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

 

 

Visibility, Invisibility: Grey Hair Breaking Down the Wall

Karen Booth, the author, advocate for Seasoned Romance, and co-founder of the Seasoned Romance Facebook group has a new book coming out in February, and it is an important book. Have a look as the title and cover and you may understand why—if you are over the age of 40, you may, at last, feel seen.

Visibility and invisibility slot together with discussions about inclusion and diversity, which boil down to the need to be seen. In Karen’s upcoming seasoned romance, Gray Hair Don’t Care, visibility and invisibility hinge upon a full head of hair. For some women, grey hair is fraught with meaning that is usually not positive. In our society, many equate grey hair with with decline, particularly if you’re female. Women are told in subtle and not so subtle ways that grey hair signals the decline of not merely youth, but of desirability, of their worth as a human being.

Grey hair is a human being’s badge of successful living, a sure sign of age and ageing well. I say ‘ageing well’ because growing older, that is, not dying at a young age, is what humans seek. We search for ways we can exercise better to maintain our bodies, eat foods that may help us live longer. If you are female living longer, going grey, a perfectly natural aspect that comes with bypassing that early grave, is signposted as something ugly, as something shameful, as something to deny, cover up, to erase. I don’t know about you, but  I’m sick of that directive. While there is a growing backlash against covering one’s grey, the message that grey hair must be denied and dyed is powerful, deeply embedded in our culture, and it continues to, along with the plethora of anti-ageing products aimed at women, reinforce the notion that women and ageing do not go together. Sexism, ageism, and sexist, ageist practice is embedded in society and runs deep, so deep may people fail to notice it at all. This is why seeing a cover like Karen’s is so important. Many women will, at last, feel seen.

If you haven’t noticed how deep ageist practices go when it comes to women and grey hair, allow me to point out that you have most likely been indoctrinated to accept that a woman who has managed not to die and continues to live a long life is not a necessary depiction in advertising, on screen, or between the pages of a novel. Especially if she has grey or white hair. When an older ‘grey’ woman is represented it is in roles that cast her as secondary character, such as mother or grandmother, or, more often than not, as an ageist stereotype, such as cougar, lunatic, harpy, menopausal comic relief, or as sexless crone. Without realising, you have witnessed the regular ageist practice against women in advertising, film, and fiction, especially in romance fiction where older women are seldom seen, or not seen at all. You may not even notice that a male lead, the hero, is allowed to be the silver or grey fox, with distinguished grey temples, while a woman the same age, combined with the perceived ugliness of her grey hair, leads to devaluing and outright erasure.

Perhaps you are aware of this all because you are a woman who’s wondered why you no longer see other women like you in films, on TV, or in books. You may be a person of colour, or Muslim, or disabled, or fat and you want to see women who are like you, and you long to be represented. In this case, representation, visibility and invisibility comes down to the few hairs I’m splitting here, as you, if you read my pieces on ageism and romance fiction, would expect me to.

Karen and I share a few things. We are advocates for seasoned romance and women over the age of 40, and we have both written books that feature older women with grey or white hair as leads in romance fiction. The older female protagonist, or, as the genre prefers to call her, an older heroine, remains an anomaly in the genre. Still. I’ve been writing and studying older heroines in romance fiction for nearly two decades. Seven years ago, my second book, For Your Eyes Only, was published. It had taken me close to ten years to find a publisher who didn’t tell me I had to make my heroine younger. I was thrilled and so grateful that I had found an editor and a publishing house who were open to the idea of an older woman positioned as the heroine rather than as a secondary character or as a stereotype of a woman of a ‘certain age’. The silver foxy heroine in Karen’s Gray Hair Don’t Care is 47. The heroine in For Your Eyes Only is 50 and had white hair. Karen’s cover is gloriously representative of her heroine’s age. My cover is…well, as you can see, the victim of my publisher’s concern about my heroine’s advanced age. The cover model is 15 years younger and blonde rather than white-haired.

I should have fought harder for a different cover. I should have pushed and clawed for an image that conveyed that a white-haired, middle-aged woman was worthy of being a heroine on the cover, but there were a few things happening that prevented me from doing so. I was a new author, I had no clout, and, as I mentioned, my publisher was the only publisher willing to take a risk on a new author writing a heroine who sat outside the age norms of romance fiction.

Karen and I, as well as many other authors who have submitted books to romance fiction publishers, have faced the ageism and the ageist brick wall that exists within the industry. The brick wall often came—and still comes—in the form of statements such as, ‘we’re not sure how to market this book’ or ‘we don’t think there’s an audience for this book’ or ‘this book won’t sell unless you make the heroine younger’ or my favourite, ‘no one wants to read granny sex’. The way our culture has been conditioned to accept ageist practices as normal, feeds ongoing publishing concerns that putting a more ‘mature-aged’ woman on the cover would turn off readers, that a book featuring an image of woman with grey or white hair would not sell. Of course, any business would be apprehensive about a product that might not sell. No one wants to lose money. As I have said so many times before, film and fiction are actually losing out on making money by ignoring a specific population with money to spend. Being ignored as a consumer is one more form of invisibility.

