High Stakes Visibility

Two things in particular happened this week. 1. Authors of color shared their experiences at the national RWA conference in New York. Suleikha Snyder's 'A Tale of Two Conferences' and Rebekah Weatherspoon's '#RWA15 - A WOC Perspective' are both required reading, especially if you're newly awakened to the obstacles that authors of color overcome in addition to more openly acknowledged difficulties (revisions, synopses, caffeine dependency). Subsequent Twitter discussion brought up microaggressions and pushback from both fellow conference-goers and, most egregiously, the aggressive indifference of Pocket Books, which admitted in a spotlight chat that they refer non-white submissions to other imprints.

2. NPR posted a list of '100 Swoon-Worthy Romances', a list compiled from both popular suggestion and curation. They are open about the fact that they corrected to showcase not only breadth of subgenre, but also more diversity of character and author than appeared in the popular vote. Some of the books on the list feature racist or misogynist content (I love you for being my first, Johanna Lindsey's Warrior's Woman, but come the fuck on.) The comments on the list are about what you'd expect in terms of romance reader versus non-romance reader, with bonus hat-tip to the misguided gentleman who stiffly informs Victoria Motherfucking Dahl she doesn't need to be embarrassed.

There was a brief feel-good reaction to the list on romance Twitter -- it's always pleasant when people take as a given that romance reading has merit, or at least as much merit as other kinds of reading. But in light of Moment No. 1 it felt stifling, as though we'd only just opened Romance's Box O'Problems and now the lid was slamming back shut out of defensiveness. H/t Mikki Kendall: #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen.

My assertion in this post is that these two moments are connected by more than just the romance genre. Both arise out of a profound and profoundly human need for visibility in stories -- but then this need is filtered through the detritus of racism, classism, economic gain, and internalized misogyny. And things get shitty fast.

Romance has been the Designated Women's Genre for a couple centuries now in Anglophone literature: written by women, featuring women, focusing on women's lives and experience. This is often held up as proof of its empowering nature: I've done this more than once myself. It would be more accurate to say, though, that the vast majority of romance has focused on the lives and experiences of thin middle-to-upper-class white cis able-bodied women, with more than average levels of education. Bluestockings and heiresses a-plenty, housemaids and washerwomen not so much.

There's a straight line you can draw from Jane Austen's concern with the commodity model of marriage down to Betty Freidan's Feminine Mystique. Because taking out the Canonical White Male capstone from the pyramid of kyriarchal literature still leaves all the other levels of the hierarchy in place. Women who have privilege will take up more narrative space than women without. This is not to say subversive things do not happen in books written by privileged white women; it is only to say that this is a limited conversation, and a less than universal empowerment.

Treating visibility as a zero-sum game is a failure of empathy we have seen over and over again: in publishing, in movies, in games. In the women's suffrage movement, which as bell hooks shows explicitly rejected black women's participation, even as black women were being rejected from participating in the abolition of slavery: white women counted, and black men counted, but black women didn't. Black women, of course, kept participating anyways -- they just aren't historically celebrated for their labor. (See: Ida B. Wells.)

Now we're seeing this same dynamic in romance, right out in the open at conferences and on social media. White women -- because yeah, romance authors and publishers are mostly white, and anyone who gets defensive about this fact is not helping -- push back against the call to diversify the genre because they're used to defending it from the attacks of more privileged men. They have a readymade set of romance-defense rhetorical tools at the ready, whether it's "laughing all the way to the bank" or "written by women, for women."

They also push back against diversity because white privilege makes it easy to believe that women of color don't count. It is impossible to untangle these two motivations from each other, since they come from a single system.

Racism is not just about police violence and starred-out slurs: racism is equally manifest in that knee-jerk, quiet little voice that whispers outsider when a woman of color asks for more heroines of color in romance. And if she writes heroines of color in her own stories, with happy endings? If she courts publishers or agents and markets her work? She's taking our readers. Because white privilege tells us over and over that a woman of color cannot possibly be an insider herself. She doesn't count. Not as a writer, and not as a woman. Not really. Not like us.

That voice is all the harder to uproot for being quiet.

 

It is impossible to overstate how much of this is tied up with money. Romance is big money for white women -- one of the few genres where a woman's name on the cover is not an automatic liability to sales. Meanwhile more and more books are appearing every year, while we all feel we have to write faster and faster, and prices and royalties fall lower and lower. Meanwhile women of color have a much larger wage gap than white women, and as a result can less easily spare time for activities without an immediate financial benefit -- such as writing romances. Or self-publishing romances. They have to fight to enter the market, and fight to stay in it. This can be damn exhausting, and no wonder.

All because white women fucking forget that women of color count as women. As readers and insiders. As authors. As heroines.

We all have a need to be visible in the stories we tell. We as an industry need to be better at including all voices -- not least because we are an industry, not a group of friends who get together over red wine and shirtless Hiddleston pics. An industry means money, and money means that when we shut out women of color, we do so in a way that actively privileges our lives and livelihoods over theirs. It is disingenuous to pretend that this is only about what types of stories we like to read: you cannot rail against ebook piracy and then claim it's a total coincidence you only choose to read white authors.

You don't have to apologize for your privilege, if you have it -- but you can't use it as a weapon against those who don't. You can't hide behind it, either, and claim you're only being civil or professional.

Either you're in this business for everyone, or you're only out for yourself.

 

Filthy Lucre and Laundered Souls

{Disclaimer: a copy of this book was provided me by the author for review. Ms. Cullars reached out after I discussed an earlier work of hers in my Feminism A-Z series on intersectionality in romance. It's a brave author who looks at those posts and asks to run the gauntlet again. Especially since this review turned out to be extremely long. Spoilers will naturally abound, so be ye warned. Also, this review series really does need a better title, so any suggestions will be most welcome.}

There's an old joke that runs though literature departments: everything in fiction is a metaphor for sex -- except sex, which is a metaphor for death.

Cover for Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars.

With money, it seems to go the other way. Money in fiction -- literary, mystery, romance, sff, whatever -- is always a stand-in for something else. Usually power, of course, but that begs the question: what kind of power precisely? In the case of Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars, money stands in for agency, for freedom, and for trust. Sometimes all at once, which makes my analytical brain rejoice.

Let's get one thing out of the way first thing: this is a thoughtful and unusual romance -- bank-robbing hero and black heroine in Missouri in 1933? AMBITIOUS -- and it was really enjoyable. Definitely read it before continuing this post. There are mouth-watering food descriptions and richly drawn characters and real human conflict keeping the hero and heroine apart. Things like: he's a bank robber who's brought his fellow bank robbers into her home and they've taken her hostage and are probably going to kill her so they can make a clean getaway after the robbery. Also, those other bank robbers are Bonnie and Clyde. Yes, that Bonnie and Clyde.

I told you it was unusual.

The very first thing we see is heroine Theodora Holliday -- Teddy -- being robbed. She's in a general store at the wrong time, and a small man with a shotgun takes everything in the till and the purses of the two women present. Unlike the other (white) woman, Teddy initially refuses to hand over her cash: she needs it to buy flour to make a pecan pie for her elderly neighbor. She only changes her mind when it becomes clear the choice really is between her money or her life. She hands over the purse and fumes all the way home -- money is hard to come by, and losing twenty dollars means her choices become more constrained. She resents that her kind and generous impulses (the pie) have been thwarted by someone else's violence and greed.

This is therefore not an auspicious moment for our hero Louis Daniels to make his entrance -- especially as a white man, in a fancy car, flashing a Hollywood smile and a wad of bills. Teddy often rents out rooms to make ends meet, and Louis is looking for a room somewhere quieter than the hotels in the middle of town. (The town is Joplin, Missouri, *ominous musical cue for those who know their Bonny and Clyde*.) Teddy is instantly (and correctly) suspicious of both his whiteness and his obvious wealth: "In her twenty-eight years, she'd learned that shiny, new things sometimes brought trouble with them… the man was just as 'shiny' as his car. Something about him set her spider's senses off" (page 7). She turns down the extra cash, despite her straitened circumstances -- a single white man boarding with her will be cause for damaging rumors and innuendo, and she's pretty sure he's got an agenda he isn't being open about.

Then the man offers her a hundred dollars. Per night. For three nights. It's a ludicrously high sum; for comparison, here is a current Seattle AirBNB listing for about the same price with a ton of amenities in a great location with excellent reviews. Teddy caves: "She'd heard people say that everyone had their price, and he'd found hers" (8). This is good money, an irresistible windfall, and she allows herself to be persuaded.

But what has she been persuaded by? Money in the earlier scene was something that increased Teddy's agency. But here, money substitutes for trust: Teddy's distrust of the shiny man is put aside in favor of an astronomical sum of cash. The less trust Teddy has initially, the more money it would take to change her mind. Now money is itself what limits her choices, what constrains her actions. Or to put it another way, Teddy is choosing one short-term limit (shutting down her inner qualms) in favor of a long-term goal (being financially stable for months). It says a lot about this book that I never felt like Teddy was powerless, even when she was technically being victimized. It always felt like she was making clear-eyed choices as best she could in an imperfect world, and that the text wasn't interested in punishing her or in making a fetish of her weakness (with one possible exception, which I'll get to in due course).

Even though her decision has changed with the money, her mind is still clear. When her handsome new tenant offers to go to the store to get the flour she couldn't buy earlier, Teddy's suspicions are alerted again: "Handsome and helpful, usually two traits she found good in a man, but she wasn't sure she was buying what he was selling" (11). Money is again a stand-in for trust, but in reverse: now instead of taking money to compensate for her distrust, Teddy is (metaphorically) reluctant to offer money as a signal of trust. Money's symbolic value in the text is already amazingly fluid, and we're only eleven pages in.

The Unheroic Hero

We switch to Louis' POV for a trip to the same store Teddy was robbed in earlier. Surprise! He's not a good man, or an honest one. He's shot people for cheating him at cards. He's robbed banks before, too, despite telling Teddy he's not on the run from the law. And then there's this revealing passage, which I'm going to quote in full:

Louis left the store wondering why the owner assumed he was married and then remembered the ring on his finger. He'd never taken it off, even after Laureen had up and left one day a few years ago saying she was sick of living off the measly money he made doing road work. She'd gone off with some starched-collar type who worked at the Kansas City credit union.

One of them fancy head doctors might say that Laureen's leaving was why he'd started knocking off credit unions, eventually moving up to full-on banks. And maybe that fancy head doctor might be right; maybe he was trying to get back at her, as though he had something to prove to her memory at least. (15)

Olivia's notes: No shit, Sherlock. This is classic hero backstory, a man getting revenge on his evil materialistic ex. (Romance heroes are so pissy about rejection sometimes, I swear.) And as part of my habit of always trying to see things from the Evil Ex's perspective, I have to say: I can completely understand why someone would care about the financial stability of their partner during the Great Depression. It is the Great Depression, Louis. I'm sure your feelings are hurt by the fact that your ex wants to, you know, eat every day, but I'm not sure that a bank robbing spree constitutes a really mature emotional response to romantic disappointment.

To give Louis his credit, he knows this is not a sustainable career path. And he's never killed anyone, which is important both for his own morality and for my comfort as a reader. But like Teddy, he can't resist the siren call of an enormous sum of money: "The money split up evenly would mean twenty-five thousand dollars for each of them. That was enough dough to keep him on the up and up for a while" (19). Louis has made plans to rob the Joplin Citizens Bank with three other people named Bud, Buck, and Sis; he met Bud when they tried to rob the same store at the same time: "They'd held guns on each other; then Bud had broken out in a laugh and said, 'Halfsies?'" (20). Reader, I laughed. But this agreement means that Louis is handing over a certain amount of agency in exchange for a payoff: Bud is volatile and violent and unpredictable, a killer. The Joplin bank has only one elderly guard, but Louis is already worried the man will try to play the hero and get shot by an angry Bud.

Spoiler: Louis is right to be worried. But it's easy to say that Bud and Buck and Sis aren't due until the next afternoon, when right now you have a good home-cooked meal and a pretty woman to talk to over a highly symbolic pecan pie. And a slow dance with the radio on, and a good steamy kiss. Despite Louis' secrets, which the reader is privy to, it's lovely watching these two characters connect. They have a great deal in common despite the barrier of race (which the text does not shy away from in the slightest).

And then Bud shows up early and ruins everything. First, we learn that he is the man who robbed Teddy at gunpoint yesterday morning. Nice friends you've got there, Louis! Then he introduces himself as Clyde Barrow, which is when I yelled "Holy shit!" out loud and dove for Wikipedia to read up on Bonnie and Clyde before things went any further. Because honestly, I never in my life thought I would read Bonnie and Clyde as the villains in a romance novel. It's a great portrayal: humanizing without glorifying, empathetic and scary at the same time. The choice of characters takes only a minor liberty with history in a way I can easily approve of, and it plays into the text's themes in a way I won't forget for quite a long time.

Bud quickly realizes Teddy is an upstanding soul and therefore a liability. Suddenly our heroine is a hostage in her own home, her life very explicitly in jeopardy. And she is pissed at Louis for his role in events: "Snake! Here she'd given him a room and a good meal and ... and her company ... and this was how he repaid her. The money he'd handed her yesterday morning couldn't even begin to make up for this" (41). Louis tries to apologize, but Teddy's not having it: "'Sorry is worth to me about a sliver of a penny and not even that'" (46). Instead, she begins deliberately exploiting Louis' physical attraction to her, trying to win him over to her side, to deepen the bond they've formed so he'll help her escape. He sees what she's doing but goes along, since it means he gets to touch her more. (Heroes, amirite?) He's trying to win her over as well, to make her see things from his perspective:

'I hate preachers! ... They're like the cops, supposed to be helping you and what do they do? They take just like any robber you'd meet in the street. Same with the rich folk. They'd sooner kick you in the teeth than help out a child starving in the streets ... The big fat cats of the world have at least taught me a lesson. Those that got keep getting. They're not out on the roadsides, putting up tents, finding clay and dirt to eat. They're sitting down to plates of steaks and potatoes -- with the -- with the gratin -- and the champagne. Yeah, I want that. I want not to ever have to worry where my next meal is coming from' (51)

This is a persuasive argument, emotionally speaking. What's more, this speech marks Louis as the kind of Bootstraps Billionaire we see so often in both contemporary and historical romance: the man whose anger propels him to fame and fortune, the poor kid made good through sweat and seething vengeance, the self-made man who builds an empire on ruthlessness and intelligence and daring. Captain Wentworth from Austen's Persuasion is probably the origin point of this trope; see also every hero who runs a gambling hell in fictional London or who owns a penthouse apartment in a major contemporary metropolis. And generally such heroes have to either atone for the ruthless things they did on their way to the top, or learn that true love means more than bespoke suits and chrome furniture, etc. But here there's a twist -- and honestly, I think this is really innovative for a romance -- because we're catching Louis at the beginning of that typical arc. This is the Self-Made Hero before he's Made (shiny Studebaker notwithstanding). Teddy's job (as a heroine, not as a person) is to convince Louis to abandon that whole arc at the beginning. To give up on the money before he has the money to give up on.

I gotta say, that's a pretty radical move. Will he change his mind or go through with the bank robbery as planned? I was dying to know.

A Disarmed Heroine

Teddy's rejection of Louis' chosen means to wealth could not be more clear: he offers her a cut of the bank money, to compensate her for the danger and stress of being held hostage. She not only refuses that, but also gives back his original three hundred dollars:

"I'm not taking it back..."

"And I'm not keeping it..." she said as she let the bills fall to the floor. And their stalemate began.

