A signing line at BookCon. Photo by Christine Barcellona
The passage above is from Alyssa Brandon's The Hard Mate, a romance novel chronicling the relationship between a 16-year-old werewolf and a 200-hundred-year-old pack alpha with baggage. It's been read more than 22 million times on the online publishing platform WattPad and is currently making teenyboppers weak in the knees on SwoonReads.com, a site that exclusively publishes romance novels for teenagers. Right now on SwoonReads, The Hard Mate boasts a nine out of ten score for having what the site's subscribers call "heat," which is kidspeak for steamy romantic scenes.SwoonReads has more than 27,000 subscribers, who gobble up books like The Hard Mate, which are uploaded in manuscript form by their authors. In addition to heat, the subscribers can rate these books on Swoon Index's in categories like tears, laughs, and thrills. Once the community is hooked on a manuscript, Macmillan Publishing, the site's owner, can choose to publish the manuscript. Since the site is courting teenage readers, the characters are typically between 14 and 19 years old. There's also a section for new adults, between the ages of 19 and 23, who are still eligible for love according to SwoonReads' Submission Guidelines. I, at 24, am SOL.Being 24 meant I was also one of the oldest non-chaperones at the Swoon Reads Party this year's BookCon, the publishing-slash-pop culture convention in New York City's mammoth Javits Center. By 10 AM on a Sunday—a little early to be thinking about romance, especially with a werewolf—groups of girls with caffeinated parents in tow were lined up and ready to answer trivia questions about books and meet their favorite authors.One such fan was 15-year-old Caroline, who ticked off her favorite romance writers, books, and characters on her fingers as if she were writing her grocery list, but said she couldn't find the time to finish To Kill A Mockingbird, which she had been assigned to read for class. Caroline is a publishing executive's living proof that the vampire-werewolf-human romance trope is still dominating the all-powerful teen realm. A longtime fantasy reader, Caroline switched over to romance once the plots started featuring versions of her beloved supernatural characters.Even when there are werewolves involved, Caroline is a classic romantic: "If I'm reading romance, I want them to get together in the end," she said. For her part, she's currently single and not planning on stealing any moves from her favorite characters. "The books don't change how I act towards guys," she said, eyeing her nearby mother. Mom, Caroline's ride from Philadelphia, seemed clearly relieved.Caroline's mom, who read John Green's The Fault in Our Stars at Caroline's insistence, has bought so many romance books for her daughter that she could describe exactly what the "Teen Fiction" shelf looks like in Barnes & Noble. She declined to participate in the mini bookclub Caroline has going with a friend's mom, but is enough of a good sport to make the drive to BookCon.
He was wolf and passion as much as he was man. She let out a groan as he covered her body with his, burying his face in her neck, and pressing his lower body between her legs. He so wished he wasn't wearing jeans, wished he could be inside her. Yet could he really do that to her? She was so pure, and he wasn't. Still it didn't seem to matter, Brother Wolf wanted to be with her.
SwoonReads launched in September 2013 as the pet project of Jean Feiwel, the children's publisher behind popular series like The Babysitter's Club and Goosebumps. According to Nicole Banholzer, a representative of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, the site is now growing by 35 percent month over month. Still, Feiwel insists the decision to focus on romance was less a cash grab than a sanguine outlook for the future of YA fiction. "I felt that given the preponderance of dystopic grim fiction, I really wanted to something to end up OK," said Feiwel. "I was tired of the drumbeat of negativity. I was interested in something else."Related: Noisey asked teens about their taste in music, and their answers were hilarious.SwoonReads is built to take the temperature of how much potential enthusiasm will translate into book sales once a novel is published. When Feiwel noticed that one of the most popular novels on the USA Today's best-seller list was self-published, she began to conceive of a new way to acquire the type of talent that wouldn't find their way past Macmillan's "No Unsolicited Submissions" policy. "There are fans out there so avid to read that they will read something that isn't even published yet," she told me.A quick browse through SwoonReads' Latest Activity section shows that the authors are just as avid as the fans, often responding in gratitude to comments on their own critiqued manuscripts. The genius of SwoonReads is that it allows authors to build a fandom for themselves. "This is a generation that wants to be involved and included in the process," said Feiwel.She also noted that many Swoon community members are aspiring writers, a fact which lends itself to the kind of editorial commenting encouraged on the site. Its blog, with posts like " How to Write a Good Synopsis for Your Manuscript," also provides guidance for authors who likely aren't getting those insider tips from an agent.
