Exploring the Popularity of the Werewolf Shapeshifter Industry
By Evelyn Garcia (2021)
The powerhouse that is the paranormal romance industry today cannot be understated. However, before delving into this, it is important to understand the expanse of this subgenre. Paranormal Romance according to the Romance Writers of America, are “romance novels in which fantasy worlds or paranormal or science fiction elements are an integral part of the plot” (Romance Writers of America, n.d.). In this report I will be focusing on werewolf shifter romance novels and exploring its popularity. Generally speaking, a shifter in a paranormal romance is a being who either born into or turned can shift into another form at will, usually an animal form such as a wolf, lion, dragon, or bear (Paranormal Romance Club, 2016). By analyzing Goodreads lists and Romance.IO, a website that has a frequently updated database of romance books, werewolves are by far the most common paranormal shifter romance trope (Paranormal Romance Books, n.d.; Romance.IO, n.d.). Examining the popularity of werewolf shifter romances will include understanding when its popularity started rising, what drives the industry by discussing popular authors and their publishers, and why it’s so popular among readers. Specifically, there will be a focus on the popularity of werewolf shifter romance novels from 2006 to 2011 and the dominance Penguin Publishing Group has in this subgenre due to their work with enduring popular authors. To clarify the popularity of shapeshifter romances did not dwindle after 2011, in fact, the popularity of shapeshifter paranormal romance novels continues to grow. Whether that is due to their status as a “guilty pleasure” read, books that transport the reader to a realistic yet fairy-tale world where the inner-psychological desires of the readers are justified, or their role in a readers’ contradictory relationship to feminism remains unknown (Lee 2008, 62; Mukherjea 2011, 3).
Exploration of the When and Who
To understand the specific focus on the years 2006 to 2011, a glimpse on the events that helped build the foundation in prior years must be recognized. To start off with the obvious, the popularity of the Twilight Saga especially New Moon which was released in 2006 must be mentioned. Despite not having the pleasure to have read nor watch the book and movie, the frenzy that overtook the public in the debate between werewolves and vampires or in other words, Jacob and Edward, can’t be denied. It can also be argued that Twilight’s popularity caused publishers to rapidly respond by allowing more releases of “paranormal romance and urban fantasy fiction in response” (Crawford 2014, 236). This argument is one reason that 2006 is a great starting date for the time range I established for being representative of the growing popularity of werewolf shifter romance novels. It is important to note that Crawford later goes on to argue in his book that the popularity of paranormal fiction is declining which I will argue is untrue. On the other hand, contrary to Crawford’s argument the Romance Writers of America found that paranormal romance is among the genres that are growing increasingly popular among youth readership circles (Romance Writers of America, n.d.). Also against this argument is Dr. María Ramos-García, who wrote a great book review in 2016 validating the diversity in paranormal romance outside of vampires and using examples of best-selling authors such as Nalini Singh and Patricia Briggs to prove her point that the paranormal romance genre is not declining. Both authors also happen to write about werewolf shifters and, with Dr. Ramos-García’s focus on Patricia Briggs and her success in paranormal romance, it might be helpful to understand the key authors in the werewolf shifter industry.
In the paranormal romance genre, the impact that authors such as Nalini Singh and Patricia Briggs had in slowly building a fan-base over the years that served as a starting ground for the shapeshifter romance genre cannot be understated. While examining lists such as “Hot Shapeshifter Romances” and the “Paranormal Romance Books” page on Goodreads when starting my research for this topic, the same authors kept appearing: J.D. Tyler, Jennifer Ashley, Kelley Armstrong, Kersley Cole, Laurann Dohner, Lora Leigh, Nalini Singh, Patricia Briggs, Thea Harrison, and Shelly Laurenston. The starting date of the range of years I am examining as being the time that werewolf shifter books became more popular was influenced by the sheer number of publications from the authors listed above in this time period and the fact that all of these authors are still actively popular in the werewolf shifter subgenre. Nalini Singh, for example, is a well-established author who managed to create the widely successful Psy-Changeling Series with 2011 marking the release of the 10th book released in the series in the span of around 6 years with 10 more books to be released in the years afterwards (Psy/Changeling Series, n.d.). The reason 2006 was chosen as the starting year of the range was because she started her career in 2006 with her release of Slave To Sensation which became so popular that in subsequent years she started publishing two books a year for the Psy-Changeling Series.
