Romance Set in the Book World: Is It Just Me, or Is It a Trend?

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Claire Handscombe


Claire Handscombe moved from Europe to DC in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but actually – let’s be honest – because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan, and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives. She also hosts the Brit Lit Podcast, a fortnightly show of news and views from British books and publishing. Blog: the Brit Lit Blog. Twitter: @BookishClaire

Every year, seemingly out of nowhere, certain trends appear in book publishing. Whether it’s the colour of a cover – yellow seemed particularly popular in 2020 – or a particular trope in romance novels, suddenly it everyone is bringing their variation on a theme. This year, as I’ve shelved new releases at East City Bookshop, and especially in the romance section, I can’t help but notice that the theme is books.

Of course, books about books have always been popular, and that’s not surprising. In the same way that Hollywood loves a movie about Hollywood, authors love to write about their world and readers love to see their love of books represented. As avid readers, we’re also endlessly curious about the behind-the-scenes: how does an author conjure up characters and plots and settings? What’s it really like to work in a bookshop? How does a Word document on a computer become a beautiful, Instagrammable object on bookshelves?

All of which, of course, means a novel about books has a head start when it comes to sales – the holy grail every author aspires to. And maybe there’s a case to be made that writing about the book world is a cynical ploy to make readers part with their cash, though I personally don’t – ahem – buy it. Or at least, not usually. I have to admit that when the setting of a book about books is Paris or World War II, I’m tempted to think that maybe someone threw in some popular themes into a plot generator for maximum dollars. But I’m also, in some ways, deeply cynical about the publishing industry, so maybe don’t listen to me on that one.

It’s possible, too, that I’m primed to notice books about books and writers, since I myself am a writer who wrote a book about a writer, and who works in the book world and has been deeply steeped in the publishing industry for a long time. But I’m not the only bookseller who loves books about books, and booksellers have the power to make a book climb the charts.

All of those things have always been true. But books about books have historically often been literary fiction about the existential ennui of white men in Brooklyn, though that’s thankfully changing with books like The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris, The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams, and Must Love Books by Shauna Robinson. Why the current trend for book- and publishing-themed romance novels, especially?

I have a couple of theories.

Follow Your Leader

When a book hits the bestseller lists, publishers pay attention. There’s a reason that after Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, books with the world “girl” in the title started springing up everywhere. Similarly, the success of Emily Henry’s Beach Read may have made acquiring editors reading romance novels pay particular attention to love stories set in the book world.

Write What You Know

An axiom of writing is to start with what you know – or, at least, what you can research. And writers often draw on their own experiences for inspiration about plot of character. Many books coming out in 2022 would have been written in 2020 and 2021, and guess what we knew then? Well, yes, existential despair for sure (there’s bound to be a crop of literary fiction exploring that at some point). But also, we weren’t really doing anything adventurous. Unless our jobs demanded it, we just weren’t out in the world that much. So what we knew in 2020 and 2021, as readers, were books. And as writers, what we knew was our working world: aka, the publishing industry.

Comfort Reading

And it’s not by accident that those are the things that have kept us going over the last couple of years. Reading and writing books are two of the most accessible activities in a pandemic-ridden word, it’s true. It’s just you and your book or your pen and paper. There’s space for that even if you’re sharing a tiny apartment with a roommate; if you’re alone, you don’t need to get creative about seeing people from a distance or with masks or after testing.

But more importantly than all of that: reading transports you. A good book will make you forget the world around you and transport you to a world without pandemics, and for that reason many of us have come to love books more than ever over the last couple of years. And if we feel warmly about books, it seems a safe bet that the love will be amplified if our books are about books. Add to that the comfort and escapism of a romance novel – a genre whose sales have done especially well since 2020 – and you have the perfect recipe for a comfort read.

Books about books are here to stay, and I suspect that romance novels about them are, too. If you love this kind of read, mark your calendars for May 3, when Jasmine Guillory’s By the Book AND Emily Henry’s Book Lovers come out – and while you’re waiting, pick up A Summer for Scandal by Lydia San Andres, Meet Me in the Margins by Melissa Ferguson, and The Roughest Draft by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka.

Want more books about books? Take a look at 8 of the Best Books About Books and 100 Must-Read Books About Books or wander your way into these YA books set in bookstores.