Hot stuff: why readers fell in love with romance novels

It was Christmas 2020 when Shonda Rhimes’ Bridgerton was released on Netflix. Set in the Regency-era London marriage market, the series was fun, raunchy, compulsively watchable and, literally, pure pleasure (the climax of the final episode was an actual climax). It seemed to provide the escape that a Tiger King fatigued pandemic populace had been searching for.

Based on a series of books by Julia Quinn published some 20 years beforehand, Bridgerton put romance novels into the popular conversation at levels unseen since Fifty Shades of Grey more than a decade ago. But something was different this time. Bridgerton wasn’t an isolated phenomenon. Romance novels were suddenly everywhere — and they were cool.

The millennial romance author Emily Henry was riding the top of US and UK bestseller lists with romantic comedies such as People We Meet On Vacation and Book Lovers. So was Sarah J Maas, whose series about a kingdom of sexually charged faerie warriors, A Court of Thorns and Roses, had been optioned by Hulu. And after Colleen Hoover’s 2016 novel It Ends With Us was discovered on TikTok and readers binged on her brooding back catalogue, she became one of the biggest publishing phenomena of the decade. By 2022, she held seven of the 10 spots on the New York Times paperback fiction bestseller list. And unlike Fifty Shades — famously responsible for a spike in ereader use as blushing readers downloaded it to their Kindles — romance fans were proudly buying the novels in print.

Publishers emphasise that the genre has always been popular, a quiet, billion-dollar powerhouse that helps subsidise more prestigious, less profitable kinds of publishing. Fans of romance are ravenous, often consuming multiple books a week. But it was often excluded and condescended to by editors, critics and other literary gatekeepers, who did not take a genre popular with a predominantly female readership seriously (let’s call it sexism; an estimated 80 per cent of romance readers are female).

Today, romance is the bestselling book genre in the US, with more than 32mn copies sold so far this year. It’s also one of the fastest growing, according to new data from the publishing industry tracker Circana. While fiction as a whole grew more popular during the pandemic as readers craved escapism, it was romance that led the charge. Sales of romance grew more than 50 per cent in the year up to May 2022, and 32 per cent in 2021.

In 2023, US booksellers have sold 11 per cent more romantic fiction than this time last year: slower, but still significant. And growth in the UK is similarly impressive: according to Nielsen data, print romance sales are up 20 per cent year on year.

Perhaps because of the way they have been marginalised, romance readers are a loyal, tight-knit community. And they are an increasingly powerful one. Notable for deeply engaged online discussions, social media recommendations and annual conferences, this fan base has proved pivotal in pushing romantic fiction on to the main stage.

“How we are talking about romance novels is very different now,” says Susan Swinwood from Canary Street Press, an imprint of HarperCollins. Suddenly “book stores wanted these romances to be put on display instead of on the bookshelf in the back”.

The success of the genre meant that “publishers started positioning romance writers as big commercial authors”, says Shannon DeVito, the senior director of book strategy at bookseller Barnes & Noble. “What it did was let romance readers begin to read romance more confidently.”

Stigma has always dogged romance: many assume that its stories are little more than the thrusting, throbbing, heaving, aching, quaking, swooning, soaring prose of Harlequin or Mills & Boon, who dominated the market for much of the 20th century. Traditionally, romance novels had only one rule. There had to be a happy ending — usually girl gets boy, highlander gets lass.

The classics certainly remain: Harlequin, now owned by HarperCollins, still publishes 70-plus romances per month across over 100 international markets, in some 30 languages. In the US, cowboy romance currently reigns supreme (boosted by the hit series Yellowstone, unseating Amish romance as the most popular sub-genre).

But elsewhere romance has evolved. It’s younger, more diverse, more sensitive. Heroines have anxiety, curves, opinions; men are sincere, imperfect and vulnerable. There are queer love stories, a rapidly growing segment. And authors have challenged the golden rule by writing “happy for now” endings, or in the case of Hoover (spoiler alert) eschewing some happy endings entirely.

Readers cannot get enough. Industry metrics indicate that romance fans read more than other readers by a ratio of two to one. Given that romance often overlaps with other genre fiction, its growth might even be undercounted. Maas, whose sales jumped 51 per cent this past year and was largely credited by Bloomsbury for a 15 per cent increase in total revenue, is technically classified as sci-fi or “romantasy”. 

“They’re overlapping circles,” says Kristen McLean, executive director and lead publishing industry analyst at Circana. The crossover between sci-fi, romance, contemporary women’s fiction and romantic comedy “really drove this new wave of romance,” McLean says. It could be argued that Sally Rooney writes romance stories, although she’s classified as literary fiction.

