Wed
May 2 2012 4:00pm

Why Has Paranormal Romance Taken Off, but Not Steampunk Romance?

The Three Musketeers go steampunkSteampunk and paranormal romance would both seem to be ripe for reader success: Both incorporate larger-than-life scenarios, smart, sexy heroes, and take us to a different, exotic world.

So why has paranormal romance succeeded where steampunk has not? Let’s take a look:

The Rise of Paranormal Romance

There are many elements that contributed to the rise and popularity of paranormal romance, but one key factor underlies it all: the transformation of traditional, horror-based vampire/shifter characters into romance heroes—specifically, the dark and dangerous men who deliver the fantasy of raw, unbridled, and euphoric sex.

Some have speculated that these extraordinary paranormal heroes are nothing more than a type of old-school hero in disguise: domineering Alphas. The preternaturally strong and seductive vampire hero overwhelms the heroine with his otherworldly appeal—forced seduction?—and she has no choice but to surrender to him sexually. Voila—instant vicarious, guilt-free sex.

Dark Prince by Christine FeehanI’ve heard that authors such as Christine Feehan broke out with their paranormal romances because the books received a huge push from readers who were excited about this new kind of hero (and also the world he inhabited). Massive word-of-mouth, email campaigns, and other grassroots strategies provided the kind of organic marketing push that publishers can only dream about. Also, there wasn’t competition from other paranormal romances or massive amounts of low-cost/free ebooks. These and other conditions created a perfect formula for a break out book/genre.

I’ve read online comments by readers who said something to the effect of, “You had to drag me to paranormal romance kicking and screaming, but now I love it.” That’s the power of positive word-of-mouth influence, namely, that readers will try something new despite significant reservations. It also speaks to the appeal of a high concept twist on a familiar idea.

Such an inventive twist deserves recognition and these fantasies obviously tapped into what readers craved. Bedroom doors opened and love scenes became edgier and steamier. As a result, readers had more freedom of choice. That’s a very powerful force.

Enter Steampunk Romance

Steampunk romance, on the other hand, was born at a very different time.

Steampunk, a subgenre of both science fiction and fantasy, involves stories that take place in a setting whose technology is steam-driven. Most tales occur in Victorian-era England. The stories feature lots of gadgets and devices and frequently put them to use in order to explore various themes.

(Note that I didn’t need to define paranormal romance.)

Steampunk emerged in the 1980s, some 10-20 years before Christine Feehan’s first paranormal romance, Dark Prince (1999). However, steampunk wasn’t generally paired with romance.

Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti2007/8 heralded a revival of sorts for steampunk in SF/F. Among them was Dru Pagliassotti’s Clockwork Heart, which included a prominent romance. Since then, steampunk romance was coined and as buzz began building, romance publishers, both print and digital, began releasing titles in that subgenre.

The Niche Factor

Steampunk’s niche status meant that it was unfamiliar to many romance readers. Questions about its nature abounded. As those familiar with steampunk stepped up to provide the answers, one crucial difference between steampunk romance and paranormal romance emerged: steampunk romance has no single, iconic character.

You can point to paranormal romance and explain it succinctly with “vampire romance.” The same can’t be said for steampunk romance. Sure, there are extraordinary characters in the subgenre (e.g., dashing airship captains, sexy inventors, and mysterious spies), but they aren’t usually of the preternatural kind.

In short, steampunk romance can’t be distilled down to a certain type of hero or fantasy. It’s a subgenre that promises diversity. For example, heroines can be extraordinary (e.g., airship captains or inventors) whereas in paranormal romance it’s the heroes that get the lion’s share of extraordinary roles. Additionally, steampunk romance features external threats in the form of dangerous devices or villains. In paranormal romance, the hero himself frequently embodies the threat.

Unfortunately, that kind of complexity wreaks havoc for marketing departments. With paranormal romance, it’s easier: the vampire/werewolf hero can be marketed as the “face” of the subgenre.

An Uphill Battle

Around the time steampunk romance emerged, upheavals in the publishing industry created obstacles for getting such books published in the mainstream print arena. Case in point: Dorchester Publishing, which first released Christine Feehan’s Dark Prince, is now defunct.

Robert Downey Jr. and Rachel McAdams in Sherlock HolmesWhile epublishers were quick to gain interest in steampunk romance, the subgenre’s visibility was still too low to gain further momentum. Plus, steampunk romance is fairly new. There are too few books and the subgenre’s potential has yet to be tapped. Also, it lacks a cohesive fan base. Erotic romance had already been done, so it can’t compete in that area, either. The competition remains incredibly fierce, in large part because paranormal (vampire) romance is still very popular.

