Friday, November 22, 2013

Dukes: The 0.0001735%

I've been searching for the source of the conventional wisdom that any historical romance with the word "Duke" in the title will sell better than one without. One Goodreads commenter points to a romance author as the originator of this truism: "I remember Julia Quinn once posted on her FB an advice for one of her author-friends, books with 'Duke' in the title sell better." If Quinn were truly the source, though, one would think that more than just two of her many romances (2000's The Duke and I, and 2008's The Lost Duke of Wyndham) would follow this dictum.

Author Shana Galen writes that it was her editor who told her "dukes sell." Galen concurs:"Women want to read about dukes. I'm a woman, and I want to read about dukes, too." An reader echoes the idea that the truism comes from publishers in her story about her conversation with an unnamed author: "I was just talking to a writer when I bought her book at a signing a few months ago and jokingly said, 'Another Duke?" She looked tired as soon as I said it. 'Dukes sell. He was an earl, but my editor made me change him.'"

Editors urge their popular romance writers to endow every historical hero with the highest non-royal rank of the realm in order to increase their sales. Do said editors back up their assertions with actual sales figures, comparing duke books to non-duke books? Or do they simply rely on the wisdom of their Marketing and Sales colleagues? I'd be interested to see hard data from individual publishers, or individual authors, to see whether this claim is at all based on fact. Any historical romance authors out there willing to share their own experiences about the relative sales of their duke and non-duke books?

Whether or not duke books actually outsell their less lofty peers, the truism that they do means that duke books far outnumber their rivals in the marketplace. A quick scan of using the search terms "romance" in the subject line and "duke" or other noble epithet in the title line gives us:

550 books with "Duke" in the title
39 books with Marquess, 109 with Marquis = 148
278 Earl books
101 Viscount books
133 Baron books

Coronet of a non-royal duke, with its strawberry leaves
With a little over 31,000 books labeled "historical romance" at amazon, this means that about 1.7% of them use the word "duke" in their title. A small figure, perhaps, but one far larger than the actual number of dukes that existed during the Regency, the period during which many of these books are set.

Pardon me while I crunch a few numbers...

A check of Debrett's Peerage shows that only 25 non-royal dukedoms existed in 1818. Out of a population of 14.4 million people, only 0.0001735%, or one in every 576,000 English people, held the title of duke. Even if we narrow our population figures to the gentry only (about 2% of the total population, or 288,000), we're left with 0.00868%, or one in 1,152. Even if we narrow still further, and take only at those men who held titles (530), we're left with only 4.7%, or one in every 21 noblemen.

Obviously, then, the plethora of dukes in historical romance in no way reflects their actual numbers in real life. The more interesting question, then, perhaps, is not a mathematical one, but an ideological one. Just why do duke books sell better than other books? Or, even if in fact they don't, why do people think they do?

Shana Galen's blog post, "Why Duke's (sic) are so Sexy," argues that women want to read about the highly titled because they want to read about sexy heroes. Galen argues that dukes are sexy because:

• they have power and money
• they have a title, which "makes us think of royalty, which conjures images of country houses, jewels, horse-drawn carriages and the like. It's romantic. It's sigh-worthy."
• they're romantically selective, a selectiveness which grants value to the heroine, and by proxy, to the reader: "They are sought after, and they can choose any woman they want, for the most part. It's sexy to think that a man who can have anyone wants you."

Some questions pop into my mind after reading the above list. First, regarding power and money: Do all women find men who have power and/or money sexy? For those who do, is it watching a man exercise power that is sexy? Or is the power more symbolic? Doesn't the exercise of power involve working, which, in this period, would take a man way from his lady love? Is it a fantasy of not having to think about money (as aristocrats were purportedly not supposed to have to do) that appeals? Do women who find men with power and/or money sexy also believe that the best, or only, way to get either is through a man? Do they not believe they can achieve either on their own?

