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Nelleke de Jager Nèlleke de Jager has been a publisher in Cape Town ever since completing her BA Hons degree in Afrikaans Literature and Journalism (cum laude) at Rhodes University (1995). She initiated the Nuwe Stemme project at Tafelberg Publishers and was also co-compiler of Nuwe Stemme 2 (2002, with Petra MŁller). She currently manages five romance imprints for NB Publishers (of which she launched four in 2004). In 2003 she also received a BSc Hons in Computer Science and Information Systems (cum laude) from Unisa. She has been responsible for NetFiksie and PoŽsieNet (on LitNet) for several years, and she sometimes reviews dance productions for daily newspapers. In another life she might have preferred breathing more fresh air in the Karoo. But hey, Cape Town still rocks.
"En tog - om 'n liefdesverhaal te skryf waarin die karakters veel helderder opklink as die rou werklikheid, is geensins kinderspeletjies nie. Ek dink altyd Samuel Taylor Coleridge se woorde 'A willing suspension of disbelief' is die ideale titel vir 'n gids tot die skryf van 'n liefdesverhaal. Want om 'n liefdesverhaal te lewer wat deurgaans oortuig, verg 'n sekere gebrek aan ontnugtering in die skrywer se psige (al is dit tydelik ...)."
"And yet - to publish a romance where the characters' lives always take precedence over harsh reality is no trifling matter. I have always believed Samuel Taylor Coleridge's well-known phrase "A willing suspension of disbelief" is the perfect title for a guide to writing a romance. Because producing a romance that convinces throughout requires a certain lack of disillusionment in the mind of the writer (even if it's temporary)."

The science of romance, and other ways of gambling

Nèlleke de Jager

Also available as: Die wetenskap van liefde, en ander maniere om te dobbel

I have a confession to make. I am addicted to publishing. And it's not because of the sweet, musty smell of the inside pages of a brand new book, or the panicky feeling that seeps into my veins every time I sign off digital proofs. It's because I love gambling.1 You see, one never knows whether it might be the next manuscript, or maybe the one after that, that finally hits the jackpot.

By stating this I am not suggesting that I suffer from an insatiable (stereotypical publishers') greediness. The word jackpot in this context has manifold connotations. And my own, very selfish association with the word jackpot refers to a manuscript that overwhelms the reader completely - ie a book that evokes pure joy in the reader's mind, and perhaps even sparks a desire to read it a second or a third time. Magic, I call it. An oversimplification, I know. But any true publisher knows magic in a manuscript is a rare find.

Being a publisher of popular fiction, and more specifically, of Afrikaans romance, I find myself in a strange position. Ostensibly I am denied this uncertainty in the gambling game. Of course, we know beforehand that a certain number of readers will definitely buy the latest Jasmyn/Mirre/Melodie/Satyn/Hartklop2 that arrives in the bookshop; and surely we know that every romance we publish most certainly sweeps the reader away to a fantasy world where the protagonists are far more real than the characters in her reality.

And yet - to publish a romance where the characters' lives always take precedence over harsh reality is no trifling matter. I have always believed Samuel Taylor Coleridge's well-known phrase "A willing suspension of disbelief" is the perfect title for a guide to writing a romance. Because producing a romance that convinces throughout requires a certain lack of disillusionment in the mind of the writer (even if it's temporary). There cannot be the slightest trace of cynicism in the narrator's voice. And despite the heroine's emotional trauma up until the moment she discovers love is meant to be, she is a well-balanced member of society. Without any serious questions about the complex landscape she finds herself in, or the self-doubt one is usually confronted with so persistently.

An established Jasmyn author always refers to the "white screen angst" that gnaws at her every morning as she sits down to write. To summon the required "willing suspension" is no different from acting in a play, I should imagine. It's not surprising that so many of the Jasmyn authors used to be actors in a previous life. I firmly believe there is a huge similarity between theatre and writing a novel: both require flirting with illusion. And the spell can be so easily broken.

Apart from the Coleridge motto - ie the pursuit of sustained illusion - romance authors have another difficult task: that of never losing sight of the reader. And here I am not referring to the implicit reader, but rather to the actual consumer, standing somewhere in a bookshop amongst jam-packed shelves, seeking a few hours of escape.

