Is it a love story or a romance novel?

love story

You can write a love story outside the romance genre. Romance is a staple of all types of literature. So when is it a “romance” and when is it just a book with a love story? Usually, it’s obvious.

Romance is in the air. So much so, the romance genre dominates the book industry. Following a big bang in the 1980s, romance publishers and sub-genres exploded. Today, love stories enjoy the lion’s share of the market: this infographic shows a full 40% of Amazon’s eBook sales are in the romance genre.

If you thrive on tales of love, writing them can bring big rewards. As author, you call the shots. Conjure the heroine and her hero. Crush their love with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Mold the perfect HEA, or “Happily Ever After.” You might also draw a paycheck.

As a love affair connoisseur, you’ll know the style of romance book you like to read. Maybe you see a gap in the market and you’d like to try to fill it by bringing a new voice to the fray.

Maybe you’ve watched the documentary Love Between the Covers. The makers of this film rounded up romance authors and devotees to discuss their close-knit community and found that many of the best romance writers joined “the movement” to put stories they wanted to read on the shelf for the first time. Someone had to write the first paranormal romance.

Romancers are quick to point out that this genre foots the bills in the fiction industry. To keep up with demand, leading romance authors leapfrogged from penning one book every two years to producing two to three titles a year. The industry is innovative: embracing eBooks early on, for example, to help sate the voracious appetites of audiences.

Perhaps you’ve been to a Romance Writers of America convention, or a similar event. These are the meet-and-greets of the industry, and you can pick up tips on everything – from editing to cinching up corsets.

Given the regularized patterns of commercial romance novels, you’ll want to figure out where you fit in. Romance has clear and demanding genre expectations. Readers reward creativity, but key rules are etched in stone. You must concoct a great hero and heroine, confound them with obstacles, and make sure love conquers all. No deviations allowed. You must have an HEA.

In the end, romance is still the same old “boy-meets-girl” story. Actually, it’s better described as “girl-meets-boy” as the majority of romance book writers and readers are female. And it’s girl-meets-boy with a big twist: the romance genre is defined by hindrances. Sacrifice – personal, financial, professional, or otherwise – is essential, and don’t think to let it fall on the shoulders of the woman alone. Partners must equally bear the cost of overcoming.

While not overly realistic, seemingly impossible challenges make for compelling fiction. It’s like the whodunit puzzle in a murder mystery. How can you fall in love with the man who bought your family farm and turned it into a shopping mall? How do you fall in love with the son of your family’s sworn enemy – or a soldier from the enemy army? Seeing the road love travels to conquer all is why they’ll pay the price of admission. Everyone knows the ending, which makes the journey the thing that really matters.

The battle for love can be played out in any background: past, present, or future; reality-based or fantasy. You can have any type of couple from any walk of life, just make sure you fit into a sub-genre, or risk trying to become the exception and create your own.

You’ll want to check the requirements for any publishers you are interested in approaching. For example, by convention, romances are written in third person, past tense.

Is it a love story?

Of course, you can still write a love story outside the romance genre. Romance is a staple of all types of literature. So when is it a “romance” and when is it just a book with a love story? Usually, it’s obvious.

Twilight is an epic love story but not a romance. Why? Bella and Edward face the obstacle of his past: he’s a 117-year-old vampire who finds her smell intoxicating. They overcome this relatively quickly, and there is so much more to the story, along with werewolves and marauding vampires, for it to count as “only” romance. This blockbuster is a fantasy with a very memorable love story inside it.

Fifty Shades of Grey is equally focused on a couple, but exceeds the boundaries of “romance” because it strays too far from the formula. It puts Christian and Anastasia together at the get go.

It is also a deal breaker to kill off the hero – or the heroine. With a death, you’re back to love story. The need for an HEA is inscrutable.

So, given that you know the story you’re panting to tell, get on with it: Fill the world with love.

Back to the infographic

Looking at the data, we see 40% of Amazon’s eBook market share belongs to romances, and the genre grosses a whopping $1.14 billion a year. A quarter of bestsellers are romances, and romance novels are the type of book most likely to be read to completion.

We know the length of your book should be 375 pages. On average, each sentence will contain 9.3 words. In 1811, when Jane Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility, the average was 23.7, but times have changed.

For profession, lawyers and detectives rank top for protagonists. So, our couple can be a lawyer-detective duo. The numbers dictate the protagonist be female and America the setting.

But, what if you are a thriller writer? Then you should write a thriller, of course. Just know you’ll potentially meet the tastes of a smaller section of the reading populace. Unless you write a romance thriller that crosses over and grabs romance readers as well…

But of course, this is all academic, and mostly just for fun. In the end, the answer is to write what you are best suited to write, bearing in mind the facts about what this might mean for sales and the size of your readership. The world of traditional publishing is propped up by a huge infrastructure built over decades: going “insider,” when it works in your favor, means travelling on a freeway. Landing on a niche, however small, might mean less competition and a rabid readership.

Though you’ll have difficulty finding a more rabid fan base than in the romance genre. Those folks love a good love story.


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  1. I’ve read a lot of articles on BookBaby and this is one of the best! So much interesting info in such a short, snappy piece – thank you.

    Then I started wondering, if 40% of the books sold on Amazon are romance eBooks, then how are sales of Romance in paperback format doing? I found this (source: ):

    “Despite the fact that ebook sales in the U.S. have begun to level off, romance books are much more likely to be purchased in digital format. Nearly 40% of new romance books in the first quarter of 2014 were purchased as ebooks, compared to 32% bought in paperback form, according to a recent report by Nielsen. In contrast, ebooks accounted for less than one-quarter of total new book sales during the same time period.”

