publishing industry

Learning to Love Romance: Crafting a Romance Anthology for Everyone

Robot Love

Here at Classically Educated, we enjoy discussing nearly all aspects of cultural life, but attentive readers will have noticed that we have a particular soft spot for literature.  For that reason, we are delighted to present today’s guest post, Written by  Elizabeth Hirst.  Elizabeth is a writer, editor and 3D animator from Hamilton, Ontario Canada. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop, Class of ’06, and a student of life.

The latest book she has published, Love, Time, Space, Magic, can be found here (print book) and here (ebook).  We hope you enjoy Elizabeth’s insight into the creation of the book as much as we did.

It was probably around May or June of last year when I first started tossing around the idea of doing an anthology with love as the central theme. My company, Pop Seagull Publishing, does a lot of conventions, street fairs and other community events, and a large share of our sales comes from hand selling and building relationships in the community. So, when my regulars tell me something that they want, I listen. And what I had been hearing, largely from my younger and middle-aged female customers was: “Do you have any Romance?” Clearly, a large portion of my target market was looking for love stories with sci-fi and fantasy elements.

It’s no surprise that my readers would be primed for these kinds of stories, considering the success of Twilight and other paranormal romance heavy-hitters in recent years. However, Pop Seagull, while being a company devoted to its readers, is still my company, and to be honest I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy. My longer work is mostly action and adventure, and I grew up with movies like Indiana Jones, Mulan, and Star Wars as my favourites. I’m much more interested in a trip through ghoul infested woods with only a shotgun, a dog, and an unreliable reporter than I am in the mushy stuff, most of the time.

Another potential roadblock on the way to Romance success is my other key demographic: young men in technology fields. The company has seen a lot of sales and support from these guys, who tend to love action, and sci fi, and humor. There’s a lot of overlap interest-wise between my male and female customers, especially when it comes to strong female characters and emphasis on strong character development and relationships. However, when I was envisioning a traditional Romance title, complete with buff naked people cuddling on the cover and formulaic plots featuring soft-core sex scenes, I just didn’t really see my typical male customers getting on board. Also, to be honest, I just didn’t think that releasing that kind of title accurately reflected me, or my mission for Pop Seagull.

Still, based on the amount of demand I was hearing from readers, if I wanted to take Pop Seagull to the next level with a really great anthology, I knew Romance might be the way to go. But, if I wanted a book to appeal to our reader base, it couldn’t be a typical Romance book. After some thought, I decided to open up the idea of romance a bit. I asked for stories based on the theme of love, with no prescription for the ending (it didn’t have to be happy) or the type of romance (it didn’t have to be consummated, or at least not ‘on screen’). As befits our company philosophy, the characters could also be of any sexual orientation. With these guidelines solidified, I stepped out on a limb, and opened up submissions.

Dragon Lover

With all of my anthologies thus far, I have left some wiggle room in the secondary themes and general feel of the work, to leave space for the ideas coming in. As I read through the first round of submissions and picked out those that I enjoyed, I noticed that many of them were high-emotion pieces where love was a powerful force involved in shaping the characters’ lives. Often, in the stories I chose, love ended up pitting itself against other titanic forces. Once I had assembled the first three or four stories, I had a secondary theme, and a title: Love, Time, Space, Magic.

More submissions poured in, and despite my initial reservations about Romance, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the volume, quality and variety of the work sent to me. So many of the stories brought a tear to my eye. So many more impressed me by being truly romantic and sentimental while still upholding other themes in a very small amount of space. In the end, after having reservations about the quantity and quality of work I would attract, I found that I was forced to turn away work I would otherwise have bought, because we had reached the end of our budget and space. We closed three months early, and I began the most time-consuming phase of production: layout and design.

Most editors do not do their own book design, but I, like many Canadians of my generation, have far too many degrees and far too few places to use them. And so, as I entered production, I found myself grappling with the question of how to make the cover and interior design signal ‘Romance’ without telling male readers that the book was not meant for them. For better or for worse, men in our culture have been socialized to feel that if they see a Romance cover, the book will only appeal to women and dwell on themes that often don’t interest men as much. Since I’d taken great pains to buy stories that anyone can enjoy, with plenty of action, science, alternate history and great world building, it would have been a terrible waste to design a cover that warded half of my customers away right off the bat. I thought about ways to blend the heralds of romance stories with the scientific, the historical and the strange.

My first inspiration came from my day job. I work for a medical non-profit, and often see pictures of cells, anatomical drawings and other such work. I think that these images contain great beauty, and seeing them led me to the idea of using an anatomically correct heart on the cover as a way of conveying both beauty and the complication of traditional romance tropes. I also love the use of flowing script and old manuscripts, and thought that using the texture of an old parchment manuscript would also convey the fantasy and historical elements of the stories I’d chosen. Naturally, when I put these two trains of thought together, I was led to Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. In my font, image, and texture choices, I tried to get as close to a Da Vinci manuscript as possible, while still keeping a modern flair.

