Ageism, Publishing, and the Notion of Reading Down

During the recent Romance Writers of Australia conference, this year titled Love in Isolation, I had to opportunity to ask Liz Pelletier, Editor and CEO of Entangled Publishing, how the company’s August imprint was going. August, if you are not aware, is an imprint aimed at Gen-Xers, with “older characters in their 40s”. It was launched in 2018. Kudos galore to Entangled for launching this line when other publishers outright ignore the consumer base of Gen-Xers, Boomers, and those beyond in favour of adhering to the stagnant tradition of keeping female leads young whilst courting younger readers. Hooray for an imprint that is specifically aimed at 40-somethings. Hooray for a publisher picking up on readers looking for Seasoned Romance. However, As happy as Entangled’s August made me when it launched, there were several troubling things that Liz mentioned in her reply to my question about how the line fared in 2020. The August imprint does not, as Liz said, “release many titles.” She also said that there “aren’t that many authors who want to write older characters,” but then she followed up that statement by emphasising that August books “don’t sell as well as predicted based on the number of authors who were begging for this genre because, it turns out, everybody still kind of reads down,” meaning readers read younger characters.

First, I’ll unpack the “everybody still kind of reads down” statement. Romance (and most genre fiction) readers read ‘down’ for one huge reason: the overwhelming number of lead characters in romance are in their twenties. The vast majority of romance novels produced and published every year feature heroines who are young, as in 39 and under. It’s hard to find a romance novel where this is not the norm. The norm means people are going to read down since the young heroine is what continues to be produced and published.

Next, any author will tell you discovery is hard. There are times discovery is tricky for readers too. Romance readers looking for older main characters often find it frustrating when there is no clear keyword to use when searching for the books they want. Search terms like older couples, older women and romance, middle-aged women and romance, and silver fox women seldom lead to romance novels with seasoned main characters. BISAC codes, that is the standard coding system used by many companies, such as Amazon, to categorise books based on topical content uses this classification for romance fiction with older main characters : FIC027380 FICTION / Romance / Later in Life, but that code seldom leads directly to what you want or to what you expect when you do a book search on Amazon. More vexing is how an imprint like August says it’s targeting Gen X readers, yet doesn’t release many titles. Since its 2018 launch, there have been 10 August titles, but only 9 are listed on the website, and are not easy to find if you aren’t aware of Entangled and its August line. Have you heard of August? I bet you haven’t. There hasn’t been much mention of the imprint anywhere since it’s launch, except for my occasional mention of it in various posts made here, and in comments after I did guest bits on review sites like All About Romance.

Finally, yes, I admit there are authors who have been begging, and continue to beg, for an imprint like August, authors, besides me, who have been pushing for Seasoned Romance, mature romance, later in life romance, whatever you want to call it, because we know there is an audience. Many romance authors who “are begging” for more imprints like August are also romance READERS who are tired of not seeing themselves represented in fiction, tired of being shut out of a beloved genre, tired of reading down. What I really fail to understand is why a publisher would use the number of authors begging for the genre as a demographic for predicting how well an imprint would sell when it is the readers who matter.

Remember how I asked if you’ve heard of August? I ran a poll on the Seasoned Romance Facebook reader group, which has a 3K+ membership. I asked reader members if they were aware of the Entangled’s August line. The response was a rather resounding “nope.”

I am not a professional in market research and advertising, but I am not blind to the practice or blind to the population base that is trickle-fed crumbs, or more often completely overlooked as even being a demographic. Case in point, the readers of the Seasoned Romance Facebook group are a ready-made test group for market research, yet romance publishers do not appear to include the group in any sort of market research. Companies, tend to seek out the youth market. They see anything outside the young dollar as a risk. This risk aversion is the mindset of marketing, of so much advertising, and why August releases so few titles with the excuse –-and it is an excuse—that readers read down.

