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 wwhat 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, but 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 isn 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 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 being told I read down. If you have read 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. 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 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 the 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 and older won’t sell.

Are you listening, Entangled?

If you’re keen on reading 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

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

 

 

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

Just The Way It Is Not, Baby

The Rembrandts, the 90s musical sensation, had a big hit with I’ll Be There For You, the theme song from the TV show Friends. Perhaps not quite as well-known is their song That’s Just The Way It Is, Baby. After reading another article about the invisibility of middle aged women,  I have that song stuck in my head; it’s a persistent earworm that I am trying so very hard to kill.

Why is the lyric line “That’s just the way it is, baby” a block of concrete in my brain?

The Roundabout Theatre Company writes about the production of Skintight at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater/Laura Pels Theater in New York City. Skintight focuses on the repercussions of the cultural obsession with youth. The article itself discusses ageism and sexism, and being made to look ‘younger,’  being airbrushed to fit with the UNREAL world of the ideal image of beauty. The topic of middle aged women being I-N-V-I-S-I-B-L-E  is mentioned. The article, Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women, says:

“Because media has traditionally been created by and for men, and women face gender discrimination behind the camera as well as in front of it.”

And there, the title of the article, the Invisibility part and the “traditionally” bit in that quote, that’s the reason for the bag of cement that’s solidified the Rembrandts’ That’s Just The Way It Is, Baby.

Airbrushed models, twenty-something female characters paired with fifty-something men on screen, in fiction, in advertising is the norm.  Culture creates content, and content creates culture. The books you read, the movies you watch, the advertising you see matters; it shapes our identities, colours our view of the world. Girls and women seldom see realistic images of females in the media. Girls and women rarely see women over 40 portrayed in positive or realistic ways. Girls and women, boys and men are conditioned, socially programmed by the images they see–or don’t see. And what we don’t see often is middle aged women, except in stereotypes roles, sidelined roles, roles that diminish their value. That’s just the way it is, baby.

“While men gain status as they age, middle-aged (and older) women are considered less valuable than their younger counterparts. This devaluation effects how how women are hired, promoted, and paid; how they are (or aren’t) depicted in the media; and how they see themselves.”

We KNOW women are underrepresented in the media, but the underrepresentation hits middle aged and older women especially hard. Women over 40 fade away until they are invisible. That invisibility is something we’ve grown used to. It’s what we’ve been shown, what we come to expect, it threads its way through film and fiction. When we are presented with a female character outside the norm we are shocked. Some of us don’t realise we’ve blindly accepted the standard, or realise that the standard does NOT mirror reality becasue that’s just the way is is…

Are you humming the Rembrandts yet?

Sexism and diversity are issues vital to address within society, yet ageism is seldom highlighted as an issue that is sexist, and it is rarely included in discussions about diversity.  Ageism is insidious. The perceptions about ageing treat a natural part of life as a disease to be battled. This anti-ageing crap has an impact on men and women, but it has a greater impact on women. Older men remain visible, while women … cue the Rembrandts.

If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got. It’s beyond time to change what we’ve always done, to alter what we’ve blindly accepted to be just the way it is, baby, when the way it is isn’t true to life.  We change the standard, change what we are used to seeing by being genuine, by tearing down the sexist and ageist attitudes in the media, in film and publishing industries that persist shoving the usual younger-is-better images down the throat of society. Film and fiction must stop treating older women with disdain, stop overlooking middle-aged women –a sizable portion of the population– who have money to spend if they can see themselves portrayed as they really are. We do this by writing stories that better include an array of age.

I’m doing it with every book I write. My latest, At Your Service, has a middle aged female butler.  I put women over the age of 40 front and centre in narratives that portray them as whole as interesting, intelligent, capable, and attractive, sensual, sexual, and vibrant.  That’s just the way it is, baby.

Preorder links for At Your Service

Kindle

Kobo, Nook, and more 

 

 

 

Roundabout Theatre Company. (2018). Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women

https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/Invisibility-of-Middle-Aged-Women-20180716

[Rhino].  (2015, June 15). The Rembrandts -That’s just the way it is, baby. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/k6KfhOpq2n8