- 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.

“Reading all these posts, it reminds me yet again why I ADORE my Kindle. I can read with more privacy,” wrote Artist.

“I’ll admit that one of the determining factors in purchasing a Kindle was that it allows me to read books at work and in public discreetly,” G. Bixler added.

Artist even said her Kindle keeps her reading private in her own home. “[T]here are books on my Kindle that I NEVER would have bought in a bookstore, just based on the title/cover alone,” she wrote. “I have preteens, and it would be hard to explain the racy covers and suggestive titles.”

Peggy Jentoft, a 61-year-old holistic practitioner in La Mirada, Calif., has gotten a “snarky remark” from a clerk. Her retired-policeman husband reads in the genre, too, and he gets more surprise than snark. “I have been embarrassed a bit when ‘caught’ while buying books with more suggestive covers,” she says. “I would say that any stigma has increased over the years.”

She didn’t buy her Kindle for that reason, although “I have read more romance novels on the Kindle than I had done before and have downloaded and read a couple of free books that I would not have touched in conventional form.”

Rebecca Baumann, a 33-year-old homemaker and recovered “book snob” in Sparks, Nev., is hooked on romance novels — “At one point last summer, I was reading two a day, and that started to feel like an addiction, so I cut back,” she admits.

She publishes a blog called dirtysexybooks.com, where she posts a review every day. Though she bought her Kindle “to buy books online and start reading them immediately,” she says, “I have heard oodles of romance fans say that they love how their reading material becomes incognito on a Kindle, and that touches on another debate romance fans love to hash out, which is whether the cover art on romances should change.”

Ms. Baumann says she thinks more than hard times are driving romance sales. “My personal theory is that [Stephenie Meyer’s vampire love story] ‘Twilight’ gave a lot of new readers a nudge into romance, and now they’re bingeing on a never-ending supply of excellent reads,” she says.

“‘Twilight” is just the tip of the iceberg, and soon we’ll have a whole generation of women who came of age while reading romance and fantasy novels,” she predicts. “Throw in the fact that romances can be had for a fabulous bargain, whether new, used or borrowed, and it’s a no-brainer to me that the business is thriving.”

Harlequin has been a leader in the industry in developing an online presence, launching a powerful Web sitein 1999 and offering e-books in 2005. Observers thought e-reading might be just for the young, or the “techno-geek,” but the company bet that women — big readers — would get on board.

“For an avid reader, the benefit of the e-book, where you can carry 50 or 100 titles with you at a time, is you’re never caught with a ‘reader emergency,’” Ms. Vallik says, adding that she used to take an extra suitcase of books with her on vacation before she got her Sony Reader. (The Kindle is not available in Canada, where Harlequin is based.)

She doesn’t have numbers but says she knows there has been increased interest in romance reading online. Each month, Harlequin publishes all of its 120 new books electronically, as well as 10 to 20 of its backlist titles. Sometimes it publishes authors electronically first, and then success moves them into print.

From shared stigma, it seems, a strong sense of community has been forged online, where romance writers, more than those writing in literary fiction, have been the first to take advantage of social media like Twitter.

“Because women had this genre perceived as lesser, they’ve really banded together and built relationships,” Ms. Vallik says. “That’s been pulling people into e-books.”

The publisher is giving away 16 e-books, one in each of its series, as part of its 60th anniversary. It’s one way e-book readers might become romance readers.

“If they read one, they’re often pleasantly surprised,” Ms. Vallik says of skeptics. “A large percentage” — she guesses half of those who actually open up and start reading a romance — “become readers.”

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