Category romance

A Brief Look at Category Romance

Category lines are one of the cornerstones of the romance novel industry. We’ll delve deeper into each line as we document the genre’s past at Sweet Savage Flame. We’ll also be adding more pages to the site. As always, you can access pages via the top MENU. Please follow us via e-mail to stay informed of our latest updates.

What Is Category Romance?

Category romance, also known as series romance, differs from long-form, single edition romances in several ways. Most notably is the length. Category romances run 55,000 – 70,000 words. They range from novelette-length of 150 pages to a short novel of 300 pages. As their name implies, they are sorted into category lines and defined by tropes.

A trope is a common device in stories that (presumably) appeals to readers. It can be a type of plot, kind of character, theme, or setting writers employ because of familiarity. Some examples are Highland Scots, second chance at love, playboy billionaires, or arranged marriages.

All genre fiction use tropes in some way. Time travel, artificial intelligence, chosen one Messiahs, and space travel are a few one would find in Science Fiction. Tropes are not clichés. Clichés are ideas that are so overused they become trite. They irritate rather than engage. Such found in romance would be the spunky heroine who stomps her foot when angered or purple-prose phrases like “whirling vortex of desire” to describe sex scenes.

What is a line or an imprint? A publishing house creates and distributes books. Publishers use different trade names or imprints, to market their books to the appropriate audiences. A line is a category, or series, of books written by various authors that, while usually unrelated, share commonalities such as heat level, length, and tropes employed.

Historical or Contemporary, What’s the Difference?

Harlequin is a publisher of romances. They have numerous category lines, such as Presents, Intrigue, and Historicals.

Kensington Books is a publisher as well. Zebra is one of their imprints. The historical Lovegram and Heartfire books were two of Zebra’s lines. Many other publishers, like Harlequin, have released historical romance lines. Then, why don’t we at Sweet Savage Flame classify these as category romances?

There are several reasons:

  1. Generally speaking, publishers didn’t number historical categories like contemporary series romance.
  2. At 300-600 pages, they run at a greater length than usual category romances.
  3. We try to separate historical from category and contemporary romances as they have different lineages and genre conventions.

When we review books from historical category lines, such as Harlequin Masquerade, Harlequin Historical, and Signet Regency, please note that we file them under Historical Romance Reviews. If the books have a number, we provide that information.

The Yankee
The Yankee, Kristin James, Harlequin, 1990, Max Ginsburg cover art

Mills & Boon

Mills & Boon is the big grandmama of category romance. They originated in 1908 in the United Kingdom as a general publisher. Fortuitously enough, their first book released happened to be a romance, Sophie Cole’s Arrows from the Dark. However, romance would not be Mills & Boon’s primary focus until the 1930s.

Mills & Boon sold their romances mainly to lending libraries. They produced brown, hardcover books which were instantly recognizable. A UK-based company, they never directly released their books in North America. They distributed them through Harlequin. In 1971 Harlequin Ltd bought out Mills & Boon.

Mills & Boon’s romances were almost always told from a third-person perspective that focused on the heroine. Usually, they left the hero’s thoughts unknown. Only through his words and deeds did the heroine, and thus the reader, know how he felt about her. The stoic, inscrutable hero would be a staple of the genre for decades.


Harlequin Ltd. was founded in 1949 as a Canadian company that printed paperback editions of previously published works. Mysteries, westerns, and historical fiction were among their reprints. The first romance Harlequin published was Nancy Bruff’s The Manatee in 1949. Medical romances were popular in the 1950s and 1960s, so Harlequin capitalized on the market, reprinting them as early as 1953. These were huge sellers for the company.


In 1957, Harlequin entered into a partnership with Mills & Boon, where they established the North American publishing rights to their romances. The first Mills & Boon released as a Harlequin Romance was The Hospital in Buwambo by Anne Vinton (#407). By 1960, Harlequin would release category romance exclusively. The books would never extend into the bedroom. They consisted of no more than kisses and passionate embraces. If there were any love-making scenes, they were between married partners and never explicit but written in a “fade to black” sense.

