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