Category Error

Jennifer Probst’s The Marriage Bargain, a category-length romance from Entangled Press, has been on best-seller lists for weeks; the book and its two planned sequels in the “Marriage to a Billionaire” series have been picked up in a seven-figure deal by Pocket, a division of Simon & Schuster, which will re-issue it as a mass-market paperback (and thus at a price point $5 higher than Entangled’s $2.99 e-book; the price I’m being offered in Canada now is a good deal higher than that). Curious about this breakout success, I grabbed it while it was still cheap.

I . . . haven’t felt this much like writing a snarky review in a long time, probably because normally I’d just abandon a book that was working so poorly for me. But I’m going to try to express my issues with this book and its publishing history in a more productive way. I confess I was not the most open-minded reader. Like a lot of other people who enjoy some category romances, I gave the side-eye to Entangled’s “this is not your mother’s category romance” promo line, especially once some reviewers I respect found the Entangled books they tried (including Probst’s) to be familiar Harlequin Presents-style fare, and not great examples of it either. I wondered how much of the book’s success was due to the low price point and other experiments with marketing (if so, it seems to have worked; Entangled has since placed other books on best-seller lists). Despite that context, and despite knowing that many, many best-sellers are books I consider, um, not very good, I expected more engaging storytelling than I found here. This book was a disappointment and made me more reluctant to try others from Entangled.

Reading Category Romance 

Category or series romances are short (most lines range from 50,000-75,000 words) and books in a line meet specific guidelines, such as these for Harlequin Presents, with which Probst’s book has a lot in common. Their brevity and other formal constraints mean that they take narrative short-cuts. They rely on certain tropes and types of characters, and their plots tend to feature a handful of dramatic set-piece scenes, skimming over the time between these climactic moments. I had to learn to read category romances–almost the way I had to learn to read sonnets, another kind of formally-constrained literature–particularly Presents (which aren’t my personal favorite). They are often over the top, and are best not taken too literally. They’re almost archetypal or symbolic, or maybe gestural like Kabuki theater. Understanding them that way, I can enjoy their emotional punch, though I tend to prefer my stories more realistic.

When Your Mother Meets “Not Your Mother”

I think the main reason this book didn’t work for me was the way it tried to be “not your mother’s category romance.” The blend of Presents tropes with more contemporary and realistic elements left it caught between two categories, and it didn’t succeed in either.

The characters and set-up are straight out of the Presents playbook: wounded alpha billionaire who can never love because of his sad, sad childhood needs wife to fulfill conditions of a will and gain control of his company, finds warm, loving creative woman who rescues stray dogs, writes poetry, and runs a bookstore. Has instant hots for her, but oh no, he can never love and sex leads to those messy, messy emotions, so better not do it. But ultimately he can’t help it. The plot is also resolved in a very familiar way. I didn’t feel these characters ever transcended their types. We are told over and over again that Nick is calm and rational, even though he has an emo melt-down and a hard-on in every interaction with Alexa.

Nick is standard-issue misogynist douche: she’s not allowed to have sex with anyone during their one-year phony marriage, but he plans to keep sleeping with his super-model girlfriend because “a man is different.” There is standard Presents language too–a punishing kiss, for instance, and then this: “Some buried, caveman instinct flared to life and pushed him to make his claim. By law, she already belonged to him.” Ahem, Mr. Billionaire, the law says different about wives these days! This attitude is never really challenged.

Sometimes I give this nonsense a pass for some crazy over-the-top emo fun. But that requires a fantasy world that allows me to suspend disbelief. A good Presents says, “hey, don’t ask too many questions about this billionaire shizz, just hop in the helicopter and come along to the Red Room of Pain remote Greek island for some sexy-emotional hijinks.” In The Marriage Bargain, though, we are in Upstate New York. There are brand names (there’s a whole page of trademark acknowledgements at the front of the book). This . . . doesn’t always work out. A billionaire who looks hip in Dockers? Even my forty-something-middle-class-dad husband is too hip for Dockers. The heroine is the only woman at fancy parties who wears color. The other ladies reek of Shalimar and Obsession. The hero cooks like an Italian granny (or like the Olive Garden, garlic bread slathered in melted cheese). He’s an architect who lives in a faux-Tuscan villa he designed himself. I am solidly middle-class and even I know that stuff is not right for the really rich. The illusion was shattered.

