On a sweltering Saturday afternoon this past June, hundreds of eager women, plus a handful of men, gathered at the Cobb Galleria Centre for the Indie Love conference. They shared a singular purpose—buying as many books as possible, and having them signed by their favorite independent Black authors. The annual event has been selling out since it was launched in 2016 by Joslyn Marks, an avid romance reader who saw a gaping hole in the independent romance community and decided to champion Black authors.
“Atlanta is Atlanta,” declares Marks, whose success has sparked dozens of similar events nationwide. “It’s abundant in culture and history, and it’s home. I’ve taken Indie Love on the road twice, to Los Angeles and New Orleans, and while both were very successful, there’s nothing like hosting this event in the place of its origin.”
Her success is emblematic of how the romance industry is thriving in Atlanta and beyond. In a world that feels as if it’s teetering between order and chaos, romance novels have emerged not just as a beacon of escapism, but as an enduring titan in the publishing world.
Clocking in at an estimated $1.4 billion annually, romance accounted for over 33 percent of books sold in mass-market paperback format in 2022, according to research data and analytics group WordsRated. These love stories have increased in popularity despite political turbulence, technological advancements, and a global pandemic—or, perhaps, because of all that. In fact, the industry saw its highest sales since 2014 in 2022, with a 40 percent increase in 2021 and an even steeper rise the following year, according to NPD BookScan, a market research group.
The surge has been fueled by the explosion of “BookTok” (short for Book TikTok, a community of users who share their passion for reading), which has quickly opened up a rabid fanbase of Gen Z readers, who’ve pushed romance authors like Colleen Hoover, Emily Henry, and Kennedy Ryan to the top of the charts. According to Bookscan, the social media outlet helped adult fiction writers sell 20 million print books in 2021.
At its core, the romance novel satisfies a fundamental human desire to experience love. In a world that often feels less and less safe, the assurance of an “HEA” (happily ever after) or “HFN” (happy for now) that a romance novel provides is comforting.
Atlanta-based author Delaney Diamond, whose USA Today best-selling novels often feature diverse, high-power families navigating careers and love, speaks to this. “There’s a certain comfort we receive from that knowledge that isn’t replicated in other genres,” she says.
Similarly, Sally Kilpatrick—another Atlanta-based USA Today best-selling author, known for her charming, funny romance novels, including the delightful The Not So Nice List—affirms the innate human yearning for a world where love conquers all. “Deep down, I think almost everyone wants to believe in a world where good triumphs over evil and where love wins,” she notes.
A key reason the industry is flourishing is simply that romance lovers tend to read a lot—WordsRated reports 78 percent of readers say they complete at least one book a month. The titles often don’t show up on the familiar New York Times best-selling lists because the newspaper’s methodology is “biased against books that perform best outside of traditional sales channels,” according to a 2017 analysis by Vox. They do, however, show up on bestseller lists from other outlets, such as USA Today and the Wall Street Journal.
Not that most romance readers care much about those lists. They’re famously loyal to their favorite authors. And, because romance is intrinsically bingeable, readers often end up flying through several books per week, amounting to hundreds of books per year. Many titles are distributed electronically, with prices ranging from $3 to $10 each—or via subscriptions like Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. Authors sometimes churn out eight or more books per year.
Despite the genre’s continued marketplace success, there is still widespread skepticism, indifference, or even outright hostility towards romance as a legitimate literary genre. Authors and readers alike often find themselves countering outdated misconceptions. Targets of these misplaced attacks include prominent figures like Georgia’s most famous romance novelist, political heavyweight Stacey Abrams. She authored eight romantic suspense novels under the pseudonym Selena Montgomery for Avon (the romance imprint of HarperCollins). Yet mainstream publications have dismissed her work with lazy adjectives like “racy.”
“Regardless of genre, good writing is good writing,” Abrams told the Washington Post in 2018. “Romance is one of the oldest forms of storytelling, and I’m honored to be in the company of extraordinary writers.”
DL White, an Atlanta-based romance author and host of a podcast focused on books and writing, asserts that too many people still harbor antiquated notions about what constitutes romance. “A lot of people are maybe still stuck in the ’80s and think all [romance novels] have Fabio on the cover,” says White, whose witty, insightful works, including her breakout novel, Brunch at Ruby’s, are set in and around Atlanta. Her series focuses on three very different women living in Atlanta, who routinely meet up at their favorite local restaurant to hash out their romantic, work, and family issues over brunch.
“Romance encompasses so much—it’s activism, it’s women with autonomy, it’s women in nontraditional roles,” she notes. “Romance tells our story in a way that brings hope. I think a huge misconception of romance is that it’s all sex, it’s all unrealistic daydreams of the perfect man.”