Visibility and invisibility. Cover art comes and goes, from Fabio’s flowing tresses and drooping bodices to the current illustrated trend in romance fiction. If you didn’t know, many publishes use stock images to create cover designs, and this is where I admit I am not a huge fan of the illustrated cover. I’m also not a fan of a bare chest, the floating head shot over a country background, or the genre’s iconic clinch cover, yet it is obvious the illustrated cover solves issues that publishers find insurmountable, such as finding stock cover images to present curvy or fat heroines, disabled heroines, heroines of colour, heroines from non-western cultures, older heroines. It’s sad. It’s shameful in the way grey hair is not. It’s exasperating as hell. Things have changed a little in the last 2 years, but what’s out there is merely OK. It needs to be better. While silver foxy men are a cinch to find, peruse stock image companies for older women and you’ll find lots of attractive middle-aged women touching their faces. Search for mature couples and you’ll see lots of picnics.

As Karen notes in her cover reveal for Gray Hair, Don’t Care, rather than face the frustration of wrestling with the ingrained preconception romance fiction editors and CEOs have about grey-haired women, or trying to find a decent stock image, she decided to indie publish Gray Hair Don’t Care and commission a cover artist. That was one smart move. While Karen addresses, directly, the embedded ageist notions represented by a woman with grey hair, I went in a different direction when it came to choosing cover images for my indie releases, the In Service series about a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. I decided to lean into the vector silhouette images one might find in spy fiction because of how incredibly difficult it is to find stock images of middle-aged women. I knew what I was up against. Then again, so did indie author Maggie Christensen. Publishers who adhere to the notion that a woman aged 40+ has no business being on a cover have their arses squarely kicked by Maggie, a Scotswoman living in Australia. When it comes to her seasoned romance covers and heroines, she knows her audience, writes fabulous romance fiction featuring women 40+, and Maggie puts those more grown-up women on her book covers, using the same style as romance novels featuring women in their 20s.

Maggie, like Karen, Natasha Moore, Maggie Wells, Kristen Ashley and I sell books and garner great reviews from readers who have sought out seasoned romance with more grown up heroines, older female leads, mature female protagonists whatever you want to call women over 40 who are the main characters.

What makes me most cranky about this ongoing struggle with sexist ageism is that publishers are ignoring readers. Readers responding to Karen’s cover reveal ought to be evidence enough that older women want to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Visibility and invisibility. There are two things at stake here: the inclusion and representation of women of all ages on book covers and between the pages, whatever colour their hair might be, and instead of publishers telling authors that books with grey-haired women on the cover won’t sell, perhaps it’s time to take note of how readers have been ignored for far too long. I say this because, at the online Romance Writers of Australia (RWAus) conference I attended last weekend, the same editor who once told me that no one wanted to read granny sex also stated that authors were the ones pushing for seasoned romance. I believe, wholeheartedly, that this editor is wrong. As an author and as a reader, I’d like to point out that readers are driving the call for older heroines, for seasoned romance. Readers make up the overwhelming majority of the 3K+ Seasoned Romance Facebook group, as well as the nearly 2K membership of Romance In Her Prime. It is readers who are searching for heroines who look like they do—women with greying or grey hair, crow’s feet, with lines on their faces, life experience and the baggage that comes with it. It comes down to visibility and invisibility, to representation and inclusion. It’s obvious that publisher demographic studies, like so much advertising market research, fails to include older people, especially older women in their investigations or even take them into account as consumers—unless it’s for cruises, funeral insurance, or osteoarthritis relief. In their endeavour to make money, companies seek out the next generation of consumers, dropping the consumers they may already have, which in this case are readers. Romance readers, the editor at last weekend’s RWAus conference said, read down, meaning they read about younger characters, but this is only so because there are so few books like Karen’s, like mine, that offer older readers, grey-haired or not, the visibility they crave.

My books with silver, white, & grey haired heroines are available here and here. Karen Booth’s Gray Hair Don’t Care is out in February 2021. It’s now available for preorder. It’s going to be huge, the book that breaks through and breaks down the wall for seasoned romance.

And it’ll be because of flowing grey hair.

Return of the Return of A Little Help From My Romance Reading Friends

Dear Reader,

Once again, you with your finger on the pulse of romance, your eyes on the words and covers and spines of books of paper, screen, and audio. I come to you asking for your help. It’s four years since I post titled A Little Help From My Romance Reading Friends and I come to you to tell me about the Romance novels you have read where both leads are over the age of 40, especially novels you have read where the heroine is aged OVER 40 — or over  50, 60, and beyond.  It’s time to update the list I keep on this site, and I need your help to do this because I am only one tiny woman with a TBR pile and books to edit and books to write about a middle-aged Irish butler and the British spy who loves her.

