Popaganda: Labor of Love

Why do romance novels get such a bad rap? The genre is often maligned as being inferior to more “literary” writing, but there’s so much more to it than shirtless cowboys and inaccurate portrayals of BDSM etiquette. Romance writers like today’s two guests live in a complicated world. They navigate arcane sorting algorithms, racism, and more intracommunity drama than you can shake a stick at. But despite all of the hardships, they keep on working hard to make sure their readers get the happy endings they’re looking for.

First, we have Tracey Livesay, a former criminal defense attorney and current author of interracial romance novels. She talks about how she became a fan of the genre and why she loves its community. Second, C.K. Gold, writer of LGBTQ fantasy romance ebooks, shares some fascinating things she’s learned about race, marketability, and metadata.

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Image: Pompeo Marino Molmenti  (1819–1894). Pia de’ Tolomei Being Led to Maremma, 1853. Oil on canvas; Height: 102 cm (40.1 in); Width: 82 cm (32.2 in). Musei Civici, Verona. Silvana Bietoletti, Michele Dantin, L’Ottocento italiano: la storia, gli artisti, le opere, Giunti Editore, 2002, p. 233. Via Wikimedia Commons

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TRANSCRIPT

SOLEIL: Take pride in all there is to love about yourself and your lover, or lovers, with DIY molding kits from Portland’s own Clone-A-Willy. Clone-A-Willy and Clone-A-Pussy kits allow anyone to create an exact copy of a penis or vulva into a high-grade silicone replica. These DIY kits are sourced from the USA, hand assembled in Portland, and 100% body safe. The Clone-A-Willy team aims to use their products to create a safe space for a self-exploration and nurturing intimacy between lovers, couples, and friends. Use promo code TAKE PRIDE for 20% off at www.cloneawilly.com. 

Hey y’all! You’re listening to Popaganda, a podcast by Bitch Media. Soleil Ho here, and thanks for listening. In this episode, we’re gonna get a little more… comfortable. 

[smooth, sexy tunes] 

Feeling good? Ready for more? So, today we’re gonna dip into the wild and wonderful world of romance novels. The genre is often maligned as being inferior to more “literary” writing, but there’s so much more to it than shirtless cowboys and inaccurate portrayals of BDSM etiquette. Romance writers like today’s two guests live in a complicated world. They navigate arcane sorting algorithms, racism, and more intracommunity drama than you can shake a stick at. But despite all of the hardships, they keep on working hard to make sure their readers get the happy endings they’re looking for. 

Stay tuned to hear about all of that and more! 

We’re also soliciting reader ideas for topics we could cover on future shows, so please email your ideas for topics or even people you’d like to hear on the show if you’ve got ‘em! 

[theme music] 

People talk a lot of smack about romance novels: that they’re cheesy, trashy, unsophisticated. Johnny Carson would probably agree with that. 

[recorded clip from YouTube] 

JOHNNY CARSON: How many of you have seen not maybe these exact books? [stacks books on desk] I guess you find them, where, supermarkets mainly? 

ED MCMAHON: Right. 

JOHNNY: I guess bookstores, but supermarkets. They’re called the romance novels. I don’t know the authors. This is by Rebecca George. This is called— We’re not talking Tolstoy, you understand here. 

AUDIENCE: [laughs] 

JOHNNY: You know? 

ED: Right. 

JOHNNY: Not even Hemmingway. These are just…. If you’re interested in writing one…. 

SOLEIL: The literary canon doesn’t have room for romance, it seems. And yeah, quite a few people draw a line between “real,” artful literature and the pulpy, genre work. Could it have something to do with the fact that these novels are often dedicated to exploring and satisfying women’s sexual desires? Hmm! What’s that about? 

[mellow guitar music] 

The first novel ever written was, essentially, a romance novel. The Tale of Genji, written in the early 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, was a long-running story about the amorous exploits of its titular character. Written for the entertainment of aristocratic women in the imperial court, the serial work is now considered a masterpiece of characterization and drama. All the ladies of the court would wait impatiently for the next installment, wondering whom Genji would seduce next. And in the Western world, romance was a popular theme in ancient Greek storytelling. 

