We delve into a brief history of category (aka series) romance, including its origins, common features, and notable publishers.
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Table of Contents
- A Brief History of Series Romance
- What Is Category Romance?
- Historical or Contemporary, What’s the Difference?
- Mills and Boon
A Brief History of Series Romance
Category lines, or series romance, 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 email to stay informed of our latest updates.
What Is Category Romance?
Category or Series Romance
Category romance, or series romance, differs from long-form, single-edition romances in several ways. Most notable is the length. Category romances run from 55,000 to 70,000 words. These range from 150 pages to a short novel of 300 pages. As the name implies, they are sorted into category “lines.” Tropes also define them.
Tropes are common devices in stories that appeal to readers. They can be a type of plot, character, theme, or setting that writers use because of familiarity. Some examples are Highland Scots, second-chance-at-love, playboy billionaires, or arranged marriages.
All genre fiction uses tropes in some way. Time travel, artificial intelligence, chosen one Messiahs, and space travel are a few examples of Science Fiction tropes.
Tropes are not clichés. Clichés are ideas that are so overused they become trite. They irritate rather than engage. Examples that are 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.
Romance Lines or Imprints
What is a line or an imprint? A line is a category, or series, of books written by assorted authors that, while usually unrelated, share commonalities. These can be heat level, book-length, and tropes employed.
A publishing house creates and distributes books. Publishers use trade names, or imprints, to market their books to the appropriate audiences.
Historical or Contemporary, What’s the Difference?
Harlequin is a publisher of romances. They have numerous category lines, such as Presents, Intrigue, and Historical.
Kensington Books is also a publisher. Zebra is one of their imprints. The historical Lovegram and Heartfire books were two of Zebra’s lines. Many other publishers, like Harlequin, have also released historical romance lines.
Why don’t we at Sweet Savage Flame classify these lines as category romances?
There are several reasons:
- Generally speaking, publishers didn’t number historical categories like contemporary series romance.
- These books run 300-600 pages at a greater length than usual category romances.
- At Sweet Savage Flame, 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.
Mills and Boon
Mills & Boon is the big grandmother of category romance. They originated in 1908 in the United Kingdom as a general publisher. Fortuitously enough, their first book released also happened to be a romance, Sophie Cole’s Arrows from the Dark. Romance would not be Mills & Boon’s primary focus until the 1930s, however.
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.
The Romance Series
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.
The Presents Series
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.
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.
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.
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.
These books ran between the length of the Presents and SuperRomance series, fewer than 250 pages.
The first Temptation released was an unnumbered special edition. The line officially began with Lavyrle’s Spencer’s Spring Fancy.
In 1980, big-name publisher and distributor Simon and Schuster entered the romance field. They had, in the past, distributed Harlequins throughout North America.
Now they were in direct opposition to 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, and 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 publishers created the erotic series 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).
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.
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.
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 the Candlelight series, a line dedicated to romance.
These books were published from 1967 to 1982. Dell Candlelight Romances initially began as medical romances, then later included Gothic, historical, and contemporary.
This line should be noted for the publication of Entwined Destinies by Rosalind Welles in 1980. It was the first category romance written by an African-American author to feature Black protagonists.
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 and was incredibly innovative.
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.
Bantam was formed in 1945 as a paperback publisher. It has been purchased over the years by numerous corporations. Bantam books exist today as an imprint of Random House Publishers, one of the “Big Five” (formerly Big Six) 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 series was different from the others 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 next-door neighbors.
Writers had lots of leeway to create the stories they wanted. They only needed to stay within the 200-page limit and include a few warm to sensuous love scenes.
Janet Evanovich, Sandra Brown, Iris Johansen, Suzanne Brockmann, and Kay Hooper were authors who wrote for Loveswept.
- Confessions of a Category Romance Reader
- Mills and Boon Archive Library
- Rob Imes Blog Category Romance
- Romance Book List at Weebly.com
- RWA Romance Trailblazers
- Top Three Reasons Why Harlequins Are So Satisfying
- Vintage Nurse Novels
- Wikipedia – Dell Publishing
- Wikipedia – Harlequin Enterprises