She refused to pick up the bills, and he simply pretended they weren't there. (74)

THE MONEY LITERALLY COMES BETWEEN THEM I swear my lit-crit brain was giggling so hard at this point. Note the language is clearly tilted in Teddy's favor: she's the active one, refusing, while Louis is merely pretending. She's the one in touch with reality, and he's kidding himself. By giving back all the money she's taken from him, Teddy is withdrawing her implied participation not only with the coming robbery, but with everything Louis did to earn that first wad of bills too. She's making her distrust of him foremost in the relationship again. She's choosing her self-worth over his expedience. And she's doing it without being at all idealistic or naive: she knows damn well what that money could mean for her, but she knows she would betray herself by accepting it. She's principled in a realistic, grounded way. Also -- and this is only striking me as I write this -- she manages to refuse money without ever once resorting to prostitution references or using the word 'whore' or anything. She talks about sin and souls and the devil, but in the context of reckless murder during a robbery such language is fairly tame.

Have I mentioned how much I love Teddy? She's great. Just great. I only have two small reservations. 1) I was, and I can't believe I have to type these words in public, supremely uncomfortable with what I can only refer to as the Amos 'n' Andy sex scene.

2) I can't stop wondering what the author could have done differently with Teddy's knife.

Teddy keeps a knife strapped to her thigh because she's dealt with harassment before and wants to take no chances. It's a nice counterbalance to the secrets Louis keeps during the initial few days of the novel: he's hiding a criminal past she doesn't know about, but she's got a weapon he doesn't know about. It evens the scales and ups the stakes in a way that had me steepling my fingers.

Unfortunately, Louis catches sight of the knife when she attempts escape and takes it away. Now, for the first time, Teddy is presented as a victim: "He hated that she seemed so broken. She might as well be their first casualty. Not actually dead, yet something dead inside" (77). He also notes the knife was tied with a red ribbon -- a detail that sexualizes the exchange, as though Louis were a bridegroom removing a very sharp garter. (I should clarify that Teddy is not a virgin -- this is explained but not used as a shocking plot point and it was great.)

And now, if you're anything like me, some practical questions arise: How do you tie a knife to your thigh with a ribbon? There's no indication of a sheath, no indication that this knife is anything other than a common kitchen utensil: are you telling me Teddy's walking around with a butcher knife tied to her leg? Edge-out, or possibly dangling? Right alongside the carotid artery? This does not seem safe. This does not seem possible. And none of it matters, because once Louis takes the knife it disappears entirely from the text.

Oh, how I wanted her to stab somebody.

Or rather, since this book takes such issue with violence, I wanted her to half to stab somebody and to choose not to, or to choose to stab somebody in defense of her life or in defiance of principle. I wanted this to be a thread that tied up, not one that was cut short. Chekhov's gun is meant to be fired, after all. Instead, the text saves Teddy from having to make that choice. It felt a little bit like a waste.

Bonnie and Clyde

Mirror couples are fairly common in romance, particularly when there's a theme to illustrate. Bonnie and Clyde here are a contrast to the hero and heroine -- they are the Charlotte and Mr. Collins of this novel. It helps a lot that they're called Sis and Bud because it gives the reader a sense of distance: the historical facts don't get in the way of the characters on the page. Louis is puzzled by their connection and puts it in monetary terms: "He'd never figured out why Bud had taken up with her. Probably because she gave out easily what many women put a high price on" (56). This is pretty much the only time sex work is used as a money metaphor, so kudos to Ms. Cullars for avoiding that particular pet peeve of mine.

The more I think about Bonnie Parker in this book, the more amazing her character becomes. In the early chapters I was cringing every time Sis spoke: she drops the n-word, she's described as a bitch numerous times, she's unhappy and unpleasant and picks fights with our heroine. The men leave to case the bank for the robbery, and Sis is given a gun in case the hostage proves troublesome. Everyone is tense -- Teddy in fear for her life, Louis in fear for Teddy, Sis because she would rather be going with Bud. Then Teddy's neighbor Mrs. Williams (of the aforementioned pecan pie) drops by and it's looking like we're going to start the part of the book with the shooting before we even get to the robbery.

Then something wonderful happens: the women connect.

Mrs. Williams doesn't know there's a gun in Sis' pocket. She can tell Sis is unhappy, though, and treats her gently. Like a real person. Somehow, now that the men are gone, these three women are able to simply spend an afternoon talking to one another about their lives and their hopes. Sis even recites one of Bonnie Parker's most notorious (real) poems, which Mrs. Williams greatly enjoys. The threat of violence is dissipated -- for the moment, anway -- and afterward Sis starts treating Teddy better, helping out in the kitchen and everything. Teddy meanwhile sees Sis walking down a road our heroine wants to avoid, getting caught up in murder and mayhem for the sake of a man she loves beyond choice, beyond morality. When eventually -- after many turns I don't need to go into here -- Teddy ditches Louis (oh, she was totally right to do it), she does so in part because she doesn't want to end up like Sis, alone and friendless and cut off from society.

In the moral framework of this story, Bonnie and Clyde's bloody death -- not a spoiler, because who hasn't seen stills from the Warren Beatty film? -- could have been presented as a punishment. The hand of justice strikes down evildoers, that kind of thing. Instead Ms. Cullars puts it on-page in Bonnie's POV, which may be one of the most startling things I've seen in a romance in some time. It's intensely human, almost a stand-alone short story, and I know it's going to haunt me in the best way. There's no sense of voyeuristic pleasure, no sense that Sis gets "what's coming to her," even as the scene is much more violent than the usual fates of villains in romance. When the death makes the headlines, everyone is all "good riddance" except for our hero and heroine, who secretly find themselves mourning the loss. The moral position of the text is clearly weighted against celebrating the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde.

Again, that's a pretty radical move.

There's a lot more I could talk about -- the heroine's house, the realistic handling of race, the evil ex, the family issues -- but my stars, we're nearly at four thousand words already. Suffice to say that you can't write four thousand words about just any romance: this is a book I'm going to be thinking about for some time to come.

___

I talk a lot about the meaning of money in this review of Jeannie Lin's phenomenal romance The Jade Temptressand also reflect (rather more loosely) on money in romance here.

While I'm tooting my own horn, I'm also spending this month catching up on a great many books from my TBR: follow #Readening on Twitter for real-time updates, comments, and links to future reviews.

Jackie Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has a great discussion of money in category romance, and how heroines deal and don't deal with money (with a really thoughtful comment thread, too).

My favorite detail from the surprisingly good Wikipedia entry on Bonnie and Clyde: "Several days later [slain highway patrolman] Murphy's fiancée wore her intended wedding dress to his funeral, sparking photos and newspaper coverage." That is some grade-A fuck-you material right there.

If you have the spoons for it, reading about sundown towns in America is terribly illuminating. Especially when you start searching the database for places you have lived. Content note for violent racism, white supremacy, and lynching.

The Toast has an excellent list of wealthy heroines in romance, for a palate-cleanser.

A fleeting anachronism led me to the history of the nylon riots after WWII, which are one of those things you think can't possibly be real until you see the photographs and read witness accounts.

___

Cullars, Sharon. Filthy Lucre. Loose Id Publishing: 2014, PDF.

Why I'm Entering My Ellora's Cave Book In The RITAs This Year

1. Because I love my book. In my subjective and unashamedly biased opinion, At His Countess' Pleasure is the best and weirdest thing I've written. It's quiet historical melodrama starring a dominant brunette social climber and a chunky earl with a mustache. There's also pegging, and period sex, and at one point a 19th-century gynecological exam (or the nearest approximation I could get according to research). At one point the hero -- have you got your pearls handy for clutching? -- loses his erection during a sex scene. So subversive! Not as subversive as including an actually diverse cast of characters and writing about something other than British aristocrats would have been -- but I'm taking baby steps here, pushing my own limits.

This book pushed a lot of limits. I launched into the writing of it with great abandon, and told myself I could break every rule I wanted because it was just to fulfill a contract clause and then at the end there was a story I loved and was excited to show to the world. So in one sense I was kind of fucked, but in another sense: hooray!

And I will be damned if anyone takes that away from me.

2. Because entering the RITAs means I get to judge the RITAs.

I've judged a couple of contests -- including PNWA, for those of you in the Northwest -- and I really enjoy it. But judging a non-romance-centric contest's romance/erotica category can be a bit, well, dicey. One manuscript entered by one gentleman was basically wall-to-wall rape scenes, presented as titillation. Very difficult to read, even as an excerpt.

I want to know what the RITAs look like in process. I want to see the difference between the books I'm sent and the books that make the final list, the ones that get officially celebrated. And I've never had a chance to do it before.

As a published author and RWA member, I could qualify to judge the RITAs by joining the Published Author Network (PAN). In fact, I did try to do this last summer. I counted up my royalties and figured out that one of my books had reached the required $1000 mark to allow me to apply.

The only problem: I needed proof of those royalties. From my publisher, Ellora's Cave.

You can laugh if you want to. I understand. (Most up-to-date masterpost here, if you can stand it.)

After many emails, I got a response: EC sent me an Excel spreadsheet with one year of royalties for that one title. Only numbers; no text. And it wasn't even a locked spreadsheet. RWA quite naturally laughed at the idea that this could constitute proof of payment in any meaningful sense of the word. My only other option was to copy every single royalty statement for all my titles -- two years' worth of financial records -- and highlight the book that qualified every time it appeared. I found I was uncomfortable at the thought of showing that much personal data to someone I wasn't paying taxes to. There the matter rested -- until RWA announced that all RITA entrants would be required to judge. It feels like a gift that I can finally do this.

3. Because I already paid for the print copies.

Three days before my publisher filed the now-infamous defamation suit against Dear Author, I spent over a hundred bucks out of pocket to get contest copies printed by Vlad at Third Place Press. (Disclosure: Vlad is both a friend and a bookselling wizard). While the books look incredibly beautiful -- you can see them in person at this weekend's Emerald City Book Fair, where I'll have a few copies to give away -- I would never have had them printed had the lawsuit been filed first.

Oh, I have a few noble reasons for that; anyone who tells you this case is not about free speech has not been paying adequate attention. But it's also true that unless I enter the RITAs, I have to consider that cash layout wasted. I can't currently promote this book for sale or for review, not without implicitly supporting a lawsuit that grates against every nerve I have. I've requested the rights back from EC -- for Countess and for all my books -- but Countess only came out two months ago. The print version is the only format I can do something useful with. I can't sell it, but at least I can see how it stacks up as a romance elbowing around in the wild among other romances. This would be valuable to me, separate from any notion of sales or self-promotion.

Lastly,  I'm entering the RITAs despite all the mess, because:

4. It's my last chance.

This book is my last chance to enter the RITAs for the foreseeable future. I haven't placed my next manuscript with another publisher yet -- anyone who wants a sweetly steamy ancient Greek romance with a robot heroine feel free to let me know! --  and my current manuscript is trending more romantic elements/sff/New Weird. Intertwining romance subplots! Semi-omniscient POV sections! Twists on monsters and myth that leave me giggling in fiendish delight! One detail popped out of my subconscious, slithered onto the page, and creeped me out so much I had to shut the computer and do something else. It's super-fun and an ambitious experiment -- but a RITA book it is probably not.

I don't know when I'll have another book published to qualify for the contest, and of course I'm ineligible for the Golden Heart. I'm not saying farewell to romance as a genre -- but I might be moving away from the RWA-approved definition of romance as established for the RITA contest.

I have this one chance, and I'm going to take it.

Invisible Labor in the Publishing World

I've been thinking a lot about the recent Dear Author post on books as commercial objects and now I'm going to try something ambitious. I'm going to talk about Amazon and Hachette and Authors United. I'm going to talk about Ellora's Cave as an Ellora's Cave author who's published six short books with them in the past four years. But most of all, I'm going to talk about work: when we notice it, when we don't, and what happens when we emphasize or downplay labor in the book industry. My Marxist credentials are, well, nonexistent, but I'm going on 15 years in the book business so that will hopefully compensate. Should be fun, right?

Invisible Author-Work

We'll start with the author, since that's where books begin. Author-work is profoundly hidden, even in the midst of its occurrence. It makes for notoriously terrible television. Getting the words out on the page is only the start of it. There's also research, revisions, and the inevitable but embarrassingly necessary craft technique of Staring Blankly Out The Window Until You Know How To Fix Whatever's Wrong. Plus, once you have a manuscript you're unafraid to call maybe kinda good if you read it on a Tuesday when the moon is in Sagittarius, then you have to send it out to agents and publishers -- or get it properly edited and formatted and hire a cover designer, if you're self-pubbing -- all of which requires countless hours of hair-pulling, teeth-clenching mental mud wrestling, but all of which happens almost entirely out of public view. (Unless you're on Twitter. I love you, Twitter.) And when it's published, you have to market it and track sales and pay quarterly taxes -- if you're lucky, that is, you pay quarterly taxes -- and pitch reviews and talk to readers and attend conferences, all while starting the whole process over with a brand-new book idea. Rinse and repeat.

It's more fun than it sounds.

Author-work is made visible when authorial integrity is in doubt. For instance, relevant life experience is highlighted as a guarantee of quality fiction -- which is why Clive Cussler is so often photographed next to classic cars, and why it was A Thing when pseudonym Robert Gailbraith's military background turned out to be a backstory created by author J. K. Rowling. Author-work becomes most visible every time someone lambastes a reviewer because the author worked so hard and put so much effort into their book. Effort is unerased and presented as evidence of worth.

Invisible Publisher-Work

A publisher is not merely a channel for authors' invisible labor: they have a lot of behind-the-scenes labor of their own. Two words for you: slush pile. I pulled submissions from a slush pile exactly once in college for the literary magazine and I still have Lovecraftian nightmares about it. And meetings -- sometimes when I listen to editors and publishers at conferences I get the sense that a publishing house is just a large collection of meetings galumphing ever forward through time. Individual editors, too, perform much of the same kind of labor that authors do: revisions, reading submissions, presenting themselves professionally at conferences and conventions, etc. I've lost track of the number of times I've seen editors desperate to clear their inboxes or mentioning they're taking work home for the evening.

But also: bookkeeping. And money. A publisher lives and dies by the numbers. The value they offer is tied to the accounting: they pay for editing, cover art, marketing, and distribution so that an author does not have to undertake all those as separate tasks by a new author unestablished in the network. They also track distribution numbers, returns, royalties, wholesale discounts, sale prices, etc. -- I get hives just thinking about trying to juggle all those numbers, which is why I haven't self-published.

This focus does lead to a certain amount of secrecy. Publishers generally do not tell the author how much they're paying that author's editor, or the cover artist, or the PR person. Publishers DO tell the author how many copies of her books are selling, and where, and at what royalty rate. Or at least, they SHOULD. Much of the issues authors have been having with Ellora's Cave -- issues which started at least a year ago and which therefore predate the 'Curious Case' Dear Author post and the now-justly-infamous defamation lawsuit -- stem from a frustration with the invisibility of publisher bookkeeping work: the definition of "quarterly" versus "monthly" payments, the obfuscation of whether "May royalties" describes sales made in May or simply received in May, and so on. None of what I'm saying here is new: author Lolita Lopez' post is an excellent and very strong take on this.

As we saw with authors, a publisher's invisible work is underscored every time someone wants to give publishers rhetorical weight and authority. It's why John Scalzi has often described the benefits he gets from being traditionally published, and why self-publishing advocates often minimize the work a publisher puts into a book's development. EC founder Jaid Black's blog post (DoNotLinkified) emphasizes the time and money EC has put into contracting and editing books to give her claims to contractual rights and steady payments more credence. What Jaid Black also does in this post is going to be important for the rest of this discussion: she states that some authors are also making public statements in service of a secret, selfish agenda to reclaim rights and revert contracts.

This is the invisible work of conspiracy. We'll be coming back to this.

Invisible Distributor-Work

Distributors are possibly the most invisible part of the book industry, at least from the outside. When I became an author I was shocked at how many writers had never heard of Ingram, much less had the ability to check and see if their books were available through them. Brick-and-mortar bookstores order direct from publishers if they order in quantity, but for smaller presses and individual items they'll go right to Ingram or Baker and Taylor or the others on this list. Sometimes I remember that there is a whole major subset of the book industry that never speaks to a single plain reader and I get a little stunned, I really do. Digital distribution is even more opaque and confounding: sure we have Amazon and ARe and Smashwords and Kobo and such (for now), but there's also many smaller etailers that are easily mistaken for the equally ubiquitous pirate sites.

