Today I’m delighted to welcome Leah Koch, co-founder and proprietor of THE RIPPED BODICE, an exclusively romance bookstore on the West Coast of the USA.
Hello and welcome, Leah. First of all, many congratulations to you and your sister Bea (on left in photo) on winning Bookseller of the Year in the UK RNA’s Industry Awards 2020. Could you start by telling us where the idea for a romance-only book store came from and why the name The Ripped Bodice ?
Thank you for having me! We came up with the idea for TRB in 2015 and it was really just based on our love for the genre and our desire to see a brick and mortar bookstore devoted to the genre. Bea has written her master’s thesis on fashion in historical romance novels which was called Mending The Ripped Bodice , so we stole it from here. We also wanted to recognize the history of the genre and have a little fun with it.
How nice to find that the winner of an award also makes awards! Could you tell us how you came to establish The Ripped Bodice Awards for Excellence in Romantic Fiction and say a little about it, such as what categories of romance are covered and what range of backgrounds the judging panel is drawn from?
We were dissatisfied with the awards for romance that already existed (mainly in the US) so decided to create our own! The main thing that sets us apart I think is that all novels are judged on the same plane. We don’t have any categories, we simply put out a list of the best romance of the year. Our judges come from all around the romance community, we have bloggers, bookstagrammers, reviewers, teachers and booksellers!
How did you go about deciding on the siting of the store and what to stock—for example, do you go mainly for the latest releases or include older romantic classics as well? Do you stock books in languages other than English and by authors from other countries than the USA?
Making stocking decisions can be really hard! We do try to have all the big new releases but we want to make sure we have lots of foundational books as well. We only carry English titles in store but we can special order books in other languages. We definitely carry books by authors from all over the world. I think we have representation from the Philippines, Australia, the UK, Switzerland and New Zealand off the top of my head.
Those of us who write romance are well aware that readers vary in what they expect or want from a romance novel, from a sweet, traditional HEA ending (implying nothing shown beyond the bedroom door), to more graphic sexual content and even violence. Do you classify your stock in this regard so a customer can search on the right display shelves? And do you have any limits in terms of what you might not wish to stock?
We shelve by subgenre, not necessarily heat level, but that’s one of the most important things about having a well informed staff and shopping at a genre specific store, that’s something our booksellers can help customers with! Probably the only hard and fast rule we have about what we won’t stock would be books that portray abuse as romantic.
Here in the UK, we understand that the year 2020 saw a considerable growth in ebook sales and some difficulties and delays with production and distribution in the print book market, because of the pandemic. Has the USA experience been similar? What are the main challenges in establishing and maintaining a customer base for a physical book store? And do you market any ebooks as well?
Yes I think we’ve experienced a lot of the same things here. There isn’t a lot we can do about production issues on our end unfortunately. We just try to keep our stock up to date and do the best we can! We don’t sell ebooks at the moment, preferring to focus on physical books.
I notice you produce your own newsletter, and (in ‘normal’ times at least) run events and have a shop selling things other than books, plus a tea service. How important has it been to establish these other aspects of the business in terms of attracting customers and building a strong base?
Hugely important! I always tell people that we are successful because we create multiple revenue streams for ourselves. We don’t just sell books. We have our own line of tea, host events and writing classes, and we just launched a subscription box! www.readromancerepeat.com
Diversity and inclusion are high on the agenda for the RNA, as for many other organisations and I gather you produce your own State of Racial Diversity in Romance Report each year. How do you go about making this assessment? And now that you’ve been in the business coming up to five years any comments on the direction things are going in this regard?
It’s one of the most important projects we undertake each year. (you can read 4 years of reports here: https://therippedbodicela.com/state-racial-diversity-romance-publishing-report ) It’s really quite simple. We just count the number of books a publisher releases each year and the number of those books that are written by Authors of Color. I think there has been depressingly little movement overall the past five years and very few publishers have really convinced me that that is going to change any time soon.
I notice that you’re a graduate in the visual and performing arts. I’m guessing that’s useful background for making a shop display look inviting! So many successful novels are turned into films these days. Which do you prefer—book or film? And do you always read the book first?
I didn’t exactly know what I would end up doing with my degree but turns out it’s very useful! My absolute favorite part of owning the store is doing the window displays. I mean of course I love books! But I love adaptations! Some of my favorites are Dumplin’ and Big Little Lies. I do generally like to make sure I’ve read the book before I see an adaptation.
Perhaps I could finish by asking you a little about yourself. What books do you like to read (if you have time!)? And would you ever have a go at writing something yourself? If you did what would it be?
I have no desire to be a writer, way too hard! I am very happy selling other people’s books! But my sister is a writer! Her first book just came out this year https://www.therippedbodicela.com/product/mad-and-bad-real-heroines-regency-bea-koch-signed My favorite genre is definitely contemporary. But other then that, I’m not picky, I’ll read anything!
Thanks so much for finding the time to take part in the RNA Blog and very best wishes to you and Bea as you take your business forward into what may hopefully be a more normal year.
For more about THE RIPPED BODICE, see:
Our subscription box: www.readromancerepeat.com
Leah was talking with Susan Leona Fisher: (Website: http://www.SLFisherAuthor.co.uk)