Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Julie Cohen's thoughts on BookCrossing

Also in today's blog
Patrick O'Brian
Sex With A Stranger

One of the younger published authors in the predominantly middle-aged Romantic Novelists' Association is Julie Cohen.

I became aware of Julie's presence in the Association when, a year or two ago, the programme for an RNA conference included a talk by Julie on how to write sex scenes.

At that point her first book for Mills & Boon had yet to be published.

My reaction was an amused "How about that for chutzpah!"

If you click on the Mills & Boon link above, you can read an interview in which Julie is asked "What is the most romantic gesture or gift you have received?" Her answer : "When my husband knew I wanted to write, he bought me a computer--a beautiful orange iMac. And hardly ever complained when he hardly ever got to use it himself."

[Two "hardly ever"s in one sentence. Tsk,tsk! One of them needs to go, Julie.]

American by birth, Julie now lives in England. In general Americans are much better at self promotion than the British. Although, that said, I have to add that her website/blog, designed for her by four North American women who call themselves collectively Swank, is one of the most garish I've encountered in nine years of website reviewing.

Well, maybe if your favourite colours are lime green, yellow and orange, and you like clusters of blobs, your first impression of the site will be more favourable than mine.

However the site's content is much better than the design, and Julie receives a lot of comments on her posts. [Although sometimes, old cynic that I am, I suspect that romance writers comment on each other's blogs from promotional motives.]

One of Julie's posts which recently I heard discussed on a private writers' forum was dated July 2, 2006 and headed "some thoughts about BookCrossing".

[If you have never heard of BookCrossing, take a look here before reading what Julie has to say.]

Julie's 2 July post concluded – "But there is that tricky issue of authors making a living, and publishers staying in business. A BookCrossing book has many readers, and the author only makes his or her very small profit on it once. A book traded is a book not bought. It’s also not a book taken out of a public library, which pay authors PLR and which need everyone’s support.

On the other hand, I’ve borrowed many books, enjoyed them, and then gone out and bought the author’s other books. If this is what BookCrossers do, then that can benefit authors. Is it?

Let me make it clear again–I’m not in any way questioning the validity or benefits of the organisation to its members. I saw that yesterday. And personally, the convention was an opportunity for me to get my work more well known, which will benefit me. But how about authors in general?"

There have been 22 comments on this post. It doesn't take long to read them all. One of the most interesting is this –

"Hi Julie
I was at your workshop and thoroughly enjoyed it - so much so that I picked up my own writing project when I had some time on Sunday.
I can appreciate your points about authors not receiving payment from books which have been ‘Crossed - we all need to make a living - but I wanted to tell you a little about myself and my book-buying habits.
All through school I was a reading fanatic and pocket money was spent on books. When I went to University and later to work, I continued reading and buying books. Then I became ill (I have Bipolar Disorder). My concentration was completely shot and I spent far too much time watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer videos as, intellectually, that was just my level.
After a few years, I realised that all my books were gathering dust as I was unable to concentrate sufficiently to read them and so I decided to BookCross them with the intention of getting rid of the lot and the bookcases they lived in to boot.
And so I encountered BookCrossers for the very first time. They insisted on sending me books. And it would have been rude not to at least try to read them. And I found that I *could* read again and that much of my concentration had returned.
Because I was reading again I returned to the bookshops and started restocking my shelves. Sunday afternoon is no longer the Eastenders Omnibus and a big bar of chocolate - I’d far rather spend it in Waterstone’s and then go for coffee with friends.
I often buy two copies of books - one for me and one to BookCross - and have discovered so many new authors whose books I now have on the bookcases (fortunately I didn’t get rid of them!)
My point, obviously, is that pre-BookCrossing I wasn’t buying any books and now I buy far too many (and love every minute!)
This is just my experience but I have heard other, similar stories.
With best wishes and thanks for a wonderful workshop.

Patrick O'Brian

Like many of the people who posted comments, I always buy second-hand copies of books by new-to-me authors. But if I love a book, I will then buy the author's new books in hardback, as I did with the wonderful Patrick O'Brian.

Actually he was discovered by Mr Bookworm in Polly's [second-hand] Bookshop on the sea front at Jávea in Spain. Whether the shop is still there, I don't know as we never go to Jávea now. Thirty years ago it was a delightful little fishing port. The last time I saw it, a few years ago, it was horribly overbuilt, like most of the Costa Blanca's coastline.

Sex with a stranger

While at Julie Cohen's website, I read this –

Mills & Boon Modern Extra, October 2006
"Joanna Graham treats commitment like a communicable disease. She likes her affairs fun and string-free. So when she ends up having amazing sex with a gorgeous stranger in a closet in the National Gallery, she thinks it’s the carefree beginning to a perfect summer holiday. And then she takes the pregnancy test."

I have serious misgivings about authors romanticising situations which, in real life, are 99% likely to end in disaster.

