By Jill Draper
A slow-burning guilty pleasure, sweet and spicy—those words aren’t just for Kansas City barbeque. They also describe the contents of many romance novels, sometimes checked out by the armful by patrons at Mid-Continent Public Library.
Love is in the air at the library in February, when staff celebrate Valentine’s Day by releasing the lineup of featured authors at an annual conference on romance fiction that draws hundreds of fans. The lineup includes Lyssa Kay Adams, K.M. Jackson, Jayci Lee, Janna MacGregor, Cathy Maxwell, Abigail Owen, Nisha Sharma, Mia Sosa, and Julie Tieu.
Kansas City is no cold fish when it comes to love stories. The metro area is a national hotspot for romance readers and buyers, says Amy Fisher, MCPL Information & Readers Services manager, who heard this statement from an Avon Books sales rep in 2018.
At the time, Fisher was beginning to organize the library’s first Romance GenreCon for that summer while Avon Books, a leading publisher of romance fiction, was synchronistically making plans to bring KissCon to Kansas City that spring.
Both are meet-the-authors events, but the library’s three-day conference is free. Fisher says she started it to promote her favorite type of fiction, educate other librarians and support novice authors.
There are many of these. Within one year the conference attracted more than 40 local authors who joined with internationally known writers in promoting books about feisty debutants, adventurous lady travelers, unfulfilled young widows, resigned spinsters, exiled heiresses, career-driven professionals—all destined to meet their match in situations where sparks fly and worlds collide.
Love knows no bounds, and in recent years the romance market has exploded into subgenres ranging from historic to contemporary, inspirational to paranormal, and country-western to queer. “We try to have a little bit of everything, a mix of all,” says Fisher.
Mainly she wants the genre to gain respect, and the conference to be a place for romance readers to go and not be judged. There’s no guilt in the pleasure of reading these books, she believes, citing bestselling author Sarah MacLean who claims romances are actually feminist tales of women finding success and power.
“People think it’s all about porn and bodice rippers,” Fisher says. “They think we’re reading material that doesn’t count. But it does. And everything has a formula.”
A formula that provides comfort is what readers want, observes Val Gilliam, a board member of Mid-America Romance Authors. “The characters question whether they’re doing the right thing. Everybody goes through that in a relationship, so in some cases it mirrors life. It’s thought-provoking, but there’s always a happy ending.”
Gilliam says beginning and established authors alike find new things to learn at events like MCPL’s Romance GenreCon, which includes writing workshops, author panels, fan fairs, book fairs and a Friday night welcome party with dessert and punch. Also that evening local librarians are invited to a talk on romance novel trends, including the top five titles in various subgenres and new books being published.
Both readers and writers can attend weekend sessions on subjects like medieval cooking, a bawdy meander through the history of medicine, a “State of the Genre” author panel and trivia contests. Other workshops address topics like master plotting, writing intimacy, conflict and dialogue, copyright law, character development, and the dark art of snappy dialogue.
The featured bookseller at this year’s conference is a repeat from last year—Bliss Books & Wine. This independent women-owned pop-up plans to open a Midtown store this month, and it will feature a romance section. Owners La’Nesha Frazier and her sister La’Nae Robinson say they were surprised during the 2022 Rom GenreCon when enthusiastic attendees lined up to buy books before they finished setting up their table.
Bliss Books is charged with providing a craft activity for fans, and last year partnered with Calming Canvas Art Studio of Grandview to create a paint-your-own book cover. This year’s craft is still to be determined.
The 2023 Romance GenreCon is scheduled for August 2, 3, and 4th at the Woodneath Library Center, 8900 NE Flintlock Rd. at the Woodneath Library Center, 8900 NE Flintlock Rd. After Valentine’s Day, reservations for talks and workshops open in early May; many fill up within a few weeks. Romance enthusiasts are encouraged to follow the Romance GenreCon Facebook page for updates and announcements.