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

 

 

The Imitative and Conformist Business Practice That Ignores You

It won’t surprise you to learn I follow a number of writers, websites, and professionals in various industries (Tech, fashion, health & heauty, marketing & advertising). I like Forbes, Ashton Applewhite (see her website Yo, Is this Ageist and her totally bitchin’ book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism), Next Avenue, and MarketingWeek.com to name a few. Much of what I follow discusses discrimination on the basis of age—that is sexism, ageism, ageist practices and how it all has an effect on how we view getting older.

This follows on to yesterday’s post about discrimination, ageism and the romance fiction industry. The Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman (smart man, Bob, he was once named one of the world’s most influential marketing and advertising blogs by Business Insider) had a recent post titled The Stupidity of Ignoring Older People . Click on the link there o check it out. It’s a short clip from his presentation at the NextM conference in Copenhagen.

If you don’t have the time (or inclination) to watch it, Bob takes umbrage with statements such as “young people are more creative” and people, like Mark Zuckerberg, to task for saying something as dumbass as, “Young people are just smarter.” In the clip, Bob turns the ‘younger people are more creative’ schtick on its head by pointing those who won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature and Pulitzer prizes poetry, drama, and history were all over the age of 50. Bob also mentions that the female actors nominated for Oscars in 2017 were all over 50, which, if you know much about Hollywood’s obsession with younger women (like the world of Romance fiction) was something of a spectacular first, however the observation does hammer home his point about creativity being viewed as something only young people possess.

Bob gives a few other noteworthy facts that might be a little eye-opening. I’ll break them down:

 “In the US, people over 50 are responsible for over HALF of all consumer spending… [including entertainment]…”

 “[people over 50] account for 50% of all consumer package goods, they outspend other adults…”

[people over 50] are only the target of FIVE PERCENT of marketing activity…

Based on those few stats, s Bob says,“Do you REALLY think it’s a good idea to ignore these people?”

Bob goes on to mention that advertising and marketing ignores older people “because we hate them,” and that advertising is an “imitative and conformist business” that is difficult, or dangerous, to challenge because, and this is my take on it—OH DEAR GOD, WHAT IF IT FAILS. Or rather, as some authors might think, what if I FAIL?

Challenging the status quo is always a challenge and yes, there is a danger of failure. Fear is a powerful motivator. Fear motivates some people to keep things exactly as they are because change is scary and what you’ve always known is easy and, works. The status quo makes you money. If you’re a big company that publishes romance novels that feature younger women as the heroines and those books sell, have always sold, and you make money, why change what ain’t broke? Except that it is broke and, as Bob so amusingly suggests, not challenging the current status quo that hates older people is going to send you broke.

I, for one, see fear as powerful motivator FOR CHANGE. With the books I write, my In Service series (obligatory book plug!) about the middle aged female butler and the middle aged spy who loves her, I am challenging the status quo and facing the fear. Yes, I face the fear. I’ve given public presentations, the kind with slides and stats like Bob offers in his presentations—and I’m an introvert. Do you know how hard it is for me to face a room full of people, how terrifying that is? In terms of companies, like romance fiction publishers, the status quo means they simply can’t build a sexy marketing strategy based on the ingrained perception about older people, especially older women—you know the entrenched notion that women over 40 cease to be attractive or intelligent or useful because they are grandmas who don’t have sex. This is similar to what Bob calls “the boredom of middle age” or, as I like to put it, how can a marketing department in a romance fiction publishing house build a campaign with the status quo that presents ageing as something horrifying that reminds us of our impending death, because who wants a death fantasy as part of their romance fantasy?

They could take another look at the facts, at the demographics that Bob Hoffman presents. Reframe the fantasy of living, the fantasy of falling in love–the one fantasy that doesn’t ever change just because you’re over 40 or 50 or 60 or beyond.  Quit ignoring what is all cashed up right in front of you. Imitate what is THERE. Or keep doing what you’re doing publishing world, because it’s really workin’ for ya, innit?