If the pandemic put a fire under romance sales, then so-called “BookTok” was petrol. In 2021, book lovers reviewing and recommending titles on TikTok became a dominant force in this corner of bookselling; romance is particularly popular, and readers go deep into their favourite tropes such as #friendstolovers and #forbiddenlove. “Publishers have been chasing [BookTok] ever since,” said McLean.

In the US, stores such as Barnes & Noble feature BookTok-themed display tables; in the past three years, the phenomenon has helped make romance the chain’s third most popular genre. “That was very fast for the glacial publishing world,” says DeVito.

Despite strong sales growth, it’s often felt that the UK lags behind the US in cultural acceptance. “It’s like we’re still a little bit ashamed of romance,” says English romance writer Virginia Heath, noting that while other genres such as mystery have their own sections, in many British bookstores romance is still categorised with A-Z fiction.

BookTok’s audience is also so much younger and more diverse. According to Circana, 80 per cent of BookTok readers in the US are under the age of 34, whereas traditionally the average age of a romance reader is between 35 and 39, according to industry body Romance Writers of America.

Romance has always relied on word of mouth to drive sales, according to Libby McGuire, senior vice-president of Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, who publishes Colleen Hoover. But now “a younger audience is showing their power, because they’re the ones marketing these books to each other”.

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BookTok has also changed the way genre fiction is produced. Previously, publishers primarily printed romance in mass-market paperback (think glossy, small paperbacks sold in grocery stores and airports) instead of the larger, higher quality “trade paperback” format. But BookTok influencers want prettier books to show their followers.

“People want to show off a book,” says Monique Patterson, VP and editorial director at Bramble, an imprint of Tor, and a 25-year veteran of romance publishing. “They want to hold it in their hands and talk about how much they lost their mind, and the more beautiful a cover is, the more they love it.”

The move to more book club-friendly imagery was an effort by the long-time romance publisher and editorial director of Berkley, Cindy Hwang, who five years ago began commissioning colourful, boldly graphic cover designs with not a ripped bodice in sight. Hwang’s bet was that if books didn’t look like romances, readers would be more likely to buy, and become lovers of the genre. The bet paid off.

“Booksellers and readers are realising, ‘Oh, in a different package, we really like these stories’,” says Leah Hultenschmidt, publisher of Forever, a Hachette and Grand Central imprint.

Hultenschmidt notes that, after Bridgerton aired, publishers for whom it would have previously been unthinkable to get into core romance were now in bidding wars. Most major publishing houses with an eye on profits now have a romance-focused arm. “BookTok made them realise how strong an asset a romance imprint really is,” says DeVito.

The speed of Book Tok’s influence has forced the industry to race to keep up. “We’ve had to adapt,” Hultenschmidt says. “We saw Adrienne Tooley was starting to pop [on BookTok] and bought the book in June, and we had books on shelves by September.”

Despite its popularity, the romance category is still fighting to be taken seriously by traditional tastemakers. Authors and agents note that it rarely features in books of the year lists; stigma around the genre persists.

But publishers are bullish about the future, as younger, more diverse, liberated and less easily embarrassed readers become a force in fiction. More men are reading romantic fiction, and writing it too. As the readership expands, so is the genre. Romance resonates with new readers for the same reason it always has: it legitimises desire, in whatever form those desires happen to take — be it Scottish Highlanders, blue aliens or the girl or boy next door.

Yet AI looms like a cloud on the horizon of romance’s picnic. Critics argue it is vulnerable due to its relatively formulaic structures and familiar beats. Hwang thinks not: “Emotion is very difficult to replicate,” she says. “AI can’t really do that.”

The bestselling romantic fiction writer Beth Reekles, whose 2012 novel The Kissing Booth was adapted by Netflix, says emotion is central to viral popularity. “When romance readers review a book, it’s about how it makes them feel, rather than being critical or observant of the writing style. It’s about, ‘It made me cry’ or ‘It really hit me in the feels’,” she says. The words “self-care” are now often used to describe reading romances.

As Bridgerton’s pandemic success illustrated, people were craving escape, and perhaps, a guaranteed happy ending. “Romance offers you the ability to switch off and say, ‘I’m just going to enjoy this. It doesn’t have to be productive or value-adding, it’s just something I like and I’m going to indulge in’,” Reekles says. “It’s no longer a guilty pleasure, it’s just a pleasure.”

Madison Darbyshire is the FT’s US investment correspondent

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