Warning: This is a no-edit zone…
About six months before the first Bombshell novel was released, I started bombshellauthors.com and began promoting the line. I was positively thrilled that action-packed novels with female protagonists who were adventurous, smart and savvy had found a home. As a reader, I was elated. As a writer, I was beyond elated because these were my favorite of all books to read. Lots of suspense and thriller elements, a little romance–all my favorite things. And so the adventure began…
Yesterday, Harlequin/Silhouette announced that it had made a difficult financial decision. One to cease publishing Bombshells as of January 2007.
The books just didn’t find their readership. With the success of movies doing the same thing, I’m still convinced it isn’t the stories. I could be totally wrong, but I believe the missed connection between reader and book stems from issues to do with marketing. I do NOT say that pointing fingers, as you’ll see if you read on, but in an attempt to understand what’s happened to this reader and writer’s beloved books.
Bombshell was the first single-title non-romance novels to be published in category romance format. The books were marketed as a line (HQ worked hard to establish line identity), sold as a line (bookseller recognition, wholesaler recognition of the story type), and shelved as a line (end-buyer recognition of a story type). Branding. And that’s all good, solid stuff that strongly supports the need to make the books identifiable to each person in each position along the way in the process from publisher to reader.
Where, I believe, Bombshell suffered the missed connection was that they were marketed as not being romance novels but were shelved with category romance, where reader expectations are that the books will be category romance. Being the first action/adventure line of books for women and being shelved with category romance sent conflicting messages to those in the process from publisher to reader and created a marketing challenge. Category romance readers expected category romance. And action/adventure for women readers (a la Lara Croft) didn’t look for or expect to find action/adventure for women in the category romance section on book shelves.
It was a difficult dilemma and marketing, I’m sure, spent countless hours and much effort trying to resolve the challenges presented. But when one considers that many, if not most, of these type novels are sold at superstores and similar places where the shelves are stocked by non-readers (versus being hand-sold by informed booksellers), one must acknowledge that the challenge was a steep one with no easy solution.
Why do I think this was Bombshell’s biggest obstacle?
The content of the novels was strong. In the two years the novels have been eligible for RITA awards, four of them have been nominated for awards in four different categories. In the year my BODY DOUBLE was nominated, it was the only “category” novel in the Finals, competing against mainstream and single-title romantic suspense. That year, a Bombshell novel won the RITA in Mainstream with a Romantic Element. This year, a Bombshell also won a RITA. Who better knows content than writers? And writers nominate and select the winners of RITA awards. Bombshells have also won numerous Reviewer’s Choice Awards, (mine included), and have gotten strong, positive reviews from credible, respected reviewers. Fan mail has been abundant and overwhelmingly positive. My conclusion? The content of the books has been solid.
The covers of the novels have been strong. The artists who worked on Bombshell novels were positively inspired. They created eye-catching, content-specific covers that fit not just the physical aspects of the book’s events, but also conveyed the tone and a strong emotional sense of the books. That’s difficult to do, but they pulled it off. The (packaging) covers have been solid.
It’s said that if readers see a cover they like, they pick up the book. They read a bit of the back blurb. If their interest is still held, they’ll crack open the book and read the first couple lines. If that still has their interest, they’ll buy the book. Bombshells didn’t favor slow lead-ins. The openings stood strong.
And so in trying to figure out what was going wrong with my beloved Bombshells, I weighed the facets–the things that encourage readers to buy and the elements of the books, and in my eyes, I’ve systematically ticked off all the items on my checklist except that action/adventure novel readers don’t typically look for action/adventure novels–for women or men (and I have to say I get as much fan mail from men as I do from women)–in category romance sections of bookstores or on superstore shelves.
So what began for me as a checklist to see what happened, ended with this conclusion. I am well aware of how difficult a job a publisher has at marketing in general. And when marketing something new and different–which Bombshell was–the challenge doubles.
My exercise to determine how, with so much right, things could go wrong, led me a couple conclusions. The main lessons I’ll take forth with me are these:
1. Reader expectation is sacred. Do not disappoint them. If you’re shelved in category romance, then be category romance. That’s where category romance readers go to find you, and what they expect to get when they do.
2. Branding is a long-term proposition. Mind-sets aren’t created in day (without a broad-based crises driving them) and they won’t be changed in a day. If you set out to change them, don’t expect a sprint. It’s a long-distance run, all uphill, and you’ve got to stay intensely focused and dedicated to making that change to move through that course from launch to stabilization to firmly entrenched.
3. My hat is off to Harlequin/Silhouette for their willingness to take on bold new projects. The normal challenges, which are significant, are compounded by the special challenges that are added when bold new projects are also being marketed in a new way that requires changing long-established mind-sets on expectations. The degree of difficulty earns extra points because heaven knows it requires tons of extra effort.
4. Do I blame Harlequin/Silhouette for trying to market Bombshells in category? Heck, no. It had a choice: to market where it had competition (single title/mainstream) or where it didn’t (category). Given the choice, which would you choose? The target audience was women, and category readers are predominately women. The call had merit. Because it was a new attempt at interjecting non-romance into category, there was no way to accurately predetermine reader reaction. Harlequin’s branding success, I think, actually hurt them on this. Their branding was so strong on their category novels being romance, others had a hard time making the shift to non-romance being in category. That’s bad news for Bombshell, but it’s good news for Harlequin insofar as their other lines of category romance are concerned. Readers know their brand well.