I take umbrage with the idea of reading down. If you have come across my posts before, I have suggested that publishers deceive themselves by only courting younger readers without realising those younger will one day be older readers. Romance readers tend to be life-long romance readers. Older readers tend to have more disposable income. The belief in the tradition of presenting younger main characters is just that, a tradition. It is vital to note, that, whether you are a Millennial pushing 40, Gen X, a Boomer, or a Silent Gen reader, whether you read science fiction, crime, mystery, or romance novels it is readers who need to let publishers know what they want or else nothing will ever change. Cis, het, white romance with young heroines will remain the staple, the tradition. We can discuss how we need diverse romance, talk about inclusion, and still leave age representation and ageism out of the conversation since romance has a tradition of romance being a younger woman’s tale. Traditions can be lovely, but they can also be rabidly prescriptive and immeasurably narrow-minded. Some traditions, like keeping romance heroines young, can lead to and perpetuate age stereotypes and lack of representation, to the impression that people over the age of 40 do not have sex, that women over 40, especially women who happen to have grandchildren, do not have sex, and even if they did no one would want to read about them because granny sex is gross. Do you want to let a publisher decide for you, to allow a publisher to cling to a notion that is set in stone and denies you representation? Is it really reasonable when a publisher suggests you read down? Are you happy to accept the misconception that there are not many authors writing older lead couples in romance or writing older female leads in other genres?

I write older leads; my books have female protagonists who are aged 40+ and they are paired with men of a similar age. My romantic suspense spy thriller mystery In Service series, is indie published. I chose to go indie for several reasons, but what really kicked me into deciding to go indie with the books was an agent rejection I received saying the forty-something hero was great, but a heroine just 5 years older than the hero, wasn’t ideal for romantic suspense, ideal meaning she was ‘too old’. I had enough of the sexist ageism. Authors struggle with embedded ageism when they submit seasoned romance novels to publishers of romance, they are turned away, told to make their heroines younger, told they won’t sell well. How can they sell well, or sell at all, when It’s a struggle to get released, even by an imprint which is aimed 40-somethings, an imprint that gets little to no marketing push because most readers “read down”, meaning it’s not worth the attention. The International Institute for Analytics’ Robert Morison talks about the need to keep ageism out of analytics. Morison states:

Ageist stereotypes hold that older Americans don’t spend their money, they’re brand loyal, and they’re interested in a limited number of products, services, and experiences…

The point of mentioning this is that readers read down because romance has always been about younger people, especially younger women, and there is a misconception that no one wants to read about older women with an array of life experiences. Except they do, and publishers need to tune into in remembering, and understanding, that older romance readers are still consumers who want to see themselves reflected in the books they read. If it seems like I am picking on Entangled’s August imprint, I most certainly am. There is such exciting potential being squandered. Morison goes on to say,

“Brands need to be talking to them authentically and, insofar as possible, individually. Cursory attempts to reach the older market, and to reach it en masse, are guaranteed to fail.”

As a reader, and as an author, August feels like an absolute cursory attempt. As I mentioned, since its launch in 2018, there have been a total of 10 books released (although only 9 show on the August website), with little or no fanfare, and a modicum of advertising and promotion that stemmed from what individual authors have done themselves. August, with its 10 titles, appears doomed, which is tragic because its failure will be seen as just one more reason to say that romance fiction with older leads won’t sell, that older heroines won’t sell, that readers read down, that younger is better and more lucrative. Sadly, the pursuit of the youth market has become a fixed mindset. It’s risk aversion; a bit of the old if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, a little of the we’ve always done it this way, a whole lot of this is the standard practice. This is, as Morrison notes,

ageism by omission. The antidote is to have more age diversity across the board: on product and service development teams, marketing teams, and focus and test-market groups. Older consumers may be much more interested in your offerings than you imagine, and new offerings aimed at them can drive business growth.”

Part of doing what Morison suggests means that once you have an offering that can drive business growth, make the product visible. I am here to tell you, as a reader, as a consumer, as a women over 40 who wants to see women like me reflected in advertising, film and all kinds of genre fiction, especially romance, older consumers are interested in more than a cursory attempt to gain our custom. Prove that you see us. Be authentic. Don’t hide your product away or tell us the same old bullshit about how we’re supposed to think that younger is better, that older won’t sell, that we naturally read down.

Are you listening, Entangled?

If you’re keen on not reading down, if you want to break with tradition, if you have been looking for romance novels with older, ‘seasoned’ main characters, aside from my books, try The July Guy by Natasha Moore, (an August author), Karen Booth’s Bring Me Back, and The Love Game by Maggie Wells.

