Romance, the Genre

black and white painting of a male angel and human girl kissing

Mihaly von Zichy's Romantic Encounter 1864.

One of my favorite genre's of fiction is romance. But what exactly makes something a romance novel? There are two big rules according to Romance Writers of America (RWA): 

  1. A romance must be a central plot point of the book. 

  2. The book must end happily. 

Now to bombard you with a few facts. According to Publishers Weekly 21.5 million romance books sold in 2017. That was 15.4% of all adult fiction falling behind only general fiction(29.2%) and suspense/thrillers(15.7%). A survey funded by the Romance Writers of America (RWA) found that the gender breakdown of readers 82% female, 18% male. The average romance reader is between the ages of 35-39 years old BUT over half the readers that said they read romance frequently or very frequently were under the age of 34.

The history of romance gets a little tricky. Some people like to credit Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded(1740) as the first romance novel. If that’s the case, you would need to cite Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters as other early romance writers. But other academics would argue that the romance genre began in the age of mass market production of the early 1900s. Either way the authors listed above are all influences on modern day romance (Regis). 

Something no one argues about is that Mills and Boon was the first publisher to focus in on romance. They opened in the UK in 1908 and started by selling mass market publications of all genres. In the 1930s they began focusing entirely on publishing romance. In 1949 Harlequin Enterprises was founded in Toronto and in 1971 they bought Mills and Boon, becoming the main player in romance publication (“Mills and Boon”). Since then other publishing houses have opened their doors to romance, but Harlequin Romance is still a common saying when referring to romance novels. 

Romance book’s plots became more formulaic to fill the quotas needed by these publishers. Andrea C. Barra believes that “in its conforming to formula, romance ended up unconsciously innovating because editors were so flooded by the same stories over and over that they became incredibly selective and anything that stood out was given a chance” (61). What I’ve noticed is that readers find the formula soothing, that knowing what happens allows them to take in the world the author creates without stressing about where the characters will end up. You know where they end up, the excitement is how they get there.  

EBooks took off faster in the romance genre than in other fiction and non-fiction areas for a few major reasons. One, erotica. It was easier for writers to get more risque books published by e-publishers. Two, e-publishers were more willing to risk mixing different genres and experiment more than traditional publishers. Finally, romance readers (especially those that read series) are notorious for reading several books a week, some as many as one per day. Ebooks allow these voracious readers to save time and money (Barra). 



Barra, Andrea C. Beyond the Bodice Ripper: Innovation and Change in the Romance Novel Industry, Rutgers The State University of New Jersey - New Brunswick, Ann Arbor, 2014. ProQuest,

“Mills & Boon.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 July 2019,

Publishers Weekly. "Unit Sales of Adult Fiction Books in The United States in 2017, by Category (in Millions)." Statista, Statista Inc., 19 Jan 2018,

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel . University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Romance Writers of America. “About the Romance Genre.” Romance Writers of America. The Voice of Romance Fiction.


Romance Recommendations:

Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series, which includes A Princess in Theory, A Prince on Paper and A Duke by Default. These books follow three heroines that belatedly discover the men they are falling for are actually royalty. How will they handle the discovery? 

Jacy Burton’s Shot on Gold.This book follows two Olympic athletes, a hockey player and figure skater in an opposites attract whirlwind romance. 

Sonali Dev’s A Distant Heart. Kimi is diagnosed with a disease that keeps her locked in the house and befriends Rahul, her eyes and ears to the outside world. Told through flashbacks, this is the story of a friendship slowly developing into more. 

Stacey Kade’s Starlight Nights. The story of Callista Becket, a former actress who is asked to come back to Hollywood by a past co-star. Funnily enough he was her first kiss. What could possibly happen?

Take this man: gay romance stories edited by Neil Plakcy. A compilation of sixteen romantic, erotic short stories about men in committed relationships.