And let’s be real, it’s not like those stories were any less “trashy” than what you’d find on the internet now: characters were boning fish people, swans, and the whole damn zoo way before Chuck Tingle showed up with his dinosaur erotica. 

And the cool thing is, fans of romance novels—I’m including some Bitch staffers here—have recently emerged from the woodwork, shaking off the chains of shame and bringing fresh, intersectional feminist perspectives to the genre. Even the New York Times Book Review has gotten on-board by bringing on writer Jaime Green to be their dedicated romance columnist. For fans, romance is about so much more than the steamy bits: it’s the literary space where they actually feel seen as agents of their own desires. 

On this episode, I’ll talk to two people who are both fans and writers of romance. First, you’ll hear from Tracey Livesay, an author of interracial romance novels, on why she finds the genre so fulfilling. Then you’ll hear from author C.K. Gold on the business of online publishing and how SESTA FOSTA have made her job a lot harder. I hope you enjoy the show! 

[Instant Love and Lola Coca’s A World Without Love] 

♪ Please, lock me away 

Don’t allow the day here inside 

Where I hide 

With my loneliness 

I don’t care what they say 

I won’t stay in the world without love…. ♪ 

SOLEIL: Tracey Livesay is a former criminal defense attorney whose love affair with romance began when she was a girl. For her, the genre had a raw, undeniable appeal. 

TRACEY: I can’t understate the sex part because I was a teenage girl, you know? 

SOLEIL: Right. 

TRACEY: So, that was part of it. Because it was definitely more graphic than what I was reading in Sweet Valley High. But I think it was the idea that I was reading stories that were about women and about girls. ‘Cause back then, they were like 19-22, which seemed old at the time. But it was because the stories were about them and what they were doing. And I just didn’t get a lot of that, even sort of like with Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and all the other things that I was reading. It felt like the stories were about what boys were doing, their adventures. But in these romance novels, I was reading about different girls, different young women who were going on these journeys and doing these things and having wonderful things happen to them. But they were also making decisions about what they wanted to do with their lives. And that was really sort of, I guess, interesting to me as a young girl who was on the precipice of having to make certain decisions. So, to see it kind of portrayed in a safe manner was interesting to me. 

SOLEIL: Do you think romance is then inherently an optimistic genre? 

TRACEY: Absolutely! Oh, absolutely. I mean, even— Well, the first part, I think, is that in a romance, we promise you a happily ever after. And so, when you pick up a romance, you know that that’s how it’s going to end. And so, I definitely believe the books are optimistic. I mean, you’re gonna pick up the book, you’re gonna learn about two people, their friends and family—depending on the length of the book—and you’re going to see them go through different obstacles, whether they’re internal or external. But at the end of the story, that person will be a better person because of their own individual journey they went on. And because they went on that journey and had become a better person, they are then able to love the person that they’re going to be with. And that relationship will be better for it. That feeling at the end, I think it’s almost like an endorphin rush. 

SOLEIL: Oh. 

TRACEY: A lot of readers, that’s what they want. They want that ending. You do not want to give a romance reader a book [chuckles] and tell them it’s a romance, and at the end do not give them that ending. It is bad! [laughing] I have seen it! 

BOTH: [laugh] 

SOLEIL: Really? 

TRACEY: Yes. I mean, people get angry, like Twitter rant angry, like we’re not buying your books angry, yeah. 

SOLEIL: I used to scoff at escapist literature and film, thinking that it was a lot like being an ostrich hiding its head in the sand while the world burned. I thought there was more merit in filling my mind with the hard stuff, fiction like Infinite Jest or dense theoretical texts that relished in their ambiguity and laboriousness. But then, honestly, life got harder and a bit darker, and I began to crave that mental comfort food. And it seems like I’m not the only one: there seem to be an infinite number of romance books out there, especially on outlets like Amazon, and someone’s gotta be buying them. 