 

References

Entangled Publishing August imprint. (2020). https://entangledpublishing.com/books.html?book_imprint=231&p=1&order=release_date&dir=desc&mode=grid

Morison, R. (2020). Keep ageism out of your analytics. The International Institute for Analytics. https://www.iianalytics.com/blog/2020/8/19/keep-ageism-out-of-your-analytics?fbclid=IwAR1-SAmzcBX-1yXvCtIQHP-FRZzpUjKjSNv7AQE3Xdp6ZXBY28sKGq4_MMI

 

 

Are You Experienced?

The subject matter won’t come as a surprise, but I did a guest post on All About Romance.

I’m excited about this because older couples–older women in particular–deserve to have their stories told. Older couples, women over the age of 40, are worthy of more than a secondary romance, being pushed into Women’s Fiction, being sidelined, or rendered invisible.

I mention a few romance novels, the kind with the hallmarks and sex and all the trimmings you’d expect from romance fiction with leads who just happen to be older and, yep, you guessed it, more experienced in life, love, sex, and mistake-making.

Let me remind everyone here, you will make mistakes your ENTIRE life. Older people still do dumb shit. You will do dumb shit when you are 24 and think that you need a baby oil assisted suntan, dumb shit when you are 40 and drive all day in that convertible without a hat or sunscreen, dumb shit when you are 80 and the painful blisters that make you hobble came from the cute shoes you wore on your walking tour of fashionable Rome because they went better with your stylish outfit than the ugly walking shoes all the other ‘oldies’ in your tour group wore.

Here’s something you may not have noticed, but older people are often just as ageist as younger people. My 80-something in-laws see others their own age as “elderly,” and refer to some of their friends as ‘old man’ and ‘old lady’ because those individuals are not as active, as healthy, or as physically mobile as they are. My very darling mother-in-law (I LOVE YOU so much, Mum!) is not a fan of grey or white hair, as to her, that means ‘old lady.’ This is anecdotal, but it’s that clear how you perceive old and elderly is relative (or in my case my relatives).

What has always struck me as something weird is why, when we are younger, we can’t wait to be older. We dress older, try to look older, get fake IDs, and try to gain experience, especially of the sexual nature. Somewhere along the way we lose this and develop a bizarro distaste for tales of experience when the stories are about older people–and there is even a tiny hint of sex. The age for that distaste shifts as we grow older. What we view as old or older shifts, like my MIL’s thinking grey hair on a woman her own age equates to being an old lady. The thing is, we are never too old, despite what we or someone else tells us, to fall in love. We may age, but love is not something we ever want to cease to experience. It’s as if a notion that love, and wanting love, is limited by how long you have lived chronologically, like all the life experience you may or may not have had with love by the time you are, let’s say 45, was enough; you’ve “been there and done that” and don’t need any more.

Yep. You see how ridiculous that is.

It’s outrageous that we routinely shut out love as an experience for people who are older, especially women. Too often, we value a woman’s life experience around fertility. A woman beyond child-bearing days is not only washed up sexually since she no longer has anything to contribute to the gene pool or to the world. Any experience a woman has, beyond child-rearing or being a grandmother, is no longer interesting or believable. Without fertility she is no longer worthy of love. Of course, this a heaping steaming pile of horse poo, but this is the one BIG message we get about older women and why Seasoned Romance is so vital to changing the notion that love is limited by age.

While I write books with older couples (book plug), At Your Service and Forever in Your Service, are my latest novels, I’m quite specific about featuring older women as leads to give readers, especially younger women, a way to envision their own future in a positive way, with the experience of love and sex. I write romantic suspense and contemporary romance with women (and men) who are as intelligent, interesting, confident, powerful, sensual, sexual, whole human beings who just happen to be older.

I’m not alone, as my guest post on All About Romance will show you. There are others writing older, later in life love Seasoned Romance too.

 

 

A Little Help From My Romance Reading Friends

Antonelli coverThe current buzzword is diversity. There’s been discussion about the diversity of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and age discrimination in Hollywood. There’s been discussion regarding diversity in romance fiction as well. In an open letter to its members, the Romance Writers of America has addressed the importance of the romance industry being diverse and inclusive of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities.

Kudos to the RWA and thanks for coming to the party. Just one thing with your diverse list. You forgot to be inclusive of age. 

Are you over 40 and feeling invisible in romance? Don’t. Someone’s thinking about you.****

You all know how I have books and short stories published and out there.

