Specific market research may not exist for most of book publishing, but romance is an exception. Romance Writers of America has compiled some impressive—both in terms of breadth and quality—statistics on the market, on everything from where romance readers buy books to what sort of jacket art they like. Publishers assemble data, too, on who romance readers are and how often they buy books. And distributors who supply books to the mass merchandisers—where a third of all romance books are sold—closely monitor trends, learning about which subgenres have peaked, which ones are hot and what's on the way.

The players in the romance publishing game—publishers, distributors and retailers—use data perhaps more than any other segment of the book publishing industry does, to great effect: sales of romance fiction were almost 55% of all paperback book sales in 2004, generating $1.2 billion in sales, according to RWA. Compare those sales figures to those of other popular genres—science fiction/fantasy generated $510 million; mystery generated $405 million—and it's clear that this segment of the publishing industry is onto something. Selling romance is a boon to business—if you know what readers want and how they want it.

The mass merchandisers do this by drawing heavily on market research, while independent and chain bookstores with robust romance sections often have a dedicated person on staff who's well-versed in the category and can stock the section with important backlist and popular frontlist titles. And romance publishers are more in tune with what their readers want than most publishers. “We listen to what the fans are saying,” says Morrow/Avon senior v-p and publisher Liate Stehlik, echoing the sentiments of her peers in the business. Whether on the publishing or retailing side, successful players in the romance publishing game know that listening to readers is paramount.

The Mass Merchandiser

According to RWA, 31% of romance readers buy their books at mass merchandisers like Target and Wal-Mart, making those stores the genre's biggest sales channel. So John Lindsay, v-p of marketing and inventory management for Levy Home Entertainment, whose clients include grocery stores as well as Kmart, Target, Wal-Mart and other mass merchandisers, is acutely aware of the “significant differences” between selling romance and selling books in other categories. Romance is Levy's most important category, and Lindsay and his colleagues put a lot of effort into understanding what their customers want. Here's what they do know: the romance reader has a “high frequency of purchases.” RWA data backs this up: the organization has found that more than half of romance readers (54%) have read between one and five books in the past year; 17% have read between six and 10 books; and 14% have read between 11 and 20 books. Lindsay also knows the romance category is going through major changes in terms of what the readership wants; subgenres that were once considered fringe (such as paranormal) are now thriving. Such changes have led to a fragmented market, made up of what Lindsay sees as minibusinesses within the overall category of romance, which include paranormal, contemporary, historical, romantic suspense and more.

Market research like this forms the basis of Levy's relationships with retailers and publishers. The distributor identifies trends and authors that are hot and conveys that information to publishers, who in turn may publish books to fill that niche, which eventually wind up at mass merchandisers' stores. Levy also uses its vast trove of research to develop marketing and sales tools. For instance, since the romance reader buys books so frequently, Levy offers some books at the considerably reduced price of $4.99 to the customer, so shoppers can buy even more books. And because buying an autographed copy of a new book by a romance author “means more [to romance readers] than we ever thought it did,” Levy brings some authors to its warehouse to sign books that will be shipped to stores nationwide. An author may sign as many as 8,000 copies of a book for national distribution.

The Chain Bookstore

Booksellers, meanwhile, may not draw as heavily on facts and figures to sell romance fiction, but their approach is still based on knowing what their customers want. Behind every successful romance section is a devoted bookseller who reads widely in the genre, develops relationships with her customers and knows what they will and won't like. Don Redpath, executive director of national accounts for Berkley/NAL, who works with Borders and B&N, notes that romance booksellers are different from booksellers in other areas of publishing. “The people we sell romance to are extremely passionate,” he says, “and a lot of the reason romance is as successful as it is, is because these people know what readers like and what the fans are looking for.”

Pocket Books v-p editorial director Maggie Crawford reports that her publicity department mails more galleys to romance booksellers than to other booksellers because so many of them want to make recommendations to their customers. While many publishing folk consider handselling to be something done by independent bookstores to sell literary fiction, it works in romance, too, and not just for up-and-coming debuts. “Sometimes it's an author's second or third book, when they're still growing, that the booksellers want the galleys,” says Crawford.

Marcy Dodge, who works at the Borders store in Beaverton, Ore., won RWA's Steffie Walker Bookseller of the Year Award in 2005 for her efforts to promote romance fiction. Out of Borders's 500-plus stores, Dodge's store ranks among the top 10% for romance sales, she says—which she attributes in part to her rigorous handselling. Like many booksellers with robust romance sales, Dodge reads extensively in the genre and happily recommends books to customers.

