The more I learn about publishing romance, the more intrigued I am by it! And I’m not the only one. Romance is a genre that women flock to and that features, and even celebrates, emotion and sentimentality. That’s not everybody’s cup of tea (unfortunately ;). But it is mine!
Romance novels have been gaining popularity (and criticism) since almost the beginning of novel writing itself. But there have certainly been changes in the types of romance novels that are popular. One of the genres that I publish in and that is really popular at the moment is adult contemporary romance, which was “born” in the 1950s. I remember being quite puzzled by the label of “contemporary” at first. What does that even mean? As it turns out, it simply means that these stories are romance stories set in “today’s” time.
Adult contemporary romance books are the highest selling subgenre of adult romantic fiction and they top the charts for Kindle romance new releases. There’s a lot of things that make contemporary romance books stand out from all the other romance subgenres. I’ve compiled a list of 10 of those things for you; walk through it with me.
1. It’s by far the largest genre
Adult contemporary romance has been the largest subgenre of all the romance subgenres almost since its inception as a category. When people talk about romance novels, they are generally thinking about adult contemporary romance books. This is most likely because they are highly relatable because they are set generally in the now, in a time that is most relatable to contemporary readers. As of 2014, adult romance books in the adult contemporary romance genre made up 41% of overall readership for print books, and 44% for eBooks. The romantic suspense subgenre led the numbers in both categories; but, the majority of suspenseful romances are technically contemporary romances. The subgenres tend to have a lot of overlap, with contemporary romance sometimes involving suspense or paranormal elements as well as elements classified as erotic fiction.
2. The stories always take place after the 1950s
Adult contemporary romance stories are romantic novels or novellas set after World War II, with some specifying 1950-present day as the contemporary time period. Most romance novels that are set before World War II are classified as historical romances or historical fiction. Many romance novels lose popularity with the changing times and become dated. However, some historical romances do stand the test of time, with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen remaining perhaps the most popular romance novel in the English-speaking world. Austen’s storylines not only inspired other female and romance writers, they have also been reimagined and used as the skeleton for contemporary stories and movies, like Bridget Jones’ Diary.
3. They reflect the period they’re set in
Contemporary romance novels tend to reflect the time period’s trends as well as the political and social environments of that time. As was typical before the 1970s, romance heroines from the time would quit their jobs (if they had one) when they got married so that they could focus on their husbands and children. After the 1970s, it became more typical for the heroines to maintain their careers even after marriage and family. The 1970s also saw a boom in romance novel popularity, with the influence of the sexual revolution driving more and more people to read, and publicly enjoy (!), contemporary romance and erotic fiction. In 1980, the first romance novel was published with a heroine who was not a virgin at the beginning of the book: The Tawny Gold Man by Amii Lorin. That was a big thing at the time! The 1980s also saw more heroines in traditionally masculine jobs, like working on an oil rig (like in Rapture of the Deep by Margaret Rome) and by the 1990s heroines were allowed to be older than they ever had before, with novels featuring women well into their 30s and 40s.
4. They’re all about romance, romance, romance
Contemporary romance writers are primarily focused on the romantic storyline (versus suspense romances that also have a strong focus on the mystery elements of the story). In comparison, historical romances, like Austen’s work, focus strongly on family life and relationships and the social rituals of the time.
5. Characters are more important than the plot
Adult contemporary romance books are character driven, meaning they focus on the wants, conflicts and movements of the main character (or characters) rather than the plot. For example, romantic suspense books, though still generally placing the romantic storyline at the heart of the novel, are plot driven, with the suspense and mystery acting as tools to reveal the hero’s personality so that the heroine can fall in love with him (usually). For this reason, contemporary romance writers tend to use more intimate and emotional language, reflecting the inner life of the character and the feelings developing and flowing between the two main characters; suspense, on the other hand, use less emotional and flower language because they are more focused on moving the mystery plot along.
6. They’re set in the real world
Contemporary romance books are rooted in the real world, with the most popular ones tending to be set in today’s times. Other subgenres may utilize elements of the real world while mixing in elements of fantasy and science fiction, or they may solely focus on the supernatural world. Paranormal romances can involve mystery and suspense, as well as historical ones, and also tend to be more plot-driven. The majority of paranormal romances are set in contemporary times, however; and while they do focus more on the world and the plot than contemporary romances, they tend to focus more on the unfolding relationship than other science fiction or fantasy stories, where the romance is generally secondary.
7. Adult means Adult
Adult contemporary romance stories tend to hint at, or describe in detail, erotic content. They’re not necessarily erotic, but they tend to not be chaste, as are those novels written in the inspirational romance subgenre. Inspirational stories tend to have Christian themes, focusing on purity, with sex never explicitly described, even if the characters are married. While contemporary romances can revolve around a love triangle (in menage stories), they’re usually solely focused on the monogamous relationship between one man and one woman. This is true of inspirational romances, but, to a degree, they incorporate a “love triangle” element because the relationship often tests the heroine’s faith and relationship with God.
8. No lessons involved, just enjoy!
While stories in all genres and subgenres tend to teach the reader a lesson or give them a theme to ponder, contemporary romances are primarily focused on the journey of the two lovers. This sets the subgenre apart from its fellow subgenres like inspirational romance and mystery or fantasy romance. Inspirational romances are often heavily focused on strong themes (commonly Christian ones like faithfulness to one’s partner and God, or forgiveness) and lessons that the leader can learn through the pure love story. Fantasy and mystery subgenres incorporate not lessons to learn, necessarily, but a focus on elements outside of romantic emotion. The general rule for a mystery romance is that each development in the mystery affects the relationship. With contemporary adult romance, it’s the characters themselves who are the main focus.
9. The fun little sister: Chick Lit
Adult contemporary romance includes another subgenre which emerged in the late 90s and early 00s: Chick Lit. Chick Lit invited younger readers (women in their late teens, early twenties) into the romance world. These novels are fast-paced and fun, with humor and action turning them into lighthearted, RomCom-esque stories, instead of the more heavy sentimentality associated with traditional contemporary romances. The women in these stories are professionals, with independence and an air of glamor. Bridget Jones’ Diary is credited with inspiring this genre in the United States, with big romance publishing houses latching onto the style in order to draw in more 20-something readers. Traditionally, romance readers tend to be middle-aged women and above. Chick Lit took the contemporary adult romance into the 21st Century and the hearts of millennials.
10. This is what we want!
Overall, in 2013, adult romance books earned a total of $1.08 billion, a whopping 13% of total adult fiction stories sold. The average age of romance novel purchasers was 44 in 2013; in 2015 the average age was 42, and there were a lot more readers in the “coveted Millennial demographic,” according to Nielsen. Smashwords reported that 89% of their eBook sales in 2015 were in the fiction genre, with 50% of that going to romance plus another 11% going to erotica. Romance eBooks jumped 42% in sales in 2015, in part because their prices are dropping! That’s great news for readers.
Those figures alone are enough to shun every critic of the romance genre. These books make us happy; they give us an escape, a dream, a version of our world laced with what so many of us crave: romance. And they give us that through heroes and heroines we can relate to. Contemporary romance writers give us stories about our time, our technologies and social climates, with characters who could very well be us. I know that’s what I want!