Romance novel

Romance novel
Jane Austen was a pioneer of the genre. A 19th century illustration from Sense and Sensibility.

The romance novel is a literary genre developed in Western culture, mainly in English-speaking countries. Novels in this genre place their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending."[1] Through the late 20th and early 21st centuries, these novels are commercially in two main varieties: category romances, which are shorter books with a one-month shelf-life, and single-title romances, which are generally longer with a longer shelf-life. Separate from their type, a romance novel can exist within one of many subgenres, including contemporary, historical, science fiction and paranormal.

One of the earliest romance novels was Samuel Richardson's popular 1740 novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, which was revolutionary on two counts: it focused almost entirely on courtship and did so entirely from the perspective of a female protagonist. In the next century, Jane Austen expanded the genre, and her Pride and Prejudice is often considered the epitome of the genre. Austen inspired Georgette Heyer, who introduced historical romances in 1921. A decade later, British company Mills and Boon began releasing the first category romance novels. Their books were resold in North America by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd, which began direct marketing to readers and allowing mass-market merchandisers to carry the books.

It is often claimed that the modern romance genre was born in 1972 with Avon's publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower, the first single-title romance novel to be published as an original paperback in the US, though in the UK the romance genre was long established through the works of Georgette Heyer, Catherine Cookson and others. Nancy Coffey was the senior editor who negotiated the multi-book deal. The genre boomed in the 1980s, with the addition of many category romance lines and an increased number of single-title romances. Popular authors began pushing the boundaries of the genre and plots, and characters began to modernize.

In North America, romance novels are the most popular genre in modern literature, comprising almost 55% of all paperback books sold in 2004. The genre is also popular in Europe and Australia, and romance novels appear in 90 languages. Most of the books, however, are written by authors from English-speaking countries, leading to an Anglo-Saxon perspective in the fiction. Despite the popularity and widespread sales of romance novels, the genre has attracted significant derision, skepticism and criticism.



According to the Romance Writers of America, the main plot of a romance novel must revolve around the two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship together. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel should be directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters' romantic love. Furthermore, a romance novel must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending." Others, including Leslie Gelbman, a president of the Berkley Group, define the genre more simply, stating only that a romance must make the "romantic relationship between the hero and the heroine ... the core of the book."[2] In general, romance novels reward characters who are good people and penalize those who are evil, and a couple who fights for and believes in their relationship will likely be rewarded with unconditional love.[1] Bestselling author Nora Roberts sums up the genre, saying "The books are about the celebration of falling in love and emotion and commitment, and all of those things we really want."[3] Women's fiction (including chick lit) is not directly a subcategory of the romance novel genre, because in women's fiction the heroine's relationship with her family or friends may be equally as important as her relationship with the hero.[2]

Some romance novel authors and readers believe the genre has additional restrictions, from plot considerations such as the protagonists meeting early on in the story, to avoiding themes such as adultery. Other disagreements have centered on the firm requirement for a happy ending. Some readers admit stories without a happy ending, if the focus of the story is on the romantic love between the two main characters (e.g. Romeo and Juliet). While the majority of romance novels meet the stricter criteria, there are also many books that are widely considered to be romance novels that deviate from these rules. Therefore, the general definition, as embraced by the RWA and publishers, includes only the focus on a developing romantic relationship and an optimistic ending.[4][5]

As long as a romance novel meets those twin criteria, it can be set in any time period and in any location. There are no specific restrictions on what can or cannot be included in a romance novel.[1] Even controversial subjects are addressed in romance novels, including topics such as date rape, domestic violence, addiction, and disability.[6] The combination of time frame, location, and plot elements does, however, help a novel to fit into one of several romance subgenres.[1] Despite the numerous possibilities this framework allows, many people in the mainstream press claim that "all [romance novels] seem to read alike."[7] Stereotypes of the romance genre abound. For instance, some believe that all romance novels are similar to those of Danielle Steel, featuring rich, glamorous people traveling to exotic locations.[8] Many romance readers disagree that Steel writes romance at all, considering her novels more mainstream fiction.[9]

Romance novels are sometimes referred to as "smut" or female pornography,[10][11] and are the most popular form of modern erotica for women.[12] While some romance novels do contain more erotic acts, in other romance novels the characters do no more than kiss chastely. The romance genre runs the spectrum between these two extremes.[13] Because women buy 90% of all romance novels,[12] most romance novels are told from a woman's viewpoint, in either first or third person.[14]

Although most romance novels are about heterosexual pairings there is a sizeable amount of romance novels that deal with same-sex relationships. This is often considered a subgenre.


