Cowboys, Dukes and Lairds: In the world of romance novels, some trends never die. They've got perennial appeal, and readers just don't seem to grow tired of these types of men (and really, who would?). But publishing houses are always looking for the next big thing. While at RWA, we were able to talk to a few editors and publicists about trends on the horizon, as well as the type of stories they would love to see more of. Check the romance shelves in a year: We predict that you might see a novel about a crew team consisting of mob-connected Vikings.
One of the biggest current trends is the Alpha male. From mixed martial arts fighters to rough-and-tumble modern cowboys, these boys are so bad, they're good. Cindy Hwang, Vice President of Berkley Publishing, says books starring this type of hero are usually a "gritty, edgy type of read." Certainly, bad boys have been around for decades. But today's bad-boy heroes are "a certain type of mix" we haven't seen before. They've got tattoos and a checkered past, but are fiercely loyal to the ladies in their lives.
One byshoot of the popularity of the alpha-male hero is the recent increase in romances centered on groups of men, connected through anything from sports teams to the Navy SEALs. "These men have their own code of honor, their own sort of family within the club, but there's a bit of danger," explains Margo Lipschultz, Senior Editor at Harlequin.
Motorcycle clubs are huge at the moment, and Hwang notes that, "In the same way that werewolves have packs, motorcycle clubs have packs; they've got their own culture and society."
Lipschultz also sees another type of "band of brothers" heading to the forefront of submissions: "Recently I've seen a whole spate of submissions in which the heroes are somehow connected to the Mob, so they have this edge of danger to them. Although they're still heroes; they're still good guys."
Sports romances are also popular right now and have led to whole series focusing on each player on a team. Publishers such as Kensington have put out a call for sports romances featuring teams that go beyond football and hockey, like crew and lacrosse.
With the rise of erotica and YA, first-person narratives and character-driven series are becoming much more acceptable in contemporary romance. Contemporaries have gotten racier, too! Love triangles, once taboo, are popping up in the mainstream. Leah Hultenschmidt, Editorial Director at Forever, says, "One thing I've been so excited about seeing, and I think has risen out of self-publishing, is that authors are breaking the rules these days. In romance, first-person point of view was verboten. . . . And you had to have a self-contained romance in one book with a happily ever after." Not necessarily these days.
Small-town romance remains one of the biggest trends, and Martin Biro, an editor at Kensington, says that there's room to go even cozier. "Something that's blown up for us is Amish and Inspirational. The Amish thing is huge! We have three or four Amish series, and we want more."
Romantic suspense is also an underpublished genre at the moment, and almost every publishing house is searching for more of it. Think stalkers, killers and a sexy detective bent on protecting the heroine.
Many publishers said they would love to see more international romances. As Harlequin's Lipschultz notes, "You’re in this cosmopolitan, exotic setting that your average American might never have been to. It just adds to the fantasy.” Sexy foreign love affair? Yes, please.
Just like in the contemporary field, publishers are hungry for historical romances that are a little different. For historicals, that means something set in exotic places or times that have not yet been tapped by authors. How about a 1960s romance? Or a love story set in colonial India? Publishers want to see something fresh and unexpected.
Editors Mary Altman and Cat Clyne from Sourcebooks mentioned that although intensely emotional Regency romances à la Grace Burrowes (who was discovered at RWA seven years ago!) will always be popular, there's been an increase in light and effervescent Regencies (think Jane Austen-esque banter). Cat and Mary also have a special fondness for Vikings, which I can certainly get on board with.
Of course, what would the romance novel be without those fabulous covers? We asked a few editors what trends they were noticing in this area. Outdoorsy covers seem to be taking off (featuring a sexy male as well, obviously), and those gorgeous dresses on historical covers aren't going anywhere. Hultenschmidt says that she's also noticed more dogs on covers—a trend that comes at a price. "Do you know how hard it is to find the right dog for those covers? To find the one that's adorable, that's interacting with the cover models, that doesn't look sad. . . . There's certain breeds that work, and certain breeds that just don't!" Plus, it's got to match the novelist's description of the dog in the book, and of course, working with dogs on a cover shoot adds a level of difficulty.
Gone are the days of headless cover models, and Avon Publicity Director Pamela Spengler-Jaffee says the models seem to be heading in a more realistic direction. Of course, they're all beautiful, but perhaps not so unbelievably beautiful. And yes, everyone agrees that flipping through folders full of handsome men to pick the cover models is a nice perk of the job!
So where do trends come from? That's a complex question! Berkley's Hwang explains, "Sometimes, what readers want isn't necessarily what writers are writing. There's sort of a disconnect. For instance, when paranormal was very popular with writers, readers didn't seem to embrace it till a few years ago. Same thing with erotic." Romance trends can sometimes come as a surprise. But when these two eventually broke big, they had been building for a while.
Or perhaps certain trends are a reaction to how incredibly busy women are today, as Spengler-Jaffee suggests. With so many women working, raising children and basically being superheroes, the idea of being with an Alpha male who swoops in and takes care of everything is a stress-free escape. "He's not the man you really want," Spengler-Jaffee says, but it's a fun fantasy.
Pop culture can also influence trends. Take dragons, for example. A few publishers mentioned a spike in fantasy romances featuring these fire-breathing monsters. Since paranormal is losing a bit of steam on the market, this might seem surprising. But Martin Biro at Kensington suggests that the mega-success of "Game of Thrones" might have put fantasy-themed romances and dragons are back on the radar. (Think "swords and princesses," says Biro.) Seems a likely theory: Hwang notes that all the vampire movies and TV shows were what pushed paranormal into popularity several years ago.
And just when we were noticing the return of the overall, crop top and clogs to the fashion world, Sourcebooks' Altman tells us, "I'm seeing a lot more romances that are like the ones I read in the 90s." Remember the Alpha heroes of yore? (Hello, Fabio!) Looks like what goes around, comes around.
So readers, what trends would you like to see more of in romance novels?
The RITA award is the most prized of all publishing awards for romance authors. Presented at the RWA conference each year to the authors of the romance novel deemed the best in its category, the statuette is a coveted item in the romance world. The categories span the genres, from contemporary to romantic suspense, and the list of finalists features some of the most talented authors in romance. To wit, our very own romance reviewer Christie Ridgway was a RITA finalist this year for Beach House No. 9!
Of course, the winner's list always has some real gems, and we've reviewed a number of the authors in this year's RITA winners' circle. Harvard alum Sarah MacLean won in the Historical Romance category for No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, a pre-Victorian exploration of underground boxing rings and complex desires, and Susanna Kearsley won in the Paranormal Romance category for The Firebird, a tale filled with psychic powers and a love reborn.
Previous RITA winners include Laura Griffin's action-packed Scorched, which was a romance top pick in 2012. Sarah Morgan (author of our top pick in romance for July, Suddenly Last Summer) has also been honored with a RITA, along with historical romance writer Eloisa James and Jill Shalvis for her popular contemporary romance series, Lucky Harbor.
The RWA Hall of Fame is reserved for authors whose books have been nominated in the same category three or more times and includes reader favorites such as Nora Roberts, Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Jo Beverly.
The RITA winners' pool certainly harbors quite the community of successful women! We'll be posting about RWA into next week, so be sure to continue checking in on the blog.