Mainstream vs. Series: A Primer
by Paula Eykelhof, Executive Editor (Harlequin/MIRA)
Series refers to a publishing approach that, these days, is pretty much unique to Harlequin. As you’re no doubt aware, our series books fall into the romance category or (a word I prefer) genre. Of course, the majority of books published as genre fiction are single or stand-alone titles (and I include here “author-driven” series like those of Sue Grafton and Laura Lippman—to take a couple of well-known examples in the mystery/suspense genre). Or in YA, the Suzanne Collins stories. Or… well, examples are endless.
When we speak about Harlequin romance series, we’re not talking (for the most part) about editorially linked stories; we mean romance novels grouped according to certain parameters—primarily what kind of romance it is, its level of sensuality and page count. Each series makes a “promise to the reader,” which is usually indicated by its name and branding. For example: Blaze offers a more sensual, more explicit romance. American Romance is a series of stories set in the U.S. and focusing on place and community. Romantic Suspense is exactly what it says. And so on. In each series, there are clearly signaled subseries or subgroupings of stories. And within the parameters that the various series are built around, there’s a variety of story types.
Another important fact about the series romance business is that it’s based on a different kind of distribution model than you generally find with single titles (whether fiction or nonfiction), one that’s closer to traditional magazine distribution. Either four or six books, depending on the series, are published and distributed monthly on a standing order basis. The next month’s slate replaces the current one at a predetermined time. (But don’t forget that digital publishing, in which every major house is involved, is changing the landscape of publishing in ways that haven’t become entirely clear. For one thing, all books could be available all the time….)
Single title or mainstream romance represents a large percentage of bestselling fiction; it also includes subgenres like romantic suspense, paranormal romance, Western romance, historical romance, romantic comedy, etc. You’ll recognize the names of writers like Jayne Ann Krentz, Debbie Macomber, Linda Lael Miller, Nora Roberts, Jennifer Crusie, Sandra Brown and Heather Graham among others. They’re all New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling authors. Two interesting things you might not know: 1) they—and quite a few others—started as series romance writers, and 2) their series romance reprints, repackaged as single titles, regularly hit high positions on the bestseller lists.
These points would suggest that there really isn’t that much difference between mainstream and series romance. And to a significant extent, this is true. Besides the different publishing and distribution models, there are certain obvious distinctions. Sometimes (but not always) the advance for mainstream titles is higher, and they might remain on bookstore shelves longer.
So—how are they different, then? Well, single title romance often has a larger scope, which allows such a story to address themes and secondary relationships there may not be room for in a series romance. (This is, of course, a huge generalization!) There may be a little more freedom when it comes to “bad” language or violence and so forth than you get in commercial mainstream fiction. Series romance does demand a “happy” or at least hopeful and optimistic ending; many people would consider that a key difference. One thing I can tell you with certainty is that the writing, the storytelling and the characterization in series romance can be as good and as true as anything else out there.
A few years ago, Debbie Macomber and I coauthored a piece for Publishers Weekly on the subject of series romance, questioning why it isn’t taken as seriously as mainstream fiction when, in fact, many of today’s top-selling authors came from series, particularly at Harlequin and Silhouette. We pointed out that “writers of series romance—like all writers of genre fiction—learn to write for their audiences. They negotiate the tricky balance between writing for themselves and giving readers the stories they want. Give ‘em what they expect…and a little of what they don’t.”
There’s also a greater degree of safety for the author in writing for series. As well as the chance to learn and hone your craft, you’ll become closely aware of what your reader wants and expects. You’ll also have the chance to develop a connection with your readers, to create a community with them. A practical benefit is the reality that, as we also said in the PW piece, “The publisher’s—and the author’s—bottom line doesn’t rise or fall with one book. So chances can be taken. As a result, interesting ideas evolve in series romance. Ideas that can develop into real, viable trends…. Ultimately it’s about story—a good story, well told. Which is exactly what readers all over the world are looking for. A story that engages and entertains, that makes them feel, think, laugh and cry….
Welcome to the world of Harlequin series romance, which has brand-new opportunities for storytellers like you!
Maybe your story belongs with us. We’d love to hear from you!