Even as shelf space contracts in bricks-and-mortar retailers, publishers still believe in a happily-ever-after for the contemporary romance genre—and one that extends to signing new authors, particularly in the digital space.

According to Amy Pierpont, executive editor of Grand Central Publishing and editorial director of the Forever imprint, contemporary romance is driving midlist sales. “There has been a noticeable expansion of contemporary romance and its role in the marketplace,” Pierpont says, “and we’ve accommodated our list to meet that demand: 10% to 20% of our authors are first-time authors. We’re reissuing the first two novels in Debra Webb’s bestselling self-published Faces of Evil series this August [Obsession and Impulse], followed by the new third novel, Power, in September. We’re publishing digital editions this year, to satisfy reader demand, then following up with print editions in the spring of 2013, with the next three books in the series coming out in 2014 in simultaneous print and digital editions.”

Many publishers are complementing printed books and managing risk with digital imprints. Pocket Books has relaunched Pocket Star as a digital-only imprint; Kensington will launch eKensington in July; Avon’s Avon Impulse just celebrated its first birthday; and Harlequin has seen success with Carina. They’re drawing on strategies that have worked well over the past several years for houses such as Samhain and Ellora’s Cave.

“What all of us have our eye on now is the dramatic growth of the e-book market,” says Lauren McKenna, editorial director of Pocket Star. “One of the best things about our dedicated e-book imprint is the opportunity it gives us to acquire even more exciting and fresh new voices. We are more cautious with print.”

EKensington will publish both new, original works and classic titles from Kensington’s backlist, says Laurie Parkin, Kensington’s vice president and publisher. In addition to romance, Kensington plans to publish women’s fiction, urban fantasy, thrillers, and mystery.

Despite the push toward digital, some publishers still feel strongly about bricks-and-mortar distribution. “We like quirky books and authors who appreciate print books rather than just wanting to sell Kindle copies,” says Steve Berman, owner and publisher of the LGBT-focused Lethe Press, which released Catherine Lundoff’s Silver Moon, a paranormal about older lesbian werewolves, in May.

A Spotlight on New Authors

New authors tend to think of contemporary romance as difficult to break into, because so many of the big names are really, really big: who can hope to be the next Nora Roberts or Danielle Steel? They may be surprised by how open publishers are to contemporary debut titles. “We’re more likely to acquire a new writer than one who’s had just middling sales,” says Alicia Condon, Kensington’s editorial director.

Lucia Macro, executive editor of Avon/Morrow, says that the majority of the titles on Avon Impulse’s list are generated by first-time authors such as Jennifer Bernard (April’s The Fireman Who Loved Me and May’s Hot for Fireman). Condon notes that about 20% of her romance list is by first-time authors; Jennifer Enderlin, vice president and associate publisher at St. Martin’s Press, reports similar stats.

At digital publishers, that number can rise to as much as 30%. “Ellora’s Cave was built on unknown authors, many of whom have gone on to become bestsellers,” says Susan Edwards, Ellora’s Cave CEO, who adds that the company has acquired 34 new-to-them authors so far in 2012, following 91 in 2011 and 73 in 2010. “Since we are a digital-first publisher, we can take a chance on new authors in a way that print publishers tied to the old bookstore model could not. Under the old model, a book had a very short amount of time to attract readers before it was taken off shelves and returned to the publisher. An e-book can remain available for sale for an infinite period of time, attracting new readers as each new title from that author is released. Also, since we pay high royalty rates rather than advances, our initial investment in a new author is lower, so we can take more chances.”

Heather Osborn, editorial director of Samhain, concurs. “We’re looking for authors who are committed to the digital-first model of meeting readers’ demand for multiple books a year,” she says. “We’ve found our most successful authors are the ones who love to write, and who are able to produce books on a schedule that keeps their fans clamoring for more. The sweet spot for us lies between two and six releases a year.”

Erotic contemporary romance shows much the same trend. Brenda Knight, associate publisher for Cleis Press and Viva Editions, notes that about 15% of her list is generated by new authors. Georgia Woods, managing editor of Liquid Silver Books, says that just over 30% of her authors are first-timers. “We have an author development group where we work with our authors on craft and developing new talent, and we’ve seen some talented authors take off and build careers, which is very gratifying,” Woods says.