5. Course adjustments are always required. This, like all the rest I’ve posted here, is strictly my opinion and my observations. I do think that the publisher recognized the strength of the category romance brand and attempted to shift to meet the reader expectations inherent to it–and editorial reflected it, asking authors to “pump up” the romance, so to speak in the novels. But, you know, we humans are resistant to change. Those who were familiar with the novels and supported them, wanted them to continue to be as they had been. And those who had tried them, with category romance expectations and had been disappointed because they weren’t category romance, had already tried them and made their call that they weren’t what they wanted. Which leads me to the conclusion that the only thing harder than establishing a bold new line is changing a bold new line after you’ve established it. Not an easy task, this. And definitely not for the feint hearted.
There have been other lessons and conclusions, of course. But these are the thrust of the main ones. I loved the promise of these books enough to promote the line half a year before it launched. I loved the books. And I won’t lie and say it isn’t heartbreaking to see the result of so much effort by so many being to watch the line close. It is heartbreaking.
But then it really should be heartbreaking, or one shouldn’t have invested his or her life in it in the first place. Of all our assets, our lives are our greatest treasure. Far too precious to waste on something that can’t break our hearts.
So with the announcement that Bombshell will cease publication, do I regret the effort I made? Not a bit. The experience has been a grand adventure and an enlightening journey. One well worth the effort and in which I’ve enjoyed many, many rewards.
Yesterday morning, I received the announcement about the line ceasing publication in Jan. 2007. Yesterday afternoon, I received notice that BULLETPROOF PRINCESS, my February Bombshell, had been nominated for a Reviewer’s Choice Award. About half a dozen Bombshell novels are on the award’s nominations list. Some would say that’s a cruel twist of fate. Proof that cessation was the wrong decision. I say what a privilege it is to have worked with so many gifted authors under editorial I respect and admire, and what a gift it is to see so many of the works honored.
I opened my email this morning and in it were two notes of special interest:
1. “You wrote for Signature and it shut down. You wrote for Bombshell and it shut down. Please tell me you’re not going to write for __________. I can’t afford to be unemployed.”
That blank was filled in with the name of a specific line, also at Harlequin/Silhouette.
When I stopped laughing–it took awhile, I confess–I offered the sender my assurance that I don’t intend to write for her line–and advised her that if she was going to be in this business for any length of time, she needed to realize that we’re all unemployed at times, particularly if we’re driven to taking risks, pushing the envelope and stepping onto trains that are bound for new adventures. I’ve made a career of that and I absolutely do not regret it or resent the times of being unemployed one bit. In them, are opportunities for expansion and tackling new things. That gets the adrenaline pumping. Makes me eager to get up and going in the morning. I welcome what comes next, and I’m reaching out to see what it is and to embrace it.
But even for those who prefer a steadier course, my best advice would be to expect the unexpected. This is a dynamic business and change is what keeps it from stagnating. Over the years, many lines (and imprints) have come and gone. Old gives way to new. Experiments are tried. And that makes flexibility a very serious asset for writers, who must grow and change or become stagnant, too.
2. “Ouch. You took a chance on two new lines and both of them are gone now. I guess you’ve sworn off writing for new lines for good.”
Again, I had to laugh. No, not even close. When I started writing, I set one rule:
Never write a book you don’t love. I’ve kept that promise to myself, and I’ve truly loved every single book I’ve written. Often, for different reasons, but they’re all loved.
That’s empowering. It’s a different way of judging success, I suppose, but it’s the most significant way to me. You see, I’m very appreciative of my life. Very appreciative. I don’t want to waste a second of it. So I’m certainly not going to spend a nanosecond writing something I don’t love. Because I don’t, I find a contentment in my work that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Contentment. Not for what a work can earn, or for awards it can win, though I’m grateful for both. Contentment in the work itself. If you’re content in the work, and by your own standards, the work is purpose-driven, then it’s fulfilling. Content and fulfilling. Now what is the value of that?
To me, plenty. It’s the measure of success. So to think about this and then say, no, I’ll never write for a new line again, would be a ridiculous statement for me to make. Signature didn’t make it, but HER PERFECT LIFE is a book I dearly love. Of my books, it’s my most favorite. Bombshell didn’t make it, but I love my WAR GAMES mini-series and each and every book in it. Now, if I hadn’t taken a shot on the new Signature and Bombshell lines, look what I’d have missed!
And who knows what bold new possibilities are coming? Maybe today… Maybe tomorrow… Each dawn brings new possibilities and new potential. Now wouldn’t it be silly of me to declare “new” off-limits when I know so well that if I’m approached and my imagination fires, the first words out of my mouth are going to be, “I’m in!”
I love the Bombshell novels. Strong, smart women who go for the gold and take care of business. We need these kind of role-models. These kinds of ethics and integrity and guts–and inspirations!
Call me a dreamer, but I’m betting some smart publishing cookie is going to do some critical analysis and conclude that she knows how to make the premise work. (Think single title forum!) And she’s going to put her conviction into a plan, act on it, commit to it, and watch it become wildly successful.
I’m betting on that–as a reader, and a writer. As both, I know publishing has a lot of smart cookies, so the odds of me being right on this are heavily weighted in my favor…
And that’s what’s on my mind this morning….
HER PERFECT LIFE
THE COMMON SENSE GUIDE FOR WRITERS