Cinderella's coach at Disneyland Paris
Second, regarding the "dukes make us think of royalty" argument: This one seems in many ways at odds with the first one. Royalty is about power, or at least it used to be, but this list of images evokes luxury, beauty, and comfort, not politics, war, or any of power's other manifestations. Does this suggest that women are not really that interested in power, but more in the trappings of it? Another thought: why are country houses, jewels, and carriages "romantic"? Are things associated with the past, and/or with money, inherently romantic? Or are we simply transferring a Disney version of royalty onto our historical romance?

Finally, regarding selectivity: When dukes cease to become a scarce commodity, as they have become in the current historical romance marketplace, does the appeal of the selectivity Galen posits come into question? Or are readers willing to suspend their disbelief, as long as any one author does not populate her particular version of the period with too many dukes to maintain the air of selectivity?

Like Sandy at All About Romance, I have to admit my partiality for more realistic portrayals of the life of a duke, such as Mary Balogh's in 2004's Slightly Dangerous. Her Duke of Bedwyn is not freed, but rather is weighted down by, the heavy responsibilities of managing his dukedom's extensive properties and serving as the head of his often trouble-prone family.

But I must be in the minority, if it's true that books with "duke" in the title really do sell better than other historical romances...

What do you make of the current plethora of duke books in the marketplace? As a reader, do you find dukes more sexy than other aristocrats? Does seeing the word "duke" on the cover make you more likely to open your wallet?

Photo credits:
Ducal Coronet: Stalking the Belle Epoque
Cinderella's Coach: Disneylicious


  1. Shana Galen's blog post, "Why Duke's (sic) are so Sexy,"

    I'm guessing that the blog owner made this mistake, not Galen, because it's correct in the text section of the post.

    It does seem as if Regencies are marketed as interchangeable, with lots of similar covers and titles. But that's true of any trend--billionaires. Neither is a big draw for me. I'm more likely to get excited about "blacksmith" or...homeless. I heard Brenda Novak wrote a homeless hero. I should look for that.

    1. Yes, the overabundance of dukes and billionaires and obsessive heroes, definitely a marketing trend. How long do you think these trends will last?

      How about a hero with brain damage? Bonnie Dee's NEW LIFE featured one of the most unusual heroes I've read this year...

  2. I confess that I am apparently one of the few that is anti-Duke. I prefer a little more realism and the likelihood of many eligible dukes seems remote. I still enjoy the aristocracy, but lets see more of the other guys.

    1. Mmm, me too. Younger sons, struggling to define themselves knowing that in a generation or two, their progeny will no longer be aristocratic -- let's see a few of them!

  3. All of these possibilities are about what being with him says about her. If I'm a pretty little princess, I will get a prince (yes, I'm wearing my tiara). Being with a prince/duke/billionaire/king/male-model means that I am worthy of that power-man.

    I'm going to float an idea: In porn for men, the focus is on enjoying the woman. There is less emphasis on being validated by her naked presence, on being chosen over other men. Here she is - enjoy. In erotica for women, the power-man validates her by choosing her, and her direct enjoyment of him gets less emphasis. Even the sex is more about how much he wants her than about her enjoying his appearance.

    To me, a feminist romance would not just be "I'm so happy to have been chosen by the power-man, but I don't need him because I have my own career". It would be her getting her validation from outside the relationship and being with him because she enjoys him. (I'm floating an idea here. Don't quote me on this tomorrow.)

    She can choose a guy who makes her laugh (or orgasm), a a guy who provides some emotional satisfaction other than validating who she is by being with him.

    Put another way: Her strong self frees her to choose a man who fits her needs even though he does not boost her social standing, or she can choose a man whom she can show off to make people think, "they probably don't have much to talk about, but she must be having lots of fun, wink-wink".

    Would people read about a woman who finds a man who fills some need (for sex or for fun or something) but does not validate her as a power-man who chooses her?

    1. Oh, yes, Dan, I think many women would. And some women actually write such romances. Courtney Milan in particular, I think, makes a point to have her protagonists not rescue or validate their potential partners -- have you ever read any of her work?

