It’s no secret that authors like Colleen Hoover, Ana Huang, and Rebecca Yarros have benefited from the BookTok effect. But the community champions entire publishing subgenres too—especially those that get readers’ pulses racing. PW spoke with publishing execs about three algorithm-driven trends: the resurgence of new adult books, the romantasy boom, and the tight clinch of erotic romance.
Back in baby’s arms
Romance author Chanel Cleeton scored big when Reese’s Book Club selected her historical novel Next Year in Havana as its July 2018 pick. Cleeton was already the author of several digital-first contemporary romances, including I See London, which Harlequin imprint HQN, now Canary Street, released as an e-book in 2014. In December, Canary Street is reissuing the novel, which depicts an American college student’s romantic adventures in the U.K.
“We didn’t see an opportunity in the print space then, but now, everything is about angsty, new adult love stories,” says Susan Swinwood, editorial director at Canary Street. “It was an easy decision to publish the book as a trade paperback.”
TikTok’s ability to turn backlist into what Swinwood calls “fresh lettuce” is echoing throughout Romancelandia. The platform embraced Penelope Douglas’s mostly self-published, spicy brand of new adult romances, leading to skyrocketing sales for titles including 2016’s Punk 57—2,200 print copies sold in 2021 and 112,000 in 2022, per Circana BookScan. Berkley bought print rights to Punk 57 and seven others and began releasing them in October.
Forthcoming Douglas reissues include Tryst Six Venom (Apr. 2024), which follows the high-drama attraction between two female lacrosse players on the cusp of graduating high school. “Since the beginning of the e-book, there have been indie-published success stories,” says Cindy Hwang, v-p and editorial director at Berkley. “Previously, indie book success only translated to e-book sales, which wasn’t a viable model for traditional publishers.” BookTok, she adds, has moved the needle for print. It’s also been key to the resurgence of the new adult marketing category, which had fallen off from its early 2010s heyday.
Ruth Sternglantz, editorial and marketing consultant at queer fiction publisher Bold Strokes, says that the new adult category “burned very hot, very fast, and burned itself out.” She’s pleased to see its revival. “This phase of life is a combination of coming-of-age and coming out; it’s endlessly fruitful for first love romances,” she notes. “We’ve been doing this for a while—we’d refer to them as ‘college stories.’ When the new adult label hit, we had a BISAC to stick on the books that we’d been publishing all along.”
In December’s Invisible by Anna Larner, costume shop assistant Violet Unwin and premed dropout Phoebe Frink find each other and a chosen family. Coasting and Crashing by Ana Hartnett Reichardt, also due out in December, concludes a four-book series set at a small Catholic college in the north Georgia mountains; this installment highlights the attraction between rivals on the same women’s basketball team. “Ana embraces a lot of classic, sapphic romance tropes,” Sternglantz says, “and she’s very into that moment in development where you can have both high angst and high sweetness.”
Lose You to Find Me by B. Celeste, a December release from Bloom Books, is third in a series that follows the love stories of students at fictional Lindon University. At sibling imprint Sourcebooks Casablanca, All That We Are Together by Alice Kellen (Jan. 2024) traces the angsty relationship between high-powered gallerist Axel Nguyen and his best friend’s little sister, art student Leah Jones. “Kellen’s characters are flawed and complex, making their tumultuous relationship all the more juicy,” according to PW’s review.
“New adult never really went away—it went into the realm of self-publishing,” says Deb Werksman, executive editor at Sourcebooks Casablanca. “It’s come back because the readership now wants printed books more than they want the e-books.”
New adult titles reflect their readers’ experiences, Werksman adds. “The YA readership has grown up and the world has changed. Twenty-somethings are realizing that first-wave feminist you-can-have-at-all isn’t serving them so well. They like to see what they’re dealing with presented realistically in the books that they’re reading. They also want to live a passionate life.”
