As an English major at Stanford University in the early 1990s, Danielle Flores spent her days reading the classics — the novels that her professors deemed to be culturally significant. But outside of the classroom, Flores was introduced to a different kind of literature.
FLORES: Two of my college roommates read romance novels and were avid readers And I made fun of them. And they just kind of smirked and said, “Have you actually read an official romance novel?” And I was like, “No — please, why would I do that?”
She eventually put her skepticism aside and gave romance a chance.
FLORES: I absolutely fell in love with it. And for the next four years, I got through my classwork by making room for the romance novels. And I haven’t stopped since.
Today, Flores is a high school math teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. She reads so many romance books that she has a spreadsheet to keep track of them all.
FLORES: On average, I probably read about 250 romance novels a year.
Flores is one of the millions of readers who make romance books a $1.4 billion dollar business. While the rest of the publishing market reels, physical sales of romance books are up more than 50 percent over the past year alone.
HIATT: You know, everybody wants to find the love of their life and live happy-ever-after.
For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: romance novels.
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The romance novel goes back a long way. The book that’s often called the first modern English novel — Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, published in 1740 — is about the protracted courtship between a maidservant and her wealthy employer. But romance as a mass-market commercial industry didn’t really take off in North America until the 1950s, with the Canadian publisher Harlequin.
MOGGY: The company actually started as a multi-genre publisher. You know, it published everything from mysteries to cookbooks and westerns.
That’s Diane Moggy, Harlequin’s vice president of editorial.
MOGGY: One of the genres they added to their publishing list were romances that were published by a company in the U.K. called Mills & Boon. And very, very quickly those romances became the bestsellers across the company.
At first, Harlequin’s romance line was pretty tame. That is, until the mid-’70s, when a new wave of historical romance books arrived, soon to be nicknamed “bodice rippers.” The stories were often set in the Regency era — around the start of the nineteenth century — and featured descriptive erotic scenes, some of them nonconsensual.
Harlequin sold these books in the places where women went to shop. You could walk into a supermarket or drugstore, and find yourself face-to-face with an alpha-male in a ruffled shirt, his eyes glinting at you from the cover of a paperback.
By the end of the 1970s, Harlequin was selling more than 70 million of those paperbacks every year. Other publishers took notice, and a fierce battle erupted over readers’ attention. It became known as ‘The Romance Wars.’
MOGGY: Well, the Romance Wars was really, I think, a very exciting time. You saw a lot of different lines and imprints being launched by various publishers, which was fabulous for the writing community and fabulous for the reading community because there were so many more options to select from. But as in any war, you know, there are casualties. Ultimately, there were two main players, Harlequin and Silhouette.
In the end, Harlequin had a bigger budget and more legal manpower. It bought out Silhouette in 1984, and established a hold on traditional romance publishing that lasts to this day. The company is now a subsidiary of HarperCollins. And it puts out around 800 new romance titles every year. The bread and butter of its business model is what’s known as “category” romance — and they come in just about every flavor you can imagine.
FLORES: In romance, everyone has their cup of tea. Someone out there is pouring it. You just got to find it.
Danielle Flores started out reading historical romances — rich dukes, horses and carriages, clothing with lots of buttons. Eventually, she branched out.
FLORES: You have paranormal romance. You have alien abduction romance. You have what’s called monster romance — either monster to monster or human to monster like orcs or, you know, made up creatures — you know, weird things like that. You have medical romances. You have teacher romances, which I tend to avoid.
Brewery owners, Nascar drivers, gargoyles — whatever your thing — someone has written a romance novel about it. The titans of the industry are constantly researching what their readers want. Their goal is to distill heartache, lust, and emotional turmoil into a science.
But sometimes, even the publishers are surprised by the success of certain subgenres.
MOGGY: The Amish romances that we publish are incredibly popular. Something else that’s really resonating right now are books featuring K-9 units and dogs. Internally, we refer to it as dogs with jobs. If you have a dog on a cover, it’s guaranteed to actually really perform well.
Covers are important in every genre of publishing, but nowhere more than romance. In the 1990s, the beefy chest and flowing mane of a model named Fabio Lanzoni graced more than 450 romance book covers. He became a minor celebrity — and a bestselling romance novelist himself. These days, romance covers are a little more varied. And with more sub-genres now than ever before, the cover has become the publisher’s greatest marketing tool.
MOGGY: We try to help the reader understand immediately what stories she’s going to get. You know, if she’s got 10 seconds in front of a bookcase we want those cues to be very immediate.
Some stock images do get used over and over again in different contexts.