Then there’s the business stuff. Nick wants to work on revitalizing the town’s riverfront, which will involve designing some restaurants and a spa. Now, he got full control of his uncle’s company by marrying Alexa. But he still has a board to deal with. Does a privately-held company with a single owner have a board? Doesn’t a board come with shareholders? And if he’s a billionaire, why does he need to win the approval of the Japanese and Italian dudes to get a chance at the redevelopment? I’ve been a public-college employee all my life, so I am ignorant about business, but none of this seemed plausible. Keep the billionaire shizz behind the curtain! (I had the same problem with a Maya Banks category, where I kept going, “hang on, even in Texas wouldn’t you need permits to develop waterfront island property? would the town really be surprised by the arrival of bulldozers?” Fake European principalities make this stuff so much easier to believe).

And then there’s the Italian, who is apparently the hero of the next book. He’s a count. Named Michael Conte. So . . . he’s the Italian Count von Count? And why isn’t his name Michele? Plus, what is he doing upstate? I know the Euro-stocracy sometimes like a pied-a-terre  in Manhattan, but further up the Hudson? Sorry, strayed into snark territory. The point is, this didn’t work as either fantasy or reality for me.

Finally, I found the writing pretty sloppy. There are a lot of awkward sentences and weird images. Like “A canvas of Sinatra’s umbrella skies stretched so far and wide a man couldn’t find the beginning or end.” That’s the heroine’s eyes, yo. There are misused words, like “honed” for “homed,” and confusion between lay and lie. I felt as if I was paying more attention to the meaning and effect of the language than the author or the editor had. And I don’t like that feeling.

What’s a Book Worth?

I am sure many readers enjoyed this book more than I did. And it’s impossible to judge the “worth” of a book. You can get Shakespeare for free, but that doesn’t mean we don’t value it. Still, I feel offended that readers will be asked to pay full-length mass market price for a category-length book (the listed page-length varies; my Kindle version said 160) that isn’t even a great example of its kind. Especially when Harlequin (not to mention the revived Loveswept line and many e-publishers) puts out several books with similar plots and characters every month for under $5–you need more than two hands to count the number of Harlequin Presents with some version of “Marriage Bargain” in the title. Some of these books are worse than Probst’s. Some are about as good. Plenty are better.

Why aren’t those books hitting best-seller lists? As a great Dear Author discussion pointed out, it’s partly because many readers wouldn’t touch “Harlequin” with a ten-foot pole. They may not realize that the types of stories they’re enjoying from digitally-published or self-published authors are also available there. Moreover, unlike the cover of The Marriage Bargain, Presents-branded covers often look cheesy and old-fashioned. Harlequin branding sells to existing readers, but may well put off new ones. I don’t think they need a new digital-first line; I think they need stealth digital covers without Harlequin branding for their existing books, to allow new readers to discover them online. If Entangled can move Probst’s book up the best-seller charts, why shouldn’t writers like Sarah Morgan, Mira Lyn Kelly, or Lynne Graham, to name just a few, find the same success?

I hope Harlequin is giving the success of Harlequin-style books from other publishers some thought. And I hope readers who did like Probst’s book will give Harlequin a try. I once thought I was too good for Harlequins. I was wrong.

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18 Responses to Category Error

  1. LynnS. says:

    I haven’t read The Marriage Bargain, but I totally agree with what you’re saying about Harlequin. The idea of stealth covers is such a good one. I read Harlequins and enjoy them because I got past the covers/titles a long time ago. Still, I think it’s a real shame that so many of us who love Harlequin have to talk about our love of these books in spite of their current branding, rather than because of it.

