Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Moving the Goal Posts: The Effect of Agency Pricing

I think agency pricing -- a term I understand only in its practical effect, namely ebooks selling for the full list price of the paperback even on normally discounted sites like Amazon and even though any fool can get a paperback at a discounted price pretty much anywhere -- is insane.  (In case a would-be purchaser misses the point, Amazon has a helpful disclaimer:  This price was set by the publisher.  Mind you, the paperback copy of the same book is the same full price plus shipping at Amazon unless you bundle it with other books and/or get the supersaver free shipping deal.  No disclaimer there.)

But I don't think agency pricing is any reason to not buy a book you would otherwise buy at that price.  Because, let's face it, there are valid reasons to pay list price -- to support an independent bookseller, for example, or because you have figured out that the cost of gas negates the savings your discount card gets you at the big box store.

What agency pricing does -- other than make the publishers look like mathematically challenged doofuses who forget to "carry the one" when calculating their profits -- is move the goal posts on the number books you're willing to buy at full price.

There's a wonderful author -- I won't name her but I think her writing is divine -- whose back list I have yet to get through.  I don't know, maybe I'm hoarding them because they're that good.  Anyway, I didn't buy her most recent book because, frankly, I don't need it right away.  I put it on my wish list at Paperback Swap.  Yes, that means I'll eventually get a used copy of it.  No royalties for the author (you see now why I don't name her) but as much as I adore her writing, if I want to read a book by her, I've got enough to keep me going.

Miranda Neville's latest romance, The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, on the other hand, I bought for my Kindle at the agency price on the day it was released.  Yes, she's a friend online, but more importantly, I want to read it now.  Like virtually every reader I know, my TBR collection is too huge for it ever to be a true statement that I need any book.  But in this case, I want that book enough to pay the agency price.

The number of books that fall into that group of "I want it enough to pay the agency price" is small.  And yes, I would buy more books on their release dates if they were discounted.  That's what I mean about moving the goal posts: all agency pricing does to affect my buying habits is make my Kindle purchases (purchases that result in royalties for the author) fewer in number.

Which is pure Economics 101 (demand goes down when the price goes up), and why I'm convinced publishers lack opposable thumbs or some other indicia of higher intelligence.  If the release day price for an ebook reflected the actual savings in producing that ebook (vs. the cost of getting a paperback into a physical store for me to buy), I'd undoubtedly buy more authors' books on their release days.

What I really don't understand is the statement online by some readers that they won't buy a specific book because the readers object to agency pricing.  Isn't that another way of saying, "I won't pay that much"?  I bet there is a book, at least hypothetically, that such readers will pay agency price for, despite their scruples.

Because at the end of the day, readers want what they want.  It's just that not every book is "wanted" enough to justify paying full agency price.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

TBR Challenge: The Fairy Tale Heroine

I seem to have gone a bit crazy with this month's TBR Challenge.  I'd picked out Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey, but then I was prompted to buy Jeffe Kennedy's (writing as Jennifer Paris) Petals and Thorns -- an erotic retelling of Beauty and the Beast -- and I just happened to have gotten Lila DiPasqua's trilogy of sexy fairy tales, The Princess in His Bed.  Truly, an abundance of fairy tale romances.

What I've realized this week is that I like the heroine in a fairy tale romance to be working out her own destiny, even if she needs 400 pages to do it.

Because I like a proactive heroine, I generally prefer Beauty and the Beast variants.  Beauty has stuff to do and choices to make in the process of falling for the Beast.  Heck, if even Disney can see that, I think it's safe to say it's a universal standard.  By contrast, Disney's Cinderella isn't even her own Fairy Godmother.  She's a bit of a sad sack, scrubbing away at the hearth and not showing a lot of gumption.

Which is why it's ironic that I liked Eleanor, Lackey's Cinderella, much more than Amarantha, Kennedy's Beauty.  (DiPasqua's heroines fall somewhere in the middle, active mostly in getting themselves into sexy situations they never intended.)

In Petals and Thorns, Aramantha is very passive in the process of becoming the Beast's bride and unwitting BDSM partner.  (Don't worry, I won't get any more graphic than that.)  I'd have enjoyed the story more if she'd enjoyed the Beast more.

Lackey's Cinderella, Eleanor, does start out hard done by and is miserable for quite a while before she starts to figure a way out of her predicament.  And the situation is very bad:  her evil stepmother has hacked off Eleanor's little finger and buried it by the hearth, thus tethering her magically to the lowliest of household jobs.

Eleanor has good reason to despair, but then she starts the process of pushing on her magical constraints long before her Fairy Godmother shows up.  Yes, there's a ball and a poufy pink princess dress, and a three-fingered glove in place of the implausible glass slipper -- all the elements of the original fairy tale are there, they're just embedded in a fantasy feminist historical novel about magic.

I love Mercedes Lackey's depictions of Girl Power, I really do.

As you may know from other Promantications about Lackey's Elemental Masters series, the protagonists are masters of the four elements, earth, fire, water, or air.  In P&A, the magic necessary to bind Eleanor is devious and complicated.  Alison, an evil stepmother truly worthy of that adjective, is an Earth Mage who uses Dark forces to secure Eleanor's fortune for herself and her two daughters.