Patricia Briggs another #1 New York Times best-selling author of the Mercy Thompson series also started off in 2006 with Moon Called and then establishing her other popular series the Alpha and Omega Series with On the Prowl in 2007. To this date both series are still incomplete with a new Mercy Thompson book being released next year and Alpha and Omega book this year, demonstrating the enduring quality these authors have (Patricia Briggs, n.d.).The other authors in this list who are all New York Times and/or USA Today Bestselling authors as well, also got their start in this time range with Jennifer Ashley in 2010 with Pride Mate (Shifters Unbound, #1), J.D. Tyler in 2011 with Primal Law (Alpha Pack, #1), Kersley Cole with A Hunger Like No Other (Immortals after Dark, #1) in 2006, and Shelly Laurenston in 2007 with The Mane Event (Pride, #1) (Paranormal Romance Books, n.d.). Even though all these authors are popular in Goodreads and Romance IO under the werewolf shifter category, it is important to note that authors of werewolf shifter romances often write about other shifters or even vampires. For example, A Hunger Like No Other is about a romance between a vampire male and werewolf female and Pride Mate centers around a town with cat, bear, and wolf shifters (A Hunger Like No Other, 2006; Pride Mate, 2010).
It also happens to be that all these authors except for Laurann Dohner were published by Penguin Publishing Group. This was found by chance when I started recognizing that Berkley, Ace, and sometimes Plume kept reappearing as the publishers that tended to release the most paranormal romance books, which I then found to all be imprints of Penguin Publishing House. This especially applies to Berkley publishing which acquired Ace publishing before being bought by Penguin Publishing (Imprints: Penguin Random House, n.d.). Laurann Dohner, the notable exception and author of the New Species Series starting with Fury (New Species #1) in 2011 was actually published with Ellora’s Cave Publishing, a company that was shut down in 2016 forcing the authors published with them to find a new house (Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc, n.d.). One of these authors Lora Leigh who is mentioned in the list, was a well-established author by the time 2007 rolled around with her first shifter romance Tempting the Beast (Breeds, #1) published in 2003. She is an example of one the authors who had to find a new publisher after Ellora’s Cave Publishing closed and coincidentally enough Lora Leigh ended up with Berkley (Leigh, n.d.). Lora Leigh is only one example of a currently active werewolf-shifter author who started in the early 2000s with Kelley Armstrong serving as a strong second example. Kelly Armstrong, the author of Bitten (Otherworld, #1) started in 2001 and continued to write 12 more books in the Otherworld series. The success of authors like Lora Leigh and Kelley Armstrong who started in the early 2000s opened the gateway for new authors such as Nalini Singh and Patricia Briggs to release their work to an already established shapeshifter genre with fans already craving more material to read about werewolves.
Understanding the popularity of werewolf-shifter books between 2006-2011 is important, however, the reason why they are so popular remains unclear. Trying to break down the psychological reasons behind the appeal for paranormal werewolf shifter romance books comes with understanding the appeal of the Alpha male first. An Alpha male is often characterized as dominant, possessive, and “bad”. Understanding the appeal for this male character type, might mean analyzing different genres that employ this character type or other forms of media such as television.
In “Rooting for the Bad Guy”, the authors argue the everlasting popularity of the bad guy’s character in television relates to the phenomenon of viewers finding a source to attribute the character’s behavior to (Keen et al., 2012). Although the authors later argue other points such as a character’s attractiveness or exposure time contributing to likability of the hero, for my purpose here their first point is most relevant. In many of the shapeshifter romances that we come across the hero often starts off as being angry, dangerous, or lonely leading to problematic behaviors and obsessive/possessive actions toward the heroine as can been seen in Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series or Fury by Laurann Dohner, however, in the course of the novel the reader is often slowly given insight to the background story of the character causing the reader to be able to emphasize with the so called “bad guy” of the novel. Also, keep in mind that unlike TV shows, readers will often put their book down to then resume reading it another day allowing for more time to consider the actions that the “bad guy” took and be more likely to forgive said character. Not only that but being introduced to the hero’s backstory and motives behind their actions often leads to the villainous character emerging in the book as the real threat toward the protagonists’ fated romance. Perhaps the draw of being supportive of the “bad guys” will fade as soon as the character is described as being unattractive, but the beauty of the shapeshifter genre in romance is that in a book there is a greater capacity for the hero to undergo major character development, so what starts off as a “dark character” turns to a more subtle shade of gray by the end of the book. This phenomenon of having a male protagonist with a dominant, flawed, possessive, and “bad boy” personality can be seen in all of the shifter books that were mentioned as of far.
Knowing that this character type is popular and that readers might be willing to forgive the Alpha male character throughout the book still does not explain why they are so popular. One possible explanation that Linda Lee makes is the possible influence of the Beauty and the Beast trope in paranormal romances in her 2008 essay Guilty Pleasures: Reading Romance Novels as Reworked Fairy Tales. Books, keep in mind, will have parallels to the plots of fairytale storylines, however, will often present new conflicts and introduce new dynamics between the characters to keep the main character’s apart for as long as possible to make the ending even sweeter. The Beauty and the Beast inspired plot line, also brings us back to the point that the hero, often introduced as a beastly and dangerous character, often gets redeemed by the end of the novel justifying his actions and more possessive tendencies that he might have had throughout the novel. Lee’s last argument is on the escapism that paranormal romance books provide as a way to exit reality for a while while entering one where the heroine often has power as she often is the one that drastically improves the life of the hero while achieving her happily ever after. This is unique in a scholarly environment where reading books with these Alpha character types are often seen as regressing from feminism by critics and scholars.
