What does a woman want?

(HarperCollins)

If you’re in publishing, this is not an idle — or sexist — question. As Ian McEwan said more than 10 years ago, “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”

The economic power of reading women was on full display Friday night at Politics and Prose, one of the nation’s premier independent bookstores, in Washington. For the first time, the store held a romance event, dubbed “Passion and Prose.” The panel of four authors was moderated by Diane Gaston, a writer of Regency romances and a member of the Washington Romance Writers Association. The event was a welcome if late acknowledgment that romance accounts for a full third of all the fiction sold in the United States. If that doesn’t get your heart racing, you may be dead.

But for Politics and Prose, a happy ending wasn’t guaranteed. Summer isn’t the busiest season. Friday nights are tough. Would local romance readers get the word about this innovative panel discussion?

Oh, they got the word. A hundred chairs filled up quickly, and many more eager readers stood listening around the edges. Yes, the crowd was almost entirely female, but it skewed younger and more racially diverse than other readings I’ve attended. And the energy level was fabio. Clearly, these readers — voracious readers — were thrilled to be at an event that embraced their literary passion.

So why must this uniquely successful genre keep enduring slights and insults? After all, snobs dismiss all kinds of pop culture — from hip-hop to sitcoms — but romance novels elicit a special degree of fervent condescension. That denigration fits a larger historical pattern that regards any of the particular interests of women — from midwifery to knitting to “old wives’ tales” — as inferior to the particular interests of men. Are romance novels any more formulaic or unrealistic than the spy novels and thrillers that attract a male readership? Is there any reason — besides stale misogyny — to question the intelligence of romance authors and their fans?

Two of the novelists on the “Passion and Prose” panel — Tracey Livesay and Alisha Rai — are lawyers. A third, The Washington Post’s romance columnist, Sarah MacLean, has a graduate degree from Harvard. This is not, as Nathaniel Hawthorne once whined, “a damned mob of scribbling women.” They’re exceptionally clever writers who operate in an intensely competitive segment of the market, a segment that embraces new platforms and ways of staying connected to readers.

(HarperCollins)

The depth of that connection was obvious Friday night at Politics and Prose. For all the raucous laughter about nipples and orgasms, romance novels explore serious elements, too, such as illness and grief, poverty and disability. Livesay’s readers have told her how much her books have helped them think about interracial love. MacLean’s fans have thanked her for saving their marriages. And why should the practical relevance of these stories be a surprise? After all, most of us will have to deal with relationships and sex. Few of us will have to jump from a burning helicopter into a pool of sharks. Whose genre is more out of touch with reality?

The force behind the “Passion and Prose” panel Friday night was Alexis Jason-Mathews, who will quickly disabuse you of any condescension toward romance readers. A 27-year-old finance associate at Politics and Prose, she joined the store in 2015 and hosts P&P’s monthly romance book group. As a longtime romance reader and the curator of the store’s small but growing romance section, she knows the genre well.

But Jason-Mathews also understands the unique characteristics of the romance market that pose special challenges for booksellers that want to attract these customers. “Most romance novels are mass market and are priced at about $7.99 or $8.99, so the profit is very limited,” she says. “It can be hard to make a romance section financially viable because every bit of shelf space counts.” Also, she explains, many very popular romance authors publish a new book every three to six months, which makes maintaining current inventory difficult.

It’s worth it, though. After taking a risk on the store’s first romance panel, Jason-Mathews told P&P co-owner Bradley Graham, “It was, without a doubt, the most delightful event I have ever hosted.” She estimates that she sold about 80 books, a “solid” performance for an event at the store.

So, will there be more romance events at Politics and Prose?

Does love spring eternal?

Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.