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Café Press sells a bright pink t-shirt for romance novelists which reads: As a matter of fact, I do write real books.

There is a good reason why shirts like that sell. Recently, a colleague at my day job commented, “One of my students was reading a stupid romance today. I wanted to throttle her and tell her to read a real book.”

For someone who happens to be a romance writer, it was difficult not to bristle as I responded, “Um...what exactly do you mean by that?” It wasn't the first time I had heard similar uninformed comments. But I certainly wished it could be the last.

When I left work that day, I decided to buy one of those t-shirts and wear it everywhere I go!

Unfortunately, it’s true—the romance genre often gets a bad rap. Let’s go back a few decades to find out why. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, publishing houses like Avon, Harlequin, and Mills and Boon were the kings of the industry. They released books with titles like A Pirate’s Love, Kept Woman, and Rebel Vixen. These stories, mostly historical romances, were pretty formulaic. They featured young, beautiful, virginal heroines “rescued” by strong, older heroes (who were definitely not virgins and often not that handsome, either).

These were the books responsible for the term “bodice ripper,” as their paperback covers tended to feature a scantily clad, young woman in the clutches of a powerful hero. The hero’s rape of the virginal heroine (who ultimately fell for him by the end of the novel) was a mainstay of these stories, along with fighting, kidnapping, and the predictable storyline of a domineering man, winning the heart of a passive, young woman.

For many people, this stereotypical image of the romance novel has stuck. But the industry has made remarkable changes in the last few decades. Yesterday’s bodice ripper has been replaced by 21st century stories with smart, savvy heroines, sensitive heroes, and complex plots. Jennifer Colgan, who writes sci-fi and paranormal romance, observes, “The heroine in modern romance has more to do than swoon at the sight of male anatomy and play coy, and her journey is more involved than merely the cradle-to-altar beeline it was years ago. Heroes are expected to have more going for them than good looks, overflowing family coffers, and domineering personalities.”

“People are more open these days and are letting their taboos and their darker desires get some airtime…”

Rhonda Penders, editor-in-chief of The Wild Rose Press, agrees. “Today’s heroine isn’t waiting for Prince Charming to come rescue her; she’s perfectly capable of taking care of herself, her family, and the hero if necessary. She’s a modern woman but still longs for someone to love her for herself, to want her for who she is, and not want to change her…Today’s romance novels [also] run the gamut from edgy and suspenseful to sweet and romantic. There’s a lot more choice today than there was in the past.”

In fact, variety may be the single biggest change in the romance genre. Susannah Taylor, literary agent for The Richard Henshaw Group, says, “Romance is an incredibly flexible genre. Readers who like mystery, suspense, thriller, vampire, erotic, military, history, or science fiction books can find romances to fit their inclinations.”

Jessica Faust, an agent for BookEnds, LLC, blogs regularly about the romance market. She goes one step further in describing the shifts she’s seen and talks about the “merging of genres” that’s happening industry wide. No longer do mysteries remain on the mystery bookshelf, or fantasy on the fantasy shelf, she says. Now, readers will see romance bookshelves filled with fantasy, mystery, and even horror romance stories. They’ll also see books in series, where the storyline doesn’t end happily ever after until the final book.

It’s true. Whether you’re looking for an inspirational love story, vampire romance, or a kick-ass heroine who triumphs over a serial killer, you’ll find something to please your fancy. Seeking a spicy erotic tale or a sweet historical set during the Civil War? You can find all that and more in the romance novels of the 21st century.

Romance Writers of America, the national organization that supports the growth of published and pre-published romance authors, defines a romance novel in this way—it must focus on a love relationship between its hero and heroine, and it must have an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic” ending. This leaves the door wide open for authors to experiment with the traditional formulas, and they have. While best-selling authors like Jennifer Crusie and Nora Roberts continue to dominate the mainstream romance market, many new authors in sub-genres are gaining popularity, too.

…it must focus on a love relationship between its hero and heroine, and it must have an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic” ending.