The result was this:

Love, Time, Space, Magic Cover

I don’t think anyone would call this cover un-romantic, but there are still no airbrushed cuddling models or Fabio-esque guys with hair flowing in the wind. It appeals to both the emotional and the historical/scientific in its influences, and just generally catches the eye.

I first started on this anthology looking to better serve my core customer base, but through the challenges that ensued, and the wonderful work that I found to publish, I ended up with something that I really enjoyed working on. I think that Love, Time, Space, Magic is truly a Romance anthology for any gender, and diverse sexual orientations, and that makes it a thing of beauty. Through working on this book, I feel that I, and the contributing authors, have shown that Romance doesn’t have to fit a narrow conception of the genre, or a gendered concept of love, and I couldn’t be prouder to bring that message to the world.

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A New Model for the Publishing Business?

Underwood

As always, it seems that topics for this blog pop up in bunches.  After last week’s article about the problems the SF community is having with an invasion of political correctness activists, and our article of a couple of weeks ago about the way technology is finally making complete personalization possible (an article which even manages to plug our awesome coffee mug), we have one that combines the two, and also opens a more general discussion about how readers can go about choosing the right book to read in this era of excessive freedom of publication opportunities.

One of the arguments currently raging across the literary world (not just specific genres), is the validity of self-publishing.  It’s an argument that has created heated, emotional discussion with former friends declaring their hatred for each other.  If this were the middle ages as opposed to our milquetoast modern era, people would be picking up swords and building trebuchets over this.

The arguments that say that self-publishing is a positive thing essentially have to do with the fact that it is often extremely difficult for new voices to break into the traditional publishing model, and that affordable self-publishing immediately allows people to bypass a system that many see as broken.  Additionally, SP’s proponents argue, a greater proportion of the profit goes to the creator in the SP model.  In general, proponents tend to celebrate the everyman and democratic nature of the system as well.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 11.08.55 AM

The arguments against self-publishing, on the other hand, generally tend to focus on quality and the need for gatekeepers.  The strongest argument, of course, is essentially “the fact that everyone can write a book in no way implies that everyone should“.  Anyone who has ever been a first reader of manuscripts or a teacher of creative writing grading papers will be nodding vigorously at this point.  Most of the work written on this planet should have been prohibited by law from ever being produced.  It is truly, horribly, unimaginably bad, and that badness is being foisted on unsuspecting readers by the self-published millions.  Most rejected manuscripts aren’t misunderstood – they are utter crap.  I’m not talking about “Stephanie Meyer bad” or “Dan Brown bad”.  Brown and Meyer are professional writers who can create sentences, stories, characters and tension – even if their style rubs people the wrong way sometimes.  I’m talking about truly bad.

The second argument is that, even seasoned pros need editing, and they need a third party to edit their books.  In fact one of the main reasons bestselling authors have declines is quality is because they become powerful and get edited less and less as their careers go on.  Self-published books are usually edited by the author, who – even in the unlikely event that he is a decent writer – probably has the editing skills of a chipmunk.

And let’s not even get started on the usual level of art and cover design that self-publishing “distinguishes” itself by. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch.

So a reader is faced with a conundrum.  It’s clear that there must be diamonds waiting out there among the huge numbers  of independent writers’ work, but how does one go about finding them?  How to avoid falling into the inevitable traps predicted by Sturgeon’s Law in a field that hasn’t got gatekeepers removing the really bad stuff?

Science Fiction Sampler

A group of science fiction authors seems to have come up with a great idea (which is unsurprising as Science Fiction is supposed to be the literature of ideas, right?).  Eighteen writers who knew each other’s work because they’d been published in diverse traditional publications banded together to create an ebook “sampler” which can be downloaded free  on B&N and Kobo (currently listed on Amazon at $0.99, but they assure me that this price will be lowered to zero soon!).  This ebook allows readers to read work by any of these authors before deciding to plunk down their hard-earned cash on one of the books these writers have for sale.

It seems a brilliant, no-risk solution allowing readers to expose themselves to several different voices before making a purchasing decision.

Of course, this won’t solve everyones problems. This collection was created by a group of authors and editors that have been published repeatedly in traditional publications, and are all proven commodities (plus they clearly have access to a professional artist and cover designer).  A quick google search for any of the names will show that they are polished professionals who probably didn’t need that much of a push.  More than a search for new talent, this one seems to be a menu for people who want the latest from the up-and-coming writers in the field (list of the writers involved:  Brad R. Torgersen, Jeffrey Thomas, Martin L. Shoemaker, Larry K. Pinaire, Konstantine Paradias, Geoff Nelder, M.O. Muriel, Roderick MacDonald, David Kernot, Patty Jansen, Guy Immega, Kevin Ikenberry, Mark Iles, Stephen Gaskell, Kary English, David Conyers, Gustavo Bondoni)

But maybe it’s a way forward, a business model which will allow new writers to reach their audience and for readers to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff without having to buy stuff to do so – at least until a new system of gatekeepers or reviewers which can handle the huge volume comes into being.  There are signs of that, but there is still nothing like walking into a bookstore and pulling a book off the shelf for ensuring quality writing and production values.  It will be fun to see how this evolves.

 

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