In the parlance of romance novels, a “cinnamon roll” is a sweet, supportive, and kind hero—the anti–Christian Grey. The phrase alludes to a 2014 Onion headline, “Beautiful Cinnamon Roll Too Good for This World, Too Pure,” and has come to represent a subgenre of books that push back on toxic masculinity. “More readers are asking for ‘cinnamon rolls’ and ‘golden retrievers,’ ” says Kaitlin Olson, senior editor at Atria; the latter refers to a romantic lead with a warm, floppy energy and positive attitude. “We’re seeing changing views on identity and masculinity and consent in the larger population, and readers are looking for romance novels to reflect what they’re seeing in the culture.”

Olsen and other editors and authors spoke with PW about forthcoming books whose squishy-centered men typify the changing face of attraction.

What a girl wants

The Long Game by Elena Armas, a September release from Atria, is a slow-burn romance between Adalyn Reyes, a prickly soccer executive, and Cam Caldani, a gruff retired goalkeeper. “Cam is deceptively kind,” Olson says. “He coaches a children’s soccer team. You see his interactions with the girls, whom he considers his own children. He has two cats. He takes care of Adalyn as well. That’s something we’re seeing more of in romance—men as emotional and physical caretakers.” See "Couple Goals" for our q&a with Armas.

Rachel Abbott, the heroine of debut novelist Regina Black’s The Art of Scandal (Grand Central, Aug.), overtly rejects the alpha male—her hot, rich, philandering politician husband, who has White House aspirations—to be with Nathan Vasquez, a man 10 years her junior. Nathan is “an exceptionally good listener,” per PW’s starred review, who “offers comfort, respect, and admiration for Rachel.”

Full Moon over Freedom (Harlequin, Sept.), second in the Milagro Street series by Angelina M. Lopez, subverts the alpha hero trope right on the cover: the alpha heroine—bruja and badass single mother Gillian Armstead-Bancroft—takes the dominant position in a clinch with Nicky Mendoza, an artist who’s pined for her since they lost their virginity together as teens. In Double-Decker Dreams (Alcove, June), Lindsay MacMillan skewers assumptions about desirability. When Kat spots an attractive man passing by on a bus, she imagines he’s the posh Brit she’s dreamed of falling in love with. Fate has other plans: her “bus beau” turns out to be an American teacher named Rory. The book offers a “heartwarming finale,” per PW’s review, “while ably demonstrating both the impossibly high standards set by rom-coms and the messiness of genuine love.”

Erin La Rosa says she writes heroes who are “a little bit of a grump, but secretly sweet on the inside. I create male characters who would be on your side and empathize with you. It’s wildly empowering to fall in love with someone who has the same goals as you do, who isn’t threatened by you, who wants you to succeed.”

The love interest in Plot Twist (Canary Street, Nov.), second in La Rosa’s Hollywood series, is Dash Montrose, a former teen idol who’s in recovery. He keeps his therapeutic pottery hobby a secret until he meets Sophie, a romance novelist who has never been in love. “Dash has been sober for a year when we meet him,” La Rosa says. “He stays sober through his art. It’s important to me to create men who open up about their struggles.”

With Business or Pleasure, coming in July from Berkley, Rachel Lynn Solomon delivers a “hot and heartfelt rom-com,” according to PW’s starred review. Celebrity ghostwriter Chandler Cohen has a lousy one-night stand with has-been heartthrob Finn Walsh, only to discover that he is her next client. “The first time Finn sleeps with Chandler, it’s anything but spectacular,” says Kristine Swartz, senior editor at Berkley. “But he puts aside his ego and embarks on a fun, sexy journey on how to please a woman.”

Solomon finds Finn’s initial ineptitude appealing. “As a reader, I can only take so much of the ‘alpha-verging-on-asshole,’ ” she says. “I only write beta heroes, because there’s something really sexy about stumbling through intimate encounters and being able to figure it out together. Finn doesn’t even know where the clitoris is: it reflects more what people are experiencing in the dating world. It’s possible to have escapism mixed with realism.”

Whatta man

Queer romances challenge the status quo in many ways, including in their depictions of gender and sexuality, says Elizabeth Trout, associate editor at Kensington. “By their nature, queer romances play with tropes and what’s expected regarding masculinity,” she adds. The July release In the Case of Heartbreak, Courtney Kae’s second Fern Falls novel, features a literal cinnamon roll hero—protagonist Ben, who bakes the sweet pastries at his family’s café and quietly pines for his musician neighbor, Adam. “Ben and Adam are both bi, and they’ve both dated men and women,” Trout says. Moreover, neither conforms to an alpha stereotype: “They protect and support each other.”

