The Next Big Thing Wish List

Do you read? Do you love zombies or the men who fight them? Vampires who for some reason hang around high school girls? Kinky rich dudes? Then you my friend have been loving the shit out of the past few years!

Whenever a book hits it crazy-big out of left field, stories with similar characteristics naturally flood the market, to meet the demand of both readers and the publishers hoping capitalize on the latest trend. There’s nothing wrong with trends. They’re interesting cultural phenomena, and they cycle in and out, year by year. Yesterday’s vampire is today’s billionaire Dom, is tomorrow’s who-knows-what.

Turn, turn, turn. And as many of us hope, chest hair will cycle back into popular acceptance any year now, and grown-ass men will stop wearing tapered stretch-jeans and growing ironic beards that make it confusing for us women seeking guys to ogle who can actually split wood.

But publishing trends can become a touch tedious, especially when marketing dictates that even the covers must all look alike. When Twilight was catching fire, everything was suddenly about red-on-black. And now with Fifty Shades, every erotic romance cover seems to feature a posh accessory on a swathe of satin. All logical marketing shorthand for, “If you liked X, buy this!” But it can feel homogenous, at a certain threshold. Remember all those chick-lit covers? Café-casual illustrations of thin women and lap dogs and high heels? And don’t those look sooo 2002, nowadays? Ubiquity has its perils.

So what’s next? If anyone knew how to predict that, publishers wouldn’t be sent scrambling every time the next big thing presented itself! We can’t know the next great trend in romance, but after simply asking around on Twitter, one thing is clear to me: we want to be surprised. Not by what the trend will be, but by what rules it will break.

We want conventions challenged.

Fifty Shades certainly broke them for the mainstream masses. To the broadly-read romance fan, BDSM’s not so elusive a unicorn. But can you imagine how many of our parents must own floggers now? Wait. Let’s not think too hard about that. Boundaries, Cara.

Here are a few possible trends—my own wishes and those curated via Twitter—that some us would like to see shake up the romance world. They don’t have to be the next sparkly vampire, but it would be nice to see them go mainstream enough that we aren’t stuck begging one another for recommendations.

(Note: these would-be trends all happen to be hero-focused. Not an intentional commentary on anything, just a coincidence…or perhaps an indicator that many of us read romances so we can imagine boning interesting dudes. A distinct possibility.)

Heroes with nerdy jobs. “I’m sort of hoping the next big thing is hot botanists who speak in botanical Latin… [B]otanists are WAY under-rated as sex objects,” says @PennyRomance. There are certainly scientific and academic geek heroes out there, and many of their books have sold well. My brain immediately goes to Wonkomance’s own Del Dryden’s Theory of Attraction, featuring a socially awkward rocket scientist, and forward to Ruthie Knox’s highly anticipated “stuttering hacker” hero in Flirting with Disaster, due to hit your shelves and panties this coming July. We want these books and they do exist, but we still need to turn to community recommendations to find them. They remain the exception.

Heroes with traditionally feminine jobs. @Miss_Shelley_H tossed out, jokingly, “Sexy beta hero social workers with lots of body hair.” She then quickly amended in seriousness, “I really wanna read romance novels with heroes in trad[itionally] feminine careers.” This sparked quite the little discussion. @MaryAnnVadnais wondered, why so many doctor heroes, and nary a nurse to be found? (I was proud to say that After Hours, my April debut with Penguin, features an alpha hero who’s an orderly—basically a nurses’ assistant.) So where are the school teachers, counselors, stay-at-home dads? We want to meet them! And I’d personally like to see a few who aren’t betas. Not because I don’t love beta heroes, but just to prove that a caring profession doesn’t preclude a dominant personality. He can be a nurturer on the clock and still trounce a woman senseless. Dimensional!