SOLEIL: Also, I would love to hear more about marketability because that’s just fascinating to me in this genre, which I feel like is so competitive, isn’t it? Because there’s so many books coming out constantly, how do you differentiate yourself? 

TRACEY: Oh! That is a very good question. And there are workshops [laughs] and conferences where people just sort of talk about that issue alone. It’s very difficult to get your name out there. It’s a very crowded marketplace. And I don’t know that you have a lot of time anymore to sort of figure out what you’re going to be or what you’re gonna write. I mean, I almost think that from the moment you publish your first book that you should have an idea of who you are and who you’re trying to appeal to and what you wanna write. 

And so, I write interracial romance mainly because my heroines are Black, my heroes are white, and I know that there’s a segment of readers who look for that particular book. What I didn’t realize in the beginning is that a lot of people would assume that if I was writing that type of book then that meant that race was a central part of the story, which it never is in my books. To me, it was just a descriptor to say, “Hey, if you’re in this relationship or if you’re looking for these types of stories, that’s what I’m writing.” So, that has been difficult, but I think it is the brand that I have created, that if you’re looking for stories, the heroine’s Black, the hero’s white, and you want a romance where the race isn’t an issue, it’s not about how can these two people work it out when they’re different races, if you’re not looking for that, but you’re looking for a good romance, then you wanna pick up a Tracey Livesay book. 

SOLEIL: Oh! Yeah, yeah. ‘Cause I guess people are really primed by film, for example, like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, or I don’t know, Jungle Fever, right? 

TRACEY: Yes. 

SOLEIL: You expect it to be a race narrative. 

TRACEY: Yes, exactly. And I guess I didn’t think about that in the beginning, and I think that’s part of just even tagging it interracial, so like why would you tag it as interracial if that wasn’t gonna be a part of it? But when I was reading romance or looking for those books—and my husband’s white—so, when we started dating, I was looking for books that sort of represented what we were. So, I was looking for interracial books, and that is mostly what I found. I would find books, if the heroine was Black and the hero was white, then the entire love story was how can they do it when his family is saying this and her family is saying this and people are looking at them as they’re walking down the street? And that wasn’t the experience I had in my courtship with my husband. I just wanted—you know, I love romance novels, obviously, so I just wanted—to find a story that was a romance novel, but the heroine just looked like me. That’s all I was asking for. 

SOLEIL: Mmhmm. 

TRACEY: And so, when the opportunity, well, when I decided that I wanted to try this professionally, that was sort of the one thing that I told myself, is that that’s the story I wanna write. I want my heroine to be a Black woman. And I didn’t think of it as a political choice, but apparently, it was. 

BOTH: [laugh] 

TRACEY: You know, who knew? 

SOLEIL: Yeah. And I think this also relates to what you were saying about romance being an optimistic genre, and the absence of racial strife in your novels, I think, speaks to that, right? 

TRACEY: Yes. And there are books or romances that do focus on those things, like Beverly Jenkins, who is a just wonderful author. She does contemporary too, but she’s really well known for her historical romances that feature African American characters. And so, obviously, she, personally what she says is she couldn’t think about writing about those characters at that time without addressing the racial aspect of it. And so, there are stories that will focus on that; that’s just not the perspective that I wanted to take. And that’s sort of like the wonderful thing about our genre, is there’s so many points view, and the readership is voracious. And so, there are readers who want to read what I write, so. 

SOLEIL: Of course, the romance community isn’t just authors and their readers: Tracey sees her fellow authors as uncommonly supportive compared to other genres, with very little in the way of strict gatekeeping. That makes starting out as a romance writer and carving out your own niche so much easier. 

TRACEY: I think 90% of the time, you can reach out to an author on Twitter or Facebook and ask a question, and you will get a response, a helpful response. And I don’t think that that’s something that happens in other genres. 

