At a time when the sour economy has many readers going on book-buying diets—and, in some cases, outright fasts—the romance category’s famously voracious readers continue to indulge in a diverse feast of books. Proving yet again that it’s a recession-proof genre, romance is offering readers options that range from adventure with supernatural creatures to high drama in the Regency period to love against an Amish backdrop, and all at mass market price points. Editors say that it’s no surprise grim times call for lots of comfort reading.

“For people worried about finances and job security, delving into a romance can be a great way to escape that stress for a little while,” says Dorchester editor Leah Hultenschmidt. “And since most romances are priced at $7.99 or less, it’s much more cost-effective than a tropical getaway—or at this point, even a movie.”

But while the allure of the guaranteed happy ending can’t be denied, Jennifer Enderlin, associate publisher for St. Martin’s Paperbacks, says she believes that part of romance’s continued appeal is the high quality required to achieve such healthy sales. “In addition to providing escape, romance is so competitive that the writers who get published are really good,” she says. “Readers are so satisfied by the quality of the books, they come back for more. Readers crave plot, characters, and emotion—romance delivers that.”

Many readers also still crave something a little out of the ordinary, as the paranormal craze continues to stake its claim into the category’s beating heart.

The Dominant Paranormal

That’s no surprise given that the pop culture pulse is racing for paranormal-themed content. According to Variety, ratings for the second season of HBO’s True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris’s megaselling novels about psychic waitress Sookie Stackhouse, gave the network its highest numbers since The Sopranos, averaging some 12.4 million viewers for each episode. And the recent movie box office hit Paranormal Activity has now raked in tens of millions to become the season’s surprise hit (even snagging an EW cover), while Twilight sequel New Moon waits in the wings.

Some might say that the success of paranormal romance is beginning to verge on the supernatural. Both established authors like paranormal powerhouse Sherrilyn Kenyon—whose next Dark-Hunter novel, No Mercy, will be out from St. Martin’s next August—and newer names like Larissa Ione—whose third Demonica book, Ecstasy Unveiled, is due from Grand Central in February—increase their legions of fans with each new book.

While the scene still has its share of vampires, other creatures are joining the ranks as mainstays. Says Pocket Books executive editor Lauren McKenna, “We’re excited to see breakout success in paranormal subgenres that feature demons, angels, and succubi—the less-explored heroes compared to vampires and werewolves.”

Pocket kicks off Jill Myles’s new Succubus Diaries series with back-to-back installments, Gentlemen Prefer Succubi (Dec.) and Succubi Like It Hot (Jan.). And Kensington is set to transition Kate Douglas—whose Wolf Tales series has been successful for the publisher’s erotica imprint, Aphrodisia—to mainstream paranormal romance and the Zebra mass market line with the first of her DemonSlayers novels, Demonfire, in March.

NAL editorial director Claire Zion says that even those series that prominently feature vampires are adding new spooks to the mix, pointing out that Michele Bardsley’s popular Broken Heart series now includes “just about every paranormal creature imaginable,” as January’s Come Hell or High Water will demonstrate. The publisher’s bestselling author J.R. Ward launched a new series about fallen angels with October’s Covet, which spent four weeks on PW’s mass market list.

The hottest trend seems to be that anything goes where sexy, scary critters are concerned, with many writers embracing and creating ever newer, stranger twists on tried-and-true beings to hook readers. Dorchester has high hopes for L.J. McDonald’s Sylph series, featuring creatures of elemental magic used for performing all tasks needed by their masters. Its first title, The Battle Sylph (Mar.), is already garnering praise from reviewers, with the second installment, The Shattered Sylph, to follow in April.

Dorchester senior editor Chris Keesler says that the day some thought would never come has arrived—zombies as romantic leads, as typified in the publisher’s January anthology, My Zombie Valentine. “Recent mainstream fiction and movie releases have demonstrated the public’s growing love affair with zombies,” Keesler says. “We thought it crazy not to give them exactly what they want, in ways they haven’t seen.”

Steampunk titles are also on the rise, especially given the buzz surrounding debut author Gail Carriger’s recent fantasy, Soulless (Orbit, Oct.), billed as a “novel of werewolves, vampires, and parasols,” which has tapped into a happy crossover audience of paranormal romance readers. And the publisher’s Parasol Protectorate series continues in April with Changeless.

