Let’s Talk: Marketing Romance Novels

I think I’ve known that people in my romance reader circles have had feelings about marketing romance novels (and women’s fiction) for a while, but when I posted my Heavier Topics in Romance thoughts a couple weeks ago, it became clear that so many of us have thoughts about marketing. The thing is, those of us who are reading my blog and having conversations about this on discord and Twitter are really savvy readers. We’re reading reviews more often than not and are probably less likely to pick up a book knowing literally nothing about it beyond what is indicated on the cover and in the synopsis. And many of us are also people who get ARCs from publishers and Netgalley, which means that for those books, we are the guinea pigs. We’re the ones having to craft and compose reviews, often without content notes, and relying on publishing to give us covers and synopses clear enough to let us know if we may enjoy any particular book. And it is largely from that frame of reference that I wanted to address this topic: Marketing Romance Novels.

Let’s Talk: Marketing Romance Novels

My usual disclaimers apply for a post like this. I’m writing not as an expert, but as a reader and reviewer. And, perhaps more importantly, a purchaser of books. I don’t love the phrase Women’s Fiction, but I do think it’s probably the best phrase to use when talking about the blurred line between

I think we can probably all agree that there has been a shift in traditional publishing to blur the line between romance and women’s fiction. Whether that came alongside the rise of illustrated covers like I’ve seen some argue on Twitter or not, it has definitely had an impact on readers and buyers of books that finding books that are Romances (central love story + HEA/HFN) has gotten a tad more challenging because there are more and more books that are marketed toward romance readers, but don’t necessarily have the central love story even if they have the HEA/HFN at the end. And, to be clear, I’m writing this post as someone who has enjoyed a lot of the books that are on the more women’s fiction with a heavy romantic subplot side of things.

Maybe part of what makes it more challenging to distinguish between the two genres is the increase in singular perspective books. Beach Read by Emily Henry is told entirely from January’s point of view and the book itself stirred up a lot of discussion about whether it was a romance or Women’s Fiction. But I don’t think it’s that simple. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s either the rise of illustrated covers or the resurgence of singular POV books. Instead, I am inclined to blame the cover copy and the general marketing of certain books (and maybe there is a particular publisher that is most to blame, but I do think they all share in the blame).

For an example of good cover copy that I think makes it clear both what the book is about and that it is, at the end of the day, not a romance, let’s look at The Wedding Ringer by Kerry Rea, one of my favorite books of 2022. When you read the cover copy, the romantic love interest only gets a brief mention in the third paragraph and even the way there’s a “– and romance” suggests exactly what this book is: a book where the platonic friendship between Willa and Maisie takes center stage, but there is a satisfying romantic arc as well. This book, in my opinion, gets the message across perfectly, and is not contradicted by the cover, which features Willa very prominently.

But much of the time, publishing doesn’t match the cover vibe and the cover copy to the actual inside of the book. Let’s look at Just Last Night by Mhairi McFarlane where the cover copy sort of suggests what the book is, albeit not well, but when you pair it with the actual U.S. cover, you take away a completely different message. The contents of Just Last Night are, well, quite tragic really. This is how I summed it up in my review: “Just Last Night is a British contemporary with a romantic side plot that makes it likely to get miscategorized as a romance novel even though it really isn’t one. It is a well done book about losing your best friend and trying to figure out how to move on from such a horrific loss and falling in love during the healing journey.”  But when you pair the fun and bright cover with a man and woman on opposite sides of the car with the cover copy, you would probably think a) that the love interest is the person named in the cover copy and b) that whatever the thing is that caused their lives to change, it’s not that big of a deal. That is truly not the case.  

Even setting aside the way cover copy and covers don’t always align, I think the most egregious thing publishing has been doing lately is marketing so many books as romantic comedies. First of all, for what it’s worth, not all books need to be nor should they be romantic comedies. There need to be books for those of us who like sad books and characters too! Secondly though, a romantic comedy implies a few things, right? First, that the book will be funny. Secondly, romantic comedies as a concept really makes people think of movies, right? And rom com movies are always full of antics. This is why marketing Mia Sosa’s The Wedding Crasher as a romantic comedy works. But does it work for a book like Beach Read by Emily Henry? No. But they marketed the book that way anyway. It isn’t that I think romantic comedies can’t go beyond the surface and explore real topics and have depth. But there’s a vibe that is implied when the phrase romantic comedy is thrown out and beyond the overuse of the term at this point, it also seemingly keeps getting used for books where it just doesn’t work.

But, at the end of the day, I suppose you could ask, “Does it actually matter?” And honestly, I think it depends on who is asking. To many readers, it matters a lot. There are certain publishers now where I am so hesitant to pick a book up from them without having first read reviews from at least three trusted reviewers and even then, I would rather get the book from the library before I commit to buying it myself. But does it matter in the sense that it’s hurting publishers bottom line? I’m not sure. Because I haven’t seen any improvement on the accuracy of marketing certain books lately, though I might just be cynical.

This is one of those posts where I have so many thoughts, I can’t quite figure out what to focus on, but I think I’ll leave it at this. Please feel free to leave your thoughts below! I’d love to hear about them.

xx

3 responses to “Let’s Talk: Marketing Romance Novels”

  1. Great topic! I think publishers have really messed up marketing of books lately. Beach Read was kind of the one that started that all, at least for me. That book was not a romantic comedy and now all these books are marketed with illustrated covers saying they’re romantic comedies or romances in general and they’re not. It’s so frustrating! And I think you’re right — it might have started all this madness about what constitutes a romance novel. All love stories are not romance novels. Maybe we need to go back to traditional, non-illustrated romance covers with half naked men or couples on them. (I’m only half kidding.) Maybe that would help? For me, it’s fairly easy to pick out (women’s) fiction, but I feel like it is harder for people who are not devout romance readers. Tiktok has made it even messier.

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  2. I’m currently writing a romance and – having had to discuss it with other writers who are not familiar with the genre recently – I’ve been caught up in some of the same things you’ve raised here. And, like you say, the differences may not seem important to a ‘lay person’ … but avid/invested romance readers are highly attuned to them. It doesn’t help that I’m in the UK, but read books by mainly non-UK writers, and understand US-led marketing far better than that of my own country! (I too read a recent UK book promoted as a romcom and the couple hardly got together *at all*, let alone were the central factor.) My main concern rn is (among this writers group I’ve become part of) being thought of as being awkward or protesting too much about what is/isn’t romance, and the elements my book needs/doesn’t need. Like … it’ll sound like I’m making excuses for my plot etc, when I’m simply wanting to satisfy my (romance-loving) audience. (Sorry if that just turned into less of a comment and more a mini therapy session for me …😏)

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