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.”
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.”
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.
With dozens of new books debuting every year, one may wonder if the romance genre will ever reach a saturation point. “Romance will always be part of life, and each new generation wants to read about it. Just as we see old movies remade by current stars, each generation wants entertainment to reflect their times,” says Murray.
“Romance readers are insatiable. Certainly the market can only bear so many titles in a given year, but we’re in this business for the long haul,” agrees McConnell of Thomas Nelson.
All signs point to the Christian romance category as having a bright future. “The future is one that is more faceted and rich than ever before, with new stories and happily-ever-after endings to come,” says Moore.
“I think as long as readers seek escape from their hectic lives, there will always be a market for uplifting, happily-ever-after stories,” says Bethany House’s Patterson. “Romance has held its own since the beginning of Christian publishing, and I think it will continue to be a mainstay category.”
Authors of romantic fiction concur. “Romance is the top genre in fiction, and has been for years, so I think that speaks well to the future of the romance novel,” says Hunter.
“There will always be varying trends, but romance novels are the biggest portion of the reading market, and it always will be,” adds Sattler.
Peterson points to the category’s continued strong sales as an indication of its enduring appeal. “Romance consistently fills the strongest number of fiction books,” she says. “Romance will always sell because the readers are going to continue looking for happy endings.”
Fueling those sales is the human being’s innate desire for love. “Our need for love is never ever going to go away, as long as this world exists,” says Smith. “I think romance is strong and will remain strong. Genres go up and down, but one thing has been consistent in fiction sales for years and years—romance.”
“I don’t think the publishing world will ever see the last of romance,” adds Copeland. “I think women are too sentimental and will always love a good romance.”
- 17 percent of romance book buyers say they enjoy reading Christian romance.
- Of other popular fiction genres for romance buyers, 13 percent like to read religious fiction.
- With Christian romance, 13 percent of those purchases are in e-book format, while 19 percent are in print.
Source: Romance Writers of America’s romance book consumer survey conducted with PubTrack Consumer in August-September 2011.
Upcoming Romance Releases
A selection of upcoming releases in the romance category . . .
Arms of Love by Kelly Long (Thomas Nelson)
Brush of Angels Wings by Ruth Reid
Following Your Heart by Jerry Eicher (Harvest House)
The Wedding Dress by Rachel Hauck (Thomas Nelson)
Garden of Madness by Tracy L. Higley (Thomas Nelson)
My Stubborn Heart by Becky Wade (Bethany House)
Submerged by Dani Pettrey (Bethany House)
When Love Comes My Way by Lori Copeland (Harvest House)
Angel Eyes by Shannon Dittemore (Thomas Nelson)
HopeSprings by Kim Cash Tate (Thomas Nelson)
My Dearest Naomi by Jerry and Tina Eicher (Harvest House)
A Promise for Miriam by Vannetta Chapman (Harvest House)
Short-Straw Bride by Karen Witemeyer (Bethany House)
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and editor, and author of Hired @ Home: The Christian Mother's Guide to Working From Home. She lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children. Visit her at www.sarahhamaker.com.