Romance novels are divided into two sub-sets, category romances, also known as series romances, and single title romances.[1] Many authors write only within one of the formats, but others, including Jayne Ann Krentz and Jennifer Crusie, have achieved success in both formats.[15]

Category romance

Category romances are short, usually no more than 200 pages, or about 55,000 words.[16][17] The books are published in clearly delineated lines, with a certain number of books published in each line every month. In many cases, the books are numbered sequentially within the line.[1] These novels have widespread distribution—often worldwide—but a single U.S. print run, remaining on a bookseller's shelves until they are sold out or until the next month's titles are released and take their place.[15] Writers for the largest publisher of category romance, Harlequin/Mills & Boon, can find their novels translated into 26 languages and sold in over 100 international markets.[18]

To write a successful novel of this length, the "author must pare the story down to its essentials. Subplots and minor characters are eliminated or relegated to the backstory."[17] Nonetheless, category romance lines each have a distinct identity, which may involve similar settings, characters, time periods, levels of sensuality, or types of conflict. Publishers of category romances usually issue guidelines for each line, specifying the elements necessary for a novel to be included in each line.[19][20][21] Depending on the current market and perceived reader preferences, publishers frequently begin new lines or end existing ones. Most recently, erotic and Christian lines have been introduced while traditional Regency romance lines have ended.[22]

Single-title romances

Single-titles novels are romance novels not published as part of a publisher's category. They are longer than category romances, typically between 350 and 400 pages, or 100000-110000 words.[16] Publishers may release the novels over a shorter space of time for sales velocity and publicity reasons, but on average authors write 1.5 novels per year and have one each year published.[2][23] Single-title novels remain on the booksellers' shelves at the discretion of the store.[24]

Despite their name, single-title novels are not always standalone novels. Some authors prefer to write several interconnected books, ranging in number from trilogies to long-running series, so that they can revisit characters or worlds. Such sets of books often have similar titles, and may be labelled as "Number 1 in the XXX Series", but they are not considered series romances because they are not part of a particular line.[25]


Subgenre Popularity in the United States (2006)[26]
Subgenre % of market
Category romance 40%
Historical romance 17%
Contemporary romance 16%
Paranormal romance 9%
Romantic suspense 7%
Inspirational romance 6%
All others 5%

Because the definition of a romance novel does not limit the types of plot devices, time frames, or locations that can be included, the genre has grown to encompass a wide variety of material and spawned multiple sub-genres. Sub-genres of romance are often closely related to other literature genres, and some books could be considered a romance subgenre novel and another genre novel at the same time. For example, romantic suspense novels are often similar to mysteries, crime fiction and thrillers, and paranormal romances use elements popular in science fiction and fantasy novels.

Contemporary romance

Contemporary romance, which is set after World War II,[27] is often what people mean when they refer to a romance novel. Contemporary romance novels—the largest sub-genre—are set in the time when they are written, and usually reflect the mores of that time. Heroines in contemporary romances prior to 1970 usually quit working when they marry or have children—while heroines after 1970 usually have, and keep, a career.[28] As contemporary romance novels have grown to contain more complex plotting and more realistic characters, the line between this sub-genre and the genre of women's fiction has blurred.[29]

Most contemporary romance novels contain elements that date the books. The majority of them eventually become irrelevant to more modern readers and go out of print.[29] Those that survive the test of time, such as Jane Austen's work, are often reclassified as historical romances.[28]

Over half of the romantic fiction published in the United States in 2004 (1468 out of 2,285 books) were contemporary romance novels.[30] Contemporary romance novels have twice been chosen by Kelly Ripa to be featured in her Reading with Ripa book club.[31]

