Welcome to the Romance Resistance

The Trump Effect on book sales isn't reaching all genres. Women are buying even more romance novels now

Published September 30, 2017 6:30PM (EDT)

 (Carina Press / Avon / Nicobar Press / Dirtyscribbler Press / CreateSpace)
(Carina Press / Avon / Nicobar Press / Dirtyscribbler Press / CreateSpace)

During the 2016 election, “Love Trumps Hate” became a popular, catchy rallying cry, a slogan seen on signs held by Hillary Clinton supporters, as the organizing slogan of performances for the candidate held by Katy Perry, Jon Bon Jovi and Jennifer Lopez, and spoken during Clinton’s final campaign speech. While it may seem quaint in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and his administration’s destructive policies that seem determined to tear apart immigrant families and wreak havoc on our health care system, for romance novelists and readers, it’s more than an empty slogan — it’s a truth they’re seeing as readers flock to the genre.

Contrary to the New Republic’s July article suggesting that Trump may be ruining book sales save for nonfiction political books (Clinton’s memoir "What Happened" has proven a breakout bestseller in this genre, selling more than 300,000 copies in its first week) and topical dystopian novels like "1984," the romance genre is thriving.

According to booksellers, industry insiders and authors, readers — 84 percent of them women, according to the nonprofit trade association Romance Writers of America — are avidly consuming romance, now more than ever.

Leah Koch, co-owner of romance bookstore The Ripped Bodice in Culver City, California, told Salon that Trump’s ascendancy has been a boon for the genre.

“Since the day after the election, not a day has gone by that a woman has not come into the store and told us she just wanted to be in a safe space for women,” said Koch. “We have not seen a significant decrease in sales. In fact we have seen more readers turning to romance than ever before, especially those who are new to the genre. Interest in politically minded heroes and heroines is on the rise and we expect to see an entire wave of books featuring characters who are fighting back and resisting in their communities. Ultimately, we feel that in this time when so many people feel downtrodden and personally attacked by this president, romance, the literature of hope and happiness, is more important then ever -- and our sales back that up.”

Sarah Wendell, cofounder of the popular romance review website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, has seen a similar level of interest.

“The number of requests for recommendations has increased dramatically for us,” revealed Wendell. “I receive more email messages daily from readers who are eagerly and sometimes despairingly seeking out new books to read, specifically asking for romance because of the hopefulness of the genre as a whole, and the reassurance that happiness exists when the immediate surroundings can be so bleak and painful. The genre has always offered an optimistic worldview that happiness is valuable and agency is important, and that message seems to be desired by more readers every day.”

She said she’s happy to recommend books to those who reach out to her.

Author Tamsen Parker has also noticed a change in both sales figures and attitudes toward romance. “Immediately after the election, sales in romance absolutely tanked, which from what I've read is similar to other genres,” she explained — but that didn't last. “Particular to romance, I think a lot of readers felt like fictional happy endings were useless when they were so worried about what the election would mean for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. However, since that initial bottoming out, I've had some of the biggest releases I've had in my career, which I think in part can be attributed to becoming better known, but I'll also credit the desire of people to escape from reality."

"People often speak poorly about romance for being an ‘escapist’ genre," she added. "But what is so terrible about escaping from a world that has suddenly turned upside down, where a new horror happens every day? Taking time to recharge your batteries is essential if you mean to go on fighting against injustices, and romance can provide that.”

Len Barot, president of LGBTQ publisher Bold Strokes Books, said unit romance sales have increased by over 25 percent. “We've also seen an increase in published titles featuring transgender characters as well as other subject matter dealing with issues ‘under fire’ in the current political climate: immigration, domestic terrorism, hate groups and climate change within the context of romance novels,” said Barot.

“In light of the regressive current political stance on LGBTQ issues, we believe Bold Strokes Books romances and the affirming view of queer sexuality, relationships, and community they provide are a crucial source of inspiration and hope for readers and a critical forum for LGBTQ authors giving voice to the lives of LGBTQ people.”

Romance novelist Farrah Rochon said that while post-election she “went through months of being paralyzed by fear and rage,” she returned to writing in part because her readers were asking for it.

“In the days just after the election, I received several Facebook messages from longtime readers who begged me to keep the stories coming because they would need the escape," said Rochon. "Many cling to that promise of a happily ever after, knowing that no matter what hardships the characters face, they will find happiness in the end.”

