How spicy do today’s readers like their romance novels? It depends on whom you ask: plotlines run the gamut from sweet and wholesome to no-holds-barred, and each permutation has its fans. PW spoke with editors across Romancelandia about how they signal to fans what they’re in for, sexiness-wise, and whether such categorizations are useful at all.
Gimme some sugar
It’s not as easy as it once was to judge a romance novel’s heat level by its cover, says Becky Monds, associate publisher for fiction at HarperCollins Christian Publishing. “In the past you could really tell,” she says, but now, because of the popularity of illustrated covers, visual cues aren’t enough. For Authentically, Izzy by Pepper Basham (Thomas Nelson, Nov.), an epistolary novel in which a librarian is unwillingly enrolled in an online matchmaking service by her sister-in-law, “we explicitly say in the marketing copy that this is a ‘sweet, kisses-only’ romance,” Monds says. “I don’t want people to pick up the book thinking they’re going to get more sex on the page. But I also want the readers who are looking for books that don’t go beyond a kiss to pick up this book and know that this is what they want.”
PW’s review said the book is a “cute contemporary” that’s “filled with humor and grace.” Thomas Nelson and other publishers also use the phrase “perfect for the fans who love Hallmark movies,” Monds adds, to telegraph books on this end of the spectrum. This way, they’re “setting expectations that this isn’t going to go too far in the bedroom and is focused on two people getting to know each other.”
Ginny Baird’s Right Girl, Wrong Side, which Sourcebooks is releasing in March, updates the Hatfield-McCoy feud for the 21st century: when a booking error puts two business-rival families in the same vacation cottage, Evita, from the boisterous Machado family, reunites with her high school crush, Ryan of the straight-laced Hatfields. Baird’s author bio hints at the content of her novels; she “writes wholesome contemporary stories with a dash of humor and a lot of heart.” But Sourcebooks senior editor Christa Désir hesitates to categorize the book in any way; the choice to fade to black, she says, serves the story.
“What feels right in this space, in this time? What feels natural for the story and how does it belong? These are the questions that determine what’s on the page,” she says. “Is this a kind of book where we spend a lot of time developing this sexual relationship? The answer is no. The family relationship is primary to this story—there are too many people for it to be a lot of bedroom scenes.”
Similarly, The Rom-Com Agenda by Jayne Denker is an “endearingly sweet book” with a large cast of friends and family, says Alexandra Sehulster, senior editor at St. Martin’s Group; the Griffin imprint is releasing the book in January. “You’re rooting for them to be on the page just as much as you’re rooting for the relationship to work out,” she says. (See our q&a with Denker, “Just a Girl, Standing in Front of a Boy”)
We out here vibin’
Situating a book in the market is more art than science, says Leah Hultenschmidt, associate publisher at Forever. “It’s always so funny for me to rate these, because I feel like what I consider spicy is certainly not what someone else might consider extra steamy and spicy. It’s such a subjective business,” she says, offering two forthcoming examples from her imprint.
In the second-chance romance Jana Goes Wild by Farah Heron (May 2023), Jana Sulaiman and her co-parent, Anil, find themselves at the same safari destination wedding in Tanzania. “It’s sexy right at the beginning,” Hultenschmidt says. “Jana let loose five years ago, wound up pregnant, and had a baby girl. The book is about reconnecting with that man and figuring out if they can make it work.” Heron expressed concern to Hultenschmidt that the book was steamier than her previous novels; would her fans expect something else? “My response was to do what made sense for the characters and the story,” Hultenschmidt says. “This isn’t marketed as a super-sweet Hallmark Channel kind of book. The readers will come along with that.”
Before I Let Go by Kennedy Ryan (Nov.) is “a knockout” per PW’s starred review, and another second-chance romance from Forever. Yasmen and Josiah Wade’s marriage breaks apart after a devastating pregnancy loss; eventually, the pair reconnect, healed by time and therapy. “We wanted to be clear this was not a rom-com—there’s no fun, illustrated cover,” Hultenschmidt says. “This is a couple who was going through some serious emotional trauma to find their way back together. But the cover copy says ‘hot’ and ‘illicit,’ and that signals to the reader, ‘Okay, I’m going to get ready for something.’ "
Erika Tsang, editorial director at Avon, finds any sort of categorical system subjective. “From time to time, we’re asked by booksellers and bloggers if we would consider putting a rating system on the book,” she says. “We go back and forth. What I find really, really hot, another person may not. So my five hot peppers could be somebody’s three peppers. That’s been really hard to communicate.”