A reader of romance is a far more complex human being than one would have thought. North American research recently revealed that the typical romance reader is female, she has some college education, she is somewhere between 25 and 39 years of age, is married, and reads across genres.3 In an attempt to determine the profile of the local, Afrikaans romance reader, we did some market research ourselves two years ago. It was aimed at Jasmyn customers during the last quarter of 2002: we made contact with approximately 10 000 readers and had an astounding 13,9 percent response.4

So what are the typical characteristics of an Afrikaans romance reader in the first decade of the new millennium?

  • She is married.
  • She is between 25 and 39 years old.
  • She lives in the metropolis.5
  • She reads Huisgenoot, Sarie, rooi rose, Vroukeur, but also Finesse, Cosmopolitan and Insig (and Finansies en Tegniek).
  • She reads at least one romance per week.
  • Her favourite author is still Ena Murray.6
  • Her purchasing decision depends more upon the specific author than on the cover or the selling price.

Less obvious details also became apparent. For instance: readers also enjoy non-romance Afrikaans writers, eg Dalene Matthee, Annelie Botes, Etienne van Heerden, Deon Meyer and Etienne Leroux. And as shown in the graph below, only 29 percent of readers describe themselves as housewives. Ten percent are pensioners, and the rest either have a full-time job or are students/learners.

Another fascinating statistic that came to the fore, is the distribution of Jasmyn readers across the country.

Who would have thought there is a larger percentage of Jasmyn readers in Mpumalanga than in the Western Cape?

It was as a result of the above market research results, and also thanks to an initiative by and consistent support from the Afrikaans book club Leserskring, that we decided to launch four new romance imprints earlier this year. This is in addition to Jasmyn, which is a general romance imprint that has been operating for the past four years. The idea was to target more accurately these niche readerships identified during our market research exercise. Some of the older readers might prefer Melodie,7 which accommodates authors like Schalkie van Wyk and Elza Rademeyer. The packaging for these products is consequently aimed at older readers, based on feedback that they still prefer illustrated covers. The strapline also implies a more innocent approach: "Romance for young and old, forever" - in other words, reading material suitable for both tweens and older readers who might want to remain less exposed to a more contemporary approach to love.

In contrast to Melodie, the sensual (yet playful) photographic covers of our Satyn8 books immediately suggest to readers that these stories are slightly more explicit (see for instance Chanette Paul's Fynbos vir 'n feeks and Jaybee Roux's Die hartebreker). And the strapline, "Because the heart also has desires", underlines the message on the cover. Indeed, romance readers world-wide view the book cover as a clue: the more explicit the cover photograph, the more daring the love scenes.

Hartklop9, on the other hand, is based on its North American equivalent at Harlequin: These romances always have a hospital milieu as backdrop to the plot (note the blue-green cover colour hinting at the hospital theme), and the manuscript's success depends to a large extent on the author's thorough medical research.10

Next is Mirre,11 our new Christian romance imprint, which is the ideal platform for well-known Afrikaans writers like Helene de Kock and Maretha Maartens. Especially De Kock's romances reach a unique segment in the market: readers who might not otherwise read pure romances, and who prefer authors like Francine Rivers. In other words, even though the love story plot is still essential, an underlying faith in God is a prerequisite for these romances.12

*

The above-mentioned strategies to reach different segments of readers naturally bring me to the economic cornerstone on which the book industry rests. It is a world-wide phenomenon in general trade publishing that one has to be increasingly aware of the consumer, that is, the explicit reader. And there is a variety of factors that influence the purchasing decision. For example:

  • Sometimes the cover
  • Sometimes the selling price
  • Quite often the amount of shelf space dedicated to a particular title
  • The marketing budget and general publicity
  • Less often, positive (or negative) reviews
  • Very often (I would like to believe) the quality of content
  • etc etc etc.

And it is exactly this which spurs my addiction to publishing to even greater depths (or heights, depending on my mood ...) Because one never knows which of these factors will determine the ultimate sale of a book. Sometimes I think our gambling game resembles Russian roulette: our endless discussions in the corridors/via email/during boardroom meetings on what makes a book sell. It reminds me of a mathematical equation where too many variables are involved. It's just not possible to give a definitive answer on why one book sells and another remains on the shelf.

In an attempt to decrease the number of variables involved in the sale of a book - especially when we are familiar with the reader's profile - can the publisher dare to dictate to the writer the content of his/her writing? In other words, commission fiction? And worse, expect the author to supply the publisher with such a defined text at, say, yearly intervals? (Please note, I am referring to fiction publishing in particular, not to non-fiction or other segments in the industry.)

