Hot Or Not: Trends in Popular Romance

At the The Romance Writers of America (RWA) national conference in New York City, I talked to readers, authors, and editors, listened to panels on craft, and heard what publishers are excited about. Book Riot’s own Jenn Northington has already done a great post on the best things she heard at RWA. For this post, I thought I’d share what what’s hot and what’s not in popular romance fiction.

1. Boundaries between digital and paper publishing, and between self/indie publishing versus traditional publishing are increasingly fluid. Traditional publishers basically all have digital first romance imprints, and many independent digital publishers have print distribution deals. I’m finding in my own reading life that the format (including audio, another digital format) and publisher matter less and less.

2. I heard people say New Adult is a subgenre of romance. But others claim that NA is itself a subgenre of pretty much any literary genre, as long as the story focuses the 18-25 age range, addressing common themes, like identity, sexuality, living away from home, abuse, and family issues. Either way, at RWA, I heard that New Adult is no longer white hot. And some believe it’s pretty much over.

3.These are not trends, but welcome and overdue developments. POC and queer characters are showing up more and more outside of dedicated lines and niche publishers. And as the romance genre becomes more diverse, authors no longer feel they must stick to the same race, sexuality, gender, or class of the protagonists for each book in a series. Book one might have a hetero couple, book two a male couple, book one a black couple, book two an interracial or white couple, etc.

4. The death of romantic suspense has been greatly exaggerated. It continues to be a strong subgenre.

5. The same is not the case for the once mighty medieval romance. One editor said she only received on medieval submission in the past year.

6. Cowboys, both contemporary and historical are big. Relatedly, I heard that Oregon is a very hot setting. Take that, Washington!

7. There is a push to get books out faster. It’s is driven by many things, such as the speedier time to publication for digital books and the growth of the self/indie publishing market. But it’s also driven by larger trends in society, like binge-watching, and the sheer number of books and other media clamoring for consumers’ attention. Unfortunately for readers, the quickened pace makes it hard to predict when their favorite author’s next book is coming out. It can also make it challenging to discover new authors — kind of an irony when the rise in digital and self-publishing was supposed to make it easier for creators to connect with consumers.

8. Thanks in part to #7, series and serials are here to stay. Authors build their brand with series, and hook readers with serials. So if you’re like me and would rather not commit to 57 more books when you pick up book 1, or wait for 7 more books before getting your happily ever after … er, sorry.

9. The post-queer romance. Nobody thinks we’re in a post-queer era, in the sense that the legalization of same sex marriage has somehow eliminated all the social challenges LGBTQIA people experience. But when it comes to queer romance, stories focused solely on being queer, or coming out as queer, no longer dominate.

10. What “historical romance” means is expanding beyond Regency England. It should become easier to find romances set not only in Georgian and Victorian England, but also the Reconstruction Era South, Gilded Age, WWI, and Jazz Age. From what I can tell, geographic boundaries are going to be slower to budge.

11. Vampires come and go and come again. They may be on the wane now, but as NYT bestselling author Barbara Freethy said in her keynote, “I’ve lived through four vampire cycles in my career.”

12. Speaking of vampires, groups of alpha heroes continue to be popular. Whether it’s sports teams, MMA fighters, motorcycle gangs, rock groups, or werewolves, they offer a kind of surrogate family experience, and, of course, lots of sequel potential.

13. The long tail of the Fifty Shades of Grey erotic romance boom, at least with respect to Fifty Shades clones, seems to have wagged its last, but erotic romance itself has been around a lot longer than EL James and will continue to be popular. And BDSM erotic romance is now an established subgenre.

14. Speaking of erotic romance, there’s a growing perception that in genre romance, when it comes to sexual explicitness, the middle is getting squeezed out by the extremes. Some authors I talked to feel they have to write either very explicit or very chaste books. Of course, what’s explicit and what’s chaste is in the eye of the beholder.

These trends in popular romance aren’t mutually exclusive. For example, many people think the success of Fifty Shades of Grey has something to do with the rise in New Adult. The enduring popularity of the small town romance probably feeds into the popularity of cowboys. And oversaturation of vampires may in part explain why other alpha male groups have become more visible.

Have you noticed any trends in popular romance? If you don’t read romance, have you noticed corresponding trends your favorite genres?

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