In on the ground floor
Agent Steven Axelrod has represented romance authors for more than 30 years, since the market opened up to American writers in the 1980s. What was it like being ‘in on the ground floor’ as the romance market established itself as the major force it is today?
How has popular romance changed over time?
The floodgates opened around 1980, give or take, and then all of a sudden, Dell had a line called Ecstasy and Nora Roberts was one of the first books, if not the first book, and Jayne Ann Krentz, who’s my client, was one of the very first books and all of a sudden, you know, Ecstasy was competitive with Harlequin. Then Simon and Schuster, who had been distributing Harlequin in the U.S. got fired from the distribution and in response started Silhouette, which was then, you know, very well-funded and trying to play catch up and really staff up and get an inventory up really quickly. So, they started, you know, approaching authors from Ecstasy and all of a sudden, it became a real market.
I’ve been involved in the romance community for about 30 years, 33 years. It’s a long time. I came into the community right around the same time it opened up to American writers. Before the late ’70s, you know, Harlequin only published British writers and then they published Janet Dailey and then all of a sudden, there were some competitors to Harlequin and then Harlequin opened up broadly to American writers. And all of a sudden, there was this class of writer looking for agents, and I was a young agent starting out, and threw in my lot with them, and it’s been great.
What changes have you seen?
There was a point, you know, 15-20 years ago where, you know, someone who was writing contemporary would start over writing historical. You know, she had sort of hit a plateau in contemporary and it just wasn’t working, but, you know, but she had an idea for a kind of historical romance where her strengths would really come to the fore and people were reinventing themselves that way—romantic suspense. A lot of people reinvented themselves really out of their romance genre in some cases. People like Tami Hoag and Lisa Gardner very, very successfully reinvented themselves out of the—you know, and they started off as genre romance writers.
Are there more subgenres now?
The big publishers, you know, may not be doing erotica, were not doing erotic then. They weren’t doing gay romance then. Now, they’re seeing it, you know, the same way they’re doing, you know, Christian books. They see it as a market that is very orderly and very lucrative potentially. So, they have a line; you know, publishers that never would have published erotica are publishing erotica. You know, romantic suspense, contemporary suspense, you know, all sorts of subgenres have been around to varying degrees, but, you know, they build them out to lines if they see a bigger market opportunity. You know, they might just have different authors, five authors a month, each doing a different subgenre. But now it’s more formalized.