Amazon of course is both a publisher and a distributor. This gives me, a longtime indie bookstore employee, a serious case of the side-eye. Print bookstores track sales through physical copies: the store receives a certain number of books and returns (usually) some of them, then is charged for any unreturned copies whether they were sold, damaged or stolen. This is why some (horrible) authors are advised to do the (invisible, horrible) work of signing bookstore stock without asking so that it can't be returned. (Short answer: sure it can, and fuck you very much.)

Digital sales cannot be tracked the same way: digital sales numbers are half-invisible to start with and therefore more easily obscured. Amazon is the only one who can know whether Amazon is fudging sales numbers. Amazon also keeps its notorious algorithm very close; this is no doubt a sound business tactic. Sometimes Amazon tweaks the algorithm (through invisible code-work -- remember that time some French Amazon employee made all the GLBTQ books vanish from Amazon searches?). This too is probably a sound business tactic and prevents savvy authors from gaming the rankings. A rigged game benefits only the rigger, after all -- and Amazon's not letting anyone else have control of their roulette wheel.

So far so good. Except: Amazon is also a publisher, not only through their imprints but also through the KDP program. Most self-published authors are not self-published, but really published through Amazon; the term self-published used to stand as a euphemism for the initial exchange of cash that was the mark of a vanity press. Now it more commonly stands in for published through Amazon or Smashwords or another non-traditional content delivery system. Notice how it's become a more respectable description when that initial cash outlay is erased -- though you could argue that it's only moved, that the paying of editors and cover artists upfront in self-publishing is not meaningfully different from paying a publisher to loan you their own editor and cover artist. Amazon has not actually invested resources in your book, after all, aside from the tech set-up of the Kindle system.

We'll be coming back to invisible tech-work later, too -- but for now ...

Invisible Bookseller-Work

The reason you've heard of The Night Circus and The Time-Traveler's Wife and Boneshaker and Shadow of the Wind and China Mieville and Haruki Murakami is because of the invisible work of booksellers. People with boots on the ground who can collectively make or break a book's success. People who have constant access to books and the enthusiasm to follow favorite authors across many years and genres. Murakami, for instance, is a literary writer of truly odd and dreamlike stories working in Japanese whose translated English editions now get midnight release parties with masks of the author's face. Some of this is self-interested: booksellers generally like their jobs and want to keep bookstores in business.

But self-interest isn't the whole story: most booksellers are avid readers.

Invisible Reader-Work

Readers' work, like authors, happens in private and in solitude. Not only the process of reading a book, but the process of becoming expert in a genre or subgenre, reading and writing reviews and doing any research that those reviews might require. Articulating feelings about a book is work, whether your feelings are good or bad or mixed. You also get the invisible work of dedicated hardcore reviewers, whose reviews are more critical (in the academic sense) and often require much research and expertise. Places like Love in the Margins and Romance Novels for Feminists and the new-to-me-but-awesome-for-everyone Cooking Up Romance. My own Feminism A to Z series of reviews took months of dedicated writing, reading, and link-hunting. (Worth it: I'm super-proud of those posts.) Even the Goodreads gif-heavy reviews that some authors consider too snarky take more than minimal effort to produce, and this effort is nearly always overlooked when authors choose to take issue with a review/reviewer.

What does get emphasized in those flare-ups is that a reader paid money for a book: money stands in for work in a way, as it often does in American culture more broadly. This is why we think rich people have earned their wealth: they wouldn't have all that money if they hadn't done all that work, right? Over and over again in author-reader conflicts we see the invisible effort of the author butting heads with the equally invisible effort of the reader, with money fluttering around the discussion like a musty green moth. Because of course the author's objections to a negative review are financial as well as personal: reviews sell books, and many authors believe positive reviews sell more books.

Now We Smash All The Atoms Together. BOOM.

And now we're (finally!) ready to look clearly at the Amazon-Hachette-Authors United tangle [egregious farting sound effect].

For background, I'm using this excellent Guardian post. It's important to point out at the outset that this whole conflict centers around a secret: the actual contract terms in dispute have not been made public, as far as I know. We're all chasing MacGuffins here.

The usually invisible labor we've charted shows up front and center in this conflict. We have publisher Hachette, who wants to retain as much control as possible over ebook pricing because their royalty rates and therefore their revenues are directly tied to that number. They're protecting their accounting strategy because that's where their value lies as a business, to authors who might want to send them future books to publish. They had support from the booksellers, whose often-invisible work was briefly in the spotlight as they rallied around Hachette authors caught in the corporate dispute.

We also have Authors United. Their letter emphasizes the importance of their invisible labor -- hence that tone-deaf bit about "outsourcing." While I sympathize with their position -- more so recently, you may guess -- I can't muster any corresponding passion for their high-mindedness. Frankly, although there are big names on that list, I will be shocked if they turn out to have any effect on the results of this dispute. I get tired of the bombast just reading the first half of that letter. Especially when we have an actual on-the-ground free-speech case playing out in the romance genre.

And finally we have Amazon: a busy, secretive behemoth, who insists over and over again in this debate that they're only looking out for readers' interests. That their priority is the reader/customer experience. But in this system they have all the financial agendas and invisible work of a distributor, a publisher, and a bookseller -- without, of course, the tax burdens to match. They choose each face as it suits them: they present themselves as a bookseller to readers, as a distributor to publishers, and as a publisher to authors. And that's not even getting into their much-publicized Dickensian warehouse working conditions, which continue to appall. Because of Amazon's lack of transparency and multiple agendas, I find it hard to completely trust them -- and I'm not alone.

Remember that notion of the invisible work of conspiracy? There seems to be a lot of it in the book industry these days, depending on who you listen to. Certainly Hachette should be mentioned here, since they settled when the Department of Justice sued Apple for ebook price-fixing. I find it less plausible to think that Ellora's Cave authors are colluding, not least because we're all exhausted and busy and who has the time for conspiracy, honestly? I'm trying to finish a book and a workshop presentation before the Emerald City Writers' Conference next weekend. In the immortal words of Allison Janney's erotic romance author Ms. Perky: "I've got deviants to see and a novel to finish."

But this is the most succinct distillation of my anxiety regarding Amazon: if they wanted to collude, they could so easily collude with themselves. (I know, it's a little crude, but you follow, yes?) They have access to so many moving parts of the process, and they are so reticent to allow their inner workings to be examined. They're a ready-made conspiracy waiting to happen.

It makes me uneasy. I just wish that I knew what to do about it.

___

As a palate-cleanser, this short essay by Mary Beard on the book business in ancient Rome is entertaining and will strike many familiar notes.

R is for Robin Hood

{For the full alphabet of diversity in romance, click here.} Carrie Lofty's What a Scoundrel Wants is a Robin Hood romance. Yes, technically the hero is Will Scarlet, Robin's nephew (in this version of the mythology) rather than Robin himself -- but we spend a lot of time in the woods, Scarlet's a dab hand with a bow, he's angsty because of his impossible youthful crush on Maid Marian (now Robin's wife), the villain is the new Sheriff of Nottingham ... You get the idea.

Cover image for What a Scoundrel Wants by Carrie Lofty. Forest background. A shirtless man with tan skin and folded arms faces us, slightly to the left, visible only from his chin to his incongruous belt buckle.If people know one thing about Robin Hood, it's this: He robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Socialism, or at least a sense of wealth redistribution as a social good, is baked right in to the legend. But we don't see a great deal of that in Lofty's text. We've got a few peasants in Nottingham, some more in a smaller village, and a gaggle of refugees in the woods, but aside from a general sense of sucks to be poor there's not a lot of social dynamics or even description of what the general public is supposedly suffering from.  In some ways this fits with Will Scarlet's more ambiguous morality -- but even when Robin himself shows up to help with the big battle scene at the end, the focus remains on a handful of larger-than-life heroes rather than the dismantling of an oppressive social system.

In fact, collective action in What a Scoundrel Wants is almost universally bad. The first scene  of the book involves Will being framed for the murder of a nobleman, purely because he was the only one of the guards not in on the conspiracy. Then a group of forest refugees try to hang him -- it's technically on the orders of their douchebag leader, our heroine Meg's ex-lover, but it's presented very much as the will of an angry mob. A second, much angrier mob later attempts to burn Meg as a witch -- an epithet Meg is used to, since this amorphous mass of peasants has often persecuted her on account of her blindness and her mysterious alchemical talents. The reunion of Robin's band at the end of the book seems to promise a positive scene of group unity, but then his men turn cowardly in the face of the Greek fire Meg has made for them to use in storming the villain's castle, and only Robin's personal bravery and charismatic leadership keep them from breaking ranks and running away.

Essentially, every group in this text is an amoeba. Heroes and villains stand out and can exert their will upon the group. The text's world is divided between these two types of characters: leads, who have agency, and extras, who don't.

It is in this context that we must evaluate our heroine Meg's blindness.

(Side note: The Dear Author review from 2008 manages to get through 800 words without once mentioning the heroine's disability. I suppose they did this to avoid spoilers, but it feels like an erasure, especially when slightly euphemistic language comes into play: "Meg has enough of her own troubles." Translation: We shouldn't talk about blindness: it's not polite.)

First of all, Meg is a fantastic heroine of a very unusual type. She's prickly, mendacious, and constantly horny. She gives fewer fucks than just about any other romance heroine I've seen, and I love her even more on this re-read than I did on my first time through. As a blind heroine, too, she avoids the most common pitfalls of disability in romance: she's not a Magical Cripple or a litmus test for the moral purity of other characters. She's accepted her disability to the extent that she has learned to cope with it in her daily life, but she is far from happy when it leaves her vulnerable or disadvantaged, and she's not above using it as a verbal dagger to win points when she has to. The text allows her to be difficult and human, and that's  worth celebrating.

However, Meg's blindness exists in the text's world of negative collective action. Her disability isolates her and forces her to depend on others for basic needs (food, shelter, translating ancient alchemy texts, not being stabbed with swords). She has worked hard to find ways around certain aspects of this dependence -- keeping the inside of her cabin strictly organized so she can find her alchemy supplies, for example -- and this is presented as heroic and admirable. But because she is a lead and not an extra, this dependence on others is presented as a problem in ways that seem ridiculous outside the plot context.

Such as when the hero drags her from her sickbed (literally, not figuratively) and ditches her in the woods. Because if she's truly strong, she'll make it back to the castle.

At this point in the narrative, Meg has been severely burned. On her hands, which are her primary tools for navigating a world. She has not regained feeling in her extremities since the injury, the skin is blistered and tender, and her hands are wrapped in thick linen bandages. This is not the first time Meg has been injured in the course of the book -- the text beats up on every character at some point -- but this is definitely a pivotal trauma. To make things worse, she's being tended at Loxley Manor by Marian, who she knows Will had deep tortured pants-feelings for. So she turns quiet, and emotionally distant, and worries that her hands will be as useless to her now as her eyes have become.

Whereupon Will Scarlet hauls her into the woods with this justification: "If you're strong enough to be my partner, come find me" (289).

She does, of course, because Meg is a heroine and a Lead With Agency. Tearing off her bandages, fueled by anger, using the moss on the north side of trees to orient herself (which: nope), she struggles back to Loxley Manor. Her hands are bleeding, her scabs open and painful. Naturally, she and Will fall instantly into bed, happy together at last: "He had hoped and gambled, and she rediscovered her strength in the forest, conquering the melancholy that hindered her recovery" (305).

Call me cynical, but it seems like groping through a forest with open wounds would hinder her recovery a lot more than a sulky attitude. It's the year 1199 and not only do we not have antibiotics yet, but we're not all that clear about bacteria or hand-washing, either.

But none of this is as important to the story as making sure that we demonstrate Meg's heroism by showing that she can rise above the limitations of her disability. Because to do otherwise requires her to depend on the kindness of extras -- of that amorphous, amoral mass of humanity that has no will of its own or sense of personhood.

If you've read much in the way of disability studies -- and I am by no means an expert -- you might have encountered two models of disability: the medical model (or individual model), and the social model. Lisa Egan at xoJane explains:

Someone with a medical/individual perspective would state that I am prevented from getting around my city because I’m a person with a disability and it’s tough luck that the Tube is so inaccessible. If I want to use the Tube then I’m just gonna have to find a new skeleton from somewhere.

The way I see it is that I’ve been disabled when it comes to travelling around my city by the architects that installed stairs and escalators instead of ramps and lifts at the majority of Underground stations. Stairs and escalators are man-made barriers put in the way by a discriminatory society that excludes me because I have impaired mobility.

The world of What a Scoundrel Wants very clearly adheres to the medical/individual model, not only because of its emphasis on Meg's personal strength, but also because it removes any agency from the extras who make up this world. Notice in Egan's description how the social model foregrounds the actions of non-disabled people in making the Tube inaccessible: the architects have chosen to use stairs and escalators instead of ramps, and that choice impacts Egan's ability to travel through the city.

The emphasis on personal resilience somewhat undermines Meg's strong portrayal, in my opinion: if only individual determination and heroism can make a disabled life manageable, if there is no room for a discussion of how society's choices impact a disabled person's ability, then there is no way forward. Indeed, at the end of the book, we're left with no hint as to what Meg and Will are going to do next -- where they will live, how they will earn their living, how they will afford to continue Meg's alchemical experiments (all issues previously discussed in the text). The background lack of agency in Lofty's world reaches up at the end to swallow even our hero and heroine.

___

It's a new blog to me, but the website Blind Spot run by UK researcher and lecturer Hannah Thompson has some excellent analysis of literature and media relating to blindness -- for instance, the Lego Movie.

For other books featuring disabled characters, check out this Dear Author thread and the always incisive Love in the Margins.

___

Lofty, Carrie. What a Scoundrel Wants. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2008. Print.

L is for Jeannie Lin

{Content note: the following post very briefly quotes fictional acts of torture during a police interrogation -- and, in case anyone else cringes at such things like I do, I should mention the torture involves hand injuries. GAH.  Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

Despite the casual malice of Othello and the oceans of blood in Macbeth, I have always found King Lear to be Shakespeare's most chilling tragedy. There's a dark purple void at the heart of that story into which all good things fall, never to be seen again -- it's simultaneously frightening and fascinating, a masterclass in showing how human isolation can tear a whole world to pieces.

I would never have expected to get shades of that same feeling from a historical romance set in Tang Dynasty China, but such are the marvelous gifts the romance genre sometimes offers to its reverent acolytes. And by "romance genre" I mean Jeannie Lin, whose Chinese-set historicals just keep getting better and better: Jade Temptress is a stunning and memorable book, maybe even a masterpiece of the genre. The Shakespeare angle only clarifies how the book deconstructs the interlocking systems of money, class, and power.

Cover image for Jeannie Lin's The Jade Temptress. A woman with pale skin, dark hair, Asian features, and deep red lips wears a white gown patterned with bright flowers and wrapped with a blue sash. Large red flowers are woven into her hair. One hand is languid and the other held against her face in a pose of subtle invitation.The first scene of King Lear sets up everything that follows: the king divides his kingdom between his three daughters, offering the most riches to whichever one who loves him most. Or rather, whichever one claims to love him most, since of course love is not so easily measured or proved as Lear seems to believe. It's a stupid game, thoughtless at best and malicious at worst. As the two eldest fall over themselves in their haste to kiss dad's ass, Lear's youngest and best daughter Cordelia decides the only way to win is not to play.

LEAR: ... what can you say to draw

A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

CORDELIA: Nothing.

LEAR: Nothing!

