Valentine’s Day and Beyond: Romance between the covers can endure

By Candy Lee

The romance is over.
 The New York Times
broke millions of romance readers’ hearts recently, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

No longer will the Grey Lady carry the mass market bestseller list on its site or in its pages. This is the list that showcases the novels that most people read. 
 Mass market paperbacks are the small size paperbacks, generally less expensive and more portable than hardcovers and trade paperbacks. 
 Most genre fiction — from mysteries to historical romance — appear in mass market size. Women are readers of mass market fiction and are eclectic, reading some electronic and some physical books. Women are also shoppers and help keep bookstores alive.
 Nora Roberts
has more than 400 million copies of her books in print and was only the third author to sell more than 1 million electronic versions.

In a report from January 2017 from Insignia Research (a report commissioned and shared with me by Harlequin Books), female readers who read frequently or at least weekly consume 28 books per year on average.

The romance reader is female, primarily between 30 and 55 years old, and mainly living in the South. More than 64 percent of these readers enjoy more than one romance novel per month, and they also buy mysteries, general fiction and cookbooks.

They purchase books reportedly because they love being absorbed into a story, allowing their imaginations to visualize settings and characters. 
 These readers report they like books with continuing characters so that the next book is an old friend with a new plot. This isn’t a romance reader feature, although emphasized in the genre, as many serial viewers of shows such as “Big Bang Theory” and “Friends” to Lee Child’s “Reacher” fans find comfort in known characters.

According to the Insignia Research, the romance reader reads more than the average fiction reader: 43 percent reading daily compared to 29 percent for the average fiction reader. 
 Romance readers especially rely on bestseller lists as one of the mainstays of finding authors and new titles. These readers also discover what they want to read the old-fashioned way — by going into a bookstore and browsing as well as perusing the bestseller lists.

Romance novels are still big business, representing 13 percent of adult fiction and over $1 billion in sales.

When I was the Publisher of Harlequin Books, many people made fun of the genre. The finger-pointing usually revolved around the consistency of a happy ending. Mysteries and thrillers aren’t nearly as stigmatized. Yet mystery readers expect the clues to provide an appropriate ending and are delighted when the murder is solved. That is a consistent ending as well.

Some of the people who poke fun at romance novels don’t read very much. Up to 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy a book this past year. And 70 percent of adults have not been in a book store in the last five years. According to a YouGov/Huffington Post poll, 41 percent of U.S. adults did not read any fiction books last year. Another 42 percent did not read any non-fiction books.

As a university professor, I find that one of the sad data points in university education is the amount of reading that is mandated does not translate into a lifelong love for books. At least 42 percent of college students report they won’t read another book after they graduate.

Eschewing reading may be a corollary to school intensity as the older children get, the less they read for pleasure. According to a Scholastic study on reading, only 29 percent of parents say “my child has trouble finding books he/she likes.” But 41 percent of kids say they find it challenging to discover books to enjoy and this percentage increases to 51 percent among infrequent readers.

Summer reading lists are narrowing as well. Yet the backsliding of achievement over the summer is well known among the affluent. Lower income families are less aware of the loss that summer represents to their child’s academic progress. Disadvantaged youth fall significantly back during summer. Perhaps we should fill urban and rural libraries with reading options that come from a well-spring of pleasure, showcasing genres so that a student who finds one read can easily find another that will be devoured.

It is time to encourage all students to read genre fiction. Once they find books they like, from sports fiction to romance, and mysteries to science fiction, students may continue to read what they enjoy. Reading these types of books can be part of the curriculum. It is easier to expand a love of reading from a base of pleasure to be found in the written word then to force feed “good” books that need a constant parental push to finish.

It is time to stop denigrating the popular books millions enjoy. As women, we do it to ourselves. We apologize for consuming “junk reads” or “beach reads,” while no one needs to apologize needed for reading. Women are the mainstay of the reading population yet they feel lessened for not reading “fine literature.” Jennifer Weiner, wrote in Slate, “What bothers me… (is) it feels like just one more way for literary women to dismiss commercially successful women writers.” But this isn’t just a feud between the writers of one kind of book to another. It is part of how we need to respect the act of reading.

Yes, quality varies and some books are written better than others. But that critique is based not on the kind of reading, but on characterization, plot and writing style. There is no need to denigrate romance to appreciate good styles in other literary forms.

Recently Ta-Nehisi Coates, recipient of a MacArthur genius award, had a packed audience at Northwestern. His nonfiction Between the World and Me won the 2015 National Book Award. In his talk, he expounded on his recent decision to write a comic book for Marvel. The New York Times also recently decided to omit manga and comic book bestsellers lists along with mass market.

For Valentine’s Day, pick up a romance and enjoy reading. Curl up with a mystery or go places with fantasy. And proudly admit you are a reader. Who knows, you may convince a non-reader that books are as good as chocolate.

Dr. Candy Lee is a Professor at Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. She teaches courses in Leadership and New Product Development and is an NU Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.