Once the exclusive domain of headstrong prairie maidens and rogue gunslingers turned righteous hunks, inspirational romance has spun off a few subgenres that are catapulting up the bestseller lists and leaving their formulaic ancestor behind. At the same time, those subgenres are changing the way "romance novel" is defined.

Chief among them is the romantic suspense category, which some say novelist Dee Henderson created and now practically owns. Henderson , who dominates the top tier of the CBA market's Christy Awards for romance, has also made Multnomah Publishers (the same house that gave us The Prayer of Jabez) synonymous with Christian fiction. Her Uncommon Heroes and O'Malley series both combine action, suspense and romance, providing a challenge for booksellers who try to shelve fiction by category.

"It's been said that Christian fiction is in its adolescence, but the romance genre in particular is growing up—I'd say it's reached young adulthood now," Karen Ball, senior acquisitions editor for fiction at Zondervan, tells PW. "The Christian market has come a long way since 15 years ago, when it first started getting some legs under it."

Though prairie romance novelist Janette Oke carved the inspirational romance niche two decades ago, Ball credits former ABA-market author Francine Rivers with giving the genre a booster shot. "She was the forerunner in the market to say there's real power in romance," says Ball. "And if you look at the ABA, romance has outsold any other genre out there."

Beyond the Formula

Traditional romance has three golden rules, Ball claims: (1) the hero and heroine meet early in the story; (2) the body of the book focuses on them working out their relationship; and (3) the book has a happy ending. Enter the new inspirational romance, with intriguing plot twists, complex characters and, often, a whole lotta suspense.

Take, for example, the fiction list at Zondervan. Although it is not known primarily for romance, even a casual observer would note the house had a high-octane summer. Karen Kingsbury's One Tuesday Morning took the No. 5 spot on the CBA bestseller list. Terri Blackstock had six books on the CBA list in July, proving there's room for more than one star in the romantic suspense/thriller category. Her title Southern Storm landed at No. 1 on CBA's September general fiction list, while Cape Refuge hovered at No. 8. In September Blackstock will make a return to the Newpointe 911 series with the title Line of Duty—a follow-up request from readers who begged for more after the events of 9/11.

At Random House's WaterBrook Press unit, women's reads are already top-of-mind, but fiction editor Dudley Delff says his goal is to keep pushing the standard higher. "CBA romance and the industry in general is beginning to have a quick catch-up time with the general market," Delff says. "The days when you had a simple triangle of characters are passing."

In addition to raising the bar on writing, Delff says he'd like to see more "hybridization" in the romance genre, adding elements like mystery or suspense or comedy to the mix. He points to titles like Dandelions in a Jelly Jar by Traci DePree as successful hybrids, combining romance with an ensemble cast of small-town characters reminiscent of Jan Karon's Mitford series. The September title Boo, a romantic comedy by Rene Gutteridge, is creating a lot of buzz, he says, because it's fun and fresh and offers readers a twist on the romantic conventions. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum falls author Lisa Samson, whose book The Living End (October) deals with the weighty issues of grief, uncovered secrets and finding the will to go on with life (see InProfile, this issue).

In spring 2003, preeminent CBA author Liz Curtis Higgs—better known for her Bad Girls of the Bible nonfiction titles—switches back to fiction with Thorn in My Heart (WaterBrook), the first in a series set in 18th-century Scotland that is based on the biblical love triangle of Jacob, Rachel and Leah. Next spring WaterBrook will release the second book in the series, Fair Is the Rose, followed by Whence Came a Prince in spring 2005.

"I'm not ready to declare traditional romance dead, but I think it's become a tough sell," Delff says. "In the future, there will have to be some other hook or trend to speak to the postmodern reader." Before acquiring an author, Delff says a publisher must ask: Are they in touch with their readers, and do they feel the pulse of the culture? Those two questions, perhaps more than any other criteria, have led CBA publishers to try their wings in a subgenre previously not on the CBA radar screen: chick lit.

"In this industry we previously thought of romance as being the quintessential story of a woman's life," Ami McConnell, director of fiction at W Publishing, tells PW. "Chick lit is more about her character and growth defining who she is. The new twist Christian publishers are able to bring to the equation is not just that the girl grows up, but that she has an awareness of the divine that changes her life." (For more on Christian chick lit, see our e-mail Religion Bookline, Sept. 23)

Whither Series?

While the romantic subgenres and other fiction categories are taking off, traditional romance titles are holding steady at best. Donna Kehoe, administrator of the Christy Awards, reports that four years ago in the Christy's inaugural year, 16 out of 88 submitted titles were romance; in 2003 the number was 21 out of 155. "My interpretation of those numbers is that publishers are trying to grow other categories, including suspense and contemporary," says Kehoe. "Whether traditional romance readers are going to read [the hybrids] and say, 'This is a lot more fun,' remains to be seen. There will probably still be a place for the novella collections, such as Barbour Publishing does, because of the price point."

Indeed, Barbour has met success with its HeartSong Presents line to the tune of four books a month. Steeple Hill, which encountered initial resistance in the CBA because of its ties to Harlequin, has found solid footing in the conservative market with its very conservative Love Inspired line. Launched in September 1997 with three titles per month, Love Inspired will crank up production to four titles a month beginning in October, the same month Steeple Hill plans to debut its new Women's Fiction program.

Another house that's synonymous with series romance, Bethany Publishers, will release the third book in the Abram's Daughters series by Beverly Lewis in September, The Betrayal. Bestselling author T. Davis Bunn teams with his wife, Isabella, to deliver The Solitary Envoy (Jan. 2004), the first book in the Song of Acadia series, and nonfiction author Tommy Tenney makes his fiction debut in January with Hadassah, co-written by Mark Andrew Olsen.

Barbour's success with affordable series continues this fall with Hidden Things by Andrea Boeshaar, the second book in the Faded Photographs series, while January will mark the entrée of a new Russian romance series, Heirs of Anton, with Ekaterina by Susan Downs and Susan May Warren. On the docket from Tyndale's HeartQuest line are Christmas Homecoming by Diane Noble, Pamela Griffin and Kathleen Fuller (Oct.), Summer's End by Lyn Cote (Nov.) and Tying the Knot by Susan May Warren.

Also among the more traditional offerings are Warner Faith's When You Believe by Deborah Bedford (Aug.). Broadman & Holman author Thom Lemmons spins a character-driven story in Sunday Clothes (Jan.), and Gilbert Morris pens The Immortelles, book two in the Creole series from Thomas Nelson. Revell will release All Good Gifts by Kathleen Morgan in October, along with Thunder on the Dos Gatos, a 19th-century western by Paul Bagdon.

Literary agent Janet Kobobel Grant, whose client list is dominated by inspirational novelists, observes that, while still selling, traditional romance is "subdued" in the market. "The word romance by itself is not hot right now. You've got to have some other word attached to it, like historical romance or romantic suspense," Grant says.

As to the future of the many-layered romance genre, Zondervan's Karen Ball says she's learned there's no predicting the market. "You like to think you can read the signs and say what the next big thing will be, but the market has surprised us many times," says Ball. "My battle cry to authors has always been, don't write to the market; write to your passion. That's the book that will shake them up. There's got to be that stir that won't leave you alone."