Friday, March 1, 2013

Romance Publishers and Feminism

Earlier this week, an RNFF reader wrote to me off-blog with a publishing-related question. This reader is interested in writing a romance novel, and had been given the advice to read books from a particular line or publisher to get a good sense of what her targeted publisher is looking for in order to tailor her writing to its needs. As she intends to write as a feminist, she wondered if I could recommend specific romance publishers who are particularly welcoming of romances with feminist themes or beliefs.

I've been focused on individual books, rather than at particular publishers, so I'm not sure I can give this reader a reliable answer. The question did make me wonder, though, if the search for a welcoming home for feminist love stories might be similar to the search for an appropriate graduate school program, something that I went about without really knowing what it was important to be looking for. When I was in the midst of applying to Ph.D. programs in English, I initially focused on schools with the most prestigious programs, regardless of my particular areas of interest (children's literature, Victorian literature, and women's studies). Only after I'd been accepted, and had my initial welcoming interview with the English professor charged that year with creating a new incoming graduate class, did I realize that such an approach might have been shortsighted. My university's English department had a strong reputation, but one build primarily on the reputation of its Americanists I discovered, alas, not a field in which I had any interest. And when I asked if any of the professors had an interest in children's literature, he cheerfully replied, "Oh, you'll have to teach us about that!" Only later, after speaking with fellow students who had approached the application process with a bit more information than I had did I realize that targeting specific professors whose research interests would be compatible with your own, not just universities with the best overall reputations, should have been a key part of my search.

Luckily for me, my university also had a reputation for iconoclasm, for welcoming scholars with unique or unusual research areas. And it also had one of the foremost feminist scholars of eighteenth-century British literature, a scholar welcoming enough to serve as my mentor despite my preference for the Victorians rather than the Georgians. At a different university, though, my lack of knowledge about the interests of the professors might have led to much more gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, perhaps even to dropping out of the program altogether.

This experience makes me wonder if the search for a feminist-friendly romance publisher might similarly lie less in targeting a particular house, and more in identifying particular editors who embrace and sympathize with feminist goals and ideas. Editors, of course, have far less freedom to pursue manuscripts they like than professors do to support scholars whose work they believe has potential, yet I'm guessing that like professors, individual editors have decided preferences not only of subgenre, writing style, and types of heroes and heroines, but also in the underlying messages the stories that speak to them convey. Some might assume feminists have an ax to grind, or are anti-male, or have some other outdated view of what feminism is all about; others may simply take feminism as a given.

This, of course, is just a hunch on my part, not something I've researched empirically. So, I'm turning to the collective wisdom of this blog's followers. RNFF readers, what is your take on this reader's question? Are there particular publishers, or particular lines at particular publishers, that seem more welcoming of feminist-friendly romances than others? Published authors out there, has the "f-word" come up in your conversations with specific editors or agents, and if so, was it frowned upon as an evil to avoid? Or smiled at as a welcome friend? Are there editors who are actively looking for feminist romance?

Photo credits:
Romance novels: Felicity Heaton via Women's Voices for Change

Next time on RNFF:
Mothers and Lovers in 
Molly O'Keefe's Can't Hurry Love


  1. I don't know much about publishing so I don't have a lot of advice to offer but if the reader has (a) thought of writing for Harlequin and (b) would like to contact me by email, I could send her my article on feminism and Harlequin/Mills & Boon romances, which includes comments from a number of feminist authors who write for them.

  2. Thanks for offering, Laura. Is this material that is included in your book (which is still on my "to be read" pile, but getting closer to the top!) If not, I'd love to have a copy, too.

    1. No, it's "Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances." Journal of Popular Culture 45.5 (2012): 1060–1089. If you can't get it via your library, you can email me via my website.

    2. Thanks, Laura. I'm looking forward to reading it.

  3. I personally believe that the single titles make it a bit easier for feminism to shine through. A feminist character gets more time in the spotlight in a longer romance, as opposed to the category romances. That is not to say that there are not feminist characters in series; however, I find it easier to identify with ones whom I have more time to get to know.

    With that qualifying statement out of the way, I'd suggest HarperCollins/Avon (Eloisa James and Lisa Kleypas), and Random House (Ruthie Knox.) These houses, representing gifted writers, publish books with strong, intelligent heroines that a feminist reader can respect.

  4. Thanks, Pauline, for sharing your thoughts. They seem to suggest that for you, the feminism inheres in the heroine, rather than in the plot. I definitely think you could have the first without the second; could you have the second without the first, though?

  5. Absolutely, you could have a feminist plot without a female protagonist being representative of feminism; however, I would argue that this is very difficult in a romance novel. Writing a feminist romance manuscript with a positive and satisfying ending is tough when one's heroine does not espouse feminist beliefs to a significant enough degree that the very idea of a HEA ending for the protagonists is consistent with feminism. Otherwise, what would a happy ending look like for a feminist romance novel in which the heroine is not a feminist? Perhaps there are some great examples that I'm completely blanking on.

    In other genres, I can see it being much easier.

  6. I think you need to know which sub-genre she is writing in. You don't want to submit a Paranormal manuscript to an editor who is only looking for Historicals, no matter how pro-feminist the editor might be.

  7. If the letter writer is considering smaller digital imprints, Storm Moon Press, the publisher who accepted my MMF menage novel, is primarily a GLBT publisher but has an imprint called Wild Moon for heterosexual romances, most sub-genres, and I know for certain that the managing editor, who handles the novel-length acquisitions, is very feminist-friendly. If the novel doesn't make the Big Six, Storm Moon/Wild Moon is worth a try!

  8. To be very blunt, the desire to incorporate more gender issues in my romance plots is part of why I left small press hell and went indie. Being indie is bad insofar as people assume you are indie because you couldn't get "properly" published (even if you have been before), and the sales aren't high. But it's good if your goal is to explore non-mainstream ideas.

    I have accidentally stumbled upon a niche market of geeky, feminist-minded men who love my latest release. I didn't know that demographic was out there hungry for love stories, and I'm betting no publisher does (or cares) either.

  9. I read a lot of Samhain Publishing books, they are full of strong heroines who work with their hero so both can continue their lives but also be together.

    I don't read many historical books so they may be different, off the top of my head i cant think of any who "give up their life for a man" most wouldn't allow it or accept it and to be honest many of the heroes wouldn't want it either.