No Sex Please, We’re British: US vs UK Rom Coms

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I’m based in the UK and write romantic comedy. As such, I read a lot of Brit rom coms and know the landscape fairly well. I also read a bit of US based romance, and usually picked my book recs from Smart Bitches. Most of the time, I just read whatever pops up next on my kindle and don’t really think about it too much. It was only when I started self-publishing novellas that I really noticed the differences. This article was meant to be about the differences between UK and US romances, so I actually sat down to look at my assumptions. Are the markets so different? The answer is yes and no. To a large extent, the differences are marked out by the types of covers we each prefer.In the end, it became an article about rom com book covers.

A couple of years ago, I decided to try my hand at indie-publishing some novellas. Suddenly, I had a say in my book covers – which meant I had to choose; do I go for ‘US style’ or ‘UK style’ covers? This led me down a rabbit hole of rom com book covers. Let me show you.

Let’s start with a few definitions:

The RWA definition of romance:

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

RWA definition of contemporary romance:

  • Contemporary Romance: Romance novels that are set from 1950 to the present that focus primarily on the romantic relationship

The RNA definition of romance (the Romantic Novelists Association is the UK equivalent of the RWA but is a much, much smaller organisation because, well, it’s a smaller country):

From stories that focus entirely on the developing relationship between two people, to fiction that shows a budding romance as one part of the hero or heroine’s journey, and into books that focus on long-standing relationships weathering storms.

RNA definition of contemporary romance:

  • Contemporary Romantic Novel: Stories about the here and now, where romance forms a substantive part of the story. Any novel set predominantly in the last 50 years.

What these both have in common is a romantic storyline and, crucially, a happy ending (HEA or HFN). Don’t mess with the happy ending, wherever you come from.

The difference is in granularity. One definition is sharply focused – the story centres around the couple, the conflict is around their relationship – other conflicts (family, work, life choices, social issues) can appear as minor subplots but nothing can upstage the romance. The UK definition is wider and all-encompassing. Neither is wrong. Just different.

I have a theory that this granularity is caused by the size of the market. The US market is many orders of magnitude bigger than the UK one, so you can split the market into many subgroups and still serve them all. In the UK, the market is smaller and you can only slice it a few times before the sub groups get too small to be viably called a group without people pointing and laughing. [Random fact – the Amazon categories are different in the US and UK. For example, the US has ‘clean and wholesome’, the UK doesn’t!]

But wait, if there’s more than just the love story isn’t that women’s fiction?

If you look at a lot of the contemporary romance/ rom com charts in the UK, they often have elements of women’s fiction in them. In fact, if you think of the spectrum of romance to women’s fiction as a line, the division between them is much further towards women’s fiction in the UK than you’d expect.  A lot of UK rom coms would be women’s fiction in the US. BUT, the main story is still a romance. Person meets person and they end up happily ever after.

Is there a category for women’s fiction with romance on Amazon? Unfortunately, not.

The Christmas Sisters by Sarah Morgan
The Christmas Sisters by Sarah Morgan
So what does this have to do with covers?

If you compare the UK top rom com chart on Amazon and the US one, the first thing you notice is the difference in covers. There are a lot of illustrated covers in the UK and photographic covers in the US. Often the same book will come out with different style covers in the UK and US editions – for example, Sarah Morgan’s The Christmas Sisters. This is only possible for bigger publishers. Indie authors have to pick one for both territories.

Rom com US Kindle Charts
Rom com UK Kindle Charts

Remember chicklit? Bridget Jones, Becky ‘shopaholic’ Bloomberg etc? Chicklit was huge in the UK. HEOUGE. It’s still a thing in the UK (although no one actually calls it ‘chicklit’ any more). By chicklit, I mean, romantic comedies where the heroine overcomes personal/work/family dilemmas alongside the romance. They had a very specific style of illustrated cover.

