Fifty Shades of Success


Five years ago, D.C. attorney Robin Covington (not her real name), then 40, told her lawyer hubby she was going to sit down and write a romance novel, something she’d talked about doing forever. Rather romantically, he offered to buy her any laptop she wanted if she completed the manuscript. That was her single goal, to finish the damn thing.

“My first novel was a romance about a soap opera actress and a cop,” Covington says. (Like many romance genre authors, her regal pen name is devised both for personal protection and dramatic enhancement.) “I finished it in six months. It was bad!”

But Covington, now 45, was infatuated with the genre and wanted to keep writing, so she did some research and joined the Maryland chapter of Romance Writers of America, or MRW, where she fell at first sight for the professional women she encountered and said yes! to an assortment of writing workshops and a cracking peer critique exchange.

“When you go to the monthly MRW group meeting and say, ‘I got another rejection’ and you’re sitting next to a New York Times best-seller, who says, ‘I got 150 rejections,’ you feel better,” Covington says.

“We want to encourage people, that’s the whole point,” says MRW President Christi Barth, 44, a prolific Harlequin author by night, who works in advancement at MICA by day. Barth publishes under her real name, incidentally, though she says she doesn’t broadcast her second career at MICA. Two of her Harlequin/ Carina Press novels, “Love on the Boardwalk” and “Love at High Tide,” happen to feature a pair of Ocean City buddy cops.

“Writing romance is a very solitary profession. You’re sitting on your couch working till 2 in the morning,” Barth says. “We start every meeting by having writers—there are 82 members, 80 of whom are female—go around the room and share news. ‘Did you submit a query letter? Did you get a request for a partial manuscript? A full?’ Every month, people clap, even if you got a rejection.”

Inevitable rejections aside, MRW authors seem to feel the group love and find it easier to keep plugging away at their craft.

In 2014 alone, Covington will publish seven novels. She self-published “Temptation,” her second in the New Adult category (books for and about early 20-somethings)—making what she calls “really good money” for it. She had already published six novels through Entangled Covet, a paranormal romance subgenre imprint.

The two other central subgenres in this market are contemporary and historical romance, but each contains many subsets. Highlands romance, for example, dwells in historical, while werewolves and fantasy are subsets of the paranormal realm. “Mature” romance, within the contemporary category, cooks up saucier love scenes than most. The list continues…

While she’s not a best-seller and hasn’t quit her successful day job—“We like vacations and I want to pay for most of my kids’ college,” she says—Covington’s story is an undeniably successful one. She’s currently working on a new romance series set in Fells Point and recently signed with a literary agent she met via a fellow novelist.

Happy endings (hey, don’t interpret that dirtily) aren’t uncommon for hardworking writers in the sizzling romance genre, the industry that in 2013 raked in $1.08 billion, second only in total sales to the thriller genre’s $1.09 billion, and bankrolls ahead of literary fiction’s $548 million.

Eighty-four percent of romance authors in this country are women, 16 percent men, and they range in age from 30 to 54. Average income from writing: $55,000. (One author interviewed confessed to earning just shy of seven figures since she started publishing in 2011.) Fifty-one percent of romance books are paperbacks; 38 percent are e-books (which sometimes go to print when sales sky-rocket); 10 percent are hardcover; and 1 percent are audio.

The longtime lucrative genre is also notoriously ahead of its time in terms of publishing strategies and consumer responsiveness.

“Romance is always on the leading edge of publishing,” says Owings Mills-based romance, paranormal and historical romance novelist Stephanie Dray, 43, one of those best-seller-types in the MRW. (Note: Dray is her real name; she’s Stephanie Draven when she writes straight romance.) “We’re about three years ahead of every other genre in marketing and the algorithms of Amazon, packaging, trends, social media. Romance writers are more willing to engage and share information with one another—and their very clued-in readers are more likely to follow them online.

“When romance writers self-publish they know what they’re doing,” Dray explains. “For a book about a ménage à trois, maybe you’ve got two men and a woman on the cover. But where the woman is tells the readers what kind of [relationship] they have. If she’s off to the side, the two men are involved with each other; if she’s in the middle she’s the star. Romance readers know this. General fiction is harder to classify and to market.”

