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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Notes from the Field
In this issue, we’re profiling John Charles, one of the library world’s most celebrated romance supporters. A long-time Booklist reviewer, he is also the co-author of Romance Today: An A-to-Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance Writers. John, who was named the Romance Writers of America’s Librarian of the Year in 2002, took a moment to speak with me about the state of romance in the library world today, his role in the collection development world, and even shares some of his must-know readers’ advisory tips regarding romance.
Rebecca: Tell us a little about yourself and your position.
John: I got my start in libraries working as a page at the Scottsdale (AZ) Public Library. After a decade working as a paraprofessional, I received my MLS from the University of Arizona, worked as a librarian for about two years in Maryland, and then returned to Scottsdale, where for the last 20 years I have been an Adult Services librarian for the Scottsdale Public Library System.
For 15 years, I was involved with retrospective fiction and nonfiction selection for the system, but about two years ago, SPL moved to centralized selection and collection development. Librarians are now more involved with collection maintenance rather than direct selection. However, just this last month I worked with two other Adult Services librarians to complete a $200,000 retrospective fiction ordering project to bring the collection back up to speed, so to speak.
Rebecca: How has your position changed over the last 10 years?
John: The short answer is less collection development and selection duties and more public service desk hours and programming. While I can understand the rationale many libraries adopt when it comes to centralizing collection development, I do think that as fewer and fewer librarians are directly involved in materials selection, there is a greater disconnect between the staff serving the public and the collection itself.
Rebecca: What kinds of things do you find readers in need of most right now?
John: Craft books, diet and exercise books, cookbooks—I guess after all that dieting and exercising, you are ready for a real meal!—biography, travel, and history are all very popular with readers in Scottsdale. Philosophy and religion (especially more “spiritual” kinds of religious books) are also in demand. When it comes to history, I wish some publisher would come up with a series, similar to that of Times Books’ American Presidents series, which gives a concise, current account of the history of different countries. Rather than just focusing on one specific era, the books would give a good overview of the country’s whole historical record. I would also love to see more entries in Grove’s Books That Changed the World series. Their mix of solid scholarship and popular writing was incredibly easy to sell to readers here.
Rebecca: What drew you to romance fiction?
John: I came to romance fiction by way of mysteries. I have always been a fan of mysteries—Agatha Christie rules!—and one day, while shelving a cart of books, I stumbled across Borrower of the Night, by Elizabeth Peters, and loved it. That led to Peters’ alter ego, Barbara Michaels, which introduced me to romantic suspense and gothic romances. Eventually I moved onto Regency romances and soon was happily reading all different kinds of romances. There are two things—well, more than two, but I will limit myself—I love most about romance fiction. The first is the incredible diversity of choices within the romance genre. Readers can choose from a nail-biting, thrilling romantic-suspense love story to an intense, sexy paranormal to a light and witty historical romance. The second is the powerful core message of hope that is baked right into every romance. No matter what happens in a romance, by the end, things are going to turn out okay, and with the state of the world today, who doesn’t need more happy endings in his or her life?
Rebecca: What do you say to people who think men don’t read romances?
John: Balderdash. Well, I might say something a bit stronger, but you get the gist. The truth is that men do read romance fiction. According to those wonderful experts at the Romance Writers of America (RWA) (http://www.rwanational.org/, almost 9 percent of all romance readers are men. In 2008, 74.8 million people read at least one romance novel, so if you do the math, that’s a significant number of men. I also think there are a lot of men reading romance fiction who don’t realize it (hint, hint, Sandra Brown and Suzanne Brockmann write romances!).
Rebecca: Tell us a little about your place in the world of romance fiction.
John: I have been fortunate to be able to review romance fiction for Booklist, and its fabulous romance review editor, Donna Seaman, for more than a decade now, and I have been reviewing romance novels for the Chicago Tribune Book Review for six years. I have coauthored articles on romance fiction for Library Journal and Public Libraries, including two that won the Romance Writers of America’s Veritas Award, and I am the coauthor of Romance Today: An A-to-Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance Writers. In 2002, I was honored to receive RWA’s Librarian of the Year Award.
Rebecca: Very exciting accomplishments, indeed! What do you read when you’re romanced-out?
John: I still love to read mystery fiction and suspense and thriller novels. I can always find time for historical fiction—especially historical novels with a strong romantic thread, like Elizabeth Loupas’ The Second Duchess or Natasha Solomons’ wonderfully poignant The House at Tyneford. And when it comes to nonfiction, gardening books and cookbooks are always on my reading list.
Rebecca: Help out all of those librarians who don’t read romances but work the RA desk: If you had to choose 5 romance authors every librarian should be familiar with, who would you name and why?
John: Here are 5 (though I could just as easily give you 50) romance authors that belong in every public library collection.
Rebecca: What are the top 5 current trends in romance fiction?
John: My take on the top 5 trends driving romance fiction today are what I like to call the “5 Cs.” The first is Connected books. Readers want both something new and fresh and something old and familiar. While romance fiction doesn’t really do series the same way other genres do (by its very genre definition, a romance must end with some version of happily ever after), romance authors are quite clever about finding ways to connect their books together, whether it be through a common geographic setting (Robyn Carr’s Virgin River books), a group of people who work together (Suzanne Brockmann’s Navy SEAL Team Six series), or some kind of family connection (Stephanie Laurens’ Cynster romances).
The second “C” is Contemporary romances. I think contemporary romances are back on the upswing with authors like Jill Shalvis, Kristan Higgins, Louisa Edwards, and Tawna Fenske joining the ranks of established writers like Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Crusie and Rachel Gibson.
The third “C” is Comedy. More and more romances seem to be incorporating humor into their stories. Since the world is already such a dark and dismal place, my guess is that romance readers are looking for a love story that also delivers a generous dose of humor. From historical romances written by authors like Vicky Dreiling and Keiran Kramer to romantic suspense books by authors such as Julie James and Susan Sey to contemporary romances authored by the above-mentioned Jill Shalvis and Kristan Higgins to paranormal romances by Angie Fox and Michelle Rowen, everyone, it would seem, loves a good laugh along with their romance.
The fourth “C” is for Cowboy. Western romances—both historical and contemporary—are slowly coming back into demand. Some authors like Linda Lael Miller and Diane Palmer have been writing western-set romances for years, but in the last few years, a whole posse of new authors, including Carolyn Brown, Katie Lane, and Cheryl St. John, have ridden into town (sorry, couldn’t resist). I think romance readers are rediscovering the appeal of the West.
The fifth “C” is for Christian. Christian, or inspirational, romances are hot. Well, not technically hot in the romance sense, but they have become extremely popular with romance readers. From the current demand for “bonnet” romances and other Amish-set stories (which again, I think, appeals to readers who want to visit a simpler time and place) to readers who just want a good love story but one that is sweet rather than sexy, readers have discovered inspirational romances.
Thanks very much for sharing your insight and expertise, John!
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