Galley Girl: Linda Lael Miller and the Rise of the Cowboy Romance Novel

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David Becker / ZUMA Press

Novelist Linda Lael Miller

Publishing reporter Andrea Sachs writes about the book industry here every weekend.

Move over vampires! Alpha men are back with a vengeance in romance novels, and cowboys are helping lead the charge. There are contemporary cowboys, historical cowboys, erotic cowboys and even paranormal cowboys. Snicker at your own risk, ye of snooty literary tastes. Romance fiction, with $1.36 billion in sales in 2010, constitutes the largest share of the consumer book market; more than a quarter of all books sold are romances.

But why cowboys, we asked romance maven Sarah Wendell, author of Everything I Know about Love I Learned from Romance Novels, and cofounder of SmartBitchesTrashyBooks.com, a top romance blog. “Cowboys have been a perennial part of romance, in terms of romantic archetypes,” says Wendell. “One of the reasons they’re a mainstay is because there is an inherent nobility in the idea of being a cowboy. England has dukes and earls and various forms of nobility; the United States has cowboys.”  As for their erotic appeal, she explains, “There is something very sexy about knowing that at 4 in the morning, if it’s 20 degrees below zero, that a guy’s going to get up and take care of things.”

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With more than 100 romance novels on her vita, Linda Lael (rhymes with “sale”) Miller is one of the leading practitioners of the increasingly popular cowboy genre. Miller, who is known around Harlequin, her publishing house, as “First Lady of the West,” comes by her interest in things western naturally. She grew up on a ranch, and her father was a town marshal, “the real thing, with the star-shape badge,” she says.  “He had been a bull rider in the rodeo. He got a bad bull, though, and wisely gave up the sport.” She grew up on a steady diet of western movies and TV shows such as Bonanza. Miller has a theory of why even urban women are drawn to cowpokes. “Everybody appreciates authenticity, integrity, courage. You know, there’s John Wayne’s famous quote that courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” Miller suspects that is particularly true now. “I think especially in difficult times, people are really hungry for the authentic.”

And who are the heroines in Miller’s novels who end up with these cowboys? Says the author, “They’re always really strong people. Jut as the cowboys are unabashedly male, the women are unabashedly female. So they may really love this guy, but they have their own goals, their own agendas, usually their own kids or family or friends…They’re strong people and [though] they really want to be with this guy, they know they’re not going to die if they don’t. They’re still going to be happy, just in a different way.”

But being alone isn’t the aim of a good romance novel, so it doesn’t hurt sales that uncovering the erotic potential of the cowboy hero is Miller’s forte. It’s not an accident that she was named “the Most Outstanding Writer of Sensual Romance.” In her current New York Times bestselling cowboy collection, Holiday in Stone Creek, what begins in Chapter 3 as heroine Olivia O’Ballivan’s timid fantasy  (“Drugstore cowboy, Olivia thought, but she couldn’t work up any rancor. Tanner Quinn might be laying on the Western bit a little thick, but he did look good. Way, way too good for Olivia’s comfort.”) turns into an X-rated romp less than 50 pages later (“She wanted hot, sticky, wet sex. And she knew Tanner could give it to her.”)

While sales of just about everything else have gone down lately, romance novels have proven remarkably recession-proof. That has been particularly true in Miller’s case; this year, each book of her “Creed Brothers” trilogy debuted on the New York Times mass-market fiction bestsellers list at No. 1. But can cowboys outdistance vampires, the current reigning romantic protagonists? “I think the cowboy IS the new vampire,” opines Margaret Marbury, the vice president of editorial for Harlequin, Miller’s publisher and the No. 1 publisher of romance literature in the world. “But the beauty of the cowboy is that you actually can enjoy him during the day, too.”

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