SOLEIL: Yeah, just with my limited experience in the publishing world, I could attest to that as well. [laughs] 

TRACEY: Yes. 

SOLEIL: The dark place, I guess, outside of the romance genre, which sounds almost, it sounds wonderful. 

TRACEY: I’m surprised. I’ve done some panels with other authors across genres, and I am amazed at how much I know. And that sounds weird, but the education you get, it’s incredible. And I’m always surprised that other genres don’t know these things. But they don’t. It feels like it’s such a cold, sort of closed off dog eat dog. And there’s a little bit of that in romance. Like I said, it’s just sort of a human nature thing. But by far, we are sort of more open and more willing to help, to talk, to discuss others. And I think that’s sort of a key point about books. It’s why we write this: because we believe in relationships and romance and lifting up others so that we all can get to our happily ever after, whatever that means, whatever that entails for each person. I mean, it has a way to go, just like society, with representation for people of color, for same sex, for cis-bodied, like all of able-bodied, all of that, it has a way to go. But it’s probably there better than it is in a lot of other genres. 

[plucky piano music] 

SOLEIL: All of this talk about marketability and seeking out your audience made me want to take an even closer look under the hood. My next guest, C.K. Gold, publishes LGBTQ erotic fantasy ebooks, which is totally a subgenre of a subgenre. 

C.K.: I guess I came by it the way somebody my partner knows said, “Why can’t we have more Lord of the Rings stuff but also with hardcore sex scenes in it?” And I was like, “Well, I can write that.” And that’s how I got started. 

SOLEIL: Her niche is a hyper-specific one, and figuring out how to get the books from point A to point B is a constant struggle. When you add racial politics into the mix, it gets even messier. 

C.K.: You can get incredibly granular with what you want to write, but the question is, is there enough of a readership to support you? Are there enough people out there to support you in writing this? And too, can you reach them? Can you make your work discoverable to these people? And the thing is that the audience doesn’t seem to be there for a lot of works about characters of color. And what one of my old friends noticed was in romantic fiction specifically dealing with a male alien lead, that book covers whose male lead was some ridiculous color like pink or purple or green or blue always sold better than realistic skin colors that would correspond to any person of color, not white people. 

SOLEIL: Mmhmm. 

C.K.: Those books strictly performed worse than blue alien men. Every single time. 

SOLEIL: Wow. Man. You know, I don’t find blue skin all that enticing, personally. I’m so sorry for anyone listening who does have that. 

C.K.: [laughs] 

SOLEIL: It’s just— [laughs] That’s so interesting. 

C.K.: Particular niche, if blue color is what you’re going for. But I think the popular perception among readers is still that any work that has a person of color on the title is just for Black people or just for Asian people or whatever. 

SOLEIL: Hmm. 

C.K.: Not for white people. So, they’re not gonna look at it. 

SOLEIL: But the blue alien book is not just for blue people? 

C.K.: Nope. That one’s for anyone! 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

C.K.: Blue is for everyone, apparently. 

SOLEIL: You’ve written about characters of color, yes? 

C.K.: Yes, yes. 

SOLEIL: Can you talk about your experience then, I guess the feedback you’ve gotten or maybe noticeable sales differences? 

C.K.: Actually, my first book had at least ambiguously white dudes on the cover, [laughs] and even though I really messed up the launch on that and did not actually have a huge amount of help, the first and second book of that series did better, by far, than my next book, which had Asian men on the cover. 

SOLEIL: And did anyone, I guess any readers, say anything about it? 

C.K.: Nobody actually specifically commented besides a few people said, “This isn’t for me,” and “Oh, the names are weird.” 

SOLEIL: Yeah, I would think compared to the blue alien names, they’re relatively parsable. 

C.K.: I would say even compared to my first book, where I had like Iskandar and Terebin, those are a little more difficult names to manage than Ren or Fang, two very simple names. 

SOLEIL: So, I wanna go back to the idea of tags because this is really interesting, and the niches, all the sub-niches within Nietzsche. 