This argument was also made by Joseph Crawford in his 2014 book, The Twilight of the Gothic?: Vampire Fiction and the Rise of the Paranormal Romance. He argues that Twilight readers, contrary to critics’ beliefs, understand how Bella’s situation is not an accurate representation of what dating should look like. In fact, pulling from the reader’s comments that Crawford uses, the commonality is that readers often see books like those in the Twilight Saga as a form of escapism as well since Bella lives in a reality where she gets love, power, and wealth while all her problems are magically solved (Crawford 2014, 217). This can also be applied to werewolf shifter books since by the end of the novel the two protagonists always achieve their happily ever after which consists of a timeless love since shifter novels tend to follow the soulmate trope. Oftentimes the heroine will play a role in achieving the happily ever after whether that be by defending herself, warning the hero of danger, or empowering herself by choosing what makes her happy.
The topsy turvy relationship between feminism and paranormal romance is a commonly explored topic and as of far the best piece of literature I found that accurately details what can been seen in the comment section of every Goodreads shapeshifter novel is Mukherjea’s My Vampire Boyfriend: Postfeminism, “Perfect” Masculinity, and the Contemporary Appeal of Paranormal Romance piece. The argument can be summarized as readers craving the old-fashioned security that gentlemen in the past are perceived to provide. Mukherjea also points out that authors often make their main character unrealistically perfect as they often combine the best of modern and old-fashioned worlds to create an Alpha character from their fantasy, which is the point of a romance novel. Even though the essay focuses on vampires, the imperfect balance described in the heroines between being strong and independent while also wanting the comfort of feeling “cared for” by the Alpha hero often proves to be a delicate balance throughout the entire novel. The worst shapeshifter romances, I often read will often break this balance by having a heroine, so stubborn that you end of up being exasperated and annoyed by a character you are supposed to like or in the opposite spectrum being frustrated by the overly submissive heroine that lets the Alpha male run her over. Having these immortal, rich yet lonely shapeshifter antihero males vying for the heroine is a common theme in the shapeshifter genre and having the heroine love this tortured hero and “save” them from their fate is not only a well-oiled formula to success in a shapeshifter romance, but a way to empower the heroine to be strong when the hero is not.
In conclusion, today paranormal shapeshifter romance novels are growing in popularity. Whether that be because they provide a form of escapism where a woman is empowered to help the lovable anti-hero or are an exploration of gender roles outside of what is acceptable in a post-feminism society (Tobin-McClain, 2000), there are a variety of reasons why shapeshifter romance novels remain successful. Considering the rise of the subgenre between 2006-2011 as demonstrated earlier in the essay, there is still so much to explore when it comes to this genre and many ways it has developed since 2011. A topic that I found interesting but didn’t introduce yet is the growing popularity of self-published authors such as Suzanne Wright and Quinn Loftis, who got a start in 2012 and 2011 respectively (About me, 2018; The Grey Wolves Series, n.d.). Their first werewolf shifter books were both extremely popular with 42,725 and 37,300 ratings on Goodreads respectively demonstrating that self-publishing authors can find success in the werewolf shifter industry (Feral Sins, 2012; Prince of Wolves, 2011).
Another influential author that was not mentioned who was published by Ace is Ilona Andrews whose main series focus on cat shifters. With their debut novel Magic Bites (2007) having 112,780 reviews on Goodreads, it is easy to see that cat-shifter novels are popular with the right audience (Magic Bites, 2007). Oftentimes the same audience who reads cat-shifter novels also reads werewolf shifter novels as evidenced by Ilona Andrews release of the first book in thier Grey Wolf series in 2015 (Paranormal Romance Books, n.d.). Another example of this phenomenon is Thea Harrison who started in 2011 with Dragon Bound (Elder Races, #1) which was an extremely popular novel about dragon shifters who then published Moonshadow (Moonshadow, #1) in 2016 (Books, n.d.). Exploring the popularity of romance novels centering other shifters compared to werewolf shifter novels is an interesting topic for future research. One final note to make is that when researching through publisher catalogues, I noticed some of the newer authors are bringing more diverse characters whether that be in race, ethnicity, or sexuality to the genre. Series featuring werewolf shapeshifters such as T.J. Klune’s Green Creek series which started with Wolfsong in 2016 is just one example of how the reach of shapeshifter romances and the definition of what is an Alpha male romance is being challenged and changed to be more representative.
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