The Romance Invasion

Back when I was doing my ‘due diligence’ for my debut novel, Number Eight Crispy Chicken, researching the cover designs and blurbs of other satirical novels, I noticed something strange. Many of the top novels in this category on Amazon weren’t really what I would have considered ‘satire’.

In fact, they screamed ‘romance’.

At the time (in late 2019), I thought to myself, ‘I’ll bet these savvy authors have targeted ‘satire’ as an ‘easy’ category to break into’. But the invasion of satire by romance novels wasn’t significant enough at the time for me to mention it on my blog.

Fast forward a little over eighteen months, and the invasion I noticed back then has become almost a complete colonisation: Of the top 100 ‘satire’ books on Amazon in late July, 2021, as I was preparing Propaganda Wars for publication, just fifteen (15%) were satirical novels.

The rest? Romance.

Before we start, I want to make something clear: satirical romance, and romantic satire, are definitely possible, and such works definitely have a place on the satire rankings.

Simply because a book includes romantic themes, or even because its primary category is romance, should not exclude it from also being included in the ranks of satirical novels.

If it includes satire.

The authors (and readers) of romance novels face all sorts of prejudice in the literary world and the writing community, and I want to make very clear that my objection has nothing to do with the fact that romance is the invading force in this case (or, to be more accurate: a select group of romance authors are the invading force). I would be just as disappointed to open the list of top satires and find 85% of the books were not satires, but science fiction, or manuals on car repair.

In other words, I am upset that the satire list is dominated by books which are not satires.

Why target categories your book doesn’t belong to?

Most authors, if they walked into a book store and found their novel shelved in the wrong category, would ask to have it moved.

Readers who walk into a brick-and-mortar store and start browsing the shelves do not expect or want to find cookbooks in the programming languages section, or young adult fantasy novels in the war fiction section.

So why do authors intentionally place their books in categories they don’t belong to on Amazon?

To become bestsellers.

When Amazon affixes that beautiful little “#1 bestseller” label to a book, it doesn’t mention what category the book achieved bestseller status in – unless you click on the title, in which case, the work of attracting a reader is already done.

And, unlike physical books which can only be present on one shelf at a time, books on Amazon can have multiple categories.

This isn’t a bad thing: most books certainly fall under more than one umbrella. A romance, for example, might be a historical romance, or a romantic comedy, and hence fall under historical fiction + romance, or romance + comedy (note, comedy does not necessarily mean satire however). My own first novel, a satire about a politician trapped in an airport, fits under ‘Political Humour’, ‘Aviation’, and ‘Air Travel’.

The trouble comes from the fact that a reader may browse through a category such as romance, and see that a book has “#1 bestseller” slapped onto it, and assume that this bestseller status means it was, at some time, a bestseller in that category, when in fact, it was a bestseller in a “less competitive” category, like satire.

And this is the sort of confusion these authors are banking on.

Why satire?

I think there are two reasons satire has become such a target. The first is that truly satirical novels are few and far between, at least compared to behemoth genres such as romance. The second is that satire is a poorly understood genre, and hence open to exploitation.

Numbers

It is notoriously difficult to figure out exactly how many books Amazon has listed in a particular category, but we can take a stab.

Romance is such an important category on Kindle that it is listed under its own heading, directly underneath ‘Kindle eBooks’. The only other fiction categories with this top-level treatment are compilations of several different genre areas: ‘Mystery, Thriller & Suspense’ and ‘Science Fiction & Fantasy’.

All other novels aimed at an adult audience are squished under ‘Literature & Fiction’.

Click on ‘Romance’, and you’ll find a list of 24 sub-genres, almost as long as the master list (31 items).

Click on one of these, and chances are, there will still be too many results for Amazon to tell you how many novels are in that romance sub-genre. ‘Romantic comedy’, which I can only imagine would be a better fit for many of the novels currently on the satire list, only states that there are ‘over 60,000 results’, which seems to be the maximum amount that Amazon displays.