Anti-alpha heroes proliferate in forthcoming queer romances. Her Own Happiness by Eden Appiah-Kubi (Montlake, Sept.) offers an asexual love interest, Ant, who has deep
platonic feelings for the protagonist, Maya; in With Love, from Cold World by Alicia Thompson (Berkley, Aug.), the bisexual hero, Asa, was thrown out of his family house at age 18 by
his pastor father because of his sexual orientation. Firm in his masculinity, he nurtures heroine Lauren as they overcome past traumas and learn to love each other.

Liyah Cohen-Jackson, the heroine of Rachel Runya Katz’s debut, Thank You for Sharing (Griffin, June), is queer and has “the option to date a person of any gender,” Katz says. Liyah and Daniel Rosenberg, who attended sleepaway camp together as kids, meet again in a professional setting and have to renegotiate their relationship as adults. Daniel’s soft masculinity is central to his character and the pair’s attraction.

“Liyah could very well be dating a woman, or somebody who is agender, gender queer, or gender-fluid,” Katz notes. “In order for Daniel to be a man that Liyah would fall in love with, his masculinity couldn’t be toxic.”

Jess Everlee’s second Lucky Lovers of London Victorian romance, A Rulebook for Restless Rogues (Carina Adores, July), features characters from her debut, The Gentleman’s Book of Vices: best friends David Forester, proprietor of an underground club, and Noah Clarke, a buttoned-up tailor. “In this series, I subvert some of the expectations of what men—even queer men—are supposed to be or act like,” Everlee says. “Real people don’t conform to those expectations nearly as much as we see in the media.” PW’s starred review acknowledges this: “Most refreshing is Everlee’s commitment to portraying gender fluidity in her characters—several of whom are drag queens—which not only make the characters themselves satisfyingly complex and endearing but also makes the sex scenes more interesting and intense.”

All the man I need

Readers can look forward to huggable heroes beyond this season. In spring 2024, Kensington will release Jenny Holiday’s Earls Trip, launching a series about three Regency-era nobles. “We’ve all read Regency romances where the alpha male is so obsessed with carrying his line of succession or has such a fear of intimacy communication that he can’t sit down and have a good conversation with the woman he loves,” says Kensington associate editor Elizabeth May. “Someone like that would probably be intolerable in modern-day life.” In Holiday’s series, “all the heroes actively reject the rakishness that’s typical of this genre and instead seek to be there for their friends and work through problems no matter what.”

It’s not just the historical romance heroes who’ve evolved. Contemporary romance author Cathy Yardley, who signed her first contract with Harlequin in 1999, has seen firsthand how the genre has expanded. When she started writing, for instance, “I knew not to write Asian characters, because they weren’t going to get published,” she says. The success of independent publishing has been a “game changer”: “Traditional publishing is finally getting it and seeing what’s succeeding elsewhere.”

Yardley’s July release, Role Playing (Montlake), which PW’s starred review called “delightfully quirky,” stars Maggie, who is divorced and, like Yardley, biracial Asian American; Aiden, her love interest, is the furthest thing from an emotionally withholding alpha. “Aiden is 50, queer, has a dad bod, and is a gentle soul,” Yardley says. “He ditched being a doctor to be a nurse because he felt that was a better fit for who he was. He comes from a small, rural town and has a family that has very stereotypical ideas of masculinity. With Maggie’s help, he realizes that he has nothing to apologize for.”

Heroes who don’t conform to the traditional ideal of a romantic lead, according to Yardley and others PW spoke with, represent the increasing expansiveness and inclusiveness of the genre: “Characters don’t have to be picture-perfect in order to fall in love.”

Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.

Read more from our Romance feature:

STEM Romances: New Romance Novels
A wave of historical and contemporary romances feature geeks getting it on.

Don't Forget the Amnesia Trope: New Romance Novels
Forthcoming romances tap into the long tradition of a familiar contrivance.

Couple Goals: PW Talks with Elena Armas
'The Spanish Love Deception' author Elena Armas, whose latest romance is 'The Long Game,' discusses the joys of writing sweet men.