At the same time, I want to share a few lists with you, mostly because I am pleased to say there are many readers (and authors like me) who are looking for Seasoned Romance, a fact about readers I point out over and over. Now, whether you call it Seasoned Romance (as I and many others do) Later in Life Romance (as the Book Industry BISAC codes does), Adult Contemporary Romance, MidRom, Older Romance, MatRom, Vintage Rom, (rest assured, I will bite you if you call it HenRom, GrannyRom or HagRom), these readers want ALL THE ROMANCE, these readers want books with lead characters falling for each other and all the glorious, complex, baggage-filled mess that goes with it, the Big Misunderstanding, the (however much I despise them) Secret Baby, Enemies to Lovers, Friends to Lovers, the Marriage of Convenience, these readers want ALL THE familiar tropes you love, and maybe even hate, these readers want the romance to feature main characters aged 40 and over (although some are happy with 35 and over).

I’m like these readers, but I want the romance (and other genre fiction) I read to feature a female protagonist, a heroine, aged 40 and beyond. For the list of books I keep here, I focus on representation of women over 40. Why 40? Because, like in Hollywood 40 is some kind of invisible line for women. Women under 40 get roles, but hit 40 and they dry up. Plus, I’m tired (aren’t you) of the sexist, ageist older man-younger pairing that is the staple of Hollywood and, let’s face it, most kinds of fiction.

My very personal mission, if you’ve never come across my writing before, is to present women of a certain age in the genre of fiction that has a history of being oh-so-young, cis and white. I want to draw attention that there are older romance readers who, for example, like WOC, are more than damn ready to see themselves reflected in the genre they love. This is about visibility. Older women, across cultures and ethnicities, deserve and need to be written back into the narrative of life and fictional tales. Fiction, film, TV, and advertising hold the power to make older women visible. However, there are impediments still in place, sticky impediments. There is proof of a growing market and sub-genre, not a damn niche, and lists like these can clear way the cobwebs that still obscure some publishers’ minds, and show them the vibrancy of older women.

Yeah, okay, there are romance publishers who are open to older heroines, but, at the same time, limit their idea of the ‘field of older’ to somewhere between the ages of 35 to 45, because books with women older than 35 “won’t sell”, or, as one editor said to me (yes, I’m dragging out that comment again), “No one wants to read granny sex.”  Remarks of that sort may seem business savvy, but remarks of that sort (besides being bullshit) highlight and perpetuates the inherent ageist and sexist attitude that older women aren’t attractive, sexual, or interested in sex, which implies women over 45 are lesser, other, unworthy of love, and their hideousness must continue to be sidelined, hidden, or kept out of the narrative that favours white cis women. You see how ridiculous and prejudicial the practice is, and how important book lists can be to change business practices, to make them diverse as they claim they want to be.

Booklists, and readers I come across looking for booklists of seasoned romance, are proof that the books can and do sell, even the ones with the granny sex in them. Have a gander at the list I already have—and then add these Goodreads books lists to it:

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/99966.Seasoned_Romance

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/21311.Best_older_hero_AND_older_heroine_romance_books_the_main_couple_has_to_be_over_40_

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/124121._Seasoned_Romance_35_Love_

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/47427.Romance_Heroes_and_Heroines_Over_35_

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/111722.Romance_In_Her_Prime

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/135818.Hot_Romance_or_Erotica_w_30_s_to_40_s_Something_Heroines_

Since 2016, when I first began to ask for help, there have been titles released by traditional and indie authors, yet any author will tell you DISCOVERABILITY IS KEY to readers finding new authors and titles, especially in an overlooked sub-genre like Seasoned Romance. If YOU are keen to add books to my list of romance fiction featuring main characters over 40 — again, I’m looking for both leads to be over 40, not just the silver foxy hero because heroines can be silver foxy too — Shoot those titles my way! Help me add to my list of and all these other lists. Let me be even more specific about my personal book list, should you want me to add your book suggestions to it. I’m after Romance, not Women’s Fiction. In Women’s Fiction there’s often an element of romance, but the lovey-dovey stuff isn’t the primary focus. In ROMANCE the story is driven by a couple on a journey to find love, rather than, as you frequently find in Women’s Fiction, a woman’s journey of self-discovery or tale of women’s friendship and/or relationship with friends and family.

That nitty gritty bit out of the way, PLEASE, leave your book recommendations as a comment, or tell me about a book list that you know that I have not included. Allow me to reiterate: Booklists, and readers I come across looking for booklists of seasoned romance, are proof that the books can and do sell, even the ones with the granny sex in them.