    2. Thank you. I just ordered "The Duchess War" by Milan. As a bonus, it has a duke in the story.

    3. Hope you enjoy it! Looking forward to hearing what you think...

  4. I was in the bookstore tonight and rolled my eyes at all the titles with Duke in them. I'm getting so I don't pick up any English historical romances unless they are by my favorite authors, i.e. Mary Jo Putney, Julia Quinn, Liz Carlyle and a very few others. I'm too much of a historian not to be aware of how small and interbred the English upperclass was during the Regency period and the ahistoricality of these romances is irritating. I used to love Regencies and I miss them. The new historicals just don't work in the same way.

    1. The plethora of duke books are generally on the lighter end of the comedy/serious continuum. Closer to the "history as wallpaper" historical romance than the history as fairly accurate reflection of a time different from ours historical romance. More inviting, perhaps, for those who aren't that familiar with the actual history of the period, even while more frustrating to those like you and me who have studied the history more extensively.

  5. I'm inundated with ideas as I read your post and the comments, so many in fact that I hope I can remember enough to make my own comment. Firstly, I'm thinking that Joan Wolf had a great Regency that you have mentioned, where the hero was a groom. At the end though, he turned out to be of better birth (noble or gentry) and the effect (as I saw it) was to make their marriage more acceptable to her family. I think a Dukedom/Duke was the highest level of nobility most families could aspire to capture for their daughters, (witness the American duchesses of the late 18th-early 19th centuries), and this is the charm of Dukes in Romance. In addition, "Duke" in the title conveys, in shorthand, that the book may be a historical and very likely is a Regency, so the readers have a good idea of what they are buying, even though other noble titles (Earl, etc.) may do the same thing. And there are books where the titled gentleman is buying a bride with his title in exchange for her money, making for some very good opportunities for character growth and romance.
    All that being said, I am also affected by memories of past books, with "titles" in the title, (sorry, I couldn't get around that) that I loved and therefore, I may be influenced to buy new ones, subconsciously. Although in my case, after having read romances for 40 years or so, I am reluctant to try new authors since they rarely stand up to my old, and some newer, favorites: Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Jane Aiken Hodge, Elsie Lee (watch out, she was occasionally politically incorrect), Elizabeth Lowell/Ann Maxwell, Mary Jo Putney, Suzanne Kearsley, C. S. Harris (mystery) and many others. I don't remember a lot of wonderful authors right off the bat since I've been reading so much for so long.
    I actually started reading your blog to get ideas on what to read without wasting money or time, looking at the new authors, and buying new books. Thanks so much for spending the time and effort, and making this possible.

    1. You're very welcome, CynthiaZ. And thanks for pointing us in the direction of some older authors -- I'm familiar with Heyer, Stewart, and Putney, but haven't read any of the other writers you mention. What does this group have in common? What makes them memorable?

    2. I just commented today on your POC in Romance discussion. I have been mulling over how to put my explanation of what my above listed favorite authors had in common, when it more or less came down to the same thing that I have always judged things on, (although I do have a history of cutting a LOT of slack for people who are very talented or geniuses at things) which is: whether I would like to have the characters as friends. I mean, I want smart, kind, and honorable people as my friends. So I feel that part of the draw of my favorite authors is that they write these kinds of characters. They have at least some of those traits. Or the characters grow into these sort of people. Georgette Heyer's Duke of Avon doesn't exactly fit but he is one of my favorite characters ever. Elsie Lee's heroines are so smart, capable and resourceful that I wanted to be like them. So on and so forth.
      The other thing I appreciate is the ability of the author to show a depth of feeling (not passion per se), of love, of devotion. Mary Stewart does this effortlessly (for example, in Airs Above the Ground, the hero, Lewis, burns the hand of the villain, Sandor, who struck his wife, the heroine Vanessa). Well that makes me sound a little bloodthirsty doesn't it? But it showed how deeply he felt about his wife. The Duke of Avon "forgot to drawl" when talking about Leonie to the Cure. These little vignettes stand out in my memory, but they show the emotion I look for without pages of sex, or unending protestations of undying love.
      I keep going back to these authors just to revel in their ability to tell a story with great characters who are amazing human beings. Dick Francis was a master at this as well.
      I loved Heathcliff too. Not such a great human being, but boy was there love (obsession?).