(From the movie The Notebook,
Book by Nicholas Sparks)

Inspirational romance has a strong following today, as does multicultural romance with heroes and heroines of varying ethnic backgrounds. (Check out Color the Sidewalk for Me by Brandilyn Collins or Lies Too Long by Pamela Ridley.) Tales of shape shifters, time travel, and vampires have also become popular, led by authors such as Sherrilyn Kenyon and Christine Feehan. If you’re looked for an up-and-coming author on the paranormal scene, I highly recommend Kerry A. Jones, whose novel Cast in Stone is a beautifully written love story about the power of soul mates.

Erotic romance has grabbed its share of the market, too. Make no mistake, you’ll still find a love story in the pages of these books. But you’ll also find multiple sex scenes and perhaps some bondage or S&M as well. If you’re the kind of reader who likes the sex hot and the language explicit, then you’re in luck because the number of authors writing and selling erotic romance is growing exponentially. Stella Price, author of urban fantasy romances and marketing director for Tease Publications as well as an award-winning cover artist, isn’t surprised by this shift in the genre. “People are more open these days and are letting their taboos and their darker desires get some airtime, so to speak. Society is accepting a lot more in all its media genres. That it doesn’t surprise me that readers want more of the raw and sexier.”

“…from edgy and suspenseful to sweet and romantic. There’s a lot more choice today than there was in the past.”

In addition to many of these new sub-genres, historical novels are making a comeback. In the January 2008 issue of Romance Writers’ Report, author Deborah MacGillivray attributed this interesting phenomenon to the popularity of movies like Braveheart, Troy, and even Lord of the Rings, which “spurred interest in ancient ways and times.” This certainly makes sense.  In fact, when MacGillivray ran a survey on Amazon, she reported, “Most readers answering my post showed on average one to two years of reading historicals…many are younger readers who were not old enough to have read romances during the heyday of ‘bodice rippers.’ So this is not just a trend of old fans…coming back to what they loved. Historical romance is finding a whole new audience.”

Today’s historical romance novels do differ from those of 30 years ago, though. Today, you’ll see stories set in places other than the British Isles. Jade Lee, for example, writes a series for Dorchester set in Shanghai, China at the end of the 19th century. You won’t find a cruel hero raping a 17-year-old heroine, either. Readers want to see characters that aren’t stereotypical. As Marianne Arkins and Judy Thomas, co-owners of The Long and the Short of It Romance Review Site, comment, “Amanda Quick writes historicals that seldom involve men with titles. [That’s] awesome—because there were plenty of folks back then who met and fell in love who weren't part of the aristocracy.”

Romance authors continue to push the boundaries in other areas as well. A small, but growing, sub-genre is gay/lesbian romance. Publishers such as Samhain Publishing, Bella Books, and Baycrest Books actively seek novels that explore love relationships between gay men or lesbian women, and the readership for such novels is definitely on the rise. According to Samhain Publishing’s Executive Editor, Angela James, 6% of her publisher’s titles are gay/lesbian romance. 

A less common variation on the hero-heroine partnership is the romance novel that features multiple partners. Samhain, again, is one publisher that releases novels with love relationships between more than two people.  These titles represent nearly 10% of their catalog, so clearly readers are into these sub-genres as well.

“Today’s romance readers are smart, savvy, educated men and women who expect thoughtful, high-quality fiction…”

What else has changed? The traditional idea of “happily ever after” is being challenged by today’s romance authors, many of whom prefer to write a “happy for now” ending. Not all of today’s romance novels end in marriage or even the promise of marriage. In fact, many do not. The focus is still a love relationship, and the main characters still overcome obstacles to end up together, but the next step is not necessarily a trip down the altar. Instead, the story ends with the main characters making an emotional commitment to each other and a willingness to explore a future together. Twenty-first century romance authors assert that such an ending is more realistic for today’s readers and just as satisfying.

While traditional readers may eschew such novels that push the boundaries, the fact that these books exist and have a solid following speaks volumes for the genre’s ability to change and grow in the new millennium. Of course, you can still find a sweet contemporary romance that features a love story between a 21st century heterosexual man and woman, too!