  2. My husband is an architect. A billionaire architect sets off my laugh meter so far toward full that I couldn’t possibly take any of the rest of it seriously.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      To be fair, it’s not clear where the “billions” come from; the company seems more a developer than an architecture firm. Or . . . not. This confusion was one of my big issues with the book. It just didn’t make sense. I wondered if “billionaire” were an afterthought. It’s only mentioned once in the book, and he’s far more believable as upper-middle-classish.

  3. Like Lynn, I haven’t read The Marriage Bargain either, and I also think Harlequin is a victim of its own success. They’ve successfully branded themselves as THE romance publisher. People outside the fandom don’t know Avon, Loveswept, or Kensington, but they all know Harlequin. With that brand recognition, however, comes all of the misconceptions people have about the genre. To non-fans, all romances are formulaic, melodramatic and forgettable. Since Harlequin’s the established purveyor of romance novels, their books must be the most unadventurous of them all. They’re the Walmart of romance. All these other publishers must then be the “upscale” options. Harlequins, therefore, must be for cheap readers with no taste.

    I really don’t think updating their cover branding would change much. It’s all in the name.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree with this 100%. By “stealth covers” I really mean they need to get Harlequin/line title off it. Entangled has “lines” but they are not readily discernible if you’re just browsing books on Amazon. I don’t think a lot of readers pay attention to who the publisher is if it’s not in your face. Of course, Harlequin’s problem is that the branding works for existing readers, so they can’t easily abandon it.

      • LynnS. says:

        “Harlequin’s problem is that the branding works for existing readers, so they can’t easily abandon it.”

        I can definitely see that. I went to a workshop a few years ago where some folks from Harlequin gave an interesting presentation on what they saw as their various markets. And they seemed very conscious of a market segment that only buys their pet series line each month – and some of these folks have been faithful customers for longer than I’ve been alive. I can see where they’d have to balance that mentality with the folks who’d go for the stealth covers.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Oh, that’s interesting. I think Harlequin is way better at–and makes more effort at–understanding their readers than most publishers. I hope they figure out how to appeal to new readers too.

      • Ros says:

        But that is the great thing about epublishing – it’s incredibly easy to put out the same book with a different cover. They could easily keep the trad covers for print books and have updated, non-Harlequin branded covers for the ebook versions.

  4. Count Michael Conte! LOL

    Great post, Liz. I agree with everything you said.

    Category romance is quite successful as it is, and it would be even more popular if it didn’t have so many stereotypes associated to it (although I think the opposite could be true, since I bet those stereotypes are the reason some readers are drawn to it).Even some romance fans look down on it. The Marriage Bargain reproduces the same trite romance conventions and tropes found in most category romances, but it’s been sold as something different and refreshing. They keep the same content, but strip it of the negative connotations. Add to that the attractive price, weary readers are more likely to take the chance.

    It makes me wonder if the success will continue with the new price tag. Also, am I the only one annoyed by the new trend of big publishers acquiring successful books regardless of their quality? It’s so opportunistic.

    The funny thing about Entagled is that all the books look the same. Maybe it’s me, but all those blue covers with a kissing couple blend together and I can’t tell them apart. Yes, it says Entangled instead of Harlequin, and the pregnant virgin secretary is inside the book and not on the title, but there’s really nothing new or refreshing about it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, Brie. You know, I can’t believe an editor didn’t pick up the Conte thing. Even if I had liked this book, no way would I read a sequel with an Italian count named Michael Conte. (Why does he have an Anglicized first name?) I’d be laughing the whole way through. Or it would be like nails on a chalkboard. Harlequin has proved readers can handle dudes with “exotic” Greek/Italian/French names.