Thank you!

Love,

Sandra

 

Flying By The Seat of One’s Puzzle

There are things that puzzle me. First, I’m always amazed by writers who plot things out to the tiniest detail, you know, those authors who storyboard and collage and outline their tales. I’m not like that. I try to put any structure in place and my story disintegrates. I’m not a seat of the pants writer either. I lack the pants one usually flies from.

Truth be told, I am not a fan of pants (as in trousers, not knickers/panties/ full-coverage briefs). They are restricting, twist and bind the way collages and storyboards and outlines do when I try to do them. When it comes to writing, I have a box box in my head. It’s full of puzzle pieces made up of dialogue like this:

“We’re onto disguises now, are we?”
“You don’t like my hat?”
“You look better in the cowboy hat you wore on New Year’s Eve than in that ugly baseball cap.”
“You miss my cowboy hat.”
“Go on and think that if it makes you feel better.”
“I feel just fine.”
“Which is why you took your time getting here.”
“I was being thorough.”
“Thorough. Is that what you call chatting up Ms Goedenacht?”
“She was doing the chatting up. Weren’t you listening?”
“No. The earpiece stopped working when the discussion turned to marital aids and splinters.”

No speech tags, no description, just the two leads talking. They are always talking. And probably eating. There’s always food involved somewhere. Perhaps that’s one reason why True to Your Service took so long for me to write; I was always eating, as one tends to when one has a house full of visitors, or when one was on holiday someplace that may or may not become the setting for the next book in the series I didn’t realise was a series when the two characters started talking way back in 2011.

The other thing that puzzles me is that women over 40 are treated as a conundrum by publishing and Hollywood, both puzzling over how to structure a story with a woman over 40 as the lead, and scratching their heads over what a woman over 40 looks like as the lead.

It’s not that hard to show a woman over 40 as a whole human being, but Hollywood and publishing are anxious about that and stick to the sexist, ageist structure that has, well, worked for them . Film and fiction are risk averse. Film and fiction will stick to what makes them money; franchises make them money, and something new (well, actually, something older)  scares them because it’s different, it’s not what’s been selling, and what’s selling is what gets replicated or rebooted, or remade. Repeat sexist ageism and a lack diversity across the board…

I will concede one thing. I applaud the way Hollywood has grabbed onto the empowered badass-ass-kickin’ older woman we’ve seen lately onscreen. However, there is more to being an older, empowered, ass-kicking woman than we’ve seen. Being an older empowered arse-kicking woman with life baggage can be even more complex and exciting in telling a story, and it doesn’t mean an older woman has to be superimposed onto a male action hero narrative to be ‘acceptable,’ or adhere to the ageist and sexist stereotypes we are so used to seeing. I want more. Maybe you do too.

I’m all for showing ass-kicking-badassery, only I’m gonna do it like a middle aged woman would–with all that empowering, complex baggage and life experience, possibly slower, or maybe faster and with more ass-shaking like J-Lo at the Superbowl. The point is, there is MORE THAN ONE WAY to portray a powerful, attractive, capable, intelligent, sensual, sexual woman over 40, and it’s not simply making her an action lead, which is a start, but

True to Your Service, the third of the In Service Series features a middle-aged female butler and the slightly younger middle-aged spy who loves her. It’s genre-blending and crossing with a good measure of meta, seasoned romance, sex, tulips, murder, danger, and true love.  It knocks ageist and sexist stereotypes on the head and places a woman well past 40 as the lead. It pokes fun at spies and mysteries and crime stories. And it all came from a box of puzzle pieces in my head.

You can pre-odrer True to Your Service from your favourite e-tailer here and from Amazon

 

I’m On a Mission

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

As you might guess I have news alerts set up for anything that mentions ageism, women over the age of 40, romance fiction, anti-ageing advertising, diversity, stereotypes of ageing, and so much more. I often see posts from  Ageism Warrior Ashton Applewhite’s This Chair Rocks. A recent post that popped up in my Facebook feed gave details for Scott Harper, an independent documentary filmmaker in Canada. Harper is working on working on a documentary on ageism. He happens to be on the lookout for story and casting suggestions about ageism because, as he says,

“Frankly, we feel it’s time to give this issue the same profile as racism or sexism.”

