Marketing Romance Through the Ages

Everyone is familiar with the stereotypical cover of a romance novel. Generally, it’s a white man and woman, partially nude, staring into one another’s eyes with the wind blowing through their hair. Think Nora Roberts. Think Ilona Andrews. Think Nicholas Sparks. These are all household names to the casual romance consumer. Everyone is also familiar with the stereotypical romance reader. These people are thought to be “middle-aged women who are bored in their marriages and want to fantasize about hard, chiseled men,” explains a writer for HuffPost. But after about ten minutes of internet research, one can figure out that in today’s world, this stereotype is simply not true.

The romance genre is one of the oldest-known styles of writing in the world and has only progressed throughout centuries. Many believe the first example of a mass-market romance was Pamela, written by Samuel Richardson in 1740, which led to the style developing many subgenres and niches that have only broadened its readership. That being said, some argue that late twentieth and early twenty-first century romance readers have witnessed one of the most major evolutions in the subject matter and marketing strategies of the romance genre.

The rise of Harlequin during the 1960s in the publishing world allowed for a wider readership in sensual mass-market romances that were quickly nicknamed “bodice-rippers.” These forms of romance novels led to marketing strategies that give us the stereotypes we have today, which have pigeon-holed these books. It did come with some perks though.

One word: Fabio.

But with the dawn of the twenty-first century came the push for representation of more modern relationships. For example, a heterosexual relationship with greater equality between the man and woman. A relationship that explored what it meant to be an LGBTQ+ couple and the complexities of living in a heteronormative society. A biracial relationship that explored what it meant to be a minority. It also came with Fifty Shades of Grey, but we’re going to ignore that for right now.

The massive tech boom of the 2000s sent the entire publishing world reeling. The everyday consumer no longer searches for the latest books in magazines or newspapers, but on social media or the internet. A publishing house needs to be able to catch a reader’s eye as they swipe through Instagram or Twitter—hence the push for brightly colored book covers and less intertwined limbs.

Readers’ desire for realistic couples and the technological explosion left romance publishing houses scrambling for a better way to market to an evolving audience. We now see less writhing bodies on book covers and more pastels and drawings. Think Crazy Rich Asians. Think Simon vs. The Homo Sapien Agenda. Think Me Before You. These books are all within the romance genre, yet are marketed toward the general public as funny, inspirational, and even relatable. It’s opening the door for the Average Joe (or Jane or J) to fall in love with romantic fiction.

Some claim that the romance genre is the most progressive of the literary industry, and it’s hard to disagree. It has learned to develop with its readers as the world continues to change. So what’s next for the romance genre? One can only hope it will just keep getting better.

Think more inclusion. Think love for all. Think bright future.

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