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That Secret Shame 

You don't have to be embarrassed to read romance novels anymore. With modern themes and better writing, Bay Area authors are helping to make the genre almost (gasp!) respectable.

Wednesday, Jul 25 2001

Page 5 of 5

Cathy Yardley, who published her first Harlequin, The Cinderella Solution, last year, has sold a book to Red Dress Ink. Titled L.A. Girl, it should hit shelves early next year. She's happy to be doing something outside of the category romance mill, but she isn't surprised that the romance industry has taken so long to realize it would do well to appeal to younger readers. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is how she laughingly describes Harlequin's attitude, and she's right: Romances seem to weather economic downturns better than other genres do.

But Harlequin has a tough sell to younger readers, a generation where, as Yardley puts it, "in high school, saying your parents were divorced was like saying you had a locker. Selling the happy ending was very hard." But Yardley persists. "Look, there's nothing to be ashamed of in saying, "I believe in love and I believe in happy endings.' Yeah, you're gonna hear a lot of cynics, but somebody's gotta have hope here."

In late May, San Francisco's Moscone Center hosted the annual convention of the American Library Association. The event worked hard to present libraries as hip to the times, though the results were decidedly ... librarian. A party at the Marriott was headlined by Jurassic rock 'n' rollers Three Dog Night and promoted as "Joy to the World ... of Libraries!"

The Romance Writers of America held court at a tiny table in a corner of Moscone's south hall. Candice Hern brought copies of her latest book, Miss Lacey's Last Fling. Hern was scheduled to spend an hour signing them. She was out of books in 20 minutes. Everyone's eager to talk to a real, live romance writer, apparently. One attendee took a moment to enthuse about how much the library's circulation had improved since it decided to stop throwing romances onto racks and actually catalog them.

Hern wasn't shocked at how quickly she got through her stack of books; it happens all the time: Set up a romance book-signing and people come in droves. But she also isn't surprised that romances are still a hard sell among the literary establishment. When she was the president of the local RWA chapter, she tried for three years to get a discussion panel on the genre at the San Francisco Book Festival, but couldn't even get her phone calls returned. Instead, the RWA's booth got placed right across from Good Vibrations', which wasn't quite the image Hern wanted to present. Finally she landed a slot at the 1999 festival, thanks to a clever bit of marketing. "I had to position it as a feminist issue," she says, a bit resentfully, and she tapped fellow author Lynn Coddington as moderator to deliberately exploit Coddington's Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. "We were playing those games to get in the door -- one of the members of the panel having credentials up the butt," Hern says.

And again, the readers showed up. And again, Hern wasn't surprised. The readers are everywhere, if you know what to look for. Just take a trip to the Financial District during lunchtime, where you'll find a showcase of tasteful cloth book covers -- available wherever romances are sold -- in a magnificent array of colors and patterns.

"What cracks me up are the women who cover them," says Cathy Yardley. "They sell those cloth paperback covers specifically for this, and they're not reading Don DeLillo under there.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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