At its core, paranormal romance offers a deeply primal sexual fantasy. Steampunk romance, with its base of steam-driven technology, offers fantasies that are geared (!) more towards stimulating your synapses and action-adventure fantasies than your sexy bits.

Still, there’s always hope for niche subgenres like steampunk romance. Remember how paranormal romance was supposedly so unmarketable back in the day? Authors were discouraged from writing it and publishing insiders sent the message that those stories would never sell. Yeah, whatevs. Thank goodness readers and authors ignored such dire predictions and persevered.

Will steampunk romance ever become as popular as paranormal romance? Probably not. Still, there’s a silver lining. One legacy of paranormal romance is that it has opened up the market for other niche subgenres. These days, adventurous readers have a much better chance of finding the stories and fantasies they want. And that’s something to celebrate.

Now, you tell me: What are your thoughts about this topic?

 


Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express.
She’s also an author: Her latest release is The Watchmaker’s Lady (Clockpunk Trilogy #1) from Red Sage Publishing. To learn more about her published work, visit www.heathermassey.com.

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21 comments
Stella Price
1. Stella Price
As someone that writes both genres I have learned from several readers that the steampunk genre hasnt saturated the market so much that its around every turn, much like PR has. Also, readers tend to like things they can easily wrap their heads around, and Vamp, demons, weres, angels.. they are all already predisposed into our culture. With Steampunk anything, its something new, and some readers dont want to do what it takes to make the elements, together, a part of their internal mythos, like the supernatural creatures are. They didnt grow up with steampunk, so they are a bit wary of it, cuz lets face it, when faced with new tech, and ideas, its easier to visualize it then to read about it.
Luckily theres authors out there like Meljean Brook, Kate Cross and Zoe Archer that are bridging the gap between the scifi side of it and the romance, and the movies out there that are all about the steampunk elements are worming their way into people. I think once the mainstream media saturates everything with steampunkiness, people will be more open to it and it will have a spike...
Carmen Pinzon
2. bungluna
As a reader, I agree a bit with @Stella Price. I can read paranormal and my imagination has ready images to play about what I'm reading. With steampunk, my mind just doesn't have as much 'stock footage' to play with, so I find myself having to spend a lot of time visualizing what I'm reading. Being the lazy reader that I am, I prefer to read the easier (to me) genre. As a caveat though, I love watching steampunk movies!
Stella Price
3. Cora Zane
Steampunk is harder to quantify because you can often take the gadgetry out of the novels and still have a core story. I've read a handful of steampunk stories where you could shift the core story to another time period entirely, and the story would still stand.

It's harder to do that with a paranormal. If you take the paranormal elements out, it often kills at least one facet (if not all) of the conflict, and the book falls apart. That's because paranormal elements are often rooted deeply in characterization. Such as a vampire cursed to drink blood and live forever while everyone around him succumbs to mortal death. Or a werewolf who is unable to be with the woman he loves because he shifts into a murderous beast once a month.

Steampunk elements are largely related to setting. While both elements are necessary to a story, readers resonate with characters more than with setting. I think that is one of the main reasons steampunk hasn't reached a broader audience despite its unique aesthetic appeal.

The steampunk novels that focus on dynamic characters who incorporate the actual "steampunk elements" into themselves, as part of the characterization, have a better chance of reaching readers outside the genre. At least, this is true for my taste in reading.

Consider Edward Scissorhands with his gears and scissors (not a perfect example since it's a fantasy, but bear with me, because it offers a clear picture of the point I'm trying to make). Edward has a wide appeal because the quirkier elements of the story are incorporated into the character himself. They make up part of who he is. If you take away Edward's scissor hands, and the quirky things he does with them, the story falls apart.

Steampunk still feels new and interesting, and it hasn't really been tapped into yet like other subgenres of romance, primarily because people are still trying to figure out what it is.

I think the author of the article is right. To open the genre to more mainstream readers, it will take a truly dynamic character - an iconic character that resonates deeply with readers - because then you're taking an aesthetic and giving it a face. You're giving your readers a complex character to care about, someone who lives in a unique world he or she can't be separated from.
Stella Price
4. Samantha W.
Steampunk is a genre that publishing decided, "this will be big in a few years," but it never materialized. I have it on good authority that steampunk is very popular in Japan.

I think what happened is that the big publisher decision makers saw the global key indicators of steampunk being the next big phenomenon, but it was only big in very specific pockets of the world population (such as Japan) and it stayed there. It will never be big enough to catch fire elsewhere. If steampunk does become popular in the US and elsewhere, it will happen over time, slowly.
Lana Baker
5. lanalucy
Speaking only for myself (of course), I just don't "get" steampunk, romance or not. I've read nearly every genre there is over the 40-some years I've been reading, and steampunk just isn't interesting to me. I'm hardly a trendmaker (or breaker), though. lol
Jen W
6. dumblydore
I really like Cora's comment above about giving the steampunk aesthetic a face. Steampunk is still at that stage where it's adjusting to its fantasy, scifi, action, historical, romantic and all its other roots. It doesn't help either that most of the stories out there today being marketed as steampunk only superficially gloss over the surface (clocks and goggles do not equate to steampunk). There are ideologies and worlds to create, elaborate on and discover.

The paranormal genre is steeped in a long history of mythology, settings and characters to play off of, but steampunk is largely dominated by more recent human development and technology, so having a quintessential icon/s to refer to would be a good first step into understanding and appreciating the genre.

I agree it won't be as popular as paranormal, but give it more time and I think it will eventually find its niche footing, as with other previously "unmarketable" genres.
Robbie Thornton
7. Button
I was first introduced to steampunk in the late 60's, when I was a young girl. A western series came on TV back then called "The Wild Wild West". It's heroes were government spies who work to clean up the old west. They had interesting gadgets to use to fight that bad guys. These bad guys varied from episode to episode, but all used steam driven gadgets, had brightly and creatively dressed sidekicks (usually women), and were, of course, out to rule the world. The whole series is loosely set around rail and steam travel. A movie was made in the late nineties called "The Wild Wild West" starring Will Smith, which true to the original, kept to the steampunk theme. The villian in the movie rides around in a steam powered wheelchair, flocked by women in gaudy clothes. So when I hear "steampunk", I think TWWW.

Why is steampunk romance not as popular as paranormal romance? Well, I read both, but I do prefer paranormal romance. I think maybe the gadget element to steampunk just isn't all that sexy to me. I'm not sure if steampunk really has more action than paranormal romance, but the action does seem "busier" and more descriptive as various gadgets get used.

I do like steampunk, and will read more in the future when I see one that catches my eye. Paranormal is still sexier to me though, and I can't really see that changing.
Lindsay Beeson
8. lindsayb
I haven't read any steampunk that I like, so I'm very hesitatant to try anything new. I really do not like it as a scifi genre at all. I've even tried steampunk horror (horror being my favorite genre aside from various forms of romance) I've tried some steampunk romance but I just can't get into it. I guess I'm just not all that excited about HG Wells or Jules Verne either.
Heather Massey
9. HeatherMassey
@Stella @bungluna Good point about the visuals. A good, rollicking fun steampunk film could certainly help make it more accessible and give audiences a basic framework.

@Samantha W. Speaking of Japan, they first popularized manga, anime, and BATTLE ROYALE (a.k.a. THE HUNGER GAMES :P)--all of which later caught on like wildfire in other countries--so I personally feel like fans there often have their collective finger on the pulse of future trends. That said, I agree with you 100% that if steampunk grows it will take a few more years if not more.

@Lanalucy Thanks for weighing in! I'm a diehard fan of steampunk, but I'll also be the first to admit it's not for everyone. Some things are niche for a reason (but that's not necessarily a negative, either).

@Dumblydore Re: mythology: Exactly. Excellent point. Even if one was never a fan of classic vampires, the chances were high that one knew the mythology. Which in turn lessened the learning curve for many readers. Thanks for bringing that up!

@Button It's very hard to top a sexy vampire. My mind still boggles at how inventive that transformation was.

@Lindsayb I hear your concern about trying more new steampunk. That points to another challenge--there aren't many steampunk romances out there, which limits reader choice. It's difficult to make an informed consent right now.

Re: Wells and Verne: As influential as they were/are, they can make for dry reading for many of today's readers. However, with a catchy premise and entertaining execution, authors could reinvent those types of works and adapt them for current audiences. Personally, I'd rather read the reinvention.
MKJDobson
10. Rose In RoseBear
I think you're all correct about the need for steampunk visuals. Let me recommend the online comic Girl Genius, by Kaja and Phil Foglio. Forget about the steampunk ... it's a great story!
Wendy Lewis
11. wsl0612
I really enjoy Steampunk, particularly Meljean Brooks (great series!). I don't know if anyone here has seen the web tv series, The Guild (it is hilarious, follows the adventures of a group of of people playing World of Warcraft) but in the last season they went to a convention and Clara got involved with the Steampunkers(?). The whole concept is very romantic with the Victorian love of velvet, silk, etc. mixed with the masculine "punch" of machines, I think it's sexy!
Marian DeVol
12. ladyengineer
Check out the two SyFy series Sanctuary and Warehouse 13. Both have definite steampunk elements to them.