    3. Have to reiterate my warning about Elsie Lee's books: they are not feminist (except maybe in effect), more of a "women are smart", and definitely "the power behind the throne", with that 1960's Gothic vibe, when the heroine gets an idea and can't wait for backup to go test it out. Lee also prizes "good breeding" as in, doing the right thing because that's what a "well-bred" person does. I love her books, but I don't judge the attitudes that peep out.

  6. Dukes make me cross. There just aren't very many of them in real life and mostly they aren't of marriageable age. So what really makes me cross, I suppose, is the heroine who aspires to marry a duke. Or even a lord. Or, like nails on a blackboard, 'a Sir', whatever that is supposed to be. It's just not a reasonable aspiration, even for the most beautiful girls with the highest dowries. It's like aspiring to marry Justin Bieber. There aren't enough of him to go round.

    Look at Austen's heroes: Mr Darcy, Mr Knightley, Captain Wentworth, Mr Tilney, Mr Bertram, Reverend Ferrars. Oh look, not a peer among them. Even Mr Darcy of Pemberley is not ennobled, but he could look for a wife as high as he liked. Because, and this is what romance writers and I suspect, especially American romance writers, seem incapable of grasping: class is not the same thing as either a title or wealth. It's much more, especially at that time and in the ton, about lineage and connections. It's interesting to note that (other than William I, Duke of Normandy), Heyer wrote only 3 dukes. According to this list ( she also had 3 marquises, one of whom was heir to a dukedom. The lack of dukes didn't seem to hurt her sales.

    1. Ros love your reply. A great point about Austen's hero's as well.

    2. I do agree with you. Austen followed the rule of writing about what you know best. She belonged to the rural gentry and that's what she wrote about. Nobility was out of her circle, as common people was, so she didn't write about either of them, the high or the low classes. She was not interested in the past or even the historical events happening in the Continent as for instance the Napoleonic wars.
      When I see a romance 'historical' novels with everybody speaking and talking in the same relaxing way as if they were people from today, I usually don't connect with story. I cannot suspend disbelief because it sounds so unreal.
      Georgette Heyer maintained the Zeitgeist of Regency period in her books. But the mainstream Regency -or any other historical- romance novels published lately do not do it. Of course, many of them have other interesting things, and I enjoy them.

    3. "It's like aspiring to marry Justin Bieber" -- I think this gets exactly at what the appeal of these books is. The exclusivity, the specialness, and of course, the fantasy aspect of marrying someone everyone around you thinks is so great. As a teenager, I certainly dreamed about meeting a favorite pop star or tv actor and having him fall for me -- I'm guessing most of my readers have, too. It's not a dream I have much any more, but then, my adult life is pretty satisfying.

      Are there any positive aspects to dreaming about Justin/a duke?

    4. It seems such a childish thing to do. As you say, teenage girls dream about popstars. Back when I was a teacher I remember one girl coming to school in tears because her favourite singer had just announced he was gay. And all I could think was it really hadn't changed her chances with him at all. So maybe it's a mindset I just don't identify with - even when I was a teenager I didn't do that. And in the books, it's often someone who really should know better, like a parent, who seems most focussed on this unattainable dream.

      I'm not sure that I can see any positive aspects, though probably other people could.

      Oh, also it seems to me that if specialness is located in an external characteristic (duke/billionaire/Bieber) that's the opposite of romance. Because it's not about the person, it's just about the status.

