If I’m honest, I’ve been a little out of practice when it comes to talking to groups lately. That’s why I was so chuffed that Kharma Kelly and the programming team at the Inclusive Romance Project reached out to me to talk a little romance history recently. As I was talking with a group focused on opening up the genre to underrepresented groups, I spent a lot of time talking about the ways in which marginalized romance authors and readers wrote themselves into the narrative. If you weren’t able to make it to the event, you can watch the replay!
If you’d like to dig in a little more, you can check out the Black Romance Author Timeline, and here are the links I mention at the end of the presentation:
I want you for a moment to imagine yourself in 1983 (easier for some of us than others, I know!). You’ve just finished Jayne Castle’s Candlelight Ecstasy title from the previous year, Spellbound. You need more of Castle’s distinct writing style, but you haven’t seen her name on the new release shelf at the book store in a while. At the checkout counter, you ask about your favorite author, hoping the clerk has heard something.
Today, it would take a few clicks to find the information you need. Not so in 1983! But you’re in luck! The clerk tells you to hold on for a moment, and they turn around to grab a thick trade paperback off the shelf behind them. This may help, they tell you. It’s a brilliant new resource that lists all of the authors you can think of along with their books. The Romantic Spirit, it’s called. In a few seconds you learn that Jayne Castle (real name Jayne Ann Castle Krentz) has also written for Silhouette as Stephanie James, and McFadden as Jayne Bentley. A whole new world of books opens up in front of you as you can now follow your favorite authors as they change name from publisher to publisher.
First published in January 1983, The Romantic Spirit was the self-published debut for an author named Mary June Kay. Appropriately for a book about pseudonyms, Mary June Kay was the pseudonym for three San Antonio women- Mary Hotchkiss (1921-2004), June Manning (1923-2008), and Kay Garteiser. Hotchkiss and Manning were sisters who had retired from federal service and operated a romance-focused used bookstore called The Second Edition in San Antonio. They knew their stock, but didn’t have any printed reference resource for themselves or readers to use in finding, or more particularly, cross-referencing more romances. Garteiser worked with word processors at an accounting firm, presumably bringing the technical know-how to the project.
Lovers of genre fiction have long relied on bibliographies- collectors of science fiction and mystery novels used them to not only show off their own collections of pulp magazine and novels, but also to be able to cross-reference authors, publishers and titles. As romance exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, no one had yet made an effort to gather information about the genre in one place. Mary, June, and Kay were the first to take on this mammoth task.
The book itself is utilitarian and no-frills. After a brief three page introduction by Romantic Times publisher Kathryn Falk, the books sets straight to business. Authors are listed in alphabetical order, along with their known pen names [in brackets] and real name if known (in parens). Their books are then listed, with the publisher identified and book number if applicable. In some cases, sub-genre information is provided- for example, <RS> for romantic suspense. In the back, numbered lines are listed together, with titles and authors. The information appears to largely be drawn from the published books themselves, though in some cases authors are listed without books; presumably those names were taken from resources such as Romantic Times, which was still in its infancy at the time.
The book was enough of a success that Mary, June, and Kay kept at it for several years. They published updates for 1983-1984, 1985-1986, and 1987-1988 focused only on the books from those individual years, alongside corrected errors or omissions from earlier editions. The original volume earned an award from Romantic Times, presented by Barbara Cartland herself at the 1983 Booklovers’ Convention.
In 1990, Kay Garteiser announced in the pages of Romantic Times that she was retiring from working on The Romantic Spirit due to her health. She passed the torch on to occasional RT reviewer Lisa Miller, also a San Antonio resident, who put out a revised full edition of the book in 1990. The revised volume used the same format as the original, adding books and new entries where appropriate, though it lacks the line indexes of the original.
