Shipper Bait and Love Machines: The SFF Romance Panel at #Nebulas2020

Cassie Alexander, C.L. Polk, Shanna Swendson, Jeffe Kennedy, Yasmine Galenorn speaking at the virtual Nebula Awards conference

The Nebula Awards Conference is SFWA’s annual get-together not only to hand out the Nebula Awards in a gala ceremony but to hold networking and professional development workshops, panels, and events. This being 2020 and the Pandemic Era, its been moved online to be completely virtual. I just “attended” the panel Publishing SFF Romance: Pick a Seat, Not a Side, moderated by Jeffe Kennedy. It was a really fun discussion that touched on a lot of different issues related to writing material that either crosses over between SF/F and romance, or are adjacent to both romance and SF/F. (Because these authors are mostly in some form of fantasy, the discussion was mostly on the F portion of SF/F, not the SF.)

Jeffe Kennedy, was the moderator, and she’s written all over that map where the realms of romance and SF/F overlap, and included authors Cassie Alexander, C.L. Polk, Shanna Swendson, and Yasmine Galenorn. One of the first things they all addressed was the fact that traditional publishers very often struggle to categorize their works which have both fantasy elements (i.e. magical setting or paranormal characters) and a romantic relationship (even if that relationship isn’t the main focus). This means sometimes a book will land in YA, chick lit, romance, or fantasy, but that the very same book could have landed in a different category if the publisher had made a different decision or if a different publisher had acquired it.

Interestingly enough, Shanna Swendson had the experience of fantasy publishers telling her that her book was too “romance-y” even though the characters don’t even kiss in it. “They were telling me to go pitch it to romance publishers and I thought… but the romance publisher will be very disappointed by this!” She allowed that what she writes is “shipper bait,” where readers yearn for the characters to get together. (And they eventually do… several books into the series.)

That brought up the topic for me of the “slow burn” romance, so I tossed a question into the audience chat room. I feel you can’t really do a “slow burn” in any kind of contemporary romance because one book is not enough time for the burn to be slow. In an urban fantasy series, though, where the focus can be on saving the world or whatever, you can take several books to build up the relationship.

Shanna agreed: “That is one of the reasons I moved away from romance to fantasy is, at that time–again talking more than 15 years ago, so the world has changed a little–in traditional publishing, you really couldn’t do a slow burn romance. A romance novel had to have the ending in the book. The couple had to meet, work there things out, get together in one book. I always felt that was rushed… In fantasy is where I think you have the room to really play with that slow burn that you are dealing with all of these other situations, and the couple can gradually get to know each other. I took nine books to get these poor people married!”

Jeffe chimed in with this: “When we were shopping the forgotten Empire series, it was nice we got offers from several different publishers, and one of the publishers, which tends to be more of a romance focus, wanted to do the trilogy with a different pairing in each book. We went with St. Martins [instead] in part because my editor was like, ‘let’s do a slow burn romance over the trilogy of this pairing,’ which was something I really wanted to do. I wanted to take my time, because it is an enemies-to-lovers story. I wanted to take my time, instead of doing Insta-love, bringing them around to understanding each other.”

Seems like it’s only the publishers who have this discomfort or difficulty with books that have a mix of romance and fantasy. Readers have no problems with it at all, which is why so many of the urban fantasy writers, according to Yasmine Galenorn have not only gone indie, they’ve “taken over the urban fantasy genre.” Yasmine was traditionally published for nearly 20 years before going indie, and she’s been very happy in the indie world. Cassie Alexander also has made the switch to indie with a new series and loves that unlike a publisher who is focused on putting a book into a single category and on a single shelf in the bookstore, an indie author can and should hit all the market.

The idea of using “tags” like on the fanfiction Archive of Our Own (AO3) was brought up from the audience chat as a way to hit all the buttons and market to many different people. So if a reader was looking for slow burn, enemies-to-lovers, they’d be able to find it. Cassie said she and her co-author literally put “slow burn” into the subtitle for a series so people would know what they were in for, both to attract the folks who love that and also to give fair warning so readers who were expecting a happy ever after in every book in the series wouldn’t be so cranky. (“That still hasn’t stopped people from being cranky about the slow burn of it,” though, she said.)

C.L. Polk talked about using AO3-style tagging: “This was something I did with Witchmark early on. One of the things I did, specifically, as a coldhearted mercenary, marketing term was I made up my own set of tags, with the typical AO3 sense of humor in the tags, and I posted them on twitter. I was not the first, but I was the early adopter of this practice, and I stand by it.”
Another question from the audience was about how you know what level of language to use for sex words in your book if you don’t know if it’s going to be marketed and published as romance or as fantasy? Shanna and Chelsea could sidestep that since they don’t write explicit sex. “[I write] Just kissing,” Chelsea said. “I don’t have to talk about anybody’s love machine or anything like that.”

Yasmine: I am pretty blunt, pretty explicit.

Cassie: I also wrote a 75,000-word choose-your-own adventure in erotica. I actually err more toward the sexy clinical. It is interesting to see how words that you thought nobody likes anymore have come back into fashion, and sometimes the male protagonist saying them is like a power-play. The “C” word is what I go with. For a while, that was not allowed because it could possibly be derogatory toward women. Now, if you are an alpha guy, that is probably part of their vocabulary. Even if you say it in a sexy way. I think it is context, too. There are other words: not everything has to be flowers and things like that.
Jeffe: I think we are all going to be using love machine from now on!

Overall, a great panel that covered a wide range of experience and possibilities. What I have mentioned here is a small fraction of the hour-long conversation.

Jeffe Kennedy:
Cassie Alexander:
C.L. Polk:
Shanna Swendson:
Yasmine Galenorn:

Note: You must be a registered Nebula attendee to see the archived video or access the transcript. If you are a Nebulas attendee and missed the panel, you’ll find it here:

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