Romance Fiction: Getting Dirty in Dutch Country

Legend has it that the first thing Gutenberg printed on his press was a beloved German poem. The second thing was an article on the death of publishing.

It's an old joke—and still relevant. The Association of American Publishers reports that U.S. book sales dropped by 1.8 percent in 2009, after a decline of nearly 3 percent the previous year. Books appear to be suffering a slow and rather boring death.

Except for one genre experiencing steady and unusual growth. In 2009 romance novel sales continued to defy industry trends, increasing to $1.4 billion, up $100 million, or 7.7 percent, from the previous year, according to Simba Information's annual Business of Consumer Book Publishing report. Romance now accounts for 14 percent of all works of fiction sold. Some 75 million people read at least one romance novel in 2009, and it's the top-performing category on the best-seller lists compiled by The New York Times, USA Today, and industry trade Publishers Weekly. At the end of July about 2,000 rabid fans and aspiring authors will shell out more than $400 to attend the Romance Writers of America's annual conference in Orlando.

When you consider that everyone's idea of romance is different—and constantly evolving—these impressive numbers take on mind-blowing dimensions. To satisfy as many lust-filled imaginations as possible, the romance fiction industry has ripped the bodice from seemingly every niche group. Nascar and transgender-themed romances are finding their way to shelves already packed with Amish, Mennonite, quilting, knitting, paranormal, and military subgenres. "We're going gangbusters!" says Katherine Orr, vice-president for public relations at Harlequin Enterprises, the genre's powerhouse publisher. Harlequin had revenues of $485 million last year, a figure Orr says is consistent with a strong upward trajectory over the last five years.

"People want to buy a book that incorporates exactly what they care about," says Nancy Berland, a publicist who represents several knitting romance writers. Readers also want reasonably priced pleasures, and publishers are delivering with inexpensive paperbacks. "In these tough times," says Berland, "readers don't want to waste those seven dollars."

The most popular microtrends of the moment are Amish- and Mennonite-themed romances, which covered the best-seller lists last fall like a giant head scarf. What was considered a holiday season fad has persisted—and even narrowed. "I have noticed a new trend within the Mennonite genre toward Amana romances," says author Cindy Woodsmall, whose books have appeared on The New York Times' mass-market fiction best-seller list, referring to an ultraconservative strain of Amish. Woodsmall's The Bridge of Peace, about an Old Order Amish schoolteacher with a peculiar birthmark, is due out in August.

Earlier this month publishing insiders buzzed with news that suspense romance writer Kelly Irvin was joining the field. Her forthcoming novel, tentatively called To Have and to Hold, will tell the story of a woman whose world is turned upside down when her parents die in a buggy accident—and a suitor returns to, according to an industry announcement, "test her Amish faith and her ability to forgive." The novel is the first in a two-book deal with Harvest House Publishers. Still, the queen of the genre is Beverly Lewis. The Telling, the final installment in her Seasons of Grace trilogy, made its debut in April and only recently dropped out of the top 20 on various best-seller lists. Lewis' books, set in the Old Order Amish land, have sold some 12 million copies.

Paranormal romance, which continues to enjoy a boost from Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, remains a popular subgenre. Yet vampires, werewolves, and shape-shifters now have competition from knitters, which are part of the "home crafting romance" subgenre—itself part of the "small town" subgenre. Insiders insist that knitting is distinct from another ascendant microgenre: quilting.

The industry would seem challenged to find greater mundanity (bridge games? Wheel of Fortune reruns?), yet that's what the public is demanding. "More than ever, people are retreating to the home and simple pleasures of home life," says romance writer Debbie Macomber, who has sold about 75 million books, many centered on knitting, with titles such as The Shop on Blossom Street, Back on Blossom Street, Summer on Blossom Street, and A Good Yarn. Macomber recently returned from the Vancouver (B.C.) set of Call Me Mrs. Miracle, a Hallmark (CRWN) film based on her work. (It's a sequel to a Hallmark hit, Debbie Macomber's Mrs. Miracle, which starred James Van Der Beek, formerly of Dawson's Creek.) Macomber even has a successful line of companion books—Knit Along with Debbie Macomber—on the joys of the domestic arts.

Another home crafting romance writer, Marie Bostwick, topped The New York Times' mass-market fiction list in June 2009 with her novel A Thread of Truth. After publishing scores of bodice rippers, Lori Wilde's The True Love Quilting Club tells of Trixie Lynn Parks who must, says the book's publisher, choose between fame and fortune or "the one true love who has the power to mend her patchwork heart."

Such substratification might suggest, as one book agent stated privately, that readers have gone insane. However, Harlequin's Orr sees the trends as befitting the times. Amid uncertainty, she says, readers want tight-knit communities they can return to with each new installment of a series. "There is a tremendous desire for community," she says. "Somehow in this world, where everyone is constantly communicating, people have lost real friendships."

Therein may lie the secret to the rise of the romantic subgenre. Twitter feeds, author blogs, and other forms of social media are providing limitless opportunities for virtual Ya-Ya Sisterhoods of like-minded readers to develop. "These authors are all masters of social networking," says Pam Jaffee, the publicist in charge of Avon, HarperCollins' romance imprint. Macomber boasts an e-mail list of 130,000. (By comparison, Jaffee says, most successful authors have "between 3,000 and 9,000 friends" on Facebook.) Bostwick's fans have even formed an online quilting club. This fall, readers from 13 different states will tour her favorite places to quilt.

Devoted fans of Robyn Carr—who hit the jackpot in the military romance niche with her Virgin River series—find each other at the Jack's Bar chat room on her site. "There are so many people out there who have a relative or a loved one who's serving. Those people want to celebrate and honor these men and women. And they want military characters in the books they read," says Carr, a former military wife whose son is serving in Iraq.

The e-bond between authors and fans has had an undeniable impact. A recent blog post on alerted readers to a recession-friendly deal from the author's publisher: Three books in her Sisters of the Quilt series—a hybrid of the Amish and quilting subgenres—would be available in one volume for $19.99. Woodsmall signed off with the word, denki. That's "thank you" in Pennsylvania Dutch.

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