On a whim -- and because fundamentally I don't know anything about this field so let's ask someone who does -- I sent Simba Information a question: Did they know if anyone was doing customer satisfaction research with regard to romance novels?
Here's Michael Norris's answer. He's Senior Analyst for Simba's Trade Books Group, which would include romances.
The short answer is no, we’ve never done customer satisfaction studies on a genre basis, and if the Romance Writers of America haven’t done one in the past I’m not sure who has. We’ve done quality ratings for fall lists by surveying independent bookstores nationwide (How do you feel the quality of the fall list in 2009 compares to that of 2008, etc.) but reaching out to readers themselves is tricky, especially since we know diehard romance fans consume a lot of books, so a quantitative analysis about satisfaction in general would be completely subjective. I’ve always believed ‘books are sold one at a time to one person at a time’ so the quality of a book depends on which reader you ask.
Okay, that answers that question. (Does anyone know if RWA has done a customer satisfaction study?)
I followed up and asked Norris specifically about this idea that the traditional publishers of romance novels have just two customers: the buyer for Borders and the buyer for Barnes & Noble. (I got this notion from Robin/Janet at Dear Author; here's the link to her comment.) Here's Michael Norris's answer to that question:
The choices of readers matter, but most of the time all a publisher has in front of them to base decisions on is a spreadsheet with sales figures on it of the choices readers have made. Put another way, I’m tired of listening to aspiring authors complain about getting rejected from publishers, yet when I ask them what they buy, they practically recite the New York Times bestseller list, which is home to less than 2% of books published annually. If readers are choosing to scoop up books from the pre-famous authors only, publishers will get the message that those are the books readers want. I tell people who want to become authors to skip Nora Roberts and seek out new authors because if publishers see new voices selling, they’ll want to publish more new voices.
I’d also recommend buying their books at local bookstores; preferably independent ones. The reason for that is: the huge number of non-bookstore entities like Wal-Mart, Target, and CostCo aren’t likely to carry anything other than books published by authors who have created their reputations 10+ years ago. Better to buy books at a place that has a stake in the future of print.
Unfortunately, my experience with independent bookstores is that they either don't carry romance novels at all, or if they do, they carry only "brand name" authors like Nora Roberts and/or cross-genre books like romantic suspense. (I think I bought Anne Stuart's Black Ice at a small bookstore in Staunton, Virginia for that exact reason: I wanted something to read and they didn't have anything more mainstream in the romance genre. Still, not a bad pick.)
Here's my point: we can disagree with what Michael Norris has to say, but not with his familiarity and experience in this field. He says that sales numbers -- the actual choices that actual readers make -- matter. I'm willing to believe him, particularly as I have absolutely no data that contradicts him. And if he's right, there's hope that we readers can make a difference. Keep buying the books that present women the way you want them presented. Don't buy the books that don't or that perpetuate a stereotypical and anti-feminist message that heroines are worth more if they're sexually innocent, sexually naive, sexually clueless, or just waiting for the right hero to uh, push the right buttons. (As someone put it on Twitter: TSTM. Too stupid to "seek her own pleasure.")
So maybe Victoria Dahl's contemporary novels are having a greater effect on the market than we realize: they're popular, they present women as sexually experienced and confident in their own sexuality, there's no suggestion that anyone (the hero, the author, or the reader) should judge the heroine for being confident in her sexuality or for having a variety of sexual experiences.
People can disagree with me; I'm okay with that. I guess I believe two things that are potentially unpopular. First, there is a cause-and-effect at work in the publication of romance novels. If we see too many "women are judged on their sexual history" books, there's a cause for that. It might be a complex equation involving what authors are writing, what publishers are picking up from new authors, and what readers are buying. Or it could just be the buyers for the big box stores. No matter what the cause, if we want things to change it may help to know what the causal factors are and how they can be influenced.
Second, I do believe that each individual title should be judged on its merits as a romance novel. If a character is presented as sexually insecure or inexperienced, the author should be doing two things: making that character's backstory consistent with her personality, and presenting the heroine's story arc as one that shows the heroine as self-determining. Of course the heroine is influenced by what the hero thinks of her. But she shouldn't substitute his judgment for her own, and she should have sufficient backbone to orchestrate her own change into a more confident and self-determining person. For that matter, so should the hero. (It goes without saying that the author should respect her characters and present them as fundamentally interesting. A sexually inexperienced heroine can be interesting; a sexually inexperienced and wimpy heroine isn't. At least not to me.)