The next time someone complains to you about fragile state of the publishing industry, tell them this: There’s a magazine in Brooklyn that has been putting out 250 to 300 book reviews every month to an eager audience of subscribers, the kind of readers who, according to the publisher, “typically consume ten to forty books a month.” For more than thirty years, RT Book Reviews, formerly Romantic Times, has been steadily taking stock of the vast world of genre fiction, the branch of publishing that places like The New York Times Book Review are content to mostly ignore.
What began, in 1981, as a newsletter for romance novel enthusiasts in the closet of a Brooklyn Heights carriage house has expanded to a monthly magazine that employs more than fifty reviewers, and puts on an annual convention for readers that regularly draws thousands of fans. After more than twenty years in an office in Cobble Hill, RT Book Reviews relocated slightly north last year to a spacious, airy office in downtown Brooklyn, just a stone’s throw from Brooklyn Magazine‘s own digs. So we stopped by our neighbors to tour the office and chat with publisher Carol Stacy about the state of romance publishing.
The owner and CEO of RT Book Reviews, Kathryn Falk, started the company after becoming deeply interested in romance novels. At the time, the genre was in its infancy and information about the authors and forthcoming releases was hard to come by. So Falk began writing books about the industry, figuring that publishers would put her in touch with the authors that way. (Her titles include Love’s Leading Ladies and How to Write a Romance and Get it Published.) She also started a newsletter for romance fans.
“When I started working with Kathryn, I knew nothing about publishing and I wasn’t a romance reader,” said publisher Carol Stacy. But Stacy picked up the business fast, helping organize contributors and putting the newsletter on a regular schedule. As popularity for issues grew, Romantic Times grew from a newsprint publication to a glossy magazine. “When I came on board in the early 80s, there weren’t even fax machines,” Stacy said. “We were it. If people didn’t buy our magazine they couldn’t find information about books.”
Since then, Romantic Times has expanded considerably. They launched an annual convention for authors, aspiring authors, and fans, that draws huge crowds–Stacy estimates that last year’s convention had 2,400 full registrations. And though they’re still romance-oriented, RT Book Reviews now also covers a range of other genres, from science fiction to urban fantasy, hence the name change. “It’s always books that we know women would like,” Stacy said. “We don’t do, say, hard-boiled detective novels or hardcore science fiction. It’s not our audience. We cover the books we know our readers want to know about.”
Flip through the pages of the magazine, and you’ll see hundreds of capsule reviews, which each include both a critical assessment of the book and a summary of its contents, along with a star rating. (In certain romance sections, there is also a tag that indicates how explicit the sex scenes are in the book, from “Scorcher” to “Mild.”) They’re consumer reports for books, essentially, the kind of thing that more traditional literary publications turn up their noses at.
“In the early days, we had to defend what we were about because they were romance novels,” Stacy explained. “People called them porn, and said anyone could write a romance novel. It may have been true of some of the books but certainly not the majority of them.”
Romance often gets a bad rap, Stacy said, because it’s marketed to women and often written by women. “Mystery and thrillers aren’t knocked as much as romance because they’re primarily for men. There’s a stereotype of the romance reader as someone who sits around, eating bon-bons,” Stacy said. “But the women who read these books are usually educated, holding down a full-time job. And I can’t tell you I can’t tell you how many professional women, from attorney to doctors to literal rocket scientists, write romance novels. These are smart, accomplished women. Eloisa James, who is huge in the industry, was a tenured professor at Fordham.”
“The audience is loyal to the genre today as they were when we began,” Stacy continued. “Any one of them has a hundred books on their to-be-read piles. My readers typically consume ten to forty books a month. Some of them read sixty books a month. I’ve always laughed at reports that television or video games or the internet, say, stop people reading. That’s not reflective of what we’re seeing.”
The mainstream erotica boom, particularly in the wake of 50 Shades of Grey, and the introduction of self-publishing and e-readers has also shaken up the industry. “We were very cautious about reviewing erotica at first, because we had been so adamantly defending romance, and I didn’t want to confuse the two,” Stacy said. “But demand was overwhelming. And now, you can download hundreds of titles to a device and no one has to know what they are. It’s been a huge book for readers, and for writers.”
“There is still a stigma. There’s a kind of I-told-you-so about romance novels. But women are empowered,and they don’t care anymore. 50 Shades of Grey turned a whole community of people into readers. If anything, it did something for women,” Stacy added. “I mean, look, we’re never going to be considered credible, ever. But this is what people are reading. Who cares what the New York Times wants to call it? That’s really where it’s at.”
Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby