Steampunk 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.
I’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.
2007/8 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.
While 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.