The Mystery of Romance – or is it the Romance of Mystery?

by Janis Patterson

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be included on the panel at the public library sponsored Romance in Bonham, a nice county seat town a little over an hour away. The ladies of the library hold this event every other February, and it’s great fun. After the panel discussion and the book signing and everything is all over they provide the panelists and the family members they bring along a down-home potluck lunch. Always some of the best ‘lady food’ I’ve ever had! (Wish they’d do a cookbook…)

Although this is a romance-centric event, I brought several of my mysteries and was slightly astonished at the interest they generated. Apparently there is a growing interest for more mystery in romances – or more romance in mysteries. Both of which, I think, are a very good thing. For far too long readers and writers both have been pigeonholed into fairly rigid and unforgiving categories. Mystery was mystery. Romance was romance. Romantic suspense was a step in the right direction, but unfortunately it was soon codified into so much a percentage romance, so much a percentage mystery/adventure by most traditional publishers.

Now, almost in the manner of a superhero, self-publishing has started to break down the artificial barriers between genres, allowing them to become just stories with all kinds of elements. Want a mystery with lots of blood and danger and nary a kiss between characters? It’s out there. Want an exciting mystery where a couple falls in love while evading the bad guys/saving the world/whatever? It’s out there. Want a tender romance where a couple falls in love happily ever after while solving a usually gentle mystery? It’s out there. Want any combination of the above? Or just about anything else, including vampires, shapeshifters talking cats or kung-fu knitters? Even all at once? It’s out there.

I don’t know if the traditional publishers – the kind one finds on the shelves of your local bookstore, if there are many of those left – have twigged to how complete this revolution of thought is, but the virtual aisles of electronic/print on demand publishing are full of proof. You can find almost any permutation of any storyline now. Self and small publishing have opened up the world of stories, and readers/writers are no longer bound to restrict their desires to the small and rigid genres the trad publishers have decreed will make them the most money. True, in the days when traditional publishing reigned supreme and controlled not only content but distribution, print runs were enormous and had to be done ahead of release, then stored in gigantic warehouses. The publishers had to look to what would give the best return on their not-inconsiderable investment. Now, though, in the burgeoning world of electronic and print on demand self-publishing, such considerations are no longer the end-all and be-all of what’s available. Niche markets that were too small to interest the trad publishers are now flourishing and expanding.

And that’s all to the good. Choice is a good thing, and genre-blending is a good way to expand reader interest. If there is a downside, it’s that the freedom of self-publishing has opened the floodgates to an unbelievable amount of pure dreck. There are people who believe that not only putting down X number of words is writing a book, but that doing so will guarantee them fame and fortune. We can only hope that their number dies off quickly, because this wave of badly written, badly conceived and badly formatted messes is reflecting badly on self-published books as a whole. There are self-pubbed books (usually written by veterans – or perhaps we should say survivors – of the trad publishing industry) whose quality is unquestionably equal to or better than anything from the Big 5, but they are shadowed with the prevailing belief that all self-published books are rubbish. That’s a misconception that only time and persistence can alter. But it will, it surely will, and writers and readers the world over will benefit from it.