I keep saying there is money to be made. Romance fiction could be, once again, at the forefront of social change for women, like it has been in the past. And be a front runner of better advertising to people of a certain age.

 

Hoffman, B. (2019). The stupidity of ignoring older people. Lecture. Copenhagen, Denmark. Retrieved from http://adcontrarian.blogspot.com/2019/05/the-stupidity-of-ignoring-older-people.html

 

 

Seriously, A Trilogy?

Here I am, on the cusp of the release for the second book of the In Service series, I mean it’s TWO days away until Forever in Your Service drops, and it only dawned on me, oh, about 5 minutes ago, when I shoved in a mouthful of this really delish cabbage salad, that I am writing the third book of a trilogy when I had no intention of writing a series when I started the first book.

Some cabbage may have fallen out of my mouth and onto my keyboard.

Honest. I had At Your Service and the short story prequel, Your Sterling Service, and I thought that was it. I didn’t know I was going write a second book about the middle-aged butler and the spy who loves her. I swear, I started writing the second book without realising there was going to be a second book. Ms Ainslie Paton, an author friend of mine asked, “Is there another book?” and I sorta looked down and kinda noticed that, yep, I was 2 chapters deep in a series I never knew I was going to write.

And here I am, mouth still full of shredded apple & cabbage salad, writing the THIRD book about a middle-aged butler and the spy who loves her.  My series is a Trilogy–The In Service trilogy.

Look, I’m a slow writer who often gets interrupted by my day job, family, headaches, holidays and ranting about ageism and women over the age of 40, but I aim to have the trilogy completed before the next James Bond movie comes out NEXT YEAR, as in 2020. The third book is titled True To Your Service. I already have a cover for it.

I can’t tell you much about the third book because I don’t plot, but I will say it battles the ageist structures that continue to keep older women from being portrayed as romance heroines, it positions a woman in her early 50s as the romantic lead, has tulips, banter, sexy times, is another genre-crossing romantic suspense cosy spy thriller mystery with older protagonists, and gives a middle-aged spy the happy ending James Bond never gets.

Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have to clean up spilled cabbage salad.

Discovery of the Obvious

The hardest thing any author faces is discovery. We write the book, we try to get the book published traditionally, or go indie and put the book out ourselves. That’s the easy part. The thing that makes us pull out our hair is trying to get noticed. Or in my case noticed and HEARD

This week, I was very kindly invited to be a guest and post on Breathless in the Bush, “an eclectic group of writers who share a love of Romance, the enjoyment of a good laugh, and a dedication to learning all we can about the craft of writing.” These wonderful Australian writers have graciously allowed me to tell them and other readers and writers about Seasoned Romance and, of course, my books. It’s a lovely way to  have readers discover my upcoming release, Forever in Your Service, the second book of the In Service series, which again features a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. It comes out 29 March.

If you enjoyed At Your Service and the short story Your Sterling Service, I think you really might kind of like Forever In Your Service. It has a dog in it. Also, the leads, Mrs Valentine and Major Kitt, discover things about each other as they discover the world around them is made of cowboys, charlatans, wine, snow, and obvious lies.

Where was I ? Oh, yes, discovery. You know I write novels with an emphasis on the portrayal of women over 40 as heroines, I write older romantic heroines and I always have. I’ve been going on and on–okay, I’ve been ranting about older romance heroines, ageism and sexism in Hollywood, in publishing, and especially in romance fiction. Whether you want to call what I write Adult-Contemporary romance, ‘mature’ romance, grown-up romance, later-in-life romance, or to use the term author Maggie Wells coined, Seasoned Romance, they are central love story where the female lead, where couples of ‘a certain age’ are front and centre as lead characters in a story that comes with all the hallmarks you love and expect in a romance, novel, right down to sexy times and the all-important Happily Ever After.