Broke-ass heroes. This one’s from my own wish-list, and I know Ruthie shares it, so there are at least two of us in line to buy these books. There will always be an extraordinary abundance of billionaire entrepreneurs and magnates in Romancelandia—too many readers love our genre for the escapism, and for plenty, they want to escape into a world free of financial worry. Understandable. But I’m a weirdo who finds wealth strangely repulsive. Don’t ask me why, I’ve just always been highly suspicious of rich people. So I’d love to see more heroes who are struggling financially, or at the very least who are working class (no shock to anyone who’s read pretty much any of my books.) And as I saw someone say—forgive me, their identity and exact phrasing were washed away in my tweetstream—how come it’s never the heroine who’s the billionaire?

Still, I won’t be holding my breath that a down-on-his-luck autoworker will be the next Christian Grey—not until this recession’s over, at least.

And so those are just three requests I’m tossing out there. But what else are we craving? Racial diversity? Older heroes and heroines? Amputees? Overweight characters? Married couples? Romances set in Africa or Russia or an underground doomsday bunker? Organic farmers? Balloon fetishists? Lay ’em on me. Even if we can’t start a trend, I bet we can at least scare up some good recommendations.

About Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica—sexy stories with depth. Read more >
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46 Responses to The Next Big Thing Wish List

  1. Corie (@obsmama) says:

    Broke ass working class hero’s are my wish seriously there is just something about a hard working blue class worker in Erotica that drives me crazy.

  2. Nicole says:

    Oh, man, do I want some financially struggling heroes. Billionaires just make me jealous that I’m not one.

    I love the idea of heroes in typically feminine profession, especially if paired with a heroine in a typically male dominated job.

    But, my personal wish list is a marriage of convenience where the uptight businesswoman heroine has to marry some unconventional, flighty hero. Or probably any trope where the usual gender roles are flipped.

    Really interesting post!

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Oh, I love it! I’m trying to imagine a scenario in which the hero would be vulnerable and desperate enough that he needed the financial security of marrying a stodgy sugar-mama. Someone write this! Or tell me who already has and what the book’s called.

      • Ruthie Knox says:

        I have this whole marriage-of-convenience novel planned with a guy running for governor who marries his social worker best friend. But now, because of YOU being EVIL, I want the guy to be the social worker and the heroine to be the gubernatorial candidate. *shakes head* If there’s any way to make a book even less marketable, I will find it.

      • Leigh says:

        Sounds like the Sandra Bullock movie “The Proposal.” It was just on TV the other night so it’s fresh in my mind.

        • romney says:

          I was just going to say “The Proposal”! Only they kind of chicken out about about making him too desperate (has he tried submitting his book elsewhere at all?!) and of course it turns out he is rich and as far as I can tell she goes back to her same old stressful job at the end, BUT APART FROM THAT, good film.

  3. Penelope says:

    Love this topic! I’m all about bucking the trend.

    Here’s a crazy idea…*Penny whispers*….

    How about a nice guy hero instead of an a-hole?


    (and if he has a beard and a really hairy chest that wouldn’t be a bad idea either)

    • Cara McKenna says:

      WHOA NOW, PENNY. Them’s crazy-talk!

      Actually, I think there are quite a few nice-guy heroes out there…but they run the risk of getting bashed for being too wussy or doormattish (or making their heroines seem too ball-busting, God forbid). This gender role fuckery can be tricky business.

  4. Jen says:

    Racial diversity is a big one for me. I usually combat the lack of color in books by just imagining everyone is black (or the heroine at least). It’s hard to get in that zone with romance; I continue to be surprised (and annoyed) at how often the heroine’s white, creamy skin is mentioned.
    Broke ass heroes: Oh my Lord, GIVE. I can’t read an “Of all the girls in the world this HOT BILLIONAIRE wants ME!” book without rolling my eyes. I don’t know, these men with everything always come across as complete pansies to me.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      I’m so with you. I think partly for me, a man who hasn’t made it yet, financially, strikes me as more driven, maybe hungrier, with more to fight for and more to lose. Mmmm…desperate. Plus they’re more relatable to me, since I grew up firmly not-rich. I LOVE an underdog hero, a guy who’s got things to accomplish aside from “Better quit being a dick so I can win me this here blushing virgin.” Who may or may not have creamy skin. Likely, she does.

