Be Careful What You Wish For

ETA: Since some people seem to be landing here by searching for Mills & Boon’s 12 Shades of Surrender, there’s now information on their site. It doesn’t make clear that these are all (I believe) previously e-published Spice Brief novellas. (Whether these short stories will in any way satisfy fans of the epic 50 Shades is an open question, but the two I have read, by Anne Calhoun and Portia Da Costa, were pretty good if not my favorite work by those authors).

I’m working on a post about books I’ve been reading/listening to lately (I know, right?) but it seems I have another rant in me first.

Like many people, I hoped that the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey would inspire some different romance/erotic romance/erotica covers. The cover of the first book, particularly, is great: the silver tie is elegant and understated; both it and the gray tones relate to the contents of the book; it’s sexily suggestive without being in your face. I’m not as enamored of the other covers in the series, and I had to laugh when I saw a big display of Freed (the handcuffs cover) right beside the mysteries in my local bookstore. How many mystery readers accidentally picked that one up?

But dear publishers, when I wished those covers would inspire you, I did not mean “please have every single future erotic romance cover feature a man’s accessory, neutral tones and a simple font.” W.T.F. I thought you creative types had imagination?I’ve already mentioned the new cover Sylvia Day’s Bared to You got when a  publisher picked it up (cufflinks; book two? monogrammed keychain).

Now there’s Lora Leigh’s Wild Cardoriginallypublished in 2008 and now coming out with a new cover. 

Bet you can guess which is which.

Portia da Costa (an author whose work I have really enjoyed) recently posted some of the new covers her erotica and erotic romance re-issues are getting. Here’s In Too Deep (a book that starts as erotica and ends more romantic, with a shy librarian; I liked it a lot and it’s a favorite of Wendy the Super Librarian).

Not a man’s accessory, true, but check the giant “If you liked 50” badge. Then there’s her Harlequin/Mills & Boon Spice Brief, “Chance of a Lifetime” (which I also enjoyed), being repurposed for a Mills & Boon series called “12 Shades of Surrender.” To which series I can only say “gag me.” I couldn’t find anything about the series on Mills & Boon’s appallingly confusing website except this tweet.

Look, publishers and authors want to make money. It’s not surprising that they hope to capitalize on the E.L. James bandwagon. There’s no point in ranting about that, really, although the omnipresence of book-promotional tweets hashtagged #50Shades is driving me nuts. And if the rising tide of James’ success lifts the boats of good writers like da Costa who haven’t been big best-sellers, that’s great. They deserve it.

Here’s what I do want to rant about:

  1. What I liked about the original Fifty Shades cover was not just that it was less embarrassing/more subtle (though that too), but that it was unique. The gazillion covers that copy-cat it are mostly nice enough in themselves, but they just replicate the biggest problem with mantitty/clinch covers, in the end: they imply that romance and erotic fiction are bags of chips, cheap, disposable, interchangeable, formulaic. And that’s not going to draw new readers. Or if it is, I’m sad about that.
  2. Like a lot of people, I’m sick of the uninformed media coverage that assumes E.L. James’ books emerged ex nihilo (how extra ironic), as if she invented erotica/erotic romance. And to me, these copy-covers sort of replicate that inaccurate narrative. Lora Leigh is a best-seller in her own right, however inexplicable that fact may be to me. I have a yellowing 1994 copy of da Costa’s The Tutor that tells me she was writing erotica long before Twific existed. I’m sure these writers won’t cavil if 50-esque covers bring them sales, but I don’t like to think of new readers possibly grabbing these books and thinking of long-time writers in the genre as copycats. It seems unfair.
  3. Not all “dirty books” are the same. And not all erotica and erotic romance readers are, either. Selling every single erotic story as a 50 readalike, which is what seems to be happening right now, is ridiculous. A lot of these books–like a ton of romance in general–share some basic DNA (dominant alpha hero). But I think a lot of 50 readers (like me) would run screaming from the barbed penises of Lora Leigh’s Breeds series, for instance. A 50 fan new to the genre may try a 50-branded book that doesn’t work for her at all, be turned off, and never come back. The overkill can backfire.
  4. Not all erotica/erotic romance readers liked 50 Shades. And even those who did are really, really tired of this promotional juggernaut. Right now I refuse to read any book with a sepia-toned cover featuring a man’s accessory, or any book in any way associated with the word “shades,” a number, or a color. Cover, hashtag, series name, whatever. It just goes on my ugh list. And authors and publishers, when the dust from E.L. James’ flukey, inexplicable giant hit settles, you are not going to have ten million new forever readers, though you may have some. Your customer base is going to be mostly the people who were reading you before. You’re embarrassing me right now. Don’t turn me off altogether.
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18 Responses to Be Careful What You Wish For