    So… not sure what’s happening with the stats here (not my strong suit!) and date/source comparisons, etc. BUT would it be safe to say that in the Romance genre, off ALL books sold, 40% are in eBook format, and 32% in paperback?

    I ask because obviously if we were to think we’re fine to publish only in eBook format, then we would be missing out on half our possible sales… or have I got this completely backwards??

  2. Very helpful. Helped me to categorize my novel as a mystery/suspense with a romantic story. I may need to shorten that genre name, though…

  3. I feel, even if you have a good story, it is hard to stand alone without some form of relationship between two or more individuals. The story has to be credible and needs two or three twists and turns in the thread to hook the reader, however, if you rely on half hearted love and sex for titillation then it takes away and weakens your story. I feel the same when the hero kills and causes mayhem, just to walk away untouched emotionally, mentally or physically.

  4. All good points, although I found it odd that you ignored the fact that romance can also be boy-meets-boy and girl-meets-girl. The male/male romance genre in particular is quite robust, with its own publishers and conferences, not to mention a huge fandom. Granted, writers of M/F romance should do their research before dipping into that pond–simply switching pronouns won’t cut it. Love is love, true, but how a guy thinks and feels and acts is not the same as a woman.

    • At the risk of being “politically incorrect” the fact remains that romance remains an overwhelmingly boy-meets-girl discipline. A report published in April 2011 by the Williams Institute estimated that 3.8 percent of Americans identified as gay/lesbian, bisexual, or transgender: 1.7 percent as lesbian or gay, 1.8 percent as bisexual, and 0.3 percent as transgender. At roughly 4 percent of the US population, the same-sex romance fandom could hardly be defined as “huge”. At best it is a “niche” faction within the romance genre.

    • Yes, love conquers all and in all forms — almost every type of love is written about and anyone with a new take should put out a story for those who will relate!

  5. Is there a difference between contemporary romance and romance? I’ve always thought that straight romance novels were less realistic than contemporary. At what point is a thriller or mystery does the romantic involvement of the characters change the genre. Because I have a solid romantic theme in a book I thought was a mystery, am I really writing romance novels?

    • I know you’re asking the blog author, but as a romance author myself, here’s my take: If the love story is central to the plot, and it has a happily-ever-after, then it is a romance. There are a LOT of romance sub-genres. The one you’re writing might be considered Romantic Suspense, or a Romantic Thriller (which are subgenres to Romance). However, it might also be considered a Suspense/Thriller, with romantic elements. If it doesn’t have an HEA, then it’s definitely the latter. If the love story is secondary to the thriller/suspense plots, then it’s also probably the latter. But if the love story is central or even on equal footing as the other aspects, I think you should consider it a romance. And don’t feel bad about that! Romance gets such an undeserved bad rap, but it’s the most popular genre! Millions of people love to read romances, and there are some amazing ones out there. So if you are writing romance, be proud. As for the difference between “romance” and “contemporary romance,” one is the general heading of the entire genre, whereas contemp romance just clarifies that it take place in modern day (as opposed to historical romance).

      • Well said – thanks! It’s about the weight of romance/HEA versus other things in the story — and the weight of the obstacles separating loves, that shoehorns it into a genre.

      • I am confused about the love story being central to the plot. Yes, in my novels, it’s a constant threat and we do have HEA, but meanwhile, the story problem involves the heroine overcoming inner and outer problems before she can truly commit to a relationship. Her story goal is not to find true love, but it happens as a result of meeting her story goal(s). Is this a romance or something else with a love story? Thanks for any responses to this late reply to an interesting article.

        • Hi, here’s my take on the difference between romance and love stories using women’s fiction novels. Women’s fiction focuses on the heroine’s journey and may include a love story but the heroine’s internal/external journey must be central to the story’s plot and she must cross her hurdles without a love interest rescuing her. Often times authors are pushing romance novels as women’s fiction when, in fact, they are two separate genres. Women’s fiction doesn’t always have a HEA, romance always does.

  6. I am a published romance author and a long-time romance reader and I totally disagree. Romance novels need to have a central love story and a happily ever after (or happy for now) ending, that’s it. Your comment about them needing to overcome obstacles is not limited to romance. ANY good novel needs obstacles, that is not unique to romance.

    Twilight is most certainly a romance. It’s not *only* a romance (it’s actually a young adult paranormal romance), but that doesn’t mean it’s not romance. And 50 Shades is erotica romance. You say it “strays too far from the formula” to be a romance. What formula? Does it have a central love story? Yes. Happily for now ending? If yes, then it’s a romance.

    I think you are confusing stories with romantic elements vs. romance. In the former, an HEA Aor HFN is not required. A story can be romantic but not a romance.

  7. Thank you for your comment. In trying to get a book like you write published, do you market it as a romance or something else? I want to be sure to target the correct agent or publisher.

  8. Great article. Nicholas Sparks calls his books love stories, not romance novels, and for good reason. Many lack HEA’s but all possess a tender love story at their heart. I also find it interesting the documentary Love Between the Covers includes authors such as Robyin Carr who markets her books as Women’s Fiction. There is such a blurring of the lines it now seems if the story has a heroine and hero the author will market it as romance which is frustrating many readers.

  9. Loved the article. It helps me to know what kind of category I am writing my books. I like to accept my anticipation books wed the solid characters from my sentiment composing past, with the twisty, smart plots of my secret composing present.


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