Of course, there’s another key element at play in this billion-dollar killing spree. “Fifty Shades of Grey”—the E.L. James novel originally published as an e-book by an Australian press, The Writer’s Coffee Shop, and quickly sent to print by Random House—figures heavily in the feel-so-good story. And with the   much-hyped “Fifty Shades” movie coming out on Feb. 13, the impact of James’ titillating series on the market is poised to surge anew.

“‘Fifty Shades’ created a rather rabid readership,” says best-selling Annapolis-based novelist Laura Kaye. “The book mainstreamed the genre where the sexual journey of the characters is the defining plot element.”
“The marketplace started validating their choice—these books used to be stuck in the back,” Covington adds.

“‘Fifty Shades’ has been instrumental in bringing attention to not only the romance genre, but erotic romance as well,” says Eliza Knight, an MRW author based in Mount Airy, and Dray’s regular writing buddy at the Panera in Eldersburg, where the two share breakfast, lunch and long, quiet word-churning stints side by side.

Though Dray is one of the heavier hitting best-sellers at the meetings—she works as a novelist full time—she comes off as egalitarian and supportive of her fellow writers as can be. (Note to self: Read Dray’s “In Bed with the Opposition,” published by Entangled, a romance about a Maryland political campaign, based on William Donald Schaefer.)

Several years ago, when Kaye, new to MRW, asked Dray if she would read her first novella, “Hearts in Darkness”—the story of an extremely appealing man and woman trapped in an elevator during a blackout—Dray trusted her instincts and agreed. Kaye, 44, who writes erotic thrillers, paranormal romance and more, has published a whopping 18 books since 2011. Fun local note: Her feisty, frisky “Hard Ink” series—yep, set in a tattoo parlor—features one heroine who resides in Patterson Park.

Today Kaye and Dray (forgive the rhyme) are collaborating on a straight historical novel about Thomas Jefferson’s influential eldest daughter, Patsy, whose dad wrote her no less than 30,000 letters. (Imagine how much more email he might have sent.)

At a time when literary publishing is working through intense growing pains, redefining itself in the face of new technologies and consequentially publishing fewer unknown writers—for less money— it’s been downright inspiring for this fiction writer to speak to an assortment of motivated Maryland scribes. In fact, their positive energy is a turn-on.

Romancers seem to have the crazy-making, procrastination-inducing novel-writing game figured out. Not only do they support one another through the lonely writing nights, take each other to task on their deadlines and goals and offer honest critical feedback that evidently works, they also churn out the bleeping pages.

“My daily goal is 3,000 words,” says Kaye, who left a tenured associate professor of history position at the Naval Academy when her romance books started taking off.

“I try to write at least 10 pages a day,” says Covington like it’s nothing. And that’s coming from a full-time lawyer. (Reader, how’s your “to do” list looking right now?)

“When I first started, I didn’t expect to find such intellectual powerhouses in the romance genre,” Dray notes. “These are educated and talented women.”

Even powerhouse Dray, a graduate of Smith, hits a creative wall now and then. Why? It’s not always easy to write a sex scene, and since the 1950s, steamy love scenes remain the emotional heart of every romantic story’s structure. They show the characters’ vulnerability. Therefore, they need to be utterly believable. And lustily engrossing.

“I will often write a book and skip the sex scenes and put them in a bracket and say sex scene goes here,” Dray says. “One time I got help from Christi Barth—I told her I hated my scene. ‘I’m so bored!’ She said, ‘Well, what if he takes his tie and blah, blah, blah’…and the next thing you know I’m able to write it!”

Another thing the romance writers do right: They ignore the literary snobs who love to gab and jab about how formulaic romance writing can be. Barth, who has taught romantic fiction writing at CCBC, admits that the genre has its familiar tropes by necessity—they’re user-friendly elements that the readers come to expect… and even crave.