At the same time as Mary, June and Kay were working on The Romantic Spirit, reviewer Melinda Helfer was writing a column for Romantic Times identifying authors and their pseudonyms, calling herself “The Pseudonym Sleuth”. Helfer began writing the column in 1981, taking an alphabetical approach. By 1989, she had only reached the letter “P”, which tells you the scope of the task. In 1989, Helfer’s work was combined with that of Kathryn Falk and Kathe Robin in The Romance Reader’s Handbook, published by Romantic Times. This spiral-bound volume took a less comprehensive approach than The Romantic Spirit, listing only the pen names and known real name of authors but not their books. Also included was a guide to RT’s “Bookstores that Care” network, a nationwide group of independent bookstores that welcomed romance readers (and generally sold RT as well). The Second Edition in San Antonio isn’t listed- near as I can figure it was gone by then. There’s also contact information for authors and publishers, and a delightful collection of author ads in the back.
The five editions of The Romantic Spirit, alongside The Romance Reader’s Handbook, are not essential resources for collectors in this day and age. The vast majority of the information about authors found here can be found elsewhere. But- not everything can be found on the internet! There are author listings here that can connect you to authors you may never have thought of as romance authors, such as mystery author Jane Haddam, who wrote romance as Nicola Andrews and Ann Paris. And the bookstore section of The Romance Reader’s Handbook is an exploration waiting to happen all on its own! Or maybe you’re just like me, and a random name pops into your head at 9:30 at night and you don’t feel like looking at a screen. It can be tricky to find all of these volumes, but to me, the joy of a nicely done bibliography is well worth it!
As American romance publishing boomed in the early 1980s, editors frequently played an outsized role in shaping the direction of the genre. Avon’s Nancy Coffey famously retrieved Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower off of a slush pile in the early 1970s for a weekend read, liked what she read, and changed the historical romance game forever. Vivian Stephens took over Dell’s moribund Candlelight Romance line in 1979 and injected it with relatable characters and locales, upped the heat level, and made it the first line to seriously challenge Harlequin’s dominance of the category romance market. Today I want to add a new name to that list- one that we don’t often mention, but who had just as important an impact.
Around the same time Vivian Stephens was joining Dell, a new face appeared in the offices of Berkley-Jove in New York. Carolyn Nichols came to publishing from journalism, having been one of the earliest writers for WETA television in her hometown of Washington, D.C.. Like Stephens, she felt something was missing from Harlequin’s tried and true romance formula that could be exploited. According to John Markert’s Publishing Romance, Nichols submitted a memo to Berkley-Jove management in 1978 outlining an idea for a contemporary romance line with increased sensuality that could compete with Harlequin Presents. Management didn’t like the idea, but after the arrival of Stephens’ Candlelight Ecstasy line in 1980, Nichols was finally given the green light and went about creating the line that would become Second Chance at Love (Markert, 94).
Carolyn Nichols may have been new to publishing, but she wasn’t new to romance. Born Carolyn Iona McKnight in Lafayette, Louisiana in 1939, she grew up in Washington, D.C., attending Wilson High School and then George Washington University before working at WETA, one of the first public television stations in the country. In the mid 1970s, she partnered with WETA colleague Stanlee Miller Coy for a series of gothic romances- definitely five, possibly six- under the pseudonym Iona Charles. In 1978 and 1979, not long after she had joined Berkley-Jove, Carolyn published two books under the pen name Carolyn McKnight, including Gravetide for Vivian Stephen’s Candlelight Romance! Nichols understood the romance market as both a consumer and author, a viewpoint she’d use to her advantage over the next few years.
More than a copy of Harlequin Presents, the identifying feature of Second Chance at Love- as the name suggests- was that both main characters had experience with love. They may have been married- to each other or someone else- and divorced, or widowed, or otherwise driven apart. This naturally meant that characters were older and typically were no longer virgins, a marked departure from the older formulas, and more in line with the direction Candlelight Ecstasy was taking. The line launched in June of 1981 with Susanna Collins’ Flamenco Nights, and found success in a contemporary romance market that was not yet oversaturated- although it was getting there.
