright. Deprived of distribution channels, publishers will stop putting out books with that rating.

    It's happened to videogames, you can bet it'll happen to books.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I think it's sad, no pathetic that nowadays people HAVE to know what they're going to get before they read it. Reading is about the surprise.

    There's the same problem in the film industry with trailers, and clips of the film, regular updates abut what's going on on set.

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