While Wall Street is crumpling, businesses are folding, and pensions are evaporating like puddles in the afternoon sun, one area of the economy which seems to be thriving is the romance fiction industry. The New York Times recently reported that “Harlequin Enterprises, the queen of the romance world” saw “fourth-quarter earnings  up 32 percent over the same period a year earlier.”
How can this be true? The rest of the book industry is imploding, much like the wider economy, yet romance readers are buying more books than ever and the industry appears to be doing nicely, thank you very much.
Clearly the romance world has tenacity. “Bodice-rippers,” “soft-porn for bored housewives,” “trash,” “fluff,” and “drivel.” Such labels and such derision have been continuously hurled at romance novels over the years. Yet in spite of being considered the dog-do on the shoe of the literary world, one in five women still read these books and the industry continues to make over one billion dollars in sales every year.
But why are readers turning to romance fiction now? Why are they giving up their hard-earned and increasingly disappearing dollars on tales of love, sex, and dashing heroes?
For an insider’s insight into the tenacious and thriving world of romance, I turned to Sarah Wendell, blogger for the immensely popular “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” blog and co-author of the new book Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels. I just finished reading this delicious, irreverent, and actually very thoughtful book and loved every page. Wendell and her co-author Candy Tan are true experts and fans of the genre. They love and appreciate romance but, with wit, intelligence, and delicious snark, they also point out its idiosyncrasies.
Why do you think romance does well in a recession?
When everything is bad news, and I mean everything, taking a moment to yourself to read something that you know will feature a happy ending to any adversity can make you feel better. Happiness isn’t trendy or stylish or sexy, but all of us want it and assign it priceless value. Romance reminds us that happiness is possible, and reminds us that in all likelihood, readers probably have some already in hand.
Why do you think it does well not in a recession?
Books, unfortunately, are a luxury for some people. For me, personally, they’re a necessity but I bargain hunt with the best of them. So when someone is watching every dime, spending $8-14 dollars on a book can seem like a huge extravagance. That might ultimately harm some genres. But because romance is about happiness, fulfillment and comforting reassurance, I think romance will come out of a recession just fine. Plus, romance is a familiar feature of bad economies – Harlequin started during the Great Depression, and they probably know better than any of us how much the promise of a happy ending can reassure any reader.
Women are the biggest readers of romance, as they are for fiction in general. Do you think they are hit harder by the recession and thus turn to romance more?
I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the amount of stress both men and women are under in a bad economy. From salary stress to home values to the myriad roles men and women play between work and home and family and budgeting and providing and parenting and being an adult child of elderly parents – there’s a lot to worry about. Speaking specifically of women, we have precious little free time to do nothing but read. I think women turn to romance because they know everything will turn out ok in the end – and if it’s not ok, it’s not the end. That kind of reassurance in your leisure reading is a comfort and a welcome respite from the stress that everyone faces.
And women are not the only readers of romance. I receive more than a few letters from men who tell me they love romances, and are so pleased to read the recommendations on my site as it steers them to authors they wouldn’t have discovered — because romance isn’t typically marketed to men. But the men I meet who read romance are incredibly smart, savvy and curious people. Ideal heroes if you ask me.
What kind of romance books sell the best?
The ones with excellent word of mouth reputations, which are usually the ones with solid plots, memorable characters, and real, nuanced emotions at work between the protagonists. In short: good ones!
Which books would you recommend for a recession-wearied reader?
I can recommend a slew of books that are wonderful reads, but for specific books that feature adversity and triumph with truly marvelous happy endings:
Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas
Instant Attraction by Jill Shalvis
Talk Me Down by Victoria Dahl
Flat Out Sexy by Erin McCarthy
Those are all contemporary romances as in they feature real people in the here-and-now with real problems, real conflicts, and truly happy endings. Jane from Dear Author (www.dearauthor.com) and I recently featured them in our Save the Contemporary campaign designed to highlight contemporary romance.
My thanks to Sarah for agreeing to answer questions on this topic. I was actually lucky enough to meet her in person last week at an academic conference about romance fiction held at Princeton University. I’m going to post an article about this fascinating conference on my Huffington Post blog later this week.
If you’d like to win a copy of Beyond Heaving Bosoms, just leave a comment. Closing date for the draw: May 4th.