You know how all my books and short stories all feature heroines and heroes over 40.

You know how I blog regularly about grown ups in romance and run something I call the ‘Mature Content Stockpile‘ on this website. I need to add to that stockpile, and I’m looking to YOU THE READER for help because AGE DIVERSITY MATTERS! 

I have been wanting to collect a list of romance novels that feature ‘mature’ ROMANCE Heroines and Heroes, specifically Heroines and Heroes over 40 in CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE. This is because of how contemporary society views older women, places them in stereotypes roles, or renders them invisible

Let me be clear: I am not interested in couples under 40. I am not interested in couples who are secondary characters. I want characters who are IN their forties, fifties, or beyond, characters who are the LEADS! Nix I am not interested in ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘romantic elements.’ I am looking for romance, where the love story is the focus of the novel, rather than a mere piece of the tale. I want HEA or HFN.

The All About Romance website has a list of Older Couples books that needs updating.  I modified the AAR list and included it my PhD research. The AAR list got me started, and includes novels where characters over 40 appear as secondary characters, which I include on my booklist because those secondary romance (and short stories that feature an older couple), form a foundation where older has been ‘acceptable’ as a side tale, however, I will not include secondary romance from this point on. There is a list on Goodreads Best older hero AND older heroine romance books (the main couple has to be over 40!)  and it is FAB, but it does include books some consider Romance as there is no happy resolution or Happily For Now, e.g. Kazuo Ishiguru’s Remains of the Day (a book I love SO HARD).

Allow me to reiterate. For the purposes of continuing my book list, I am only interested in Contemporary romance novels where the leads are over 40.  I include my list at the bottom of this post.

If ANYONE can give me more examples of ROMANCE FICTION that feature heroines and heroes over 40, please let me know by leaving a comment on this post! 

****EXCITING NOTE! As of May 4 2017, Entangled has put out a call for romance fiction WITH LEADS WHO ARE OLDER!

Contemporary romance Older Couples (AAR Original is here)

Forty-Something

A Basic Renovation (2013) by Sandra Antonelli

For Your Eyes Only (2013) by Sandra Antonelli

Driving in Neutral (2014) by Sandra Antonelli

Next to You (2016) by Sandra Antonelli

Band of Gold (2014) by Maggie Christensen

Triumph (2017) By Cecilia London (Bellator 6)

Out of Control (2002) by Suzanne Brockmann (secondary romance)

Breaking Point (2005) by Suzanne Brockmann (secondary romance)

Hot Dish (2006) by Connie Brockway

For Auld Lang Syne (1991) by Pamela Browning

Eve’s Wedding Knight (1999) by Kathleen Creighton

I’m Your Man (2007) by Susan Crosby

Anyone But You (1996) by Jennifer Crusie

Fast Women (2001) by Jennifer Crusie

Full Bloom (1994) by Stacey Dennis

Fanning the Flames (2015) by Victoria Dahl (novella)

Talk Me Down (2011) by Victoria Dahl

There Is a Season (1999) by Margot Early

Comfort and Joy in Santa’s Little Helpers (1995) by Patricia Gardner Evans

Luring Lucy in Hot and Bothered (2001) by Lori Foster

Fall from Grace (2007) by Kristi Gold

The Star King (2000) by Susan Grant

Hot Wheels and High Heels (2007) by Jane Graves

Contracted: Corporate Wife (2005) by Jessica Hart

Marriage Reunited (2006) by Jessica Hart

Colorado Golden Sunrise (2017) by Jill Haymaker

Love for the Matron (1962) by Elizabeth Houghton

Where Destiny Plays by Regina Kammer (erotic)

The Westerman Affair by Regina Kammer (erotic)

The Second Chance Neighbors series by Josie Kerr

Only Yesterday (1989) by Syrell Rogovin Leahy

Dissident (2015) by Cecilia London (Book 1 Bellator Saga; characters age to mid 50s)

Conscience (2015) by Cecilia London (Bellator 2)

Sojourn (2015) by Cecilia London (Bellator 3)

Phoenix (2016) by Cecilia London (Bellator 4)

Rhapsody (201) by Cecilia London (Bellator 5)

