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Romance – Demystifying the Genre’s Digital Dominance

Americans are reading less—unless they’re readers of romantic fiction, at least.

Print sales of romance novels saw exponential growth in 2022 with a 52.4% increase in sales from the year prior. While print books are seeing a spike in popularity amidst a backdrop of literary social media trends such as BookTok, eBook sales trends tell a similar story about consumers of romantic fiction. Although romantic fiction saw a 16% decrease in 2022 eBook sales, the digital units that did sell represented 60%  of total romance books sold that year, highlighting the overall dominance of the genre—particularly its digital dominance.

The grip that the genre has on its readers mystifies many; the loyalty of the fanbase is practically unmatched. The genre’s readership has been a major force behind the big screen adaptations of popular romance novels like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, the latter of which grossed more than $570,000,000 throughout box offices globally. The readership has also been a major force behind the genre’s success in digital publishing.

But the demand for romantic fiction is only partially to credit for its success, particularly in the world of digital publishing.

The Readership

Despite the prevalence of the common “print vs. eBook” preference debate, readers of romantic fiction show unprecedented flexibility that might take many of them out of such debates. In fact, readers of romantic fiction may even prefer eBooks to their traditional predecessors. This is because the habits of the average reader of romantic fiction just happen to complement eBooks….perfectly.

The typical reader of romance will finish a book within just 7 days of starting it, while the average American is not even finishing 2 books within 30 days. Some readers of romantic fiction have reported finishing as many as 5 novels in a single week. The rate at which the readership completes a novel primes the genre well for the world of digital publishing, where the barriers of working through a publishing house and an agent are problems of the past. Authors of romantic fiction are able to set the pace of their releases at their discretion, and alter as they see fit based on collected analytics.

Readers of romantic fiction also display a tendency to be more open-minded when it comes to checking out books by new writers, which also helps explain the genre’s success with a digital format. In fact, at least 50% of romantic fiction readers surveyed answered affirmatively when asked whether or not they’d be interested in reading a novel by a new author, a phenomenon not witnessed by consumers of other genres of literature. Amazon’s online Kindle store speaks to the romance readers’ innate hunger for variety, with hundreds of thousands of new authors available right at their very fingertips without ever having to leave their home.

The Genre

In addition to the reading habits of consumers of romantic fiction, the genre itself has certain characteristics that provide additional insight into the reasons for its digital dominance. Chiefly, its formulaic structure that readers have come to know and love over the decades.

Romance novels most often utilize a three-act structure with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end, but the ending is the most critical part. The hallmark of any romance novel is its Happily Ever After (HEA) ending. This ending is optimistic, meant to evoke positive feelings within the reader after they have watched the novel’s main character go through a series of obstacles within the story’s first or second act. The ending shows readers a win, and that kind of optimism is a large back of what keeps readers coming back for more despite the overall predictability of the plot structure-the desire for the happy ending. This three-part typically also unfolds quickly, as most romance novels are fewer than 100,000 words in total, quite possibly reminding its readers of the earlier fan-fiction days that preceded eBooks.

The Industry’s Response

The digital dominance of eBooks is so prolific that even the largest traditional publisher of romance, Harlequin, which was first founded in 1949 could not ignore it. In 2000, the publishing house created a website where readers and writers of romantic fiction could interact with each other, as well as purchase both print and eBook selections. Seven years later, the publisher would become the first of its kind to release 100% of its new titles in digital format. Seven years later, the traditional publisher would also become the first to form a digital publishing entity, Carina Press. The offshoot works to help bridge the gap between readers of romantic fiction and the genre itself by meeting reader demands, chiefly demands for more diversity.

As publishers digital and traditional alike continue to watch book sale trends and social media wars of opinion, these concerns have seemed to largely passed right over readers of romantic fiction. While eBook sales may be taking a dip, readers of romance novels have their feet dug in the ground, and after analyzing how well the genre adapted to digital publishing, it isn’t difficult to see why. Regardless of digital publishing trends yet to pass, readers of romantic fiction seem content to sit on the sidelines and simply finish an eBook–or 5.