Meanwhile, our prince is Reggie Fenyx, an Air Master who becomes a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps.  Oh, sorry, did I not mention the entire book takes place during World War I?  Well, it does.  Reggie can fly a biscuit tin, as the expression goes, but then he's shot down and goes through some horrid experience in the trenches and ends up renouncing magic.  Shell shock fits perfectly into Lackey's world.

Reggie's an okay hero, even if he calls his mother "Mater," but the story is rightly Eleanor's.  And it's a long story -- this is not a quick read even if you skip, as I did, the subplot about Alison's machinations.  Eleanor slowly learns that she is a Fire Master, but completely untaught.  She'd been planning to go to Oxford (even if they didn't confer degrees on women at the time - she's sure they will eventually); instead, she has to learn about magic from the fire hearth up.

(For some reason this education involves the Waite-Rider deck of Tarot cards.  As I say, it's a long book.)

Mostly, though, P&A is about the importance of women at a time when men were being mowed down in the fields and trenches of France.  Lackey weaves historical detail in with her fantastical magic.  The end result is didactic, admittedly, but fascinating.

I will say this:  I don't identify with Lackey's heroines on any emotional level, but I do admire them.  They get the job done.  So while their happy endings don't pack quite the same emotional punch as, say, The Black Beast of Belleterre, Mary Jo Putney's retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it's a pleasure to spend time -- yes, a long time! -- in the presence of an intrepid woman who educates herself while she's waiting for her dream of going to Oxford to open up again.  (SPOILER ALERT:  She does go to Oxford at the end.)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Let's Start With the Prologue

I have an interesting history with Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels.

I have no idea when I first read it because it left an indelible blank on my mind.  Years later, I found a nearly pristine copy in a box of books I'd read and then culled, intending to donate them to charity or something.

Before I found that box, though, I'd found Romlandia, the collection of romance lovers, reviewers and bloggers on the Internet.  In Romlandia, Lord of Scoundrels is on a very short list of books that might be considered The Best Romance Novel Ever.  Ooh, how wonderful, I thought at the time.  A new-to-me author!

I bought a copy of LoS, read it and didn't much like it.  As I recalled, I felt that the hero was too damaged.  I did, however, like Ms. Chase's writing, and consider many of her other books to be among my favorites, particularly Lord Perfect.

Then I found that box of books and realized that I must have read LoS before.  That explained why during the second reading I'd had that odd but distinct sensation of reading something that should be new but was almost familiar in places (called, I gather, "déjà-lu").  How could I have read the Number One Romance of All Time and literally not even registered it?  I really must not have liked it the first time.

Her publisher currently has LoS at a come-hither 99¢ price for the Kindle, which is a bit of a no-brainer.  Yes, even for a book I've tried twice and not liked.

And -- ignoring a bookcase-worth of TBR books -- I have now read LoS for the third time.  And, as you might expect, I liked it better.  I even know why!

First, let's start with the prologue.  It's massive -- 5% of the entire book -- and it's unrelenting.  Misery upon trauma upon torment upon horror are heaped on the growing head of the hero as he ages from a small child to an adult.  I can't tell you what it's like to read this litany of abuse if one has enjoyed a sunny, untroubled childhood, but as one with a Bad Childhood (and I know I'm hardly alone in that category), it's unpleasant reading.  Not what I go to a romance novel for.  It's hard to imagine that prologue puts any reader -- even one who is heart-whole and carefree emotionally -- in a relaxed, romantic and/or randy mood.

I also think the tone of the prologue is all wrong for the rest of the book, which is smart, witty and resourceful.  But I'm vulnerable to counter-argument here because halfway through the prologue I gave up on it and skipped ahead to the rest of the book.

Guess what?  I think you could skip the whole demented introduction.  Does it help "explain" the hero's issues?  Maybe, but any reader can infer the horror.  Keep the prologue as an addendum if you want -- text you can refer to after you've finished the book in case you still have questions about how Dain, the hero, got to be the man he was.

(There's also the risk that the prologue actually doesn't explain Dain because it's so heavily larded with agony and suffering that Dain seems almost magically functional in adulthood.  But I don't have a Ph.D. in psychology, so I won't argue that point.)

Next tip for enjoying this book:  keep your eyes on Jess, the heroine.  She's wonderful -- smart, inventive, determined, and yet not overly anachronistic.  I had no trouble following her thinking as she worked out hypotheses and strategies based on the evidence.  She struck me as psychologically astute without lapsing into implausible psychobabble.

It helps that the language in LoS is more formal than some current authors of historical fiction prefer.  Fewer contractions and more plausibly outmoded expressions and old-fashioned turns of phrase.  I'm not saying every romance set in early 19th century England has to sound like this, but soothed my worries that a woman of that time period would have trouble deducing Dain's neuroses decades before Freud and Jung gave us our current understanding of the concept.

