Thirty-three years ago, the Christian romance market took off with the publication of Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly—and it’s never looked back since. “Christian romance—especially historical romance—has been our core category ever since Love Comes Softly in 1979,” says Charlene Patterson, managing editor of fiction at Bethany House. “Most of the fiction we publish contains a romance plotline, and historical romance is about two-thirds of our list.”

Overall, romance fiction generated $1.358 billion in sales in 2010, according to the Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2011. Christian romance books have grown as well, with many religious publishing houses reporting strong sales in this category.

“In my experience, sales are robust,” says Tamela Hancock Murray, a literary agent with The Steve Laube Agency. “I believe we may be seeing a willingness to expand into different time periods, although prairie romances are still the [Christian book market] sweet spot.”

The popularity of this genre can be seen in the number of romance fiction titles religious publishers offer each year. At Bethany House, around 85 percent of its fiction line has strong romantic plotlines. Harvest House Publishers fiction titles for this year and last all had a romantic element or plotline.

Thomas Nelson published 22 romantic titles in 2011, and will have 27 romance books come out this year. “There’s potential for tremendous variety within this category,” says Ami McConnell, senior acquisitions editor at Thomas Nelson. “Romance continues to be a destination category for readers, so we have confidence in the category as a whole.”

Romantic Appeal

The endurance of romance can be attributed largely to its happily-ever-after endings. “It’s an escape, a pleasant diversion, a story you know will end happily for the characters,” says Patterson. “Reading about a couple falling in love allows readers to experience some of the same happy feelings as if they were living it themselves. Adding in the Christian element allows readers to see faith played out in two characters’ lives, perhaps helping them better understand their own faith journey.”

“Christian romance novelists are free to show their characters living a life of faith,” adds Murray. “As the culture has coarsened, finding entertaining, uplifting, and clean reads is a treat. Christians take great joy in reading stories we know reflect our values.”

Romance has spawned its own sub-genres, including romantic mystery, romantic suspense, contemporary romance, Amish romance, historical romance and women’s fiction with heavy romantic elements. “I believe romance is part of what God had in mind when he saw it wasn’t good for man to be alone,” says Kim Moore, senior editor at Harvest House. “It is wired in our nature to want to be connected. . . . Romance fiction is a part of that longing and fulfillment.”

The Christian Difference

But while mainstream romance continues to be a popular genre, many believers eschew secular romance books because of the inclusion of increasingly gratuitous sex and language. “Christian romances differ from secular romances in two ways: the things we leave out and the things we put in,” says Denise Hunter, author of 19 romance books, including the recent The Accidental Bride. “The things we leave out are impure language and scenes. The things we put in are the protagonists’ journey toward faith and the hope we have in Christ.”

“Apart from the obvious omission of sex, I can relate more to the issues and problems in the lives of characters because they are more realistic to me,” says Gail Sattler, who has been writing romance books, such as the upcoming Seattle Cinderella, for more than a dozen years. “So many non-Christian romances base a majority of the conflict between the characters on lust issues, and make attraction more important between the characters than it would be in a normal, real-life relationship.”

This focus on faith helps to show readers a realistic working of how belief in God shapes romantic relationships. “The romances I try to portray have that triangular shape with God at the top and the man and woman at the bottom on each point on the base,” says Tracie Peterson, an award-winning author of more than 80 novels, including the recent Chasing the Sun. “As they draw closer to God, they draw closer to each other. Christian romance is all about the foundation of God’s love first, and then the couple growing together and closer to God.”

“Human beings are created for love—we have an innate desire for different kinds of love,” agrees Virginia Smith, who has written 19 romance books. “I believe that God created us to live in fellowship with one another, and there’s many ways that love is expressed, with romantic love being one of the most powerful driving forces in most people’s lives.”

Romantic Readers

It comes as no surprise that women make up the bulk of romance readers. “Romance is a women’s read because they love the romantic element of life,” says Lori Copeland, who has penned more than 40 books in the Christian romance market. “Romance takes them away from their own life.”

Peterson has seen her readership change from older women to a more wider readership, including more teenage readers. “I want my books to educate, entertain and encourage,” she says, adding that she puts in spiritual applications as well into her books. “Christian readers have embraced romance because the Bible is full of romance. The biggest love story we have going is our relationship with God.”

Like their secular counterparts, Christian romance readers want well-written books with a satisfying conclusion. “The sweet simplicity of early Christian fiction has evolved and changed, and the audience is asking for more complex and varied stories, as well as writing quality on par with general market fiction,” says Moore.