FLORES: So if I’m shopping by covers, I see the same guy that has been out, has a sword, he’s in a bathtub, there’s another person behind him now, like, so it’s kind of funny.
Romance fans like Flores notice things like that because they have an insatiable appetite for new books. Industry data shows that around half of all romance readers go through at least one novel every week. Some read as many as 30 a month. Moggy says the business model is closer to magazines than books: It’s high volume, and driven by subscriptions.
MOGGY: We have an incredibly large and viable book club business where readers subscribe to a series, and they can get four or six or eight and multiple series delivered to their door in print form every month.
To fill all of this demand, Harlequin has to find prolific writers. Extremely prolific writers.
MOGGY: I’m just about to write a little paragraph to help celebrate an author who has just published her 175th book.
CROCKETT: That’s — that must be some kind of record.
MOGGY: Believe it or not, we have someone who’s written over 300.
That’s like writing one book every two months for 50 years straight.
MOGGY: So, that’s a lot of books.
The majority of these authors started out as romance readers first.
HIATT: I started writing when my kids were toddlers — they were two and four, and I wrote during nap time.
That’s Brenda Hiatt, a romance author based in Key Largo, Florida.
HIATT: What I wrote were I guess you’d call them the shorter, sweeter, traditional Regency romances. So there was nothing sexy about the books, really. It was more a comedy of manners and that sort of thing.
As a reader of Harlequin and Silhouette books, Hiatt noticed that they all followed the same structure. a woman meets a potential mate; tension builds; there’s a catastrophic conflict in the third act; there’s a grand gesture by which the hero regains the heroine’s trust; and then, most importantly…
HIATT: There’s got to be a happy ending.
Hiatt studied this structure and went on to publish half a dozen historical romance books with Harlequin. The money wasn’t as good as she thought it would be.
HIATT: I still have a framed photocopy of my very first advance check and it was — yeah, it was $3,000. And then royalties would be based on the cover price and books sold. For a $3.99 book I got, you know, no more than $0.20 per book. Most people had no idea, they assumed that, you know, if you’re a published author, you were rolling in dough. Uh, that was so not true.
That was not the only problem she found within the publishing industry.
HIATT: The distributors were almost all men. A lot of the publishing decisions were made by men. The books, they were written by women for women, and they got no respect. They were the cash cow of the publishing industry. They brought in all the bucks but they bankrolled the, you know, “respectable books.” We used to say that authors were like mushrooms, you know. They were, you know, fed a lot of crap and kept in the dark.
But the world of romance was on the brink of a revolution. That’s coming up.
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By the early 2000s, e-books and self-publishing started to take off. And romance authors were some of the first to take advantage of the new technology — without the support of a publishing company. Brenda Haitt bought the rights to her old books back and decided to re-publish them herself as e-books. It transformed her career.
HIATT: After a couple of years of doing that, I realized I was making more money from these books as e-books than I had ever made publishing them traditionally. E-publishing has created this long tail for backlist, and books can keep selling, and selling, and selling.
Hiatt went from earning 6 percent royalties on her books when they were sold through bookstores to 70 percent when they were sold in electronic format through Amazon. One of the books she resurrected even became a New York Times and USA Today bestseller 17 years after it was first published. And she wasn’t alone in her success.
HIATT: I know quite a few self-published seven figure authors. The profit margin is, you know, much higher on e-books because there are no print costs. And the funny thing is, you go looking online for statistics and it looks like e-books are not a big deal. And that’s because all those statistics come from traditional publishers. The self-published books are not included in those statistics! And so in that sense, they’re almost invisible to the financial world. But, you know, a lot of authors are really making bank, and they’re kind of flying under the radar.
A recent survey from the Author’s Guild found that romance writers across the publishing industry earned a median income of about $32,000 from their books in 2022 — that’s more than three times in any other genre. Nearly 1 in 5 authors brings in six-figures a year, largely thanks to the favorable economics of self-publishing.
One of those authors is Delaney Diamond. She has self-published more than 50 books in 13 years.
DIAMOND: Now you can actually make a living at writing through self-publishing. It’s a totally different game.
Diamond’s work taps into a trend. Romance books — especially those that are self-published — have gotten spicier. There’s no formal rating system for the heat level of a book. But on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is vanilla and 10 is wildly pornographic, Diamond says her work is a 7.
DIAMOND: Usually in the romance that I write, which is steamy romance, there’s at least one sex scene. And I try to drop that somewhere around the middle, because if you wait too long people don’t like that.
CROCKETT: Start losing patience?