I can easily believe that in our local industry an instinctive reaction to such an approach would be one of absolute shock and horror. (How dare the publisher assume such arrogance!? Commanding the frail muse of all things ...) So perhaps I should quantify my question: from the perspective of a publisher of popular fiction, I find it worthwhile indeed to sign an annual contract with booksellers with regard to titles to be delivered in the coming twelve months.

Long before the author has even started writing his/her manuscript. This is where the relationship between writers and publishers is built on mutual trust: if the writer agrees to such a commitment, then he/she is pretty much assured of a semi-predictable income in the near future, and the publisher, in turn, can hope for a (mostly) publishable manuscript.

Most of the romances published with Jasmyn/Mirre/Satyn/Melodie/Hartklop are acquired in this manner. An agreement is made between the writer and publisher regarding the preferred romance imprint, the required word count, and, of course, the planned deadline for the manuscript. Sometimes the author sends in the first few chapters long before his/her deadline to ensure the manuscript is on track, but that is not always the case. And, yes, there are huge risks involved: the gamble continues. Sometimes the author has writer's block, sometimes there are unforeseen circumstances that simply cannot be avoided, often there are deadline crises. But it is thanks to these authors that both publisher and bookseller can plan far in advance. And thus all parties are certain of a satisfied target market in the foreseeable future.13

*

A far less explicable reason for my addiction to publishing deals with the continuous awareness of a manuscript (and therefore book) as a text - as a media product which always perpetuates an underlying ideology. And here I am not referring to only the cover or the blurb. Through the voice of the narrator, the writer creates and recreates a very specific reality/view of life with which the reader will implicitly identify (or maybe not?).

Perhaps I am super-conscious of this as a publisher of romance. All of us are familiar with the argument that a romance is first of all a reconfirmation of a strict patriarchal society in which the female heroine always sacrifices her own desires for the sake of demands of society. And also, that a romance never deals with complex social issues such as aids, rape, abuse, death. As a matter of fact, I was part of a panel discussion not long ago where romances were referred to as literary junk food. Why? Because as a literary text a romance does not deal with issues critically, and, oh dear, because it is viewed as escapist reading material ...

It is for this reason that I am a great admirer of Janice Radway, specialist in the field of cultural studies and more specifically romance literature. Radway did a case study in the eighties with a group of women from Smithton, a small town in the North American Midwest. From this she derived a very interesting fact: readers felt that their reading of romances undermined rather than reinforced the patriarchal system:

It is combative in the sense that it enables them to refuse the other-directed social rŰle prescribed for them by their position within the institution of marriage. In picking up a book ... they refuse temporarily their family's otherwise constant demand that they attend to the wants of others even as they act deliberately to do something for their own private pleasure. Their activity is compensatory ... in that it permits them to focus on themselves and to carve out a solitary space within an arena where their self-interest is usually identified with the interests of others and where they are defined as a public resource to be mined at will by the family.14

Therefore it is precisely in the reading process itself that readers undermine the existing hegemony. By reading a romance these readers are declaring their independence, even while suffering from a guilty conscience. And that is also the reason why they read love stories: as women they feel their own needs are neglected by their families, and even if it is temporary, these texts create a fantasy world in which both the hero and minor characters acknowledge (and celebrate) the heroine's needs.

Radway also came to the conclusion during the Smithton case study that readers prefer a heroine who is arrogant, independent and rebellious. Even if, during the eighties, she may still ultimately have sacrificed her career for the sake of the expectations of her newly-found loved one. This rebellious nature of the heroine created an environment which enabled the reader to express her own possibly repressed identity.

It is interesting to note, however, that a shift has taken place in the past decade or so, and it is also visible in the local romance genres. In the work of Chanette Paul, Jaybee Roux and some of the other Jasmyn writers, heroines are portrayed as highly successful businesswomen who are very seldom prepared to compromise their careers for the sake of love.

Jennifer Enderlin, head of the publishing group St Martin's in North America, raised a valid point in the Publishers Weekly two years ago regarding this adaptability in romance, ie the extent to which romance reflects changing times: "The greatest challenge facing romance publishers today," she writes, "is to walk the tightrope between what you know will sell ... and taking a chance on something riskier."15 And elsewhere she says, "The genre will die if writers don't take risks."16

The risks Enderlin is referring to do not relate merely to obvious changes like romance heroines becoming more career-driven. What about issues that were considered taboo ten years ago? Like divorced single parents? Or a heroine with an illegitimate child? And what about the presence of gay characters?