“They say there are only seven stories in the world,” Barth says. “I like to think of it more as a skeleton: boy meets girl; boy loses girl; somebody falls in love; they encounter a problem! But you have to find your voice. That’s everything.”

Andy Palmer, 44, an MRW member and beginning romance writer who has already set a goal to publish two books in 2015, agrees. Palmer, one of the two male members of the association, was Barth’s creative writing student.

The Baltimore County resident plans to place his real name on his subgenre romance books, a fantasy and a paranormal, the latter set in Baltimore and featuring a pack of UMBC students.

“Good stories are about good characters, and good characters require goals,” Palmer says. “The romantic theme is not only timeless but agnostic, existing anywhere people are.”

Does Palmer ever feel like the odd man out in a bustling group of romance-writing women? Does he feel intimidated trying to gain ground in his female-dominated genre of choice? As a straight male among sex-styling vixens, does he have to try not to turn red?

“I see it as an opportunity,” Palmer says, businesslike to his core, “to show that your typical guy knows romance, too, but also to give a male perspective on things. And the MRW has welcomed me with open arms.”

Open arms, eh, Andy? Hey, these people are pro writers, so I’m not going to make any more jokes. Who knows, someday I might even try my own hand at the hot-heavy genre. (Insert easy joke at my expense!)

In Lust with Romance: Maryland Fans Confess

“I read the erotic cowboy genre to make up for my ‘vanilla’ husband! Think drug cartels and rough loving…BDSM [bondage and discipline/sadomasochism]. I can get lost in the fantasy—I have to force myself to go to sleep. Just one more chapter!” —Jennifer Deets, 36

“I have been reading romance for four years. It gives me a sense of peace that all is right in the world when things are going wrong. I love reading mysteries and thrillers, but erotic paranormal is my favorite. —Jacquie Johnson, 62

“Just because romance novels are geared toward women and have happy endings, they’re often belittled as ‘trash’. This drives me CRAZY! The historicals must be very accurate because fans do their own research and demand authenticity. Smart women do read romance. —Gayle Economos, 60

I’m a die-hard fan—so much so that I’ve gone from a stay-at-home mom to a self-published romance writer. My first book has gotten as high as No. 8 in New Adult on Amazon. —Laura Rosner Ward, 37

“I love Laura Kaye’s work: I feel that she puts her heart and soul into her books— they are sexy, romantic and emotional. Yes, I read in public—I’m not really concerned about what people might think!” —Carolyn Johnson, 58

How the Pros Write S-E-X

“Sex scenes are vulnerable for the characters and the author—they’re my favorite. I write at the end of my 22-foot closet. I have a window! I’ll sit and listen to music; I can close the door. It’s helpful to be out of the traffic from the house.” –Robin Covington

“I only write a sex scene by mixing a single white Russian and not getting up till it’s done.” –Christi Barth

“I save them for a moment when I’m feeling it. Otherwise I guess you’d have to put on some Marvin Gaye and pour some wine.”–Stephanie Dray

“It’s a bit of a seduction for myself. Since I tend to write pretty sizzling, detailed scenes, I need to really see it. There’s a lot of mechanics to writing a love scene—not just with making sure the hero doesn’t have three hands, but also with adding in the emotion and conflict. Every sexy/love scene has to mean something. It has to drive the story forward.” –Eliza Knight

“An erotic scene is the most difficult to write if you’re sick or tired or in a bad mood. It’s difficult to not end up writing: ‘They were too tired to have sex so they just went to bed.’” –Laura Kaye

They pressed closer, held tighter, kissed more deeply until all Crystal knew, all that existed in the world, was this moment, this place, this man. Shane’s hands moved over her body. Fisting in the long lengths of her hair. Gently cupping her breasts. Stroking her bare thighs. Crystal adored the way he seemed to need to touch her. How powerful and necessary human touch was. How life-giving and affirming. And how simply mind-blowing was it to discover that touch could be a giving thing, not just about taking, that touch could be healing, and not just about hurting, that touch could comfort, and not just exert control. Even when things had been better with Bruno, they’d never been like this.

– From “Hard As You Can” By Laura Kaye


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