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Even as overall book sales are declining, romance novels are on the rise

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We're going to take you to a bookstore in Baltimore called Charm City Books.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR HINGE SQUEAKING)

SUMMERS: Tall shelves are jammed full of books inside a narrow, converted four-story rowhouse, and a big, white and gray dog named Lou plods across the hardwood floors, introducing himself to everyone who walks through the door. We visited this bookstore back in February because we wanted to understand why sales of romance novels have boomed, and a group of incredibly dedicated readers helped us understand why.

ALYSSA FOLEY: Hi, everybody. I'm Alyssa. I'm one of the Book $!u+z's co-leads. I want to thank you all for coming. This is such a great show-out for our first in-person resurge of the romance book club.

SUMMERS: That was Alyssa Foley. She leads this book group. Readers, books in hand, stretch from the front of the store all the way to the back, where there's a charcuterie spread set up along with chocolates, boxed wine and seltzer. Some people here, like Foley, have been reading romance for years, but others...

FOLEY: So how many people is romance a new genre for them? They're exploring.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.

FOLEY: Yes, great.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Lift them proudly in the air.

FOLEY: (Laughter) We love that.

SUMMERS: Demand for romance novels is booming in the U.S., with sales of print copies surging about 52% in the year 2022 even as book sales saw a decline. That's according to Publishers' Weekly. It's also something Daven Ralston has seen. She owns Charm City Books with her husband, Joe Carlson.

DAVEN RALSTON: You know, when we first started in 2019, I was, like, really raring to do a romance book club and have a romance section because so many bookstores don't have a romance section. And so I wanted to be really proud of it because I felt like it was important to have that representation. And 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, like, very prominent in the store. And at first, you know, there wasn't a lot of interest. Honestly, at our first romance book swap, Alyssa is the only one who showed up with her husband. And so it was me and my husband and her and her husband.

SUMMERS: What was that like?

RALSTON: It was - so at first, I was like, oh, man. But, like, we actually hit it off. So now we're very good friends. It's definitely had its ups and downs, but the number of people who come in buying romance books has just, like, dramatically increased. And the books that people get most excited about - they'll be preordering them very far in advance.

SUMMERS: OK, so I do have to ask, who is responsible for the name of this book group?

RALSTON: Oh, my gosh (laughter). So it's actually a funny story. I started with the book club name The Tell-Tale Hearts because I was like, oh, we're next to the Poe house.

SUMMERS: But on a walk with her brother...

RALSTON: He's like, you should just name it Books Sluts. And I was like, what? No, I could not do that.

SUMMERS: As she thought about it, though, the name grew on her.

RALSTON: I was like, you know what? Why not? - because there is that stigma around the word slut as well. So I was like, I feel like if we sort of lean into that, it's a really great way to show, like, we're just not ashamed of liking to read smut.

SUMMERS: Later, Alyssa and Daven started handing out these white-and-pink romance-themed bingo cards with little graphics of hearts all over them. Each square on the card featured one of the genre's most loved or most loathed tropes. Alyssa called them out one by one.

FOLEY: Let's go for enemies to lovers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Bingo.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Whoo (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I have bingo.

FOLEY: She bingoed (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I bingoed. OK - enemies to lovers, single parent, paranormal, free space and secret porn star.

FOLEY: There we go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing) Secret porn star.

SUMMERS: And when it comes to selling romance readers on a book, especially online, tropes are a big deal. Here's Alyssa Foley again.

FOLEY: They're a shorthand for what sort of happens in different types of stories, things like fated mates. Marriage of convenience is one of my favorite - forced proximity. I do a lot of Instagram romance BookTok stuff.

SUMMERS: Oh, BookTok, yes.

FOLEY: And you can easily, like, tag the book as this, and everybody knows what it means.

SUMMERS: Romance reader Antoinette Morales says she has a bunch of favorites.