Historical romance

Historical romance is set before World War II.[27] This subgenre includes a wide variety of other subgenres, including Regency romance. Historical romance novels are rarely published in hardcover, with fewer than 15 receiving that status each year, less than one-fifth of the number of contemporary romance novels published in that format. Because historical romances are primarily published in mass-market format, their fortunes are tied to a certain extent to the mass-market trends. Booksellers and large merchandisers now sell fewer mass market paperbacks, preferring trade paperbacks or hardcovers, which prevents historical romances from being sold in some price clubs and other mass merchandise outlets.[32]

In 2001, 778 historical romances were published, a 10-year high. By 2004, the annual number had dropped to 486, which was still 20% of all romance novels published. Kensington Books says they receive fewer submissions of historical novels, and their previously published authors have switched to contemporary.[30][32]

Romantic suspense

Romantic suspense involves an intrigue or mystery for the protagonists to solve.[27] Typically, however, the heroine is the victim of a crime or attempted crime, and works with a hero, who tends to be in a field where he would serve as a protector, such as a police officer, FBI agent, bodyguard, or Navy SEAL.[33][34] By the end of the novel, the mystery is resolved and the interaction between the hero and heroine has evolved into a solid relationship.[33] These novels primarily take place in contemporary times, but authors such as Amanda Quick have broadened the genre to also include historical timeframes.[35]

Like all romances, romantic suspense novels must place the development of a relationship between the protagonists at the heart of the story. The relationship "must impact each decision they make and increase the tension of the suspense as it propel the story. In turn, the events of suspense must also directly affect the relationship and move the story forward."[36] Romantic suspense novels tend to have more "clean" language, without the "emotional, intimate" descriptions often used in more traditional romances.[36] Because the mystery is a crucial aspect of the plot, these novels are more plot-driven instead of character-driven.[36]

This blend of the romance and mystery was perfected by Mary Stewart, who wrote ten romantic suspense novels between 1955 and 1967. Stewart was one of the first to seamlessly combine the two genres, maintaining a full mystery while focusing on the courtship between two people.[37] In her novels, the process of solving the mystery "helps to illuminate" the hero's personality, helping the heroine to fall in love with him.[38]

Paranormal romance

Paranormal romance blends the real with the fantastic or science fictional. The fantastic elements may be woven into an alternate version of our own world in an urban fantasy involving vampires, demons, and/or werewolves, or they may be more "normal" manifestations of the paranormal—humans with psychic abilities, witches, or ghosts. Time-travel, futuristic, and extraterrestrial romances also fall beneath the paranormal umbrella.[27][39]

These novels often blend elements of other subgenres—including suspense, mystery, or chick lit—with their fantastic themes.[40] A few paranormals are set solely in the past and are structured much like any historical romance novel. Others are set in the future, sometimes on different worlds. Still others have a time-travel element with either the hero or the heroine traveling into the past or the future.[5] Between 2002 and 2004, the number of paranormal romances published in the United States doubled to 170 per year. A popular title in the genre can sell over 500,000 copies.[41]

Many paranormal romances rely on the blend of contemporary American life with the existence of supernatural or magically empowered beings, human or otherwise; sometimes the larger culture is aware of the magical in its midst, sometimes it isn't. Some paranormal romances focus less on the specifics of their alternative worlds than do traditional science fiction or fantasy novels, keeping the attention strongly on the underlying romance.[35] Others develop the alternate reality meticulously, combining well-planned magical systems and inhuman cultures with contemporary reality.

Science Fiction romance

The first futuristic romance to be marketed by a mainstream romance publisher, Jayne Ann Krentz's Sweet Starfire, was published in 1986 and was a "classic road trip romance" that just happened to be set in a separate galaxy.[42] This genre has become more popular since 2000. Krentz attributes the popularity of this romance genre to the fact that the novels "are, at heart, classic historical romances that just happen to be set on other worlds."[42]

A science fiction romance is a romance novel that takes place in a story that would otherwise be classified as a science fiction story.