    • Anna Cowan says:

      “I usually combat the lack of color in books by just imagining everyone is black (or the heroine at least).”

      Jen, I love you. That is all.

  5. Please bring on the working class heroes–you see some in HQN American Romance and in their Super Romance line, but I want to see more in Single Title/Sexy Novellas outside category restrictions. And the books where heroine makes more than hero–Loved Lorelei James’ Cowboy Cassanova with Banker heroine and struggling cowboy. I’d love to see more like that or the dynamic in Suzanne Brockmann’s Out of Control w/ military hero and heiress.

    And more nerd heroes–I’m excited that Del has more in the Theory of Attraction universe coming. Dream hero? Love child of Jon Stewart and Nate Silver. Or one of the Hawt Curiousity Rover team members.

    I’d also like to see more accidental Doms–bossy, controlling guys free of the sex club, toy bag, sub seeking scene. The guys who kind of discover what they’re into at the same time as the heroine or who just *are* that way–not an act, not a hobby. Just them. Wealthy Doms with play rooms aren’t as interesting to me as the accountant who realizes binder clips have more than one use.

    And I’m with the other poster–I want more multi-racial heroes and heroines outside of specific lines or plots where that’s the big conflict. I want more multiracial characters where that’s just part of them.

    I’m always down with heroes/heroines with “special needs”–the amputees, scar victims, blind etc. I love seeing people of different abilities find love. And smex.

    I’d also like to see more athlete heroes–particularly minor league and off-beat sports. And we’ve had the baseball trend, the football trend, and the hockey trend. I think it’s time for a truly smexy basketball romance.

    I think things other than Billionaire Doms are coming–I just sold my non-billionaire, couple, good-guy hero to EC.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Jesus! Basketball! Why didn’t I think of that? I am slightly sports illiterate, but I dated a basketball player in college & spent four years cheering on all my buddies. Basketball is the only sports romance I have any business writing.

      OTOH, they are so TALL.

      • Oh please write one!!! You could KILL that theme. And yes, exploit all that TALL. Why not play with stereotypes and use a really tall heroine instead of the 5’3″ usual sports romance heroine? I still have a soft spot in my heart for the 90s movie “Love and Basketball” where they were both basketball players. That but with on-screen smex . . .

  6. Jessi Gage says:

    <> LOL! It’s SO the truth.

    On the theme of heroes in traditionally female roles, I have to throw out there GRAND JETE by Diana Copland is a m/m romance featuring a male nurse and a male balet dancer. I read it a year or so ago and really enjoyed it.

    What new trends would I like to see? More virginal heroes. I like reading about a man who’s been fantasizing about it for so long that when the moment comes, he is so incredibly present and not willing to waste a single nanosecond. I’d also like to see more romances featuring Christian heroes. I don’t mean inspirational romances. I mean REAL romances that feature guys who participate in their communities, imbibe responsibly, curse when they get angry, kiss like demons, and go to church.

    I’m with you, Cara, too. I like a blue-collar hero. I loved Tate in SWEET DREAMS. And I still sometimes imagine boning Michael from WILLING VICTIM.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Damn, girl—your description of a fully present virginal hero made me flutter! I love a long-suffering hero. I haven’t written a virgin before, but I do find myself writing heroes who haven’t gotten any in a long time, because that desperate-waiting factor is delicious. Or straight-identified guys who wind up banging other dudes—that’s a sort of quasi-virginity loss, in my mind. Or, heroes who’ve been infatuated with the heroine but couldn’t have her (usually those wind up as love triangles.) Oh, the horny longings!!

  7. Amy Raby says:

    Nerd heroes–Love them, although sometimes I’ve been disappointed by the execution. I think an author needs to know and love nerd culture to write a nerd hero well.