Final tip:  Accept the facile and implausible transformation that Dain goes through in much the same way most children accept multiple Santa Clauses seen during December.  Is it likely that a man that damaged and thus hiding in his own impenetrable emotional isolation would change in an instant if presented with the right stimulus?  No, but then Santa Claus isn't likely either, and we still understand the instinct to believe.

At the end of three different reads, LoS is never going to be my favorite "love healed his black soul" romance.  But now, finally, I can see the appeal.

And yes, I'm sure I'll read the last 95% of it again.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Power of Books

I'm rereading Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm, mostly because John Charles told me to. Mr. Charles, along with Kristin Ramsdell (both former RWA Librarians of the Year) and Leah Hultenschmidt of Sourcebooks, touted the sheer audacity of Flowers from the Storm's plot.

In case you've not read it, it takes the "commoner falls for the duke" Regency romance and turns it into a Möbius strip: the duke has had a cerebral hemorrhage and is suffering from what we now know to be speech aphasia -- back then he was considered an idiot, lunatic, or violent monster -- and the commoner is a Quaker woman who believes it is God's will that she help him.  He needs her and wants her, she loves him but recognizes how impossible any "real world" relationship would be.  Mostly, it's the claustrophobia of their lives that stays with you.

If you liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, you might like Flowers from the Storm.  Or you can play that recommendation in reverse, if you prefer.

Open Book by Original Bliss

That RWA workshop, cunningly entitled "Reading Your Way to Creating a Great Novel," allowed the three presenters to recommend books like Flowers from the Storm for specific reasons that writers need to think about.  Thus P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster stories were recommended for voice, and well, I forget the specific reasons cited for the other books, which included These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, Eight by Katherine Neville.  Basically, the message was: You can write a great book because look, these people have done it!

They're right -- books like Flowers from the Storm do inspire me to work harder at my writing, even as I'm awed by their originality.

The question that lingers in my mind is how I'm supposed to know if I've managed to write an original and compelling book - - or just a self-indulgent load of claptrap.  Several of the books highlighted in the workshop could have been disastrous in the wrong hands.  And I think it's safe to say that editors and agents have had their fill of queries that begin, "This is a unique story, unlike anything you've seen before."  (Redundancy intended.)

The answer, as inadequate as it's ever been, is that we all still just need to tell the stories we feel need telling while continuing to improve our technique.  Reading a great book is humbling, but paradoxically elevating -- someone managed to write something great so why not us?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

We Have a Winner!

I'll have a longer post about this year's RWA National, but this takes precedence.

Academic procession of faculty and graduates             

It's been fashionable for a while to comment on the number of romance writers (and readers) with doctorates, medical degrees, law degrees, and so forth.  I understand the impulse to realign the preconceptions about romance novels away from the bonbon-eating reader and the barely-educated writer.  Smart women read romances and smart women write romances.  (Yes, and men too.)

Unfortunately, there's been a slight whiff of competition in this focus on Ivy League educations and prestigious professorships.  This post should end that competition, because I've met the winner.

Understand, I don't want to squelch the effort to tout our genre as smart books for smart readers -- let's keep that up by all means.  But we can stop pointing to this professor or that lawyer -- impressive credentials are all around us.  If I can find myself chatting with a romance author like Usha, one of 2,000 conference attendees last week, I think we can safely say outstanding professionals are easy to find in RWA's membership.

I met Usha in the waiting area for the agent/editor pitches. She's from India where she grew up reading Mills & Boon romances.  (She won't let her mother throw them away even though Usha now lives in the U.S.)  She's a registered nurse and Ph.D. -- a professor and research scientist at a well-known university where she's working on ways to prevent cancer in high-risk populations.

But wait -- there's more.  Usha writes paranormals because, as she put it, she loves her alpha heroes.  She then told me, "My partner asks me if she has anything to worry about with my heroes, but I've assured her that she has all their best characteristics."

I adore this woman:  She's working to prevent cancer deaths by day and writing about kick-ass heroes by night.  She's gay but her books have straight couples not because of heteronormativity but because she loves alpha heroes the way she loves her partner.  And she's smart, accomplished, has an impressive resume, and generally makes the rest of us advanced-degree types look like wankers.  (Researching ways to prevent cancer - ?  That sure beats anything I've done with my life.)

But before we melt into a puddle of admiration, remember that it's still about the books.  An hour after I met Usha, I met Courtney, a young woman from North Carolina.  Very young -- she was so fresh-faced that I was careful to ask her about "school" because I couldn't entirely be sure whether she'd graduated college or high school.  She starts a course in massage therapy in the fall but is using the summer to write.

Courtney is working on her first novel, a contemporary about a heroine who enters a reality show that's a cross between Hell's Kitchen and Cupcake Wars.  I asked her what happens and Courtney said of her heroine, "She wins."

Well, damn straight she does.  Our heroines win.  Our heroes excite us because of who they are, not just what they can do with their "equipment."  Good books get written by good writers.  And we judge books not by the letters after the author's name but by the power of their stories.

I hope both Usha and Courtney write great books -- because at the end of the day, it's their writing talent that really wins us over.