Are today’s romance readers holding out for a hero? Just ask romance editors, publishers, and authors—the answer is a resounding yes.

Cindy Hwang, vice president and executive editor of Berkley Books, says that romances featuring military or ex-military characters and themes have been popular for years. “Not only is there just something about a man in uniform, but the military is full of heroes who have dedicated their lives to serving their country. Military men and women exemplify what readers want in their romantic heroes: bravery, loyalty, strength, and the willingness to make extreme sacrifices.”

Hwang notes a sizable list of military-themed titles coming up from Berkley, including Pamela Clare’s Striking Distance, due this month; Maya Banks’s After the Storm (Jan.); and June Gray’s Disarm (Feb.).

“Romance readers love a strong alpha hero,” adds Kerry Donovan, senior editor of New American Library. “And what’s stronger or sexier than someone who puts his life on the line to protect his country without concern for his own safety?”

Donovan says that military heroes remain popular in romantic suspense, citing Elle Kennedy’s Killer Instincts series; Kennedy’s Midnight Pursuits is due out from Signet Eclipse in April. Targeted, the first in Katie Reus’s military romantic suspense series from Signet Eclipse, came out in October.

“Romance readers can always expect a big emotional payoff when a tortured hero finds an everlasting romance with the right woman,” says Donovan. “We’re seeing this more and more in contemporary romances with military or ex-military heroes who are struggling to return to a sense of home and normalcy after an active deployment.”

Shauna Summers, executive editor for Ballantine Bantam Dell, works with Suzanne Brockmann, whose Navy SEAL Team 16 and Troubleshooters series were among the first breakout military romances. “We’re launching a new spin-off series from Brockmann in February 2014 with Do or Die,” Summers says. “It has all the elements that readers love and that made her such a huge bestseller: a team of operatives with all the camaraderie and conflict that engenders, a really sexy hero, sizzling hot romance, and tons of action and suspense.”

A Nation at War

While military romance has long been a strong niche category, recent global conflicts have made the genre relevant to a new generation of readers and writers.

“We’ve witnessed over a decade of active deployment of our military, and that’s working its way into our romances, not only in scenes of combat but also in the aftermath of when our vets return home,” says Micki Nuding, senior editor of Gallery Books. “For example, Loving Cara by Kristen Proby, out in January, is not a military romance per se, but it introduces the character of a returning veteran with PTSD who will become the hero of a subsequent book. And The Way Home by Cindy Gerard, which came out in October, is a heartwarming, richly emotional, action-packed story about homecomings—just in time for the holidays.”

“To me, the essence of the new crop of military romances is the very real effect of the war on a relationship, on a marriage, on a family,” says Michele Bidelspach, editor for Forever. “Jessica Scott, the author of Back to You, may write about a soldier dealing with the harsh realities of combat, and the book may even include a little fighting, but the core of it is how the war has changed that soldier and the way he interacts with his wife and kids during his five-minute Skype call home. Marilyn Pappano’s A Hero to Come Home To and its sequels are gentler stories about what life is like for the families here at home; she focuses on things like how a soldier deals with losing a limb, or how a widow grieves after the death of her husband.”

“Military heroes—from Navy SEALs to Special Ops teams—are perennially popular in the romance category,” says Amy Pierpont, editor-in-chief of Forever. “What we’ve seen more of in the last few years is stories that center around the soldier readjusting to life at home, and the women and families left behind by the soldiers who don’t come home. It’s not just about the alpha military hero anymore. The wounded hero, the war widow, the soldier suffering PTSD—they’re all getting a chance to tell their stories.”

“For my particular line—Harlequin Romantic Suspense—roughly 10 to 20 percent of my list contains a military theme,” says Patience Bloom, senior editor for Harlequin. “This has remained steady for the last 10 years. Any kind of Navy SEAL and ‘secret op’ story is a winner with readers. More and more too, I’m seeing very true-to-life military stories set in the Middle East.”