  1. Don’t have much to add here, and a big hearty “Amen” on many of your points. What I find interesting re: Da Costa’s In Too Deep cover art, is that the original edition had a VERY romance-looking cover. My guess is because Black Lace (which was primarily known for erotica at the time) was hoping to tap into the erotic romance crowd. So isn’t it intriguing they’re now turning around and going with a more erotica-looking cover this time out.

    And now I want to reread that book.

    Oh, and seriously – read The Tutor. It’s been ages for me, but I really loved it at the time. Now that Black Lace is making a comeback I’m hoping like heck that they reprint that one. I sold my copy online for $20+ and have regretted it ever since.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, I *have* read The Tutor. I’ve had that crumbling yellowed copy since 1994 or so. 😉

      • Wendy says:

        It was reprinted in 2003 – and that’s the edition I had. Before I was a dope and got rid of it, at any rate. I’d love to have it in print, so I keep hoping for a reprint edition. It is available on Kindle, but since that’s not my primary method of digital reading I’ve resisted. Haven’t been able to locate it in any other digital formats (ugh).

  2. 4.Not all erotica/erotic romance readers liked 50 Shades.

    You saw me ranting about A.N. Roquelaire’s Beauty trilogy on Twitter. That is kind of the last straw for me. Those books are heavy-duty BDSM with lots of non-con, multiple partners, bisexuality, and REAL master/slave relationships. They’re so UNLIKE 50 Shades, it ought to be considered false advertising to claim otherwise. I said on Twitter it was like trying to sell Interview with the Vampire by claiming it’s like Twilight, but it’s almost worse.

    And I agree with you about the copycat cover art. And you’re right, in addition to the sameness of it all, it’s a disservice to make the progenitors of 50 looks like its ancestors. Ugh.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I know there’s a lot of media fuss about ooh, sex! and that may well be part of what some readers are loving. But 50 is at its heart a relationship story, a story about falling in love, and lots of people are loving it for that. *Sleeping Beauty* isn’t in any way a read-alike. I suspect the best read-alikes may not have BDSM at all, or only a little.

      • Yep. In many ways, Off the top of my head, I suspect the best “read-alikes” are likely to be fairly “old skool” Harlequin Presents and a fair proportion of Johanna Lindsey’s backlist.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Yeah, I sent a romance friend Michelle Reid’s Gold Ring of Betrayal and she said “I was laughing, it’s just like 50” (she liked 50). Presents are short of course, and the plots are different, but I think some of the emotions are similar.

      • rosario001 says:

        I think that’s exactly it. I told my friend who adored Twilight she needed to read 50, and when she loved that, that she should read Beatriz Williams’ Overseas*. But that’s because I had the conversation with her about exactly what it was that she’d liked about Twilight, and knew it was the dynamics of the romance relationship, not all the other stuff around it.

        *All 3 books I didn’t like at all, BTW.

    • VacuousMinx says:

      Good God. Sleeping Beauty for the Fifty crowd? What on earth are they smoking? The only thing those trilogies have in common is that they are both written in English. And the heroines are not the brightest bulbs on the tree. That’s not to say there aren’t conceivably readers who will read and enjoy both, but not because they’re similar.

