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Publishing Romance: Notes on a Thriving Genre

A book editor discusses the romance fiction industry

Book editor Lucia Macro discusses romance novels at a discussion at the Forum for Scholars and Publics. Photo courtesy of Sonja Foust
Book editor Lucia Macro discusses romance novels at a discussion at the Forum for Scholars and Publics. Photo courtesy of Sonja Foust

Although the public may poke fun at romance fiction for being “low-brow” or “trashy,” the genre commands tremendous respect in the publishing world, according to Lucia Macro, vice president and executive editor for Morrow/Avon Books.

“Despite being a genre written and edited by and for women, romance still draws a lot of criticism from the general public,” Macro said Monday during a lecture at Duke. “But publishers respect the genre because it makes a lot of money. Romance continues to thrive on all levels.”

Macro appeared on campus as part of the “Unsuitable” lecture series featuring writers and editors of romance fiction. The event was held at the Forum for Scholars and Publics; The free, public series is co-sponsored by the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute and the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

As with all the lectures in the series, this installment of “Unsuitable” included a question and answer session with students in “The Romance Novel,” an interdisciplinary seminar taught by Duke professors and romance writers Katharine Dubois and Laura Florand.

Macro highlighted the differences between genre -- such as mystery, science fiction and romance -- and literary fiction.

“As genre publishers, our focus is on putting good entertainment out there,” Macro said. “We are less concerned with a technically well-written first draft and more with a good storyline. We also get to work with the same authors for a long period of time, because some of our writers will produce two or three books each year, whereas editors who work with literary fiction might only work with an author once or twice.”

Macro also touched on the rise of the erotica sub-genre with the unprecedented popularity of EL James’s “50 Shades of Grey” and the resurgence of paranormal romance with the “Twilight” series. Although romance publishers still send out surveys to keep tabs on reader preferences, Macro said social media and sales of self-published novels are strong indicators of how the market might shift.

“Trends change very quickly, and one of the most important parts of my job is figuring out what readers want,” Macro said. “Recently, paranormal and ‘new adult’ [an umbrella label assigned to books with protagonists in their early 20’s but targeted at readers of all ages] have made a huge comeback, and historical romances are popping up on the bestseller list as well.”

First-year student Katherine Berko, who aspires to write a romance novel, said both the course and Macro’s talk has revealed the complex literary terrain of the genre and its readership.

“I came into this course not really knowing the industry and how many sub-genres there were,” Berko said. “Now I can see that there really is something for everyone, from Westerns and historical to suspense and paranormal. As someone who wants to work in this industry one day, it gives me a lot of room to be creative and try different things.”

Even with its diverse sub-genres, Macro said romance novels have stuck with strong heroines and compelling storytelling through the decades.

“The women in these novels are always fish out of water,” Macro said. “They’re in this world where they’re different -- whether they be surrounded by vampires or fighting crime or time-travelling. But they’re smart, witty and intrepid. They always rise above their challenging situations.”

For more information on the “Unsuitable” series and a list of future public events, click here.