- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

The best-selling book in Amazon.com’s Kindle store isn’t one of the nonfiction titles battling for top spot on the New York Times best-seller list (Mark R. Levin’s “Liberty and Tyranny” and Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”). Neither is it the hot new thriller (Michael Connelly’s “The Scarecrow”) or the novel that has spent a year on the paperback list (William P. Young’s “The Shack”).

It’s “Deception” by Sharon Cullen, a passionate novel of romantic suspense.

The e-book is being offered free for a limited time, but it’s still outselling other freebies, including one by best-selling fantasy writer Terry Brooks and perennially top-selling free classics.

Romance happens to be one of the few fiction genres growing in this tough economy, thanks both to the novels’ low cover prices — $5 each for the mass-market paperbacks — and the yearning for escape from an era of sobering new economic limits.

“We promise a happy ending, and we always deliver a happy ending,” says Malle Vallik, director of digital content and social media for Harlequin, the name synonymous with romance novels and the genre’s leader in market share. “In this time of economic doom and gloom, what’s nicer?”

Yet bargain prices and escapism aren’t enough to explain the explosive growth of the genre online.

A supplementary hypothesis is needed. Let’s try this one: Electronic reading devices like the Kindle are finally making it safe for women to indulge in the guilty pleasures of the much-mocked “bodice ripper” without shame.

Romance Writers of America estimates the genre has a 12.9 percent market share of all dead-tree books sold. But when Barnes & Noble bought the e-bookstore Fictionwise in the spring, the latter, which has sold 5 million e-books, revealed that the top-selling category is romance, accounting for a full half of all sales. Sony Reader even offered a Valentine’s Day-themed pink reader called the “Book of Love,” pre-bundled with 14 romance novels.

The e-reader could solve a decades-old problem for women — how to buy and read novels with half-naked men on the cover without being embarrassed. It remains a quandary, even after one of those cover models — the hunky Fabio — became a star.

Discussion has raged in recent weeks in Amazon’s romance community about the hazards of buying books in person.

A checkout clerk “even made sarcastic remarks to me at the register in front of customers and other cashiers!” wrote one member who uses the nickname Empyream, echoing other comments.

Beth reported, “I’ll squeeze the romance book in between the other books I’m buying when I get to the register so it’s not as obvious — it’s like buy[ing] tampons!”

The problem goes beyond the bookstore. As Sunfun said, “When I’m sitting in my beach chair at the ocean I’m always trying to hide the cover of my paperback.”

“This is why I want a Kindle so badly!” D.A. Verno responded.

“Now that I have my Kindle, I no longer have that problem,” Gail1961 agreed.

Story Continues →