Reading into the rise of the romance novel
The romance section at Porter Square Books keeps moving.
First the titles were scattered around general fiction. Then the section became a few shelves near mystery. Now it spans several bookcases at the front of the store — a place of honor.
Over the past few years, independent bookstores have begun accommodating more romance novels, finally giving due respect to a genre that has long been a top seller for the industry.
Last year, Brookline Booksmith rebuilt its dismantled romance section and An Unlikely Story in Plainville created its first romance section (the books had previously been shelved around the store). In June 2018, Harvard Book Store hosted its first romance event, for Jasmine Guillory’s debut, “The Wedding Date,” a contemporary tale about two people who arrange a fake date that, of course, leads to more. In February, Acton bookshop Silver Unicorn hosted an all-romance pop-up store in Somerville’s Bow Market.
On Saturday, 13 Massachusetts bookstores will have special displays, sales, and events as part of the first-ever national Bookstore Romance Day, billed by organizers as a way “to strengthen the relationships between bookstores and the romance community.”
What took so long for romance to be embraced by indies and even some readers? Brookline Booksmith buyer Amy Brabenec has a theory.
“The misogyny in the world,” she said. “This is a female-led genre. It’s a genre that centers on women’s pleasure.”
According to the nonprofit Romance Writers of America — which commissions studies on the market — romance was the second-best-selling fiction category in 2016, with 23 percent of overall US fiction market sales, just behind general fiction at 27 percent and just ahead of suspense and thrillers. Still, some stores have written off romance, even as they’ve devoted space to other genre categories like mystery and science fiction.
Paul Swydan, who’s on the Bookstore Romance Day board, admitted that when he first opened Silver Unicorn in 2018, he didn’t even know what romance was. He asked Stacie Williams of Ingram Publisher Services why his section was unsuccessful and learned that the books he’d shelved weren’t part of the genre. (No, he learned, Nicholas Sparks was not a romance author.)
What does count as a romance novel? The Romance Writers of America says it’s defined by two principles: “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” Subgenres include paranormal, historical, and young adult. “Fifty Shades of Grey” falls under “erotic,” but the RWA makes clear on its website that romance books, in general, may have “varying levels of sensuality — ranging from sweet to extremely hot.”
Swydan got help from Williams, who advised him to carry authors such as contemporary and historical writer Alyssa Cole, historical romance writer (and Harvard and Smith College grad) Sarah MacLean, and legendary romance author Beverly Jenkins, who received the 2017 Romance Writers of America Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award and is known for her African-American historical romance fiction.
“I’ve had a couple customers tell me that we have the largest romance section they’ve seen in the region,” a proud Swydan said.
HelenKay Dimon, president of the Romance Writers of America, says there’s a greater need for indies to carry romance now that chains such as Borders and Waldenbooks have closed. She said many bookstore owners like Swydan have turned to romance connoisseurs such as Williams to help them stock their stores. Dimon herself was asked to curate romance shelves for one of her local bookshops, Mysterious Galaxy, in San Diego. Guillory, a Wellesley College grad who’s now a New York Times bestseller, said she was asked by East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, Calif., where she launches her titles, to assemble a “recommended by Jasmine” list for display. Guillory, whose forthcoming novel, “Royal Holiday,” is inspired by Meghan Markle’s mother (Doria Ragland), will become the first romance author to headline the now 11-year-old Boston Book Festival in October.
Dimon said romance authors have been happy to help these stores, which learn quickly that romance readers are prolific readers of all genres.
“They buy in bulk,” she said. “They read an extraordinary amount of books at a time.”
Porter Square Books manager Sarah Rettger noted that stores also see benefits from publishers supporting a wider range of authors who appeal to new readers.
“There’s increasing diversity and consciousness in the writing,” Rettger said. “You can be a romance fan and get stuff that’s not going to make you cringe, and LGBT representation.”
April Poole, one of the store’s booksellers, is a fan of “Red, White & Royal Blue,” a new queer romance novel from Casey McQuiston that tells the love story of Alex Claremont-Diaz, fictional first son of fictional US President Ellen Claremont, who falls in love with Prince Henry of Wales.
Cindy Hwang, vice president and editorial director at Berkley — who’s responsible for a string of recent bestsellers, including Guillory’s — said publishers have also been thoughtful about how the books look in stores. Not every novel needs a “clinch cover” (two people embracing). Guillory’s books are released as trade paperbacks (as opposed to the tiny mass-market size), and have covers that reflect the rom-com spirit of her stories. They’re very Instagram-able.
“I think that one of the barriers was the packaging,” she said, explaining that younger readers want unique covers that don’t look like “something their mom would read.”
Dimon notes that indie stores have also been influenced by big media outlets that began paying attention to the genre. The New York Times hired Jaime Green as its romance reviewer in 2018. MacLean, whose latest historical romance is “Brazen and the Beast,” covers romance for The Washington Post.
Podcaster and Harvard Divinity School graduate Vanessa Zoltan, who launched the Cambridge-based romance novel-focused podcast “Hot & Bothered” in July (its mission: to “encourage people to write romance novels as a sacred practice”), said publishers, stores, and the writers themselves can all be credited for a new attitude about romance. But she cites another reason for the genre getting more attention — and respect.
“It’s [President] Trump,” she said. “Trump got elected and then Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo. I think the demand came from women needing positive stories about men.”
Swydan put it this way:
“Basically, so many awful things happen every day and we find out via social media way more than we used to, which is probably not great for mental health, but a book that promises a happy ending really just makes you feel better,” Swydan said. “. . . And romance books, more than any other books, provide that.”