  3. lol Liz. I completely agree.

    Granted, while FSoG has made me curious about BDSM romance, at the end of the day, the only element I care to see replicated is the unconventional romance/romantic narrative, and perhaps more experimentation with differing POV styles. A lot of the books hovering at the top of Amazon’s best-selling romance list do have FSoG elements, but I’m going to assume that those seeking more books like the trilogy are not romance readers, and as you said, aren’t going to fall into the romance genre simply because of cuff links, belts, or blue-gray-shaded covers. Taking the short-cut of hopping on a bandwagon is reactive, rather than proactive, and all I can do is shake my head in exasperation.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I think there are creative, proactive ways to capitalize on the trend, and I’m sorry to see that they are mostly not happening.

      So many people on Twitter today have commented (like Jackie) on the ridiculous idea that Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty is a read alike, which apparently is a big part of the promotional strategy for a reissue. I think some kind of saturation point of annoyance with this strategy has been reached, at least among romance readers I know.

  4. Janet W says:

    It’s worth remembering that it wasn’t a publisher deciding what covers would work for FSoG, it was the author. Also, all the objects on the covers were part of the plot. This current rash of subtle, grey’ed cufflinks, dog tags, key chains — what’s the matter with money clips or belt buckles or shoe horns? I mean really. Also, the number, the hue, the colour — the whole title — is straight from the pages of the first book. So again, given a rash of copy-cat titles, throwing numbers, colours and variations on a theme is not an organic way to title a book. Someone thinks we’re dumb, there can be no other explanation.

    I agree with Jill Sorenson, most of the follow-on suggestions are ludicrous and they make me suspect the advisors have no clue what interests the millions of readers of FSoG. At the very least, a relationship between two protagonists — wouldn’t that be a good starting place?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree, Janet! I didn’t even mention all the newspaper/magazine stories I’ve seen with some variant of “50 Shades” of this or that. It’s like that’s become a code phrase for “sex” rather than a phrase with a particular context and meaning in the books. It’s just so annoying. (I haven’t even read them and I’m annoyed!)

      Of course I expect more erotica and erotic romance to be published and marketed to 50 fans, just as children’s fantasy saw a rebirth in the US after Harry Potter (yay!) and PNR for teens became big after Twilight. But market those books as *different offerings from the same genre* not as “just like” 50. Especially if they’re actually nothing like 50.

  5. VacuousMinx says:

    Your Reason #4 really resonates with me, as a longtime romance and erotica reader. But here’s the thing: the publishers don’t care about the likes of us. We’re the equivalent of a political party’s base. We were there before 50 took off, and we’ll be there when it’s over, because we don’t really have anywhere to go unless we quit the party/stop reading romance and erotica.

    The new readers are the equivalent of swing voters. The publishers don’t know quite why they hopped on board for this one, and there’s no single reason, so they’re trying everything they can think of to turn the newbies into part of the core constituency. It won’t work. But just as in every election there’s a swing group that gets pandered to while the base is taken for granted, every time there’s a breakthrough novel these publishers embarrass themselves doing the same thing.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That’s a great analogy. And yes, my current irritation likely won’t change my reading behavior in the long term, especially when this has all blown over.

      For instance, I like Portia da Costa, and I’m not going to avoid her just because publishers are giving her copycat covers. I noticed in that post I linked that the new covers she’s choosing for books she’s self-pubbing are NOT 50-esque, and I appreciate that.

  6. Barb in Maryland says:

    But publishers/marketers have always been fond of jumping on a design bandwagon. I can’t be the only one who remembers when every third book cover looked something like “Twilight”–you know, black background, delicate hands holding something towards the viewer. Classics(like ‘Wuthering Heights’), re-issues, new books (whether they had teens or vampires or not) all got the “Twilight’ treatment. And after a few years, it faded away. Same thing will happen here.
    And if, in the meantime, it leads new readers to some deserving authors, well, ho harm and a lot of good to that. Even if it does get very boring to look at.

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