My Take on the Trends: Romance Subgenres

About the time I was just cranking up as a new author (1999-2001 or so), there were a couple of confounding realities taking root in romance novel publishing.

1. American-set historical romances were on the decline. Shrinking demand begat shrinking print runs begat the "death spiral" for a lot of authors, who either had to adapt or die (in the career sense, anyhow.) Most of the readers were senior citizens, who were increasingly turning to used book stores to get their monthly fix, and *all* historicals were routinely predicted to be trending toward extinction.
2. You could hardly give away a paranormal. Authors either shifted to other subgenres, put up with tiny print runs (Dorchester Publishing basically kept this niche alive) and a small but devoted pool of fans. Some die-hards even went to the newly-emerging world of e-publishing. A few of the most talented/popular/lucky went on to great success later, but at the time, they got little respect.
3. You *really* couldn't give away a young adult romance.
4. Historicals were the sexiest books on the market.

In 2009, things have certainly changed. Paranormal red-hot, and its popularity with young people certainly bodes well for its future. It's a trend, not a fad, but the field's gotten so crowded with series, publishers are becoming more selective.

YA is superhot as well, largely fueled by mega-authors such as JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. Kids are reading a ton of highly-imaginative paranormals, "dating" tales, "problem/social issue" stories, and humor, and many young women are transitioning into reading adult romance, especially of the paranormal variety.

As for American historicals, there are certainly glimmers of hope, with some readers yearning for the return of the Western. I'm not seeing a big resurgence yet, but the British-set historicals have really bounced back, with a growing, increasingly-vocal group of younger authors and readers (yea!) coming on board.

Fueled by Internet sales by e-book pioneers like Ellora's Cave, erotica shot past the old-school historicals to give readers some incredibly-hot material in a variety of settings. (I'm told that contemporary and paranormal are the most popular.) Print publishers eager to get in on this trend bought plenty of erotica, but marketing the superhot read in brick-and-mortar stores has been problematic. How does a company create packaging that gets across the content to the reader without offending other customers (or being banned from the shelves by major players such as Wal-Mart?) As a result, I'm seeing print publishers' interest in erotica declining... or maybe they just overbought and are slowing it down to see what's happening with the economy.

In other observations, romantic suspense, which was the hottest thing going back when I was getting started, has matured from fad (meaning publishers overbought too many less-than-stellar books) to a mature but still-strong trend (with more selective buying). Women's fiction peaked, declined, and is now showing signs of being on an upswing as consumers look for "comfort reads." The traditional Regency is no longer published by major publishers, but has been replaced by the sexier Regency romance, which shows no signs of fading.

These are my opinions, based on a dozen years of observation, but I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on publishing trends.


Loretta said…
I've watched all the changes also Colleen, and am grateful to see some of them:) I tend to write with a paranormal undertone ( or loud shout, depends on the piece;) and so I have hope of something I've written being in demand.

I think the current wave is good for so many of us, it does give a little more scope to writers.

We'll all cross our fingers, whistle Dixie and hope it keeps coming!

I don't write paranormal, but I'm with you in spirit! Thanks for popping over, Loretta.
Rhea said…
I worked at a bookstore for over 2 years, and saw the rise of the Vampires-doing-every-other-genre and what appears to be the beginning of a all-out-drought for westerns. And the real thing that I noticed was that what is usually classified in the 'big-L' Literature section are usually the stories that either give the requiem for a dying genre and give the template for what will be hugely popular in the coming years.

I remember having a conversation with a customer about how Philippa Gregory was/is/and probably will continue to be one of the most recognizable names in historical-fiction, even though there are a lot of authors (at least locally) who were writing very impressive books in the same genre. If I had to guess, I'd think that a YA or strictly romance writer could easily lead the next big wave because of her hits.

On the other side, books like Gruen's Water for Elephants and Lamb's The Hour I First Believed seemed to be surefire classics almost immediately for American-period dramas. Almost as a bookmark for next generation writers that, despite the damage done by the saturation, it IS a genre with so much potential.
You make a good point. Loved Water for Elephants and Seabiscuit, too (not a novel, but set in that era). I'd love to see some fresh American tales, maybe from the early 20th century.

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