    Heroes with feminine jobs–I would love a nurse hero. I went to the ER once with sudden, severe pain. The female nurse on duty didn’t take me seriously and just left me suffering in a room, all by myself and shaking in agony. Then there was a shift change and a male nurse, who was this huge guy covered in tattoos, came on duty. He wrapped me up in blankets (I was for some reason very cold) and gave me morphine, and just for that, HE IS MY HERO FOREVER AND EVER AND I WILL NEVER FORGET HIM. (The problem I had was life-threatening and I ended up having emergency surgery.)

    Broke-ass heroes–I’m there as long as they’re passionate about what they do.

    Amputee heroes–I wrote one.

    Virgin heroes–I like. You know what I don’t think I’ve ever read in a romance novel? A virgin/virgin sex scene.

  8. Nerd heroes are definitely on the rise – and power to the geeks! I wrote a blog post on this very thing (and mentioned The Theory of Attraction, too!) : And the hero of the novel I’ve just finished is – an accountant! My heroine takes him at first for a cowboy, since he’s from Wyoming, but as she later tells him, “Herding cattle is OK, I suppose, but I need someone to look after my books.” I’m about to start filling in my tax return and what wouldn’t I give right now for that sort of hero.
    I loved this thought-provoking post and your whole blog. Having multi-racial characters as the norm is long overdue and I’m thinking of a way to try and make this integral to my next story. My present heroine has an Asian (Pakistani) girlfriend. I’d really love to read a romance novel where this is developed further and multi-racial relationships are not a source of conflict, but just the norm.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      The ethnicity issue in romance is borderline embarrassing. It makes me long to see some survey that breaks down the demographics on romance readers. I KNOW we are not all creamy-skinned white girls (or freckly ones, in my case).
      Personally, I can admit that writing characters from other cultures makes me nervous. For no good reason whatsoever. I just worry, “What if I get it wrong? What if they sound…inauthentic? Or worse, stereotypical?” Which is so stupid. Like people of other backgrounds must or mustn’t sound any particular way! Still, I’m guilty of not going all the way with non-white characters. Mine always wind up multi-racial—half Korean; half Tongan; Cuban-Cajun-Choctaw-white; black-Hispanic-Jewish-white; a couple swarthy Europeans. But they’re always a bit white! I’ve got a 100% Colombian-American hero in a Blaze out this coming summer. I think he’s the only protagonist I’ve written who’s not some flavor of white, but I still made sure he was from an area I could relate to. I get panicky without some cultural point of entry. I get the fraud-sweats.

      • Cara McKenna says:

        Oh, wait! I lied. I wrote a Palestinian hero. Duh. There was nothing about Rasul I could relate to whatsoever, drawing from my own life. And actually, that made him very exciting to write, though whether I did a decent job of representing his culture or not, I do not know. Though I did make him OCD. Maybe making him anxious was my point-of-relation :-)

      • Jen says:

        I’m a little late here but just wanted to respond to this and I might just sound like I’m reiterating some of your points but – I get the reluctance and the fear of getting it wrong because there is a perceived notion of what a Black person should be like, or a Latino or an Asian or so on and gawd, it bites. You step outside of those lines and people are like, “Hey! Black people don’t talk that way!” Except they do. I do.
        I’ve been told, since birth it seems, that I’m a fraud. Sometimes by people who have never interacted with a black person before in their life! And yet, there’s this idea of who I’m supposed to be strictly based off of the color of my skin.
        And then there is the idea that there’s no market for black stories or multiracial stories: “I write what sells!”, as if people of color either don’t read or are content to only read about characters who look nothing like them. My blood always boils when I read a comment by a white reader who refuses to read a story about a character of color because they “just can’t relate”. For real?!!!!
        Anyway, I appreciate the effort you’re making and I plan on picking up Rasul’s story!

  9. Mary Ann Vadnais says:

    This conversation is a particularly exciting one for me, mainly because my first and most coveted love is contemporaries, and I sometimes find it hard to track down contemporaries that seem contemporary–to me. So many of the h/h in their 20s/30s that I find in contemporary have well established careers, flawless grooming combined with an expressive style, homes/circle of friends/vacation habits. They’re . . . grown-ups.

