There’s been a lot of talk lately in the romance world about the current fashion of publishing romances with titles like “The Millionaire’s Pregnant Mistress” or “The Greek Tycoon’s Revenge,” or “Bought by the Sheik.” In fact, these titles are so distinctive yet repetitive that I may be quoting real ones here or fake ones. I can’t remember. They have a certain, very identifiable something to them that is memorable, yet they are all alike. Specifically, these titles mostly feature men who have big money or power: millionaires, billionaires, tycoons, sheiks, CEOs, princes, etc. And women who are in their power sexually: mistresses, pregnant mistresses, brides, pregnant brides, bartered brides, bought brides, and more.
Some people think these titles are both silly and demeaning to women. We’re not mistresses anymore, not things to be bought or sold. Some people think these titles give very inaccurate suggestions about the stories inside, which often do not necessarily hinge on money and power, or on women’s sexual vulnerability. Pleasured in the Billionaire’s Bed, a real book by Miranda Lee, is about a woman who owns her own business, and is in no way under the thumb of the billionaire she meets. His money does not impress or control her. But there definitely is some pleasuring going on in the story, and it happens in his bed, so strictly speaking, the title is accurate. Still, the facts of the story are a far cry from the impression that the title gives of what the power dynamics are. Some people think that these titles set back any strides romances have made in gaining any respect from the rest of the world. And I think that’s because these titles in large part hark back to a power dynamic between men and women that is brutal and based on inequities. And that in America at least, we like to believe is no longer true. Mistresses? Come on.
So why mention all these millionaires and mistresses? Because these are high-concept titles. They’re meant to grab attention, quickly introduce the major story elements (rich guy, poor girl, power issue, sex issue), and make a reader reach out and pick up the book. Marketing research proves that anyone who picks up an item for sale is likely to buy it. That’s why book store employees are trained to put a book directly into the customer’s hand. If there is no sales person around to do that, the cover has to push the customer into picking up the book. The battle has been won if the title of the romance is so silly, so over the top, that a reader grabs it just to read the back cover blurb and learn a little more about why some woman is “The Prince’s Virgin Sacrifice” or the like.
At the same time, look at the milieu in which most paperback romances are sold, grocery and discount stores. There, their chief rivals are magazines, and only to a lesser degree other books. People Magazine, a very tame mainstream publication, has titles like “They Lost Half their Size!,” “Revenge of the Exes,” and “Baby Twins in Danger.” Not exactly sedate, are they? Yet, these titles are tasteful compared to some of the other shouting headlines on magazines at the supermarket checkout counter. And we haven’t gotten to the absolutely shameless tabloids yet, a category of publication that thinks nothing of airbrushing (faking) photos of giant babies, weeping statues of the Virgin Mary, and live dinosaurs. Not mention constantly running photos of murdered people. Ick.
This new trend in romance titles represents an attempt to catch the eye of a customer who is already being bombarded with very strong, very lurid competitors. As for books that compete, one way of standing out in a large field of similar products is to be distinctive. These crazy titles achieve that, don’t they? People are constantly mocking them or complaining about them. But they remember them. That’s breaking out from the pack. That’s effective marketing.
People often forget that for a very long time, romance titles have been rather bland and unmemorable. Here are some real titles from a decade and more ago, chosen at random from my reading list (Yes, this means that after I read them, I wrote their names down. So call me a nerd. I can take it.): Mad for the Dad, Groom on the Loose, The Loneliest Cowboy, The Tender Trap, Rugrats and Rawhide, Beauty and the Beast, The Sheik and the Vixen, The Other Laura, The Bride and the Bodyguard, The Texan and the Pregnant Cowgirl, Bachelor Mom, Occupation: Millionaire, The Temporary Groom, Desperately Seeking Daddy, Baby Fever, The Five-Minute Bride, Lucy and the Loner, Yesterday’s Bride, Cinderella Bride, Wind River Ranch, Taming the Tycoon, Shotgun Wedding, Nobody’s Princess, Blue Sky Guy.
Are these old titles exciting? Are they any better or worse than the current crop of embarrassing titles with “mistress” and “pregnant” and “billionaire” in them? Nah. They’re about the same. In fact, some of them really are the same. What about that sheik and the vixen, or the Texan with his pregnant cowgirl, or that tycoon who needed taming? Or the guy whose occupation was millionaire? So this annoying new trend in titles is simply a ramping up of a trend that existed before. And guess what? It’s working. People are noticing. But are they buying more books because of the titles? I don’t know. A lot of women are embarrassed about buying books with embracing couples on the cover. But they buy them anyway. They might be embarrassed about buying a book about a “Greek Tycoon’s Bartered Bride.” And buy it anyway. Or maybe not. Titles have vogues. Although this vogue strikes some romance readers (and probably the rest of the entire world) as stupid, it will pass. So relax.