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A Reformed Stripper (warning–title is clickbait)

Part of my job is to return unsold books to a distributor, and one of my favorite parts of this task–for more than one reason–used to be stripping the covers off the paperbacks that have the little “s” in a triangle near the barcode. That symbol means the book is “strippable.” Thence, the stripping.


Picture by Julie Ortmeier

Often, co-workers from different departments stop by my desk to ask with great concern why I’m doing that. Then they complain at the shameful waste and wonder why I can’t donate them. I’ve had this conversation many times.

There may be other reasons that publishers choose to do this, but I know at least two of them. It’s cheaper to make and destroy paperbacks than to ship them back, and the publishers want to protect the product from unauthorized (read: unpaid) distribution. They want to make money. So do authors. If I were to donate it, that book would enter circulation without ever having paid the author or publisher. At least in a secondhand store, the book’s initial purchase was profitable.

In the past, during that oft-repeated conversation, I would add another reason for my enjoyment. They’re crap.

That’s what I thought several years ago, mainly because many of the books I ripped apart were Romance novels. And not just any Romance novels, but Category Romance novels.

Those are the little red and white Harlequin books, the contemporary stories with steamy lovers on the cover and torrid titles. They’re called “category” because they are written to themes. I remember the Regencies from the 80’s, but now I only see contemporary lines. The most common themes these days are The Billionaire, The Ruler (king/prince/sheikh/CEO), and the one I hated the most, “One Night with Consequences.” That’s where, you guessed it, the leads have sex, break up, and then are thrown back together after it’s learned that there’s a baby on the way or in the cradle. It’s a favorite theme that can be found in all other lines, including fireman, cowboy, veterinarian, etc.

At first, I never looked past the titles. Who would bother? They’re ridiculous turnoffs–for me, anyway. The one that made me sneer the hardest was “Pregnant By Morning.” I ripped that cover joyfully and tossed the rest in the shredder. Just because of the title.

Euphoria didn’t fill me as I destroyed suspense, intrigue, or horror. Those got a perusal of the back cover and contents, and I bought some, or borrowed them from the library.

There is actually a reason I was specifically prejudiced against Romance.

In the ’80s and early ’90s, my mother was an avid collector and consumer of the genre. (Yes, it always goes back to the parents!) Full closet, full bookshelves. Stacks piled up against the wall behind her bedroom door. Slowly, they crept into the hallway, along the bannister, on top of the ledge of the stairwell. That’s when I attempted a count. I ran out of steam, and settled for estimating there were about 1000.

Of course, once I became a teenager, I asked for and was granted permission to read them. I was more selective in my choices, as I recall. The Historical had more sex, but the Regencies were my favorites. And, oh, the rollercoaster of emotions! How could a teenage girl hold on?

This particular teenage girl, however, rapidly wearied of the “Forced Seductions.” I flung one across the room when I was 15 and never went back.


Nearly three decades later, I finally read the back cover of one of those Romance novels. Not the Harlequins, though. An Avon. The description on the back of “I Married The Duke,” by Katharine Ashe, caught me. Good story, well written. Still a sucky title. But whoever wrote that back cover? Excellent job.

And I collected THEM ALL. Scoured the used book stores, ordered some online. I still haven’t read the most recent one, “The Duke,” but I’ve been busy writing my own contemporary romances with my husband. And there are other authors I had to collect. For instance, I was reintroduced to Mary Balogh, and her works are extensive. Some are out of print and prohibitively expensive, though they’re being reissued. “Slightly Dangerous” is my favorite. Basically, it’s a retelling of “Pride and Prejudice.”

(If you click the home on her website, that picture of her novels on the shelf was what my mom’s collection looked like, but more packed, from floor to ceiling, and in several rooms.)

I no longer take pleasure in ripping books apart. I still love sitting and listening to music (Bob Moses, these days). This week was a particularly large return, about 250 books. No titles stood out, but I made my own: “Destined for the Dumpster.” I thought it clever, but it made me sad.*

Now that I’m hoping to one day be paid for my writing, I have a greater respect for the work of those who are. Inside the cover can be found very good stuff, even in those Category Romances. I may not care for a genre, but I can appreciate the craft now.

There’s still lots of dreck in Romance, but there’s dreck in every genre. And I have to say, even in some badly written books that made me think “I could do better,” I still find those emotional highs and lows that make Romance so appealing to me. (BTW, good riddance forced seductions, hello consensual Dom/sub relationships).

Still–I may never get over this–there are the awful, awful titles. Yes, they are a beacon, a call to genre. But I don’t want to walk around with a book called “A Week to be Wicked.” Which is a shame, because that book, by Tessa Dare, is hands down my favorite Romance novel. The whole Spindle Cove series is a delight, but the story of Colin and Minerva has the best pacing, humor, character and relationship development, and sexual tension progression. Minerva, an extreme eccentric for her time, appeals to the modern sensibility with her unabashed individuality and intellect. Colin is wonderfully flawed and vulnerable, and grows so well. His speech about a “beauty monsoon…” O.M.G.

Time for another rereading.

*Much sadistic glee was derived while eviscerating the one Stephen King novel. Last night I violently snorted myself awake from a dream about being in a pitch black elevator with Pennywise. I haven’t read that book in years. Damn your effective, psyche-imprinting writing, King!

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Michael and Julie write separately, but when they write together they are...M.J. Ortmeier!

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