CORDELIA: Nothing. (Lear I.i.87-91)

Lear imagines himself as something like a fairy-tale king who can discern true goodness and reward it with the appropriate amount of wealth. It is stagey and disingenuous, particularly since he has plainly saved the best part, the "third more opulent," for his darling youngest daughter. Cordelia's "nothing" shatters the king's comfortable little play: she rejects the idea that love can be exchanged for anything except itself. To exchange love for money turns love into something like work -- or something like prostitution, though Cordelia doesn't say so. Lear throws a tantrum, the King of France proposes to Cordelia on the spot, the two elder daughters are embarrassed, and everyone agrees Lear is a royal ass. Things proceed to go quite rapidly to hell.

Jade Temptress heroine Mingyu, a famous courtesan in the imperial capital of Changan, is caught in a similar web where familial relationships and profit-based relationships are conflated. Her fellow courtesans are her "sisters," and the scheming brothel-mistress Madame Sun prefers to be known as "Mother":

Though they called each other mother and daughter, Mingyu never forgot the truth. She had a true mother once. Her birth mother had sold her and her sister for a small handful of coins. Madame Sun, her foster mother, would never let her go for so little. (Kindle location 352)

A nice little twist of the knife, there: are you really more valued simply because your foster mother sets a higher price on you? (Short answer: no.) Madame Sun is even less able than Lear to imagine human worth as anything other than a financial measure --  as a result, her affections are always expressed in terms of prices and profit. It's unclear how much of this is artifice, manipulation for her personal gain, and how much is simply her own deeply ingrained belief: even Mingyu is left uncertain about this, at the end. But she is quite clear on her own position in this dynamic: "Always 'us.' There was no Mingyu. There was Madame and there was the Lotus Palace . . ." (375). Since her love (or at least its performance) can be purchased, it becomes a commodity -- which is to say it has economic value, and therefore cannot/should not be given away for free. Any sense of the courtesan as a person capable of love outside of currency relationships must be suppressed in order to maintain the value of the courtesan's love as a luxury item. At the same time, since all her wages go to the Lotus Palace and not to herself, the courtesan is distanced from economic agency: she can earn, but she cannot spend. She is in essence a lever by which money moves from her suitors to her foster mother, who quite literally owns her. As indicated by "There was no Mingyu," our heroine reads this framework as an erasure: "This is a dream world," she says later of the city's pleasure district. "We don't exist outside it" (1223). This is Cordelia's thought turned inward: Mingyu recognizes that her participation in the sex trade has made her into nothing, both in a legal and an emotional sense.

Since she is nothing, Mingyu has learned to use nothingness as a weapon in Changan's tangled web of money, gender, and class. She cultivates a quiet and mysterious air of unreadability -- an emptiness behind which she conceals her own truth. Hero Wu Kaifeng recognizes this:

"You make yourself into a blank canvas and let your admirers fill it as required."

"A mirror," she corrected, unperturbed. "A courtesan is a mirror. The bureaucrats value their own learning, so I give them poetry and music. The generals value competition and strategy, so I confirm the brilliance of their plans."

"And myself?" . . .

"You value justice, Constable. Unfortunately, that is the one thing I cannot speak to. I know nothing of it." (2023)

And this is true: Mingyu and her Lotus Palace sisters are disempowered in Changan by the trifecta of gender, class, and economics. They are all women, of low birth, whose earnings go to Madame Sun. They only have agency insofar as they control the agency of others -- specifically, men: "Sometimes exploiting a man's power is the only influence a woman can wield" (526), Mingyu explains. Love becomes a means of channeling power, and money a measure of both. The higher the price a courtesan commands, the more power she wields -- and vice versa. (Which goes a long way toward explaining Madame Sun.) Love separated from money is rendered meaningless, unmeasurable: nonexistent. Mingyu's fellow courtesan Ziyi, burned by heartbreak, expresses this most succinctly: "The inspector is wealthy and offers you his protection. He'll pursue you at any cost. It's hardly different from romantic love. In some ways, it's more reliable" (2565).

This is some Jane Austen-level irony in a genre romance -- especially since the inspector in question, imperial official Xi Lun, is so very easily read as the horror-movie version of the classic alpha romance hero:

Xi was pleasing enough to the eye. His face was square and his jaw broad. To match the strong features of his face, his clothing was impeccable and his manners cultured. He was young compared to many highly ranked officials and he was free with his wealth. (1724)

Handsome, powerful, rich, worldly, and younger than many at a similar point in his career -- all my Dom Billionaire alarm bells were ringing like mad. His pursuit of Mingyu is relentless and he completely ignores the charms of the other courtesans, all while giving our heroine crushing kisses, pricey gifts, and a barrel full of disregard for her limits and boundaries. This is the complete set of genre-recognized Stalker Romance Hero Cues. Mingyu responds the only way she can: by getting profoundly creeped out. Xi Lun has entirely bought into -- see what I did there? -- the system of love-as-commodity that she feels erases her as an individual and an agent. He offers her valuable objects and Mingyu knows this is because he sees her as only another type of object. His intent to purchase her bond -- to make her legally his property -- is the novel's biggest threat, and even his erotic desire is an expression less of physical lust than of an eroticized control: "Sex would just be another way for him to exert his dominance" (2160). Again, this is language we are used to seeing as the mark of an alpha hero, but in this context the alpha billionaire's confidence and compliments turn impeccably sinister.

Xi Lun is only the most obvious symbol of a patriarchal system where all women are commodified to greater or lesser extent. I was strongly reminded of activist blogger Melissa McEwan's "The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck," which details the way marginalized groups -- specifically women, though she recognizes parallels to LGBTQ people and people of color -- learn to respond to the constant barrage of microaggressions with wariness and guardedness toward privileged groups, as a form of self-protection. For Mingyu and Ziyi and the other courtesans, every man in Changan exists as a potential threat. Even the wealthy men they hope to seduce into providing for them. Even our hero, Constable Wu Kaifeng.

If Xi Lun is a villainous romance hero, Wu Kaifeng is a heroic romance villain. We know Kaifeng interrogated Mingyu at one point in the first book, The Lotus Palace, but it's only now that we learn the full extent of what happened. Turns out, he tortured her. Actual physical torture as part of a police investigation -- and it's explicitly sexualized:

The first time Wu had interrogated her, he'd taken out six bamboo sticks and laced them between his fingers. He'd held her hand still in his own as he completed the task, a gesture that was grotesquely intimate. (573)

In the hands of an author I trust less, this would have had me side-eyeing the text something fierce. But Ms. Lin has remarkable control of her material and has not led me wrong before -- more concretely, this is not the first time Mingyu has been abused at the hands of a man in authority. The late General Deng was fond of making his possessiveness known in subtle but unmistakably douchey ways. She knows how to read abuse rather than merely react to it: Wu Kaifeng puts her in physical pain, yes, but he does it in the course of his duty -- torture being an accepted part of Changan police procedure -- and most importantly of all, he stops the torture long before he needs to. (And apologizes for it later in a perfect and specific way.) This one fact is enough to show Mingyu that the constable operates outside the usual dangerous networks of social privilege:

"I don't trust you because you are kindhearted and honorable, Constable Wu. I trust you because you don't care who Deng Zhi is or how vast his forces are. You don't care who I am, which means you don't care that a lowly courtesan was found with her dead and high-ranking lover. Or that her life means nothing to the magistrate or his superiors. All you care about is finding the truth." (596)

Note all the negatives in this early passage -- Mingyu is starting to rebel against the values of the Pingkang Li by seeing value in nothingness more generally. She will grow bolder about this as the novel progresses.

Merely being a member of the privileged gender is not enough to put Wu Kaifeng at the apex of power in Changan, and he knows it: "I'm ill-mannered," he says later. "Unsightly. Nothing to anyone that matters" (1271). Mingyu initially recognizes in Kaifeng a lack that gives him power, similar to her own mirror-like unreadability: "Part of her envied Wu Kaifeng and his unyielding approach. It must be freeing to walk through this world and feel nothing" (596). But their positions are differently privileged by class: Mingyu may not have money of her own -- except for what she's been able to hide away in secret -- but she does have access to a moneyed lifestyle. Her clothes, her social skills, her musical ability, all these mark her as a member of the rarefied upper echelons of society, even if she only exists there as a shadow of her true self. The constable, in contrast, is a man of unknown birth, fortuneless and indifferently educated, a pariah in the imperial world where scholarship and bloodlines are directly tied to career advancement and power. Mingyu's position might be a cage, but it's a cage raised far above the level a man like Wu Kaifeng can hope to reach. If he resists the kyriarchal network of money and privilege, as Mingyu sees, it is because he has as little hope of agency within that network as she does.

A third of the way through, at the very moment when Kaifeng insists he is nothing, Mingyu contradicts him:

"It's not true," she murmured. "You're not really like that."

He smiled crookedly at her. "Not ugly?"

"Not . . . nothing." (1271)

And then something happens: he kisses her. Something else happens: Mingyu kisses him back. (This seems as good a time as any to state that Wu Kaifeng is one of the swoon-worthiest heroes I've read in quite some time. Jeannie Lin writes the best first kisses.) "Don't think too much of this," Mingyu warns. "I won't," Kaifeng promises (1271). And then they part: "They both knew that nothing more could become of it" (1309). This kiss, like Mingyu and Kaifeng, is nothing -- but like them, and like Cordelia's 'nothing,' this nothingness has a power outside the system of commodified love and desire. Thanks to the iterative nature of romance narratives, the reader knows damn well that something will indeed come of this. Mingyu is changed almost immediately: "Her stolen and precious hour with Wu Kaifeng had emboldened her more than it should have" (1440). She's using the language of value -- stolen, precious -- to describe something that by law and custom shouldn't even exist.

Kyriarchal power systems are bending beneath the weight of actions motivated by honest mutual desire.

Wu Kaifeng may have started as a torturer, but he moves increasingly away from any attmpts to claim, control, or possess Mingyu. All these terms are standard romance sex scene tropes -- hell, they're practically subgenres at this point -- but Kaifeng makes a great case for the pure undiluted hotness of un-claiming: "He found her sash and looped the length of silk around her wrists to secure her arms overhead, but the gesture was only symbolic. Almost poetic, for someone untrained in poetry. He couldn't tie her there, he couldn't keep her" (2383). [My notes at this point are simply "SWOON SWOON SWOON." From me, not Mingyu. She's not really the swooning type.] This deliberate and careful unclaiming consistently allows Mingyu the metaphorical space to claim herself, to exist again as a person: "When Kaifeng took her like this, single-mindedly, with no motive but for his pleasure and her own, she finally belonged to herself. Her body was her own and this pleasure -- this pleasure was hers for the taking" (2737).

But this progression is unsustainable and comes to a head at the climax: Mingyu is growing bold enough to want to free herself from the entire money-love-power system, and talks of leaving the city. Wu Kaifeng knows that although he has come to love her anything he does to claim or take or possess her will only keep her imprisoned. So he retreats entirely, saying they must part.

This next move will take some explaining, so bear with me. Mingyu and Kaifeng are falling in love while trying to solve the mystery of the death of Mingyu's protector General Deng. (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!) At first it appears Deng was beheaded by one of his bodyguards, so the general is given a state funeral and a very expensive new head made of jade. But then it turns out -- SPOILERS NO REALLY IT'S COMING UP -- that the headless body belongs to one of the bodyguards, and Deng has faked his own assassination so he can start a coup, and he's been hiding in the family mausoleum, but by the time our protagonists figure this out someone else has killed all the surviving bodyguards and also poisoned the general. And servant confesses and commits suicide, but maybe he didn't really do it either? And maybe he was poisoned by the real killer? It's a giant MacGuffin of a murder investigation, with near-constant deceptions and a complete lack of meaning at the end -- in short, it's perfect. And the late general's oh-so-valuable jade head? Is broken up by Wu Kaifeng and used to buy Mingyu's freedom from Madame Sun.

So the head of a man who was not actually beheaded is broken, and the pieces used to pay Mingyu's very real debt -- a concrete example of something coming from nothing, of emptiness being turned into profit. Now that the courtesan owns herself again, of course, she is able to reunite with Wu Kaifeng. Mingyu has some money she's hoarded and they spend most of it renovating a derelict tea-shop: in the book's final scene, Kaifeng has bought Mingyu a very pretty musical instrument with basically the last of their cash. Now, at the happy ending, nothing is all they have. They're hoping the tea-shop will turn a profit, but they don't know. It's the diametric opposite of the usual romance narrative, where the couple ends up wealthy or at least comfortable -- but while a lack of funds might jeopardize the normal HEA, we've had the whole rest of the book to know how capable our hero and heroine are at making something out of nothing. Where King Lear let nothingness destroy his life, his family, and his kingdom, Mingyu and Kaifeng find nothingness a haven from the interconnecting dynamics that work to dehumanize them. The vast amount of nothingness at the end of this novel is not a lack, but an opportunity. It's really quite elegant, as a twist on the usual trope.

A brief postscript: Let this analysis not be taken to mean that sex work per se is necessarily degrading or corrupting or dehumanizing. This is a study of a single fictional text and its motifs. But the intersections beneath which sex work takes place in both Ms. Lin's Tang Dynasty setting and in our own modern Western Judeo-Christian culture -- systems of class oppression and gender bias most especially -- these often do great damage to sex workers as individuals and as a class. If Mingyu feels erased as an individual, so too do many real-world sex workers, who are criminalized by an imperfect justice system, and whose voices are discounted by a culture that considers them less than fully human.

An even briefer, much less serious postscript: using the words 'nothing' and 'something' so often has gotten "Something Good" from The Sound of Music thoroughly stuck in my head -- and it occurs to me that the lyrics to that song also set up a system where goodness is rewarded with love as if love is a prize for moral behavior and how is that not a type of commodification and I should probably just stop now before my brain dribbles out my ears.

___

Dear Author's group review of this book touches on the class issues as well as themes of artifice and reality -- it's a really great discussion of a really wonderful book. Miss Bates has a review the parallels many of my own reactions here.

Jeannie Lin's first book in this series, The Lotus Palace, sold less than expected, so that Harlequin pulled The Jade Temptress from print distribution and made it digital-only. Ms. Lin blogged about her complex reaction to the news, and Courtney Milan responded with print sales figures of her own to back up Jeannie Lin's thoughts. It's an interesting conversation on how we interpret sales data in light of race and romance, and there are no easy answers anywhere.

This post from Racialicious is brief but illuminating and touches on capitalism in China, contact between Asian and European cultures, Orientalist stereotypes, and the difference between a concubine and a mistress.

My own views on sex work are rendered largely irrelevant, I think, by the fact that I am not nor ever have been a sex worker. (And no matter what they tell you, erotic romance authorship is not the same thing at all.) For years I have looked to Seattle's own Mistress Matisse for considered and knowledgeable opinions in a very volatile field of discourse and experience: her Twitter feed is a great source of activism and writing. And while I've only just started reading Melissa Gira Grant's recent book Playing the WhoreI can tell you that it is robust, insightful, and pulling no punches.

___

Lin, Jeannie. The Jade Temptress. Toronto: HQN, 2014. Ebook.

Shakespeare, WIlliam. King Lear. Shakespeare Online. Web. 1999. Accessed April 4, 2014.

You'll Never Believe How This Author Marketed Her Books

It's hard out there for an author. There seem to be more of us than ever before, and we ARE SHOUTING. ALL. THE. TIME. in order to be heard above the cacophony. Books for sale! we cry. Well-crafted, edited, smut-filled books for sale! Ahem.

To save yourself another scratchy throat (or worn-down capslock key), here are some innovative suggestions that are sure to thrust your book right out to the head of the slavering, ravening pack. Innovate your platform! Paradigm your author brand! Some other business-y sounding word or catchphrase!

1. Print out rectangular stickers with your name in an eye-catching font. Take these to your nearest bookstore, and place them carefully on the most attractive book covers over the name of the original author. "Gee, this Penelope Fotheringay must really be something!" people will say. "Look at how many books she's written! And I've heard such good things about this Moby-Dick one!"