  7. I was just thinking about this as I finished a series recently (the Lisa Kleypas Wallflowers series which included not only dukes but brash Americans who they love , woo hoo!). I think Dukes are attractive figures for a few reasons

    a) They're as high as you can go in the titled echelon without getting to actually royalty. Actual Royalty is even more rare than Dukedoms and they're much more recognizable compared to their ducal counterparts. It's hard to write a modern love story about a prince because its prince william....and harry...where as can you name a Duke? I can't, so if you make one up for me , it's easier for me to accept without reality sneaking into my thoughts saying 'no way'.

    b) they are generally limitless. Yes they have family obligations and responsibilities, but they usually have tons of money which can solve barriers to problems, access to everywhere also solving problems, and no one goes against their decisions as they're usually the most powerful figures in any situation. So loving the governess is ok because "I DARE YOU to say something". In the aforementioned Lisa Kleypas series, in the second book the Duke loves the confrontational smart New Yorker, because the man has taste, but the mother hates her so he sends her away never to be mentioned again.

    c) they satisfy the common desire for a pairing with the best possible person available. For women they're told to want power, it's a duke baby. There are some great love stories, both historical (hello the ever-wonderful Celia Grant) and modern (Sarah mayberry) where there aren't Alphas and Beauties every where, but I believe it's the default.

    Just my thoughts.

    PS love your site.


    1. Sue:

      Thanks for the comments, and glad you enjoy the site!

      Unlimited power, put into service on your behalf -- yes, a major part of the draw. Does that fantasy make women less likely to imagine they could earn power themselves? That, for me, is the key feminist question...

  8. As a reader, I do not find dukes more sexy than other aristocrats. As a matter of fact, I prefer novels without aristocrats. Historically, real aristocrats were more like the one portrayed in C. Milan's 'The Governess Affair'. And I just cannot suspend disbelief.
    I live in a country (Spain) with a monarchy and nobility and you know what? One of the greatest achievements -for me- of the French and the American Revolutions were the way they constructed societies without a monarchy and nobility.
    I just don't know why so many American (and Australian, too) romance novelist reject that political tradition they should be very proud of. Instead of that, they dedicate their efforts to those decadent institutions, and in your colonial metropoli? I just don't get it.
    Does seeing the word "duke" on the cover make you more likely to open your wallet? NO, it makes me run just in the other direction.
    But as I say, it could be because I live in a country with a Royalty and a Nobility and, well, let's say they are not the common people's most loved figures nowadays. You read about fantasy dukes, I see them in the newspapers and magazines and they not behave,... in a very noble way.

    1. Joane:

      Interesting perspective -- perhaps Americans and Australians can long for aristocrats because they are so very far away from our real lives that they become mere fantasy figures. Living in a country which still has actual royals and nobles, and seeing that in fact they are just human beings like the rest of us, would surely disrupt the "suspension of disbelief" required to buy into the aristocratic fantasy.

      Politics, especially rebellious politics, definitely gets short shrift in historical romance. Somewhat surprising, given the heightened possibility for conflict present in political drama, I always think...

    2. I know I’m really late to reply here, but remember here in Australia we’re still part of the British Commonwealth. We have the Queen on our money, the royals dropping by on a fairly regular basis, and plenty of people who like it that way (not me).
      America had a revolution and dumped Britain. We didn’t.

    3. Thanks, Sonya, for your reminder. World history is not my strongest subject

    4. Don't worry - I like your version better! Being part of the Commonwealth isn't doing anything for us!

  9. I look at it a little differently. I think each author creates her own alternate reality of Regency England when she writes. So, if she includes one eligible and handsome Duke in her world-- well that doesn't seem so far fetched. I can't think of any authors who have a plethora of Dukes running around, and although I think I can recall 2 authors who world-shared (referencing each others characters in their books) it doesn't happen all that often.
    These are hardly historical texts for all the nods to Almack's and The Prince Regent. They are more fantasy than anything else -- a kind of fairy-tale loosely based on a re-imagined reality which doesn't (on the whole) include poor hygiene, lack of sanitation, or crippling socioeconomic stratification. So, to me I don't mind a Duke here or there any more than I mind improbably tall and handsome swarthy Englishmen with testosterone to spare and an ability to marry at will with only a few hurdles.
    If one author wrote a series in which all the heroes were Dukes and all of them knew each other and hung out together (at White's naturally!) then I would have a big old NO WAY reaction, but given that I view each author's world as separate and distinct, I don't usually take issue with the title-itis.

    1. Thanks, mepamelia, for this different take on the duke phenomenon. I like the concept of the "alternate Regency world" each author creates, each with its own set of dukes.

