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Romance Today - Or - How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Harlequin


Maybe you’ve passed that section on the way to “Literature.”  You might even linger there for a moment, lured by the colorful, sometimes salacious, covers, and struggle with the temptation to pick up one of the books, skim the first pages.  But you don’t want to stay long—there’s serious literature waiting for you, and it might damage your bookstore cred to be spotted in the Romance section of your local B&N.


November 18, 2005

Romance novels don’t get much respect, but without them, the publishing world would fall to pieces.  It’s a funny fact that the sales of mass market fiction, especially romance novels, allow most publishers to stay in business and help finance less profitable, but more visible, literary fiction.


For our purposes, let’s define the term “romance novel” as mass-market genre fiction which focuses almost primarily on the trials and tribulations of a single, heterosexual couple on their path to committed monogamy.  There are variations, of course, and subgenres within that definition, but largely, when a reader picks up a romance novel, she does so with the implicit promise that the two protagonists will get their happy ending, regardless of whether those protagonists are a medieval knight and his lady, a Regency-era belle and her brooding suitor, or an epidemiologist and a Navy SEAL. 

Literary fiction—that is, whatever isn’t shelved under “Romance” in the local bookstore—often sticks to this same model, with varying degrees of emphasis on the romantic relationship between two people, and without the expectation of a happy ending.  And while those who exclusively read literary fiction may reject the conventions of romance novels, they might find many similarities between the two, if they dug a little deeper.  The roots of the novel are found in the “romances” of the 17th and 18th centuries, and canonical texts such as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are not only the forerunners of the modern romance novel, but all novels.


No surprise that early novels, which were primarily read by women, were often dismissed as sensationalist trash and contributors to the general decline of morals.  Instead of focusing on philosophical issues, novels dared to create fictional characters whose lives largely reflected the readers’ own, including the path towards an emerging phenomenon: marrying for love.  But in so doing, critics voiced the concern that the readers’ expectations, having been raised so high by novels, would lead to bitter disappointment in the “real world.”  Those same criticisms are being leveled at romance novels today.

It’s difficult for romances to lose their less-than-legitimate reputation, despite the fact that their brisk sales and wide appeal create the financial and literary backbone for the entire publishing industry.  A closer look at the numbers reveals that romance novels are not merely the favored reading material of spinster librarians, as is often the stereotype, but the frequent choice of a well educated, socially adept and emotionally fulfilled public.

The following figures are taken from two studies commissioned by the Romance Writers of America, Inc., the national organization of romance writers:


  • Romance sales in 2003 amounted to $1.41 billion, down slightly from $1.63 billion in 2002;
  • 48.8% of paperback sales in 2003 was romance, compared to 2000, when 55.9% of paperback sales was romance;
  • Romance constitutes 33.8% of total popular fiction sales, the highest percentage of any other genre, including mystery and thriller (25.6%), general fiction (24.9%), science fiction (6%) and other fiction (9.7%);
  • In 2002, there were 51.1 million readers of romance in North America;
  • Nearly half of romance readers (49.5%) are married, compared to 33.3% who are single and 10.7% who are divorced;
  • 63% of romance readers have attended college; 21% are college graduates and 10% have post-graduate degrees; only 5% have high school educations or less;
  • Romance readers don’t just read romance; 66% buy other fiction when shopping for romance novels and 47% buy nonfiction when shopping for romance novels.


While romance has suffered in sales just as all media has suffered over the past few years, they continue to sell in figures well beyond their more esteemed literary counterparts.  Several authors, notably Nora Roberts, Suzanne Brockmann and Julia Quinn, routinely make it onto the New York Times best-seller lists, both in paperback and hardcover.  Further, romantic suspense, paranormal romance, chick lit and the newest kid on the block, erotic romance or “romantica,” have proven to be wildly popular with readers who may have originally eschewed more traditional romances.


The next time you’re in your local bookstore, browsing for your next book club selection, take a few minutes to visit the romance section.  You may be surprised who you’ll find there, and what they’re reading.


— By Ami Silber


Ami Silber is a debut novelist who holds an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop as well as an MA in Literature from UC San Diego. Ami and her husband live in Los Angeles with their cat - who appears in each of her novels.

This January BookBuffet interviews Ami about her upcoming novel - stay tuned.



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