Mar 10 2011 1:00pm

Category Romance: More Than Cute Little Books with Dreadful Titles

Have Baby, Need Billionaire by Maureen ChildAll my life, I’ve had a thing for the underdog. The little guy who is not only the odds on favorite to lose, but is expected to do so in a spectacularly epic fashion.

The romance genre is the ultimate underdog in the court of public opinion. Romance readers are used to nobody taking us seriously, to people treating us like brain-dead ninnies, and to the snide remarks that inevitably follow if someone finds out what we like to read. But it’s even worse for the category romance reader. Those of us who like to read The Cute Little Books With The Dreadful Titles. Because not only do we have to deal with the non-romance reading population sneering at us, we also get it from fans of the genre who really should know better.

As a librarian, I spend a lot of time banging my head up against brick walls. One of my favorite brick walls is educating fellow librarians on the genre, and I tend to devote whole talks on just category romance. Why? The number of titles published every month is mammoth, and it’s a diverse subgenre (no, really—it is).

Bought: Destitute Yet Defiant by Sarah MorganThe biggest reason, though? It’s by far and away the most misunderstood branch on the fiction tree. I would argue even more so than the romance genre as a whole. Hey, when even some romance fans deride the category format as “trash,” you know there’s something rotten in Denmark.

I’m often asked what the appeal of the category romance novel is. Why do readers love to read them? The short and sweet answer is that it’s all of the romance, with none of the BS. Ask any romance reader why they like the genre and you’ll get a variety of answers. At the end of the day, however, aren’t all of us there for the love story? We’re there for hero and heroine falling in love and riding off into the sunset. Category romance, with its shorter word counts and fewer pages means that the author has to have an intense focus on the romance in order for the book to work. A category writer cannot mess around. They cannot get sidetracked on a 25-page tangent about the weather, the history of the quaint small town, or the Battle of Waterloo. They need to get to the point. And the point of it all is the romance.

I kicked any lingering snobbery I had towards the romance genre to the curb when I was hired on at my very first professional library job some 10+ years ago. However, I told myself that it was OK to read romance because “It’s not like I read Harlequins!” Seriously, even this librarian can be an idiot. Then one day I actually read one of those “trashy Harlequins” and I fell in love with that strong, intense focus on the hero and heroine relationship. To this day, when I pick up a category romance, that’s what I’m hungry for. Give me the romance, all of the romance, and let nothing else in the story detour me off the road to Happily-Ever-After Land.

I’ll admit it can be easy to make fun of category romances. The titles. The sometimes dippy cover art. The overblown, over-the-top-sounding back cover blurbs that are staples in some of the lines. I also admit that it can be a confusing subgenre to navigate. Even years after a lot of publishers have fled the sub genre, only leaving Harlequin, there’s so much published every month, so many different lines, that for the uninitiated it can be a little confusing. It also tends to enforce the negative stereotype that because the books are in separate imprints, then all the books are somehow the same. Yes, each line might have certain guidelines, but just as there is more than one historical romance out there about an American heiress in London, or more than one paranormal romance out there about vampire hunters, it does not mean category readers are reading the same book over and over again. Likewise, the authors are not filling out some generic template for their books, cranking a story out in a couple of hours.

Seriously, if only it were that easy, right authors?

This nonsensical idea that All The Books Are The Same proliferates across the genre, but nowhere more than in category. Those of us who love them know that this could not be further from the truth. And because I love banging my head against brick walls, over the coming months I plan on highlighting many of the category romance lines and expounding on what makes these Cute Little Books With The Dreadful Titles so great, and so addicting. Hopefully by the end of these posts, even if you aren’t a converted category romance fan, you’ll maybe come to understand a little bit of why so many of us love them. At the very least, I hope that the members of our community will stop throwing some of those slings and arrows our way. Hey, don’t we get enough of that garbage from everyone on the outside? 


Wendy the Super Librarian also blogs at So dig that library card out of your pocket and head for the stacks.

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Gwenda Bond
1. GwendaBond
Great post -- and I very much look forward to your recommendations of categories. The ones I've read have been great, but it *is* confusing to figure out how to choose which ones to pick up.
Kiersten Hallie Krum
2. Kiersten
When Wendy the Super Librarian - none other than RWA Librarian of the Year for 2011! - speaks, we all should listen.

I admit to a bias towards category romance. Hello, my name is Kiersten and yea, I have sneered at category. Partially b/c I like to dig my teeth into a story and the shortened format didn't seem to lend itself to that. Also, be long-winded and overwritten, I could never imagine ever being able to write for a category line.

Thankfully, I have slowly been shown the error or my ways. It started, as many game changers do in romancelandia, with recommendations from the SmartBitches and DearAuthor web sites. I tend towards the Blaze line b/c I like it hot and I like a suspense story. Fantastic authors like Kathleen O'Reilley and Jill Monroe write category and make it rock hard.