Cold Tea on a Hot Day (2001) by Curtiss Ann Matlock

Love in a Small Town (1997) by Curtiss Ann Matlock

Stitch in Snow (1984) by Anne McCaffrey

Carved in Stone by Donna McDonald

Never Too Late by Donna McDonald

The July Guy (2019) by Natasha Moore

The Standby Guy (2019) by Natasha Moore

The Goodbye Guy (2020) by Natasha Moore

Suburban Renewal (2004) by Pamela Morsi

The Fourth Wall (1979) by Barbara Paul

Down in New Orleans (1996) by Heather Graham Pozzessere

No More Wasted Time (2014) by Beverly Preston

Black Rose (2005) by Nora Roberts

A Piece of Heaven (2003) by Barbara Samuel

Count on Me (2001) by Kathryn Shay

Promises to Keep (2002) by Kathryn Shay

Sweet Hush (2003) by Deborah Smith

Bygones (1992) by LaVyrle Spencer

The Hellion (1989) by LaVyrle Spencer

Home Song (1995) by LaVyrle Spencer

Barefoot Bay & Timeless series by Roxanne St. Claire

Nerd in Shining Armor (2003) by Vicki Lewis Thompson (secondary romance)

Without Saying A Word by Amada J Ward

The Bed & Breakfast Man by Amanda J Ward

Wings of A Dove by Amanda J Ward

It Must Be Love by Amanda J Ward

Champagne and Catnip by Amanda J Ward.

The Love Game (2018) by Maggie Wells

Play For Keeps (2018) by Maggie Wells

One Fine Day (1994) by Theresa Weir

Snowfall at Willow Creek (2010) by Susan Wiggs

Fifty-Something

At Your Service (2018) by Sandra Antonelli

Your Sterling Service (novella) by Sandra Antonelli

Forever In Your Service (2019) by Sandra Antonelli

For Your Eyes Only (2014) by Sandra Antonelli

True to Your Service (2020) Sandra Antonelli

Next to You (2016) By Sandra Antonelli

The Will by Kristen Ashley

The Long Way Home (2010) by Jean Brashear

A New Lu (2005) by Laura Castoro

Bachelor’s Puzzle (1992) by Ginger Chambers

The Sand Dollar by Maggie Christensen

The Dreamcatcher by Maggie Christensen

Broken Threads by Maggie Christensen

The Life She Deserves (2019) by Maggie Christensen

The Life She Chooses (2019) by Maggie Christensen

The Life She Finds (2020) by Maggie Christensen

This Time Forever (2017) by May Cooney Glazer

French Twist (1998) by Margot Dalton

Remember Love (1992) by Stacey Dennis

Return to Love (1993) by Martha Gross

Rode Hard by Lorelei James (erotic romance)

Turning Twelve-Thirty by Sandy James

We Were Gods by Moriah Jovan

Hot Blood (1996) by Charlotte Lamb

Choose Me (2016) by Natasha Moore

Rescue Me (2016) by Natasha Moore

Lucky Me by (2017) Natasha Moore

The 90 Day Rule by Diane Nelson

Heaven, Texas (1995) by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (secondary romance)

This Heart of Mine (2001) by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (secondary romance)

Natural Born Charmer (2007) By Susan Elizabeth Phillips (secondary romance)

The Women of Willow Bay series by Nan Reinhart

Thunder Basin by Nya Rawlins (western Rom-Suspense)

Familiar Stranger (2001) by Sharon Sala

The Best Medicine (1993) by Janet Lane Walters

A Taste of Heaven by Penny Watson

Three Little Words by Maggie Wells

A Will and A Way by Maggie Wells

A Bolt From the Blue by Maggie Wells

Tomorrow’s Promise (1992) by Clara Wimberly

The Vow (2008) by Rebecca Winters

The Duke of Olympia Meets (2016) His Match by Juliana Gray (he’s 74 she’s 50+)

Sixty-Something

Julie and Romeo (2000) by Jeanne Ray

Eleanor and Abel (2003) by Annette Sanford

Apples Should be Red by Penny Watson, novella (60s/50s)

Trust Me on This (1997) by Jennifer Crusie (secondary romance)

Seventy-something

Late Fall (2016) by Noelle Adams

The Duke of Olympia Meets (2016) His Match by Juliana Gray

Colorado Winter Moon (2017) by Jill Haymaker (60s/70s)

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure (2019) by Courtney Milan (f/f)