Blood sugar sex magik
Readers have long appreciated books that include both romance and fantasy elements; what’s notable are new, substantial investments in the romantasy genre. In late 2022, Entangled Publishing debuted Red Tower, an imprint focused on new adult fantasy and science fiction romance. Early hits include Rebecca Yarros’s Fourth Wing and Hannah Nicole Maehrer’s Assistant to the Villain; both benefited from tons of BookTok love. Forthcoming Red Tower titles include Iron Flame (Nov.), sequel to Fourth Wing; Aurora Ascher’s Sanctuary of the Shadow (Jan. 2024), in which a woman with the gift of prophecy falls in love with a monster; and Cecy Robson’s Bloodguard (Jan. 2024), a dark fantasy that pairs gladiator Leith and elf-born human Alva in a high-heat adventure.
Science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor announced the creation of its Bramble imprint, dedicated to romantic stories, in February, and kicked things off with the September publication of Fall of Ruin and Wrath by new adult romance and fantasy stalwart Jennifer L. Armentrout. “We’re publishing fantasy romance, science fiction romance, contemporary, historical, and family stories—as long as it has an amazing love story at the center,” says Bramble v-p and editorial director Monique Patterson.
PW’s starred review praised one of Patterson’s first acquisitions, Gothikana by RuNyx (Jan. 2024), for its “unflinching examination of mental health, suicide, alienation, and sexual power dynamics.” The book was originally self-published and blew up on TikTok, where #gothikana has 15 million views and counting. Early on, Patterson says, “fans went absolutely gaga for romantasy published in the indie space, and Sarah J. Maas had a lot to do with it.” Maas began self-publishing online at age 16 and debuted in print a decade later. “Now we’re seeing readers hungry for a hardcover. They want beautiful covers and end papers and unique art inside, for books that look beautiful on their shelves. They want to go online and show them off. The hype just builds and builds.”
Erica Barmash, senior director of marketing for Sarah J. Maas’s brand at Bloomsbury, agrees. “Romance and fantasy fans are passionate and have built communities going back years,” she says. “TikTok has offered them another platform and another space to get that message out in a supercharged way.”
In January, Bloomsbury is releasing House of Flame and Shadow, the third book in Maas’s Crescent City series. “Bryce, the main character of the series, underestimates herself and is underestimated by the people around her,” Barmash says. Though Bryce is a half-fae, half-human fantasy character, her feelings are relatable, according to Barmash: “There’s a universality in romantasy that readers may not expect.”
Feeling hot hot hot
TikTok is also driving demand for steamy romances, editors say. “There’s a whole category of SpicyTok—people who are unabashedly looking for a sexy read,” Swinwood explains. I See London, for one, has plenty of heat. “Erotic romances aren’t new; they’re now being presented in a fresh and contemporary and modern way. There’s less fear and shyness in wanting, talking about, or reading about sex.”
Katee Robert, author of the sizzling-hot Dark Olympus books, launches a new series with Hunt on Dark Waters, a November release from Berkley starring witch pickpocket Evelyn and telekinetic pirate captain Bowen. “Evelyn and Bowen have considerable chemistry,” PW’s review said, “leading to both entertaining conflict between them and spicy intimate interludes.” Another on Berkley’s list, Lana Ferguson’s The Fake Mate (Dec.), is a spicy paranormal rom-com in which two wolf shifters agree to fake a relationship. “The kinkier side of omegaverse tropes won’t be for those expecting a more traditional shifter romance, but readers willing to go with it will have plenty of fun,” per PW’s review.
Kensington recently picked up Emily Rath’s self-published Pucking Around, which press materials describe as an “inclusive, poly, kink-friendly, ‘why choose?’ hockey romance”; the reissue pubs in January. Even as romance novels heat up, some observers have noted that BookTok’s influence may be cooling, though Kensington publisher Jackie Dinas, for one, says the question is still up for debate. “It’s fascinating to try and analyze what it all means for our future,” Dinas says, but she thinks there’s no going back. “Publishers are no longer the tastemakers or driving trends in romance. It’s coming entirely from the consumers.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
Read more from our Romance Books feature:
There and Back: PW Talks with Monica Murphy
Monica Murphy is well positioned to speak to the revival of new adult romance. The author spoke with PW about comebacks in fiction and in real life.
Questions and Transgressions: PW Talks with Rachel Howzell Hall
Crime novelist Rachel Howzell Hall pivots to new adult romantasy with The Last One (Red Tower, Feb. 2024). The author spoke with PW about riding the romantasy wave.