Smalltown cozy romances often portray quiet communities where a chaste kiss is looked on as something shocking, but readers in actual small towns are considerably more open-minded, picking up everything from Amish romance to kinky erotica. "I haven't seen our copy of Fifty Shades of Grey on the shelf since it was purchased last year," says Kristi Chadwick, library director for the Emily Williston Memorial Library in Easthampton, Mass., which has about 8,500 library cardholders. "It is still out circulating."
Cleis Press publisher Brenda Knight hails from the Bible Belt and has lots of teachers and librarians in her family. “I test-market with my family,” she says. “Readers in the Southeast were early adopters of female submission books. The Bible Belt has been quietly reading female submission right along with all the Bibles.”
And it isn’t just the younger readers requesting the more explicit titles. Katie Dunnebeck of Southeastern Library Services in Iowa said she has been noticing “a sharp uptrend in patrons 65 and up requesting extra-hot romance and erotica.”
There are regional variations in romance reading, but they appear to have little to do with smalltown readers wanting smalltown books. For example, Virginia Stanley, director of academic and library marketing for HarperCollins, notes that influential employers in any given area are a strong factor. “A large military community like San Diego will move more romances that deal with Navy SEALs,” she says.
Demographics matter too. Darla J. Kincaid, a reference librarian who purchases adult print titles for the Pearl Bailey Branch of the Newport News, Va., public library system, says that her library—which averages 6,000 checkouts and renewals each month—is in a historically African-American community with a rich cultural identity, and romances penned by African-American authors are must-buys for her. “Our African-American authors are our most popular, no matter the genre of romance they write,” said Kincaid.
Marcia K. Hull of the Ponca City Library in Ponca City, Okla., sees a demand for both spicy and sweet romances among her 16,000 library-card holders. “More erotic aspects are finding their way into mainstream fiction titles, so we do have more on our shelves than we have in the past,” she said. “We have received feedback of both types. Patrons get frustrated when I have to interlibrary loan explicit titles that they wish were immediately available on our shelves. I have also had to help patrons who are looking for romance that doesn’t include graphic sexual content.”
Some Like It Sweet
Sweet romances still have strong appeal in many libraries, especially in communities inclined toward conservative political views. Amy Lilly of the Raleigh County Public Library in Raleigh, N.C., reveals that Amish-themed romantic fiction is currently the most popular genre throughout her library’s four branches. “We have a conservative religious population in this area, which is part of the reason why these appeal. It’s romance without the tawdriness,” says Lilly.
“Anything Amish is hot,” agrees Melanie J. Holles, director of the Stanly County Public Library in Albemarle, N.C. The library’s system includes five branches in a county with a population of roughly 60,000. “At my location, contemporary hardcovers are the most popular, followed by inspirational and historical paperbacks. We do have a small branch where the racier contemporary romances are the most popular.”
At the Kellyville Public Library in Kellyville, Okla., which serves about 1,400 patrons, the most popular romance genres are paranormal and Christian romances, although contemporaries also do well, says library director Jacqueline Case. “The teens and younger adults go for the paranormal books, with the middle-aged going for paranormal, contemporary, and erotic romances and my older patrons going for contemporary and the Christian fiction,” says Case.
Linda Montauti, who oversees the ordering and processing of mass market paperbacks for the Cheshire Public Library in Cheshire, Conn., notes that contemporaries, historicals, and romantic thrillers are particularly popular in her small town. “The trends change—historical used to be in demand, then it really died off; now it is picking up again,” she says. “I just started buying a few steampunk titles, and I buy four to five inspirational romances per month. Contemporary romantic westerns are popular, as well as firefighter, police, and military stories. Contemporary and romantic suspense have been consistently on top. I think being in a small, quiet town has something to do with it.” And does that small, quiet town like stories set in small, quiet towns? Definitely, Montauti says. “Smalltown series are very popular, especially by Lori Foster, Sherryl Woods, Debbie Macomber, Robyn Carr, and RaeAnne Thayne, to name just a few.”
Regardless of where they’re being read, there’s no question that smalltown romances sell. “Romance series set in welcoming small towns are our biggest-selling subgenre in contemporary romance,” said Kerry Donovan, senior editor of New American Library. “They offer an irresistible combination of charm, recurring characters, and a heartfelt and emotional happily-ever-after.”
“Smalltown stories have enduring appeal,” said Kelli Martin, senior acquisitions editor for Montlake Romance. “Readers snap up the latest trendsetting romances, but they also tell us that they love returning to small towns. The characters are often like next-door neighbors readers have known or wish they had known. Plus, the most delicious secrets and reputation-shattering scandals always seem to happen in small towns! Given all that, small towns have evolved into delightfully beloved, full-bodied characters themselves.”