What Romance Novelists Can Teach Us About Pleasing a Tough Audience

When I was in college, my favorite writing professor told us romance novelists have exceptionally difficult jobs. The students around me rolled their eyes. Most were hoping to write a moody, allegorical novel at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the comparison felt like an insult. What do romance paperbacks have to do with great writing? Some woman is betrothed to a man she doesn’t like, and she spots a brooding, muscular guy who works on a farm—that’s it, right?

My professor explained it this way: Imagine if everything you ever wrote, from a sales pitch to a marketing newsletter to a novel chapter, had to be read by an audience of persnickety experts in your field. Readers who habitually enjoy romance paperbacks don’t have patience for a milquetoast protagonist or an overdone setting on a pirate ship.

The romance genre, as several novelists told me, can be broken down into hundreds of sub-genres, each with their own outspoken, passionate fans. Whether you’re writing romance through speculative sci-fi, historical, high fantasy, or the often-maligned paranormal (most people think Twilight first), the writer constantly battles to keep the audience engaged. If not, readers can easily set your work aside and pick up one of the thousands of options created by your competitors.

If you’re in the business of content, an oversaturated market for attention might sound familiar. Romance readers tend to tear through one book per week, and Harlequin Books alone publishes 120 new romance novels per month. So how do romance writers succeed?

Defy audience expectations right away

Maria Vale, author of the romance series The Legend of All Wolves, began her first book by immediately pushing against tropes. Cognizant of joining the crowded canon of paranormal romance, Vale said, “I wanted the reader to say, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen this before.'” Since she wanted to tell a story about werewolves, she began with an alpha female, rather than a domineering male character.

In fact, Vale said powerful women in romance have become increasingly popular in recent years. “Nothing bothers a modern romance writer more than that phrase ‘bodice ripper,'” Vale said. “People make Fabio jokes too. First of all, bodice ripping is a romance trope from the 1970s, and Fabio was from the ’80s, so both points are outdated. Second, romance readers have been talking about consent for a long, long time.”

“So what’s an author to do? We have to make readers care.”

In another corner, Stacey Keith, author of Kensington Books’ Dreams Come True series, said she rejected the pattern of giving a heroine a gaggle of lesser female sidekicks. “You know the ones—they’re besties with the heroine, but for various reasons they aren’t ‘contenders’ in the romantic field,” she explained. “They’re never as attractive as the heroine, and I think that’s a mistake. It’s important to show women being friends, supporting each other, without cattiness or simmering rivalries (unless they’re part of the plot).”

If any other professional can identify with industry tropes worth ignoring, it would be the marketer. The field is full of annoying jargon, stale stock photos, and generic blog posts that never seem to go anywhere. Just taking time to think about what you can to do to stand out before you start your next piece of content or campaign will put you ahead of the masses.

Respect the formula (to a degree)

Of course, no matter how inventive romance authors want to be, they would never toss out the entire genre. Adriana Anders, author of the best-selling Blank Canvas series, enjoys sprinkling some tried-and-true methods throughout her romance novels. “I have favorite tropes—forced proximity high amongst them, followed closely by enemies-to-lovers,” she explained. It behooves a creator, then, to find balance between cliches and old favorites. After all, first kisses happen in the rain for a reason.

Keith, meanwhile, toys with antiquated tropes by making modern edits. “There’s been a lot of buzz lately around the issue of virginal heroines,” she says. “As a writer and as a feminist, I certainly agree that no woman should be defined by her sexual status. Yet I do have a virginal heroine in Dream Lover […] because the character herself rebels against the whole good girl/bad girl stereotype.”

You might be wondering, “What do romance heroines have to do with my content strategy?” That’s a fair question. Consider, though, how Keith assessed industry buzz, internalized the conversation happening between writers and readers, and ultimately made a bold choice in her content. By choosing an old style that has recently been questioned and examined by her contemporaries, Keith understood how to offer her audience enough of what it expected.

That’s an easy lesson for content creators of all stripes. Try to find your place somewhere between following proven tactics and making a big splash. If you only produce long how-to blog posts, you’ll burn out your audience and run out of things to say. At the same time, publishing a ton of short aggregated articles with news that someone else broke will leave you with an output that’s digestible but forgettable. Formulas exist as a guide, but you can’t abandon them entirely or adhere to them religiously if you want to stand out.

Don’t try to reach everyone

Each of the romance novelists I talked to stressed how knowing the audience added value to their artistic process and overall productivity. These women are aware, of course, of the people from my college workshop who roll their eyes at prolific romance writers who can churn out a novel a year. They understand that no matter what they do, some readers and writers won’t care.

It’s not always easy to accept that realization, but when you stop trying to reach everyone, it’s easier to build loyalty with an audience. For brands, in particular, there will always be naysayers who believe content marketing inherently lacks depth or quality—just because it’s marketing. However, there are still plenty of people who can appreciate your work if you commit to educating and entertaining them.

“No one wants to be ‘sold to’ anymore,” Vale said. “No one wants to have your book rudely thrust in their face. So what’s an author to do? We have to make readers care.”

All of this is to say: Develop a plan. Have a strategy. Document it, if you can. Like a romance novelist, you should feel supported by all the data that’s behind you when you sit down to write. In fact, developing a content strategy is about as obvious a choice as a heroine picking between the wealthy-but-mean guy and the penniless-but-funny guy. You always pick the funny guy—everyone knows that.

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