Category is definitely underrated. These are great stories that fit right into their subgenre slot and offer fully developed characters, hot lovin', and often a wonderful story towards the HEA. Color me converted.
3. KathrynD
In a world of SAT analogies, categories is to "the rest of romance" as haiku is to "the rest of poetry". There can be really bad haiku. But when it is done well, the very brevity of the form adds to its impact. And so it is with good category romance.
4. Janet W
I am definitely in the "category" of feeling title and cover fatigue (for the most part!) but I loved this Harlequin Historical Blaze: ... and I always pick up a Betty Neels or two when I see the new monthly reprints. What can I say: as always, I'll read Uber Librarian Wendy's recommendations with interest. And I know I'll learn a thing or two about all the different varieties.
5. LizM
Wendy, you're one of the reviewers who lured me into reading categories. Thanks for many happy hours!
Jacqueline Code
6. JacquiC
I too confess to being a category addict. I have been since I was 16 (with a few breaks here and there). But I really think there MUST be something that can be done about the titles. Not all of them are terrible. But a lot of them seem to be pretty gag-inducing, and really, not a lot to do with the actual story (if you can get past the title and actually read the book).

Anyway, I'm looking forward to hearing some recommendations of some good category authors. I have a few (like Sarah Morgan, Kathleen O'Reilly, Sarah Mayberry and Jill Monroe) that I will almost always buy. But there is such a massive volume of others to navigate!
7. Julie Miller
Thank you for supporting series/category romance! And for saying it so well!

"just the romance and none of the bs"--I have to remember that one.
8. Kaye
My sister and I have been reading what we call "Little Red Books", why I don't even remember now (cover color?), for years. One of the reasons I will reach for one is that I know I will be able to finish it in one sitting. They are predictably comfort reads, when you just want to read a HEA story. A lot of a-list authors started here. Some of them are surprisingly well written, plotted, with good characterizations. I think if you can write a good book within the word count constraints of this genre you must really be on your game.
Jenny Schwartz
9. Jenny Schwartz
I love categories. I love the fact I can trust favourite lines and authors will deliver a certain style. Most of all I love the emotional punch of the short(er) length. They're perfect when you can only steal an hour or two from life.
Keira Gillett
10. Keira
I love categories (though some are stinkers, but stinkers are in all genres romance or otherwise) and have interspersed them in between longer stand alones for a break. I tend to pick them up when I want a story and I want it fast. They're good for travel too.
11. alice s
I am a new convert in reading category novels and I can't stop reading them now. I try to read all the reviews on category romances and I am thrilled that Harlequin is releasing a lot of backlists for many of the authors I have just now discovered. I love the blogger bundles especially thrilled to read kathryn Shay, Cheryl St. John, Jessica Bird and Fiona Brand. Currently I prefer reading the superromance, presents and american romance line of harlequin.
Virginia Campbell
12. VirginiaCampbell
I love category romance! It's just what you want--just when you need it. The authors who do it best have refined it to an art form. There is an amazing range of diverse talent, story lines, and heat levels to be found in “categories”. This has always been true, and I should know since I still collect and read category romance from as far back as the 60’s. “Powerhouse read in a small package” is a good way to describe many of the category romances that I have read. They can be quite intense, but also funny, insightful, suspenseful, touching, memorable and interesting. Harlequin Presents is my favorite category romance line. I call them “the white covers”. I purchase recent releases and also still regularly haunt thrift shops, used book sales, yard sales & etc for book treasures. Harlequin "Romance", “Presents”, and "American Romance", are “heart with heat”. I also read “Blaze” and “Desire”, which are both “heat with heart”.
13. Lee
Good for you, Wendy! I was happy to see this and I'm looking forward to future posts on the subject. Category romance has so much to recommend it!

I started reading category romances when I was expecting our first, and too sick to concentrate on the massively detailed doorstops I was used to reading (SF and Fantasy, mostly, with some historical fiction thrown in). They were my introduction to the romance genre, and I found some very talented authors spinning extremely intriguing tales for my entertainment.

As the years passed, some of my favorites (Jayne Ann Krentz -- under all her names -- and Virginia Kantra come to mind) moved into mainstream romance, but I was fortunate that several made a conscious choice to continue writing in the category format. Some of them are: Jennifer Greene, Gina Wilkins, Fiona McArthur. I'm sure there are several others who are auto-buys for me when I see them, but who I'm forgetting right now.
Wendy the Super Librarian
14. SuperWendy
@GwendaBond I really think "confusion" plays a part in why some readers don't dip their toes in the category waters. It's daunting to look at all those new books every month and decide what to pick up!

@Kiersten I think the Blaze and SuperRomance lines are great "gateway" reads in Category Land. Blaze because they're fun and sexy, SuperRomance because they're a wee bit longer. Those seem to go over better for readers who can't imagine reading a "short" book.