2. Get thee a Street Team, like the Avon Addicts or the Entangled Mafia, so you can harness the power of groupthink and subterfuge in service of greater personal profit and notoriety. I'm sure keeping a gaggle of volunteers happy and organized will not use up all of your valuable and much-guarded writing time! Try and make your team name sound as 'urban' as possible, with allusions to violence and drug use -- examples: the Fortheringay Gangstas, or Penelope's Pimps -- because Street Teams originated with primarily black urban musical genres like rap and hip-hop and are therefore a totally natural marketing strategy for the overwhelmingly white and suburban/rural authors of genre romance. I mean, it's not like there's a lengthy history of white appropriation/exploitation of black music and culture to make us rethink this, right?

3. Have the Fotheringay Ganstas tattoo their faces, hands, or other visible body parts with QR codes linking to excerpts from your book. QR codes are so hip right now!

4. Going to a holiday gift exchange? What better gift could there be than a print copy of your latest masterpiece? After all, it's the thought that counts -- and you should always be thinking of increasing your brand's exposure.*

5. On Twitter? #TheBestWayToGetNoticed is to #HashtagEverything. #AccuracyBeDamned. #freebooks #free #solidarityisforwhiteauthors #whateverstrending #tcot

6. You've heard of blog tours, right? Pshaw -- old hat. What you need is a bus tour! Simply procure  an all-day bus pass, wear comfy shoes, and hop from route to route in your city while loudly hawking your book to weary commuters and handing out business cards with QR codes like they're going out of style.** Everyone wants things to read on the bus, so this is a target-rich market and will definitely have no social or legal repercussions.

7. Try writing a character interview, which is a basely promotional post where authors answer questions in the personae of their hero/heroine as though professional publishing is no different than an assignment for their 7th grade Advanced English class. To make your character interview really stand out, have your own characters interview characters from best-selling, big-name authors, to prove your characters are better. Suggestions: Christian Grey (great for SEO), Fitzwilliam Darcy (for the lucrative fan-fic demographic), or Jamie Frasier from Outlander (make sure to ask about the rape scene!).

8. Collect pen names like they're Pokemon cards: one for romantic suspense, one for erotic romance, one for sweet Regencies, one for paranormals, one for New Adult, one for steampunky space opera ménages with squidshifters, sexbots, and a disgraced engineer heroine.*** For bonus points, create a group blog with all your pen names for sneaky self-promo and sock-puppeting.

Good luck, and good sales!

*I saw an author do this. At a white elephant gift exchange for other writers, many of whom (including myself) are professionally published. It was indescribably tacky. And I'm not just saying that because I'm the one who ended up with that 'gift.'

**Which they are.

*** Patent pending.

From Bennets to Billionaires: Some Thoughts on Writing Money in Romance

Money has been woven into the romance genre from the start. Take Pride and Prejudice, that classic foundational text. Sandwiched between the witty banter and the embarrassing family antics is a deep, urgent concern with money as a social stabilizer. Elizabeth Bennet's courage consists largely in rebelling against marriage for purely material concerns, even though marrying someone who will financially support her is basically Her Entire Job As A Gently Born Lady. Her refusal to settle for the first eligible offer of marriage (or the second, counting Darcy's jerk-proposal) is a big, big risk, despite the fact that it's never entirely clear how dire the Bennet's circumstances will be after Mr. Bennet's death: will they be starving in the streets? Or will they merely have to fire their two servants and do for themselves while living simply? Is it real poverty or only the kind of poverty that will make them a social embarrassment? Either way, Lizzie's insistence that her happiness is as vital as her family's social standing is a bold moment that changed the entire history of English literature, both popular and literary. Jane in Jane Eyre is similarly unmoved by money, despite being a virtually penniless orphan -- what she values in Rochester is his grumpy brilliance, that mercurial charm that makes him both unlikeable and fascinating. He tries to shower her with gifts, and she refuses them. She later inherits a fortune from a distant relative and promptly gives away as much of it as she can. Miss Eyre is definitely more self-sacrificing than Elizabeth Bennet, but both heroines are in the same moral register where personal satisfaction is a higher good than mercenary material gain.

In a recent conversation on Twitter, the incisive Miranda Neville mentioned that historicals are "all about money" (partial feed here). Certainly there are countless historicals following the Austen/Brontë format, with poor or lower gentry heroines being wooed by lavishly wealthy aristocrats (and the occasional lavishly wealthy tradesman or criminal). One of the things I loved about Julie Anne Long's Like No Other Lover was its upending of this trope: the heroine explicitly planned on using her good looks to snag a rich husband, because she had a few shillings in her purse and that was about it. (This situation was scary and refreshing, though it's true the book has some flaws.) But rarities aside, it's abundantly clear that in Romancelandia, the scales of finance are more often weighted in the hero's favor.

Sex and the Single Man in Possession of a Large Fortune

But it isn't just historicals that are all about money. Think of the new appetite for billionaire hero romances, from Christian Grey to Gideon Cross to all the BDSM billionaire knockoffs I don't have the patience to list here. They're not only kinkier than the classic Harlequin lamp-jawed CEO, but they're wealthier too.

And the trait the heroines of these billionaire BDSM books share with both Lizzie Bennet and Jane Eyre: they're not only sexually virginal, they're financially virginal as well.

Heroes are endowed with licentious pasts and taboo sexual tastes. Heroines -- well, not so much, at least not outside of erotic romance, and even there there's a pretty strong let this sexy dude instruct you in the sexy ways of sex vibe. (Full disclosure: I've written one of those myself, so I'm not entirely immune to their appeal.) But it seems like heroes are also permitted to be rich, to bask in the trappings of wealth: penthouse apartments, fine furniture, expensive and tailored clothes, wine, food, private helicopters. Heroines -- again, not so much. One of the consequences of the Lizzie/Jane Eyre tradition is that it's pretty much a moral imperative in the genre that Heroines Do Not Care About Money. Chick-lit strongly rebelled against this for a while, before collapsing under the weight of all those shoe descriptions. Aside from Nora in Tiffany Reisz's The Siren, I'm hard-pressed to think of a wealthy heroine who really enjoys being wealthy. (Eva from Bared to You -- which I have not read -- may be an exception as well. Feel free to weigh in in the comments.)

The giant elephant in this post is, of course, prostitution. Lizzie Bennet and Jane Eyre exist in the context not only of mercenary marriage, but in the context of an unspoken underclass of women who have sex for pay (whether of their own volition or or coercion because it was the only economic option does not matter here). As a result, women and money existed in an uneasy relationship -- the rules of behavior for ladies exist in large part as a way of distinguishing between respectable women and whores. Centuries of social and legal activism have opened up women's financial horizons -- here in the States we can own property and hold jobs and earn wages now, even if those wages still aren't equal to men's on average -- but in romance it still comes across as unseemly if a heroine thinks too much about money. Even if it's her own money she's throwing around. Even if she's worried about how to feed her kids or pay her rent or keep her business from going under. The billionaire romance's happy ending is not that the heroine now has access to money, it's that the heroine never has to think about money again, because Thinking About Money Is Bad.

So we get this weird double standard that exists across multiple books and even multiple subgenres. For every city girl who finds love in a small town and gives up the urban flash and glamor, we have a bespoke-suited billionaire in a shiny penthouse who gets to keep all his fancy things when he finds true love. In the first story, the heroine comes down to the hero's financial level (how often have you read small-town heroes who can't bring themselves to depend on the heroine's money because of pride? A LOT); in the second, the hero raises up the heroine to upper-class status, though of course she doesn't really care about such things, oh no, not the silk dresses or the satin handcuffs or the of-course-we-can-pay-for-it trip to the emergency room from all those adorably klutzy accidents. In Jane Eyre, at least it was Rochester who fell down when he and Jane first met.

Contemporary heroines in billionaire romances are expected to prove -- to readers as well as to the hero -- that they are not that dreaded monster, the gold-digger. (Cue Kanye West earworm in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...) One way authors do this is by showing that the heroine is uncomfortable around the trappings of money. Heroines refuse expensive jewelry and fancy dresses, they stand in awe of the gleaming marble in penthouse foyers, and so on. Some of this no doubt is meant to play to reader fantasy -- since most romance readers are not billionaires, the theory goes that they may relate more to a heroine who's equally at sea in the world of high finance, while still getting a vicarious thrill from all the niceties. Wealth in fiction is a fantasy with a lot of appeal, to be sure -- but I think it's telling that we so rarely write the working-class hero, gaping at the rich heroine's foyer. (You ever have one of those days where everything sounds vaguely dirty? Gaping at the heroine's foyer, hur hur hur.)

Sometimes the power differential is so skewed as to make me uncomfortable -- a big reason why I haven't tried to pick up 50 Shades or any of its imitators. If total dependency upon a hero is really the fantasy you're after, we're never going to like the same books. But you've got plenty of yours already, so let's even the scales. Let's see more billionaire heroines with kinky tastes corrupting innocent young workingmen, please. (Cough cough The Siren cough.) Let's write a heroine who's hard up for money and when a rich dude she's got the hots for offers to take her to a fancy dinner, she says Hell yes and orders all the wine because he won't miss the money, she can't afford to treat herself and hell, she's going to boink his brains out anyway so the wine is just a bonus. Let's write heroines who don't care about the billionaire hero's money because they already have plenty of their own. Let's close the romance wage gap.

Because if we can't even bring ourselves to do that in the fictional worlds we create, how can we hope to effect that change in our real lives? If romance is fantasy and escape, why does that fantasy always take such a conservative form? Where are the romances for women who fantasize not about bagging the billionaire, but about being one?

{In closing: this particular author is nowhere near being a billionaire. If you'd like to do your bit to change that, please consider visiting my books page to purchase one of my fine stories, available in many convenient digital formats.}

'As if money was a substitute for fair play': feminist subtext in The Governess Affair

After the Vicki Essex review and the feminist heroine fiasco, I've been feeling like many of my latest posts have come down on the negative side of the critical spectrum. To balance things out, I kept an eye out for positive examples of romances with feminist leanings -- and now I'm thrilled to say that Courtney Milan's The Governess Affair has a strongly feminist subtext based around power, money, consent, and women's autonomy. {Be ye warned: spoilers abound. Also, at present the novella is free on Amazon, so I'd run right out and grab it if I were you.}

Cover for Courtney Milan's The Governess Affair: a light-skinned woman with dark hair wears a long gold gown. She has her back to the viewer, and is turning to look at the viewer over her right shoulder.

The book opens with a description of two men, one of them a duke, and the other, our hero:

An untutored observer would focus on the Duke of Clermont, apparently in full command ... his patrician features were sharp and aristocratic. Compared with Hugo's own unprepossessing expression and sandy brown hair, the untutored observer would have concluded that the duke was in charge.

The untutored observer, Hugo thought, was an idiot. (2-3)

Less than a page in, the visible marks of patriarchal power—expensive clothing, "patrician features"—are irrevocably undermined. Hugo isn't a servant. He's a former boxer who is now something of an enforcer, working to eliminate the duke's many debts. If he succeeds before a given date, he will be rewarded with enough money to launch his own business empire. He successfully helped the duke marry an heiress, but the new duchess' father was canny enough to put her fortune in trust, to be doled out on a regular schedule—provided, of course, that the duke does not do anything to irritate his new bride.

This is worth unraveling further. The 'official' channels of social power—a husband's authority over his wife and her property, a master's authority over his hired hand, and an aristocrat's authority over a coal miner's son—are subverted by the ebb and flow of money. The legal actions of the duke's father-in-law do much to thwart the duke's own exercise of power, proving that emotional ties and competing agendas can complicate what should be straightforward hierarchies. As Hugo observes soon after: "A duke should have known how to take charge. But no; Clermont was so used to having others bow before his title that he'd never learned to command by force of personality" (5). I love how this reverses the usual romance trope where a titled hero is so used to getting his own way that he becomes autocratic or commanding or a force of nature. Privilege, in Courtney Milan's text, means never having to work to exert one's will upon the world.

Our hero Hugo, of course, has to work very hard to do the same thing. His past as a boxer means he has more than common physical power, of course, but his past as an abused son of a battered mother makes him wary of the uses of physical force, particularly against those less powerful than himself. His low-class birth and shady employment further exclude him from the halls of official authority—from government as well as from society. The solution he seeks is wealth, "his own empire" (7), which will allow him to exist comfortably outside the channels of official power. Money is, in the aristocratic system, unofficial power.

Again, at this point we're still about seven pages into this novella.

Enter our heroine.

Or rather, say that she is revealed to be our heroine. She first appeared on page three, in a bit of description where the duke was looking at her and grinding his teeth. She wears a hat with a "thin pink ribbon." She appeared again, "a smudge of pink for her lips," on page seven. And she gets finally introduced in the least impressive manner possible: "'You see,' Clermont muttered, 'there was this governess … that's her, now. Waiting. Demanding compensation from me" (8). Our heroine wants money too.

Actually, she wants a great deal more than money. Unlike Hugo, who sees money as some kind of proof that he's transcended the legacy of his abusive father, Serena Barton wants the things money can bring her rather than money for its own sake. She wants to buy a lavender farm to ensure her financial independence, and she wants a guarantee that the duke will pay for the future education of his unborn son (or a Season for his daughter, if the child is a girl).

Serena Barton, you see, is a survivor of sexual assault. She is also pregnant with the duke's illegitimate child.

I've seen plenty of rapes in romance, whether by the hero or by the villain. I've even seen some heroines get pregnant after being raped by the hero, in a few romances of the 'sweeping generational epic' type. And there's the heroine in Loretta Chase's Not Quite a Lady, who has a bastard child with a deceased rake.

The duke is clearly, unambiguously not the hero.

And yet our heroine is carrying his child.

This is textual violence as well as sexual violence. Babies tend to be almost magical in romance. They embody hope, happiness, love, and the future. Secret babies bring long-estranged lovers together. Children's troubles are often the inciting incident to reunite formerly feuding spouses and exes. Barren heroines are mystically un-barrenated by True Love in cherubic baby-filled epilogues. If a couple has One Night of Passion, the chances of baby go through the roof. (Does nobody understand how condoms function?) But this particular baby is an accident, an unfortunate consequence of a traumatic experience. This is not a baby born to solve its parents' problems. In another romance, an author would let her heroine wonder if she could possibly love a child born from such a cicumstances. Serena Barton, however, seems to have simply accepted this baby as hers to protect—not out of defiance, but as a matter of simple responsibility. It's very quietly powerful.

Virginity, too, is fetishized in romance, and Serena Barton was a virgin until Clermont came along. But Serena Barton does not spend a lot of time mourning her lost innocence. In a romance so concerned with money, it would have been easy to depict the heroine's rape as a robbery, in the commodity model of sexual relationships. Especially since it also cost her her governess' wages. But this is not what Courtney Milan does. Yes, Serena is traumatized by her rape—she has nightmares, she gets triggered (though she doesn't of course use the term), and she has been fired from her position as a result of her pregnancy. She fears being silenced, she wonders if she should have fought back harder, if there was something she could have done to protect herself—all very standard responses for victims of sexual violence. But while her rape has affected her, it has not taken something from her femininity, and this is hugely important in feminist terms.

Serena Barton has no money, no character, no prospects, no power. But she still has agency: "I am done with things happening to me. From here on out, am going to happen to things." (38)

Reader, I admit that I flat-out cheered.

And this is the moment when Serena first begins her assault on Hugo's bleak and tender heart. Though she doesn't realize it at the time.

