Controversy — January 23, 2014, 2:47 pm

NYC vs. HEA

Romance writers, Jennifer Weiner, and the future of publishing

Illustration by Thomas Allen

Illustration by Thomas Allen

The New York literary industry stands at the front door and frets over the guest list, while everyone else is sneaking out the back. There are many better parties. Though e-books — and soon we’ll call them books — will not destroy the publishing industry any more than paperbacks did, they have already fractured and decentralized it. You can feel, in literary corners of the city, the depreciation of old-style New York–centered prestige. It manifests as a sense of lessening atmospheric pressure, a feeling that you do not have to be here to make it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you don’t want an invitation. Few writers appear more covetous of old-media respect than Jennifer Weiner, the author most recently of the bestselling novel Then Came You, and an agitator, on her website, Twitter, and elsewhere, for the inclusion of commercial fiction — and by extension commercial fiction written by and for women — in the New York Times Book Review. Weiner’s self-advocacy aroused enough emotion to earn her a profile in the January 13 issue of The New Yorker, and many people are now debating in the very forums that exclude her work the question of whether she belongs. The New Yorker will never publish her fiction, but a profile is another story. Weiner may not realize how flattering old media finds her attacks. In her, it has found someone whose cultural influence isn’t limited to literary New York, and yet who shares its belief that New York is the only town in the game. Aspirants validate establishments.

Weiner has a few things straight: she’s a commercial rather than a “literary” writer, and female writers of commercial fiction for women are perhaps the least-respected writers in America. They are definitely the least respected by the male-dominated New York houses and magazines. But in tracking the conversation about Weiner, it’s easy to forget that the most popular and lucrative genre of writing in the United States is commercial, female-dominated, and almost completely independent of New York.

Romance novelists, a group I write about in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine, only care about the New York Times Book Review insofar as they appear on its bestseller lists. In stark opposition to New York writers, they don’t worry about being un-literary. They consider the idea of literariness irrelevant to their project. Last August, at the Romance Novel Convention in Las Vegas, I met Angela Knight, a New York Times bestselling author of paranormal erotic romance, and when I asked whether she worried about being accepted by the literary establishment, she said plainly, “Fuck them.”

Good romance writers can earn a living without anyone in New York publishing knowing their names, because they publish and promote their work themselves. A traditional publishing house might give an author 25 percent of the net price on an e-book (meaning that if an outlet marks down your title, you get 25 percent of the discounted price). The e-book distributor Smashwords, by contrast, forbids outlets from discounting and returns 60 to 75 percent of the cover price to the author. The Amazon, Kobo, and Sony e-book stores offer similarly good rates.

Romance titles are priced low, usually around four or five dollars, which makes it easier to sell a lot of them. A known author, rolling with Facebook and Goodreads promotion, can move more than a thousand units daily on Smashwords alone. A 60 percent cut of two thousand $5 e-books is $6,000. If your book sells well for a week, you’ve made $42,000. Publish two books a year, a not-unusual pace for an e-book author, and you’ve earned $84,000 before taxes. And that’s just from Smashwords — because contracts with most e-book distributors are nonexclusive, you can sell through other distributors, too, so you may have comparable revenue coming from Kobo, Amazon, and others. And this is assuming you’re not a top-tier author. The writers in the winner’s circle, which in romance is big, can easily pull six or seven figures.

Jonathan Franzen has criticized Weiner for being self-promoting. Romance writers would find this criticism hilarious. They are, like Weiner, excellent marketers. HP Mallory, a writer who always wanted to drive a Land Rover and now does, has 35,000 likes on Goodreads and 8,700 Facebook fans. The Facebook pages she makes for her characters are equally popular. Mallory, along with writers like Bella Andre, Catherine Bybee, Barbara Freethy, Abbi Glines, Liliana Hart, Colleen Hoover, RL Mathewson, and Kirsty Moseley, have figured out how to turn their finely tuned genre writing into money. By self-publishing, they cut out the suits who once took cuts.

Why isn’t the literary industry paying attention to all of this? One reason — and I think Weiner would agree — is that romance is genre fiction, written almost exclusively by women. Self-styled literary readers don’t read books that wind up, as every romance does, with a happily-ever-after (an HEA, in the language of the genre).

But another reason is that romance novels haven’t been well served by the New York bookstores where the literary industry shops. For her 1984 book Reading the Romance, still the definitive study of the subject, Janice Radway had to travel to an all-romance bookstore in an anonymous Midwestern town in order to gather enough readers to anthropologize. Today, outside the purview of New York publishing’s sales and distribution, romance writers have found success with e-books and self-publishing. “What’s now becoming clear to everyone,” Smashwords founder Mark Coker told me, “is that romance was underserved by the traditional retail model.”

And that is where Goodreads and Facebook have come in, as well as message boards, author blogs, and mailing lists. Twitter, insufficiently direct and interactive, doesn’t hold sway in the romance world, where the only vital relationship is that between reader and writer. Critics and publishers don’t factor in at all.

In the annals of New York literary history, husbands who relied on their wives to be their scribes and editors are embarrassingly plentiful. Romance has inverted the model. Last year, the Novelists Inc. conference in Myrtle Beach featured a panel intended to teach the husbands of romance novelists how to be their wives’ assistants. “Five of the women there,” Brenda Hiatt, one of the panelists, said to me later, “their husbands have retired from their jobs.”

I should mention that most romance writers have very traditional marriages — at least until the wife starts writing. The man plies a middle- or upper-middle-class trade, and the woman works part-time or takes care of the kids. But a big royalty check has a way of altering a marriage contract.

You see a certain pattern: a husband who respects his wife’s success, knows he’s not her audience, and, not being a writer, evinces little anxiety about any of it. “Romance,” said Angela Knight, “is written by women, edited by women, sold by women, read by women.” The autonomy extends even into the marriage. Lynn Lorenz, who makes a good living writing gay erotica for women, told me that her family “loves the extra income; it’s bought us two cars, a new washer and dryer, dishwasher, microwaves, vacations.” Her husband, who works full-time, doesn’t read her books.

Successful commercial romance writers have economic power in their relationships and in the world. They have sales, fans, and control over the marketing of their product. Few of them see any reason to lose sleep over New York. Few even mention it in conversation. The literary industry is lucky Weiner is so pissed off at it. At least her anger is attention. And she’ll have a platform in the literary world as long as she keeps tweeting to her 81,000 followers that she isn’t taken as seriously as Franzen, because someone has to spread the news of the cultural relevance of the institutions that created him.

It’s not Weiner’s desire for inclusion that should scare New York. It’s the threat of her indifference.

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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