Not since the Twilight parties of the mid-2000s have YA readers been energized enough to show up en masse for midnight releases at bookstores. Instead of teens in homemade T-shirts declaring Team Edward or Team Jacob, today’s crop of book lovers are largely women and teen girls with Fourth Wing friendship bracelets or dragon-themed temporary tattoos, fans of the impossible-to-ignore publishing juggernaut that is romantasy. This category has generated a level of excitement on par with the dystopian and paranormal romance days more than a decade ago. It’s also selling at a staggering volume, leading Circana BookScan to dub 2023 “the year of romantasy.” Sarah J. Maas, hailed by many as the doyenne of romantasy (and also now considered an adult author), has sold close to 42 million books worldwide, according to Bloomsbury, her publisher, and in the first quarter of 2024, she was the bestselling author in any category. But she’s far from alone at the top.

While blockbuster fantasy-romance authors including Cassandra Clare (the Mortal Instruments series), Renée Ahdieh (the Wrath and the Dawn series), and Tahereh Mafi (the Shatter Me series) developed their followings long before the term romantasy was coined, authors such as Rebecca Yarros (Fourth Wing) and Lauren Roberts (Powerless) are at the forefront of the next wave, helping to make it a phenomena that has had transformational effects on the YA market and has further blurred the line between YA and adult titles. Often dismissed for its escapist quality, romantasy has become a category that demands to be taken seriously.

“Literary gatekeepers have always been reluctant to grant romance and fantasy legitimacy, probably because folks love trashing what girls and women love reading,” says Sabaa Tahir, author of the bestselling Ember in the Ashes series, among the books considered to have helped popularize romantasy when it was published back in 2015. “It’s nice to see that the success of the genre is sweeping a lot of that nonsense away.”

What is romantasy, exactly?

“Romantasy has been around for a long time, ” says Tiffany Liao, executive editor at Random House Books for Young Readers. “It’s the term that’s new.”

By the time the Frankfurt Book Fair took place in 2022, the catchy portmanteau for books combining a romantic plot with fantastical elements had gained purchase. While the term is now widespread, it’s more of an “umbrella,” Liao says. “Because it is elastic and flexible, everyone has their own definition.”

“I think the term is appealing because it is a signal to a reader of what they are getting,” says Eileen Rothschild, v-p and associate publisher of St. Martin’s YA imprint Wednesday Books. By last fall, the label had transcended publishing circles and was being used more broadly in the media.

Romantasy narratives regularly feature tropes such as enemies-to-lovers and fated mates, and are distinguished by high stakes. “The characters are often in life-or-death situations that create tension between them—rivals in a tournament, rulers of different realms, witch and witch hunter,” says Alex Aster, author of the Larklight series, adding that “choosing a love interest can sometimes decide the fate of the world.”

Chloe Gong, author of the These Violent Delights series, says readers “love having something to root for,” and that often the romance is a B plot. The characters “have so many other matters to attend to, like the end of the world or the looming big battle, but every step forward is entwined with a deepening relationship, too.”

Romantasy readers “simply love love,” says Bria Ragin, editor at Joy Revolution, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books. “And they want to escape. What better way to do so than with hot vampires, brooding angels, or charming witches?”

Increasingly, though, the “spice” factor of the romantasy is part of the allure. “Listen, a lot of characters in these fantasies are hot,” says Kendare Blake, author of the Three Dark Crowns series.

BookTok influencers have even popularized the use of a spice meter in the reviews they post, Ragin notes.

The BookTok boost

Much of the credit for the ascendence of romantasy has been attributed to TikTok, where #Romantasy-related posts have clocked more than a billion views. The “big sweeping emotions” of romantasy are ideally suited to the platform, Liao says, noting that videos of readers with tear-streamed faces sharing their response to a book provide “a quick emotional connection and allow readers to share the emotional experience together.”

Aster, who has more than a million followers on the platform, says that the BookTok community serves to “magnify the effects of word of mouth” and has helped to create readers out of nonreaders and persuaded readers of other genres to give romance and fantasy a try.

Ragin says that in addition to observing the success of some of her authors on the platform, she has used it to discover authors. “There’s some room to grow in the BookTok community as it relates to featuring and breaking out marginalized authors,” she says.

Then, of course, there are the sales. For some authors, BookTok has revived backlist titles, often from many years past. For others, such as Aster, it has resulted in instant bestseller status. It’s the platform’s ability to build momentum quickly that has been a game changer, according to Liao.

Publishers are watching BookTok for more than just its sales potential. “BookTok has been an amazing feedback mechanism for publishers to see firsthand how readers are receiving and reacting to our books, and the language they use to describe favorite tropes,” says Katherine Harrison, executive editor of Knopf for Young Readers. “I would say that BookTok re-affirmed our hunch about the demand for romantasy, and offered new language to help guide books into the hands of the target reader.”

Still, Liao says, overreliance on BookTok is short-sighted. “It’s very tempting to look at BookTok as a way to determine what readers want. But the job and responsibility of publishers it to analyze and tap into why something is resonating. There will always be diminishing returns when trend chasing and serving up more of the same.”

For romantasy authors, the platform can be a mixed bag. “My relationship with BookTok is complicated,” Gong says. “It was a life-changing tool for me when I debuted in November 2020. I owe everything to being in the right place at the right time: while the pandemic shut down most bookstores, my books were still moving online.” But she echoes a frequently cited drawback to the platform: “I do feel that BookTok at large has a lack of diversity and is actively causing backward movement in lots of strides the industry previously made. If the publishing industry relies too heavily on letting BookTok dictate what should be popular in YA or in romantasy, then the same few books continue to get discovered and allowed to succeed, and that’s a shame.”