Because Hugo is sensitive to the workings of power, and one of the other visible marks of official power is that it allows men like Clermont to succeed in abusing women like Serena. "I'm a duke," he says in the first chapter. "I have no need to force women." (10) Astute readers will notice that this is not the same as saying I did not force that woman. And it's true he did not use physical force—but then, he didn't have to. "He promised not to wake the household" (98) Serena explains later. His wealth, his title, and his gender all allow him access to unpunished violence. The duke is not a moustache-twirler in the classic romance tradition—unlike, say, my own heinous and much-beloved Lord Wart—he's an average man, with average appetites, and the unshakeable conviction that he is entitled to satisfy those appetites no matter what it costs anyone else. "I was so bored, and she was the closest thing to a woman around. What would it hurt?" (171)

As a governess, Serena has no official recourse against abuse and violence. All the duke has to do is tell her to be quiet, once during the rape, and once when she takes up her vigil on the bench outside his home: "She'd been cut deep by her own silence, cut to the point of shame … Silence could cut both ways—for instance, when one failed to repudiate rumors that might cause damage. She wished Clermont much joy of her silence." (17-18) Privilege thrives on being unseen, so Serena makes her silence conspicuously visible: "What do you suppose the gossip will run to once I begin to show?" (109)

Hugo, whose instincts for abuse are finely honed, sees through the duke's feeble lies about the rape; he even sees through Serena's insistence that she was not forced under the legal definition of the term: "Somehow, what had happened seemed even worse than physical violence—as if Clermont had taken not only his pleasure and her future, but had robbed her of the right to believe herself blameless." (99) Note that the robbery metaphor here pertains to Serena's sense of herself, not to her status as a virgin. It is the damage to Serena-as-a-person that matters in this text, not the damage to Serena-as-a-sexual-object. Her virginity is barely even established as having been taken—a brief mention of blood on the sheets when it wasn't her time of the month—but the results to her security, happiness, and peace of mind are thoroughly explored.

Hugo, unlike Clermont and unlike many other romance heroes, is very very good with boundaries. A list:

  • When he first suspects Serena has been raped, he sets a twig on the bench between them, declaring his intention of treating it as a wall. He does not move the twig; Serena does, at the end of the scene.
  • He tries to take her glove off to warm her hands, chilled from standing all day in a downpour. When she flinches at the touch, he stops, lets go, apologizes, and asks if she can take her own gloves off. When she can't manage it with stiff fingers, he asks her permission again before gently removing the gloves, not touching her any more than he has to, not turning it into a caress or a seduction. (Since I love Lord of Scoundrels, I read this as a clear callback to the famous glove scene between Dain and Jessica.) If she'd refused, he would not have touched her, even though it meant she continued to shiver and drip in the rain. He would not have manhandled her "for her own good," as so many heroes are wont to do.
  • In the scene where they finally consummate the relationship, he turns it into a game, with hairpins as tokens, and pre-arranged rules. The rules apply to him, not to Serena: "You can make me touch you," he says. "I can only make you touch yourself." (132) He deliberately gives her more power. She is explicitly the one in charge of this encounter. He never loses control and breaks the rules he's set, never pushes her, even after they both forget about the pins.
  • When Serena mentions how clever the games with the twig and the hairpins, he explains that things like this were how his mother dealt with the reality her own abuse. Hugo's mother is not shown to be a passive victim—she has coping strategies, mental tricks to avoid being dragged down by hopelessness, which she has passed on to her son. The fact that she was killed by her abuser is a tragedy, but it does not dehumanize her in the text or in Hugo's eyes.

Hugo, despite his declarations of ruthlessness and his nickname (the Wolf of Clermont), is incapable of true cruelty. Serena notices this, recognizes his value and strength, and makes her decision. I'm going to quote at length:

She'd thought of the Wolf of Clermont as the duke's tool, his thing. Yet Mr. Marshall was sitting in the rain feeding her sandwiches. Maybe this was some twisted, diabolical strategy on his part. It seemed unlikely. It would have made more sense to keep her cold and hungry.

Her heart beat hard, half fear, half excitement. This was the man who, if the gossip papers had it right, had brought Clermont's estates back from the verge of imminent doom. The duke relied on him for everything. Without him, Clermont was nothing.

She could steal him away. (62-63)

To clarify: she's initially looking to use Hugo, but this quickly changes: "She wanted to steal him away—not to deprive Clermont of his use, but to have him for herself." (91)

This is precisely what she does.

It's a beautifully inexorable plot. One step at a time, Hugo becomes Serena's. She mentally declares him hers at precisely the midpoint of the novel—in the same scene where she agrees to marry him in name only, for the legitimacy of her unborn child. In the same scene she ends with this thought: "He was fooling himself if he thought she would settle for a half-marriage. She'd vowed to win him from Clermont. She'd be damned if she stopped with less than full victory." (116) I kept expecting it to fall apart; I kept expecting she would have to humble herself, or change, or compromise what she wants in some way.

Instead, she gets married, gets one night with Hugo—on her insistence—and gets her lavender farm. After she leaves for the country, the reader stays with Hugo, watching him suffer (in the best romance-y sense of the term). He writes her letters; she writes back with wit, and warmth, and friendship, and a few delightfully prosy innuendoes. He watches the money come rolling in, and can't think why he used to feel it was so important. Unofficial power is still power, which is not the same as love. It's not the same thing as trust, even. The duke returns, having reconciled with the duchess, and asks Hugo what to buy first with all this lovely, lovely money.

Hugo punches him right in the stomach. And does it again, once the duke has admitted to the rape. Physical violence finally has an appropriate use and an appropriate target. Hugo then blackmails the duke into handing over everything Serena wanted, both funds for the child's education and a written confession of what he's done.

And then Hugo shows this confession to the duchess, saying: "I think you've lied to quite enough women." (173) It's not a prosecution, not really justice. Justice is impossible under the laws of the time. But Hugo, through the duchess, can change the balance of unofficial power—money—in such a way as to be a punishment. (A punishment the duke can't really openly discuss, either, echoing Serena's position that silence is a weapon.)

Then—only after Serena has everything else she's wanted—Hugo goes to the lavender farm and tells her he loves her. This is what he says next: "I want to be somebody. Let me be your husband. Let me be the father of your child—of all your children." (177)

I couldn't believe that passage was real the first time I read it. A romance hero was defining himself in relation to the heroine, rather than the other way around. Possessing and stealing and claiming and owning tend to be the domains of the hero, not the heroine—but here, Hugo is the one being claimed. He even—I can't believe this, either—he even asks permission to be claimed: Let me be yours. This ending is not papered over with gender essentialism; it's not the you woman have taught me to love and open my manly heart to your nurturing feminine ways trope. It's not about power, because Hugo and Serena have always related to one another as equals, even when they were on opposite sides. There's no magical shower of money gilding this particular lily. It's just sweet, and human, and utterly romantic. (Side note: there's something intensely poetic about the idea of a lavender farm—why hasn't this come up before? It's ready-made for romance heroines.)

In sum, this ending? It's fucking revolutionary.

I'll stop before this post hits the 3k mark. I know I've practically written a novella analyzing Courtney Milan's novella. But strongly feminist romances are still rare and remarkable, and this was not only a strong feminist book, it was a strong book. I can't wait to get started on The Duchess War.

{You can find digital copies of The Governess Affair at Amazon, ARe, and Third Place Books. It's also a finalist in this year's DABWAHA, if you feel like a bookish brawl.}

The Perils of Estate Planning for Writers

The lawyer was doing an excellent job at explaining the different structures available to Mr. Waite and myself. He'd clearly done this before, with people as or even more clueless than we were, and he had multiple color-coded graphs with lists of pros and cons for things like wills, living trusts, and everything in between. He was especially good at finding oases of clarity in the desert of legal terminology, and would occasionally spice things up by hinting at the ways in which the system could provoke familial conflict or trouble for relatives and spouses of the deceased. This was not, however, a good way to keep short a meeting with a writer. It was great fodder for a mystery plot.

"Your wedding ring, for instance," said the lawyer. "Right now it's yours, because you brought it with you into the marriage. But if your kind husband were to add stones to it, it would become joint property, because he'd put money into it."

"Really?" I perked up my ears. "What about, say, a family heirloom like my grandmother's ring? Would it become joint property if he just had it resized or polished, or would he actually have to add stones?"

The lawyer blinked at my sudden enthusiasm. "He'd have to add stones," he said.

"Ah," I replied, jotting this down in my notes.

The lawyer cleared his throat and continued explaining. I interrupted a few more times to ask about "trust mills" (a shady practice whereby couples are sold a living trust but the trust isn't funded, so that the seller keeps a boatload of cash and the surviving spouse is left with nothing on their partner's death) and sapphire mines in Australia (which I normally think of as exclusively opal country -- this was a bit of a detour, but really interesting). Soon we got into the meat of probate and post-death-of-a-spouse legalities. I waved off concerns about my own assets -- I'm a writer, so: what assets? -- and asked a lot of questions about the line of inheritance, trusts generally, the various opportunities for civil suits in inheritance law, that sort of thing.

And then, mid-note, I caught a sharp glance from the lawyer and realized: what I was doing was building up a pretty sizeable motive. This lawyer would definitely go right to the police and tell them all about my suspicious behavior. And then, officer, she specifically asked me to explain how to legally prevent someone from contesting a will. 

I'd better hope nothing untoward happens to Mr. Waite.

Ominous music.

Clap of thunder.

Shifty eyes.

Here's How a Trilogy Can Outsell a Septology on Amazon (and What it Means for Your Weekend)

Word came via The Mary Sue that, on Amazon, Susanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy has outsold Harry Potter both in print and digital. The article raises the question: how is it that a young trilogy can outsell a seven-book series with a devoted generational global following? The answer that occurred to me, and to numerous commenters on the original piece: bookstores, and how there's still more to the bookselling world than just Amazon's dominance.

I was an early adopter of Harry Potter, having discovered the first one when it was brand-new in one of those eyes-meet-across-a-crowded-room scenarios that normally only occur in 50s romance films and Frank Sinatra songs. I was literally across the room, and my eye snagged on that famous purple cover, and a jolt of electricity went through me. I knew I was going to love that book even before I picked it up and read the cover blurb. By the time the third one came out, I was dragging my friends to midnight release parties, standing in huge lines of kids our age and younger with lightning bolt temporary tattoos on our foreheads.

Later, I attended events at small, dedicated bookstores like Walla Walla's Book & Game and worked huge release events for the sixth and seventh books at the marvelous Third Place Books. Those midnight release parties -- they're common enough now, but I can't emphasize enough how revolutionary they felt at the time. Reading is often depicted as a solitary pursuit, an escape from other people, the consoling hobby of lonely kids and adults isolated by any number of factors (temperament, geography, what-have-you). Midnight release parties were where the non-literary book world showed up en masse: it's where we looked around and recognized ourselves in others on a vast, unprecedented scale.

And if you'll pardon me some adult language, those book events sold a metric fuckton of books over the course of an entire decade.

It's not surprising that The Hunger Games and its sequels have sold plenty of copies: they've got a gripping story, compelling emotional resonance, cross-generational appeal, and the kind of kickass female protagonist I would have Quarter Quelled somebody for in high school. They've also been released at a time when digital reading is at an all-time high-water mark. The same is not true of Harry Potter, whose digital release was significantly delayed (though exquisitely managed -- I approve full-voicedly Pottermore's avoidance of DRM).

But popular as they are, the Hunger Games have not (or not yet) performed the kind of literary and cultural sea change that Harry Potter did. It seems like a safe bet to say that Susanne Collins' success is very indebted to the culture of reading nurtured by J. K. Rowling. And nurture it she has -- through charity work, interviews, fan events, and numerous other avenues designed to engage kids with a culture of reading, not just her own series and its brand.

The way that this news about sales rank is being framed -- HUNGER GAMES NOW OFFICIALLY THE BEST BOOKS, as indicated by lots of headlines that use the word 'surpass' -- illustrates the trouble with assuming that Amazon rankings and sales data represent the whole of the book industry or reading culture. I'd argue that most Harry Potter books are not sold via Amazon -- they were picked up in print bookstores, or in airports, or grocery stores, or Walmart. I know I've picked up paperback copies of Harry Potter books in Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, and Helsinki. Those sales do not, cannot factor into Amazon's numbers. (This aside from the fact that Amazon's data on sales can only be verified by Amazon, and not by chain or independent retailers or publishers -- a sinister point that seems to get glossed over quite a bit in print-digital conversations.) And while Amazon's promise to ship you a new release on the official day is convenient and customer-friendly, it doesn't bring the giddy elation of witnessing two hunded black-clad wannabe witches and wizards waving wands and cheering at the top of their lungs because you've just sliced open the first red-taped box of Book Seven with your trusty Exact-o knife.

So, though I'm as guilty as any author of checking my Amazon sales rank like a gerbil going back for a food pellet, it bears repeating: Sales are not substance. Amazon is great at getting books into people's hands -- I've yet to be convinced that they're great at getting books to change people's lives.

My Very First Pirate! And Why I'm Still Anti-SOPA and -PIPA

We here at Olivia Waite would love to introduce you to an anonymous internet denizen known as ioedpee on Dailybooth. If that first link does not work, it is because the account has been removed as a violation not only of Dailybooth's terms of service, but also as a violation of my own personal copyright. My publisher has sent them a cease-and-desist notice, but as of this posting they are not only still up, but still updating. You see, ioedpee is the first person to pirate one of my digital books.

Time was, I used to wonder if being pirated would change my views on ebook piracy—and so far, no, I feel pretty much the same about it now as I did then. I'm gently anti-piracy and vociferously anti-DRM; I'm pro-digital lending (even more so now that I've come to enjoy the digital collections of my local library); I'm even anti-SOPA (unlike the RWA) because it seems to cause far more problems than it will supposedly fix.

So it's nice that this new world where my books are being sold on the sly has not turned my opinions upside down.

Speaking of SOPA and PIPA ... This blog will not be going black tomorrow, only because I do not have quite the level of technical expertise to accomplish this fact. The best I can do is switch my posting schedule so I'm not actually posting on the protest day.

As for why I'm still against SOPA and PIPA, the best breakdown I've seen is from the eternal Sarah at Smart Bitches:

For me specifically, under PIPA, it would be my responsibility to check the provenance of every site I link to, making sure that that URL, or any other page at that domain, did not contain any content that was copyright protected or possibly pirated. If I did link to a site that, for example, contained a scanned copy of a Fabio-festooned book cover from 1993, I could be seen as encouraging piracy and could therefore be blocked, my finances could be frozen, and my domains could be confiscated. If I linked to a site that someone felt was infringing on copyright by including an excerpt of a book, I could be blocked, frozen and in a heap of trouble. The interpretations of PIPA are too broad for my comfort, and the penalties too severe.

These bills are essentially trying to use a hand grenade to kill a horsefly. The overly broad language penalizes individuals and trusts far too much in corporate goodwill to prevent abuses. This law is a terrible, terrible idea.

But! Back to the fun part of this post: my own personal pirate. It turns out that I am far from the only author that ioedpee is attempting to circumvent.

Here are a few intriguing selections on offer from my pirate (who obviously has excellent if eccentric literary taste). Important note: The links will not lead you to the pirate site. Instead, they point toward Powell's Books in Portland. Powell's has long been among my favorite bookstores in the world, and to my vast delight they recently added Damned If You Do to their ebook catalogue.

Some of these books sound really excellent, and I do hope you check them out.

{Disclaimer: because I am a member in Powell's Partner Program, actions you may take via the above links may prove beneficial to me personally. In other words, clicking those links helps me buy more books from Powell's. Click—click for your lives!}

Always Be Closing: A Farewell To Borders

We here at Olivia Waite never worked at Borders—but we worked with plenty of other booksellers who had Borders on their résumés. And we still nourish perpetual gratitude for that time in high school when we found that Borders was the only game in town—even in bookish, nerdy Seattle—that had the complete Discworld series still in print on a regular basis. (Back before they started reprinting them, Pratchett paperbacks were hunted down like rare treasure in all manner of used bookstores by incredible nerds like me.) Any time any bookstore closes, readers and authors and booksellers mourn. On the one hand, the book business is a business, and the invisible hand of the market must do whatever it is the invisible hand of the market does. (Giving the middle class the invisible middle finger?) But while it's true that many of us are doing our best (writing, marketing, networking) to sell books and make a living at it, nobody comes into the book business thinking solely of profit. Except Jeff Bezos, maybe—but that's whole other can of blog-worthy worms.