“Romances with military heroes—Navy SEALs, Marines, Rangers, etc.—have been and remain incredibly popular with readers,” agrees Monique Patterson, executive editor of St. Martin’s Press, noting that 10 to 15 percent of the house’s romance list is military themed. “For us, contemporary romance with military themes continues to rule the day, but you can find them in historical romance as well. I count Highlanders, who are immensely popular, among our military heroes. In contemporary romance, we have Lora Leigh’s Callahan series—Midnight Sins, Deadly Sins, Secret Sins, and the upcoming Ultimate Sins, due out next year. All of the heroes are former Marines. D.D. Ayers’s K-9 Rescue series features both cop and military heroes. Her upcoming titles are, tentatively, Force of Nature in September 2014, Force of Attraction in 2015, and Necessary Force, also in 2015. In historical, we have The Devil Wears Kilts by Suzanne Enoch in December, The Unexpected Duchess by Valerie Bowman for May, and After the Scandal by Elizabeth Essex in April. In paranormal, we have Donna Grant’s Dark Warriors, starting with Midnight’s Kiss.”

“We’ve been growing our list of military-themed romance, and now we have military themes in contemporary romance, romantic suspense, and paranormal romance,” says Deb Werksman, editorial manager at Sourcebooks. “This is a stable area; there’s a lot of interest in and support for our troops. All of our military-themed romances sell extremely well. Military men make great alpha heroes, and military women make great kick-ass heroines. Check out M.L. Buchman [Take Over at Midnight] for some of the latter.”

“Military romance only makes up a very small percentage of our list, yet has always been an extremely strong category for us,” says Lindsey Faber, publisher at Samhain Publishing. “It is the subject of some of our most successful series: Elle Kennedy’s Out of Uniform series, Cat Johnson’s Red, Hot, & Blue series, S.E. Jakes’s Men of Honor series. It’s also a theme tackled by some of our bestselling authors, including Lorelei James in Shoulda Been a Cowboy and Shelli Stevens in Command and Control. We’ve definitely seen an increase in interest over the last few years, and this is an area we’re eager to expand.”

“The military and national security are evergreen topics that consistently inspire writers,” says Esi Sogah, senior editor at Kensington Publishing. “They have occasional spikes in popularity—for example, Navy SEAL books became very successful right after the SEAL Team Six raid. I definitely see an uptick in contemporary and paranormal military romances, possibly because there’s been an increased interest in the security forces we have here in the U.S. We’re lucky to have Mandy Baxter on our list, who’s launching a new series next year that focuses on the U.S. Marshals with One Night More, due from Zebra in September 2014. Cynthia Eden’s Burn for Me, coming in February, pits supernaturals against a domestic military force out to control them. The military evokes a strong emotional response in most people. Couple that with the drama, danger, and tension that goes with that life, and you have ample fodder for great romances.”

“About 15 percent of our romance is military romance,” says Brenda Knight, publisher of Cleis Press (and the daughter of a Marine). “It has definitely increased over the last few years. We hear about men and women in combat every day, so it has an impact on our daily lives.” Knight notes that contemporary military romance continues to gain ground, as do tales depicting the Scottish Highlands and knights—“basically, historical military romance,” she says.

“Military men have starred in women’s romantic fantasies down through the ages,” says Alicia Condon, editorial director at Kensington, “and Lieutenant Colonel Logan Hunt, the hero of Cat Johnson’s Two Times as Hot, which our Brava line published in October, definitely fits the bill—he is upstanding, honorable and disciplined. And in Unexpected, due in our Zebra line in May, Lori Foster sets up a victim in need of rescue and a tough, courageous mercenary on hire to do the job. But the victim is a man and the mercenary is a woman, setting gender stereotypes upside down.”