Bonding over romance

Readers aren’t just consuming romance in private, but sharing their excitement and passion for these love stories in person. The Ripped Bodice regularly hosts book signings by romance writers, romantic movie screenings, and comedy nights, and other bookstores have also embraced bringing romance out from the pages and into real-life meeting spaces. In October, Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore will host its first romance reading group, led by writer Ashley C. Ford, discussing "Hate to Want You" by Alisha Rai. Another Brooklyn bookstore, WORD, also hosts their own monthly romance book group, as does Durham, North Carolina’s Southwest Regional Library.

Washington, D.C.’s Politics and Prose started a romance book group in February of this year, led by Finance Associate Alexis Jason-Mathews.

“My goal is to make sure that we read broadly across the many subgenres in romance and, more importantly, that we are reading diverse authors and storylines,” said Jason-Mathews.

While the Politics and Prose group doesn’t specifically focus on politics, its effects have worked their way into modern romances nonetheless, according to Jason-Mathews.

“The trope of the alpha male is very common in romance, but readers always expect that even if the guy is awful at the beginning of the book, by the end he will have been changed by love," she said. "In the current political climate, I think that kind of character shift feels improbable and inadequate in light of his past behavior. As a reader, I am definitely finding that I now have far less patience for alpha males who bear too strong a resemblance to certain overbearing, sexist politicians and their supporters. And from what I have heard in the book group, I am not the only one.”

Christa Desir, a romance editor and part-time bookseller at suburban Chicago bookstore Anderson’s Bookshop, said that while the genre is one of the lower selling ones at the store, its fans “are the most vocal. They will talk in depth about their favorite books and are always up for recommendations and do a lot of swapping.”

Politics and romance do mix

Authors who explicitly included politics as the setting for their romances have found that this is indeed a popular pairing. Emma Barry has been writing political-themed romances for several years, and has noticed an uptick in sales since the election.

“Readers want to believe that people with integrity work for the government and have agency to do good when they’re there,” she said.

She’s gotten a particular response to the legislative aide, Parker, in her novel "Special Interests."

“Falling in love changes him from being cynical to pragmatic if not idealist," said Barry. "Readers seem to appreciate that love makes him a better person and a better public servant.”

Barry isn’t just writing about politics in fiction, but also expressing her ideals on social media.

“Obviously there’s a great deal of debate about whether authors should be political on social media and whether that hurts your brand. I turned into that skid, so to speak,” she explained. “I’ve never hidden my politics, both my partisan identification and my political attitude toward the world. I’m certain that’s cost me readers, but I suspect it’s also won some for me. The reaction I’ve seen has all been positive, so people who are pissed aren’t telling me about it or were never reading me to begin with.”

Barry, Parker and six other authors released the self-published “resistance romance” anthology "Rogue Desire," with a forthcoming sequel, "Rogue Affair," featuring stories that all share political themes. Barry said she took inspiration directly from news headlines for her tale “Kissing and Other Forms of Sedition.”

“It was April, the president was tweeting about North Korea, and I went to bed wondering if nuclear war was going to break out overnight and if the Cabinet might invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment," she explained. "But when I told my version, I had the happily ever after.”

For Rochon, writing for a political character, while not a calculated move on her part, wound up working in her favor.

“In my latest release, 'Trust Me,' the heroine happens to be a local politician — something I feared would be off-putting to readers in this political climate — but its sales were even better than the previous book," she said. "I think readers were ready to read about a politician they knew would turn out to be ‘one of the good ones’ in the end.”

However, not every author using political settings has been greeted warmly. Erotic romance novelist Elizabeth SaFleur come up with the title "The White House Gets a Spanking" two years ago, but released the femdom novel this month. When she posted about it on Facebook, reactions ranged from “Is this a joke?” to “This is stupid.” She considers it “either the best-timed or worst-timed release of my entire career.”

SaFleur also said that with so much dismal news coming out of Washington, some want to avoid the seat of U.S. political power entirely in their fiction.

“I had one big-name author pick up my book at a book event, read the back blurb and set it down saying, ‘I just can’t do it.’ I’m not sure that would have happened before. Authors are notoriously supportive of one another. But, given the real political climate, I believe people feel they can easily dismiss anything related to D.C. and that ‘you’ll just understand,’” she said.

