DUNLAP — The conversation was all about romance, flavored with intriguing bite-sized surprises for the uninitiated.
Amish romance is huge. Romance with witches, vampires, dragons or "hot Scots in kilts" can be extremely profitable. Central Illinois is home to several best-selling romance writers who know first-hand.
Meet Kate Bateman, T.M. Cromer, Genevieve Jack and Suzan Tisdale.
They call themselves “the tribe” and sometimes, the “CIA,” short for central Illinois authors and they meet once a month for food and fun. The craft, business and marketing of romance novels are always on the menu. Over the course of a three-hour lunch Tuesday, the four happily destroyed cliches about a billion-dollar industry they love to point out is produced primarily by and for women.
“Romance gets such a bad rap,” said Tisdale, of North Pekin, an accidental author whose USA Today bestselling historical romances from the 14th century, of the aforementioned "hot Scots in kilts" genre, vaulted her annual salary into the six-figure range.
“My husband calls me his sugar mama, and I have no problem with that.”
Though the group isn’t above a few racy quips during lunch, they’re as quick to dismiss perceptions that romance novels amount to "mommy porn" as they are to mount a defense for its literary value.
One of Tisdale’s relatives described her work as porn. The Daily Mail, a British daily, described Bateman’s first novel as “X- rated.” (Bateman, who transplanted to Dunlap from the United Kingdom, was an appraiser for the U.K.’s version of "Antiques Roadshow" at the time.)
Neither description is true, according to the two. What many don’t realize, according to the group, is sex is not central to the plot in most genres. If it is, that’s a separate category among genres that range from contemporary humor to Westerns, sports and science fiction.
Bateman, who writes as K.C. Bateman, hosted the gathering at her Dunlap home. Of the four, she’s the only one who has a literary agent and contracts with traditional publishing houses, Random House Loveswept, an e-book imprint, and, St. Martin’s Press. She also has three children still in school.
Reading her first romance novel as a teenager was an eye-opener.
“I realized this is so much cooler than Tolstoy,” she said. “I have a degree in English, I’ve read fantastically good literature, but they’re all so depressing. Everybody dies.”
The “happily-ever after” is part of the appeal of romance novels, Bateman said, combined with strong heroines, or as she calls her female characters “badasses in bodices.”
“Women have power, they have agency,” she said. “They’re not just having things done to them and it’s all told from a female point of view.”
The women who create them see themselves as writers and businesswomen.
“In publishing today, you have to be an entrepreneur,” said Cromer, of Eureka, whose first name is Tara. Both she and Genevieve Jack write paranormal romances, among other genres, but Cromer calls Jack “a business machine.”
A former certified public accountant and nurse, Jack, of Bloomington, starting writing as an antidote to the death and dying she saw as a nurse. Another USA Today best-seller, she writes young adult novels under G.P Ching and romances — specifically, paranormal romances with other-worldly themes — under Genevieve Jack.
Self-publishing and the popularity of Kindle and Nook have upended the traditional romance publishing market. Jack said a series like her Amish dystopian trilogy, a young adult romance written under G.P. Ching, would have never been considered by traditional publishers.
Jack, Cromer and Tisdale, all independent self-published authors, arrange for their own cover artists, editors, proofreaders, publish dates and marketing. They do more work, but they also have more control and a much larger share of the royalties. In some cases, they have traditional contracts for audio books and foreign language translations.
As with the music and other media industries, traditional publishers haven’t figured out how to adjust to the new landscape.
Bateman is about to jump into the independent publishing world. As she goes over the pros and cons, she admits “self-publishing is scaring the pants off me.”
Tisdale is an adamant supporter of independent publishing. “We’re the trailblazers.”
Jack sees both sides. “In my opinion, the traditional publishing market and independent publishing market are different audiences. There’s room for both.”
And that’s why they gather, to share experience, advice and the strength they write into their characters.
“But you can’t do this without a supportive husband,” Cromer adds. Unlike the others, her husband reads all of her books.
“But that’s because I make him,” she added. She needs his viewpoint to make sure her male characters are realistic.
Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.