Whoever believes that supermarkets do not provide escape from the hectic outside world does not know where to look.
Whether they are stand-alone novels or "wink and kiss" category books, retailers, distributors and publishers surveyed by SN agreed that sweeping romance novels provide departure from the real world. Despite mixed comments on sales from retailers, the category continues to be around much because of that aspect.
According to Houston-based Romance Writers of America, there are 37.9 million female romance readers and all sources agreed they constitute a major part of the supermarket population. Charis McEachern, a communications manager at RWA, said 10% of romance novels are bought at supermarkets. Retail distribution also includes mall bookstores, 41%; mass merchandisers, 18%; and book clubs, 12%. According to the RWA Web site, romance novels make up 58.2% of popular paperback fiction, reaching a staggering $1.35 billion in 1999 sales.
"People like them because they're a good read, an escape for women," said Terry Allphin, a store manager at a Sherm's Thunderbird Supermarket, Medford, Ore. His particular store showcases the novels in a box-like reading center, where best sellers, inspirational books and kids' books are also housed.
A grocery sales manager for a nationwide retailer said his division merchandises the romance novels on book waterfalls, away from the regular reading center. "It's a way to catch that impulse sale, a second opportunity to appeal to the customer," he said. Both best-seller stand-alone novels and Harlequin category books are sold at this chain.
"The best-seller list really drives the category," he said, noting that romance sales have been flat for him in the past six months. "As time becomes more valuable, people are making careful choices as to what they read," he said. Book signings, word-of-mouth, recommendations by friends and Oprah's Book Club have helped the whole book category, according to this sales manager.
Mike Tetmeyer, vice president of marketing at Hy-Vee Food Stores, Des Moines, Iowa, also said that while sales in the category have been flat, romance is certainly not dead. "Consumers always go for the escape factor, and the hype they put on the front of the book attracts people, as well," he said.
Bob Mann, book category manager at an Anderson News Co. division office in Lakewood, Wash., said recent sales have been flat, but former romance writers crossing over to more mainstream books has been a big trend. He does not see the romance category going away anytime soon. "There's always room for romance," he said.
Michelle Fisher, a category analyst for books at Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway, disagreed that sales are static. "There is a tremendous strength in the romance sections." She said that the emergence of certain blockbuster authors like Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown and Linda Howard, who have gone mainstream, have made a strong impact to backlists.
"When people go back to older titles after reading an author's latest novel it is great," she said. "We just have to make those titles available." For instance, Fisher said Safeway has been re-releasing old Sandra Brown titles.
Random House's Bantam/Dell deputy publisher and senior vice president, Nita Taublib, New York, said romance novel enthusiasts certainly are insatiable for their romance fix. She said they are prolific readers, an asset to supermarkets.
"Most romance readers read a great deal," said Taublib. "Supermarkets are stores you have to go to at least once a week, and these readers finish a book by the time they go back there,"said Taublib.
Times are changing, though, and the old-fashioned "damsel in distress" stereotype appears less often in plotlines. According to Taublib, the relationship between the two protagonists is no longer the primary reason to read the book; romance novels are more plot-driven, the characters are more developed, and many subgenres like romantic comedies and romantic suspense have flourished.
Category romances are still very much alive in the supermarkets, according to Katherine Orr, the vice president of public relations at Toronto-based Harlequin Enterprises. Harlequin and one of its three imprints, Silhouette, account for approximately one in every six mass-market paperbacks sold in North America. The company's statistics show that Harlequin sells 160 million books worldwide each year, or 5.5 books per second.
"It was the vision of our chairman emeritus [Larry Heisey] to put our books where women shop, and to keep the prices down," said Orr. She said an average Harlequin novel runs between $2.95 and $4.99, while a blockbuster stand-alone title under the Mira imprint sells for approximately $6.95.