Yet the longtime D.C. area resident said the city is a natural backdrop for her stories, both because she knows it so well and wants to do it justice.

“I feel compelled to write in a setting that is so often maligned, to show the people who aren’t part of government who make that town work.”

Trump’s rise to power has also affected the kinds of characters romance novelists want to laud. Historical romance novelist Sarah MacLean, who’s been using the Twitter hashtag #RomanceResists and distributing postcards at events with the phrase and a romance heroine type wearing a pussy hat, overhauled an entire novel in the wake of the election. As she wrote in the Washington Post about her hero, “This dude wasn’t just aggressively masculine. He was toxic. Indeed, I suspected he would have voted for Donald Trump. And I wanted nothing to do with him.”

She told Salon that romance has continued to sell because it “delivers something that the world can't right now — the promise of happily ever after.”

That being said, she’s seen a turn, much like the one she made, toward a wider range of characters in romance.

“While I have trouble believing that romance readers will ever turn their backs fully on the alpha hero, I think we're seeing him evolve," she explained. "We're also seeing ever-stronger heroines, and a rising tide of awesome books about characters from marginalized communities — characters of color, queer characters, disabled characters — all finding hope, happiness and love.”

Beyond the world of electoral politics, social issues have also made their way into numerous modern romance novels. This month, author Tasha L. Harrison published her romance "The Truth of Things," which grapples with sexual harassment and police brutality.

“My writing always tends to touch on social issues or darker, heavier topics that some have said don't belong in romance, and that may be true. But with my book and titles by Alyssa Cole and Courtney Milan, I see that changing,” Harrison said.

Desir reports coming across numerous references to politics in her reading, citing, among others, "Antisocial" by Heidi Cullinan, which “overtly discusses the devastation of the election for queer people.” She added, “Last night I was reading a Molly O’Keefe book, 'Baby, Come Back,' and one of the characters in the book was wearing a shirt that said ‘This Pussy Grabs Back.’ I loved it.”

Jason-Mathews has also noticed this phenomenon with the romance book group she runs.

“We recently discussed the trend among romance authors to insert subtle nods to politics into their work. ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ has appeared in a couple books, as have other references and quotations. Some people in the group found this to be a little off-putting, as it took them out of the story and back into the real world, while others felt that if it is done well it can be really fun to catch those asides," she said. "It feels like an inside joke between you and the author.”

Authors find catharsis in writing

Obviously authors appreciate the fact that their romances are selling well, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy to turn to writing about love at a time when there are so many threats to their health, safety and democratic ideals. All the authors I interviewed for this story said writing romance has been challenging for them post-election but that it’s ultimately been helpful as they forge ahead, as has reading the work of their fellow novelists.

Asked what role romance has played in her life since Trump’s ascendancy, SaFleur said it’s helped counter the real-life drama taking place nearby.

“While romance has always been a big part of my life, it’s now even more so. I ‘hide’ from the news some nights, listening to a Kristen Ashley or Susan Elizabeth Philips audiobooks, hoping it will drown out the broadcast news my husband is listening to in the other room," she said. "Unrest is President Trump’s favorite state and the media hasn’t helped calm things down. But for me to get up and write every day, I need a calm mind.”

Parker said that she’s found the romance writing community inspiring, and has motivated her to become more politically active, on and off the page.

“I've become more inclined to put my politics into my books,” she said. “I wasn't terribly shy about it before, but at this point, I have completely run out of fucks to give. Which means my books have been more inclusive, and more reflective of the world in which I live. I've had LGBTQ, non-white, and non-Christian characters in my books since the beginning but now I'm even more committed to that, as well as boosting the voices and books of marginalized authors. Writing a happily ever after for my marginalized characters is one of my favorite parts of the job. It feels empowering in a time when I feel like my voice has little impact. I also hope that I'm giving happiness, enjoyment and satisfaction to people who sorely need it in their lives, especially when their own government seems so dead set against them.”

Rochon said that after seeing her readers’ requests for more stories, not fewer, “I realized that I’m not providing just a few hours of entertainment anymore. I’m offering hope to readers who are feeling as lost as I am. Reading romance remains my personal respite from all the political noise. I find myself gravitating toward more lighthearted and young-adult romances these days. Because, like my readers, I need that assurance of a happily ever after too. “

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

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