Harlequin purchased Mills & Boon outright in 1971, significantly expanding their library. By 1972 the monumental revolution in the industry and culture would lead to major changes at Harlequin.

Contrasts, Rowan Kirby, Harlequin, Frank Kalan cover art


In response to the radical sexual transformation of the 1970s, Harlequin created the Presents line. In the beginning, these were just reprints of “steamy” Mills & Boons repackaged and rebranded. Authors Anne Hampson, Anne Mather, and Violet Winspear would be the sole producers of Presents romances for the first couple of years. Cover artist Don Sinclair would create new artwork for the first 100+ editions of Presents.

More sensual in nature than Romances, Presents would move beyond kisses, often using euphemisms to convey sex. However, it would be a while before plots contained explicitly detailed scenes. Intercourse between unmarried partners, particularly the kind that wasn’t considered “forced seduction,” was still years away. Usual tropes included arranged or forced marriages, Greek or Latin millionaires, and widowed heroines who had never experienced true sexual pleasure.

Harlequin Presents has been and remains the world’s best-selling category line.

Gates of Steel, Anne Hampson, Harlequin, 1973, Don Sinclair cover art


With the creation of the Silhouette imprint and other competitors arising in the early 1980s, Harlequin would introduce new lines to keep up with the changes. The SuperRomance line was one of them. Category romances generally ran under 200 pages in length. In the 1970s, thick doorstopper epics ruled the day. Harlequin released extended-length romances to enable more character development or longer plots. These were similar to the standard Romance line but contained about 100-150 pages more.

The End of Innocence, Abra Taylor, Harlequin, 1980, Will Davies cover art

American Romance

Another series that Harlequin introduced in the early 1980s was the American Romance line. They had published authors from outside the United States, primarily the UK, as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Indeed, Janet Dailey was Harlequin’s only American author until she moved to Silhouette. Nora Roberts was famously rejected by Harlequin, who declared they only needed one Yankee. The American Romance line was created to allow for more familiar settings written by American authors.

change of life
Change of Life, Judith Arnold, Harlequin, 1990, cover artist unknown


In 1983, Harlequin would produce their most sensual line yet: Temptation. These took place in America or Canada, although they could be set in other nations. The protagonists were usually both North American. This series featured people from all walks of life: ordinary Joes and Janes to the jet-set. The first Temptation released was an unnumbered special edition. The line officially began with Lavyrle’s Spencer’s Spring Fancy. These books ran in between the length of the Presents and SuperRomance series, fewer than 250 pages.

forever mine valentine
Forever Mine, Valentine Vicki Lewis Thompson, Harlequin, 1990 Danny Crouse cover art


In 1980, big-name publisher and distributor Simon and Schuster would enter the romance field. They had in the past distributed Harlequins throughout North America. Now they were in direct opposition with the company. Simon & Schuster’s entry into the genre would start the “Romance Publishing Wars.”


The Silhouette Romance series was to compete with the Harlequin Romance line. These books were “sweet” in nature. Like Harlequin Romances, they usually did not include sex scenes and certainly not explicit ones. Mills & Boon/ Harlequin author Anne Hampson famously left Harlequin to produce the first books for Silhouette. Janet Dailey, Fern Michaels, Nora Roberts would write for Silhouette. Silhouette Romances featured more familiar American settings, as well as some foreign ones.


