For years, Lana Popovic Harper wrote novels for a pittance she described as “jars of pennies.” So when her new project drew bids from seven publishers, she was thrilled. Stunned, really: The book was a romance about two women. Two women who happen to be witches.
“It was completely surreal to me,” Harper said. “People really wanted these queer witches.”
L.G.B.T.Q. romance novels have been around for decades, but they have been a quiet presence, almost entirely self-published or put out by small niche presses, and often shelved separately from other romances in bookstores. Now, they are coming from the biggest publishers in the industry. They are prominently displayed at independent bookstores and on the shelves at Walmart, and advertised on New York City subway platforms. And when Harper’s book, “Payback’s a Witch,” was published last fall, it became a best seller.
“L.G.B.T.Q. romance is booming,” said Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble.
In many ways, this echoes a broader cultural shift. Gay characters were once confined to niche markets, or to peripheral roles and tragic endings in the mainstream — a tendency that spawned the sardonic catchphrase “bury your gays.” No longer. An L.G.B.T.Q. romance novel, in fact, promises two things: It will have L.G.B.T.Q. characters at its center, and the main couple (or thruple!) will have a happy ending.
“People want to see themselves,” said Laynie Rose Rizer, the assistant store manager at East City Bookshop in Washington, D.C. “Customers will come in and say, ‘I just want something that’s gay and happy.’ And I’m like, ‘I have ten different options for you.’”
According to NPD BookScan, which tracks the sales of most printed books sold in the United States, about 850,000 L.G.B.T.Q. romance novels sold at traditional retail outlets in 2021 — a 740 percent increase over a five-year period, and more than double the number sold in 2020.
The category remains a small piece of the market, according to BookScan — just 4 percent of the romance books sold in print last year. But the growth came even as many books with themes about L.G.B.T.Q. life aimed at children and young adults were banned in classrooms and schools around the country.
Some recent and upcoming titles in the category include “D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding,” published by a relatively new Harlequin imprint, Carina Adores, that only produces L.G.B.T.Q. romance; “Love and Other Disasters,” about the first openly nonbinary contestant on a cooking show; “The Lights on Knockbridge Lane,” a Christmas book with two men canoodling on the cover; and “A Lady For a Duke,” which features a transgender heroine.
The cover of another, “The Perks of Loving a Wallflower,” looks very much like a typical historical romance novel — period outfits, elaborate hairstyles — until it doesn’t. The two people wrapped in each other’s arms are women.
Photographs for the cover were taken in New York City in December 2020, a difficult time to take pictures of models cuddling, but executives at Forever, the book’s publisher, felt they had to find a way.
On Being Transgender in America
“There’s not a lot of stock, believe it or not, for lesbian regency romance,” said Leah Hultenschmidt, the book’s editor.
Forever hired two models who were a couple in real life so they could nuzzle for the camera without violating Covid safety protocols. The book was sold widely, not only in bookstores but also in pharmacies, grocery stores and Walmart.
One book that is often cited by booksellers and publishing executives as a turning point for the genre is “Red, White & Royal Blue,” by Casey McQuiston. A love story about the Prince of Wales and the American president’s son, it was published in 2019 by St. Martin’s Griffin, with an initial print run of 15,000 copies. Its publisher said it now has more than 1.3 million copies in print across formats.
McQuiston, who uses they/them pronouns, said their books are written for and about queer people, but they have also heard a lot of, “Oh, my mom and her book club are reading that.”
“When a book has the ability to cross over and be embraced by mainstream readers and be more pop culture-friendly, I think that is really important,” they said. “It’s sad to say, but there is still this level of humanization that we need.”
McQuiston’s second book, “One Last Stop,” which was published last year, was also a hit. A novel about time travel and lesbians — with sex scenes in the New York City subways — it made the New York Times best-seller list, was chosen as one of the best books of the year by several news outlets, and was considered by Jimmy Fallon for his summer reading book club last year.
“The thought of the random cross-section of America who watches The Tonight Show reading about lesbian oral sex on the subway was going to break my brain,” McQuiston said, laughing.
Some of McQuiston’s success can be traced to TikTok, where viral book recommendations have become a significant force in book selling. Rizer, from East City Bookshop, has more than 67,000 followers on the platform, and said it makes books from very specific genres easier to find.
“If you want a Sapphic enemies-to-lovers fantasy book, you can put all those words on TikTok and find 15 recommendations,” she said. “I don’t need to read a paragraph on why the book is good. I just need to know that it’s gay and it slaps and they’re going to kiss.”
The best way to sell people on a romance, Rizer said, is to sell its tropes. Publishers agree
Not every romance novel adheres to a trope, but many do — and romance readers often have favorites. Opposing sports teams, for example, is a big one. St. Martin’s Griffin recently bought a lesbian romance about rival soccer teammates called “Cleat Cute.”
Others popular tropes include: enemies to lovers. Friends to lovers. There’s only one bed. Amnesia. Time travel. The secret prince. The secret millionaire. And the secret baby.
“The secret baby is hard to do in queer fiction,” said Jeff Adams, a romance author and co-host of the Big Gay Fiction Podcast. “But it happens.”
The use of tropes doesn’t mean these books should be dismissed as predictable or hollow, readers say. Whether they center on rival hockey teams, Regency gentlemen or vampires, these novels can be full of humanity and creativity.
“There’s a lot more going on behind the tropes,” Hultenschmidt said. “But ‘one bed’ is awesome. Who doesn’t love ‘one bed?’”
Snobbishness around romance novels is a longstanding tradition, and one that the industry is trying to shed. Many romance novels today are published as trade paperbacks — the size of general fiction novels, as opposed to the traditional mass market format — with illustrated covers, which look great on tiny screens and are generally more subtle than a photo of a sexy man with his shirt open, clutching a lady in period garb.
“We go to great lengths to package books so that we will connect with the widest possible audience,” said Anne Marie Tallberg, publishing director at St. Martin’s Publishing Group, “and not get tied up by a snootiness factor.”
For many years, industry executives say, the assumption was that if you were reading a book about gay people, you yourself were gay. Now, publishers are looking beyond readers who identify as L.G.B.T.Q.
“Here’s to Us,” a romance about two young men, was advertised this year in New York City’s subway.
By contrast, about eight years ago, when the author Alyssa Cole told her editor she wanted to write a romance novel about two women — called F/F in industry parlance, for female-female — an editor gave her the go-ahead, but also a warning.
“She said, ‘I’m not telling you not to write this book, but F/F books don’t really sell,’” Cole recalled. “This was back in 2013 or 2014, and she wasn’t wrong.”
But Cole’s most recent book, “How to Find a Princess,” which has a picture of two Black women pressing their bodies together on the cover, was on the shelves at Walmart stores and other major retailers around the country.
Leah Koch, a co-owner of the romance-focused bookstore Ripped Bodice in Los Angeles, said that when she and her sister opened their store six years ago, their L.G.B.T.Q. section was “a little bit pitiful,” occupying one shelf of mostly cheaply-printed books.
“When you take the publishers individually, it’s still really low,” she said of the output of L.G.B.T.Q. romance. But, she added, “when you combine them with the self-published and indie publishers, which we still carry, you have a nice, robust-looking section.”
Len Barot is the president of Bold Strokes Books, which has been publishing L.G.B.T.Q. romance since 2004. She hopes the increased production from big houses will be good for her business, too.
“There are going to be people who would never have picked up a gay romance or a lesbian romance who may see an ad in the subway,” she said. “But if they start to see these books, they’re probably going to trip over our books, which is good for everyone.”