Fantasy romance

Fantasy Romance, also known as Romantic Fantasy, is a subgenre of fantasy fiction, describing a fantasy story using many of the elements and conventions of the romance genre. Romantic fantasy has been published by both fantasy and romance lines, with some publishers distinguishing between "fantasy romance" being more like a contemporary fantasy novel with romantic elements, and "romantic fantasy" with more emphasis on the romance elements of the story.[43]

Time-travel romances

Time-travel romances are a version of the classic "fish out of water" story. In most, the heroine is from the present day and travels into the past to meet the hero. In a smaller subset of these novels, the hero, who lives in the past, travels forward into his future to meet the heroine. A successful time-travel romance must have the characters react logically to their experience and should investigate some of the differences, both physical and mental, between the world the character normally inhabits and the one where they landed. Some writers end their novels with the protagonists trapped in different time periods and unable to be together—to the displeasure of many readers of the genre.[44]

Inspirational romance

Inspirational romance, as the market exists today, combines explicitly Christian themes with the development of a romantic relationship.[27] In 2004, 167 novels were published in the inspirational romance subgenre.[30] These novels typically do not include gratuitous violence or swearing, and the central courtship is chaste. Sex, if it is present at all, occurs after marriage and is not explicitly detailed. Many novels in this genre also focus on the hero or heroine's faith, turning the love story into "a triangle: the man and the woman and also their relationship with God."[45] Themes such as forgiveness, honesty, and fidelity are common.[46]

The first line of series inspirational romances debuted shortly after the 1980 U.S. presidential election, when Silhouette launched their Silhouette Inspirations line. The books were aimed at born-again Christians and were marketed in religious bookstores. The Silhouette Inspirations line was closed after Harlequin acquired Silhouette in 1984 because it was not profitable.[47] However, Christian publishers continue to produce romance novels, including historical and contemporary.

Multicultural romance

Multicultural romance typically features a hero and/or heroine who is African-American, although some multicultural lines also include Asian or Hispanic heroes or heroines or interracial relationships.[48] The first line of multicultural romance novels, Arabesque, was launched by Kensington books in 1994. BET Books purchased the line in 1998, and the number of new authors that they publish has continued to expand each year. BET has also developed some of the Arabesque novels into made-for-television movies.[49]

In 1999, Kensington Publishing launched the first line of Latino romance novels - ENCANTO. The ENCANTO novels were originally released in two ways - a bilingual Spanish/English version and a Spanish only version. Two novels were published every month until late 2001 when the line went into hiatus. Despite the demise of the line, several of the ENCANTO authors have continued writing novels with Latino protagonists namely, Sylvia Mendoza, Tracy Montoya, Caridad Pineiro, Berta Platas, Lara Rios and Lynda Sandoval.

Although romance novels featuring African-Americans and Hispanic protagonists are becoming more popular, those featuring Asian or Asian-American characters are rare. Author Tess Gerritsen believes this is due to the fact that there are fewer Asian-American women who read romances: "We read romances because we want to feel good about order to do that, the reader must identify with the heroine."[50]

Erotic romance

Erotic romance, sometimes called romantica, is a blend of romance and erotica. Erotic romance novels are characterized by strong sexual content, but can contain elements of any of the other romance subgenres. Erotic romance novels tend to use more frank language, avoiding many of the euphemisms used in books with milder content. These novels also usually include more sex scenes, often focusing more on the sex act rather than being a more traditional love scene, and may include more unusual positions or acts.[51] Despite a greater emphasis on the sex scenes, however, erotic romance is not to be confused with pornography. Pornography concentrates on the sex acts, but erotic novels include well-developed characters and a plot that could exist without the sex acts.[52]

Erotic romances lengths run from short stories to single-title novels. Some of these are published as part of a category, such as Harlequin Blaze, while others are published as part of an anthology and are only novella length. Even single-title erotic romances may be as short as a novella, however.[51]

