Steamy, sultry and stigmatized no more: romance novels are having a moment

Meghan McCarty Carino Feb 13, 2024
Heard on:
Books Inc. in Mountain View, California went from a couple shelves of romance to a full bay in recent years. Meghan McCarty Carino/Marketplace

Steamy, sultry and stigmatized no more: romance novels are having a moment

Meghan McCarty Carino Feb 13, 2024
Heard on:
Books Inc. in Mountain View, California went from a couple shelves of romance to a full bay in recent years. Meghan McCarty Carino/Marketplace

Book sales in the U.S. slumped last year overall. But it’s a sweeter story for romance novels. Reliably a billion-dollar-a-year industry, the genre has mushroomed over the past several years.

Now emerging authors in the format regularly outsell other kinds of fiction. Just last week the top spots on the New York Times bestseller fiction lists were held by romance novels, including Sarah Maas and her Crescent City romance series. A once-embarrassing mainstay of the publishing world is now getting a little more respect thanks to a new, diverse generation of romance writers and ardent fans who are thrusting it into the spotlight.

Books Inc. has been serving San Francisco Bay Area readers since the 1940s, but manager Cari Gillette at the Mountain View branch said it was just a few years ago that her store got a proper romance section.

A romance reader herself, she pushed Books Inc. to expand its selection from a measly couple shelves to an inviting full wall display, dense with hand-written staff recommendations.

“A lot of people congregate here. It’s a huge part of our store now. And it really pays off,” said Gillette, because romance readers are often repeat book-buyers.

And the section has something for everyone — Gillette favors “romantasy,” a blend of romance and fantasy. There are mafia stories, aliens and apparently hockey romance is trending.

“Not just hockey but sports romance,” she said. “I think with Taylor Swift people are really vibing with that right now.”

And Gillette is spreading the love. Last summer she started a monthly romance book club at the wine bar down the street, where a couple dozen customers gather to share their passion.

“People want to be happy and hopeful and escape a little bit,” she said. “It’s always a happy ending and it’s always a happy read.”

That’s what makes these sometimes fluffy books serious business according to Susan Swinwood, the editorial director at Harlequin Trade Publishing, a brand that’s almost synonymous with romance.

“Whatever you feel about it, there’s no denying that it’s as relevant and valid a product as anything else,” she said.

Romance used to be sold more as a guilty pleasure to be hidden away. Now Swinwood said, it’s actually cool, with readers who talk about it, often on the popular TikTok community known as BookTok.

Talia Cadet runs digital strategy at a D.C. lobbying firm. And spends many of her off hours making and watching videos about reading on BookTok.


It’s been a Black romance novel summer for your girl. And I love it here. Here are my favorite reads of Summer 2023. Still can’t believe I read 30 books in 3 months! Books mentioned: 1. Only for the Week – Natasha Bishop 2. Priest – Bre Shadae 3. In the Gray – B.B. Reid 4. Hook Shot – Kennedy Ryan 5. If Only for the Summer – Alexandra Warren 6. Revive Me Part 1: The Act: J.L. Seegars (also in The New Haven Series: Restore Me) 7. Again – J.L. Seegars 8. Let Me Love You: Alexandria House 9. Fast – Millie Belizaire 10. Defensive Stance – Kasha Thompson 11. The Hookup Plan – Farrah Rochon #whatimreading #currentlyreading #readingrecap #booktok #blackbooktok #blackromance #blackromancenovel #bookboyfriend

♬ original sound – Talia | Lists & DC Events

She also runs a bookclub called Fros and Prose, which has been heavy on romance lately.

“I have no shame about it,” she said. “You can’t shame me.”

BookTok has introduced her to a whole world of Black romance, often from independent or self-published authors who write about characters she relates to.

“And then seeing them have their happily ever after, especially you know, as a Black woman being made to feel as though we don’t deserve love, we don’t deserve romance, we don’t deserve softness and care, it’s been eye opening,” said Cadet.

Social media has helped romance bypass traditional publishers by connecting directly to the audience, said Florida-based romance and mystery author Tamara Lush — and yes that is her real name.

“It really is,” she said. “It’s the name I was given at birth.”

Lush quit her job as a reporter for the Associated Press a few years ago and said she makes about 75% of her previous salary writing steamy stories about tropical islands and amateur detectives. She recently sold a book to the new publishing arm of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance. And she’s working on a new project called “Swamp Thing,” which she describes as “a funny, romantic mystery about an alligator trapper who also solves crimes.”

Those cliche heterosexual bodice-rippers with glistening muscles and heaving bosoms on their embossed covers still sell well. But now there’s more space to represent a broader range of human experience said Leah Koch, who with her sister, cofounded an all-romance bookstore, “The Ripped Bodice,” with locations in L.A. and New York.

“When someone from our extremely diverse clientele comes in and says some version of, ‘Do you have a book with somebody like me?’ Whether that is, ‘I use a wheelchair or I wear a hijab or I am pansexual or whatever,’ almost all the time we have at least one or two options for them,” Koch said.

And she’d like to see those one or two options expand, for when those customers inevitably come back for more.

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