      As I was reading this book and writing the post, I thought not just about all the Harlequins that do these tropes better, with better writing, but about a book like Ruthie Knox’s Ride With Me, which proves you CAN reboot category at a low price point. That is short but feels like a single-title contemporary, in that it doesn’t really employ many category tropes. This one didn’t do either traditional OR new well.

      Harlequin publishes plenty of fresh twists on its own lines and tropes, too.

  5. Ros says:

    I think there are going to be extra chapters in the print version of the Marriage Bargain, which you can get from Jen in e-form for free. So I guess it will be longer than category length.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That annoys me in a whole different way! Not that it’s the author’s fault, at all, but when publishers grab a self or e-pubbed success like this, why are readers supposed to keep track of whether or how it is different? some get minimal editing, some none, before a re-issue. Not sure how I feel about a quick expansion. (in my case, more would not fix my problems with the book, but I’m sure some readers will love that. If they know about it. I wonder if Amazon will e-mail?)

      • Ros says:

        I know. I almost didn’t mention it because it irritates me too, but since you’d mentioned the price/page count for the print edition, I thought it was worth noting.

  6. Vassiliki says:

    I really like your breakdown of reading category romance. I agree with you that you almost need to be trained to read it.

    As soon as I read “Not-your-mother’s-category” it set off alarms.The arrogance of elevating your own company by treating your (very successful) competitor disdainfully strikes me as a short-sighted marketing strategy particularly when your product is not better or different. As for the cover – when I first saw it I thought it was a Harlequin. They might have to try a little harder if they want to use that as their point of difference.

  7. Robin says:

    Entangled hasn’t really been winning my attention with slogans like that ‘not your mother’s category romance,’ in part because it seems to feed into the (incorrect) stereotype rather than subvert it.

    And really, the insult puzzles me, because categories have always been incredibly diverse, with some fascinating and provocative stories. As I mentioned on Twitter, LaVyrle Spencer’s Spring Fancy, published in 1984 as the first Harl Temptation, is really something, with a heroine who cheats on her fiance, a white collar tech developer, with a blue collar man, facing the class thing head on. Further, she’s athletic, not willowy nor voluptuous, and she has a career (as a physical therapist, IIRC) to which she’s dedicated. There is even an inference that the heroine’s mother, who raised the heroine alone, is a better match with her daughter’s fiance, lol. Then there’s Charlotte Lamb’s Demon Lover, which is basically like Dark Shadows meets HP on crack. And what about the Tom and Sharon Curtis categories, like The Testimony, which features a couple reconnecting after the husband has spent time in prison for contempt (he’s a journalist). It’s a pretty heavy story that deals with some difficult emotional and sexual issues.

    Then there are all the fabulous Harl categories still being pubbed, by the likes of Karina Bliss and Molly O’Keefe and Sarah Mayberry, etc.

    Not that I’m unused to the cracks about categories (and I find them particularly distasteful when authors make them), but I’m disappointed Entangled is perpetuating that mindset within the genre to sell their own category books. Part of me is curious to read the Probst book to see for myself, but another part of me is put off by the marketing and concerned about feedback by readers whose opinion I respect.

  8. Meri says:

    It’s frustrating, because on the one hand we all want to see romance novels succeed, but on the other, why can’t it be better written ones?

    I agree about the covers; for years we were told that clinch covers (or their more recent successors) sell, but it’s clear that they’re selling to an existing niche – sometimes in spite of rather than because of the covers – and not reaching new readers. I remember the Harry Potter books were also released with covers more targeted at adults, and it seemed to work well. Harlequin and other publishers could definitely do something similar with the stealth covers you suggested.

  9. Jessica says:

    There are some things I really like about Entangled. I love their covers, their website, their prices, and their lendable books. But I’ve read four or five of their books, and while I haven’t noticed the editing and other problems, neither have I read an Entangled book I LOVE. I plan to keep trying, though. I like the idea of having a few different publishers for these category length contemps.

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