Many of the publishers of erotic romance are either small press publishers or electronic book publishers. Writers often have more leeway in what types of erotic acts can be included when working with an electronic publisher than they would have working with a print publisher.[51] The market for erotic romances has been growing rapidly, leading some publishers to create new lines for these types of books.[53] Some subjects are still considered taboo, even with erotic romance. Themes such as pedophilia, incest, and bestiality are discouraged by all publishers.[51]

The market for erotic romances has grown rapidly. Ellora's Cave, an electronic publisher that focuses on erotic romance, became the first electronic publisher recognized by the Romance Writers of America as a legitimate publisher.[52]



One of the earliest romance novels was Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson. Published in 1740, Pamela was the first popular novel to be based on a courtship as told from the perspective of the heroine. Unlike many of the novels of the time, Pamela had a happy ending. The book was one of the first bestsellers, with five editions printed in the first eleven months of release.[54] The genre did not fully take form, however, until the nineteenth century.[2]

Elizabeth tells her father that Darcy was responsible for uniting Lydia and Wickham. This is one of the two earliest illustrations of Pride and Prejudice.[55]

Jane Austen is widely considered to be one of the masters of the romance novel genre, and Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, has been called "the best romance novel ever written".[56] Critics, however, lamented that Austen's works reinforced the sexist stereotype (i.e. economic and social reality that to avoid poverty that women must marry.)[57] In the early part of the Victorian era, the Brontë sisters built upon Austen's work with their novels. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, published in 1847, introduced the orphaned heroine. Incorporating elements of both gothic novels and Elizabethan drama, Jane Eyre "demonstrate[d] the flexibility of the romance novel form."[58]

The genre continued to be popular into the twentieth century. In 1919, E.M. Hull's novel The Sheik was published in the United Kingdom. The novel, which became hugely popular, was adapted into a movie, which established star Rudolph Valentino as the top male actor of the time. The hero of this book was an iconic alpha male who kidnapped the heroine and won her admiration through his forceful actions. The novel was one of the first to introduce the rape fantasy. Although women were gaining more independence in life, publishers believed that readers would only accept premarital sex in the context of rape. In this novel and those that followed, the rape was depicted as more of a fantasy; the heroine is rarely if ever shown experiencing terror, stress, or trauma as a result.[59]

The first historical romances appeared in 1921, when Georgette Heyer began writing romances set during the English Regency period (1811-–1820), when the Prince Regent ruled Great Britain in place of his ill father, George III. Heyer was inspired by Austen's novels. Austen also wrote romances set in the Regency period, but she was describing the times she lived in, so her novels were contemporary. Because Heyer set her writing amid events that occurred over 100 years previously, she had to include more detail on the time period to help her readers understand.[60] Unlike other romance novels of the time, Heyer's novels used the setting as a plot device. Her characters often contained more modern-day sensibilities, and more conventional characters in the novels would point out the heroine's eccentricities, such as wanting to marry for love.[61] Heyer was a prolific author, and write one to two historical romance novels per year until her death in 1974.[62]

Rise of the category romance

In the 1930s, Mills and Boon began releasing hardback romance novels. The books were sold through weekly two-penny libraries and were known as "the books in brown" for their brown binding. In the 1950s, the company began offering the books for sale through newsagents across the United Kingdom.[63]

A Canadian company, Harlequin Enterprises, began distributing in North America in 1957 the category romances published by Mills and Boon.[64] Mary Bonneycastle, wife of Harlequin founder Richard Bonneycastle, and her daughter, Judy Burgess, exercised editorial control over which Mills and Boon novels Harlequin reprinted. They had a "decency code," and rejected more sexually explicit material that Mills and Boon submitted for reprinting. Realizing that the genre was popular, Richard Bonneycastle finally decided to read a romance novel. He chose one of the more explicit novels and enjoyed it. On his orders, the company conducted a market test with the novel he had read and discovered that it outsold a similar, tamer novel.[65] Overall, the novels were short and formulaic, featuring heroines who were sweet, compassionate, pure and innocent. The few heroines who worked did so in traditional female jobs, including as nurses, governesses and secretaries. Intimacy in the novels never extended beyond a chaste kiss between the protagonists.[64]