    And while I could argue both that on the outside I sort of look like a grown-up and that we’re talking about fiction (and add a sidebar that relating to characters is not the same as understanding their lives), a big reason I get so excited about male nurses and blue collars and statistics nerds is because these kinds of ‘daily work’ identities imply lives that have a unfinished quality. Room for love. A contemporary voice with the kind of angst, mess, poverty, and lack of style that a love story can sink its teeth into.

    Also, I can attach work and background and backstory to these kinds of characters in a way I never will be able to when the h/h is a 27 year-old kazillionaire with V-shaped lower abs. All the 27 year-olds I know aren’t finished off like that, aren’t in a position that hot sexxoring with the loves of their lives would be an embarrassment of riches. A nerdy 27 year-old evolutionary biology graduate student, however, who is trying to figure out how to hold off his landlord until a student loan check comes in and hasn’t been to the gym since senior year PE class and works at Old Navy during the holidays–well. That guy’s mind is going to be fucking blown, in a totally satisfying (for me! all about me!) sort of way when he meets the love of his life. His heart and life are so hungry for both the release of The Best Sex of His Life ™ and the chance to share with someone else how his life is going to build and change.

    I think there is a difference between ordinary and uncommon that this wishlist post and these comments are yearning for that really will be the next “contemporary” voice. Authors who find that sweet spot (and many already have. Those posting here and contributing to this blog, for example), will usher in the new readers and writers to the community. Also, I’d love to see this horde of uncommon ordinaries bust into contemporary in huge numbers and reanchor it–selfishly, I want to see it there and not look for it in New Adult (which I also think is a kind of response to this sort of yearning).

    Bring me your tired and hairy and hourly-waged and underinsured and scrubs-clad and tattooed and overeducated and dinosaur-obsessed. I kind of know those folks already and it would be hot to watch them bone and get schmoopy.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Wow. This comment gave me happy shivers. I want that, too. All that stuff.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Oh, SO with you on the issue of late-twenty-somethings who’ve already “made it.” I’m thirty-three and I still only have half a clue what I might want to accomplish, let alone actually feeling like I’ve accomplished it!

      • Anna Cowan says:

        This! When I was reading romance in my mid-20s, that all still seemed plausible. Now I’m like, “That billionaire is three years younger than me…” Er.

  10. I am always attracted to books with unconventional and interesting heroes and heroines. I really like the allure of the blue-collar, struggling working man. So I would like to see a trend along those lines. I’d also like to see an increase in inter-faith relationships. I think that could lead to some interesting story ideas.

    Probably the new trend I would really like to see is one in which the hero and/or heroine challenges societal standards of beauty, whether that means resistance to anti-aging, crazed fitness, and strange diet trends to always visible tattoos to amputees to curvy women. I could go on and on along these lines, so I’ll stop here. :)

  11. Came back to this because I was just thinking in the glut of holiday romances, which are like total chocolate-coated crack for me, you don’t see other traditions represented outside of the protestant norm. I’d love to see more jewish heroines/heroes on the lines of what Dev Bentham does in her m/m–where it’s simply a part of the character, not the central conflict. And Muslim. I’m reading Mourad’s New Moroccan Cooking right now, and someone needs to make this guy a hero. Also on my wish list? A Pagan or Buddist hero outside of paranormal/mystical and where it’s not a comedic point.

  12. Megan says:

    I love nerd/broke heroes. Maybe because my husband was a broke nerd when I met him? Hmmm…

    Either way, I’m not into the rich, hero. I typically like heroes who are broke, struggling, trying to make their way until the heroine comes in and makes them want to DO better. I love books where the hero and heroine are such a good pair, that they make each other better. And want better.

    So maybe I’m just sappy?

    • Mary Ann Vadnais says:

      Yes! I want the h/h to want. I want them to want more than just each other. I want to see them start to want for the other what the other has been wanting.