The traditional idea of “happily ever after” is being challenged by today’s romance authors…

Today’s romance authors are smart, savvy, educated men and women exploring new areas of the traditionally-told love story. Today’s romance readers are smart, savvy, educated men and women who expect thoughtful, high-quality fiction, and they are getting it. Dru X., an avid romance reader, confesses, “At one point I had stopped reading romance books because it became all the same. Same story with different locales. Then one day, I discovered Linda Howard and got so caught up in her book, I had forgotten it was a romance book. I think having sub-genres within the romance category gives us more to choose from.” 

Romance novels accounted for more than half of all paperback sales last year, and more than one-third of all sales in popular fiction. In today’s society, where many lament the declining number of people who read (a recent AP poll revealed that 1 in 4 adults had not read a single book last year), it is refreshing to know how many men, women, and teens are exploring the “new” world of romance.

Now, with the dawn of electronic publication and the development of e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle, it’s become a snap to download a romance without leaving the comfort of your home.  Rhonda Penders says of her small press, “We are firmly aware that the next generation of readers, the ones in their early teens and even mid-teens today, will be our market in the future, and they will embrace wholeheartedly the idea of reading books as ebooks and not paperbacks.” 

Plus, with the advent of small and electronic presses, the number of romance novels available is astounding. Stella Price advises readers to check out these small presses and e-publishers.  Often they will take a chance on new authors when the big publishing houses won’t.  Yet many of these newbies are just as talented as the titans of the industry.

“Today’s romance novel is not the bodice ripper of 30 years ago. It’s richer and more complex. It’s thought provoking. It’s downright funny.”

(From the movie When Harry Met Sally,
Book by Nora Ephron)

Critics of today’s romance novels argue that the stories remain too formulaic, or there is no suspense because eventually the hero and heroine will unite, or even that these books portray a kind of perfect, unattainable love that is unrealistic for readers to think they can find. Regency romance author Kimberly Nee takes offense to such comments. “I think that's selling a reader terribly short. Since women make up the majority of romance readers, critics are basically saying these women are too simple or too stupid to realize that they are reading fiction, and that fiction doesn't necessarily equal life.”

Now is the perfect time to pick up a romance. Try a new author, a small press, or a sub-genre that sounds appealing to you. Author Monica Robinson says it most clearly. “I want new fans, tried and true fans, and future readers to know that this is NOT your mother's romance genre. We're breaking new ground, we're taking risks, but we're still giving readers, who love romance novels, what they want—a good story with the promise of an HEA.” [That’s a Happily Ever After]

Today’s romance novel is not the bodice ripper of 30 years ago. It’s richer and more complex. It’s thought provoking. It’s downright funny. It pushes the envelope and breaks barriers. And it’s available in your local library, your chain bookstore, or on the Web. Give one a try—you might just discover a new type of “real” book to love! 

Allie Boniface (www.allieboniface.com) is the best-selling author of two contemporary romance novels, One Night in Boston (Samhain Publishing) and Lost in Paradise (The Wild Rose Press).  Both were recently nominated for The Long and the Short of It Romance Review Site’s “Best Long Ebook Romance of 2007” and “Best Romance of 2007” in the Preditors and Editors’ Poll. Allie has been writing romance for five years and believes that we all need a great love story in our lives.

A special thanks to all those involved with the romance industry who contributed to this article. Please support them by visiting their websites:

Marianne Arkins (www.mariannearkins.com)
Jennifer Colgan (www.newoa.com/jcolgan)
Jessica Faust, BookEnds LLC (www.bookends-inc.com)
Angela James, Samhain Publishing (www.samhainpublishing.com)
Kimberly Nee (www.kimberlynee.com)       
Rhonda Penders, The Wild Rose Press (www.thewildrosepress.com)
Stella Price (www.stellaandaudra.com)
Monica Robinson (www.sonarbabe.com)
Susannah Taylor, The Richard Henshaw Group (www.richh.addr.com)
Judy Thomas, The Long and the Short of It (www.longandshortreviews.com)


 

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