On October 1, 1971, Harlequin purchased Mills and Boon. By this point, the romance novel genre "...had been popularized and distributed widely to an enthusiastic audience" in Great Britain. In an attempt to duplicate Mills and Boon's success in North America, Harlequin improved their distribution and marketing system.[66] By choosing to sell their books "where the women are," they allowed many mass-market merchandisers and even supermarkets to sell the books, all of which were exactly 192 pages. Harlequin then began a reader service, selling directly to readers who agreed to purchase a certain number of books each month.[67]

Birth of modern romance

Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower

The modern romance genre was born in 1972 with Avon's publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower, the first romance novel "to [follow] the principals into the bedroom."[68][69] Aside from its content, the book was revolutionary in that it was one of the first single-title romance novels to be published as an original paperback, rather than being first published in hardcover, and, like the category romances, was distributed in drug stores and other mass-market merchandising outlets.[70] The novel went on to sell 2.35 million copies.[71] Avon followed its release with the 1974 publication of Woodiwiss's second novel, The Wolf and the Dove and two sexy novels by newcomer Rosemary Rogers, Sweet Savage Love and Dark Fires. The latter sold two million copies in its first three months of release. By 1975, Publishers Weekly had reported that the "Avon originals" had sold a combined 8 million copies.[70] The following year over 150 historical romance novels, many of them paperback originals, were published, selling over 40 million copies.[71]

The success of these novels prompted a new style of writing romance, concentrating primarily on historical fiction tracking the monogamous relationship between a helpless heroine and the hero who rescued her, even if he had been the one to place her in danger.[6] The covers of these novels tended to feature scantily clad women being grabbed by the hero, and caused the novels to be referred to as "bodice-rippers."[68] A Wall St. Journal article in 1980 referred to these bodice rippers as "publishing's answer to the Big Mac: They are juicy, cheap, predictable, and devoured in stupefying quantities by legions of loyal fans."[72] The term bodice-ripper is now considered offensive to many in the romance industry.[68]

In this new style of historical romance, heroines were independent and strong-willed and were often paired with heroes who evolved into caring and compassionate men who truly admired the women they loved.[73] This was in contrast to the contemporary romances published during this time, which were often characterized by weak females who fell in love with overbearing alpha males.[74] Although these heroines had active roles in the plot, they were "passive in relationships with the heroes."[75] Across the genre, heroines during this time were usually aged 16–21, with the heroes slightly older, usually around 30. The women were virgins, while the men were not, and both members of the couple were described as beautiful.[76]

Category romance adapts

Category romance lines were slower to react to some of the changes that had swept the historical romance subgenre. Despite the fact that the former Mills & Boon lines were now owned by a North American company, the lines did not have any American writers until 1975, when Harlequin purchased a novel by Janet Dailey.[77][78] Dailey's novels provided the romance genre's "first look at heroines, heroes and courtships that take place in America, with American sensibilities, assumptions, history, and most of all, settings."[79] Harlequin was unsure how the market would react to this new type of romance, and was unwilling to fully embrace it. In the late 1970s, a Harlequin editor rejected a manuscript by Nora Roberts, who has since become the top-selling romance author, because "they already had their American writer."[80]

In 1980, Simon and Schuster formed Silhouette Books to take advantage of the untapped talent of the American writers.[81] They published several lines of category romance, and encouraged their writers to create stronger heroines and less dominant heroes. Authors were also expected to address contemporary issues where appropriate.[82] Silhouette soon saw their market share expand, and in 1984, Harlequin acquired them. Despite the acquisition, Silhouette continued to retain editorial control and to publish various lines under their own imprint.[66]

Harlequin had also failed to adapt quickly to the signs that readers appreciated novels with more explicit sex scenes, and in 1980, several publishers entered the category romance market to fill that gap. That year, Dell launched their Candlelight Ecstasy line with Amii Lorin's The Tawny Gold Man, becoming the first line to waive the requirement that heroines be virgins. By the end of 1983 sales for the Candlelight Ecstasy line totaled $30 million. Silhoeutte also launched similar lines, Desire (sexually explicit) and Special Edition (sexually explicit and longer stories, up to 250 pages), each of which had a 90–100% sellout rate each month.[83]

