Today we are honored to host Kathryn Falk, also known as Lady Barrow. She’s hailed as “Queen of Romance” and a “brilliant, phenomenal promoter” by the New York Times. Kathryn is the founder of Romantic Times Magazine, now RT Book Reviews. She and her magazine became the voice for reading fans and professional writers alike when there was none. I have known Kathryn for many years and followed her career, finding her one of the most fascinating women I know. Today, she’s here to tell us a bit of her history and how a review magazine works.
Hello to the WITS gang and their readers. It’s really fun being here today.
One of the most fun and interesting times in my life started in 1981 when I founded RT Book Reviews – then called Romantic Times — the very first Romance review publication. I believed that if millions of women were buying the new sensual historical novels, they must be like me and want information about the books and authors, the illustrators, cover models, and how-to-write articles.
Of course, people thought I was a little crazy. No one believed romance readers needed or wanted a publication. But I knew the subject, having been a rabid historical reader my whole life, head of the library club in school, and fashioned my life after Angelique, in the French historical series!
I also knew that the old maxim is true: You need talent and opportunity – then you need luck!
I was a whiz of a typist and I believed in myself. My new boyfriend (now my husband) was very sweet and supportive. I began working out of a walk-in closet in his 1870 carriage house in Brooklyn Heights where we both still reside – on the 2nd floor above his private antique coin-op museum.
My first issue was tabloid- style, on newsprint. It was supposed to be a newsletter but I couldn’t afford glossy white paper. Besides, the low cost meant I could have a 24-page tabloid with room for articles, interviews, illustrators, publishing news, etc. Even astrological signs! I discovered that there were more Sagittarians than any other sign. Which is my sign, too.
My mother-in-law, an English professor and lecturer on English Classics was my first reviewer. Only about 30 books were covered, since the romance industry was in its infancy. Writer’s Digest had been advertising for authors like crazy.
Kathie Robin and the late, great Melinda Helfer wrote, asking to contribute to the publication. And then there were four!
In the early days, no one knew the authors and I needed some credibility for starting a publication, so in 1982 I wrote my first book on that subject. Love’s Leading Ladies, containing 65 profiles of romance writers. It was Pinnacle’s first over-sized trade edition.
Among the authors interviewed were: Barbara Cartland, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Bertrice Small, Janet Dailey, Rosemary Rogers, Shirlee Busbee, Jude Deveraux, Victoria Holt, Patricia Mathews, Janet Louise Roberts, LaVyrle Spencer, Dorothy Garlock, Cynthia Wright, Phyllis Whitney, Jayne ( Castle) Krentz, etc. My editor was Bonnie Golightly, the muse for “Breakfast at Tiffany” and my former neighbor in Greenwich Village.
We spent a lot of time conceiving our review system. At one point, we added a sensuality rating since many women preferred reading a Sweet book while others wanted to know if a book was Hot.
Our vetting process for reviewers was, and still is a very serious process. We look for long-time readers with favorite genres, who exhibited clarity and intelligence in their review writing. For the first few months, we ask other reviewers to read the books and check out the reviews and ratings of new hires.
As happens in any business, we did have one clunker. Her career with us was very short as she never met a book she didn’t like. I also caught her begging free (old) titles from authors. She was finally caught at Amazon posting a dozen or more reviews daily. Unprofessional behavior isn’t tolerated.
So what happens when an author complains about an Interview? We “always” respond to the author and investigate the issue by asking our editors to read the book. Then we compare notes. RT has longtime reviewers who are fair-minded. Over the years, they have read the best and the worst. And of course they have a gauge for their ratings. A book may have many good qualities, which the reviews explain to our readers, but it’s not a top pick if it isn’t in the same league with the greats.
Some of the reviewers are very picky – in the past we have received complaints that our reviews were “soft” so we came up with a stiffer criteria for judging.
We have a responsibility as a Bookseller’s and Reader’s Buying Guide. Many women have budgets for their books, so we hope our reviewers help them find books they want.
Is our system perfect? It can’t be. Reading is personal. Each reviewer has a criteria and personal taste.
Besides its reviews, RT has become known for its fantastic conventions. In 1982, I organized the first Romantic Times Booklovers Convention. Held in New York City, the one-day event at the St. Regis Hotel attracted mostly aspiring authors and the newly-published. We honored the top authors — Rosemary Rogers, Anya Seton, Tom Huff aka Jennifer Wilde, Elsie Lee, and book packager Lyle Kenton Engel.
I promoted this event in RT by inviting publishers and agents to hold court in various hotel suites, giving attendees the opportunity to discuss their manuscripts. We crammed in a lot in that one day, the awards ceremony, a “date with a prince” (the late Prince Kedker), seminars and a book fair.
Our second convention presented the Romance business in full glory at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. I sponsored a Love Train that went from California to New York, picking up readers and writers along the way. My roommate was Elsie Washington, author of the first black romance, published by Ecstasy’s editor Vivian Stephen, who founded RWA.
Women dressed in pink waited for us at every station. George Csisery and his film crew were on board and made a movie called “Where the Heart Roams.”
Over the years we’ve developed new ways to attract readers including 20 Mr. Romance Pageants with my discovery, Fabio. After 5 conventions in NY, we took our conventions around the country, a practice that still continues.
As readers and writers expanded from category romance and historicals to many other genres we changed the name of the publication to RT Book Reviews, and we are now also in digital format.
We work hard on our internet presence, the RTBookReviews.com web site has blogs, videos, banner ads, and archives — some 40,00 reviews. Thousands of authors can be discovered there.
Our goal has always been to have cutting-edge information. We were the first to recognize erotic books, in the days when one publisher asked, “why are you promoting dirty books?” That same publisher, a few years later stood up and said, “our bestselling books are erotica.” And he whispered to me, “Hush!”
We persuaded Walter Zacharius to publish black romances. And we supported the very first women who saw the future of e-books. Publishers called me about that, too. I said, “it’s new blood.” I’ve always known business doesn’t stay static. Books, to my mind, are like fashion — “They change every year. If you don’t keep up, you become a dinosaur.”
Carol Stacy, our publisher, has been a big promoter of YA. She created the first Saturday YA program which has attracted mothers and daughters from around the country. She also created Fan-tastic day which meant we had no more time or space for the Mr. Romance Pageant – which many readers sorely miss. We do have a Reunion party, and the cover models add a lot of testosterone to our events.
My favorite part of our May 2013 Conference – our 30th — was a reunion of a dozen of the original Historical Romance authors from the 1970s and 80s. A surprise attendee at the convention was E.L. James.
Next year, in New Orleans, we expect our biggest convention turn-out yet. Our agenda is easily 45 pages.
Although I’m retired, I still keep in touch from my organic farm in Texas. Occasionally I have time to visit my village of Barrow in England, my Alpine house in Austria, and my restored house in the ancient city of Badolatoin Calabria.
My husband is now President of RT — I tell everyone he slept his way to the top! Engaged 29 years and married almost 4 years, it seems to be working. He commutes from Texas to Brooklyn, where he’s working on a book devoted to cigar vending machines.
I’m so glad I was a romance reader and that our books and RT magazine mean the world to readers.