DIAMOND: Yeah, it’s like, “Come on, do it already!” It’s sort of middle of the road sex. I just try to find different ways to add variety for the reader. And, you know, have them do it in different places, for example, not just in the bed — in the car or something, against a wall.
For Diamond, writing romance is much more than a study in sensuality. It’s a fight for representation and identity. She grew up in the Virgin Islands and first encountered romance novels in a local library.
DIAMOND: I just fell in love with the stories! And they were kind of achy and all the yearning and all of that. So I read pretty much everything that was there at the library.
But Diamond noticed that none of the women in these books looked like her.
DIAMOND: All the books had only white characters. I didn’t know it at the time, but I wanted something else. And when I was 14, I wrote my first romance novel, and I shared it with my friends. And I made the heroine black.
CROCKETT: What was the title?
DIAMOND: Captured heart.
CROCKETT: Captured Heart. Classic.
DIAMOND: Yes, very — very much in line with the types of stories that I was reading.
Diamond later moved to the U.S., went to college, and got an office job. In her spare time, she continued to write romance novels. But an editor at a traditional publisher told her there was no market for her work.
DIAMOND: The series that I wanted to work on was Black Romance. And Black Romance is when both the leads are Black. And she claimed at that time that Black romance doesn’t sell, which I knew was not correct because I read it and I knew that there were a lot of readers of it.
People of color account for around 23 percent of romance readers, but less than 8 percent of published romance authors. Brenda Hiatt says that many Black authors who did work in traditional romance publishing were constrained.
HIATT: I mean, I knew Black authors who were not allowed to write Black characters. You know, they had to write white characters if they wanted to sell books, period. And if they did write an ethnic romance, it got shelved in the little ethnic section of the bookstore.
The traditional publishing industry has made efforts to level the playing field in recent years. Harlequin has launched mentorship and scholarship programs, to recruit authors with diverse backgrounds. And editors across all categories are looking for books that feature a wider representation of characters. Danielle Flores has noticed some progress.
FLORES: Queer romance has come into its own — you see more of that. So, that’s refreshing.
Much of the call for change has come from the readers themselves. The genre has found a new market on TikTok, where millions of fans search for videos with hashtags like #spicytok, #forbiddenlove, and #billionaireromance. There are Facebook groups, podcasts, YouTube channels, and dozens of conferences, where fans like Flores can convene without judgment.
FLORES: It’s fun to be in a place where no one’s going to snicker. Everyone’s going to be like, “I read that, too — that was a crazy scene! And you know, the aliens were blue and we’re on an ice planet and it’s fantastic, right?”
That open-mindedness has helped make romance novels a billion-dollar industry. Even so, the genre still faces a fight for broader societal acceptance.
FLORES: I mean, even my own school community that I love and adore, when they found out I read romance novels, the whole group laughed. And they were like, “How are those sex scenes?” And I was like, “Pretty good. You should read one.” I mean, some people in the books are having better sex than people I know in real life, you know?
Fans of the genre know they’ll always have to contend with jokes and stigmas. But like the heroines she reads about, Danielle Flores knows how to stand her ground.
FLORES: It doesn’t matter who you are. You are completely entitled to your own happy ending. I get enough of reality all day long, right? I don’t need to know that life is hard. I’m looking for my reading to give me hope.
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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley and mixed by Jeremy Johnston. We had help from Julie Kanfer and Daniel Moritz-Rabson.
FLORES: The e-reader was, you know, like sliced bread for romance readers. I can be reading a really erotic sex scene on the bus. Right? And no one’s going to look at me sideways and wonder like, what are you reading right now?
- “Even as Overall Book Sales Are Declining, Romance Novels Are on the Rise,” by Elena Burnett, Sarah Handel, and Juana Summers (All Things Considered, 2023).
- “Key Takeaways from the Authors Guild’s 2023 Author Income Survey,” press release by the Authors Guild (2023).
- “How Amazon Turned Everyone Into a Romance Writer (and Created an Antitrust Headache),” by Ann Kjellberg (Observer, 2022).
- “Vivian Stephens Helped Turn Romance Writing Into a Billion-Dollar Industry. Then She Got Pushed Out,” by Mimi Swartz (Texas Monthly, 2020).
- “A Brief History of the Romance Novel,” by Amanda Pagan (New York Public Library Blog, 2019).
- “How Harlequin Became the Most Famous Name in Romance,” by Kelly Faircloth (Jezebel, 2015).
- “Fifty Shades of Amish: A Strange Genre of the Romance Novel,” by Leah McGrath Goodman (Newsweek, 2015).