Borders, in fact, has a nationwide program wherein it names certain booksellers “romance experts.” According to romance buyer Sue Grimshaw, the chain's romance booksellers are very well versed on the trends of the categories: “Many of them are first and foremost romance readers and know by their own experience as to how sub-genres are trending.” Borders makes its purchasing decisions primarily by using its own internal data. “Although we keep on the forefront of where the industry is going, much is decided based on the information we have in house,” says Grimshaw.

The Independent

When it comes to selling romance in independent bookstores, there's a distinct division between two kinds of bookstores. On one hand are the brand-name independents that report their sales to PW and the New York Times for bestseller lists, make most of their money by selling hardcover fiction and cater to what Dorchester's senior v-p of sales and marketing Tim DeYoung calls “a very sophisticated clientele.” DeYoung cites Denver's Tattered Cover as an example of this type of store. On the other hand—the one that romance publishers are most interested in—are “the mom and pops,” where most of what's on the shelves are romance novels, with a few westerns or thrillers thrown in “because occasionally the hubby will drive in, too,” says DeYoung. Stores like these often have employees or owners who are devoted readers of romance novels and are likely to be on Romantic Times's list of Bookstores That Care, a network of more than 700 independent booksellers that are “owned, operated or managed by people who have a rapport with their romance customers and who go out of their way to service them.” DeYoung says that many of these stores sell both new and used books, and he considers them “some of our biggest consumers.”

Romance publishers have fought to get high-profile independents to carry romance—especially series romance—for a long time. Craig Swinwood, executive v-p of retailing for Harlequin, thinks these stores are missing an opportunity. The series customer, he says, reads two to three times what the average women's fiction reader reads. “I realize the in-and-out nature of series books is not in keeping with what the independents want to do, [because of] cash flow [and] space, but I think they're missing an opportunity to bring in hardcore readers, the most prolific readers in the industry.”

One store that has stepped up to that opportunity is Posman Books in Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal. When avid romance reader Stacey Agdern started working at the store three years ago, its romance section was “like most New York bookstores in general that do carry romance: they had a couple of new titles, some backlist, but not very much.” Agdern expanded the section in a major way, bringing in backlist titles and new books from emerging writers, and creating sub-sections for erotic romance and RWA-recommended books. Since Agdern's revamping, the store's romance sales have grown considerably, and she has “fantastically regular customers.”

Agdern's approach to selling romance exemplifies why the category is so successful. As she puts it, “The better bookstores pay more attention to what readers and customers enjoy as opposed to what they think should be enjoyed.”

Book publishing may be famous (or infamous) for its—ahem—occasional “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” approach; publishers aren't exactly sure what people are going to buy, so they publish a wide variety and hope for the best. Niche publishing, on the other hand, operates differently, with publishers catering to customers' needs and supplying a demand. Nowhere is this more evident than in romance publishing, where communication between authors and readers, retailers and customers, and publishers and booksellers results in some of the highest profit margins anywhere in publishing. This booming subset of the book business knows exactly what the customer wants, and it delivers.

Number of Romance Novels Read by Romance Readers in the Last Year

54% between 1 and 5 books
17% between 6 and 10 books
14% between 11 and 20 books
8% between 21 and 50 books
2% between 51 and 100 books
5% more than 100 books

How Romance Readers Obtained the Last Romance Novel They Read

36% bought it new
25% borrowed it from a library
16% borrowed it from a friend
13% received it as a gift
5% bought it used
5% got it in other ways

Where Readers Purchased Their Books

Source: Romance Writers of America
31% mass merchandiser
22% mall bookstore
16% free-standing bookstore
8% mail order
6% another outlet
6% grocery or drug store
5% book club
4% the internet
2% airport bookstore

Booksellers' Passion
A few recent winners of the RWA Steffie Walker Bookseller of the Year Award share the secrets of their success.

Vickie Denney,
NewAndUsedBooks.com (2006 winner)

The bookseller with a newsletter read by 30,000 fans now helps authors with their own newsletters and promotions

“We started in 1992, before there really was much of an Internet. I've spent so many years being very hands-on with the authors. A lot of them are not into promotion, but they have to be. It's up to them to get the word out about their book. So I help them.”

Marcy Dodge, Borders Books & Music, Beaverton, Ore. (2005 winner)

The avid reader took a job at Waldenbooks 20 years ago to pay for her romance reading habit.

“At our store, it's the individual service you can give a customer. I do a future release list; we have a book group; and we've had a romance reading group for over eight years. It's that individual service that people really respond to.”

Beth Anne Steckiel, Beth Anne's Book Corner, Colorado Springs, Colo. (2000 winner)

The 21-year bookselling veteran says 50% of her store is romance.

“I read a lot. I recommend books. I get men involved, too; if they like suspense, I'll recommend Nora Roberts, Catherine Coulter, Iris Johansen. I know my customers well enough to tell them if a new author comes out who's along their lines.”