I get hate mail and tagged in posts infrequently (like, once or twice every six months) in which individuals voice their dislike of my branding of “Smart Romance.” After receiving a fairly passionate message recently, I thought I’d address this issue in a post. I figure one of three things will happen:
- People who dislike the branding of Smart Romance will not understand why I used it and will continue disliking it.
- People who dislike the branding of Smart Romance will understand why I used it, but still dislike it.
- People who dislike the branding of Smart Romance will understand why I used it, and will no longer dislike it.
Here’s the story (it’s long and involved and is likely boring, so absolutely no pressure to read):
PART 1: Personal History / Experience
When I was growing up, I couldn’t read until I was 8. The specialists at the school told my parents I was “retarded.” In 4th grade, a new reading specialist told me I wasn’t “retarded” but that I had severe dyslexia. She suggested that I start reading one book a week as she said the only way to improve my deficiencies was to read and write as often as possible. I started writing comic books that year and would read 1 book every week until the birth of my son at 27. Of note, I wasn’t pretty, I wasn’t interesting, and I wasn’t a fun/ charismatic kid (this is not me being self-deprecating, this is me being pragmatic and honest).
Point is, reading and writing became a huge escape for me. I’m fairly certain I’ve spent more of my waking hours inside my imagination than outside of it.
By the time I made it to 8th grade I wasn’t anything but smart (book smart, likely because I’d read so darn much) and tall for my age. I still wasn’t socially graceful, I wasn’t pretty, I wasn’t particularly interesting or fun to be around/charismatic. But I was (book) smart as measured by quantitative valid and reliable instruments at that time (i.e. grades, test scores, etc.) Granted, all measurements are imperfect and contain intrinsic bias, but for purposes of post, the point is I thought of myself as nothing but (book) smart and unusually tall.
Therefore, because I wished to love myself, I valued that I was smart and mentally moved on rather than attempting to be socially graceful, pretty, interesting, or fun to be around. I reasoned that my dyslexia was something I’d been able to get under control with the by-product being becoming book smart. But also, I was so entirely and wholly un-socially graceful, un-pretty, un-interesting, and un-fun to be around, any effort to change these lack of attributes would be an effort in futility.
In middle school I was called a “know it all” and “brainiac” so I stopped answering questions in class as doing so seemed to make people like me less and less. By the time I reached high school, I never raised my hand in class and people always seemed surprised when they learned I was in AP classes.
In college, I was often one of the only girls in classes like differential equations and thermodynamics. As research has emerged about attitudes towards females in math and science, I know this has a lot to do with society rather than there being anything at all special about me. I know I am not special. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080905153807.htm). Regardless, my experience was what it was. And when the other girls and I compared notes when our P-chem teacher gave us all D’s and the boys in our class B’s and A’s, we went to the dean and complained (because our answers were right). We were dismissed and told something along the lines of, “This is why girls shouldn’t be in <science field>. They’re too emotional. Suck it up, because a boy would.”
Okay, so, we sucked it up. We were less emotional. We moved on.
At the beginning of my career in research I was a data entry person. I had an idea to help my boss (a new data collection tool that I could program via the Palm OS platform… remember Palm OS? Those were the days…) He promoted me and I became his research assistant. I then created a database for all his research patient outcomes data (this is years before HIPAA, and it was dismantled and merged into a HIPAA compliant system before April 14, 2004). I was by far the youngest research assistant, by far, and the other research assistants didn’t like me.
When I asked one of them what I’d done, she said I “acted too smart.” I understood what that meant since I’d been exposed to this in school while growing up (see aforementioned know-it-all et. al.) I asked a second different research assistant, and she said, “You’re cold, you don’t smile or chit chat with people, you always want to talk about work.” When I consulted a friend, she translated for me and said I didn’t act like the other RA’s, I wasn’t sociable enough, and I didn’t fit in.
Therefore, I started chit chatting, I started showing more emotion, I stopped voicing my ideas during meetings, and I sometimes pretended like I didn’t know the answer to something in front of the other RA’s. Almost immediately the other RA’s started to like me. We got on quite well after that.
Over the next fifteen years while working in research I began to notice a trend: when men were all business, it was fine. When women were all business, they were considered cold, arrogant, condescending, and conceited. But also, when women were not all business, they were passed over for promotions, labeled as emotional, and not taken seriously.
