If you were to study paperback publishing in the late 1970s, you'd discover that less than 30 romance novels were produced each month and the genre barely comprised 25% of the publishing pie, with Harlequin, MacFadden, Dell Candlelight and Avon the primary publishers. But the women's sexual revolution and Kathryn Falk's RT BOOK REVIEWS Magazine, established in June of '81, and her reference work, HOW TO WRITE A ROMANCE AND GET IT PUBLISHED (Crown/NAL, 1983) were to change all that.
Over the years the romance fiction has grown in leaps and bounds, to become a billion-dollar-a-year industry that produces over 120 new book titles each month and accounts for nearly 50% of the total paperback market. The average romance reader today still spends over $100 a month on books and reads 10-40 books a month.
Some of the biggest publishing names - Johanna Lindsey, Jude Deveraux, Judith McNaught, Sandra Brown, Jayne Ann Krentz, Tess Gerritsen, Nora Roberts and Tami Hoag, to name a few - got their start writing category romance in the '80s and have branched out to encompass mainstream readers, becoming New York Times bestsellers alongside Anne Rice, John Grisham and Mary Higgins Clark.
But let's go back to the late '70s, when Kathryn Falk (now also known as Lady of Barrow) - formerly of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and educated at the Jesuit-run University of Detroit (as a history major) - was an entrepreneur of dollhouses and miniature stores on the upper east side of Manhattan, writing books on the hobby. She was always a booklover, she recalls, and a speed reader, barreling through shelves of historical romance novels and biographies in her childhood libraries. As a working woman, she noticed the rise of sensual historicals and began to wonder why there weren't newsletters or reference books for the burgeoning genre.
Hence, there followed her decision to write a reference book entitled LADIES OF THE KNIGHT. While in the process of tracking down publishers, booksellers and authors, and compiling profiles and information, she discovered there was no way of knowing what books were coming out, when and where they would appear, which ones were best, who the authors were or how to write them. As she recalls, "Historical romances by Barbara Cartland, Rosemary Rogers and Jennifer Wilde were selling million of copies, so I knew there had to be thousands of women, maybe more, who were curious about this type of reading. I never had to do market research to figure out my eventual publication. It was what I wanted to know. I was one of them: an avid fan of romantic fiction."
In order to create a newsletter of any type, Kathryn knew she required some credibility. She sent out proposals for a reference work. Pinnacle Books didn't want her entire manuscript, but they were interested in the emerging new breed of women writers. They took Kathryn's post-1970 chapter and asked her to expand it, calling it LOVE'S LEADING LADIES, a series of 60 author profiles that included Danielle Steel, Janet Dailey, Bertrice Small and many of the contemporary authors published by Harlequin and the then latest American romance house, Silhouette.
It was as author of the forthcoming LOVE'S LEADING LADIES that she set out to create a newsletter. Limited in funds and with a wealth of information, she contacted a local Brooklyn printer about creating a newspaper. Working out of a small home office, she typed out the first issue of RT BOOK REVIEWS on a Selectric typewriter. A neighbor designed the pages. Waldenbooks put the first issue in every store. Janet Dailey promoted it in her popular newsletter and Kathryn's aggressive self-promotion got her nationwide attention in the press and on TV from the first issue.
Today, the romance novel industry still isn't quite sure what hit it, but they do know that Ms. Falk and her magazine Romantic Times are the undisputed experts at reaching romance book lovers and creating a promotional medium for publishers and authors for the sale of even more romances. No one in their right mind today doubts the lucrative market of loyal romance readers, the majority of whom buy 10-40 books per month and consider reading their main hobby.
As the 21st century arrived so did a new era of the romance novel. The genre began to broaden its scope and beloved authors with loyal followings began writing the same compelling stories but going beyond the romance formula. Many branched out into the Mystery, Science Fiction and Fantasy genres while others entered into the mainstream fiction market to reach a much broader readership. As more and more authors ventured into these new worlds of fiction RT BOOK REVIEWS followed the trend and began expanding its content reviewing books in genres other than romance and by early 2002 the name of the magazine was changed to RT BOOK REVIEWS BOOKclub (with the emphasis on BOOKclub) to reflect the changing content where romance was only a section of the magazine and other genres were equally represented.
Today RT BOOK REVIEWS Magazine reviews every romance published and rates it but it also reviews over 100 books in various other genres. It profiles authors, alerts readers and booksellers to forthcoming titles and provides news and gossip columns, along with columns designed to guide aspiring authors in the honing of their craft. RT, as it is affectionately known, provided the first forum for the fledgling industry and brought together all of its colorful elements and participants - readers, authors, aspiring writers, publishers, editors, agents, booksellers, distributors, illustrators, models, book salesmen, book clubs, audiobook producers and movie makers - to celebrate books.
"Booklovers are cut from the same cookie-cutter." Ms. Falk realized early on [that] "I can talk with any woman, of any age or background, in any state or country, and if we share a fascination for romantic novels we are instantly kindred spirits."