He goes on to mention that,

“We’re looking to tell a story with a bit more edge. The film, ideally, takes us inside the world of someone who is actively trying to fight back against ageism where they have encountered it. This is, in our minds, someone who is pushing for change, in a way we can follow or at least re-tell, whether in the workspace, the courts, media, politics, healthcare, the community, anywhere where generations co-mingle and ageism is present… We want this to be a character driven film and so at this stage, we need to find a great cast, or at least, a single great storyline of someone on a mission in this space. To that end, we’re reaching out to people like yourself to ask if anyone comes to mind that you think might serve this role…”

Golly. Do I think I can help? Do I think can make a suggestion about someone on a mission because…well, you know, I’m on a mission? Some may write off my suggestion because it’s focused on romance fiction, but how great a fit when the genre struggles to be taken seriously, is so frequently maligned and viewed as unimportant fluffy trash. Stereotypes abound about romance novels much the way stereotypes abound regarding older people and women who have surpassed the age of 40. The thing is, the genre sells, the genre makes a crapton of money, and older women have money to spend on things like books, even when the ageism affecting women is rampant in the romance fiction genre.

Authors, like me, Natasha Moore, Karen Booth, Maggie Wells, and many others who write or want to write older female romantic leads are often told by agents, editors, and publishing houses that sell romance fiction, ‘no one will buy that that older woman character’ or that ‘a romance with a older heroine won’t sell.’  It’s that kind of fearful we-won’t-make-money-from-older that caused Lancôme, in the mid 1990s, to let go of 42 year-old Isabella Rossellini as the face of their cosmetics because she was too old, and “older women dream about being young.” That kind of thinking perpetuates the notion that women over 40 are suddenly unappealing hags. It also feeds into that perception that (here it comes, the comment I keep dragging out, the one made by a romance publishing CEO) “no wants to read granny sex.” In case you didn’t realise it, being an older woman not only ruins the advertising dream that a woman is supposed to have of being forever young, but a woman who happens to be grandma who has sex is going to ruin the romance fantasy. If you’re a man, this dream-killing, fantasy-spoiling, of course, does not apply, especially when it comes to fiction or film.

De Tavenier and Aartsen note that ageism leads to exclusion and exclusion leads to a lack of agency. Older women are being denied agency in romance fiction. In spite of romance fiction’s embedded unwillingness to see women beyond 40 as whole, vibrant human beings who dream of being beautiful or sexual at any age, there are those of us, like the authors I mentioned, above, who have not been discouraged. We write romance novels with older leads, with older romance heroines and try to change the publishing industry standard of that “younger dream” because we know, like Lancôme, who rehired 65 year-old Isabella Rossellini as the face of their cosmetics 2018, came to understand, it’s sexist, ageist, bullshit.

Trying to change an industry standard within a genre that is often discussed as being a ‘fantasy’ with a happy ending is an uphill battle. It makes me hoarse sometimes because the change is so slow, but age is an issue of diversity and everyone is shouting about the importance of diversity within the romance publishing industry, except diversity of age keeps getting left out of the conversation. I’ll repeat myself, again, and again, and again: ageism affects everyone regardless of skin colour, sexual and gender identity, ethnicity, culture, weight, or height. Ageism has more of an impact on women than men and nowhere is this more evident than in romance fiction.

My mission is clear: change the industry standard by writing older romance heroines, like Mae the fifty-something butler heroine of my In Service series (book plug!) the kind who are like Isabella Rossellini returning to Lancôme as the face of women dreaming of being beautiful, whole, and vibrant at any age.

 

References:

Ashton Applewhite. (2019, 4 August). Scott Harper Documentary: This Chair Rocks. [Facebook post] Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/ThisChairRocks/posts/1968521509915290

De Tavenier, W. Aartsen, M. (2019). Old-age exclusion: Active Ageing, agesim and agency. Social Inclusion, 7(3), 1–3.

 

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.

 

 

Discrimination, Squandering Experience, Missing Opportunities

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

If you haven’t noticed already, let me tell you something you may or may not choose to take on board.  Experience is worth nothing. And by nothing I mean experience is worth nothing financially. This begins to happen once you cross the line into your 40s, but your experience is devalued even more once you hit 50. You know this is true because you’ve seen the ads, the movies that point out what matters, what’s worthy is being younger.

