I was at a party with my son and his wife two years ago when another young couple came up and introduced themselves. Their names were Sydney and Beatriz Williams. Beatriz told us about a book she’d just finished and was about to publish. The book, “Overseas,” published by G.P. Putnam, is about a girl in her 20s working in 2007 as an analyst at a New York investment banking firm. She meets a mysterious billionaire hedge fund operator who’s working on a deal with her firm.
The heroine, Kate, falls in love with the billionaire Englishman, Julian Ashford, little suspecting they have a shared past. In fact she had a prior existence during the First World War and Julian is a time traveler from 1916, seeking to reconnect with “the enchanting woman who emerged from the shadows of the Great War to save his life.”
Six months later I saw a promotional poster for the book in the window of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, which included a photo of Mrs. Williams.
In the meantime, “Overseas” had become a runaway success and Mrs. Williams, a stay-at-home-mom with four young children, was headed for the New York Times Best Sellers List.
Last May, Williams published her second hit, “A Hundred Summers.”
Set in the fictionalized resort of Seaview, Rhode Island (based on the real life Watch Hill, where several Kansas City families vacation), it’s the tale of Lily, a young woman whose life is about to be disrupted by the reappearance of her former best friend Budgie, now married to her (Lily’s) former fiancé, Nick Greenwald. Further adding to the dramatic tension is the approach of a cataclysmic hurricane, since it is Memorial Day, 1938. In the words of the Amazon blurb; “As the 1938 hurricane bears down on Rhode Island, a storm of another kind is brewing…!”
You may recall my earlier post about an author named Patricia Beard. Ms. Beard wrote a book with a similar title and plot, but seemed to be trying to transcend the genre I call “chick lit.” Mrs. Williams, by contrast, seems to be reveling in it!
She is a paid up member in good standing of a wonderful organization called the Romance Writers of America. Founded in 1980, the RWA (“The Voice of Romance Writers”) is “dedicated to advancing the professional interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy.” With 10,000 members, it offers support and encouragement to those pursuing the avocation.
The RWA defines a romance novel as having two essential elements: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. There are sub-genres within the category. These include Historical Romance, Inspirational Romance (in which religious or spiritual beliefs are a major part of the romantic relationship), Paranormal Romance (in which the future, a fantasy world, or paranormal elements are an integral part of the plot), Romantic Suspense (in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot), and (not specified but referred to obliquely) Erotic Romance (in which varying levels of sensuality, ranging from ‘sweet’ to ‘extremely hot’, are an integral part of the plot).
As Juliana Gray, also published by Penguin, Williams has brought us five historical romances—“A Lady Never Lies,” “A Gentleman Never Tells,” “A Duke Never Yields,” “How to Tame Your Duke,” and “How to Master Your Marquis.” (‘How to School Your Scoundrel” comes out in June.)
Mrs. William’s persona as Juliana Gray is a little different than the one she presents as Beatriz Williams. In the blurb on the Juliana Gray website she claims that she, “enjoys dark chocolate, champagne, and dinner parties, and despises all forms of exercise except one.” Hello!
This is just smart marketing. (Beatriz didn’t graduate from Stanford and Columbia Business School for nothing.) If you’re out to win dominant shares of a particular market you have to go into all segments of that market. Mrs. Williams has now penetrated the historical, paranormal, and erotic romance segments nicely, thank you. (She’s already got a leg up in the exploding e-book segment, clearly the wave of the future.)
And what a market it is! Romance novels generated $1.438 billion in sales in 2012.
Romance fiction outsells all the other categories of fiction. It beats religious/inspirational 2 to 1, science fiction/fantasy 2.5 to 1, and classic literary fiction by 3 to 1. Romance readers buy multiple books in a year and develop strong loyalties to particular authors. Brand loyalty indeed!
Okay, all you literature snobs like Harley and Mysterious J. I can already hear you saying that Mrs. Williams and her compatriots are not up to the standards of, say…Henry James. That’s where you’re wrong!
In “The Death of The Lion,” The Master tells a mordant story of an author done in by literary fame. He has great fun talking about the rewards and pitfalls in writing serial fiction. He also shares a chuckle about how much sex women writers should put in their romance novels (“the larger latitude,” it’s euphemistically referred to). If Henry James could go in for mass marketing of his books (he licensed “Daisy Miller” dolls and hats, named after the eponymous heroine of his most famous story), why can’t Beatriz Williams?
The other criticism of Mrs. Williams/Ms. Gray I anticipate is; “What about feminism?
Is this what we burned our bras for? Is this why we shattered the glass ceiling?” Yeah, actually it is. In post-feminist America, every woman is free to choose between gender roles, ranging from the more traditional one followed by Mrs. Williams to that of a radical, lesbian (right-wing) public intellectual like Camille Paglia. (Who single handedly saved the wrestling program at my college from the depredations of Title IX!) They all have something to say and we should come out en masse to hear them when they write or say anything of interest and we can get them to Kansas City