That said, a book like Thien-Kim Lam’s Full Exposure (Feb. 2023) is solidly on the spicier side; Lam founded the subscription box service Bawdy Bookworms, which pairs sexy romances with erotic toys. “She comes from that space; her books are about sex positivity,” Tsang says. “Full Exposure is about seeing yourself as a sexual being, no matter your size, however you look. The heroine in the book is a boudoir photographer and she likes to make her clients feel beautiful and sexy, and feel comfortable being photographed in the bedroom.” Tsang’s sales team often has conversations with booksellers about books with high heat. “Not to flag it in a bad way, but more like, ‘Hey, if you’re looking for something spicy, this one is really it,’ ” she says. “It’s more like handselling.”
The Marriage List by Ella Quinn, which Zebra is publishing in December, launches the Worthington Brides series, a spin-off from her Worthington Regency romances. In the first installment, Lady Eleanor Carpenter draws up a list of qualities she expects her future husband to have, only to discover that love and checklists aren’t wholly compatible. John Scognamiglio, editor-in-chief at Kensington Publishing, calls the novel a “traditional historical” in terms of sex: “We don’t close the bedroom door,” he says. “Usually, halfway through the book, the hero and the heroine get together. Ella likes to set up the courtship and the foundations for the relationship before she starts to heat things up. Her books are always a slow boil.”
Scognamiglio recognizes the importance of meeting reader expectations. “You’re not going to go with the traditional clinch cover if the heat content is mild or moderate, but if it’s a really hot and erotic type of story, the cover art’s going to reflect that,” he says. “The cover copy often talks about the level of heat and where it’s sensual, so there aren’t any surprises for the consumer. If they like that type of book, then they’ll know it’s going to deliver on what they want.”
Another historical romance, Diana Biller’s Hotel of Secrets, is a March release from St. Martin’s Griffin set against the backdrop of 1870s Vienna’s ball season: Maria, an Austrian hotel manager, and Eli, an American foreign agent, find themselves waltzing across the floor, and dancing in the sheets. The book’s flap copy pointedly calls out Eli’s luscious mouth. “We have to indicate spice levels in different ways, and that’s where the words come in,” says Vicki Lame, editor at St. Martin’s Publishing Group. She likens the mouth reference to Chekhov’s gun. “Maria thinks about his mouth all the time and what he can do with it. And eventually he does use it.”
Kristine Swartz, senior editor at Berkley, says the wordplay on the cover of A Dash of Salt and Pepper (Dec.), a queer foodie romance by Kosoko Jackson, clues readers into what’s on the menu. The copy includes the phrases “between a stove and a hot place” and “top the Scoville scale” to indicate sizzle, and not only of the cooking kind. “It’s food, but there are also going to be some sexy times between the characters,” she says. (See our q&a with Jackson, “The Heat Is On”)
Bold Strokes Books publishes exclusively queer stories, and that means taking a radical position. “For so long, queer sex was outlawed, and if you did write queer characters, the sex scenes were always fade-to-black because of laws that blocked the publication and sale of these books,” says Ruth Sternglantz, editorial and marketing consultant at Bold Strokes. “We’ve always encouraged explicit sex scenes written to the comfort level of the author. One of the functions of queer romance has been to normalize queer sex.”
Never Kiss a Cowgirl (May 2023), for instance, is a standalone romantic adventure by Ali Vali, who has written dozens of books with Bold Strokes. It’s “a romantic action story,” Sternglantz says. “There are explicit sex scenes—orgasms and nipples and clitorises. Depending on the book and on what the story demands, there will be more sex scenes or fewer sex scenes. That’s driven by plot and character.”
Sehulster at St. Martin’s commends the openness of the moment and the willingness of editors and publishers to talk about sex on the page and speak to what readers want. “This isn’t a question I would’ve been asked in the past,” she says. “The romance community at large are talking about it a lot more, which is really great. It helps readers who gravitate toward a certain spice level, and it can help open up people to new reads as well.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
Read more from the romance feature.
Just a Girl, Standing in Front of a Boy: PW Talks with Jayne Denker
The author of 'The Rom-Com Agenda' talks about meeting reader expectations and why she prefers other writers’ sex scenes.
The Heat Is On: PW Talks with Kosoko Jackson
In 'A Dash of Salt and Pepper,' a man reeling from a bad breakup and a career setback finds himself working as a prep chef in the kitchen under—sometimes literally—the chef/owner.