I have people who come in at the beginning of the week and again at the end,” says Beth Anne Steckiel, owner of Beth Anne's Book Corner in Colorado Springs, Colo. “The majority of my sales are romance—I often can't keep new books in stock, and they don't come in used because people hang on to them.” She woos the most devoted with a tactic known to work in any long-term relationship: finding new ways to keep love fresh. “I try not to let them read in one genre because after two or three years they get bored,” Steckiel says. “I do a lot of handselling, saying, 'Read the back of this book—you might like this!' ”
To some, the form of the romance genre may seem narrow, even limiting. The distinguishing characteristics, to put it simply, are a relationship and a happy ending. “The story of a courtship is something that all women go through—or imagine themselves doing so—but any way you look at it, love's not simple,” says Pamela Regis, an English professor at McDaniel College and author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2003). “These books solve that problem, and at the same time, they put women at the center of the narrative more than in any other genre. You're not just the prize at the end of the hero's quest, the mother of the king, the arm candy... there's more.”
So much more. Today, the thrill of the chase is felt in every imagined circumstance. A Beth Anne's customer keeps coming back because her yen for Regency romance novels has evolved into an obsession with more otherworldly love stories. Those subgenres, publishers say, are what keep sales so robust. Last year, romance fiction generated about $1.37 billion in revenue, according to RWA (Romance Writers of America). That's a 26.4% share of all market categories for 2006—a hefty sum for a category some see as escapist entertainment for women only.
According to Loriana Sacilotto, executive v-p, global publishing and strategy for Harlequin, “What keeps readers interested is the variety offered through different subgenres.” That's why this leading publisher of romance fiction, with an estimated $448 million revenue last year, keeps treading where no so-called traditional romance might dare.
This year, that journey landed it on a roaring NASCAR racetrack. Though these two conceits may seem like strange bedfellows, reps from the imprint insist it's working: NASCAR has 30 million female fans, many fitting Harlequin's demographic—the average woman is in her mid-30s, and she's a reader. Three quarters of these women NASCAR fans say they're more likely to buy a product with a NASCAR logo on it.
Now at the end of the initial 16-book series, Harlequin has another 16 raring to go—readers will find recurring characters and an overarching story line; popular driver Carl Edwards even makes a guest appearance as a character in three of the books. “They're performing really well,” says Sacilotto, “delivering the romance readers have come to like with a unique backdrop.”
It's just further proof that what can be considered a romance today has no bounds. “I love the fact that I can read one book about a demon hunter, put it down and pick up another one about a minister's wife,” says RWA president Sherry Lewis. “No matter what my mood, I'll find a romance novel to suit it.”
Seen as a whole, the popular subgenres of the romance pie add up to a dynamic category. Pulled out individually, these small niches often defy convention.
“Romance readers really do like a little bit of everything,” says Lewis. “Right now, two of the hottest subgenres are inspirational romance and erotic romance—complete opposites, but they're both doing well.”
In fact, religion/inspirational fiction is the only category that sells better than romance—sales were $1.68 billion in 2006, according to Simba Information. Harlequin's Steeple Hill Love Inspired imprint turns out titles for women looking for a love story that exists within the lines of her faith. “They know what they're going to get: inspiration, the relationship, a little sensuality,” says Sacilotto. “They've also got a real sense of what they're not going to get—and that they won't be offended.” And while religion-based romance fiction may seem like a pretty specific request, the latest inspirational titles are taking a page from other subgenres. Bethany House published Courting Trouble by Deeanne Gist in July; with a Texas oil-boom backdrop, it's already sold close to 80,000 copies. Harlequin's taken a similar tack: its latest Love Inspired line—Love Inspired Historicals—will launch in February.
Where inspirational fiction holds back, erotic fiction is as explicit as the author's imagination allows. One rare man leading the pack is a former software developer turned author, Eric Jerome Dickey. This year's Waking with Enemies landed him on the New York Times bestseller list for the 10th time; his publisher, Dutton's Brian Tart, sees Pleasure (coming in April) as his steamiest novel yet. “Though erotica has been a staple for a while, I do think that the readers are wanting to see the limits pushed,” says Tart. “Eric's giving it to them—this book's startling in its explicitness.”
Some readers prefer a real-life love story, whether it's viewed through a Christian lens or a fogged-up lens. But many others want something completely... otherworldly. Stoked by popular TV fare like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed and Angel, paranormal romance has never been hotter. “A reader's comment I saw on Amazon regarding one of our paranormal series sums it up: my fangs are drooling for the next book!” says Pocket Books publicity director Jean Anne Rose. Next year, Pocket will release several series in this vein, including Susan Sizemore's Primes series and Janet Chapman's Highlander Time Travel series.
One of the most successful paranormal romance writers is J.R. Ward, whose books follow a band of vampire warriors struggling to defend their race. When the fifth book in the series, Lover Unbound, was published by Signet in October, it hit #2 on PW's list the first week out. The sixth book, Lover Enshrined, will be out in January. Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark-Hunter series from St. Martin's has a similar draw. Says senior editor Monique Patterson, “With over 10 million copies of her novels in print and regular appearances on PW's bestseller lists, Sherrilyn's Dark-Hunter series—and its spinoff, Dream-Hunter—definitely show that paranormal is the buzzword in today's romance category.”
Paranormal mania has inspired some writers to let their imaginations run wild. Julia London, who's had success alternating between historical romance and romantic comedy for Pocket, is hard at work on a paranormal trilogy. Says Rose, “I'd say readers and authors are pretty adventurous these days.”
