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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rob Curley: Romance authors featured at Monday’s Northwest Passages event have sold millions of books

There are variations of similar jobs that happen to get way more attention – even respect and adoration – than others that essentially do the exact same thing. Maybe even at a higher level and with more success than the “stars” do.

For most baseball fans, it’s hard to name a middle-relief pitcher for the Seattle Mariners. Yet they are major leaguers playing at the highest level on a national stage.

We might know that Mark Zuckerberg was initially a programmer behind Facebook, but few of us could name the computer programmers who helped invent the first web browsers that were the real reasons why the internet has exploded in popularity and use.

(Shout out to Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen. #DorksUnite)

Then there are romance authors. Academia teaches certain types of writers. Other novelists talk about the authors who have inspired them. Cable television anchors love to interview writers of the latest White House exposé.

Then there are the romance writers few can actually name who are outselling many of those other writers by massive amounts. They’re the major-league middle relievers every team wishes it had.

That’s what makes Monday’s Northwest Passages book club event so fun. In two years of hosting our wildly popular community event series, we’ve had big names, yet we’ve rarely had a stage full of authors who have sold anywhere near the amount of books as Asa Maria Bradley, Katee Robert, Rebecca Zanetti and Lucy Gilmore have.

We’re literally talking about millions of books. Yes, plural.

Being relatively obscure despite the relatively high nature of their work doesn’t bother them. It’s just the opposite. This is much more of a feature than a flaw for many of those who write steamy books filled with personal relationships and drama. And paragraphs describing a kiss with some level of detail. Well, and some other love-kinda-stuff that’s probably better left for professionals to explain and not be attempted by a newspaper editor whose looks could be the model for the nerd emoji.

“That’s the part many of us really love about it,” Zanetti said with a little laugh from her home in Hayden, Idaho, on Saturday afternoon.

“Being able to run out to your mailbox while wearing your pajamas and no one caring is great. But we also still get to travel to conventions and book stores and meet fans who love our books and the characters we’ve created, so it really is the best of both worlds.”

And people love their books. Really, really love their books. As in Robert and Zanetti both have written New York Times bestsellers. They both have national USA Today bestsellers. Bradley and Gilmore are building impressive resumes, as well.

And if you haven’t read a modern romance novel before, you might be surprised. These aren’t the old Harlequin Romances many of us may or may not have seen in our homes when we were younger.

Many of these books are extremely well done. They include fantastic research for settings, characters and details you simply don’t know unless you put in hours and hours of effort. They’re suspenseful. They’re smart. The characters in them are uncomfortably relatable.

The Washington Post described Zanetti’s work as “sexy and emotional.” It’s that second word Spokane young adult literature legend Chris Crutcher, who also knows a thing or two about selling millions of books and still being relatively anonymous in his own hometown, said is the key to these romance writers’ success.

Explaining that success means looking at how his genre and romance have a few common characteristics.

“Young-adult books have long been the stepchild of literature,” Crutcher explained. “Book stores and libraries never really knew where to put these books because they crossed so many genres. That was because YA authors were really taking chances.”

Crutcher said it wasn’t unusual for a young-adult book to better integrate the role of technology in people’s lives, or be science fiction, or be a mystery or be historical. That’s exactly the freedom Crutcher sees modern romance writers embracing.

“Two things really jump out at me when it comes to romantic fiction. First off, these writers are getting people to read. You know, eyes moving from left to right and then down the page. That’s a hard thing to accomplish. Secondly, they’ve figured out how to make emotional connections with readers. Emotion is one of the most important parts of a good book that you don’t want to put down.

“People need to feel something when they read, otherwise it’s just a pain in the ass,” Crutcher said. “A book that doesn’t evoke emotion is like reading a textbook. No one wants to read a textbook. Good romance writers get people to feel emotionally connected through their words, which makes people want to read even more.”

Getting people to care about reading again – especially in an age of an always-on internet connection in the palm of your hand, seemingly infinite libraries of streaming movies and shows, and more entertainment options than any of us can imagine – that means so much to Robert as an author.

“Think of how many people who hadn’t read a book in years who decided to pick up a copy of ‘50 Shades of Grey,’ because of how many people were talking about it” Robert said. “More importantly, look at the sheer amount of those people who rediscovered how much they loved reading books and began buying books again.”

She’s absolutely right.

The “50 Shades” books were far and away the best-selling books of the previous decade, having combined to sell more than 150million copies by 2015, according to the Guardian newspaper. At a high point, two copies of the first book in the series were being sold every second.

This was all happening at a time when book publishers were deathly concerned that e-books might actually kill printed books. Yet it was a provocative romance novel about a Washington State grad from Vancouver, Washington, that showed the business that books could be successful – and profitable – if they were bound (which seems like the wrong word here considering the subject), or read digitally or listened to as an audiobook.

In a fashion similar to what happened two decades earlier with the Harry Potter series, books – and more importantly, reading – had become cool again. All of that being said, there aren’t a lot of people who would recognize E. L. James, the author of the “50 Shades” books, if she were walking down the street in Pullman. Or shopping at a local grocery store. Or traveling through Spokane International Airport.

That’s part of what makes writing highly successful romance novels so cool for the authors who are a part of Monday evening’s Northwest Passages event at the Montvale Event Center. There’s a chance you’ve seen them at Fred Meyer. And also seen one of their books while in the checkout lane.

Which, in case you’re wondering, is as awesome a feeling as you think it might be for a writer.

Zanetti vividly remembers the first time she saw a display for one of her books in a major airport. It was in Atlanta just a few years ago.

She was so excited that she knocked the display over, with her books flying all over the place. Others quickly rushed over to help her pick up all of the books. She told them she was just so excited to see the book that, well, she accidentally bumped into the display as she rushed to take a photo of it.

She was asked why she was so excited about this particular book.

“Because I wrote it,” she said. Needless to say, they all bought copies and had her sign it.

You see, romance novels really do have a way of getting people to buy books again.

Who knows, maybe one of them might someday write a romance novel about a middle-relief pitcher and then this analogy will really seem like something. That being said, one of the best baseball movies of all time – “Bull Durham” – might actually be a romance novel disguised as a sports flick.

This might be a question for some great local authors on Monday.