ANTOINETTE MORALES: I like enemies to lovers. I like meet cutes. I like fake dating. Like, oh, we have to pretend we're dating 'cause we're going to my ex's wedding, and I don't want him to know I'm lonely. I just want people to get together. I don't really care how they do it. I just - happy people loving each other - that's my favorite.

SUMMERS: She grew up writing fan fiction, which led her to romance novels.

MORALES: I think this world does such a good job of telling us why we're not good enough. And finding love tells you that even if you're a little bit broken, you are good enough, if not for somebody else then for yourself. And I think romance has a way of, like, filling in the cracks in yourself, sometimes with another person and sometimes with, you know, a platonic friendship and sometimes with yourself. And that's really important to me.

SUMMERS: Morales was one of several readers who pointed out the slowly increasing diversity within the genre.

MORALES: I jump for joy when I'm reading a book and there's a female protagonist, and she wraps her hair at night. Like, 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. I don't exclusively read books for people of color or women of color. But it is nice to look on a bookshelf and see it and know that it's there. It's out in the open. It's not sequestered in its own little, dark corner of the bookstore.

SUMMERS: At this book club meeting, everyone was invited to bring along a favorite book to swap with someone else. The books stacked high on a square card table near the front of the store. Morales added an Ali Hazelwood book to the collection.

MORALES: I brought "The Love Hypothesis" here because I love that book. And that book was also started as fan fiction.

SUMMERS: And that book wound up in Niccara Campbell's hands.

NICCARA CAMPBELL: I think it's about, like, this scientist Ph.D. candidate who's, like, trying to find love. I'm not entirely sure. But I've heard roaring reviews, and I'm here for it.

SUMMERS: How did you get into reading romance books?

CAMPBELL: So - by accident. I actually started off with Jasmine Guillory, one, because she always showcases, like, Black women and always them being the most desired. Also, it's not, like, your traditional, cookie-cutter, like, slim or whatever. She always features, like, either full-size women, women who are wearing their natural hair. And I'm like, yep, I'm sold. I love it here.

SUMMERS: OK, so I'm learning that everybody kind of has their favorite kind of tropes or subgenres.

CAMPBELL: Yeah.

SUMMERS: What are some of yours?

CAMPBELL: Powerful women who are trying to find love - yeah, that's it. Yeah, that's it. Yeah that's...

SUMMERS: That's enough.

CAMPBELL: ...The girl. That's the girl.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMERS: So what do you think people who shy away from romance books for whatever reason - what do they miss by steering clear?

CAMPBELL: Just being vulnerable, I think. Nobody really wants to believe they want to fall in love. Like, we've been so, like, tough. And we all deserve love. And that's OK. Like, just be open. Be open to love.

SUMMERS: Very personal question.

CAMPBELL: Yeah.

SUMMERS: How much money do you spend on books? It sounds like you read a ton.

CAMPBELL: My boyfriend is here, so - he's right there. OK, he can't hear me. It's probably, like, in the - like, I probably spend at least a thousand a year, maybe more.

SUMMERS: The publishing industry has readers like these to thank for the surging sales of romance books. So we asked them for recommendations. This one book kept coming up.

FOLEY: Akwaeke Emezi's book "You Made A Fool Of Death With Your Beauty."

SUMMERS: And as soon as Alyssa Foley said it, everyone around her started nodding.

CAMPBELL: "You Made A Fool Of Death With Your Beauty."

SUMMERS: Every single time.

CAMPBELL: Oh, that thing is spicy. I'm still sweating. Like, I'm fanning myself thinking about that book. That book is - whoo.

SUMMERS: OK, so put it on the spice-o-meter (ph) for me. Where are we on the dial?

CAMPBELL: Oh, 12.

SUMMERS: Out of 10? Ooh, oh my.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT STUFF")

DONNA SUMMER: (Singing) How's about some hot stuff, baby, this evenin'?

SUMMERS: And this piece ends with its own love story. Since we visited that bookstore back in February, Niccara Campbell's boyfriend has become her fiancé. Congratulations, you two. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Handel
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.