Reading Romance #RespectRomFic

As today is Valentine’s Day it seems appropriate to give a shout-out to Romantic fiction. It’s a genre often side-lined, or treated with disdain by some readers and the media, but make no mistake there is a lot of love in the room from it’s devotees. In fact, £53m worth in 2022, the second best sales year on record according to Bookscan, bettered only by those of 2012 – courtesy of the Fifty Shades trilogy.

The subject of Romance fiction, or more specifically Romance & Sagas (which is the industry descriptor) has been brought into focus by the campaign kickstarted by Sara-Jade Virtue with the hashtag #RespectRomFic. Many of you will need no introduction to Sara-Jade, but for information, she is Brand Development Director at Simon and Schuster. It’s a role which sees her shape the company’s commercial women’s fiction list, a list comprising 60 authors ranging from Sunday Times bestsellers to new and upcoming authors.

The campaign grew out of the backlash against the ‘Best Books of 2021’ feature in the Sunday Times. Unlike other ‘best of’ listings this was a review of the best books across the genres, a boon for lovers of crime, sci-fi, horror etc, but not it seems for romance, a category it failed to include. This failure was taken to task by Emma Hughes in her Guardian ‘Opinion’ piece and saw the Romantic Novelist’s Association publish an open letter signed by 469 authors. The current campaign is ongoing and it’s hoped it will be used by authors, bloggers, and readers across social media to share the love and promote respect when they’re talking about romance novels.

My recent romantic reading binge has come as a surprise to some people and yet I’ve always been partial to a romantic read. As a teenager, my fiction choices were always skewed towards romance. Looking back, even my historical reads were often fed by a strong romance element. Whilst I remember reading Jilly Cooper’s early romances my stand out reads were my beloved Forever Amber and The Thorn Birds. Whilst the latter might have been a family saga, my reading was definitely fuelled by the forbidden love between Meggie and Ralph. Thanks to the bookshelf in the holiday cottage we stayed in each year, my teenage self was also introduced to Mills & Boon. I’m sure my mother found these a far less corrupting prospect for me than Amber.

In the years since, as the market has grown, I’ve read my way through my fair share of ‘bonkbusters’, ‘Aga sagas’ ‘rom-coms’ and ‘chick-lit’ for want of more nuanced and less derogatory descriptors. The latter two terms still define a lot of my reading and yet at nearly 65 my days of being a ‘chick’ are long over. In fact I’ve been reading some of these ‘chick-lit’ authors for over 20 years, Carole Matthews and Katie FForde spring instantly to mind and Milly Johnson is coming up on the rails with 16 years.

Bringing my reading up to date, the fact that my reading over the past year or so has been exclusively romance is not really a surprise to me. The pandemic appeared to fuel the desire for escapist reads amongst many readers and it was romantic fiction that did the trick for me. I wanted escape, love and a happy ever after and it seems I was not alone. Due to the pandemic, data is not available for the full years of 2020 and 2021 yet the partial figures for 2021 saw romance sales rocket to £40m (against an average of £25m). Last year’s £53m sales clearly shows that readers are still hungry for love. My own desire for escapism and romance is showing no sign of slowing and given the current state of the country, the ongoing war in Ukraine and what seems like daily world disasters why would it?

So I’m happy to declare my love for romance fiction and want to say thank you to all the authors that contribute to making my reading experience a happy one. Here’s hoping that the #RespectRomFic campaign helps to see it get the love and respect it deserves.

Further Reading: The Bookseller (10.2.23) Market Focus: Romance – includes interview with Sara-Jade Virtue


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