Despite rumors about the death of mass market titles, category romance hasn’t gone away—it’s evolved.
The fundamentals of category or series romance remain: shorter romance novels published in clearly delineated categories (e.g., westerns or billionaires), often numbered sequentially, with a set number of books published each month. But while such titles were once solely the purview of industry stalwarts Harlequin and Silhouette (which Harlequin acquired in 1984), e-publishing is giving category romance new life. Digital-first publishers such as Entangled, Samhain, Evernight, Riptide, and Totally Bound, to name just a few, are reinvigorating the format.
“E-books can move faster and push the edge harder than print,” says Treva Harte, co-owner and editor-in-chief of the 10-year-old e-publishing company Loose Id, which releases a minimum of four e-books a week. “What’s newly popular hits faster. I would say it fades faster, but, really, readers who love a particular category can [always] find what they want on a website, so no category ever really dies.”
Michele Jensen, editor-in-chief of Twenty or Less Press, concurs. “To me, the biggest evolution is that with the advent of e-books, the shelf life of category romances has dramatically increased. When print was the only option, category romances generally only stayed on the shelves for a month, and, once the books sold out, the story wasn’t printed again. Another change has been the resurgence of categories that maybe lost popularity to the point it was no longer profitable to print the category. With e-books, some niche-market categories are available once more.”
With the demise of Borders and other bookstores, it was inevitable that print would continue to decline, say many. “Bricks-and-mortar stores only had so much space, and category romance sales were contracting along with the downtrend of physical book sales,” says Sue Grimshaw, editor at large and category specialist for Random House’s Ballantine Bantam Dell, Loveswept, and Flirt imprints, and the former romance buyer for both Borders and Kmart. “With e-books, there are no physical restraints, allowing the market to organically establish itself and grow.”
Grimshaw says that category romances hit the same notes, and draw the same readers, in any format.
“The strengths of a category book—that short, sharp focus on the relationship between the hero and heroine—are still popular in print and e-book,” agrees Mary-Theresa Hussey, executive editor at Harlequin.
Unquestionably, Harlequin remains the industry leader in category romance both online and in brick-and-mortar distribution, publishing some 110 titles a month in 34 languages in 110 international markets on six continents. In January 2014, the publisher introduced Harlequin E, a digital-first program that serializes books in short, inexpensive installments.
Harlequin editors believe the publisher’s long-standing stature in the category has created a brand that romance readers gravitate to.
“The beauty of category series publishing is that e-book readers can identify the Harlequin brand name, and then the line that most appeals to them,” says Tara Gavin, senior executive editor at Harlequin. “Category romance reflects the trends popular in society, as well as gives readers what they are looking for in romance.”
While a wide range of titles are sold digitally, the anonymous nature of e-readers has been particularly beneficial for erotic romance, notes Jules Herbert, romance buyer for Barnes & Noble. “We’ve seen erotic romance go from being a limited readership to one of our top sellers in the subject,” she says. “It’s been great to see new readers in the category—its effect then has spread to other areas such as contemporary and new adult.”
Sussing Out Subcategories
Alpha bad boys, rock stars, and boxers are currently doing well for Hai-Yen Mura, editorial director for Montlake Romance. She adds that tales set in small towns, such as the Perfect, Indiana series by Barbara Longley and Terri Osburn’s Anchor Island, are “perennially popular.”
Extended series are winners for Dreamspinner’s West. “The great popularity of the extended series has evolved into a popular reader attraction, in all genres,” she says. “For example, Dreamspinner is publishing an ongoing contemporary gay romance series set at an Australian sheep station. Another popular series features characters related to classical music.” Each romance features its own couple and plotline, but all stories are set in the same place, or revolve around common themes. Adventure and suspense titles, urban fantasy, westerns, and paranormal titles are also strong for Dreamspinner.
As in the rest of the industry, she adds, the gay romance market also mirrors what’s popular in pop culture: “When superheroes are big at the movies, we receive more submissions of and requests for stories featuring superheroes.”
Brides, babies, cowboys, and cops are Harlequin’s stalwarts. “And combining elements can make stories even stronger,” Hussey says. Two forthcoming titles—Texas Stakeout by Virna DePaul (Nov.) and The Lawman’s Noelle by Stella Bagwell (Harlequin Special Edition, Dec.)—incorporate a touch of suspense in two very different ways, as appropriate to each line.
“Subgenres that seem to have an enduring appeal are westerns/cowboys, like Diana Palmer’s Long, Tall Texans and Brenda Jackson’s Westmoreland family; military romances, as evidenced by Lindsay McKenna’s stories; and many others,” Gavin says. “At Harlequin Kimani Press, our multicultural imprint, strong community ties, as well as glamour, have strong appeal; Sweet Silver Bells by Rochelle Alers, part of her Eaton family series, is an example of this. And, of course, weddings are always in vogue.”
At Loose Id, says Harte, “We do particularly well with BDSM, interracial, and multicultural, and usually nicely with male-male and ménage. On the other hand, strong male heroes who have an intense bond with their female protagonists do very well indeed. That’s pretty popular in non-erotic romance, too.” Those involved in category romance believe the format has staying power. “There’s a reason category romance exists in every part of the industry,” says West. “Readers love a love story, and novellas are easy to read over and over.”