Byline: DIANA MIDDLETON
When imagining the romance paperbacks lined up at the grocery store, an image of a half naked Fabio wrapped around a nubile female may spring to mind. Or perhaps a batch of lurid titles pop out, such as The Italian Prince's Pregnant Bride or The Rich Man's Virgin, both available this month.
Snap out of it, says Merrilee Whren, a rabid romance reader - and author of several romance novels herself. The Amelia Island resident professionally writes inspirational romances for Steeple Hill, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises. Her books' covers include flowers and waterfalls, not Fabio.
"There's an image that romance has gotten," she said. "But that's not what romance really is."
While romances are the pounding heart of the paperback industry, romance publishers are pumping sales by flooding the marketplace with new titles and new genres. And the romance genre's sales are steaming: Torstar, the parent company for Harlequin Enterprises, the genre's largest publisher, saw second-quarter revenue increase $6.7 million, with its book publishing division seeing positive growth. Net income for the company shot up 17.6 percent for the second quarter, as well. Private publishers, such as Medallion, don't report sales figures, but all evidence points to a humming industry that accounted for 52 percent of paperbacks sold in 2006.
The First Coast is host to dozens of published romance authors, whose books have sold thousands of copies and won awards, including at least one local author who won a RITA award (the industry's equivalent of an Oscar or a Pulitzer). It's a cozy, intimate community with close interaction between authors and their readers, and in some cases, the fastest way for fledgling writers to get legitimately published.
There's a certain cheekiness to the romance genre: Popular themes include kidnapping, secret infants, marriages of convenience and, of course, liaisons with attractive vampires.
But the industry's growth is thanks to just that: its fast-paced ability to reflect the tastes of its readers, according to Carol Stacy, publisher of Romantic Times magazine. The sub-genres in romantic fiction are vast, from gory mysteries to "sweet" romances that gloss over sex - or skip it entirely.
There's still a strong market for over-the-top romance. Take, for instance, a selection of paperbacks under the Blaze imprint, which are categorized as some of the steamier titles available. But the widening selection means romances are shaking their bodice-ripper labels and are now falling comfortably into the loose category of mainstream women's literature.
With some fluff and a happy ending, naturally.
A WRITER BY ANY OTHER NAME
The cosmopolitan name Elizabeth Sinclair stripes the spines of several paranormal romance novels - but it isn't the Jacksonville author's real name. Sinclair is Marge Smith's sobriquet (her own name was rejected by publishers because 'Smith' was too common). She found the last name by looking in the phone book.
Smith writes mystery novels that fall somewhere between sweet and steamy in the romance department for Silhouette Intimate Moments, an imprint of Harlequin.
She started writing in 1990, but it was two years before she sold her first manuscript, a revenge story, complete with a long lost infant called Jenny's Castle. Nowadays, her novels take on a spiritual, other-worldly twist, such as Into the Mist, due in March 2008, which revolves around a nebulous village that appears when a protagonist's soul needs healing.
She also writes romantic thrillers about detectives tracking down serial arsonists.
"I didn't want to write historical romances, because I didn't have the heart for the research," she said. "But when I started writing about arsonists, all I knew was that you lit a match and guys in a red truck pulled up. I had to learn about …