"This is a generation that wants to be involved and included in the [publishing] process." —Jean Feiwel
Sandy Hall and Temple West, two authors who have published novels through Swoon, said that interaction with the fans is one of the best parts of the experience. Their recent eight-city tour included a blogger party, and they admit to recognizing most of the faces and handles of their frequent commenters. "When I was a kid, you didn't interact with authors," said Hall. "But now that there's Twitter, and Tumblr, and Instagram, we get so much more interaction with fans and we get to see so much more of what they're thinking. It's made everything much more fun."
Sandy Hall (left) and Temple West (right). Photo by Christine Barcellona
SwoonReads has chosen 14 novels for publication so far, many of which the party attendees seem to have already read. The first was Hall's novel, A Little Something Different, published in August 2014. By following a perfect couple and their will-they-or-won't-they, it maintains the urgency of the werewolves in The Hard Mate but ditches the pulsing heat. Swoon is publishing Hall's second book, Signs Points to Yes, in October 2015.Other novels include Katie Van Ark's The Boy Next Door, about figure skating partners with a mutual crush, and Cindy Astey's Love, Lies, and Spies, set in the 19th Century and described as an homage to Jane Austen. Jenn P. Nguygen's The Way to Game The Walk of Shame, a title that's more progressive than it sounds, is themed around the bullying and sex-shaming that have become major issues in the high school zeitgeist.Part of what makes these novels so popular among teens is not just the sexual undertones, but the relatable themes. In The Hard Mate, which has not as of yet been chosen for publication, Alyssa Brandon touches on teen-specific issues left and right: "Being drugged and raped at a fraternity party and being forced by magic to love someone, father a child, and then killing both the wolf you loved and your unborn child were very different," Hall told me, recounting the novel's plot. "At the heart of YA, there's always a universal story. Whether it's paranormal, dystopian, or not, it's often about feeling left out and not knowing your place in the world."These novels tend to be more Wuthering Heights than 50 Shades of Grey when it comes to depictions of actual sex. (As the submission guidelines state, "We are open to some sex and heat if is right and necessary for the story. However, we will not be acquiring any erotica.") And of the 14 novels chosen for publication, each of them has a heterosexual love story at its core—although Swoon accepts all romance plots regardless of gender, as long as they are "intense."Feiwel was quick to point out that the readers like romance no matter what the coating is. "We go through genre changes. It's dystopic or it's supernatural or historic or whatever it is. But at the core it's the romance. Literary agents were telling me, 'You can't do anything with vampires because that's been done.' But the readers are still reading vampires. Despite what trends in culture or entertainment, in book publishing, the fans are avid and will read what they like regardless of what you're saying is selling. The categories are broad."With the joint objectives of fandom, optimism, and business in mind, SwoonReads recently published Velvet, the first book in a trilogy by Temple West. The description: "Caitlin has seen too much death. Adrian cannot die. Sparks will fly in this steamy vampire romance!" For West, who grew up hooked on the paranormal and tried her hand at novel writing six years ago as a freshman in college, the novel's publication is an exciting surprise. For Feiwel, the main character's immortality is potential for an everlasting series.Back at BookCon, it was easy to see why the SwoonReads model is succeeding. Cat and Kelly, a pair of 20- and 21-year-old friends who are so close that they look and talk like sisters, told me their theories on why the younger generation prefers fantastical romance to flesh and blood lovers: For youngsters who came of age downing Harry Potter novels, it's a short jump to imagine the characters getting it on. Plus, as Cat Pointed out, "everyone is the same" in the real world. It's much sexier to imagine a futuristic world where you could fall in love with a robot.Neither has had much romantic experience in real life, but these books make it clear that a meaningful relationship "could happen one day." And when you're a teen, what's more compelling than that?Follow Leah Prinzivalli on Twitter.
"At the heart of YA, there's always a universal story. Whether it's paranormal or not, it's often about feeling left out and not knowing your place in the world." —Sandy Hall