      You're making me want to go and do another mathematical experiment, though, choosing a few popular authors and seeing how many dukes inhabit each of their alternate Regency worlds... A task for the holidays, perhaps...

  10. As I have said before, I am trying to embrace the romance genre. So far there is much that I admire, though there are some aspects of the culture that confound me. The appeal of dukes is one of those things that causes me to shake my head in confusion. My screen name for many years has been enrage_femme. I chose it because I identify with the far left 'enrage' around Marat (many of them women) during the French Revolution. They did not like Dukes and I applaud their march to Versailles that brought Louis back to face the masses. To me those activists were the precursors to the modern women's movement--some who were the first to raise equal rights for women. That being said, there have been several dukes I enjoyed reading about and I could even say I admired. Courtney Milan writes a Duke who has a hideous father who rapes a governess but grows up to become active in radical causes and espouse the politics of the Chartists. I genuinely liked him and rooted for him as he attempted to woo his remarkable but commoner love interest. I just finished reading 'Flowers From The Storm,' That was about a Duke and a Quaker. He was every inch the alpha male with God given privileges (just a bit waylaid by a stroke) and she was a very devout woman who felt God had called her to care for him. The story was complex and truthful in the portrayal of the differences that were pulling them apart. What bothered me were the reviews that blamed Maddy for not giving in to the Duke and disliked her when she made a heart-felt choice against his ways and returned to her religious roots. Many of the negative reviews even accused her of not truly believing her religious principles. Not a single review blamed the Duke for lying, conning Maddy with a phony letter from her father and not revealing the child he fathered out of wedlock. I only raise this because it seems to point to values that are a bit skewed in favor of Dukes being allowed to do what they want within the genre. Still I loved the Duke of Avon and his cub--just not as much as I loved Leonie and Vidal's Mary..

    1. Thanks, enrage_femme, for sharing your thoughts. You've mentioned several of my favorite duke books, books that don't simply create a fairy-tale fantasy figure, but that delve into the realities of what being a duke entailed during the 18th and 19th centuries. And that also pair their dukes with intelligent women who do not need their dukes to validate their worth.

      Can you imagine a historical romance set in France during the Revolution? One not about an English spy, but about a woman actively involved in the uprisings?

    2. Take a look at Joanna Bourne's Spymaster's Lady, Forbidden Rose and Black Hawk. All three of these are set, at least in part, in France during the Revolution. Spymaster's Lady and Black Hawk have English spies paired with French spies and Forbidden Rose has an English spy paired with a member of the aristocracy who is part of the underground. All are excellent.

    3. Yes, Joanna Bourne's series is one of the few I can think of that deal with both sides of the war. But the protagonists all end up on the English side in the end, don't they?

  11. I'm writing a family saga about dukes in the 20th Century, because that's what I know. I've worked on the farm of a ducal estate, I've met two duchesses in the process, most of the books I refer to regarding estates of that size are by one particular duke and one particular duchess, and the contrast between the high title and the crippling debts (the death duties problem as always) is just that much greater.

    On the other hand I do groan at all the Regency Dukes out there.

    1. Yes, the 20th century duke definitely has it far more difficult than his regency counterpart, doesn't he? At least financially -- ah, those taxes...

      Are there any feminist romances out there with contemporary dukes as heroes? Does dukedom function in the same way as it does in Regencies?

    2. I'm struggling to come up with an example here. There are definitely English dukes in some of the Harlequin Presents books, although the one title I can think of (Back in the Headlines by Sharon Kendrick) isn't feminist. Lynne Connolly wrote a great review of it here: and she touches on the money issues that come with being a real-life duke that don't crop up in the story.

      Moving down the scale slightly, Phillipa Ashley likes her earls and sons/brothers of earls although they tend to be rooted in careers beyond being an aristocrat (of course 'Miranda's Mount'/'Girl vs Earl' does deal with the problems of the ancestral home/money-pit). The fact that she has Earl in the title of the US edition might suggest that aristocrats sell romances but then Kendrick's book doesn't play on the title in its title. If you get my drift...