According to Ryan Wallman at Marketing Week, Ad land’s obsession with youth will come at a cost.  Wallman notes the discriminatory practice of hiring younger employees while ignoring older, more experiences employees,
“A paucity of older people in advertising leads to a poorer output and a missed opportunity for brands.”
I’m not in marketing or advertising but I am ‘of a certain age,’  and I am savvy enough to know that entertainment, advertising, and marketing that is aimed in my direction frequently MISSES the mark (see My previous post about the film POMS). It also misses an opportunity. How many studies do there have to be to demonstrate the spending power of people over 50?  As a consumer, a writer, and author in an industry that does not at all favour women who are over the age of 40 (some will say 30), I get pretty cheesed off by anything that imprisons me with a fate I must dread after turning 40, and then dread my existence even more after 50 because, rather than putting the goddamned spotlight on LIVING, life after 50 is nothing but constant decline–dentures, wrinkles, walkers, adult diapers, and the inevitably of death.
The missed opportunity of gearing products to me and others middle-aged and beyond, products that tell me–to borrow and twist a line from from The Shawshank Redemption–to “get busy dyin”’ rather than to “get busy livin’ ” is also a slap in the face that utterly devalues my actual life experience.
In another Marketing Week article (the publication is often spot on with its studies of ageism and sexism in advertising and beyond), Sarah Vizard notes that,
“78% of those aged 50 or over feel under-represented or misrepresented by advertising, with 49% saying they actively avoid brands who ignore them. Plus 69% suggest they would be more receptive to brands if their advertising represented over-50s more accurately.”
Yeah, the paucity of older people, missing opportunity, and  feeling under- and misrepresented as a stereotype is EXACTLY what I have been saying about the romance publishing industry shutting out older female leads, refusing to see them as viable main characters, and ignoring the older (or even younger) reader who WANTS to see better representation of themselves across an age spectrum. If our life experience counts for nothing, then our power to spend is a loss to big businesses, like the struggling publishing industry.
I quite like Waller’s article cautioning the advertising industry. If you didn’t read it, it’s about the younger age demographic of those employed in the tone-deaf, one denture-wearing, diapered older person-with-a-walker-and-funeral-insurance fits all advertising industry, which, he says doesn’t value the experience of older employees any more than it values the older consumer.
“The demographic make-up of the advertising industry sends a pretty clear message to people who have the gall to a) stay alive and b) keep working past the age of 30. And that message is: ‘Fuck you and the mobility scooter you rode in on.'”

Waller’s quote makes me want to say, “Wake the fuck up to this mother-fucking GOLD MINE”  to the historically female-centric romance fiction industry. Women over 40 have money to spend and the world of romance fiction is, with very few exceptions, ignoring them and their money. Readers are saying they are receptive to romance novels that represent over-40s (and beyond) more accurately, as LEAD characters. Yet, as with advertising, these readers are still getting a  “Fuck you and the mobility scooter you rode in on” from an industry that employs mostly women who will one day be over the age of 40, 50 and beyond.

 

Vizard, S. (2019). Brands should stop seeing age as a defining feature of the over-50s. Marketing Week. https://bit.ly/2yI0JgA 

Wallman, R. (2019). Adland’s obsession with youth will come at a cost. Marketing Week. https://bit.ly/2XajNz6

The (Ongoing) Image Problem of Granny Sex

Older women have an image problem, a negative one that has become normalized. What do I mean by normalized?  Simple. We’ve been conditioned to not see our own worth.

Back in 1972, Susan Sontag wrote about the Double Standard of Aging, and nowhere is this more evident than in film and romance fiction. In movies and books, men get distinguished as they age, and they are allowed to age. Men at 45 are silver foxes, while women of the same age are merely ‘old.’ Representations of women of a certain age have become ingrained in society and have resulted in stereotypes—you know the ones I mean, the acceptable roles; grandma, crabby, crazy cat lady, old hag, peddler of adult diapers, retirement communities, denture creams. Women over 40 are seldom presented as attractive, intelligent, sensual, sexual, whole human beings the way men are. Women become mutton dressed as lamb, cougars, are shoved aside, or dropped into those acceptable stereotyped roles because, unlike men of the same age, women are now toothless hags who need denture cream. Of course, the upside of this is that an older woman can now wear white trousers and swim and box and be sporty without ever having to worry about periods or leakage.

Opps. I forgot about incontinence pads.

As I said, we’ve been conditioned to not see our own worth–except as consumers of products that tell us we have to fight the disease of ageing–or face a wrinkled, toothless future of pee pads and retirement living and funeral insurance.

What you do see is what you’ve always seen, and it is what you accept because that is all you have ever been shown. You may not be aware that you buy into the negative image. After all, for decades we’ve been bombarded with ageist and sexist imagery about adult diapers, creams that lift sagging skin, Cary Grant with Audrey Hepburn, and Daniel Craig’s James Bond (who was in his late 40s at the time) romancing twentysomething Lea Seydoux rather winding up with than the disposable fiftysomething Monica Bellucci in the last Bond feature, Spectre.

**Yes, I’m still irritated by that moment when the Craig Bond was poised to go on being different but failed to deliver. After SEVEN minutes (if I remember, that’s how long Dan and Monica had on screen) the story fell back onto the usual status quo that disposed of the older woman for the younger woman. By the way, if you’re wondering, I had already written the first book of my butler & spy In Service series, At Your Service before that movie came out.**

Sorry to digress and rant, but I’m sure you understand that advertising, that the persistent older man-younger woman construct, reinforces the information you see about women ‘getting old,’ and men being hot silver foxes. Although you’ve had plenty of movies and romance novels where the older guy silver fox gets the girl, and gets it on with the girl, how often do you seen a couple who are the same age getting it on?