Kathryn is known for dropping postcards in the mail to subscribers in a particular postal zone saying she will be coming to town, and perfect strangers meet her at trains and planes, holding a copy of her magazine like a secret code of their affiliation. She says it's always the same immediate comaraderie as they all go off, chatting away, to the nearest bookstore.
"I've stayed in every imaginable style of house, from trailer camps to castles, and it's always the same warm feelings. We all love book sleuthing and bookstore hopping. Finding a new title or author to recommend is the fun," she says enthusiastically. "Yes, we're addicted to reading, it's our hobby, just like watching sports is a man's hobby. We like to exercise our imaginations."
Sometime in the '90s, "when the Marquess of Bristol needed to pay off his wine bill," Kathryn says (only half in jest), she purchased the manorial rights to the West Suffolk village of Barrow, near Cambridge University in a beautiful, pastoral part of England. She visits regularly and has a deep sense of responsibility to preservation of the historical Norman church there. Nor is she above exercising some of her other privileges, including the right to market and fayre.
What started in June of 1981 with a 24-page tabloid newspaper has burgeoned into a 144-page, glossy, four-color magazine dubbed "the bible of romantic fiction" by USA Today. It is sold to readers, booksellers, writers, agents, editors and publishers in nearly every country in the world, and has spawned a world-wide appreciation for American novels, both in translated forms and in the original American version, due to "cyber-English."
"I know so many foreign readers and editors and each one will tell you that no one writes fiction, especially romantic fiction, like the American writers," relates Ms. Falk. "That's why I'm happy to see more foreign bookstores and readers buying American versions. Many of the translations cannot hold a candle [to the originals] due to translation difficulties."
To a recent fan of romantic novels, the industry as it existed in the early years would be unrecognizable. In those days, there was no communication between writers and their readers, little interaction between authors and publishers (who routinely accepted manuscripts and distributed them without much promotion) and certainly no forum to bring everyone face-to-face. No one knowing each other? That's hard to believe once you've attended a RT BOOK REVIEWS Booklovers' Convention, where good-heartedness and joie de vivre is part of the atmosphere.
"There's a wonderful writer's joke," says Ms. Falk. "A novelist gets a call that there's been a tragedy at her house. She runs home and the fire chief is waiting. He says, 'Your agent was here. He torched your house, stole your wife and drove off in your car.' The writer says, mystified, 'My agent came to my house?'"
Another change has been the rise of stars within the genre. Once upon a time, celebrity romance authors were few and far between and the industry was not "name-driven." Publishers then aimed to sell books as a series, or by the cover alone; but readers soon knew who their favorites were and began showing preferences. Eventually, the popular authors' names got larger than the book titles. The idea of sub-genres was also initially regularly dismissed by most publishing houses (time travels and paranormals were as scarce in the early '80s as they are prolific now). Today the genre is richly sub-categorized (as you can see here on the RT BOOKreviews website).
In the old days, it was unheard of for young hard-bodies to aspire to land jobs as cover models, let alone to win pageants. Today a favorite remark of men around the world is something to the effect of: "I want to be on a romance book cover so I can go to bed with all the women in the world and my girlfriend won't get jealous!"
The evolution of RT BOOK REVIEWS has helped shape the romance industry as we know it today. Founded by a booklover, it is always growing and broadening its base, infused by one simple but revolutionary philosophy: listen to the readers and give them what they want!
"It is the readers who drive the industry," says Carol Stacy, now RT BOOK REVIEWS publisher. "We took the position of a knowledgeable fan, creating some of our most popular columns - Theme Spotlight, Readers' Forum, How to Write, Pseudonym Search, Cover Art, Classic Authors, Recommended Reads - on the basis of their requests."
Beyond just content, however, Kathryn and RT BOOKreviews also catered to other aspects of this fantasy-oriented industry - with explosive results. As publishers were busy forming new lines and searching for new writers, RT's first major role was to serve as an important resource for both new and established authors, giving them the inside scoop on New York publishing trends and events that they otherwise would have missed.
In the "good old days," Kathryn and her cohort, publisher, Carol Stacy, were virtually on-call for writers, giving them direction as to how to get published and, more importantly, how to promote their book once it was published! "First you write a good book and then you have to know how to sell it. Don't depend on your publisher doing everything," was the RT motto. And they were so right.
Consequently, authors cultivated their own will to succeed, and eventually became more savvy than their publishers about promotion. It's no surprise that the authors soon out-promoted most other genres. They became marketing geniuses: got to know the booksellers, their distributors, their company's sales force and conscientiously attended autographings to interact with their readers.
"Women writers, from Barbara Cartland to Jacqueline Susann and up to present times, have always been better at meeting the readers and promoting books than most of the male authors," says Ms. Falk. "Today's women's fiction market is due in part to the fierce determination of the writers and the independent booksellers in spite of most publishers' Neanderthal marketing methods."