The BookTok effect also draws comparison to empty calories. “It can be a lot of noise for a select few individual titles, and many times only for a short period of fame––viral one week, forgotten the next,” says Laura Crockett, senior agent at Triada US. “Can BookTok create lasting influence or long, steady, focused attention on anyone other than Sarah J. Maas or, more recently, Rebecca Yarros? That remains to be seen.”

Meanwhile some authors—especially those with more established careers—have eschewed the platform. “I’m not on it,” Blake says. “I’m sitting this one out, folks.”

Romantasy fatigue

As with any trend, romantasy is causing knock-on effects in YA publishing, not all of which are necessarily positive. Agents report being inundated with submissions described as romantasy, though the label doesn’t always fit.

“Books are being miscategorized as romantasy when it’s really fantasy-horror, fantasy-adventure, or dark academia that just so happens to have a romance B or C plot,” Crockett says. “Readers see a female author name on a fantasy cover and mislabel it as YA; readers see a female author name on a YA fantasy and mislabel it as romantasy. This miscategorization and mislabeling, from readers and marketing alike, is constant.” She points to category killers of the past for comparison. “Imagine if The Hunger Games or Divergent came out today––I have no doubt they would be marketed as romantasy. But they all had a romance plotline second, speculative fantasy or dystopian elements first.”

That’s just branding, Harrison says. “Any time there’s a big hit, the next influx of submissions will name-check the bestseller of the week as a comp title. A true breakout book needs to offer a distinct point of view or a hook we haven’t seen before.”

Gong suggests that because there are so many titles piggybacking on the big romantasy success stories, a sameness is developing in the category. “Readers feel that they’ve already read a bunch of books just like the latest coming out,” she notes.

Crockett’s experience supports that assertion. “I receive so much romantasy in my inbox,” she says. “And they’re pretty similar to one another: assassin or princess falls in love with soldier-partner or bodyguard, usually enemies-to-lovers trope, usually one of them is fae, the romance is white and heterosexual. The comps are usually Sarah J. Maas or Fourth Wing.”

But some publishers are seeing submissions moving in new directions. “I am truly excited to see the diversity of voices in my inbox, because it allows me to learn about different cultural experiences or show the many facets of my own as a Black editor,” Ragin says. “I often see that debut authors have been inspired by Chloe Gong, Tracy Deonn, and Tahereh Mafi, who deserve their flowers, undoubtedly. Writers, across the subgenres of romance, will always put their own twist on Jane Austen, of course. And Bridgerton has opened the doors for this era of historical romance and historical romantasy.”

While romantasy is thriving now, it’s too soon to count out other YA categories such as contemporary realistic. “Romantasy definitely has the wind in its sails at the moment, but I wouldn’t point to that as a cause for softening demand in any other category,” Harrison says. “These things come in waves. I’m just as interested in acquiring the next great YA contemporary as the next great romantasy.”

Ragin points to the recent success of YA titles such as Dungeons & Drama by Kristy Boyce, Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute by Talia Hibbert, and Fake Dates and Mooncakes by Sher Lee as indicators that “some contemporary romance titles just have the secret sauce” to break out.

Ultimately, the success of romantasy is contributing to a “rising tide effect,” Liao says. “People who come to romantasy for the buzziness are new eyeballs we might not have reached otherwise.” Once hooked on romantasy, they’re more likely to pick up another genre, such as thrillers.

A happily ever after?

Clearly romantasy isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Wendy Loggia, v-p and senior executive editor at Delacorte, predicts the next big thing in romantasy will be subcategory hybrids, potentially including cozy romantasy, angel/vampire romantasy, and dark academia romantasy. “There’s only one place romantasy is going,” she says. “Up, up, up.”

Crockett sees publishers “finally acquiring the BIPOC and queer romantasies that readers are craving,” she says, adding that readers can expect to see more space-based and futuristic settings rather than fae worlds, more paranormal elements, and “some near-future and dystopian narratives peeking in.” She also notes that the level of spice in romantasy seems to be decreasing, with slow-burn romance on the rise.

“I hope that it continues to grow more inclusive,” Tahir says, seeing encouragement in such new and forthcoming titles as Saara El-Arifi’s Faebound, J. Elle’s House of Marionne, and Jordan Ifueko’s The Maid and the Crocodile.

For Ragin, that future is already here. “The spectrum of storytelling and worldbuilding is wider than ever—with tales inspired by Persian, Mexican, Korean, and other mythologies,” she says. “Everyone, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, has an opportunity to see themselves and their experiences authentically represented in main characters, not just supporting ones.”

Liao is noticing more palace intrigue, enemies-to-lovers stories, and elemental magic in her submissions, and predicts an uptick in cozy fantasy narratives, as well as stories rooted in more diverse mythologies. She hopes publishers will challenge themselves to think more broadly about romantasy and embrace diverse stories that are also escapist and fun. “Anything that boosts readership is a positive,” she says. “You’re creating more readers, and those readers are going to want more books. It’s up to publishers to come up with fresh and exciting ways to engage readers and keep them excited about this genre.”

Joanne O’Sullivan is a journalist, author, and editor in Asheville, N.C.

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