Hot and Sweet, Side by Side

Of erotic romance as a category, Edwards of Ellora’s Cave says, “Erotic romance in all subgenres continues to lead traditional romance by a huge margin, with BDSM, male/male erotic romance, paranormal, and science fiction selling best at the moment. Our author Laurann Dohner has made the New York Times and USA Today bestselling lists with the last three books in her science fiction series New Species.”

“The subgenres driving the business are paranormal romance, erotic romance, and, most recently, kinky romance,” says Cleis’s Knight. Like other contemporary titles, erotic romances often integrate subgenres in hopes of reaching a wider audience; Kristina Wright’s Duty and Desire: Military Erotic Romance, out from Cleis in November, is just one example.

While erotic romance continues to be a hot seller in the contemporary space, it’s increasingly sharing the shelves with sweeter titles. “We’re seeing some great sales with authors who write a steamier contemporary romance, like Lori Foster, but smalltown stories from authors such as Robyn Carr have also been very popular for us,” says Loriana Sacilotto, executive vice president of global editorial for Harlequin. “Classic themes—alpha heroes, marriages of convenience, cowboys, babies, etc.—continue to perform extremely well in our category romance business.”

“My biggest surprise about the current contemporary market is the sustained demand for sweet, smalltown romances,” notes author Virna De Paul, whose contemporary romantic suspense Shades of Desire is a June offering from Harlequin. “This seems at odds with the popularity of darker paranormals, thrillers, and erotica.”

Shauna Summers, executive editor of Ballantine Bantam Dell, is excited about recent acquisition Molly O’Keefe, whose Can’t Buy Me Love is out in July, to be followed by Can’t Hurry Love in August and Crazy Thing Called Love in early 2013. “Molly writes contemporary romance in the tradition of Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Rachel Gibson,” says Summers, name-checking two major authors who keep lighthearted contemporary romance at the top of the bestseller lists.

Kensington’s Condon says that contemporary romance readers want to read “feel-good” books these days, “whether they’re stories that confirm old-fashioned American values or weave romantic fantasies about slowing down to enjoy life and fall in love.” Condon points to Kate Angell’s June title No Tan Lines as an example.

“Net sales for our romance line are up 15% over this time last year,” says Leah Hultenschmidt, senior editor for Sourcebooks’ Casablanca and Fire imprints. “We’ve been seeing sales growth for some of our contemporary cowboy authors, such as Carolyn Brown and Joanne Kennedy; romances that feature military heroes, such as Catherine Mann’s Elite Ops series; and paranormals.”

Series Titles Keep Readers Coming Back

Series remain popular with both publishers and authors. “We almost always contract for multiple titles in the Casablanca romance line, and those stories are usually related in some way,” says Hultenschmidt, citing the smalltown Texas setting of Macy Beckett’s upcoming series (Sultry with a Twist, Oct.) and M.L. Buchmann’s high-action suspense series of SOAR helicopter pilots (I Own the Dawn, Aug.). “Making books part of a loosely linked series is one of the best ways to help give an author brand identity,” she says. “It can be a fabulous way to launch an author—it gives you immediate shelf-presence.”

Deb Werksman, acquiring editor for Sourcebooks’ romance fiction and commercial women’s fiction, agrees: “I’m buying only authors who can give me at least several books—they don’t have to be a series in a strict sense, but they have to be the same subgenre and draw the reader into the same world,” she says. “It’s very difficult to publish stand-alone titles because if readers love it, you want to have the next book and the next book meet their expectations.”

Fortunately, authors enjoy writing linked books. “Apparently, my muse prefers series,” says Lori Foster, whose Run the Risk is out in October from Harlequin. “The books each stand alone, but characters know each other and work together. A secondary character will show up and then do his best to take over. I can usually tell by the second or third scene he appears in if a character will demand a book of his own.”

“Readers write to authors, saying that they want to see this character or that character again,” says Macro of Avon/Morrow. “While certain characters may waltz on and off the scene, the pivotal couple changes from book to book. Readers are so happy to discover and devour the backlist.” Adds Harlequin’s Sacilotto: “Readers like to invest in a place, in certain characters, and keep coming back to someplace familiar.” And that is just what contemporary romance does best.