It started with a happily ever after.
In 1972, Avon Books published “The Flame and the Flower,” by Kathleen Woodiwiss — a hefty historical romance that traded chastity for steamy sex scenes. It arrived in the thick of the sexual revolution, and readers loved it: It was an instant bestseller that’s credited with birthing the modern romance genre.
There had been romances before, of course, mostly by British publisher Mills & Boon (which was later acquired by Harlequin). But Woodiwiss ushered in a new era, inspiring an American publishing boom that propelled the romance genre to smashing success.
There was one constant in those early years: “Kathleen Woodiwiss wrapped everything up with a nice pink bow, and that’s something romance writers still talk about today,” says Carrie Feron, a longtime executive editor for Avon who edited Woodiwiss’s later books. “The HEA. A happily ever after. Because that was a promise romance books made to the reader.”
Here, a dozen people — authors, editors, agents, cover artists and one mononymous male model — recount how the modern romance industry came together and took off.
‘A tremendous breakthrough’
Early romance novels were sold at grocery stores and drugstores — they were by women, for women and about women, available where women shopped. At first, they were mostly big historical romances, followed by slimmer romances, which were published sequentially.
Author Loretta Chase: I feel strongly that the women who were first writing, like Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers — it was a tremendous breakthrough, what they did. The explicit sexuality in the books allowed women to express their own sexuality. And a heroine could have sex and not die at the end of the story.
LaVyrle Spencer, whose first book was published in 1979: I bought “The Flame and the Flower” with $2 that my mother sent me in a birthday card. A paperback cost $1.99. When I started to write — with a ballpoint pen and spiral notebook — I always thought, I wonder if Kathleen Woodiwiss would read it. In 1978, she was autographing at a B. Dalton bookstore, and I was almost too chicken to go. She was my idol. I had this long letter about what she meant to me and how I had written a book, and when I stepped up to her, I burst into tears. I don’t remember exactly when she told me she would read my manuscript, but we arranged a meeting for her to get it at a restaurant in the Twin Cities. When I got there, I thanked her, thrust the manuscript toward her, turned around and ran. Two days later, she called and said — and I remember this quote precisely — “I read until my eyes were red, white and blue. And your manuscript is on the way to New York to my editor.”
Steven Axelrod, a New York-based literary agent: Harlequin was the absolute dominant romance publisher, and it was distributed in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster. In 1979, Harlequin decided to distribute without Simon & Schuster, whose response was to start Silhouette Books and provide some competition. It didn’t last more than two or three years, and then Silhouette was sold to Harlequin. But it created a lot of attention and improved conditions, including advances.
Chase: I wanted to write a novel, but my attempts at writing literature went nowhere. I realized I needed some kind of structure and that genre fiction would give me that structure. As soon as I recognized that, I knew it had to be a romance — and I did not have a high opinion of romance at that time. I was an English major, and those days if you told a faculty member there were actually going to be seminars on romance, they would have laughed themselves sick. But the thing I knew about romances was that you had a happy ending, and love conquered all. That connected for me — it had bothered me that the most interesting women in stories often came to a bad end.
Author Jayne Ann Krentz: In those days, because we got so little respect, there were no rules. We really flew under the radar. If you weren’t writing to a certain set of conventions in other genres, you didn’t get published. I’ve never felt confined by the genre because I’ve never run into anything I couldn’t do in the genre, and that has been true since the first of my career.
Editor, agent and mentor Vivian Stephens: I joined Dell in 1978 as an associate editor. Dell had done romances before, but they did maybe one or two every couple months. It was considered the bottom of the barrel. My budget for books was between $1,500 and $3,000, and I had to buy so many — so I had to find writers. One day, [my boss] came to me and said I had to go to the SouthWest Writers conference, where writers came from all over the country to meet publishers. I got there, and when it was my turn, I introduced myself and said what I did: that I bought romance novels. I told these women what the stories should be — that they were about 60,000 words and called category romances because they followed a pattern. It was like a recipe.
‘I don’t see how you can’t go’
Throughout the ‘70s, Dell’s Candlelight line churned out mostly sweet romances. Then Stephens published a more “sensuous” book: “I thought, if the women who buy books don’t like it, they’ll call in — because those days you could call Dell and say, ‘I want to speak to the romance editor,’” she recalls. But no calls came, and the book was an immediate hit. It led to a racier line of books, Candlelight Ecstasy Romance (a name the company’s editor in chief criticized as “too orgasmic”). A few years later, in 1983, Stephens — one of the few Black editors in a mostly White industry — left Dell and went to Harlequin to create its first line of American romance novels.
Author Sandra Kitt: I happened to see an article in the New York Times that Harlequin, which is a Canadian company, decided to open a New York office because they realized that a large number of their readers were American women. I made a cold call to the editor that they had hired to set up the offices [Vivian Stephens]. I said, “I don’t know anything about publishing, but I read you’re opening this office.” She invited me to come in and meet her, and her office was so new that they didn’t even have furniture. She had no staff. But she was willing to sit with me — I think it was for two hours — talking about her background, publishing and what she was looking for in romance novels. And she was particularly interested in breaking open the market and bringing in more women writers of color, because up until that point, the industry was solid White. But the demographics showed that millions and millions of African American women were buying and reading the books.