Having sex with a stranger is an act of reckless stupidity. Ideally, making love should only be done by people who love each other, and love involves knowing the other person well and trusting them. Yes, casual sex happens and the fall-out is all around us. But what happens in the real world and what happens in romantic fiction are, or should be, two different things.

No doubt in Married In A Rush, the author contrives a happy ending. But, by the sound of it, the beginning of the story is totally irresponsible and I'm surprised that Julie's editor didn't express my own misgivings.

Yes, the majority of Mills & Boon readers are sensible adults who take the romances with a strong pinch of salt. But what about the teenagers who read them?

Is Kizzy Neal,the 14-year-old who is expecting a baby in May, a Mills & Boon reader? Maybe not. But there are many silly young girls who are. Responsible writers and editors should bear them in mind.


At 28 March, 2007, Blogger Kate Walker said...

Well Julie’s web site, like her books, is not aimed at readers of your generation, so I wouldn’t expect them to appeal. You are entitled to you opinion of the site, because you have actually seen it, but not the book which you haven’t read and your comments are based purely on the back blurb which as an author you should know is often deliberately provocative and simplistic. Even if you had read the book I doubt that I could ever consider seriously your suggestion this book is responsible for silly young girls’ teenage pregnancies. The unplanned pregnancy has been the basis of so many Mills & Boon stories for longer than I’ve been writing for them and silly young girls have been getting pregnant for centuries longer than that.

And no I’m not commenting on your blog from promotional motives.

At 28 March, 2007, Anonymous Julie Cohen said...

Thank you for an entertaining blog, Anne.

I think your link between romance novels and teen pregnancy isn't realistic. As a teacher, I work with a lot of teenagers (some of whom have become pregnant young, and many of whom are sexually active) and I can honestly say none of them were influenced by a romance novel. In many cases it has to do with the situation of the particular girl, and is often a product of low self-esteem. I tend to think that romance novel heroines have high self-worth and that if the books were didactic texts (which they're not), the message would be more positive than otherwise.

In any case, the books aren't aimed at teenagers; they're aimed at women, who are able to make their own informed sexual choices, and who, I should think, can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

(I'll start another box to talk about this particular book.)

At 28 March, 2007, Anonymous Julie Cohen said...

As you haven't read Married in a Rush, I hope you don't mind if I respond to your comment in a bit of detail, to talk about how "irresponsible" the beginning of my novel is.

Jo and Bruno, my hero and heroine, may be strangers to each other, but they do feel an instant emotional connection, which, I try to hint, is beyond the physical. In the extract you can read here, you can see how I used the metaphor of the Van Hoogstraten peep show to indicate that they have the beginnings of a real relationship, something that changes their perspective.

Though they do have sex within moments of meeting, I made sure they had "safe sex"--they discuss contraception and use a condom. Unfortunately the condom doesn't work, because it's been kept in a wallet for some time. Maybe that's a lesson in itself about the safekeeping of prophylactics!

The fallout from this encounter isn't easy. Jo is petrified of being a mother, and most of the novel is about her dealing with her fear as she falls in love with Bruno. The book is an exploration of responsibility, not a celebration of recklessness. (The central metaphor is a roller coaster--Bruno designs them--which gives you thrills in a safe environment. This is explicitly compared to their relationship and eventual marriage and parenthood.)

There is a teenage character in the book, actually, because Jo is a teacher. He's a victim of low self-esteem and a broken home, and his emotional journey is to overcome these obstacles and have the courage to lead his own independent life.

Though as I said, the book isn't didactic, I do think it has some fairly responsible attitudes towards relationships and self-esteem, despite containing the (common) romantic fantasy of sex with a stranger. I think about these aspects quite seriously when composing a novel.

At 28 March, 2007, Anonymous Julie Cohen said...

I do plead guilty to the overuse of adverbs, though. It's my bugbear. I try and try and they keep slipping through.

(And lime green, orange, and yellow are my favourite colours! You should see my kitchen.)

That's all, I will shut up now! Your post made me think, so thank you.

At 28 March, 2007, Anonymous Jenny Haddon said...

Surely the important thing is that sex with a stranger is the starting point of Julie's book, not the end? According to Robert McKee, stories start when people do (or have to do) something out of their norm. If Julie were advocating SWAS as a lifestyle, there would be no story.

It's not a 21st century phenomenon either. In 'This One Night', Denise Robins's heroine falls into bed with a stranger on a train, as they flee the Nazi advance in Europe. It was published in 1942.

Writers - and editors - have a delicate line to tread between responsibility and laying down the law. In the height of the Ultra Alpha Male Period, I remember Brenda McDougall, then editor of Woman's Weekly, saying that, while they appreciated a masterful man (be still my beating heart!) they did NOT want to give their readers the impression that rapists made good husbands.

Mores change. Many of us will agree with you that love making is best between people who know and are tender of each other. These days a lot of us (including our readers) find out the truth of that by trial and error, rather than hearsay, however. All grist to the writer's mill, thank the Lord.

At 29 March, 2007, Anonymous Moral Guardian said...