C.K.: Yeah. 

SOLEIL: And it reminds me a lot of, I guess, the algorithmic nature of so much of our discovery in catalogs online like YouTube or podcasts, for example. Have you noticed anything interesting about that, the way trends can be mapped that way? 

C.K.: Basically, tags and tropes—which become tags—are of such a big concern that Amazon and, I’m assuming, several others remaining ebook retailers have rehashed how you can tag your books multiple times. And there’s been a lot of scandal over the years within self-publishing about stuffing keywords, which is basically the tagging system for Amazon specifically. 

[chill music] 

SOLEIL: When C.K. told me that, all of the vert off the beaten path romance and erotica ebooks I’d seen on Amazon started to make sense. Books that seemed like a mishmash of ideas, like billionaire werewolf romance or dinosaur cowboy erotica. (If this is your kink, I mean no offense but I hope you can see the point I’m trying to make!) What she said about algorithms and tag navigation reminded me of an essay I’d read on Medium, called Something Is Wrong On The Internet. Written by tech writer James Bridle, the essay discusses how, in the quest for clicks, some YouTube video channels for kids have resorted to having popular tags dictate their content. So, if the movie Frozen is trending, they’d create more videos featuring those characters and so on. It ended up creating a lot of really disturbing, weird content. I’m not saying that we’re quite at the point of automated romance novel generation, but maybe we’re getting there. 

C.K.: That’s like super important to your discoverability. If you don’t get your keywords and tags right, you’re basically at the mercy of the gods as far as your book showing up anywhere. So, the issue with the stuffing was people who were putting in completely irrelevant keywords. So, somebody’s popular book would jump up the ranks, and then everybody would look at it and start jamming keywords related to that or jamming keywords related to some viral media or some new media property, like a new film that may have absolutely nothing to do with their book into their keywords so that when people searched for that, their book would pop up really early. 

And this is happening more and more as self-published romance keeps getting kinda—and erotica especially—keeps getting kind of swept behind what I like to call the beaded curtain on Amazon, especially, of undiscoverability. 

SOLEIL: Mm. Right. 

C.K.: Because now Amazon is a little ashamed or leery of this thing that had been making a lot of money but is not kind of viewed as liability, especially with SESTA FOSTA being passed. 

SOLEIL: Oh! Can you talk more about that? 

C.K.: So, that was the big anti-sex trafficking regulation that got passed, and it pushes a lot of responsibility for any potential sex trafficking going on in online spaces onto the owners of those online spaces themselves, the hosts. So like, for Skype it would be Microsoft. They start assuming some level of legal liability. So, now they’re feeling like they need to censor their platforms, and that includes granularly monitoring the content. So, for Skype, that’s like personnel can review your videos, your audio, whatever. For Amazon, that looks more like people are paying more attention on Amazon’s side into what’s going into books. And that wouldn’t be a big problem if only for the fact that books aren’t really, ebooks are not well known for performing any sort of sex trafficking function. So, what a lot of these companies are actually using this to do is to police what they call “obscenity.” So, that could be two consenting adults in a happy relationship flashing their boobs over a video chat, or you buying one of my sexy books and seeing a sex scene in it. And suddenly, that is now violating the TOS. 

SOLEIL: So, I’m guessing then, SESTA FOSTA has caused a lot of freaking out within the romance community. 

C.K.: It caused some freak outs. It caused some freak outs more broadly, I think, in the author community because it looks and smells like censorship, and if it hasn’t necessarily scared corporations into censoring, it’s definitely given them more cover to do so. And we’ve seen what corporate censorship looks like. For example, Robert Yang’s games being removed or made hard to search for on Steam services over the past several years. He’s the guy from Radiator. And Apple has historically in its iTunes store, which includes ebooks, which includes comics, has historically been extremely bad about LGBT stuff. Other services have not always been great about basic science material, basic sex education material and censoring that. The standards applied are not necessarily careful, respectful, and thorough. Sometimes they’re just knee-jerk, and things that get yanked are innocent or at least are not exploitative. 