Author Beverly Jenkins: African American women have been reading romance forever. But there was very little — if anything — that looked like us. So I was basically just writing for me. With each book, I told an African American story and wove in the relevant history behind it. Lots of history that none of us were ever taught in school. I was like the prophet in the wilderness for a long time.
Stephens: After the conference in Texas, women would send me manuscripts, and they would also call me. I didn’t go to the next conference, so they called and said, “You weren’t here so we couldn’t ask our questions.” I said to this woman who had called, “What you people need is your own conference that only deals with romance.” And she said, “We’re only waiting for you to come and organize it.” So that was the beginning of the Romance Writers of America. In June 1981, [the inaugural event] was held in Texas, and 800 people showed up.
Spencer: I remember saying to my husband: “I’d love to go to this. But I can’t spend the money to fly to Houston. I’ve never been on a plane by myself, either.” His response was, “I don’t see how you can’t go.” And it was incredible. Every major TV network had cameras there.
Stephens: I had these ladies who had read the Mills & Boon romances from Europe, and I had to come up with a formula of my own. So I did a tip sheet: what the hero should be, what the heroine should be, what the plot should be. I kept in mind the culture of America at the time: We were going through the sexual revolution and the women’s movement, and women wanted to reach the glass ceiling. I decided that the heroine should be at least in her 20s, and she should have a job and be upwardly mobile. The hero was the icing on the cake, but she already had a life — he just completed it. It wasn’t Cinderella; the hero isn’t going to save you.
‘Aimed at the male gaze’
Throughout the late ‘70s and ‘80s, most romance novel covers featured a clinch: a couple in a passionate embrace, often barely clothed.
Freelance cover artist John Ennis, who illustrated more than 1,000 covers: In the very beginning of my career, they would send me a manuscript, and then eventually just a synopsis of the book. There was a studio in New York City that specialized in shooting reference photography for book cover illustrators, and I would call this guy and say, “I need an hour on Tuesday, here are the two models I need.” And then I would call the costumer and have them send appropriate period costumes over. I’d take pictures and then go home and create a painting using that reference.
Feron: Many of the early covers were aimed at the male gaze, and a lot of the authors hated them. They understood the point of them, but that’s not how they saw their characters.
Ennis: I worked for all the paperback publishers in New York, doing two covers a month. In the early years, men were in charge. The focus was on getting a beautiful woman: busty, big lips, big eyes, flowing hair. And then the guy would just kind of be part of the cover. But over the course of the ‘80s, women started getting promoted to become art directors, and then Fabio appeared on the scene. From that moment on, muscular men became the main focus of the covers, and the heroine became the supporting element.
Romance cover model Fabio Lanzoni: Sometimes I would do 16 [cover shoots] in a day. I had no idea what they were doing with these pictures — I never saw the books around. A year later, I’m in Miami, going to a club with some friends. These girls see me and freak out: “Oh my god, you look like the guy in our books.” And I’m like, wow, that’s original. It’s a really good pick-up line! And one of the girls said, “Listen, I live very close to here.” She runs home, and half an hour later, she shows up with her books, and that was the first time — I was like, “Yeah, that’s me.” It was a lot of fun. It was an easy job. You worked with beautiful girls, and you got paid. And then the beautiful dream came to an end because all of a sudden, they discovered if they put me by myself on the cover of a book, it was selling 60 or 70 percent more. I’m showing up for a shoot, and I’m waiting for the pretty girl to come out, and it’s like, no pretty girl! And the reason was, the woman reading the book, she wanted to be the one. She didn’t want to see another pretty woman; she was imagining herself with the hero of the book.
Ennis: There was one time when the two models had actually been on a bad date. The woman was doing everything she could to make this guy know that she couldn’t stand him. I had to pull her aside, and I said, “Look, I don’t care what transpired between the two of you, but in this one hour, for the $150 or whatever it is I was paying, you have to perform, and you have to look like you’re in love.”
Feron: LaVyrle Spencer was one of the first to have a double cover on her books: The outside had little violets on it, and then you opened it up and it would have people or something else. She changed the way covers look, and it was just her force of personality.
Spencer: The last of my books that had a man and woman in a clinch was “Years,” and there’s so much of her body exposed. And this was about a teacher on the prairie in North Dakota! Well, I had some ammunition. Let’s call it ammunition or persuasion. I wrote [my publisher] and told him that the cover did not represent the story within, and I said, “Let us be leaders, not followers.” My next cover was the first floral cover in the U.S. on a romance novel.
Women ‘stopped covering it up’
Until about 25 years ago, “romance novels weren’t taken seriously because they were women’s novels,” Kitt says. “It was like they didn’t have a certain kind of legitimacy.” But today, fueled by passionate readers and prolific authors, romance fiction is a billion-dollar industry.
Krentz: I think what fundamentally changed is that the women reading it stopped covering it up. There used to be a time when you did not open a romance novel on an airplane.
Kitt: The fact that it wasn’t initially taken seriously, it’s sort of astonishing now. I remember when I first came into the industry in the ‘80s, there was no bestseller list for romance. Now, it’s like it’s just exploded — we finally got a reputation where they realized what was going on with this.
Jenkins: There’s so many different women writing romance. You’ve got marine scientists, you’ve got biologists, you’ve got physicists. You’ve got waitresses. You’ve got stay-at-home moms. So, you know, everybody writes romance, and everybody reads romance, and all of that together generates billions of dollars a year. We’re the people that keep the lights on in publishing.