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From meet-cutes to happy endings, romance readers feel the love as sales heat up

It's a full house for this newly reconvened romance book club in Baltimore.
Catie Dull
/
NPR
It's a full house for this newly reconvened romance book club in Baltimore.

On a rainy Thursday evening, the members of the Book $!u+z Romance Book Club gathered together for its first in-person meeting since before the pandemic. A couple dozen readers and Lou, the shop's white and gray dog, packed into Charm City Books' narrow, four-story converted rowhouse in Baltimore.

They looked down at pink and white bingo cards while the club's co-leader Alyssa Foley called out some of the most popular romance tropes.

"Marriage of convenience....grumpy/sunshine...regency...only one bed...small town..."

Alyssa Foley (right) runs the group through bingo.
Catie Dull / NPR
/
NPR
Alyssa Foley (right) runs the group through bingo.

The crowd wooed and booed for their favorites and least favorites. "Love triangle" received a decent share of jeers, "paranormal" split the room, and "enemies to lovers" got loud cheers and a "bingo!" from the corner of the store.

The scene was drastically different from the first romance happy hour Daven Ralston organized in 2019, just a few months after she opened the bookshop with her husband, Joe Carlson.

"At first, there wasn't a lot of interest," Ralston said. "Alyssa is the only one who showed up, with her husband, and so it was me and my husband and her and her husband."

But at this recent meeting, there were plenty of people to enjoy the chocolates, boxed wine and selections from a heart-shaped charcuterie board in the back of the store. A table by the register overflowed with favorite romance books people had brought for a book swap.

The Book $!u+z gathering brought in a mix of old and new members.
Catie Dull / NPR
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NPR
The Book $!u+z gathering brought in a mix of old and new members.

About a third of the crowd raised their hands when Foley asked at the start of the meeting how many were new to the genre.

"The number of people who come in buying romance books has just dramatically increased," Ralston said. "Some of the books that people get most excited about, they will be pre-ordering them very far in advance."

Daven Ralston says the club's name is a talking point in of itself.
Catie Dull / NPR
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NPR
Daven Ralston says the club's name is a talking point in of itself.

It isn't a trend unique to Charm City Books. Across the U.S., demand for romance books is booming. According to Publishers Weekly, sales of print copies surged about 52% last year, even as overall book sales saw their first decline in three years.

A big part of that success is the communities that have formed around romance books, both in physical spaces like book clubs, but also in the massive numbers of people posting their picks on social media. Romance books are frequently among the most engaged-with titles on TikTok's hugely popular #BookTok, which has racked up nearly 110 billion views.

Tropes, like those Foley called out during bingo, have helped to give books instant marketability because they make it easy for readers to find very specific stories to enjoy.

This recent gathering attracted a lot more people than the inaugural event in 2019.
Catie Dull / NPR
/
NPR
This recent gathering attracted a lot more people than the inaugural event in 2019.

"They're a shorthand for what happens and different types of stories," Foley explained. "You can easily tag a book as this and everybody knows what it means."

For reader Niccara Campbell, what she looks for is pretty simple. "Powerful women who are trying to find love." She thought for a moment, then added, "Yeah, that's it! That's the girl."

Enemies to lovers and fake dating are some of Antoinette Morales' favorites but ultimately, "I just want people to get together," she said. "I don't really care how they do it. Just happy people loving each other. That's my favorite."

Morales grew up writing fan fiction, which led her to romance novels. When she first started reading, she said all the protagonists looked the same. "They did not look like me," she said. "And occasionally you can by-step it. You can kind of say, 'Eh, she's Black to me now." But at some point you really want your story told."

Antoinette Morales says she gets particular joy from stories that reflect her experiences.
Catie Dull / NPR
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NPR
Antoinette Morales says she gets particular joy from stories that reflect her experiences.

While the genre is still dominated by white authors, there has been a steady increase of romance authors of color. 2022 saw nearly twice as many as 2017, according to an analysis by The Ripped Bodice.

That excites Morales. "I jump for joy when I'm reading a book and there's a female protagonist and she wraps her hair at night," she said. "That makes my heart sing because it's like, 'Oh my gosh, that's me.' I get my bonnet and I put it on and then I open my book."

Jasmine Guillory was one author featured prominently on the Book $!u+z book swap table, and she was a gateway into the genre for Campbell.

"She always showcases Black women and always them being the most desired," Campbell said. "Also, it's not like your traditional cookie cutter, like slim or whatever. She always features either full-sized women or women who are wearing their natural hair. And I'm like, 'Yep, I'm sold.' I love it here."

She was also one of many to recommend You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi, a non-binary transgender Nigerian author. Every mention of the book was met by nodding and face-fanning.

Foley says the expansive online romance community may have had a role in the genre's growing inclusion. "On BookTok, you're seeing a lot more indie authors or consumers of indie books," she said. "And those books generally focus a lot on bringing in groups that might not be seen in traditional publishing."

Sales of romance books have surged recently, even as other book sales have dropped.
Catie Dull / NPR
/
NPR
Sales of romance books have surged recently, even as other book sales have dropped.

For instance, according to a 2022 NPD report, LGBTQ stories made up just 3% of overall romance sales but outpaced total sales from the genre by 10 points.

As the stigmas surrounding the pleasure of non-male identifying people has shifted, so have attitudes around reading romance. What once was something that many were made to feel ashamed of is now seen by readers as an unapologetic and empowering celebration of their sexuality, something epitomized by the club's name.

Ralston initially named the group The Tell-Tale Hearts, taking inspiration from the nearby Edgar Allan Poe House. "There was no excitement about it," Ralston said. She was on a walk with her brother when he suggested, "You should just name it book sluts." The name and the club took off.

"There is that stigma around the word 'slut' as well, so I feel like if we sort of lean into that, it's a really great way to show we're just not ashamed of liking to read smut," she said.

Charm City takes pride in its romance section.
Catie Dull / NPR
/
NPR
Charm City takes pride in its romance section.

The store now sells Book $!u+z T-shirts with the club's tagline, "Did you see what they're reading?" and the raven from the shop's sign clutching a pair of pink polka-dotted underwear in its beak.

The Charm City Books romance section is also at the front of the store. "For the women who may feel nervous or were made to feel ashamed of wanting to read this type of literature, I wanted it to be very prominent," Ralston said. Customers don't have to search the shelves or hide in a corner to find whatever happy ending they are looking for.

"This world does such a good job of telling us why we're not enough," Morales said. "I think romance has a way of filling in the cracks in yourself — sometimes with another person, sometimes with a platonic friendship, and sometimes with yourself."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Come one, come all.
Catie Dull / NPR
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NPR
Come one, come all.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]