“In the second half of 2013,” says Erika Tsang, editorial director of Avon, “we have several romances with military heroes. Rachel Gibson’s Run to You and Laura Kaye’s upcoming Hard as It Gets have ex-military characters; Lisa Marie Rice has the Ghost Ops series, which features a covert squad of super-elite soldiers; and Kay Thomas is just about to launch a series with heroes from different branches of the military. Earlier in 2013, we published Kerrelyn Sparks’s Less than a Gentleman, which is the sequel to The Forbidden Lady—they are both set during the Revolutionary War and the heroes are spies for the Colonies.”

“Our readers love a sexy soldier, but within the Harlequin Historical line, the romance always comes first and foremost,” says Sarah Stubbs, an editor for Harlequin Historical. “When a military theme is present, it’s often as a backdrop rather than the key focus. Having said this, many of our Regency romances are set around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and so a lot of the heroes are returned soldiers.”

Kathryn Chesire, who is also an editor for Harlequin Historical, adds, “We’re always looking for variety within the Historical line, but the battle-scarred hero returning from war and the muscle-bound warrior defending his people resonate with our readers time and time again. Viking warriors in particular are on the rise, possibly partly as a result of the gorgeous actors in the new hit show Vikings.” A recent release from Chesire’s line is August’s To Sin with a Viking by Michelle Willingham.

Even former military heroes are popular. “Our readers seem quite happy with the ex-whatevers who are now being protective alpha males in civilian life,” says Raelene Gorlinsky, publisher at Ellora’s Cave. “They also love active cops and firefighters, with scenes set at the cop shop or fire station, and lots of action at burning buildings or crime scenes.”

Unconventional heroes and heroines also resonate with editors and readers alike. “Death Comes to the Village, out in December, is the first book in Catherine Lloyd’s new series; it also subverts the romance stereotype through the dynamics between the war hero and heroine,” says John Scognamiglio, editor in chief at Kensington. “Badly wounded in the battlefields in France, the hero is on painkillers to treat his injuries. Since he is bedridden and must rely on her to be his eyes and ears, the hero is more dependent on the heroine. In more conventional stories, the strong and brave war hero would be the more dominant character.”

Asking and Telling

Today’s military romances also tackle sensitive matters not often spoken of years ago: PTSD and other injuries, and lesbian, gay, bi and transgender (LGBT) topics.

“I have lived with PTSD all my life,” says Lindsay McKenna, whose Down Range is due from Harlequin’s HQN imprint in December. “My U.S. Navy father was on the U.S.S. Fletcher during WWII. He was blown out of a gun turret, the only one to survive of the group, and had severe PTSD symptoms. My hope is that my books gently educate readers about the symptoms and how they affect a person.”

Berkley’s Hwang noted that in Betting the Rainbow, coming in April, author Jodi Thomas delves into issues of PTSD with her hero, who is a member of Army Special Forces and has to deal with the fact that he survived an attack when the rest of his unit died.

“I know many individuals who are struggling with PTSD,” says author Anne Elizabeth, the wife of a retired Navy SEAL. “I speak with several daily and chose this topic for my first Navy SEAL novel to create more awareness.”

“I wanted to write about a big tough man who hid his survivor’s guilt behind his physically intimidating size,” says Rachel Gibson, whose Run to You came out in October from Avon. “Looking at him, no one would suspect the turmoil raging inside.”

“I think it’s important to deal with the issues, to show that the individual is only human, no matter the training he or she has,” says author Terry Spear. “During WWII, my father had been with the Air Force and his plane was shot down over Germany. He was a prisoner of war for 16 months as a 16-year-old. We often talked about it: his ordeal when the plane broke apart, about being caught, about the prisoner-of-war camps, the death marches, the escape plans, the whole ordeal.”

“The male lead in Jenna Jameson and Hope Tarr’s new erotic romance, Sugar, which came out in October, is an Iraq War veteran who suffers from PTSD,” notes Jennifer McCartney, senior editor at Skyhorse Publishing. ”There are so many veterans in our communities now who aren’t yet adequately represented in our fiction or popular culture, so that’s one of the reasons we’re really thrilled about this book.”

