I did a little Googling, and found that there's market research on romance novels as a genre within the publishing field. Simba Information, for example, puts out an annual report (which I could, but won't, buy for $3,000) entitled: Business of Consumer Book Publishing. The 2009 edition includes in its table of contents the following sections:
- Romance Books
- Size of the Romance Book Market and Title Output
- Five-Year Romance Book Trends: Format, Segment, Performance
- Key Romance Book Publishers
- Kensington Books
- Penguin Group
- Random House
- Table 3.76: New Romance Titles vs. All New Titles Released, 2004-2008
- Table 3.77: Five-Year Trend: Romance by Consolidated Rating
- Table 3.78: Format and Segment Trends: Romance, 2004-2008
- Table 3.79: Top 20 Romance Imprints, January-December 2008
- Table 3.80: Bestselling Romance Books, 2008
What's apparent to me, looking at the sort of information Simba gives its customers regarding romance novels, is that it's all about how the market is performing and not at all about what customers want vs. what customers think about what they're offered. That would be customer satisfaction research, and I can find no evidence that anyone's doing any of that on paperback books in general, and romance novels specifically.
Now, I have the tiniest knowledge of market research (I worked one summer at a friend's firm in London -- thirty years ago) but ironically I did prepare a concept paper for my boss that summer on customer satisfaction research for paperback books.
I dimly recall writing about what I foresaw as the problems of doing customer satisfaction research for paperbacks. I think I mentioned the deeply subjective nature of readers' opinions, choices, and preferences when it came to specific books within a genre. Which translates to the researcher's inability to get statistically significant answers to any of the following general questions:
What type of book(s) do you like to read?and so forth. (My boss didn't object to fill-in-the-blank answers, tabulating them was what I got paid to do.)
Why do you like to read those books?
When you read those books, what do you hope to get from your reading experience?
On a scale from 1 to 10, how satisfied are you reading those books?
Imagine filling out a questionnaire like that. I like to read a lot of different kinds of books, but I think the complexity of a questionnaire designed to determine if I like mysteries more than thrillers, but less than romances, would be counter-productive. Readers, I think, are complicated actors in the marketplace for books.
And that would only provide information on readers' preferences in categories of books, genres, periods, degree of sexual activity/explicitness. Imagine how hard it would be to find out if readers actually want what they're offered as opposed to what they aren't offered.
Over on Dear Author, Robin/Janet has posted another op-ed piece on female sexuality in romance novels. She and I don't disagree on everything, but she rightly objected to my comment that with regard to historical novels, the prevalence of virginal heroines is the result of the marketplace: it's what authors want to write and readers what to read. But to describe that as circular because we can only read what we're given and that's not necessarily what we want to read misses a couple key points.
First, if more authors (and particularly well-established authors whose books regularly sell well and make their publishers money) wrote historical romances about sexually experienced heroines, we would read them. The problem is, among the upper classes, that sort of sexual freedom wasn't widespread. I can think of two prototypes: the Emma, Lady Hamilton type -- a socially well-placed female conducting serial relationships with different men; and the sort of bluestocking that believed in pursuing sexual pleasure -- and love -- regardless of societal mores. (I found it hard to find specific examples of that sort of proto-sexual liberation; Mary Shelley perhaps? I had thought more of the female members of the Blue Stockings Society were in this category, but a very quick click through Wiki's list suggests that the females were actually all a bit worthy...)
I think we can conclude that the books written by well-established authors are the ones those authors want to write, regardless of market forces. If there's insufficient sexual experience among the heroines in those romances to suit Robin/Janet, her post may inspire those authors to write about women with more experience.
What then of the slew of books that are by first-time authors, or mid-list authors who might be influenced by agents, editors, or others sufficiently to change their minds about the sexual experience of heroines? Are first-time authors having manuscripts rejected because their heroines were too sexually experienced? Unless a writer steps forward and says that happened, we'll never know. And certainly there's no statistically significant research (that I could find, at least) as to a conscious or unconscious bias on the part of the traditional publishing industry in favor of a certain level of sexual experience.
[Oh, except of course for those series romances with "Virgin" in the title. I'm pretty sure Harlequin is influencing its authors and/or first-time submissions to have, uh, significantly less sexually experienced heroines.]
Finally, what of the reader? We might approve of a more realistic depiction of women's sexual experience in our heroines, but never be able to use our wallets to get the traditional publishing industry to reflect that preference. As Robin/Janet rightly points out, we're reading what we're given to read.
There is some disagreement about whether the choice of books is too large (400 titles a month is more than anybody can keep up with) or too narrow (it could be 4,000 titles a month but if they're all, effectively, the same, volume is not equating to great variety or choice). I think both perspectives are accurate: we seem to be getting a lot of very similar books to read. Some are better written, and we're grateful to sites like Dear Author to help us find the gems.
Wouldn't it be nice if publishers, editors and agents kept track of op-ed pieces like Robin/Janet's so they knew what educated readers wanted. But in a wildly anecdotal report from a publishing insider, I was told recently that the majority of romance readers are conservative (politically and socially), less educated, and more likely to be living in a Red State. That's not me. Which tells me that in the viewpoint of Simba Information's reports, my opinion probably doesn't count.