Tor romance editor Heather Osborn sees more authors using the steampunk blend of fantastic and historical in paranormal romance. “Many of these books have elements of steampunk in them—set in the Victorian era and filled with steam-powered gadgets, dirigibles, advanced steam technology. This is a trend that is only set to grow bigger—some big-name authors are set to come out with steampunk-inspired romances in the coming year.”

Tor hopes that the second book in Gail Dayton’s steampunk romance series, Heart’s Blood, will help cement the trend. Liz Maverick’s Crimson & Steam (Dorchester) and Katie MacAlister’s Steamed (Signet) are also surfing the new romantic steampunk wave.

Hot for Historical

Many publishers are quick to observe that historical romance—once considered the bastion of the category—is still very much alive, even without the attractively deceased or steampunk-styled characters lurking on the supernatural scene.

“Scotland and Regency England are two time periods readers are passionate about,” says Kensington editor-in-chief John Scognamiglio, pointing to the success of Michele Sinclair’s novels about the McTeirnay brothers. The next, Desiring the Highlander, publishes as a Zebra mass market next month.

Following the explosive success Bantam Dell has seen bringing Mary Balogh’s hugely popular out-of-print Regency romances back to market, senior editor Shauna Summers agrees that historical is on the upswing. One of Balogh’s most beloved books, A Precious Jewel, will be reissued later this month, and in March the publisher will do a two-in-one release of Dark Angel and Lady Carew’s Bride. “As Mary Balogh’s readership has grown, so has the demand for her out-of-print Regency romances, with most of the reissues hitting the New York Times list,” observes Summers.

Ballantine, too, has had hot sales with its historical offerings, with back-to-back publications of Jillian Hunter’s A Wicked Lord at the Wedding and The Wicked Duke Takes a Wife earlier this fall (both on PW’s bestseller list), and a hotly anticipated book in Nicole Jordan’s Courtship Wars series, To Tame a Dangerous Lord, due in February. Grand Central has seen such tremendous growth in the historical market that it moved sensual historical writer Elizabeth Hoyt from its Forever line to the main Grand Central Publishing list for this month’s To Desire a Devil—also on PW’s list. And Enderlin at St. Martin’s says that Lisa Kleypas’s lighter historicals tend to do well, pointing to September’s Tempt Me at Twilight, the third in the Hathaways series. Atria has high expectations for blockbuster author Jude Deveraux’s January return to the historical romance milieu. In Days of Gold, Deveraux takes the Edilean, Va., setting introduced in this month’s contemporary novel Lavender Morning back to 1766 for the town’s namesake’s epic romance with a rugged Scotsman.

“More traditional romance stories are seeing a resurgence,” says NAL’s Zion, pointing to the publisher’s upcoming releases of Emma Wildes’s Lessons from a Scarlet Lady, Connie Brockway’s The Golden Season, and newcomer Sara Lindsey’s Promise Me Tonight.

But for every visit—or revisit—to a well-known time and place, Avon publicity director Pam Jaffee sees more exotic counterpoints developing. This month, the publisher launches the Black Cobra Quartet series by bestselling author Stephanie Laurens with The Untamed Bride, to be followed in February by The Elusive Bride. The novels will take readers from colonial India to London’s poshest hotels and Southampton country estates. Jaffee describes the heroes as part Lawrence of Arabia, part Errol Flynn. Avon also offers a return to traditional historical romance—featuring a nontraditional Viking heroine—with Viking in Love, which author Sandra Hill describes as her “medieval Dixie Chicks” book.

Reality Returns

While common wisdom holds that the category’s sales are all about the paranormal and the Regency period, some publishers are beginning to see contemporary romances stage a comeback.

“While historical and paranormal are definitely the strongest selling subgenres, there’s been an increase in sales of soft contemporary romance,” says Grand Central publicity manager Tanisha Christie. The publisher hopes that Lisa Dale’s success with her first contemporary romance last year, Simple Wishes, will grow with It Happened One Night (Nov.) from Grand Central’s Forever line.

St. Martin’s, says Enderlin, continues to see growth in this area, especially with humorous, contemporary romances such as Susan Donovan’s Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, about the romantic fortunes of a group of single women in a dog-walking group. SMP also recently launched a new chef-themed series by Louisa Edwards with Can’t Stand the Heat; the follow-up, On the Steamy Side, is due in March. Each title is billed as a “recipe for love novel.” As Enderlin says, “Right now there’s so much dark paranormal out there. Light, funny, contemporary can be an antidote to that.”