Rachel Syme at NPR's Monkey See blog has a very illuminating post on how the Borders news is terrible news for the whole publishing industry:

Kathleen Schmidt, a book publicist, provided this perfectly concise explanation on Twitter: "Here is how the Borders closing will impact publishers: Say you have a bestselling author and you usually do a 1st printing of 100K books. Out of that 1st print of 100K, B&N/Amazon would take a large quantity, then Target, maybe Costco/BJs/Walmart, then Borders, then indies. If you're an author with a 1st print of 30K (a lot), you prob don't have price clubs or Target. You have B&N, Amazon, Borders, and indies. Now, take Borders OUT of that 1st print equation. Also consider that B&N is conservative with numbers these days. That 30K turns into 15K."

Read the rest.

I'm a digital author, a huge proponent of independent bookstores, and a lifelong fan of libraries—and I would be the first to tell you that Borders' physical stores have definitely declined in quality since my high school days haunting the stacks. They'd focused heavily on CDs (whoops) and nick-knacks (what?) until the stores came to have this strangely hollow feeling, even though they were ostensibly full of things. Book people are sensitive to the hollowness of a shelf—our own are usually crammed full to bursting and we become attuned to fillable space the way that sharks in the ocean are said to sense even a single drop of blood. A bookstore with empty shelves worries us on a fundamental level.

But Borders was good to the romance community—better than a lot of independents, better than Barnes and Noble—and there are many small towns out there whose only physical book outlet will disappear after this week. The tales of corporate mismanagement are equalled by tales of dedicated retail staff and support staff who organized readings, made connections within the industry, and generally kept up with the good work of spreading stories from one person to another.

Because that's the secret of the book business, the one we rarely talk about because it seems so painfully obvious: books are different than other objects. Books subvert their own thing-ness. Ask Umberto Eco, or Jasper Fforde, or J. K. Rowling. And when Borders disappears, a lot of stories will disappear with it.

What Fictional Romance Authors Can Show Us About Romance Stereotypes

Lately it seems like every time I try and step away from the internet—for a trip, a wedding, a weekend in bed for my anniversary—there emerges another ludicrous screed against the romance genre and then another valiant defense. In the former, a lot of conventional wisdom about romance novels and their readership gets trotted out under the guise of research, and the more I become involved in the romance industry the more ridiculous appear mass-media stereotypes of romance novels, readers, and authors.

And since everyone including me has done the You Don't Know Romance Like I Know Romance post already, I'm going to approach from a different angle and talk about how romance authors are portrayed in the media and how that feeds into certain stereotypes about the genre and its fans.

First of all, I could only come up with five of them, and that includes the movie I found a while back on Netflix Instant which seems to have vanished from my queue (any information on what movie this was would be appreciated). So we have a grand total of four examples to look at.

Time for a list!

Fictional Romance Authors:

Joan Wilder, Romancing the Stone

Kathleen Turner as Joan Wilder stands in her New York apartment kitchen, wearing layered shirts and a bulky lavender jacket, hair pulled up in a dowdy bun, holding a phone to her left ear. Her expression is highly concerned.The grande dame of romance authors in fiction—Joan starts off her movie pining for a character she's made up, weeping over the end of her own manuscript, talking to her cat, hurling miniature bottles of booze into the fireplace, and expressing her phobia of flying. But a mysterious package from her dead brother-in-law and a desperate phone call from her sister send Joan off to the wilds of 1980s Columbia. Once there she breaks a heel, goes down a mudslide in a jungle monsoon, gets stoned to the bejeezus-belt, escapes many an anonymous goon, finds a priceless emerald, meets an intense and intensely well-armed fan of her novels, foils the bad guys, and wraps Michael Douglas (as hot here as he's ever been) around her delicate little finger.

I want to be just like her.

Trish Murtaugh/Ebony Clark, Lethal Weapon 4

A dark-haired, dark-skinned woman in a turquoise shirt and gold hoop earrings. Her expression is part exasperation, part loving tolerance.

All throughout Lethal Weapon 4, Danny Glover's Roger Murtaugh flashes obscene amounts of cash to Martin Riggs' astonishment and concern. But Murtaugh's not on the take—his wife Trish is just the author of absurdly popular romance novels, such as we see a pregnant Lorna reading at one point. Trish's romance writing under the name Ebony Clark is actually the one trait that makes her something other than a character who might as well be named Buddy-Cop's Token Wife.

Also: Ebony Clark, my god.

Charlotte Knight, Remington Steele, "Etched in Steele"

A curly-haired blond woman with pale skin and a sly smile, dressed in flowing white, with bright gold jewelry. She is lounging back on a sofa and looking expectantly to the left.

This may be cheating, because Charlotte Knight's books sound more like watered-down Erica Jong than anything by La Nora, but if Diana Gabaldon counts as romance then we're probably safe in including Mrs. Knight. Glamorous, lecherous, and a complete fraud—her bestselling trashy trashy novels are actually written by her husband Mitchell. Mitchell's increasing insecurity and alcoholism lead to a terminal case of writer's block: he is murdered by would-be author Tony, who has plans to usurp the Charlotte Knight ghostwriting position (and the millions of dollars that come with it). What's more, the means of murder is predicted in a scene from the new Charlotte Knight manuscript.

As Laura Holt and Remington Steele investigate Mitchell's death, they talk about pleasure versus duty, popular reading versus inspired literature, and appearances versus reality—all of which hit very close to home for our main couple, who have secrets and masks of their own.

Jameson Rook/Victoria St. Clair, Naked Heat

A pale-skinned, dark-haired man in a dark indigo shirt with sleeves rolled up sits behind an open black lapop. His expression is intent and slightly excited.

This is where we enter that funhouse mirror set at the end of Enter the Dragon, so bear with me. On Castle, Nathan Fillion plays Richard Castle, mystery author. Castle writes the Nikki Heat series, which includes the character of Jameson Rook, clearly based on Castle himself (just as Nikki is based on NYPD detective Kate Beckett). And some unnamed but very skilled ghostwriter has been publishing Nikki Heat books here in the real world—in the second one, it is revealed that—spoiler!—Jameson Rook also writes romance under the name Victoria St. Clair.

So: it's a fictional character's fictional character's pen name. And he's (they're?) very sensitive about it.

Angst and Anxiety

Arguments against romance frequently state that the genre offers harmful fantasy rather than healthy reality, and consider the genre's sexual content a threat to moral order. It's plain that there is a similar anxiety at work in the above depictions of romance authors.

  • Joan Wilder is clearly the outlier: she's the main character in her story, she's a woman, she writes under her own name, Columbian gang leaders (guns and Jeeps=manly) love her books. But even Joan is not all she appears at first glance—though a bit of a wet noodle at first, when times get tough she is strong, sexy, confident, capable, and powerful.
  • The money Trish brings in causes people to doubt Roger's integrity on the force. Her career is a threat to his, even though her career is a secret.
  • Charlotte Knight is only a pretty face that makes her husband's sex-filled stories more palatable to the public. At the same time, her sex appeal is what inspires him to write, and her lover is ultimately the one who murders her husband in manner identical to a scene from the new manuscript.
  • Jameson Rook's reputation is one of high masculine adventure—daring forays across enemy lines, friendships with well-known mobsters, connections with all the important political players in the city. Yet his pseudonymous works are sexy historical potboilers—feminine, domestic, and supposedly trivial.

There is also a deep theme of sexual shame that runs through these depictions:

  • Joan Wilder's love life does not live up to either her fantasies (exemplified by her character Jesse) or the more normalized, modernized expectations of her editor. There is a sense in these early scenes that Joan's work is at odds with her chances for happiness. (Though ultimately she ends up with someone very like her ideal, and on her own terms. That's just how Joan Wilder rolls.)
  • Roger Murtaugh is ashamed to tell his partner what his wife does for a living, and only does so in a moment of extreme crisis. Riggs' immediate reaction is to congratulate Roger for "boinking" someone who writes such filthy books.
  • Mitchell Knight's book is described by publisher Russell Forsyth as "pornography," but the same book, with Charlotte standing in for the author, is "erotica." Forsyth also strongly implies that Charlotte offered him sexual favors to publish the first book—at which point Charlotte, an openly, eagerly sexual woman, flinches and drops her eyes to the carpet. It's a pretty vile example of a good old-fashioned slut-shaming by a dude who was involved in precisely the same activities he implied the lady should blush about. Also, Laura Holt has read all the Charlotte Knight books but has difficulty admitting it, and the murderer has literary aspirations and often makes vicious, venomous remarks at the expense of the sexual content of the books—even before he is revealed as the killer.
  • Jameson Rook's romance authorship clashes with his Pulitzer-winning, swaggering, supermanly image. Feminine sexuality is considered a taint or corruption of this ideal. At best, it waters down Rook's masculine purity; at worst, destroys it. He goes so far as to cartoonishly hide his face in an elevator, lest someone from his publisher recognize him.

Two of our fictional authors are actually men writing under female names—which does happen, though not as frequently as, say, women writing under female names. Lastly, all four of our fictional authors are wildly successful:

  • Joan Wilder has many nice clothes and an excellent New York Apartment with a fireplace.
  • Trish Murtaugh provides eye-boggling wads of cash to her husband. Which is totally how romance royalties work. (Please?)
  • Charlotte Knight seems to have servants and strawberries and champagne on hand at a moment's notice in case anyone sexy drops by her thirty-fifth floor apartment. Her books sell, according to her publisher, "three million copies" each.
  • Jameson Rook's pen name is well-known enough that even a NYPD homicide cop recognizes it.

Pink background, a smiling, blond, pale-skinned woman in a very pink dress, and flowers absolutely everywhere.

Too Long; Didn't Read

  • Romance author as sex object: Joan Wilder (sort of), Trish Murtaugh, Charlotte Knight
  • Romance author ashamed: Trish Murtaugh, Charlotte Knight, Victoria St. Clair/Jameson Rook
  • Romance author actually a man: Charlotte Knight, Victoria St. Clair/Jameson Rook
  • Romance author as ludicrously wealthy: all four authors

It goes without saying that none of these depictions match the day-to-day life of any of the romance authors I know. (If someone out there is totally Joan Wilder, though, show me how you do it?). Trish Murtaugh comes closest—she's a working wife and mother whose job just happens to be writing romance—but it's a throwaway note in a series that focuses entirely on masculine exploits and problems.

In reality, we work hard. We go to meetings with other authors and figure out how to do our job better every day. Some of us are best-sellers; others not so much. Some of us are queer. Some of us have husbands and children; some of us are husbands and children. Personally, I feel about twelve today—which will hopefully change once I get to the sex scene I'm supposed to be writing instead of this lengthy post.

All of us are doing this out of love.

And that's what's really missing from the list, and why Joan Wilder really stands out for me: she's the one who does it out of love, the one we see at work on her typewriter with headphones on and tear tracks on her face. Sure, she passes over a lot of real-world guys because they can't compare to the imaginary Jesse—but on the other hand, those particular real-world guys looked like complete chumps. And if my choices are A) reading/writing romance, or B) dating chumps, I'm gonna go with option A every time.

Because romance is not separate from our life—it's a part of it. There is not a big black boundary drawn between Fantasy and Reality because we have this thing called a mind that is designed to smash those two things together. Sometimes real life is what sparks our fantasy, such as when we see a photo of a far-off place and wonder what sort of stories happen there. Sometimes our fantasy informs real life, such as when reading a romance set in the Napoleonic war (or the Civil War, or the zombie apocalypse, or WWIII) helps me understand the nature of soldiership and trauma a bit more than I did before.

Fantasy and imagination are part of what make us human. And romance doesn't threaten our scare-quote "real" lives any more than doing laundry threatens our ability to appreciate a story richly told.

A Totally Frivolous Post About Shopping

We here at Olivia Waite are stringent about being appropriately dressed, so when we learned that Wedding No. 2 was a morning affair and not an evening wedding like we'd assumed, we had a bit of a panic moment. The tasteful all-black ensemble we had planned works beautifully for evening, but would feel odd and out of place in a morning ceremony. With only one day to go, we set our timer for two hours—the maximum amount of time the mini dachshund puppy can stay home on his own—and went on the hunt.

It wasn't a very intensive hunt, as I went straight to Anthropologie and fell head over heels in love with this lovely little thing:

A mid-length circle skirt in robin's egg blue with swirling floral embroidery in heavy white thread. Tiny beads of pale golden wood appear here and there as accents.

I don't normally go for full skirts, since I don't have the hourglass proportions that I believe they suit best. And when I zipped it up and looked in the mirror, yes, it was a full skirt all right and I could hear the "my hips are too hippy" voice start to grow in tone and volume and I went to turn away from my own image—and then stopped.

And turned back.

And back, and forth, and back, and forth.

This sweet blue thing is a world-class twirling skirt.

It's all the heavy embroidery, I think—it pulls the hem around and gives it momentum, and then when you stop twirling it settles nicely back into polite folds that hit just at the perfect knee-level spot.

Also, the color does dynamite things to my pale Seattleite skin.

Hips be damned; I bought the skirt.

I have no idea yet what shirt I'm going to put with it, but I'm definitely breaking out the silver ballet flats. Watch out, dance floor!

Where To Buy Judy Mays Books

We here at Olivia Waite sometimes sleep in, and so are not always on the cutting edge of the news cycle. So we just heard about the kerfuffle surrounding Pennsylvania English teacher Judy Buranich, who—in a shocking twist!—also writes erotic romance under the name Judy Mays. Lots of people are weighing in, and I'll let them get to it—in the meantime, here is a handy list of where you can buy Judy Mays' books in support. Because if she's going to have one job taken away by the judgmental pearl-clutchers of the world, we fellow authors/readers might as well make her other job as lucrative as possible, no?

Libraries, Sponsorship, And The Subscription Model

We here at Olivia Waite can't seem to stop talking about libraries—especially since every other day there is some new game-changing idea or industry development that needs thinking about. Today's (or actually yesterday's) thing was a post by Andy on Agnostic, Maybe that argues in favor of corporate sponsorship as a way of finding funding for libraries with shrinking budgets.

If you're anything like me, your brain went here: Fierce Creatures (Theatrical Trailer) by NakedBrotha2007

And if you're anything like me,  especially if you've seen Fierce Creatures, you have a hearty distrust of corporate sponsorship. You've looked at its effects on major league baseball, for instance, and the terrible things that can happen when corporate interests are at odds with customer interests.

Agnostic, Maybe got this wonderful, awful idea after watching a recent documentary about product placement by a filmmaker whose name rhymes with Schmorgan Schmurlock. Earlier this week, Edward Champion at Reluctant Habits posted an interesting review of this very film and its whole gimmick:

I had hoped that the Unnamed Documentary would be a legitimate protest against corporate sponsorship using its very tools — see Chumbawamba taking money from GM to use “Pass It Along” in a commercial and then disseminating the GM money to Corpwatch to protest it, which is a very funny statement about the futility of activism. But the Filmmaker plans on taking all the money. To my knowledge, he doesn’t plan on giving the profits to anti-corporate forces or people who want to fight advertising in all of its horrific forms. There is nothing in the press notes or the end credits to suggest that he will do this. In other words, the Unnamed Documentary stands for nothing save the Filmmaker’s materialistic gains.

In short, the film is about how product placement happens, but it never questions the consequences of product placement on either individuals or the larger culture. I find this morally suspicious—especially since there are rumors that the filmmaker is planning to make another movie just like this one, therefore playing us all for suckers.

Corporate sponsorship is a dark and soulless place where libraries should fear to tread.

One of the reasons that Andy supports this unsettling proposition is that we will no longer have to listen to the gripes of people who believe that libraries are a part of the wasteful government spending all the kids are talking about these days:

The ideal of the public institution for the common benefit is no longer good enough to win the budget day anymore; the common anti-public library refrain is that “I don’t want my tax dollars paying for other people’s entertainment/literature/ computer use”. Compared to the relative status of police, fire, ambulance, and even sanitation, the library is perceived as a luxury community expenditure. In taking money from interested corporations, public librarians can tell those anti-library people that their money is no longer being used for that.

