Romance, Writ Large

In 2004, romances accounted for 39 percent of all fiction sold in the United States, according to the Romance Writers of America.
In 2004, romances accounted for 39 percent of all fiction sold in the United States, according to the Romance Writers of America. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
By Sara Fitzgerald
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 30, 2006

This weekend, as they have for 22 years, members of Washington Romance Writers have gathered for an annual retreat in Harper's Ferry. There they are hearing from best-selling authors, editors and agents, swapping industry gossip and helping their unpublished members learn the finer points of their craft. But the industry that their work fuels is far more diverse and forward-looking than the bodice-ripping stereotype of old. And even as the writers were setting off for the conference, Harlequin, the largest publisher of romance fiction, was announcing a deal that will give readers a daily dose of romance fiction on their cellphones.

High-tech or low, some things haven't changed. A romance, as defined by the Romance Writers of America, has two basic elements: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. But a romance heroine who suddenly becomes a vampire? A romantic interest who is a former drug dealer trying to resist the lure of the streets?

Such are the ways that, in recent years, authors and publishers have pushed the definition of romance into a diverse range of subgenres and publishing formats.

Romance publishing is a big business. In 2004, the latest year for which the RWA has compiled figures, romance fiction generated $1.2 billion worth of sales, based on data supplied by Ipsos Book Trends. Some 2,285 romance titles were released that year, accounting for 54.9 percent of mass-market paperback sales and 39.3 percent of all fiction sold in this country.

Of the paperback titles that carried "romance" on their spines, 1,468 were considered "contemporaries"; 477 were "historicals"; 167 were "inspirationals," aimed at readers interested in Christian, "faith-oriented," books; and 173 were "paranormals," or books, according to the RWA's definition, with " 'other-worldly' elements." And those are just the broad categories.

"Romance, as a genre, evolves and shifts, just as relationships and societal mores evolve and shift over time," says Nora Roberts of Keedysville, Md., one of the genre's most successful and prolific authors. "While the key to a romance novel is, and always will be, the relationship between the two main characters and the emotions that develop between them, the character type, the backgrounds and the personal and professional dynamics between them have evolved to reflect the times we live in."

In 2005, Harlequin, the grandmother of romance publishers, reported selling 131 million books in 26 languages in 109 international markets. It accounted for about half of the books in the RWA's 2004 tally.

The expansion of the overall women's popular fiction market is apparent in the breadth of the sub-genres that Harlequin and many of its competitors now publish. Yes, there are books written for African American readers, and some titles aimed at Hispanic readers, in Spanish and in English. But you'll also find erotica and inspirationals and books that feature fathers and children -- and women who aren't interested in either.

For example, Harlequin's more recent additions include Harlequin NEXT and Silhouette Bombshell. Harlequin markets NEXT as a line "of entertaining novels about women facing up to the glorious unpredictability of life . . . relevant for every woman who has wondered, 'What's next?' " Bombshell, meanwhile, is modeled on characters such as Sydney Bristow in the television show "Alias," or, as Harlequin describes her, "strong, sexy, and savvy, she'll save the day and get her men -- both good and bad."

Isabel Swift, a veteran editor who is vice president for author and asset development in Harlequin's new business development group, noted that these two lines are sold as monthly series, and while they "definitely have a romantic element, they don't have the quintessential happy ending. It's a woman's search for herself, not a search for a guy."

"A lot of this market involves giving people something they can't get anywhere else," says Kate Duffy, editorial director of Kensington Publishing, the second-biggest romance publisher on the RWA's 2004 list, with 195 titles. "Whether it's suspense or paranormal, we're trying to give them more." Duffy started in the industry in 1974, editing five Gothic novels a month ("women with a peignoir and a candle," she quips) for Popular Library; she's been with Kensington for 11 years.

And then there is erotica, a rapidly growing segment of the romance market that can be found in lines such as Harlequin's new Spice and Kensington's Aphrodisia.

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