      • Megan says:

        YES! I completely agree with this. They want for each other as well. And they help each other, even if it’s just with emotional support, to be better people.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Not sappy, I don’t think! I suspect part of what weirds me out about wealthy heroes is that some skeptical part of me thinks, “Well, if he’s so rich in this one arena, he must be stone-cold broke in the emotional or social or ethical departments!” If a person’s crazy-successful at one aspect of life, I tend to assume they must be boning up other ones. Simply because I know that in my life, if I’m killing it in one area on a given week, chances are I’m letting the other ones slide. Like this week I’ve had to have my writer’s hat on non-stop to meet a deadline, and my house is falling to pieces around me and my husband is [rightfully] whining like a neglected puppy for some attention. So if a dude’s a billionaire entrepreneur, my brain immediately intuits, “He’s got all his eggs in that basket, and not a single one left over to make the heroine a love-omelet. Unbalanced! Run!!”

      • Megan says:

        I’m cracking up at “love-omelet.”

        But yes, I understand what you are saying! And I’m the same in my life, too.

        I just need my h/h to fall in love with themselves and with their lives as well as with each other. I’m such an HEA sap.

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  14. kini says:

    I would love to see more diversity in books. I think it is ridiculous to think that the majority of books live in these bubbles where only white people live. Kristen Ashley has the most diverse characters of any books I have read. And she doesn’t seem to treat them any different. They are just people.
    I am also a fan of the broke hero. The millionaire/billionaire thing is not exciting. So what he has money. Give me a man who works hard and struggles like the rest of us.
    I get that books provide an escape, but I prefer to escape where at least a few things are realistic.

  15. Nila says:

    No one seems to have gone here, but I had a very memorable series of dreams back in college about a guy (not based on anyone I knew) who was physically repugnant to me: fat and out of shape, dull polyester clothing and greasy hair, and,well, everything about him was unattractive. He was just so hot! Being with him was outrageously great.

    Then, what about situations that set us off? Things like flying, when just about anyone would do the trick?

    Anyone thought of garbage men?

    • Cara McKenna says:

      That sounds like a tricky—but undeniably fascinating—facet, Nila! I think the trouble with writing a repugnant-yet-magnetic character would all lie in the execution and the author’s voice, particularly while in the heroine’s POV. If the heroine’s POV made me buy it, I’m in! Very Beauty and the Beast. But if the voice couldn’t sell it to me…I’m thinking more Ignatius from Confederacy of Dunces :-)

      I for one would totally write a garbage man hero! If any of my editors would let me get away with it, that is. [Note to self: pitch garbage man Blaze hero to Brenda, just to see if she survives the shock.] Actually, one of my block’s recycling pick-up dudes is a total fox! But thus far, the best I’ve managed is for a heroine’s father to work in sanitation. Baby steps!

  16. Nila says:

    Yes, I love the casual grace of the guys on our garbage (sanitation) crew! They can heft anything with contemptuous ease.

    Yah. I think the repugnant dream guy has stuck so long in my head because it is a real mystery. But, what if it’s a little kink in the heroine’s past, just a bit of an itch that continues to draw her to some ickiness in her lovers? Well, the hero will have to help her get over it (If he’s gorgeous) or help her live with it if the repugnant bit is something that turns them both on.

    BTW, I’m not used to Twitter, but I am stalking Didier. I’d love to see him as the next big romance trope: the guy who seems like he should be repulsive, who reveals himself to shine like the most distant, beautiful star, and is then more fully seen as stilly shiney but a bit tarnished. Of course, he needs loving care. Who can resist caring and reclaiming a slightly damaged hero. … I think I could visit stories about him forever.

    Thanks so much for Didier!

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Oh, you’re so welcome! I’ve been really pleased that he’s received such a warm reception from readers. Apparently there’s a special tenement in Romancelandia reserved for agoraphobic male prostitutes with mommy issues :-)

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