Despite the oft strained relations between New York publishing and RT in the beginning, the two agreed on their lowest common denominator: boosting the romance industry. Considering the dynamic relationship the magazine has with publishers now, it is fascinating to look back to those early years when the publication was perceived as taking control away from the publishers and "telling the authors too much." In the old days RT BOOK REVIEWS would regularly contact the publishing houses - which often had no system in place to deal with the readers' requests - to give them information to pass on to the readers. Later on, in response to its readers' increasingly wide-ranging tastes and healthy appetite, the magazine also influenced the publishers to foster the various sub-genres such as time travel and "Jane Bond" adventures (aka women in jeopardy), including, more recently, African-American and inspirational romances. RT was also instrumental in giving readers a voice to express their opinions concerning the type of covers they preferred (e.g., "clinches not flowers" and "no more nursing mothers") as well as other pet peeves ("larger and more readable type-size" and "put new covers on the reissues of old titles").
In 1982, RT BOOK REVIEWS hosted the milestone event for both the magazine and the genre - the first annual RT BOOK REVIEWS Booklovers' Convention, in New York - and the national media enthusiastically greeted the bevy of published and aspiring authors that signaled a new women's movement, providing an opportunity for women to speak to women through fiction. The following year, the movement was empowered still more by the arrival of Barbara Cartland at the 2nd New York convention and the "Love Train," a cross-country bunny hop of romance writers that travelled from the west coast to the east coast to reach the event.
Every national magazine and newspaper covered the event. This was the year when every major New York publisher presented a new romance line. Romance novels flooded the market and soon the pie was sliced into many pieces. But the industry was to level out. Harlequin bought Silhouette, several lines faded and others blossomed. Many stars were born.
By the late '80s, the RT conventions moved to cities outside of Manhattan, signaling a less regional atmosphere. They began to include both booksellers and readers, illustrators and models, as well as authors and aspiring writers. This "coming together" each year caused ripples of comaraderie to spread across the United States, which enriched thousands of personal and professional relationships. A RT BOOK REVIEWS convention is now a gathering of old and new friends and has become an extended family of thousands. With the conventions, Carol Stacy says, "we became the only industry organization that brought everyone under the same roof, allowing the synergy and enthusiasm of the readers to take hold. The very idea of networking started with RT BOOK REVIEWS."
Again and again, Ms. Falk drew from her experiences as romance's leading advocate to address her readers' tastes and to envision ways to grow with the changing times. One of the most important developments was her organization of RT's 1,000-member Bookstores That Care, a worldwide network of independent romance bookstores that are managed primarily by women who thoroughly love the genre. These stores, of both new and used books, now include many chain store managers and librarians, and have become a major collective force, not only because they are hand-selling women's fiction, but because they are the backbone of the network, often acting as library and indispensable source for back titles.
By discovering Fabio nearly a decade ago and helping to catapult him to his current international fame, Kathryn soon recognized the entertainment value of romance cover men. What could be more entertaining than for readers than to vote for their favorite cover men and to have the victor win the right to pose for a cover? RT began to feature existing cover models more prominently in its pages, and eventually Kathryn created the wildly popular Mr. Romance Cover Model Pageant. There are many, many men who would love to be models for romance novel covers. Their participation in the conventions and their their enthusiasm for the genre add a new dimension for romance booklovers, who have started fan clubs and made life-long friendships with the models.
Over the years, RT BOOKreviews magazine has consistently pioneered a number of the industry features that readers today habitually take for granted. Early on and pre internet, the magazine encouraged mailing lists for authors by having them print their addresses at the end of RT articles and at the end of their books (if the publisher would allow it). This was a practice that enabled the feedback many aspiring writers cite as a major source of inspiration and motivation.
When her own reference books - HOW TO WRITE A ROMANCE AND GET IT PUBLISHED, ROMANCE READER'S HANDBOOK, HOW TO WRITE HORROR, HOW TO WRITE YOUNG ADULT ROMANCES and HOW TO WRITE A ROMANCE FOR THE NEW MARKET AND GET PUBLISHED - became popular, Kathryn started a books-by-mail service, specializing in wonderful research books and English erotica. To help the aspiring writer, she also formed a manuscript evaluation service, using New York editors and published authors as critique specialists. Many published authors have evolved from this service. In 1994, all roads led to China, where Kathryn established her own imprint to sell American romances (something she has also been doing in Western and Eastern Europe and Taiwan).
Extremely rewarding are the Lady Barrow tours, which have taken writers and readers to Scotland, England, Iceland, and soon to even more foreign locales. Part of their uniqueness is visiting the homes of celebrities. Past tours have included visits to Jude Deveraux and the late Barbara Cartland in England, partying with Anne Perry and Dorothy Dunnett in Scotland. Watching the fireworks with the Writers' Union of Iceland is also high on Kathryn's list. Her tours are known to leave noticeable holes on bookstore shelves; the sign on the booklovers' buses reads: Women and books first!
In Jan 2005 RT BOOK REVIEWS magazine reached yet another milestone printing its 250th issue and in June 2005 it published its first issue with 160 pages covering over 300 reviews in 10 different genres. Not bad for the 24 page tabloid for romance readers that could--and did!