Berkley, already noting growth in the contemporary arena, is poised for more with Bed of Roses (Nov.), the second book in Nora Roberts’s trade paperback original Bride Quartet series. And the publisher has a slew of other contemporary titles on its slate, including Kimberly Fisk’s debut, Lake Magic, set in the Pacific Northwest; Jill Shalvis’s latest sexy baseball romance, Slow Heat; Pamela Clare’s Native American-themed Naked Edge; and Julie James’s legal romance, Something About You.

The continued strong showing of reality TV has inspired Harlequin’s Kimani Press Arabesque single-title line called Primetime Passion, with plots linked to TV shows. The first book, Adrianne Byrd’s Queen of His Heart, debuted in September and featured a Bachelorette-type reality show. It was followed by Donna Hill’s Prize of a Lifetime in October, set against an Apprentice-style backdrop.

Another TV trend that Don Lucey, Harlequin senior writer/public relations, says is connecting with readers is the more intimate smalltown or family-related setting depicted in dramas like Desperate Housewives, Brothers & Sisters, and even sitcoms like Modern Family.

“Smalltown romances revolving around home, community, and family are doing extremely well in the current market,” says Lucey. “This may be partially attributable to the recession, which has caused more people to return to their roots, stay in their hometowns, and stay close to their families.”

Among Harlequin’s upcoming smalltown-themed titles are Robyn Carr’s Forbidden Falls, Linda Lael Miller’s McKettricks of Texas: Tate, Susan Wiggs’s The Summer Hideaway, and Sherryl Woods’s Home in Carolina.

Bonnet Rippers

The diversity of the romance market is also creating new subgenres—or at least altering lesser-known ones—on a regular basis. Perhaps the most unexpected area of heat—and pushing the term “traditional” to the limit—is the Amish romance scene, known by Bethany House and other Christian publishers as “bonnet books.” The trend’s roots can be traced back more than 10 years to the instant success of Beverly Lewis’s The Shunning. Though Lewis now has more than 12 million copies of her books in print, Bethany House marketing v-p Steve Oates says that only in recent years have other authors found success in the market, with 30% of the Association for Christian Retail (CBA, formerly the Christian Booksellers Association) recent fiction bestsellers being set in Amish culture.

Now, he says, “it seems that everyone wants on the bonnet bandwagon, with novels featuring all sorts of semiclosed communities including the Amish, Puritans, Shakers, and even the Amana colonies.” But he cautions that the trend may have closed borders. “While there may be some attempts by publishers to have success with the Amish fiction outside of the inspirational market, they’re unlikely to experience the same kind of success.”

Bethany House is certainly continuing to post big numbers with Lewis. Her first installment in a new series, The Secret, debuted in the New York Times top 10, and September’s follow-up, The Missing, released to great fanfare. The series conclusion, The Telling, will be out in April. Another category player, Baker Publishing Group’s Revell division, is publishing Suzanne Woods Fisher’s The Choice in January.

A new player in the romance arena, Running Press, had success from another unusual aspect back in April, with its first M/M titles—gay fiction featuring male romances, written for women.

“We’ve been happy with the results and will continue to publish for this growing market,” says associate publisher Craig Herman, noting that the publisher’s trade paperback vampire romance anthologies and YA title Eternal Kiss also performed above expectations. The publisher’s latest M/M romances, Lee Rowan’s Tangled Web and Donald Hardy’s Lover’s Knot, are due out next month.

On the more traditional end of the spectrum, Avon is hoping to capitalize on the increase in reader interest for craft-themed romances, particularly of the knitting variety. In December, Avon will be re-releasing Debbie Macomber’s classic Mrs. Miracle to coincide with the Hallmark Channel’s movie adaptation, and also bringing out Lori Wilde’s The Sweetheart’s Knitting Club (with a follow-up title, The True Love Quilting Club, set for April). Then in March, Avon kicks off a new series by debut author Rachael Herron—who runs the popular blog—with How to Knit a Love Song.

Oates at Bethany House notes that romance’s robust sales—both inside and outside the inspirational market—make sense. “There must be a large number of people who are looking for some relief from the financial stress in their lives, and fiction, particularly romance, is a nice place to go to relax for a few hours.”