A 1982 survey of romance readers confirmed that the new styles of writing were attracting new readers to the genre. 35% of the readers surveyed had begun reading romances after 1977. An additional 31% of those surveyed had been readers for between 6 and 10 years, meaning they had become interested in the genre after 1972, when Woodiwiss's revolutionary novel was published. This means that two-thirds of those surveyed joined the genre after it had begun to change.[84]

The number of category romance lines increased at a rapid pace, and by 1985 there were 16 separate lines producing a total of 80 novels per month.[85] The sudden increase in category romance lines meant an equally sudden increase in demand for writers of the new style of romance novel. This tight market caused a proportionate decrease in the quality of the novels that were being released. By 1984, the market was saturated with category lines and readers had begun to complain of redundancy in plots.[86] The following year, the "dampening effect of the high level of redundancy associated with series romances was evident in the decreased number of titles being read per month."[87] Harlequin's return rate, which had been less than 25% in 1978, when it was the primary provider of category romance, swelled to 60%.[88]

Further change

The genre continued to expand in the mid-to-late 1980s, as publishers realized that the more popular authors were often those who stretched the boundaries of the genre. A 1984 novel by LaVyrle Spencer featured an overweight, middle-aged hero who had to make drastic changes to his lifestyle to win the heroine, while a 1987 Dailey novel involved an ugly hero and a heroine who was searching for her birth mother.[89] Jayne Ann Krentz's 1986 novel Sweet Starfire became the first futuristic romance, combining elements of traditional romance novels and science fiction.[42] The relationships had also modernized: by the 1990s, it was rare to see a book that featured a man raping his future wife.[74]

A Knight in Shining Armor, the first book to be published by a romance author transitioning from mass-market originals to hardback. The cover uses the new landscape cover style.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, contemporary romances began to feature women in more male-dominated jobs, such as offshore oil rigs and the space program. By the early 1990s, the pendulum had swung back to feature heroines who were self-employed. The age range of heroines also began to expand, so that books began to feature women who had already reached 30 and even 40. Heroes also changed, with some authors veering towards a more sensitive man. Despite the broadening of some aspects of the plot, other taboos remained, and publishers discouraged authors from writing about controversial subjects such as terrorism, warfare, and masculine sports.[90] Romance novels began to contain more humor beginning in the 1990s, as Julie Garwood began introducing a great deal of humor into her historical romances.[91]

The romance novel began to expand in other ways as well.[92] In 1989, author Jude Deveraux became the first romance author to transition from writing original mass market paperbacks to being published in hardcover. Her novel, A Knight in Shining Armor, "became a natural bestseller."[2] Several authors found success writing single-title romances set in contemporary times, and publishing houses began to encourage the growth in the genre. Because the novels were set in modern times, they could include more of the elements that modern women could relate to, and soon began to touch on themes such as single parenthood, adoption, and abuse.[92]

By 2000, the covers had begun to evolve from featuring a scantily clad couple to instead showing a view of the landscape featured in the novel.[2]

As women's career options have expanded in real life, so have those of their fictional counterparts. In the earliest Harlequin romance novels, heroines were typically nurses and secretaries. As time has passed and women have entered the workforce in larger numbers, romance heroines have spanned the career spectrum.[93] Modern romance novels now feature more balanced relationships between men and women.[6]


North America

The romance fiction market "has been impervious to the overall economic recession, with faithful readers spending up to $40 a month" on romance novels in 1982.[94] That year, paperback romances totaled $300 million in sales, and the total audience was estimated at 20 million readers. A survey of 600 regular romance readers the same year "found that they mirror the general population in age, education, and marital and socioeconomic status." Over half of the women had at least some college education, and 40% were employed full-time. 60% of the women surveyed read at least one romance every two days. The women admitted to reading romances as an antidote to stress, for mental escape, and to learn about history and new careers.[95]