The sub genre has widened out quite a bit from the urban living, shopping obsessed, klutzy girl type tropes that started the trend (thankfully!), but the covers haven’t. Most UK contemporary rom coms still have illustrated covers with swirly writing on them, regardless that the story inside might deal with grief, addiction, mental illness or any other dark theme.

The US rom com chart on the other hand, has mainly photographic covers – with a lot of covers with shirtless men on them. This suggests a certain level of hotness. Are US rom coms hotter than UK rom coms? Obviously this varies from book to book and there’s something for every level of steaminess, but in general, there’s more hot sex, usually earlier in the book,  in US rom coms compared to UK rom coms, which usually have one sex scene, two at a push. Closed door/ fade to black is more common (but not universal), even in contemporary romance.

Since insta-love is less popular in the UK (we’re a cynical bunch, us Brits), the UK books tend to more ‘slow burn’ too, which may not be to everyone’s taste. On the other hand, if you like to spend extra time getting to know the characters while they get to know each other, it might be totally your jam.

I’ve read a few US rom coms which have a slow burn and fade to black sex scenes. Broadly speaking, these too have illustrated covers. Perhaps the illustrated cover is becoming shorthand for ‘rom com with banter and maybe a little less sex’. (An honorable exception is The Kiss Quotient, which has an illustrated cover and doesn’t fade to black – it deals with wider issues than the core romance story, but not so much that it gets pushed into the women’s fiction category).

Hang on, does that make UK rom coms clean and wholesome? Ha ha, no. Mainly because of the swearing. Brits swear a lot on casual conversation. ‘Deity swears’ like ‘oh god’ are barely even considered swearing. ‘Bloody’ is almost the equivalent of ‘poot’. To be honest, dropping the odd F bomb isn’t that unusual either. There’s also a more relaxed attitude towards alcohol and casual hook-ups. You may not see as much sex on the page, but it happens more often in the background. Any of these things would hock a book out of the ‘clean and wholesome’ category.

Incidentally, for a nation who are supposed to be irritatingly polite (For examples, see @soverybritish twitter feed, which is close to the truth, it’s painful), Brits are often very rude to their friends. They are also deeply cynical about life. This comes out in the fiction.

Heroes
Misfits

If you want to see the difference, watch Heroes and then watch the original series of Misfits – both are about ordinary people who find they have super powers, but the vibes are very different. Heroes is epic and full of high adventure. Misfits is … not. (I love both).

This might be the reason that there are so many beta heroes in UK rom coms. It suits the self deprecating humour.

What of tropes?

The tropes are quite often the same, because we love the tropes. Mix and match as you require, so long as there’s a Happy Ever After.

It’ll come as no surprise that the people who have bridged the divide best are Harlequin Mills and Boon and other category romance publishers. They make minor tweaks to the text (like maybe a change in spellings to suit the territory) and sometimes change the covers, but manage to keep the brand consistent across the UK, US and Australia. It’s astounding.

Two nations divided by a common language?

Brits like extra vowels in words like colour and ‘s’ where ‘z’ would be and don’t even get me started on ‘aluminum’. There are many, many articles on the differences in spelling, grammar and slang, so I won’t reiterate them here. I think romance readers are savvy enough to work out what’s going on. What with Netflix showing the same shows on both sides of the Atlantic, we’re getting used to each other’s little idiosyncrasies.

Personally, I’m rather fond of the illustrated covers with their propensity towards quirkiness.

So where do Brit rom coms sit in comparison to the US ones? It’s too early to tell, really. The British authors who have successfully moved across either have different covers in the different territories (like Sarah Morgan or Sophie Kinsella) or have covers that are in keeping with the US style (like Talia Hibbert or Lucy Parker). The illustrated covers seem to be maying a small comeback – like the fantastic covers of Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. Maybe they will form a new niche of ‘chicklit’ type rom coms. We’ll have to wait and see.

What do you think? Have you noticed a difference? Does it matter?

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