By Joe Arney
Romance writers came into Christine Larson’s life at an inopportune moment.
As a graduate student at Stanford University and mother to two young children, Larson suddenly found herself navigating an unexpected and painful divorce—and a resulting case of writer’s block that threatened her doctoral work in journalism. Suddenly, a woman who’d studied English at Princeton and enjoyed an impressive freelance career at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal couldn’t find the words.
That’s when she learned about romance writers, said to be the only players making money in digital publishing. In fact, they were early adopters of self publishing their work digitally, having long been scorned by literary elites and New York publishing giants. That interested Larson, who before the tech wreck of the late 1990s reported on the first dot-com boom, even developing early websites for Reader’s Digest, Fodor’s and others.
A few interviews to understand how these writers operated was just the turn she needed.
“They were so inspiring,” said Larson, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information. “Listening to how much they had overcome helped me forget that I was struggling with my own problems.
“The way these women—and they were mostly women—found ways to mentor and support each other was so inspiring that it became a seven-year-long project.”
That project has culminated in Love in the Time of Self-Publishing: How Romance Writers Changed the Rules of Writing and Success, a new book due out June 4 from Princeton University Press. It’s not so much a love story about romance writers as it is a work about business and labor.
“The book is really about how if you want to be treated fairly as a worker in the gig economy, you need a united community that cares about and supports each other,” Larson said.
A network that works
Romance writers, as underdogs of the publishing world, banded together to share resources, encouragement and advice—a form of mentorship eschewed by writers who were more actively courted by publishers. The dirty little secret is that for decades, romance has been the cash cow that’s allowed publishers to take risks on more literary projects. Visit any e-bookstore today and you’re likely to see self-published romance novels occupying half the bestseller spots.
The relationships romance writers forged among themselves were key to their success when they were derided by the publishing industry. As the internet took shape in the mid-’90s, these writers collectively turned to self publishing, selling their work as PDFs long before the Kindle hit the scene.
“That ethic of care and support helped romance writers flourish, but if you want that, you have to treat everyone in your community fairly,” she said. “That becomes a big deal when you have giant companies like Amazon and Uber trying to exploit you.
“These authors are the bellwether of the gig economy—they were insecure, precarious workers long before that became what we all do for a living. It’s an important labor story.”
It’s a lesson these writers learned the hard way. As social justice movements were gaining momentum across the country, the main association for romance writers struggled to be more inclusive of writers from underrepresented backgrounds, who wanted to tell stories that didn’t just feature straight white characters. The resulting controversy fractured Romance Writers of America, though its members continue to support each other and have built new networks within it.
And publishers, Larson notes in her book, have slowly begun to adapt, as well. Many have retired the mass-market paperback operations that published romance stories in favor of all-digital operations that have given a voice to new generations of writers.
‘A happily ever after for everyone’
While there is more to do, “there is much more diversity now thanks to digital self publishing,” Larson said. “Big publishers are finally catching on to the value of stories that offer a happily ever after for everyone, whether that’s people of color, same-sex couples, whatever.”
A “happily ever after” ending is cliché enough to be called “HEA” in the romance community. And while that’s a common critique of the genre, Larson bristles at the idea that it’s not worthy of scholarly or public attention, pointing to speculative, or science, fiction’s penchant for helping readers explore different ways to live or different visions of the economy.
“Culturally, romance matters because of its revolutionary potential, its scope for imagination and because everyone deserves a happily ever after,” she said, noting the rise of romances featuring historical figures, vampires and others. “People say romance is formulaic—well, all stories are formulaic. We respond to patterns in a good story.”
What about Larson’s own story? She’s living her own HEA moment right now—happily engaged, supporting her children through their college journeys and her new book. She’s also enjoying her service with the Op-Ed Project, which elevates the voices of underrepresented people in the media by teaching them to write commentary. It’s a project that might inform a future research thread.
“Lately, I’ve been thinking about ways we see underrepresented voices gain a greater audience and find new ways of expression, as well as how they’ve suffered from the way the digital economy changes the cultural economy,” she said. “It’s certainly something we see in romance writing, and it’s something I’d like to study in opinion writing and commentary.”