Compare this to satire: The ‘Humor & Satire’ category combined has ‘over 50,000 results’ (which means fewer than 60,000), and the plain vanilla ‘Satire’ category? It has ‘over 20,000’. In other words, we can tell, at a minimum, that satire has fewer than half of the books in it that ‘Romantic comedy’ has, and since 60,000 is the most Amazon will ever tell us, the true amount of competition in that category is likely far, far higher – making ‘Satire’ a very attractive place to hang out indeed.

Nature

‘Satire must rank among the most misunderstood genres,’ I wrote in one of my first posts on this blog. ‘So often, books and memes and shows that are merely snarky or rude are labelled as ‘satirical’. My guess is this is an attempt to make them seem clever, or less mean.’

There is nothing to prevent a romance from also being satirical. However, having a kind of wink-wink, nod-nod risque title or author name does not make something a satire. Nor, even, does a work merely being humorous. Satire, as Carl Hiaasen says, comes from anger. ‘It comes from a sense of injustice, that there are wrongs in the world that need to be fixed.’ (Incidentally, Hiaasen is one of the few authors of actual satire to make it onto the list).

Crucially, good satire takes aim at those who hold power. While a satirical work may take aim at a single institution or individual, it is usually as a metaphor for society. The subgenres of medical romance, or military romance, for example, would appear ripe for satirical commentary on the importance of universal healthcare, or the futility of war. Instead, at least in the romance novels I have volunteered to review in these genres, we are usually treated to an apparently endless stream of books that praise America’s under-resourced healthcare system and glorify its over-resourced military.

Romance novels, it is true, often play with themes of power. However, novels in which physically dominant, nauseatingly wealthy men control women without their power ever being called into question are not subverting the norm, causing readers to think about economic inequality or gender-based violence. Books in which powerful billionaires are held up as desirable gods rather than their dubious business dealings being probed, in which strong men are not mocked or shamed for their selfish and frequently violent acts, cannot be considered satires – even if there are a few jokes thrown in, or the title is a pun.

There are, of course, romance novels that do subvert these tropes. There are romance novels which do not involve muscular billionaires wielding their power callously.

But as we will see, such works are not typical of those on this list.

Why romance?

So why is it that the entire invading force appears to be from the romance genre?

Again, it’s partly a numbers game. And again, it comes down to the nature of the genre.

Numbers

As I alluded to above, romance is a big field. A BIG field.

Romance books are by far the most popular genre in modern literature.

Examining just one prominent romance publisher, Harlequin, gives us an idea of just how big the field is. Harlequin sells at least one book every four seconds. But they also receive tens of thousands of unsolicited manuscripts a year.

Romance/Erotica is by far the biggest category on Amazon. The fact that it dwarfs other categories so thoroughly may explain (quite apart from snobbery) why many articles don’t include romance in their analyses. The other numbers simply become meaningless in romance’s shadow.

Romance is also the most profitable category on Amazon by far – making as much as its closest competitors, Crime/Mystery and Religious/Inspirational put together. (Is it only me that finds it humorous that the top three categories are sex, murder, and religion? Talk about a dinner party conversation!)

Seven out of ten of the most competitive categories on Amazon are linked to romance (or ‘women’s fiction’) in some way. (Romance -> Contemporary is the #1 competitive category)

All ten of the least competitive categories are nonfiction.

Nature

Like satire, I believe romance is a frequently misunderstood genre. At least, it is a frequently maligned genre – which is part of the reason I initially passed on the opportunity to write this post, back when I first noticed the phenomenon back in 2019. I didn’t want to add to the pile of (often poorly informed) criticism heaped upon romance writers and readers.

There are many books outside the ‘Romance’ genre which involve some sort of romantic relationship. In fact, I’d bet that the vast majority of fiction includes romance in some way. What does and doesn’t count as a ‘Romance’ novel isn’t as clear cut, at least to me as a relative outsider, as what does and doesn’t count as a ‘Satire’. Perhaps the fuzzy edges of ‘Romance’ have caused some of its authors to treat the borders of other genres as similarly permeable.

In my next post, we’ll drill down deep into the numbers and find out what it takes to break into Amazon’s top 100 as a genre author.

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