If a man spoke about his accomplishments or what he liked about himself, it was par for the course and met with positive feedback. But if a woman spoke of her accomplishments or what she liked about herself, it was considered bragging and self-aggrandizing.
Mind you, it wasn’t a situation where the man/woman was speaking of their accomplishments relative to others. No one was saying, “I’m smart, so that means you’re not smart.” It was more like the man would say (this is a simplistic hypothetical example), “I like that I’m smart.” And the people in the room (men and woman) would say, “I like that you’re smart, too.”
But if a woman said, “I like that I’m smart.” The people in the room (men and women) would say, “Conceited much? You think you’re better than us?” Furthermore, if it was pointed out that a man had just said something similar, invariably someone would pipe up and say, “This is a completely different issue because of X special circumstance, etc.”
I’ve talked this phenomenon over with many people. Colleagues, therapists, family members, friends, my husband, and most recently my kids. My oldest daughter is 11 and I’ve been told by my siblings who have older daughters that this is the age when girls start pretending to be less smart so that society will look upon them more favorably. (Here’s two random articles I spent 2 minutes googling on the subject:
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-our-way/201711/why-do-people-hate-smart-women (this one is more of an op-ed, not “peer reviewed”)
PART 2: Publishing my first romance novel
Prior to publishing my first romance novel (indie published, 2013) I thought “real books” were only published by a traditional publisher. So I submitted ~75 times over the period of 6 months and was rejected 100% of the time. I was eventually contacted by a traditional publisher and they told me that they’d read my first book and enjoyed it, but that “romance readers don’t want to read these kinds of books.” They said the characters were too quirky/smart, I used too many long words, and they were lacking in the fantasy element that romance readers wanted.
I felt like this was super insulting to romance readers (LET ME BE CLEAR, I didn’t think it was insulting to romance readers that the Trad Pub didn’t think people would want to buy and read my books, that made sense to me. I’m still confused by the fact that anyone wants to read my books. I thought it was insulting to romance readers that this Trad Pub thought no reader of romance existed that wanted quirky/smart characters, books with long words, or romance stories that had less fantasy and more reality).
Sadly, I didn’t know enough about the genre at the time to effectively argue this point. Yes, in 2013 I was ignorant about the genre I’d just published in. SO IGNORANT. And I wrote and published my first novel without having read any romance other than Jane Austen and a handful of others, all of which I’d considered to be very smart and awesome.
Had I been less ignorant of the authors and books in the genre, I could have argued that my books were not unusual to the genre. (TO BE CLEAR: at the time I hadn’t read any romance novels other than Jane Austen and maybe a handful of others, which I brought up to the Trad Pub person and which they dismissed. But I hadn’t read enough in the romance genre to be able to argue the point effectively).
Basically, the Trad Pub wanted me to edit out the reality parts of the book, replace the longer words, and “tame your voice so it’s less quirky.” Since writing was a hobby for me at the time, I decided to not do this and just keep self-publishing the books I wanted to write.
PART 3: Branding strategy
Fundamentally, there are two kinds of branding strategy of which I’m aware as a non-business or marketing major. Those two strategies are as follows:
- Brand yourself in order to separate yourself from everyone else. What makes you unique?
- Brand yourself in order to clearly communicate to your readership what they can expect from your books.
I opted for the second one. As I stated, when I started out, I didn’t know enough about the romance genre to know what made me or my books unique. Now that I’ve read widely in the romance genre, I still have yet to find a single thing that makes my books unique (other than maybe references to revenge via armadillo… but I could be wrong). There are no new ideas. As I’ve said, I know I’m not special.
So, in opting for #2, I chose “Smart Romance” since I felt like, “Hey, I’m smart. It’s the only thing I am.” Plus, I liked the idea of picking something I valued about myself as my branding. I like that I’m (book) smart. I like me.
This would be similar to branding oneself as “Sexy, swoony romance.” There are just as many sexy/swoony romances as there are smart romances. But if you buy a book from an author with “sexy, swoony” in their branding, you’re expecting something in specific. It doesn’t make them unique, it gives the reader an idea of what to expect.