Nichols’ success did not go unnoticed. A year after the premiere of Second Chance at Love, she was hired by Bantam in 1982, ostensibly to save their newly launched line, Circle of Love. A Harlequin Romance clone, Circle of Love turned down the heat at a time when its competitors were turning up the heat, and it was struggling to stay afloat. Luckily for Bantam, Carolyn Nichols had a better idea.
The many lines launched between 1980 and 1982 were starting to create a glut in the romance market. Highly specific tip sheets, like the one Nichols herself created for Second Chance at Love, had created too formulaic of a product. Worse still, publishers with little experience in romance and no interest in hiring talent who did were throwing sub-par books onto the market, hoping readers would snap them up anyways. The quality of a new line had to be something special.
At the same time, a nascent fan culture was emerging in romance. The reader-oriented Romantic Times had launched in 1981, and held its first Booklover’s Convention in 1982. As they had done with historical romance, readers were starting to identify authors they liked and not just the lines they wrote for, and wanted to know more about the people behind their favorite books. Nichols saw all of this and developed a plan that would make her new line stand out in what was now a very crowded field.
With Loveswept, Carolyn Nichols threw away several parts of the old category romance formula. Gone were the tip sheets and guidelines for authors. Also gone were the pseudonyms and relative anonymity of the author. Each book would be under the author’s real name, and the inside of the front and back cover would include a picture of the author and a note from them about their lives. By giving authors the chance to write the stories they really wanted to write, and readers the chance to get to know their favorite authors better, Nichols was betting Loveswept would work.
The other new thing about Loveswept was how it launched- with a free sampler. About the size of a category novel, somewhere around 200,000 of these were printed featuring a chapter from each of the first six books in the series, along with a biography of each author. Importantly, Nichols’ editor note at the front of the book identified each author as well as the pseudonyms they’d already published under as well as their prior publishing houses. The six authors in the book- Sandra Brown, Helen Mittermeyer, Noelle Berry McCue, Fayrene Preston, Carla Neggers, and Dorothy Garlock- had to that point used some combination of sixteen pen names, but here they were standing on their own.
The line was a hit. Nichols’ instincts payed off, and both authors and readers came to love Loveswept over its sixteen year existence before it was shuttered in 1999 (it was resurrected as an ebook-only line in 2011). As she had predicted, authors preferred writing without limits, and readers loved seeing their favorite authors at their best. Nichols continued to innovate- 1986 saw the launch of The Delaneys, one of the earliest attempts at a category romance cross-author series, featuring superstars Kay Hooper, Fayrene Preston and Iris Johansen all writing in the same world. Within each of the books was an ad for Clairol hair dye, including colors that matched that of each of the female main characters.
Nichols would go on to a long career as an editor and publishing executive at Ballantine and New American Library before retiring from NAL as Vice President and Executive Director, Editorial in 2001.
Carolyn Nichols died on October 21, 2017 at her home in Portland, Oregon. Former employee and writer Elizabeth Barrett wrote a lovely remembrance of Nichols after her passing. While we don’t talk about her much now, there can be no doubt that Nichols played a crucial role in the development of American romance. Her innovations as an editor centered readers and authors in ways that shaped the genre to this day and she belongs in any conversation about the most important romance publishing figures of the 20th century.
While academia has begun to warm to romance, it has primarily been in the area of literary criticism, leaving publishing history and lives of authors for the most part untouched. As I’ve learned more about the genre, it’s became clear to me that the history of the genre was an essential piece to understanding its cultural impact. So I began to dig.
It’s my hope that this blog can serve as a jumping off point for more research into the history of romance fiction. Or maybe it’ll just make for interesting reading, that would be fine too! I’ll also try to share additional resources as I come across them. Who knows where this will end up? But let’s find out together.
(note: this post was edited on May 3, 2021 to remove images taken from the Browne Popular Culture Library twitter account, at their request.)