Love is in the air for publishers. As I write, five of the top 10 New York Times fiction bestsellers are romance. In the first half of 2023, print unit sales of romance titles soared 34.6% over the same period last year, while in 2022, romance unit sales grew 52.4% over the previous year, according to Publishers Weekly.
Publishers are scrambling to explain love’s new bloom. Is it the BookTok bump? The Colleen Hoover effect? The Big Five’s belated recognition that characters of all races, sizes, and sexual orientations deserve their happily ever afters?
Maybe. But after studying romance authors for nearly a decade, I believe the surge is driven by romance writers themselves, and their unique solidarity as a labor force.
It might seem counterintuitive to think of romance writers—or any authors—as a labor force. Writers work alone. They don’t have a regular employer or paycheck. Nevertheless, romance writers realized long ago that there’s strength in numbers. In the late 1970s, these writers—mostly women, mostly white, almost universally disrespected by the book world—sought each other out by letter and phone call to share scarce industry intel.
In 1980, Black romance editor Vivian Stephens formalized this grassroots network into Romance Writers of America. For 40 years, the group dramatically improved conditions for romance writers, pushing for better contracts, transparent royalty statements, and on-time payments.
Sadly, not all writers benefited equally: RWA’s failure to fully include diverse authors contributed to the group’s spectacular implosion in 2020. Nevertheless, for four decades, RWA spread an ethic of mutual support that still infuses the romance writing community. My research found that an astonishing 74% of romance authors connect with each other online, over the phone, via email, or in person at least once a week. Half connect every day. This tradition of close, frequent connection means that advice and innovation spread like wildfire among romance writers.
Labor law forbids solo contractors, including authors, from sharing compensation figures: it’s considered price-fixing. Indeed, to avoid antitrust suits, RWA devotes a page of its website to explaining antitrust law and discouraging members from discussing rates.
No matter. Romance writers have openly shared royalty rates and contract terms for decades. Today, on social media, email chains, and elsewhere, romance writers frequently share best practices for promotion, marketing, and reader relations. Other genre authors tell me this kind of openness is unusual. One SF writer said getting others to share income data is “like pulling teeth.”
Of course, other author organizations lobby for better contracts. But these groups typically restrict membership to traditionally published authors, which limits innovation. Romance writers famously welcome newcomers: RWA admitted unpublished authors from the very beginning. And a commitment to training new authors still pervades Romancelandia’s countless online groups and the many smaller romance organizations that splintered off from RWA.
This sense of solidarity benefits established as well as aspiring writers. Based on guidance from newcomers (often authors of color shunned by the publishing industry), traditionally published authors adopted the tactics of self-publishing, helping drive the indie romance explosion. The boom drained revenues from mass market publishing and empowered romance authors to demand better treatment from publishers.
These unique labor practices—banding together to improve conditions, radically open information sharing, and solidarity across experience levels—all helped drive the current boom in romance. To be sure, success is still not shared equitably: those five authors on this week’s bestseller list are all white. But history shows that romance writers are powerful advocates for change. Other writers and publishers hoping to mimic their success would do well to recall that writing is a business and authors are its workers—workers who can band together to improve their own conditions. Because publishing, after all, is not just a labor of love.
Christine Larson is a journalism professor and author of Love in the Time of Self-Publishing: How Romance Writers Changed the Rules of Writing and Success (Princeton Univ., June 2024).