Category to chart topper

Photo, Romance Novels, 28 August 2009, Ellen Forsyth, Flickr, creative commons
Ellen Forsyth, "Romance Novels," Flickr, 2009.

Every Sunday morning when I turn to the New York Times Book Review, I read the bestseller lists looking for familiar names from the early 1980s, when burgeoning new series of American category romances redefined the genre. I almost always find one or more: Nora Roberts (or J.D. Robb), Iris Johansen, Fern Michaels, Jayne Ann Krentz (or one of her pseudonyms), Debbie Macomber, Sandra Brown, and others. These writers started on the road to publishing success while writing category romances for the new series by Silhouette, Bantam Loveswept, or Dell Candlelight Ecstasy.

  • Nora Roberts published her first novel, Irish Thoroughbred, as Silhouette Romance #81 in May 1981. Today, her romances and futuristic J.D. Robb novels are frequently listed, most recently a debut for Chasing Fire at #3 on the Mass Market Paperback list of April 22, 2012.
  • Debbie Macomber, whose recent novels have centered on women’s friendships, appears on the same list at #8 for her book A Turn in the Road. Her first category romance for Silhouette was #316, That Wintry Feeling, in September 1984.
  • Iris Johansen, who now writes suspense and crime fiction, began her career as a romance writer in August 1983 with Stormy Vows, Bantam Loveswept #14. The Combined Hardcover and Paperback list of February 12, 2012 featured her novel Bonnie at # 6, following two Stieg Larsson novels and Jonathan Safran Foer’s recently filmed Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
  • Fern Michaels, who published Silhouette #61, Whisper My Name, in February 1981, was listed on the Times‘ Mass Market Paperback list on January 22, 2012, for Mr. and Miss Anonymous (#8), as was Debbie Macomber for You. . . Again (#6).
  • Jayne Ann Krentz, author of Candlelight Ecstasy #2, Gentle Pirate, in December 1980, has appeared on numerous lists, most recently with her paranormal Copper Beach on January 29, 2012.

These authors were all part of a dramatic change in the romance genre when, in 1980, Simon and Schuster’s Silhouette Romance series mounted a challenge to the Canadian and British companies Harlequin / Mills and Boon, soon challenged in turn by other American publishers. The new imprints were immensely popular, and they helped romance claim a growing share of the book market. Category romance authors did not, however, achieve recognition on the bestseller lists.

The new American series of the 1980s provided outlets for numerous writers who had been unable to break into the market when it was dominated by the British and Commonwealth authors published by Harlequin / Mills and Boon. The need for six to eight original manuscripts per month (and, later, even more, as new series and subgenres spun off the originals) gave aspiring writers a chance. The increasing professionalization of the field, marked by the founding of Romance Writers of America, provided them significant support. Many continued to write for the romance series, while others moved on to suspense or crime fiction, where books seemed more likely to reach bestseller status.

Today, some of those writers who got their start in category romance have become publishing superstars. While the proliferation of bestseller lists, including the addition of e-books, has provided more “slots” for recognition, the success of these writers can be traced at least in part to the competition of the early 1980s and to the rapid changes in the genre that it evoked. Under the radar, these writers and others were able to hone their craft. When the opportunity came for them to break out with books for a larger audience, they were ready.

So on Sundays I will continue to look for familiar names—and I will continue to find them.

Kay Mussell

Kay Mussell is a professor emerita of literature and American studies at American University. Find out more about Kay Mussell.

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