Before there were Harlequin Temptations, there was the Silhouette Desire series. Silhouette created them in 1982. This was a more sexually charged line than had ever been seen before. They were set in North America and written by North Americans. Silhouette Desire #1 was Corporate Affair by Stephanie James (aka Jayne A. Krentz). Elizabeth Lowell, Lass Small, Diana Palmer, and Brenda Jackson all penned romances for Desire.

ready willing and abel
Ready Willing and Abel, Nancy Martin, Silhouette, 1990, cover artist unknown

Intimate Moments

Romantic journeywoman Candace Camp would have the privilege of releasing the first Silhouette Intimate Moments romance in 1983, Dreams of Evening, under her pen-name Kristin James. These romances ran over 200 pages and focused on issues of the day that affected all couples. Toward the new millennium, the line would change to deal primarily with romantic suspense or action-oriented plots.

a Perfect Marriage
A Perfect Marriage, Laurey Bright, Silhouette, 1995, cover artist unknown

Special Edition

Silhouette Special Edition romances began publication in 1982, with Janet Dailey’s Terms of Surrender. Simon & Schuster had poached her talents from Harlequin. These romances were not only openly sexual but emotionally so. They dealt with all sorts of deep relationship issues. Authors such as Debbie Macomber would write for the line.


Dell started publishing paperbacks in 1943, the early years of the American paperback revolution. They published just about everything in their day: reprints of older works, mysteries, westerns, puzzles & crossword books, joke books, and, of course, romance. In the late 1960s, they created a line dedicated to romance.

Candlelight Romance

These books were published from 1967 to 1982. Dell Candlelight Romances initially began as medical romances, then later included Gothic, historicals, and contemporary. This line should be noted for publishing Entwined Destinies by Rosalind Welles in 1980. It was the first category romance written by an African American author to feature Black protagonists.

Entwined Destinies, Rosalind Welles, Dell, 1980, cover artist TBD

Candlelight Ecstasy Romance

Legendary African-American editor Vivian Stephens founded the Candlelight Ecstasy Romance in 1980. These books ran about the same length as Harlequin Romances or Presents, about 188-190 pages. They were a more sensual and erotically charged series than the standard Candlelight Romances. This line ran for about seven years.

dedicated man
The Dedicated Man, Lass Small, Dell, 1983cover artist unknown

Candlelight Ecstasy Supreme

In 1983 Dell expanded their stable of romances further by launching the Candlelight Ecstasy Supreme line. These books were longer than the Candlelight Ecstasy Romances by 100 pages, allowing for more in-depth plotlines and deeper emotional content. The line was successful but only lasted until 1987. A conglomerate acquired Dell in 1986 and merged the company with Bantam & Doubleday. Dell would continue to produce romance novels, but only as single-edition, full-length works.

Man in Control
Man in Control, Alice Morgan, Dell, 1984, cover artist unknown


Bantam was formed in 1945 as a paperback publisher. It has been purchased over the years by numerous corporations. It exists today as an imprint of Random House Publishers, one of the “Big Five” Publishing houses.


Editor Carolyn Nichols founded the Loveswept imprint to focus on big-name authors. The contemporary category series ran from 1983 to 1999, for almost 1000 editions. Sandra Brown’s Heaven’s Price was the first book released. This line was different from the other series of its time, as it had no strict adherence to tropes. The stories ranged from angsty to humorous. Heroes could be billionaires, military men, bikers, scientists, or the neighbor next door. Writers had a lot of leeway to create the stories they wanted. They only had to include romantic love scenes and stick to the page count, which ran a little over 200 in number. Janet Evanovich, Iris Johansen, Suzanne Brockmann, and Kay Hooper were authors who wrote for Loveswept.

Time enough for love
Time Enough For Love, Suzanne Brockmann, Bantam, 1997, Ed Tadiello cover Art

2 replies »

  1. Hi, Jacqueline.

    Thank you for this article about the beginnings of the romance novel industry and its various publishers and imprints. I look forward to reading more of these articles in the future.

    • Much appreciated, Blue Falcon! There’s so much history behind all the publsihing houses and imprints, I figured I’d start with a general article and add more articles to the pages.

      Hope you’re keeping on keeping on! All my best!

Please drop a comment and let's talk romance!