For one thing, I could find you plenty of people who don't want tax dollars to go to police, fire, ambulance, sanitation, or anything else—is this a good enough reason for the government to stop providing police, fire, etc.?

For another, if libraries are perceived as a luxury expenditure, then maybe a better idea would be to change the perception rather than allowing library critics to carry the argument.

Or—we could find a third option.

A view of shelves, stairs, and books in the London Library's Reading Room

The picture above is a reading room in the London Library, a self-governing, subscription-funded library in the heart of London that's been going strong since God was a boy. At first it looks like the history of libraries: ancient print books, meandering shelves, cozy armchairs. But there's a chance it could be the future of libraries as well.

There's been plenty of talk about subscriptions from an ebook and publisher perspective (the Baen Free Library, Harlequin's subscription lines) but not with an eye toward perpetuating endangered libraries. For instance, this piece from Jane at Dear Author almost gets there. First comes a brief mention of something Jane's library already does:

My library system has a fast access checkout. For $1 or more you can pay to bypass the wait lines and check out the popular books right away.

And then she expresses interest in subscribing to all Harlequin, rather than just one imprint:

I thought that Harlequin might be uniquely suited to offer up subscription access. It has probably 20,000 books digitized and they are constantly adding more. What would you pay to have access to the entire database, knowing that you are only getting access and that should Harlequin decide to shut down its subscription service you would no longer have access? Right now I pay around $25 for my Harlequin Presents subscription wherein I get 8 Harlequin Presents books a month. I would easily pay $25 per month for access to the entire Harlequin category database.

Why not a subscription model for libraries, then? Public funding may still be the democratic ideal, but a subscription model at least avoids the many pitfalls of a library more beholden to a corporation's interests than to its patrons' needs. If 'subscription library' sounds too Victorian for you (mmm, Victoriana), then call it a 'library co-op' or some other such Brooklynish neologism. We'll hold parties for current members to bring guests who might be interested in becoming future members; patrons could sponsor memberships for underprivileged children; there can be scholarship funds for student access.

And when I think about what you could do with a subscription library full of self-published authors of digital books … well, that's going to be a whole other post in itself.

Some Reactions to Amazon's New Library Lending Deal

1. I admit, when I first heard that Amazon and OverDrive were collaborating to make Kindle ebooks available through libraries, my very first reaction was to download the Kindle app for iPhone so I could finally check out library books on the go. Free reading on those hour-long bus rides to downtown? Hooray! 2. On the other hand, I've spent about ten years working in/around independent bookstores, and I've seen firsthand how Amazon has progressively chipped away at the rest of the print book industry. If only I had a dollar for every time I helped a customer locate some book they heard about on NPR, but they couldn't remember the title or the author, and they think it was something about history—and when I am able to actually find that title and author and often the actual book in a matter of seconds, they look at the price tag and hand the book back and say, "I'll get it for cheaper on Amazon …"

If I had a dollar, I tell you, for every time that had happened, I still couldn't afford the fancy French jet that Jeff Bezos reportedly uses to get around.

Cover image for The Great International Paper Airplane Book, with a paper jet, paper helicopter, and some other fancy folded paper in the background.

3. On the other other hand, it's nice to feel justified in the opinion that library patron access to books is a largely untapped customer base. Like I've been talking about here on the blog, libraries are vital to what I'm increasingly thinking of as the book ecosystem—they allow discovery without regard to an individual's budget, which ultimately leads to more book sales and a loyal readership.

It's obvious that making all Kindle books available through libraries is going to make a lot more titles available to a lot more people—especially since the technology threshold is much lower, thanks to the Kindle app being free across so many platforms.

And that sneaky little detail, that any notes/highlighting you put in a Kindle library copy will transfer to your own copy should you purchase the book at a later time, is designed to add impetus to the move from library patron to Amazon customer.

4. Back to the other hand—is there a more Orwellian technology name than Whispersync? Josh Hadro spells out a concern worth tracking on Library Journal:

At the very least, I’d like to opt out of this “give Amazon my interests” data program, and I’m hoping once more details emerge that we’ll see such an option.

What that line from Amazon implies is that some amount of data—the annotations linked to the title and an account identifier at the very least—are stored in perpetuity. Anything tied to library patrons stored in perpetuity by a retail operation makes me uncomfortable.

With this and the Elastic Compute Cloud they've lately developed, Amazon is making forays into Google territory, and trying to establish itself as a major Place Of Internet—with the same general heedlessness for privacy concerns. And I trust Amazon even less than I trust Google (or Facebook, for that matter) with my personal information. Library patron records have been such a citadel of the privacy battle for so long that it's hard to see Amazon as anything other than a threat to this ideal.

5. However: this means you could potentially read "Generous Fire" for free! It's due to appear in the Kindle store any day now. Further bulletins as events warrant.

The Myth of the Lost Sale

{This is Part 3 in a series on libraries and digital books; Part 1 can be found here; Part 2 can be found here. This post was originally scheduled to go up on Friday, but due to an unexpected visit from the Migraine Fairy it had to be postponed.}

I have been talking a lot about entitlement from a publisher/reader perspective, and in this final installment it is time to turn to entitlement as it appears in authors.

This is probably a bad idea. There is all kinds of trouble I can get into by even trying to talk about this—not least, the possibility of offending other readers and authors. But some of these ideas have been buzzing around in my bonnet for some time, and they're getting quite loud. So if I get something wrong, please chime in and tell me what I've screwed up.

By critiquing the notion of lost sales, I do not mean to imply that piracy is not a real issue. But the dialogue surrounding piracy often seems to get in the way of making things better, for authors and readers and publishers.

Pirates are Thieves

Author Tobias Buckell has a must-read article on book piracy that deals with a familiar hypothetical:

Author says the following: “If each of those pirates had purchased a book, each of those downloads would equal XXXX dollars, and I’d be making double my current income. Thus, those pirates have taken half my income and are keeping me in the poor house.”

But that requires a very huge basic assumption. That each of those downloads was a potential sale.

In the terms I've been using in this series, the author who feels that all piracy is money stolen from instead of money never received feels entitled to those revenues. But those revenues are imaginary: many of the people who downloaded that book for free would never have touched it if there had been a price tag. Bucknell again:

So from the author’s perspective, a certain portion of these ‘stolen’ books aren’t actually stolen. *They were not going to be sales to begin with.* They’re stolen from a cup that was never going to fill.

Those sales are not "lost"; they have not been misplaced; they did not drop down into the couch cushions with those quarters and that lint-covered cherry Mike and Ike. They would never have happened.

I get very uneasy when people get furious—really furious—about piracy, especially when they assume that as an author I naturally do too. Yes, you should absolutely report violations of your copyright to your publisher. Yes, you should send a professionally-worded email asking the site to take down the file(s) in question. Those are your rights as an author and copyright holder. But to claim that a measurable financial loss has taken place seems a little too facile to me.

Maybe I'll change my tune when my own books start showing up on those pirate sites. (So far, not yet!)

An engraved image of famous female pirate Anne Bonny, in men's clothing, firing a pistol and looking dashing while a galleon sails away in the background.
"Arr—give me all yer Harry Potters!"

Piracy Boosts Sales

This video by Neil Gaiman has already gone everywhere and back again, so you don't need me to tell you that Gaiman feels piracy can be leveraged into book sales. This kind of piracy functions as a discovery mechanism. Isn't this why we do giveaways and contests and sample reads and the like?

But like the author who claims piracy as lost sales, there's something facile in the way Gaiman equates book lending between friends and library checkouts with pirated downloads. One small part of this is the difference between print books and ebooks: though I believe ebooks should be lendable, sellable, and transferable like print books, so far the industry does not treat those two products as equivalent objects.

The larger part of this is the context in which the actions occur: lending, library lending, or pirating. When you borrow a book from a friend, we can presume you have been talking about the kind of books you both like, and that the lending will help further this conversation. When you borrow a book from a library, that is also part of a larger engagement with the reading ecosystem. Additionally, even though you yourself have not made the purchase, both those copies have been paid for: the former by your friend, and the latter by the library budget.

But the context of pirate sites is not one of literary engagement: instead, of the many sites I have seen, the context is one of protest, rebellion, and a trollish quality that I find untrustworthy in the extreme. You may recall the comic book authors who claimed being pirated on 4chan was a huge boost to sales—they posted this image, which I have borrowed for commentary and have not altered:

 

Part of a graph showing a tiny bump labeled "reviewed at BoingBoing" and a much larger spike labeled "bootlegged at 4chan."
How big is your bump again?

Notice anything missing? For instance, the entire left side of the graph? We have no idea what the scale is here, and it makes a big difference whether each of those units represents 1, or 10, or 100 books sold. That giant spike could represent as few as 10 or 50 books, or as many as 1000. Without knowing those numbers, we have no way of knowing how great an impact 4chan's piracy had on book sales.

Additionally, we have no way of knowing how many of those downloads were actually read, and how many of those were enjoyed, and how many of those went on to recommend the book to others. And this strategy is going to be very dependent on genre and outlet—if you tried to replicate this experiment on 4chan with, say, an erotic historical romance about the invention of the vibrator during Victorian times, you might get wildly different results.

(Not that trollishness is limited to the pro-piracy groups: witness this site, which I find equally unsettling, particularly for the sense of long-simmering outrage, the flirtation with invasion of privacy, and the creepy demands that Google ban searches on words like torrent.)

You Lost My Sale

In the course of this post series, I've found all kinds of new-to-me corners of the internet—including Lost Book Sales (sponsored, you will notice at the very bottom of the page, by Dear Author). These are stories submitted by readers, about experiences that prevented them from buying the book of their choice.

Here is one of the recent submissions:

Text explaining why a certain customer refused to buy a digital copy of China Mieville's The City and the City.

This is a pretty typical response, in that the poster:

  1. was looking for a specific digital book
  2. objected to the digital price being as high/higher than the print price
  3. when thwarted, chose to buy another book instead

It is clear when looking through this site that by far the most common reasons customers turned away from a specific book are that the price was viewed as too high, or that the digital version was not available in their geographic region. The most common response was to buy another book, followed closely by borrowing the book from the library, or reading something else, or surfing the web generally, with only a few scattered instances of self-reported piracy taking place.

It becomes equally clear that these readers care deeply about what they read, and are very well-versed in the industry's current trends and happenings (as evidenced by the number of responses that mentioned HarperCollins' 26-checkout limit, or who protested agency pricing or other recent changes).

These only count as 'lost sales' if you are the author whose book they did not buy. Many of these are high-volume names: Mieville, Stieg Larsson, Bill Bryson. And again, many of the reasons the reader switched titles are beyond an author's control: there are valid and legally complicated reasons why a smaller publisher might not be able to sell digital books in New Zealand, Greece, or the Czech Republic. As an author, reaching out to these readers is somewhat beyond your control, because we are not quite as global a culture as we like to imagine we are.

Too Long; Didn't Read

The one thing above all that I took away after spending most of an afternoon cruising around Lost Book Sales is this: there are a lot of readers out there, and they are looking for books. They may not necessarily buy yours, especially if there are geographic restrictions or DRM to take into account. But you can only control so much of that.

In the same way, any single author can only spend so much time responding to piracy, especially since there are plenty of folks out there who pirate for the sake of protest, and who were never going to become your customers anyway. Arguing with people whose minds you cannot change is a one-way ticket to chronic exhaustion.

There is a sea of readers out there, and they will not turn into pirates the second you stop writing angry emails to torrent sites. Leave piracy to the pirates, and go out to tea with your readers and fellow authors, who are much more delightful to be around.

Of Titles and Time

{This is Part 2 in a series on libraries and digital books; Part 1 can be found here; Part 3 will appear tomorrow.} It is a plain fact that people who read more buy more books. And like any other reader, I have a list of favorite authors I discovered at random in the local library stacks—authors such as Terry Pratchett, who I found in battered paperback form in the library back when Borders was the only place Stateside you could find new Discworld novels, which I know because I checked that Borders shelf every week and bought any one I didn't already have, even if I'd already checked it out and read it at the library. And what's more, over time I've bought half that series in hardback and all of it in paper, and I have three copies of Good Omens, and when I worked in bookstores I hand-sold countless copies of Pratchett's works to untold numbers of customers.

And the same goes for Diana Wynne Jones, and for Patricia C. Wrede, and who knows how many other names.

Yet HarperCollins and some other publishers believe that library lending does not lead to a "commercially viable solution." So all the royalties for all those books I bought myself and encouraged others to buy went—where, exactly?

And this is why we have to talk about entitlement again, because decisions like HarperCollins' much-maligned digital checkout implies a certain amount of entitlement on the publisher's behalf: We own these books and we will not let you look at them unless you meet our standards for proper readership. And if I do not meet those standards I will not get to read those books, and this will sting, because many of my favorite romance authors write for Avon (a HarperCollins imprint)—but it will not sting too long because like many others, I have a pile of other books at my elbow just itching to be read, and loved, and recommended. A publisher is no more entitled to my money than a reader is entitled to that publisher's copyrighted content.

Surely I'm not the only one who feels this is a little too close to the pattern of Mutually Assured Destruction? Publishers attempt to increase sales in ways that make things more difficult for readers to read the book, which makes readers of that particular publisher's books more scarce, which makes the publishers even more anxious to increase sales, and so on.

Two people, a white man and a white woman, each holding an open book smashed up against each other's face, so that they cannot see anything else including each other.

Before someone leaps up on a table and yells, "Information wants to be free!", let's make one thing clear: information does not want anything. People want things. And one of the things people want most of all is to participate in the culture or subculture that provides them with meaning, whether that's romance or religion or fantasy fiction. Books and music and movies have a value that is beyond the financial and does not correspond precisely with the dollar value such things may be assigned.

Is it a type of entitlement, that I want people to be able to participate in whatever culture they choose, regardless of their income level?

Here is one person who says yes: Cindy Orr, Overdrive Library Consultant and member of the ALA Presidential Task Force on Equitable Access to Electronic Content:

I would like to add that we need to educate ourselves and act within the arena that exists right now while we plan for, and try to influence the future. That doesn’t mean that we can’t work to revise copyright law, or try to negotiate new models, or change anything else, but it’s fruitless to argue that all works should be available to the public for free regardless of their copyright status.

As we saw yesterday with Leslie Hulce, Cindy Orr's example is an extreme one: that librarians want all books to be available free of charge to the public.

Let me say this again, though it's starting to feel like Broken Record Time: Librarians are not objecting to the purchase price of an ebook. They are not trying to deny the publisher's interest in making a profit. They are merely objecting to the imposition of an artificial expiration date. Especially since the number 26 bears an awfully strong resemblance to a year-long period of two-week check-outs, rather than any reasonable parallel to the number of times a print book will be checked out over the course of its lifespan.

The longevity of a text is not a secondary concern for libraries, because what makes a library a library is that it is an archive. Readers buy books to enjoy, bookstores buy books to resell, and libraries buy books to collect and preserve. Different libraries require different strategies—there's a whole post waiting to be written on the difference between a university library's special collections and your local public library's children's section—but every library to some extent is outside the ebb and flow of time as the rest of the book world sees it (new releases, bestseller lists, this year's award winners).

And I feel very strongly that there must be a connection between the point when I was scouring the library and used bookstores for all the Pratchett I could get my grubby little hands on, and the point when someone decided to bring all those earlier Discworld books back into print. The book world is not a feudal state with the publisher as king and the readers as hapless peons—it is an ecosystem, where every part of it both feeds on an nourishes every other part.

The real problem is not that libraries make books available to the public: the problem is that we do not have reliable data on how library readership affects book sales. And until we do, HarperCollins and other publishers will continue to treat libraries as retailers, and the book world as a whole will suffer.

{More about time, checkout time, and HarperCollins in Part 3 of this series tomorrow.}