When life gets tough, readers read romance. As the most popular fiction genre, romance thrives during hard times. During the 2008 recession, the romance market generated $1.4 billion in sales. The promise of a happily ever after at the end of a romance novel is what continues to make romance the top-selling genre. It’s pure escapist fantasy. From contemporary romance to paranormal romance to the evergreen historical romance, romance truly has something for everyone. What makes a romance popular besides the love story and the writing? According to this list, it’s family sagas, controversy, and time travel.
Before we get to the list, I want to point out that this list is overwhelmingly white and heterosexual. Happily, in 2023, diverse romance is faring better than in the past. I’ve included a few romances by authors of color and queer romances that haven’t quite made bestselling romances of all time quantifier but still deserve recognition as a best seller. What’s popular today might be the beloved classic romances of tomorrow.
The numbers presented below are estimations based on cumulative sales and ratings. These books are listed in no particular order, but just know they’ve all sold a lot of copies. Now, let's dive in!
The BestSelling Romance Books of All Time
Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James
Published in 2011, this BDSM romance hit its popularity peak in 2014. Selling 100 million copies worldwide, Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels remain among the most popular romance novels of all time.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Arguably one of the novels that catapulted the romance genre, Austen’s 19th-century novel of love, class, and wit remains a perennial favorite in classrooms, book clubs, and on book lovers' shelves. With an estimated 20 million copies sold and roughly the same number of adaptations, Pride and Prejudice isn’t going anywhere soon.
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
This 1977 novel is the bestselling Australian novel, with over 33 million copies sold worldwide. The novel follows Meggie Cleary on her family’s remote sheep station from childhood to old age.
For a different take on The Thorn Birds, Book Riot writer Grace Lapointe wrote about the book in a 2021 article titled "When a Romantic Read Is Really About Grooming."
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Did you really think we could get through this list without mentioning Bella Swan? The teen vampire romance novel opened up the world of paranormal romance to the YA market. Fanfiction, including Fifty Shades, was everywhere. The original 2005 novel and sequels have sold roughly 160 million copies worldwide.
Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas
Third in Kleypas's Wallflowers series, this historical romance features a marriage of convenience, incredible chemistry, and a slow burn. It's no wonder that this achingly romantic sequel is the most popular in the series, selling millions worldwide.
The Long Road Home by Danielle Steel
Danielle Steel's 42nd novel shot to the top of bestseller charts despite poor critical reviews. The plot centers around Gabrielle, who decides to become a nun after an abusive childhood. As a postulant, Gabrielle falls in love with a priest. Poor Gabrielle is left alone and penniless multiple times before meeting her true love, Doctor Peter.
Steel remains one of the most popular fiction writers, with nearly one billion copies of her books sold worldwide!
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
This historical time-traveling series has sold over 50 million copies worldwide since Outlander was first published in 1991. Combining family saga, science fiction-fantasy, historical fiction, and romance, Outlander offers readers a 1,000+ page escape to 18th century Scotland minus the mud and communicable diseases.
Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz
This bonkbuster is full of uncomfortable, detailed, absurd, and violent imagery, matching the energy of popular soap operas of the 1980s. Combined with Krantz’s other work, Princess Daisy has been translated into 52 languages and sold 85 million copies. The paperback reprint rights to Princess Daisy sold for $3.2 million, which was a record-high price.
It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover
CoHo has the BookTok girlies wrapped around her pinkie, with her 2021 sales of It Ends With Us rounding out at 3 million copies. Hoover is known for contemporary romance novels that delve into deeper, personal topics of abuse, infidelity, and grief.
The Windflower by Laura London
First published in 1984, this beloved swashbuckling romance was out of print for years before being reissued in 2014. Strangely heartwarming and tender, this historical romance features kidnapping, battles, storms, and sailors.
Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
The third in Chase’s Débauchés series, Lord of Scoundrels became a fan favorite, earning multiple awards and publishing in 14 languages. The regency romance tells of Italian-English Marquess of Dain, known for his bad behavior, meeting his match in Jessica Trent, an independent and well-educated young woman. This novel remains popular for Chase’s fresh writing and witty characters.