The romance novel market continued to expand, so that by 1991, they comprised 46% of all mass market paperbacks sold in the US. This expansion was due in part to voracious readers, with over half of Harlequin's customers purchasing 30 novels per month. By this time, the romance novel audience had become more educated, with 45% having a college degree, and more than half of the audience worked outside the home.[96]

By the 2000s, romance had become the most popular genre in modern literature. In 2008, romantic fiction generated $1.37 billion in sales, with 7,311 romance novels published and making up 13.5% of the consumer book market. Over 74 million people claimed to have read at least one romance novel in 2008, according to a Romance Writers of America study. Nine point five percent of romance readers identified themselves as male, and the study reported that romance readers were more likely to be married or living with a partner. Of the entire American population, 24.6% read at least one romance novel in 2008.[30]

International markets

Along with cowboys and horses, the authors were told to skip ethnic heroes [for European readers] and not to let family members steal too much of the limelight. "But secret babies sell quite well, as do marriages of convenience, or arranged marriages and, of course, alpha heroes," Stoecker said.

The New York Times, 2004[97]

74.8 million people read an English-language romance novel in 2008.[12] Harlequin sells more than 4 books per second, half of them internationally. Author Heather Graham attributes this to the fact that "emotions translate easily."[98] In the United Kingdom, over 20% of all fiction books sold each year are romance novels.[99] Although romance novels are translated into over 90 languages,[69] the majority of authors of these works are from Great Britain, the United States, Canada, or, to a lesser extent, Australia.[97] Even in France, where over 12 million romance novels are sold each year, all of the books are translations.[69] This leads to a more Anglo-Saxon perspective in the fiction, which at times can be much less successful in a European market. Although Italy is the strongest foreign market for the chick lit sold by single-title imprint Red Dress Ink, in that country romance readers do not care to read books about cowboys, as this type of occupation was not common in their culture. The paranormal romance genre is not popular in countries such as Poland and Russia, although historical romance tends to be very successful.[97] Inspirational romance does not sell well in Europe, where romances that feature babies are very popular.[69]

Some publishing companies in Germany refuse to allow their romance authors to use their own names, fearing that the German audience will not buy a romance novel that does not have an Anglo-American pseudonym. German readers enjoy reading more erotic romance novels,[97] and some German translations of English romance novels expand or insert love scenes into otherwise tame stories. The alternate scenario also occurs, as other German translators censor the love scenes.[100]

In 2004, sales of romance novels in Australia increased 28% over the year before. Between 1999 and 2004 there was an increase of 40–50% in the number of new titles released. Harlequin received 20,000 unsolicited manuscripts each year.[101]


The most prestigious and notable awards for romance novels are the RITA Awards, which are presented annually by the Romance Writers of America to the best novels in romantic fiction.[102]

Critical attention

“Romances are, in fact, subversive literature: They encourage women to be dissatisfied with inequality, and to set higher expectations for themselves, and they show them ways to achieve those expectations, largely by taming men and, in a way, usurping their power. Romances are arguably the only art form of any kind that portrays women as equal partners with men.” --David Pollard

The romance genre has been popularly derided and critically ignored.

Despite recent rehabilitation and merging of the genre with other genres, the stigma attached to the romance genre continues to be strong, with some dedicated readers embarrassed to admit to buying or even reading the books.[3] The romance genre has over the years generated significant derision, skepticism and criticism. Some critics point to a lack of suspense, as it is obvious that the hero and heroine will eventually resolve their issues, and wonder whether it is beneficial "for women to be whiling away so many hours reading impossibly glamorized love stories."[3] According to fiction author Melissa Pritchard, a romance novel "perpetuates something slightly dangerous, that there's this notion, that there's this perfect love out there, and it can distract you from the work of loving yourself."[103]

Romance novelists attribute the stigma to the fact that romance is the only genre "written almost exclusively by women for women."[3] Romance novelist Jennifer Crusie counters that in the modern romance novel "a woman is rewarded with unconditional love [only] if she remains true to herself",[75] while novelist Susan Elizabeth Phillips believes that romance novels are popular because the heroine always wins, sometimes overcoming great odds so that she is no longer a victim.[24]


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See also

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