“It’s important to show every side of the men and women of the military, because not doing so marginalizes those who undergo struggle,” says Lorelie Brown, who along with Carrie Lofty pens military romances under the pseudonym Katie Porter. Brown was in the Army for four years and then spent more than a decade as a military spouse. “The military is hard. Plain and simple. To pretend in fiction that there’s no possible repercussions makes it seem easier than it is.”

Military life is no picnic for anyone, but it got a little easier for LGBT service members with the repeal of the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. Naturally, this has ramifications for military romance.

“I care a great deal about LGBT U.S. servicemen and women being able to serve openly and honestly,” says author Suzanne Brockmann. “Since early in my career, I’ve included realistic LGBT characters in my books. The idea that a gay Navy SEAL had to hide who he was in order to serve was a terrible one—and I made sure my readers knew that! When the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was repealed, I wrote a novella, e-published by Random House, called When Tony Met Adam, to celebrate the fact that my formerly closeted kick-ass and heroic Navy SEAL Tony Vlachic could finally be open about his sexuality. Nonfictional LGBT servicemen and women no longer have to use the ‘don’t tell’ approach to answering questions as innocuous as ‘How was your weekend?’ And that’s epic.”

“Readers have always been strongly behind the concept of male-male military romance,” says author S.E. Jakes. “For both my series—Men of Honor with Samhain and Hell or High Water with Riptide—reader reaction always seems to be along the lines of, ‘We want more, write faster.’ The reader community for male-male romances is simply an awesome place, and there’s a great deal of support to be found for readers and authors alike.”

Author Cat Johnson observed that greater tolerance is coming with younger generations. “I did an informal survey with some of my active-duty military consultants of varying ages,” says Johnson. “The 45-year-old with over 20 years in the Marine Corps was still very uncomfortable with the entire concept. The 35-year-old Marine was fine with gay people being open in the military. And the 24-year-old Army reservist actually knew gay people in service.”

“Rie Warren’s futuristic military series Don’t Tell launched in August with In His Command,” says Forever’s Pierpont. “Thankfully, writers no longer have to set their LGBT military stories in a far-distant future. We’ve seen wonderful reader reaction to In His Command, and we’re eager to publish more male-male romance.”

“We have two titles currently that deal with the topic,” says Cleis’s Knight. “Active Duty by Neil Plakcy is our first book to combine the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and DADT. The Hardest Thing by James Lear dealt with DADT as a plot line and continues to sell well in print, and especially well digitally.”

“Samhain had LGBT military romances before the abolition of DADT, many of which used the need for secrecy as a major plot element,” says Heather Osborn, the publisher’s editorial director. “With the repeal of DADT, it’s more about showing how freeing it is being able to love as you choose.”

Why Authors Love Writing Military Romance

The Appeal of the Warrior

“Military heroes resonate with an honorability tracing back to the medieval warriors. There’s a timeless, elemental appeal in a well-drawn, complex military hero who brings a mix of prowess, honor, focus, drive, compassion, and, yes, swagger and ego.”—Catherine Mann, Free Fall

“That dedication to their country and to us touches readers as well as writers. It gives the characters and the story a certain depth that comes from our patriotic spirits as well as our romantic hearts.”—Lora Leigh, Elite Ops

“Protective, competent, and with a strong sense of right and wrong, warrior heroes and heroines often show us the very best of what it means to be human—even when the character in question might be a shape-shifter.”

—Nalini Singh, Archangel’s Legion

“I think it’s the immediacy of living a life that could be cut short too soon that makes the love and passion in military romance feel more intense, more urgent.”—Cat Johnson, Bull: Red, Hot & Blue

“There is something deep inside us that responds powerfully to heroism. We look to heroes to embody the best in us.”

—Lisa Marie Rice, I Dream of Danger

“Hunky wolves are great. But make them military, even better.”

—Terry Spear, A SEAL in Wolf’s Clothing

Educating Readers

“In the past two decades, a lot has been written about the importance of the 180,000 members of the United States Colored Troops to Union efforts during the Civil War. I’ve found if you thread it through a great love story, the facts come to life in ways readers appreciate and remember.”