The reader might read the book/author branded as sexy / swoony and think to themselves, “Hey! This book is neither sexy or swoony! I’ve been swindled!!”
Just like (I am 100% sure) many readers have picked up my books and thought to themselves (or posted in a review) “Hey! This book is not at all smart! I’ve been swindled!!”
That’s cool. Branding is an imperfect science. Unfortunately, I can’t brand myself by the fact that I am tall for a woman. At 5’10” I am considered tall by most people. Perhaps I should rebrand “Penny Reid, Romances written by someone who is considered by most to be tall for a woman”?
PART 4: The now
In most of the sparse hate-emails and tags that I get on this subject, critics of the term “smart romance” often say they feel like I am disparaging other books and authors in the genre by using “smart” in my branding. This didn’t make sense to me for a really long time because the books I’ve read in the romance genre have been smart. Just like lots of mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, literary fiction, fantasy, etc. are smart. In my head, I was never saying “MY BOOKS ARE DIFFERENT” I was saying “This is what you can expect from my books, assuming your definition of smart matches my definition, but totally cool if it doesn’t.”
It wasn’t until an author literally spelled it out for me (that the romance genre is often considered fluffy and inconsequential, and “not smart”) that I finally comprehended why some people have a problem with the branding.
So, again, I talked this phenomenon over with many people. Colleagues, therapists, family members, friends, my husband, and most recently my kids. Since this issue has been raised, and usually every time I receive hate mail, I bring it back up.
The questions I ask the most: “Am I doing harm to the genre by calling my books smart romance? Am I a bad person for branding my books based on something I like about myself?”
I’ll keep asking these questions and I reserve the right to do an author rebrand at anytime.
But, to be completely honest, I don’t want to change my branding for very personal reasons. When I left academia, I promised myself I wouldn’t be shamed any more in order to be more palatable to others. In elementary school I was quiet because I thought I was “retarded.” But then in middle and high school I kept quiet because people didn’t like me when I “acted smart.” All through college. All through my career. I learned how to navigate being all-business sometimes but then playing down my contributions later so other people wouldn’t feel uncomfortable or think I was “too big for my britches.”
I think a lot of women can identify with this as reality. It’s very frustrating to me that the only thing I truly like about myself makes me unlikable.
You might consider me stupid, my books are stupid, my characters are stupid, and that’s a-okay. I know that smart is just as relative as humor or sexiness. I categorize my books on retailers as romantic comedies and I know some people don’t think they’re funny either. That’s also a-okay.
But I guess I would ask, why assume “Penny Reid, Smart Romance” is reflective of anything but my brand? If I like that I consider myself book smart, it doesn’t mean I consider anyone else dumb. If I branded my books as “Penny Reid, Sexy Romance” that doesn’t mean I think all other romance books aren’t sexy. I still stumble over this and I have many thoughts. Is it because women are allowed to be sexy (because society values it) but not allowed to be smart (because society doesn’t)? Hmm.
Also, if you think branding myself as “Smart Romance” means that I think my books are unique, you need to read a romance novel. I would give you a list here of some of my favorites, but I don’t think other authors want to be associated with this weirdo post.
Another question: why aren’t women allowed to like things about themselves (and voice these likes) without being told they’re conceited? I’m so tired of that. I’d like to think I don’t do that to other women. I’d like to think every time I see another woman (or a man) celebrate something they’re proud of, I rejoice with them, I cheer them on. At least, I REALLY TRY TO. I’d like to think I am like other girls/women. I’d like to think I’m not unique or unusual. I really don’t think I am unique. I think there are lots of women / people like me.
Anyway. The last email I received made me feel like it was time to post something publicly about this, to explain my perspective since some people have made assumptions about my intentions. But I know that even good intentions can cause harm, which is why I constantly question whether I am doing harm with my branding.
So, in summary, I’m still thinking it over.
Wishing each of you all the best, Penny
Edited to put the word “retarded” in quotes as it was the word that was used at the time, but I know it can be an emotional / hurtful word for many. It was hurtful to me.
Not referenced in the post, but I was diagnosed as an adult with ASD, which I’m guessing also contributed to the now out of date term being applied to me as a kid. My current therapist said it was a catch-all word used at the time to describe many kids who were not neurotypical.