Thank you for raising this issue.

I think the key point is that novels are not meant to be morality tales. If they were, we would have to ban a high percentage of them on the grounds of encouraging murder, torture, irresponsible shopping as well as every form of sexual behaviour - a quickie in a cupboard being one of the least disturbing, by a long way.

As for website colours; let she who has perfect taste cast the first stone.

At 29 March, 2007, Blogger Bella Andre said...

You said it yourself--why can't novels can be fantasy?--in your recent post about the MISERY category for new books. "Who wants to read those books?" you asked. Well, not me. And I don't want to write them either. So that's why I, too, write very sexy contemporary fiction.

And, I'm not ashamed to say, I hope you and your readers do go to my web site at A little self-promotion is not a bad thing. After all, if it gets one more reader to pick up a great love story--that, indeed, happens to begin with some extremely hot sex--then I say hooray for all of us. I get to write more fun books for Simon & Schuster and my readers get to vicariously experience fantastic love and sex through the pages of my books as well.

In fact, it's time for me to get off the internet for the next few hours. I've got a sex scene to write.

Bella Andre

At 29 March, 2007, Blogger Anne McAllister said...

Still stirring up hornet's nests, are you?

Like Jenny, I would be far more concerned if Julie's heroine were habitually hopping into closets with strangers. Or ended the book thinking it was a good idea (yes, I know that's a fragment). It all has to do with character development, doesn't it?

I, for one, like my characters to have a bit of growing and changing to do. If they're paragons to begin with, why bother?

And teenage pregnancies have existed longer than romance novels or, indeed, any kind of books at all.


At 31 March, 2007, Blogger Trish said...

Apologies for the length of this reply but I'm afraid it was too fascinating a Blog for me not to comment!

I have to say that I often visit and find many of your topics interesting and well informed. However, I’m afraid I shall have to agree with a few of my fellow authors on the subject of teenage pregnancy being affected by Mills & Boon novels.

For the sake of interest, I conducted some research on the subject of teenage pregnancy in the UK (as this is where many of Ms. Cohen’s books are sold in this new line – a line I should add I also write for) and despite learning a great deal, I was unable to find any correlation to the reading of romance novels.

In the last released Government figures teenage pregnancy is, in fact, quoted as FALLING rather than RISING. An overall rate of 11.8 percent of a decrease since statistics began: (which is encouraging)
The chief factors listed are such things as early school leaving (60% of boys and 47% of girls who left school at 16 with no qualifications had sex before 16 as opposed to 20% for both if leaving school at 17 or over with qualifications) – Poor contraceptive use – Ethnicity – Mental health/conduct disorder/involvement in crime – Alcohol and Substance abuse – Presence of a teenage mother of their own:
But at no point anywhere was there a direct correlation with reading romance novels…

As to Editorial and authors having a moral responsibility, I agree, to a small extent; in order to remain apart from some forms of erotica we of the romance genre *do* indeed have certain basic ‘guidelines’ to follow – and one of those is most definitely a lasting, emotionally committed, long term relationship. Safe sex is advocated, as is an emotional impact from the sex, long term consequence and living with the ‘actions’ and decisions we all make every day of our lives. Women are encouraged to be individuals, to seek a relationship that adds to their lives rather than seeking one to *complete them* and to feel free to celebrate their femininity in a society that quite often forces them to believe they must lose some of that femininity in order to compete with men on an equal basis – and I, for one, believe all of those to be admirable subjects to advocate. I know were I to even attempt to get a weak, helpless, idiotic heroine who sleeps around past my editor I would be cyber-slapped by e-mail for even trying!

By suggesting that any reader is stupid enough to be so easily led by a fictional novel is a little insulting to the reader. It falls into the same vein as the many critics who claim that romance novels give women unrealistic expectations of love in real life. As both a reader and an author, I choose to believe the women who balance families and careers, or a combination of the two, that choose to *escape* reality for a few hours with a well told romance are not therefore, automatically idiots. When it comes to teenage readers I think you’ll find that romance novels can in fact give them a sense of hope that ‘romance’ or ‘lasting love’ can still exist, when in today’s world they will undoubtedly have that hope dashed time and time again.

This doesn’t however mean in any way that we shouldn’t be shocked that someone as young as the girl you mentioned is pregnant at so early an age. I just doubt very much that a romance such as Julie’s can be blamed.

As to the colours of Julie’s website - you will admit that the site and her name are now both well ingrained in your memory? If so, then it’s safe to say it has done what it was intended to do.

An interesting debate and interesting to see how things are perceived through the eyes of different generations.

Thank you.

At 31 March, 2007, Blogger Liz Fielding said...

I'm only here to draw your attention to a scene in Julie's book "Featured Attraction" where the hero, in his determination to indulge only in "safe sex", rips a condom machine off the cinema wall. His cinema, his condom machine before you start thinkg "vandal!" Funny, sexy, original and safe, all in one scene. Oh, an brilliant, too.

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