—Beverly Jenkins, Night Song

“I was in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. After 109 books about military heroes and heroines, I would like to think I played some very small part in helping Americans perceive those in uniform in a positive light.”

—Lindsay McKenna, Down Range

“My Navy Rescue opens with a P-3C [aircraft] ditching in the south Philippine Sea. I relied on conversations with aircrew who’ve survived ditches, as well as my retired Navy pilot husband’s expertise.”

—Geri Krotow, Navy Rescue

“I try to make my stories as accurate as I can, while keeping in mind that this is fiction and that a lot of military information is top secret and only available on a ‘need-to-know’ basis.”—Tawny Weber, A SEAL’s Salvation

Personal Connections

“I’m a career Army officer and have served more than 18 years in the military. I’ve shared a lot of my experiences through my blog and through my books, and readers seem to really relate.”—Jessica Scott, Back to You

“Seeing the bravery, sacrifice, and dedication of these men and women [in the military] inspired me to tell their stories.”—Julie Ann Walker, Born Wild

“My husband is a Navy SEAL (retired) and he encourages me to write about SEALs and the community.”—Anne Elizabeth, Once a SEAL

“Starting from Scratch is loosely based on [the experiences of] a good friend, who had been married only a year when her Marine husband suffered a traumatic brain injury during Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

—Stacy Gail, Starting from Scratch

“I spent more than half my life in the military, first as an ‘Air Force brat,’ and then as an active Army communications officer. I love sharing a heroine’s perspective of what it is like to be wanted and loved by a hard-bodied, honorable man who will go all out to keep her safe.”

—Delilah Devlin, High Octane Heroes

“Most of the sailors, soldiers, and Marines I’ve known have been great hero material: good, honorable, courageous, strong men willing to make great sacrifices for their country. It’s hard not to love a guy like that.”

—Marilyn Pappano, A Man to Come Home To

Romance Overall Bestsellers, 2013

(Through Oct. 27)

Rank Title Author Imprint Total
1 Fifty Shades of Grey E.L. James Vintage 470,908
2 Entwined with You Sylvia Day Berkley 324,333
3 Fifty Shades Darker E.L. James Vintage 315,361
4 The Longest Ride Nicholas Sparks Grand Central 307,814
5 Fifty Shades Freed E.L. James Vintage 305,352
6 Friends Forever Danielle Steel Dell 231,951
7 Betrayal Danielle Steel Dell 192,762
8 The Wanderer Robyn Carr Mira 181,814
9 The Witness Nora Roberts Berkley 179,010
10 Whiskey Beach Nora Roberts Putnam 174,473
11 Bared to You Sylvia Day Berkley 174,330
12 Reflected in You Sylvia Day Berkley 173,147
13 Fifty Shades Trilogy (Boxed Set) E.L. James Vintage 168,736
14 The Newcomer Robyn Carr Mira 158,783
15 Sea Glass Island Sherryl Woods Mira 146,880
16 The Hero Robyn Carr Mira 143,683
17 Sand Castle Bay Sherryl Woods Mira 141,856
18 Big Sky Summer Linda Lael Miller Harlequin 141,730
19 Wind Chime Point Sherryl Woods Mira 132,438
20 Love in Plain Sight Debbie Macomber Mira 128,119

The Fifty Shades Effect

Frontlist romance sales are down about 66% for the year to date, compared to the same period in 2012. What happened? Oh, right... Fifty Shades! Last year, the Fifty Shades trilogy blew the doors off the publishing world, selling tens of millions of copies worldwide on the way to becoming the fastest-selling paperbacks in history. Fifty Shades of Grey is still the bestselling romance of 2013, and while the trilogy has sold just over one million print copies so far this year, which is quite a respectable figure, it’s going to be tough to top the 12.9 million copies sold over the same period last year.

Total frontlist romance unit sales
2012 (through Oct. 27): 16,140,977
2013 (through Oct. 28): 5,920,713