SOLEIL: I mean, authors and game developers and all the people you’re talking about, sex workers of course, this is their livelihood that’s being threatened by SESTA FOSTA. 

C.K.: Yeah. We saw that when Craigslist shut down their personals. 

SOLEIL: Right. So, this is a different— I mean you fall within that same umbrella, but obviously, the situation, the conditions are a bit different. If things get really hard for you to publish online, what are you gonna do? 

C.K.: Well, I mean, net neutrality ended yesterday, right? 

SOLEIL: Right. 

C.K.: So, if things get difficult for publishing online, the answer is a combination of not publishing online, and I guess we go back to the old underground, Xeroxed zines. And I don’t know. I suppose that more people will be interested in using the Tor browser to get at kind of the underbelly of the web. How well will that survive? I don’t know. 

[mellow music] 

SOLEIL: For writers like C.K. who work primarily online, SESTA FOSTA has made their job and connecting with readers so much harder. It’s especially awful because of how accessible the ebook market has been for all kinds of people. And at the same time, it’s clear that the book distributors weren’t especially enthusiastic about their romance market either, regardless of how much money it brought in. So, how can the romance genre survive? 

C.K.: Fully automated gay space luxury communism first. But failing that, [sighs] there’s so many possible avenues. Like, I would really beg readers to consider that just because you see a person of a different color on the cover of the book from yourself, consider reading the book. [laughs] If it hits your other interests, if it’s a genre that you like, please don’t think of it as just African American work or Hispanic American work or Korean American work. Please think of it as a work that you should give an opportunity. Please read the book. That’s the best first place to start is to show that there is interest, that there is demand for things that authors want to write, for things that authors want to bring to the market and share with people. Read it. Review it. Rate it. Tell other people about it. Even if you don’t like it, say something. 

SOLEIL: [chuckles] 

C.K.: It’s hard for people to write in a vacuum when there’s no feedback, when it feels like their books are disappearing as soon as they publish them. That’s a challenge. For authors, I would like to say, write the thing that you want to write. Because I feel like a lot of people have actually managed to make a really good living, but I know for a fact that many of them are not happy with the genres that they’ve chosen to write or with the ways that they’ve chosen to write them. And it’s hard to say, “I’m gonna turn my back on this very large income that I’m making,” from writing something that I don’t like to pivoting to write something that you like more. But try. Give it a shot because you may actually manage to drag some of your readership along with you because they trust you and they like you and they like your tastes, or at least the tastes you’ve been showing to them. So, maybe you can also convince them to like what you like a little bit or at least give it a shot. 

And as far as platforms go, stop being evil. 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

C.K.: Tell us how your algorithms work. Tell us how we can work with you to make sure that our books are being seen by the people who want to buy them and are not being seen by the people who don’t like them or do not want to buy them or shouldn’t be buying them. Children probably shouldn’t be getting into erotica, but don’t make erotica completely undiscoverable as a knee-jerk reaction to some people’s complaints. 

SOLEIL: Right. 

You heard the lady! 

[smooth, sexy music] 

Thanks to Tracey Livesay and C.K. Gold for talking with me. 

[theme music] 

And thanks to you for listening. This episode was produced by Alex Ward. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Thanks to Instant Love and Lola Coca for their track, A World Without Love. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. If you have thoughts or feelings or feedback on the show, please feel encouraged to send me an email to soleil@b-word.org. Or as always, review us on iTunes! 

You can help make Popaganda possible. Become a Pollinator. Pollinators receive a special mug, a subscription to Bitch magazine in print and digital, and other great benefits. Become a Pollinator today at bitchmedia.org/pollinators. See ya next time! 

Soleil Ho
by Soleil Ho
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Soleil cooks for a living and writes sometimes. When she was in kindergarten, she reviewed a book for Reading Rainbow that she didn’t actually read. She cohosts Racist Sandwich, a podcast on food, race, class, and gender.

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