If your vision of romance includes flashes of ripped bodices, sexual situations with dubious consent, domineering alpha males, and timid, easy-to-please women, it’s past time to rediscover the genre and why it resonates so deeply across demographics. Today’s most popular romance novels, authored by Amazon chart-toppers and bestsellers such as Nia Forrester, K.A. Tucker, Vanessa Riley, Sharon C. Cooper, Love Belvin, Christina C. Jones, and Mia Sheridan, present main characters navigating serious issues, including domestic violence, substance abuse, and depression.
“I’ve read my share of [romance] books about social justice warriors and people in the street protesting, or historical romances where you find love against a really dark backdrop of enslavement and war and famine and poverty,” White says, pointing to historical romance novels like The Preacher’s Promise, authored by Clark Atlanta literary associate professor Piper Huguley. “People who can find comfort in those kinds of circumstances seem to be very strong people to me. It doesn’t seem weak, unrealistic, or fluffy.”
The breadth of choice now available in modern romance novels has also played a big role in its rising popularity. Virtually any imaginable subgenre exists within romance: from historical and contemporary to dark, sweet, small-town, paranormal, suspense, fantasy, friends-to-lovers, and countless more. BookTok, Instagram, book vlogs on YouTube, online reader groups, and book clubs have made these genres more accessible. “If you want to read it, you can find it,” Kilpatrick says. “You might have to dig, but you can find it.”
“You have so many different types of romances, and I think that variety is very appealing,” explains USA Today best-seller Sharon C. Cooper, an Atlanta-area author who pens romantic suspense and occasionally dips into romantic comedy. Her narratives often spotlight mature heroines, aged 40 and above, with curvy figures and diverse careers, ranging from stunt doubles to investigators.
“I’ve read about heroines with fibromyalgia. Heroes who are amputees. Gay, nonbinary, and trans characters who get their HEA,” Kilpatrick says. “Characters of every race and creed who get to find love. Romance novels, and novelists, are often seemingly at the vanguard of progress, so I hope to see the same inclusivity, representation, and female empowerment infiltrate other genres.”
Atlanta-based author Shakir Raashan recently published his YA paranormal debut, Neverwraith, but has a long history of writing romance novels. “Because I’m a male author, I think my perspective as a man provides a unique perspective,” he says, citing his romance novel, Queen of Cambridge, as one example. “My books cover the curiosity of the male point of view, their flaws, vulnerabilities, how they love, the way they defend their loves when the occasion calls for it. And, let’s face it—my leading men have an eclectic set of skills, both in and out of the bedroom.”
Priscilla Oliveras is a USA Today best-selling author who writes about Latinx characters, a lane she pursued after not seeing herself in the books she loved so much. The bulk of her catalog is traditionally published, and she’s happy to see that strides are being made in traditional publishing to be more inclusive.
“I’ve been a longtime romance reader and I’ve enjoyed the books that I’ve read, but what was missing for me was that representation,” says Oliveras, an adjunct professor at Seton Hill University who also teaches an online class, Romance Writing, for ed2go, which can be accessed at Georgia Southern University. “My hope is, when someone finishes my book, if they are part of the overall Latinx community . . . I hope you feel like you’ve met a family that you know, and you get to touch base with a little bit of our Latinx culture.”
The genre also owes a great deal of its recent success to a surge in self-published novels, which are released as e-books, paperbacks, and even audiobooks. Self-publishing provides authors with the liberty to explore their creativity freely and sometimes to increase their earnings.
Traditional publishers are notoriously rigid gatekeepers, unwilling to veer from established formulas. Though they have long embraced supernatural narratives featuring vampires and shapeshifters, they have been slow to accept nonwhite protagonists. Self-publishing has freed many authors to create characters that more authentically reflect their own life experiences—allowing them to speak directly to readers, without sanitizing their perspectives.
“I wanted to be able to open a novel and feel like women that look like me and sound like me and have my body type are lovable, are people that someone out there could want, could need in their lives,” White says.
Delaney Diamond, who previously worked with traditional publishers, was one of the first successful indie authors, releasing her bestselling Hawthorne series in 2011 after it was rejected by a small press who said a book with Black lead characters wouldn’t sell well. The series went on to become an Amazon bestseller and launched her successful indie career.
TV and film adaptations are also fueling interest in romance. Crazy Rich Asians, Fire Island, and, of course, the wildly popular Bridgerton series on Netflix, executive produced by Shonda Rhimes for Shondaland and based on the novels by Julia Quinn, have dominated pop culture. Although Bridgerton has earned some criticism (why diversify white characters, rather than adapt the already diverse historical romances written by renowned authors like Beverly Jenkins, Joan Vassar, Alyssa Cole, and Piper Huguley?), the series does reinforce the commercial appeal and selling power of the romance genre.
As in many other creative industries, Atlanta is riding the wave of national popularity. Rashaan believes frequent literary events, including the big annual conferences, help make it popular with romance readers. He says, “Between Indie Love, the National Book Club Conference, and all the book signings at the indie bookstores around the city on any given weekend, the A is always lit.”
This article appears in our September 2023 issue.