@KathrynD That's it exactly! Some writers can write category, and some well....just can't. But it's pure magic when you find an author who excels in the format. There's nothing else quite like it!

@Janet W I think the trick with category is finding what works for you. I love the format, but admittedly some of the lines work better for me than others! But....there is immense variety in category. I really think there is something for every romance reader, it's just a matter of ferreting it out!

@LizM You're welcome! I love the emotional punch that categories so often give me.

@JacquiC The titles seem to be getting a wee bit better - at least in the Presents line these last couple of months. But yeah, the thing that kills me are the baby covers. I happen to like the occasional Harlequin American, but they seem loaded with baby cover art these days!

@Julie Miller It took me a while to figure out WHY the format worked so well for me - when it finally dawned on me: "It's the romance stupid!" Shorter word count, fewer pages, means the author has to focus quite intensely on The Romance in order for the HEA to be remotely believable.

@Kaye When I talk to librarians about categories I always compare it to general fiction writers doing short stories. Some are masters at it, and some of them are just unable to make it work for them.

@Jenny Schwartz Yes! It's that intense, concentrated emotional punch that always has me coming back for more.

@Keira I am hooked on getting my category fix via ebooks. I mean, positively hooked. Who know that print copies of these cute little books could take up so much storage space!

@alice s Like discovering the romance genre as a whole, when I discovered category romance, I got hooked. I mean, I'm hooked HARD now. SuperRomances are some of my favorites! I also love the Historical line, and am a recent convert to Harlequin Romance.

@Virginia C Category romance has always been my go-to format to discover new authors. Shorter, less expensive, and you really get a sense of the author's "skill." It takes some talent to deliver a knock-out romance, working within the guidelines of the format.

@Lee I loved your story on how you started reading categories. My introduction to them was really as "slump-busters." When I couldn't seem to contrentrate on a "regular" sized book. Or during really busy times at work, or during the year (category romances are lifesavers over the holidays!).
Rakisha Kearns-White
15. BrooklynShoeBabe
I confess, I am a librarian AND I'm a romance fan. First, I skirted around it only reading romance novels by Sandra Brown or Jennifer Crusie, and telling everyone they were my guilty pleasures (I actually hate that phrase).

Then, I went around for 18-months saying that I was dying to read a really good and intense love story/romance. I discovered Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Yes, they were sweeping and dramatic romances and very well written books, but I wanted something contemporary and quick. So, finally, I got off my elitist podium and walked across the library to the romance section. Now, I'm knee deep in paperback romances--mostly from the Harlequin's Blaze section, and loving every minute of it. It's like being back in high school. They're just so much fun to read, and each one is like a mini vacation.
16. CindyS
I used to buy lots of category romances but I soon learned who I loved and started buying only those authors. In the end, all those authors moved on and now I have no one I know writing in categories and you are very right when you talk about confusion.

I was a Silhoutte Desire fan and was surprised by the depth of some of the stories.

So take a break from banging your head, I'm going to open myself back up to trying some category romance books - they will also fit my new budget!

And super congrats on RWA Librarian of the Year!

Wendy the Super Librarian
17. SuperWendy
Soooooo late coming back to follow-up on comments. Bad Wendy, bad!

@BrooklynShoeBabe I swear there is literally a how-to manual for librarians that become romance converts. I was the same way. I started by reading "chick lit" (which, while in the same general neighborhood, aren't necessarily romances). Then I started reading historical romances. Then a bit of romantic suspense. The whole time telling myself it was "OK" because it's not like I was reading "trashy Harlequins." ::headdesk:: Eventually I got off my elitist podium as well :)

And I love the Blaze line for when I want "sexy and fun." Those books always hit the spot!

@CindyS: I almost think that the Internet has made life a bit easier for the categorical confused :) Books are now available longer, Harlequin is really on top of providing digital content, and there are a slew of reviews out there now. I count of those reviews to help me navigate the lines I'm not as ga-ga about (I'm very choosey when it comes to HPs for instance). So yeah, sit back and get ready. I've got future columns on the topic percolating :)
18. ms bookjunkie
I was totally hooked on category romances in my teens. I'd read one every day. School was out at three, on my way to the bus I'd stop by a few UBSs to check out the new selection, start reading on the bus, be home around four, finish the book and start homework around six, be in bed at ten. Ah, the good old days when my schedule really worked for me…
19. Ted Cichon
"I never knew about the stigma that category romance novels have but I understand it. People think that you need to struggle through 200 plus pages of a novel for it to be a real book. I think that sometimes you need a break from more serious reads."
20. karen christopherson
Damn. That was a good article! :)
21. vkblack
Loved this article, and am looking forward to your future posts about Cute Little Books with Dreadful Titles. I am a recentish convert to Harlequin, with my favourte being the Sexy line (I think it's also called Presents). They have the all time worst titles, I guess, but they're so much fun.
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