The Duke and I by Julia Quinn
This bestselling romance series would become Netflix’s smash hit, Bridgerton. In the U.S. alone, the Bridgerton series has sold 17 million copies since The Duke and I was first published in 2000. Quinn describes her novels about the Bridgerton siblings as historical fantasy, expanding on details and quirks, making the brightly colored costumes and instrumental renditions of Ariana Grande on the show fit perfectly.
Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers
Inspired by the biblical story of Hosea, this historical romance follows Angel, an orphan girl, during the California Gold Rush. Since the expanded reprint, Redeeming Love has been translated into 30 languages and sold over 3 million copies.
Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
Controversy sells. This 1928 novel went under trial for obscenity of sexuality explicit content and language, immediately selling 200,000 copies. Banned in multiple countries, this novel explores the complex relationship between an aristocratic woman and a gamekeeper on her estate. Unlike the Netflix adaptation, the novel's ending is left frustratingly open. Since the uncensored version of Lady Chatterly’s Lover was published in 1960, over 3 million copies of this ~scandalous~ novel have sold.
Midnight Bayou by Nora Roberts
Declan, the family bad boy, feels drawn to a decrepit New Orleans mansion. Upon beginning his restoration project, he meets the enchanting Angelina, along with the mansion's host of ghosts. Today, Roberts has over 500 million of her books in print! Midnight Bayou was her first bestseller, published in 2001.
Shanna by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
Another early bodice ripper, this nearly 700-page book is both an adventure and a cautionary tale. Shanna, the daughter of a successful 18th-century merchant, is given a year to marry. Shanna chooses Ruark Beauchamp, a prisoner with a death sentence, only to find he's not quite what she expected. Shanna spent a year on The New York Times Best Seller List, selling over 3 million copies.
Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins
Jenkins has been leading the way in diverse historical romance since 1994. Forbidden, the first in the Old West Series, published in 2016 to rave reviews and top spots on bestseller charts.
Flowers From The Storm by Laura Kinsale
This 1992 historical romance is considered a classic of the genre and features an assortment of dark and shocking themes. Religion, ableism, abuse, dubious consent, taboo love, and math. The rakish Duke of Jevaralx is lost to the world after an incident. Only the gentle touch of pious Maddy Timms can save him from the horrors of what passes as mental health care in 19th-century Britain.
A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux
The 13th in the Montgomery/ Taggert family saga, A Knight in Shining Armor, is a time-traveling romance featuring '80s lady Dougless Montgomery and 16th-century knight Nicholas Stafford. Their love is more powerful than the time that keeps them apart. As of 2015, Deveraux’s books have sold a combined 50 million copies worldwide.
BestSellers on the Rise
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
In 2019, we first met Alex Clairmont-Diaz and Prince Henry. Beyond their sweet love story, McQuiston offered us a look at an America with a female president and a different 2020 news cycle. A runaway hit, the book sold over 100,000 copies in 2019 alone.
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
Hoang reimagines the '90s classic Pretty Woman with Stella, an autistic woman who hires an escort to help her understand intimacy. Initially, 100,000 copies were ordered. The Kiss Quotient is now in its 4th printing.
Get A Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
Between Chloe Brown and the other books in the Brown Sisters trilogy, Hibbert has made all the major North American bestseller lists. Her banter-y style is fresh and fun, without taking away from serious topics like Chloe's chronic pain.
Twisted Love by Ana Huang
The first in Huang's Twisted series, this dark romance is an opposites attract with a twist. Huang's books have charted on The New York Times, USA Today, Amazon, and international bestseller lists.
The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
The Wedding Date began as a NaNoWriMo project and ended up on bestseller lists. After getting stuck in an elevator together, Alexa and Drew agree to attend a high-stakes wedding together. Sparks fly, obviously. There are five more books in this bestselling romance series.
Felix Ever After by Karen Callender
The only YA entry on this list is about falling in love for the first time — and falling in love with yourself. When a revenge catfish goes awry, anything can happen. Felix Ever After was named one of Time Magazine's 100 Best YA books of all time.
Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur
Swoony and delightful, this fake dating romance is lightly inspired by Pride and Prejudice. No-nonsense actuary meets social media astrologer, and silly shenanigans ensue. This 2020 romance was just the escape we needed.
Need even more romance in your life? Read the 24 best romance novels of all time or the 20 Most Influential Romance Novels of the last 100 years. Explore all the tropes in our romance/ erotica archive.