Paranormal titles may be so vital in part because of their limitless scope, but though vampires and werewolves still deliver, authors today tread further afield. “What's crossing my desk now is much more imaginative and risk-taking than three years ago,” says Kate Duffy, editorial director at Kensington. “Whether they involve fur, fangs or shape-shifting, there's a level of intensity with these books that you can't get anywhere else.”
Jacquelyn Frank's Nightwalkers novels describe the lives of demons, their forbidden desires and the necromancers who threaten both. “These novels are magical, sexy and intense,” says Duffy. “I've never been more enthusiastic about a project.” Elijah will be published in December, followed by Damien in June 2008. After tying up the series next fall, Frank will start on a new paranormal series called Shadow Dwellers.
Paranormal romance has also inspired a good deal of crossover with readers—and writers—of more straight sci-fi, says Deb Werksman, romance editor at Sourcebooks: “Authors in this subgenre have to find something new and different; it's becoming more essential that a world is created.” Next year, Sourcebooks will publish a new series called the Cat Star Chronicles. In the first book, Slave, “The hero is possibly the last of his kind from a destroyed planet where the people have a feline gene,” Werksman says. “That makes him gorgeous, sensuous, and he has some very interesting equipment!”
Some publishers fear, however, that so much emphasis on the paranormal may fatigue those readers once happy for the departure. “Right now, it's so huge and mass in its appeal that we all keep saying that the end has to be coming,” says Shauna Summers, a senior editor at Bantam Dell. “I think it won't go away because the books that work are a melting pot of fantasy, suspense, mystery and romance. Readers are coming for all of them.” One of Bantam Dell's writers, Shana Abe, has blended the paranormal with the historical in her wildly successful Thief trilogy. Last year, Amazon.com named The Dream Thief the “#1 Romance of 2006.” The final installment will be on shelves in January.
The limit may be felt most palpably in an area of paranormal that could perhaps be considered a sub-subgenre: urban fantasy. “I see a lot more fantasy writers at romance conferences than I used to,” says Summers. With a modern “reality” setting, urban fantasy focuses more on action and less on the traditional romantic relationship. Jackie Kessler and Richelle Mead are two of Kensington's rising stars in this niche. This month, Kessler's The Road to Hell revisits the succubus-turned-human living in New York City that readers first encountered in Hell's Belles. Mead has a similarly themed sequel coming down the pike: Succubus on Top, about the dating misadventures of Seattle succubus Georgia Kincaid.
Now, paranormal has cast its spell over another popular romance subgenre: historical romance. “Both paranormal and historical romance are easily blended with other genres, so there's lots of cross-pollination,” says Gina Bernal, associate editor for the romance book club Rhapsody.
Though vampires and weremen often appear in more dark corners of history, writers are spanning the past and future—borrowing bits of truth or myth to spice up their love story. In June 2008, NAL will publish the first of a trilogy from Jessica Andersen. In Nightkeepers, based on the ancient Mayan belief that the world will end on December 12, 2012, demon creatures of the Mayan underworld come to earth to trigger the apocalypse.
These attempts could be a response to recent talk that the straight historical romance has lost ground. Today, many insiders shake their heads at the idea that there ever was a lapse. “There's always been an audience for historicals—it's the treasured place where romance started,” says Bernal. Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series, set in London during the Napoleonic era, is one example of smart, straightforward historical fiction. In February, Dutton will release the newest installment—The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. “We've hitched our wagon to one author, and she's been great—we have a multibook deal with her and sales are growing,” says publisher Tart. “And her history is spot on.”
Kensington's Zebra imprint has taken a similar approach with author Hannah Howell. This year, her Highland Savage and My Immortal Highlander were both USA Today bestsellers; Highland Wolf will hit in January 2008. “Our sales of straight historicals have never slacked off—ever,” says Duffy. Pocket has a similar sense, as three of its newest writers of historical fiction hit the New York Times bestseller list for the first time this year: Sabrina Jeffries, Liz Carlyle and Karen Hawkins. “The editors acquired these authors on the quality of the writing and weren't concerned about the genre,” says Rose. “Which just goes to show that good writing wins out.”
If there's a catch in this ever-widening, perpetually cross-pollinating category, it's this: all this variety may have crowded out a so-called subgenre that was once the staple—contemporary romance. It seems that writers are so dazzled by werewolves and castles that a modern-day hero and heroine is simply not so common. “We're actively looking for stand-alone single titles, and we're just not seeing them,” Summers at Bantam Dell says. “Part of the reason may be that contemporary romance has cross-pollinated with women's fiction. In the books that come close, the tone, structure and focus of romance is hard to find.”
Carol Stacy, publisher of Romantic Times magazine, sees the dearth of real-life romance as a sign that the genre has come full circle. “The big complaint I'm hearing from readers now is that somewhere in all this genre-blending, the authors and publishers have lost the traditional idea of the romance,” says Stacy. “Yes, paranormals are the new things, and everyone wants erotica, but the subplots and different elements have become equal or more prevalent than the romance itself.”
The sum of so much formula tinkering and boundary breaking may be an identity crisis for romance novels, Stacy says. Her prediction: 2008 will herald a return to what works. “That's the classic romance. It'll be a more sophisticated version, without all the old clichés of the '70s and '80s,” she says. “I'm talking about meaty books that really tug at your heartstrings and awaken within you all those wonderful feelings of first love. It's the power of the emotion that made romance novels what they are today.”
Romance readers are notoriously voracious—hungry, most often, for a good story or a character so compelling she'd be worth revisiting for another challenge or tryst. Publishers and booksellers catering to their readers' tastes contend that variety is what keeps customers satisfied.