I bet you can count the times on one hand, maybe two. Who would blame you for believing the double standard of aging?

In the celluloid world, in the fictional world, especially in the world of romance fiction, the silver fox smokin’ hot grandpa is easy to find, it’s even a trope in the romance genre, but smokin’ hot grandma? Age equivalent sex is viewed as problematic—and it’s all because of the woman. Add a woman with sagging skin and she’s automatically a grandma, and granny sex is gross because grandmas don’t have sex—even with silver foxy grandpas. What’s the point of a man having sex with a woman who’s probably no longer fertile anyway since everyone knows that a woman is only attractive if she’s fertile, like the Nile Delta, and able to bear children.

Go ahead and call bullshit on that. You know you want to.

I’ll leave the rant about the predominance of men writing, producing, and perpetuating the silver fox hero and masculine wish fulfillment that has kept older women sidelined or invisible (thanks for the reminder, Vassiliki) to another day, but what turned me to become a hybrid author was when I had a female romance publishing CEO tell me no one wanted to read granny sex. Yes, I’ve ranted about that before. A lot. I saw what I was up against, what I’d always been up against. The comment corroborated the findings of my doctoral work. I knew that, despite an offer from my publisher, and on-the-fence interest from another who worried about ‘where to place the book’, I could do a better job marketing my butler & spy series in what is still considered to be a niche or yet-to-prove itself audience my research demonstrated was and IS there. The CEO’s comment is revealing and points to the fact that, for some publishers, an older female protagonist is risky. A sexy, sex-filled romantic interlude in romance fiction, like onscreen, is still considered to be a venue open only to young, fresh-faced, fertile women.

For many publishers the status quo remains, it’s silver foxy men, but no silver foxy women, and THIS is the root of the image problem. We get what we’ve always had because of the pervasive attitude that older women aren’t attractive or sexual and it’s a vicious circle. Keeping grandma out of the bedroom, that is, not allowing portrayals of older women as sexual or attractive serves to reinforce the attitude that no one wants to see grandma as sexual or attractive.

Here are a few questions to consider why some find portrayals of sexual women over 40 is so problematic.

Is it really about sagging breasts and lined faces?

Is it really that romance is a tale for younger women, or readers who want to remember what it was like when they were younger?

Or is it because we are so rarely shown positive images of mature female sexuality, or that mature sexuality is too often portrayed as a joke where older women fan themselves or blush or giggle and mention Fifty Shades of Grey while whispering about viagra and their older partners with erectile dysfunction?

The image problem boils down to a lack of representations showing us that women over 40 are attractive, intelligent, sensual, sexual, whole human beings. This means it’s time to make a NEW status quo, to normalize how life really is, and how women over 40 really are. If a publisher thinks granny’s saggy boobs are distasteful (not something a romance hero would care about), the solution is simple. Romance has various ‘heat’ levels. That is, an array of how intimate sexual activity is described–from a chaste kiss and closing the bedroom door, to graphic sex. There is a spectrum of readers, those who like the bedroom door closed and those who want explicit description.

There is a spectrum of readers who want ‘Seasoned Romance’, Later in life tales featuring women 40, 50, 60, and beyond, those who want granny to close the bedroom door, and those who want to see granny in all her glory.

Most importantly, there is a spectrum of people who want to see their lives reflected in the stories they see on screen and in the pages of a book. Love has no age limit. We’ve let advertisers, filmmakers and publishers tell us that love has an age limit.  I want to point out again, that this is not a niche market. There is money to be made. Advertisers, filmmakers and publishers need to stop believing and peddling the old bullshit hype. They will, once there is a story that hits it big and makes them some coin because guess who has the cash to be instrumental in making this come to fruition this? Women over 40.

And we’re worth a lot.

Changing Your Perception: The Butler Who Does It

 

Yes, yes, things have changed a lot. Women are doctors, lawyers, and CEOs. It’s ‘you’ve come a long way baby’ and all that, but certain jobs continue to be viewed as traditionally female and male positions. For instance, when you see the word ‘nurse,’ do you imagine a man or a woman? What about ‘maid’ or ‘housekeeper?’  If I toss out the word ‘butler’ I’m sure your mind automatically conjures up Batman’s trusted man Alfred, Bertie Wooster’s Jeeves, Downton Abbey‘s Mr Carson, or Mr Stevens from Remains of the Day. And why wouldn’t you think of those men, of those chracters? The butler is a particular role dominated by males in fiction and film and real life. However, remember that ‘you’ve come a long way baby’ thing?

You know I’m all about changing stereotypes for women, particularly women over 40. Female protagonists of a ‘certain age’ (man, how I hate that expression) are all I write. Naturally,  I’ve written another. This time my older, or seasoned –as many are calling protagonists over 40– doesn’t just challenge the usual ageist stereotypes that cast older women as (say it with me now) cougars, grannies, evil stepmothers, hot flashing menopausal harpies, crazy cat ladies, and sidelined supporting characters only there to offer ‘sage’ advice to younger characters. This time my heroine challenges what has been a traditionally male role. This time my heroine is the butler.

