Did you know that the romance industry didn’t start in the United States until 1972? In the spirit of Romance Awareness Month, I’ve done a deep dive of the Internet to gain all the information about the genre that I adore with all my heart. Honestly, some of the stuff I learned completely changed the way I’ll look at the romance section of the publishing industry. A lot of what I learned, however, were things that I always thought to be true, and now I just know I was right. Now, let me impart my encyclopedic knowledge of the romance genre to you!
Of course, the romance genre itself has been around for centuries. Dating all the way back to ancient Greece and then into the 18th century in Europe. And, of course, we all know the influence that Jane Austen and Charolette Brontë had on the genre during the 19th century. However, the fever didn’t really spread through the United States until the late 1900s.
Mills & Boon is a UK-based company that completely cornered the market on publishing romance fiction in Europe. Realizing their worth to their readership, they began looking for ways to spread the love of romance reading to a larger audience. How did they do this?
Mills & Boon partnered with Canadian firm, Harlequin Books, using them to distribute their publications in Northern America.
Originally, Harlequin Enterprises was under the editorial direction of Mary Bonnycastle and Judy Burgess. They exercised what they called a “decency code,” cherry-picking which Mills & Boon books they would reprint. That all changed when the late Richard Bonnycastle, CEO of Harlequin, read one of the novels and thought people would enjoy it more.
In 1970, Bonnycastle, Jr. contracted with Pocket Books and Simon & Schuster to secure the track to the United States.
In October of 1971, Harlequin decided to buy out Mills & Boon. This was a strategic move to gain the talents of Alan Boon and his editorial team.
During this time, booksellers in North America were less likely to stock mass-market paperbacks, the type of books that Harlequin was set to distribute. In order to keep on track, Harlequin decided to sell its books “where the women are”, meaning supermarkets, drug stores, and other unorthodox retailers.
The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss was revolutionary in many aspects.
It was the first full-length novel of the romance fiction genre to be published first in paperback, rather than the traditional hardback.
Now, Flame and Flower is a historical romance, but its characters were portrayed differently. Up to this point, romance novels were hallmarked by their virginal heroines and dominant heroes. However, Kathleen immediately took a different route in her 600-page debut novel.
The heroine of Flame and Flower was more aligned with heroines of gothic novels, displaying independence and a strong will that was virtually unheard of. This was also the first book that allowed readers to experience the hero falling completely in love with the heroine. Not to mention, Flame and Flower was wildly graphic in its sexual content.
Avon publishers recognized the success of Kathleen’s first novel, even with its sexually explicit scenes and how long it was.
In response, they published a second book by Kathleen, The Wolf and the Dove, along with two books by Rosemary Rogers: Sweet Savage Love and Dark Fires.
Avon Originals sells a whopping forty million copies of their romance books, over 150 of those being historical romances.
The phenomenal success that was the books of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers ignited a passion within the women of the United States. They came to crave the heroines that were easier to relate to. Gone were the times of virginal brides; this is the 70s we’re talking about here.
The Wall Street Journal said these books were “publishing’s answer to the Big Mac: They are juicy, cheap, predictable and devoured in stupefying quantities by legions of loyal fans…”
Sweet Starfire by Jayne Ann Krentz is the first of the author’s Lost Colony. Starfire was the first romance book to incorporate classic science fiction elements to create a futuristic setting for the novel. On top of that, Krentz molded the work as many of the popular historical romances of the time.
Up to this point, it was standard for romance novels to be sold as mass market paperbacks. However, Jude Deveraux’s A Knight in Shining Armor was the first romance novel to be published in hardcover first.
Funny because it’s the flipside for the rest of the book industry!
Shifting into the ’90s, the romance genre followed trends, weaving humor into the genre. The most prominent being Julie Garwood’s comedic historical romances.
The genre continued to evolve throughout the early 2000s. The world around us is incredibly diverse; however, the book industry hasn’t always been completely reflective of this. This all began to change when romance novels got with the times, so to speak, attempting to represent identities that weren’t previously represented.
Featuring a hero with facial scarring and nerve damage.
Featuring a heroine on the Autism spectrum.
Featuring a heroine with Asperger’s Syndrome.
While authors were beginning to diversify their characters, they were continuing to fall in line with the trends set before them. It’s easy to see the types of books that sell the best; part of this has to do with the covers of the books. There’s a formula to the romance genre, and this includes their covers. Currently, the trend is cartoon covers.
You’re probably wondering why I called the romance industry one of the most lucrative industries. I have my reasons! As of 2021, the genre of romance fiction has been among the most popular and bestselling (which we already been known about). According to Fortune, “romance books topped 47 million in the 12 months ending March 2021 (including print and e-book sales).” This is a fast and steadily growing industry that has seen exponential growth over the past few years, something that we can expect to continue.
Now, though this isn’t a complete history of the romance genre, it is quite comprehensive! Of course, I’m always up to learning more about the genre I’ve found the most comfort in. For more romance-centered content during the month of romance from me, the Resident Romance Redneck, click here!