In Sanctuary, Dr. Helen Magnus's medical education dates from Victorian England. Her approach to science strikes me as very steampunk in flavor.

Warehouse 13 has a regularly appearing character, H. G. Wells (Helena G. Wells), who is an engineering genius as well as being the author we all know and love. The story line is that her brother fronted for her as the author because Victorian England was not ready for a female Jules Verne.
Lindsay Beeson
13. lindsayb
I am intrigued by the Vampire Empire books.. they look interesting. I might just have to give steampunk a chance again.
Stella Price
14. Delilah S. Dawson
I may be... ahem... biased, but I'm all for steampunk romance when done thoughtfully. I believe that steampunk should be held up to the same criticism as paranormal, in that it needs to play a necessary role in the story rather than just exist as a few gears glued on to hit a niche/trend. If you take out the steampunk and the story still works, does it need to be steampunk?
Stella Price
15. Seleste deLaney
I write both steampunk/alt-history and paranormal as well. For me, my steampunk sells better. Could be the publisher, could be that people are getting tapped out on vampires. Could be a lot of things.

Having said that, I prefer old west steampunk (as a general rule) to the more Victorian steampunk. To some degree the aesthetic remains the same, but the rules of society aren't as stringent (I tend to scream at the female characters to "Stop being such girls!" as much in old west steampunk.)

One of the things paranormal romance benefits from that steampunk romance doesn't is a large chunk of the audience for urban fantasy is female, and there is often a fine line between UF & PNR. It's one a lot of readers (myself included) are willing to cross. Steampunk as a sub-genre tends to be more male-centric. (Not all of it, but the older stuff in my experience.) Because of that (and the fact that it was a niche market to begin with), the people who hopped on the steampunk bandwagon early are less likely to branch over to steampunk romance. It's more common for the opposite to happen from what I've seen. (People discover steampunk through steampunk romance, like what they see there and branch off to non-romance steampunk.)

Is steampunk romance a non-starter? No. Is it going to burst out of the gate and be huge really fast? No. It's a slow-starter. But I do think as more and more people understand the genre and see the aesthetic at conventions and movies and television, curiosity will make those numbers grow.
Stella Price
16. JAGL
I don't understand Steampunk at all, so I don't have any interest in reading it. I like to read to escape and get lost in the book - not to feel stupid because I don't get what they are talking about! Not a fantasy/sci fi lover as a general rule, although sometimes a fantasy/sci fi romance can be awesome. Steampunk looks and sounds weird to me so I don't think I'll ever even try (too many other books I want to read). PNR, on the other hand, is awesome - angels, shapeshifters, vamps, demons - I get them!
Stella Price
17. Merida
Initially, I was a bit eery about reading steampunk, as I loved paranormal romance. After a while, a lot of the paranormal began blurring together, with similar storylines, characters and plots. Curious, I decided to give steampunk a go and love it. Its very different and there's no boundaries. A woman can be kick-ass or she can just be a 'normal' everyday steampunk woman. The men can be sexy hot or inventors and still be steamy. I love the combination of gadgets, fantasy and good storylines. So far, I've not seen two books the same.
Stella Price
18. True
I love steampunk! I agree that people are slow to read it because they are not familiar with the concepts. They may believe that they lean too much toward science fiction, like reading a Star Trek book or somethng from the Dune series. Also, a lot of steampunk books are geared toward teenagers, not adults. I would encourage people to try those, and then see what they can find in the adults section. I like the Infernal Devices series, for a start.
ani gonzalez
19. acgonzalez111
I'll second the Girl Genius recommendation. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is also a good steampunky comic book.

I hope steampunk becomes more popular. I loved the Parasol Protectorate series. I also love Meljean's Iron Duke. I would like to see a more humorous take on the genre, though. Something like the Amelia Peabody series, for example.
Allison Merritt
20. Allisonmwrites
As a steampunk romance author, I often get blank looks when I talk about my books and it's true, the only way I know how to explain it is by referencing other movies and books.

It's slowly becoming more popular and I even saw a call for Christian steampunk romances from one editor. How interesting.
Stella Price
21. rikki wilkinson
I think that streampunk interesting and new but I don't think that people notice how much it has already worked its way into our society. If more people give it a go it would catch on quickly as it is already becoming more popular and known.
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