Guess what? I’m not alone in what I do. Others have joined my voice, have given credence to my academic and ongoing scholarly research, the stuff about an overlooked audience of readers eager to see older heroines and older couples in their fiction, and the viability of women aged 40+ as romance heroines.  There are other like me out there, writers and readers. We’ve been here and now we’ve joined forces. Visit the Seasoned Romance Facebook Group to find out more about the authors and readers and books.  JOIN US!

We’ve been out here all along, writing, and writing, and having some of our books traditionally or Indie published. We’ve been waiting for you to notice, to discover us, and I’ve been telling you, I’ve been shouting, “We’re here!  We’re here!” like a little Who from Whoville.

I’m not going to say it.

Okay, yes I am.

I told you so.

 

Introduction to an Old Character

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

The Pink Heart Society’s May newsletter discusses romance fiction with older heroines, and asks, as I do, if the romance genre thinks love has an age limit. The newsletter features interviews with Dee Ernst, Amanda Ward, Liz Flaherty, Morgan Malone and the Pink Heart Society’s (PHS) editor, Trish Wylie—all romance authors who place women of certain age front and centre of romance. It’s exciting to know I am not alone in being passionate in my desire to stamp out ageism and sexism.

Why is it exciting?

An Introduction (for you newbies)

Hi, I’m Sandra Antonelli. I write older romance heroines—silver foxy women over 40 as the lead characters, not as secondary characters, and not as protagonists in Women’s Fiction, but as the romantic leads. I represent this demographic of women and demographic of romance readers who want female heroines with all my heart, and I am passionate about continuing to do so.

If this is your first time reading one of my posts, and you don’t know, mature-aged romance heroines are my soapbox. Check out the Mature Content Stockpile tab for just how much soapboxing I do. There are many reports in the media discussing sexism and ageism in Hollywood, but there’s very little media dialogue on ageism and sexism in romance fiction. Strange, because there is such a parallel in the way women of a certain age are pigeon-holed in stereotyped roles (cougar, granny, witch, crazy cat lady) or rendered nearly invisible in both forms of entertainment. This really chaps my hide.

Years ago, before Harlequin’s NEXT line, which touted stories about women with a little more life experience, I went looking for older romance heroines and found next to nothing. So, I decided to write my own, thinking the world would catch up. I kept writing older protagonists in romance, and, like Liz Flaherty mentions in the PHS newsletter, I got curious about why there were only a handful to be found. I did a master’s degree and then a PhD on the subject to try to get to the core. The masters uncovered the demographic of reader looking for older romance heroines, the PhD examined why the demographic is overlooked. And in the mix of all that academic stuff, I kept on writing romance with older heroines AND heroes because no way was I going to be like Hollywood and let the hero be an older Bruce Willis-type while the heroine was 25 to 35-something. My books were published by Escape, a division of Harlequin Enterprises in ebook format—because ebooks are a little more open to taking a chance on something with a niche market, or outside the norm.

I have four books that sit outside the romance heroine age norm: A Basic Renovation, For Your Eyes Only, Driving in Neutral, and Next to You, as well as short stories Your Sterling Service, and Niagara Falls at Café Nixin the anthology It All Happened at Café Nix. I have more on the way. You can find links to all my books here.

Knowing that there are other books outside the norm besides my own, that I’m not the only one writing older romance heroines, that Dee Ernst, Amanda Ward, Liz Flaherty, Morgan Malone, Karen Booth, Josie Kerr, Maggie Wells, Natasha Moore, and the Seasoned Romance Facebook page with over 600 members of authors (and readers) are also writing heroines with life experience and–gasp–wrinkles shows that older equals OH HELL YES!

Can You Predict the Future?

Yeah, you guessed it! I’ll write romance, blog, tweet, post on Facebook, and do academic-type stuff on women of a certain age in romance, and I’ll keep on championing  until we’re not a stereotype of age, a niche market, or a trend.

I applaud you ballsy authors who, like me, want to show the entire world, not just the romance world or Hollywood, that foxy doesn’t end at forty.