We published a romance last year where the heroine divorced her husband after he had discovered he was gay. The author and I had long conversations about this: Were readers ready for a homosexual minor character? Overseas publishers are asking themselves the same question. Medallion Press is publishing a romance in December titled Charmed by Beth Ciotta, where two of the minor characters are a gay couple. And in a recent issue of Publishers Weekly the publisher expressed her fear that perhaps this risk too high.17 Is homosexuality mainstream enough for the average romance reader?

On a lighter note: Does the publisher also have a responsibility to promote safe sex? (Especially in an age where the threat of aids cannot be ignored?) In some of the sexier Mills&Boon love stories there is often a delicate moment where the hero conjures up a condom out of the blue. I have to confess that this accessory is mostly absent from Satyn love scenes. (And perhaps it is an omission we need to look at.)

A close examination of a successful romance will also reveal certain timeless moral codes that are intrinsically part of the text. For example, the narrator will never promote infidelity (the heroine will develop a sexual relationship with the hero only, and only after she has persuaded herself of her true feelings for him), loyalty and friendship are fundamental values, and love is always more important than financial success.

So yes, as a publisher of romance one needs to be constantly aware of ideological pitfalls. Even more so in a local context, where the issue of race is still such a murky, complex beast. How does one portray race in a romance? Or does one portray, instead, a fictional reality that consists of white characters only, for example? Or does one allow a domestic servant to smile subserviently at the heroine (revealing her sparkling white teeth), without having any opportunity to speak?

Complex indeed.

*

Back to the gambling game.

Being a publisher becomes a way of life, I suspect. Sometimes I long for the days where I could still compose an email without scanning the text obsessively for typing errors. Ditto menus in a restaurant. (Even sending an sms triggers this nitpicking habit.) And I can easily spend hours in a bookshop without reading a single word. To hold a brand new release in the palm of my hand - with its rigid spine and musty smell of ink and paper - is an experience I will never tire of. What made the publishers decide to use this cover? And why this sans serif font? And does acknowledgement of the writer's agent on the imprint page imply that the manuscript had required intensive care?

There is nothing I love more than a peaceful morning at my desk where I have an opportunity to browse quietly through the slush pile - even if most of the submissions consist of poems by writers who have never read an anthology of poems, let alone bought one. It is moments like these, when one discovers a rare trace of talent, or when a reader's enthusiastic report confirms your initial gut instinct, that makes it all worthwhile. Paging through the slush pile, I always keep hoping (not unlike a junky aching for his next fix) that maybe the jackpot lies waiting among the manuscripts that still need to be read. So that once again, we can cross the bridge from writer to publisher, and finally from publisher to bookseller, and, at last, to a yearning reader out there.

Someone who might be inspired to read his/her most recent purchase for a second or even a third time. Before the spell is broken yet again.



Jasmyn: Romance for today

Satyn: Because the heart also has desires

Mirre: Balm for both heart and soul

Melodie: Romance for young and old, forever

Hartklop: The perfect cure for romantic hearts







1  See the first paragraphs of Confessions of a gambler by Rayda Jacobs, published by Kwela Books (2004).
2  Five very diverse romance imprints by Tafelberg Publishers - see below for more detail.
3  http://www.rwanational.org/statistics.cfm.
4  The data has been statistically verified by the University of Pretoria under the supervision of Rudi MR Venter of the Department of Information Science.
5  In other words, there are various similarities with the North American profile, but there are also differences, especially regarding the customer's purchasing patterns.
6  Ena Murray is regarded as the most read author in Afrikaans. Of her omnibuses alone, more than 370 000 copies have been sold.
7  "Melody" in English.
8  Afrikaans for "Satin".
9  Afrikaans for "Heartbeat".
10  Hartklop's strapline is: "The perfect cure for romantic hearts".
11  "Myrrh" in English.
12  After much to-ing and fro-ing, we finally decided on the strapline "Balm for both heart and soul" for Mirre.
13  We have even had cases where the cover has been finalised long before the author has delivered his/her manuscript. This is, of course, in exceptional circumstances only, but several authors have mentioned that they find the writing process easier if the cover image has been selected and approved by all in advance.
14  Radway, J (1987), Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature. London: Verso: 211.
15  Publishers Weekly: 1 July 2002:39.
16  Ibid:39.
17  Publishers Weekly: 5 July 2004: 23.

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LitNet: 23 November 2004

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