Yep, the butler. Not the housekeeper. NOT. THE. HOUSEKEEPER.

I know I’m not the first to present a female butler. Linda Howard did it in Dying to Please. Helen Mirren took on the role of Hobson the butler in the remake of the movie Arthur, a role previously played by Sir John Gielgud. I happily add Mae Valentine from my forthcoming release At Your Service to that short list of female butlers.

My butler is older than your standard romance heroine, older than your usual romantic suspense romance heroine, but there are expectations she meets. The butler for a retired Army officer, Mae is efficient, professional, loyal. In other words, Mae is like all those other ‘traditional’ butlers you know so well, the ones who go that extra distance for their employer, the ones whose age doesn’t matter because the age of men seldom matters. Simply put, At Your Service is tale of a butler, a spy and a toilet brush. It crosses a few genres, plays with a few genre archetypes, subverts certain images we have in mind when we see words like older womanbutler and spy… Call it a romantic suspense cosy spy-thriller-mystery with a dash of humour. It’s Charade meets Remains of the Day. It’s set to release this September. You can pre-order it now.  Kindle or Kobo, Nook & more

 

Return of A Little Help From My Romance Reading Friends: The Lazily-titled Sequel

It’s coming up on two years since I put out my plea for your help.  Back in February of 2016, I penned a post titled A Little Help From My Romance Reading Friends. Once again,  I come to you, Dear Reader, you with your finger on the pulse of romance, your eyes on the words and covers and spines of books of paper, screen, and audio. I come to you asking for your help, asking you to tell me about the Romance novels you have read where the heroine is aged OVER 40. That is, the heroine is 40, 50, 60 and beyond.  It’s time to update my list and I need YOU to do this because I am only one tiny woman with a TBR pile and books to edit and books to write so I can add to this list of mine.

I’m very specific here. I want representation of women over 40. Why 40? Because, like in Hollywood 40 is some kind of invisible line for women. Women under 40 get roles, but hit 40 and they dry up. Plus, I’m tired (aren’t you) of the sexist, ageist older man-younger pairing that is the staple of Hollywood and, let’s face it, most kinds of fiction.

Let me be even more specific. I’m after Romance, not Women’s Fiction. In Women’s Fiction there’s often an element of romance, but the lovey-dovey stuff isn’t the primary focus. In ROMANCE the story is driven by a couple on a journey to find love, rather than, as you frequently find in Women’s Fiction, a woman’s journey of self discovery or tale of women’s friendship and/or relationship with friends and family. Call it Adult Contemporary Romance, MidRom, Seasoned Romance, Older Romance,  MatRom, Vintage Rom, (I’ll bite you if you call it HenRom, GrannyRom or HagRom), I want all the romance, I want two people falling for each other and all the glorious, complex, baggage-filled mess that goes with it, the Big Misunderstanding, the (however much I despise them) Secret Baby, Enemies to Lovers, Friends to Lovers, the Marriage of Convience, I want all those familiar tropes you love and maybe even hate, but I want them to feature heroines aged 40 and over.

My aim, if it’s not clear, is to present women of a certain age in the genre of fiction that is and always has been female-focussed. I want to draw attention that there are older romance readers who are so damn ready to see themselves reflected in the genre they love. It’s about visibility. Older women deserve and need to be written back into the narrative of life and fictional tales. Because of it’s position as a vanguard for women and social change, Romance fiction holds the power to make older women visible.  However, there are impediments still in place, sticky impediments. With this list as proof of a growing market and subgenre (not a niche, dammit),  I want to clear way the cobwebs that still obscure some publishers minds, and show them the vibrancy of older women.  The Romance publishers who are open to older heroines, but limit the ‘field of older’ to between the ages of 35 to 45 because, as one editor said to me, “No one wants to read about granny sex,” need to understand that this limit perpetuates the ageist and sexist attitude that older women aren’t attractive, sexual, or interested in sex, which implies women over 45 are lesser, other, unworthy of love, and their hideousness must continue to be hidden or kept out of the narrative–you see how ridiculous that practice is.

Have a gander at the list I already have. I know since 2016 there have been titles released by traditional and indie publishers (I’m looking at you, Maggie Wells), but as any author will tell you DISCOVERABILITY IS KEY to readers finding new authors and titles.  I want to add books to my list of romance fiction featuring heroines over 40!  Give ’em to me. Shoot those titles my way! Help me add to the list and help these books be discovered! Let’s wipe out sexist ageism one Romance novel at a time!

PLEASE Leave your book recommendation as a comment!