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Discover Mid-America — April 2009

Collecting romance novels makes for happy endings
by Sylvia Forbes

Everyone likes a good story, and some of the most satisfying are those with happy endings.

According to the Romance Writers of America, a romance novel has two main elements ­ a central love story and an optimistic ending. When taking into account the fact that romance novels have been published for many years, and that there is a wide diversity in authors, settings, plots and styles, it seems natural that they have become collector’s items.

No one really knows how long romance novels have been published, but all agree that the genre started hundreds of years ago. Some credit its origins in the medieval ages, while others argue that it started even earlier. Romances in the medieval age included adventure, chivalry as well as romance as parts of the plot.

In 1740, Samuel Richardson wrote Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, helping to usher in the Romantic Period. This story of courtship was told from the viewpoint of the heroine, and finished with a happy ending. Many consider this to be the first “real” romance novel. Others followed, including All For Love by John Dryden in 1764.

In 1813, during the Regency Period, Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, which some consider the ultimate romance. The Regency Period, from 1811 to 1820, is named because the British King at the time, George III, was declared unfit to rule so his son, George IV, was declared Prince Regent and ruled in his place. While Jane Austen lived during the Regency Period and set her stories in that time, another notable writer, Georgette Heyer, writing 100 or more years later, also set many of her stories in the Regency Period and became an expert on it from studying historical documents.

Next came the Victorian era, from the 1830s to around 1900, and romances by the Bronte sisters became famous, with Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights, both published in 1847.

Romances continued to be written through the turn of the century, and by the 1920s were a regular part of publishing, with Peg O’ My Heart by J. Hartley Manners, published in 1922, and Bachelor Husband by R.M. Ayers, two of the better selling titles. Many romances were now being sold through mail order, including racier titles such as Her Faithful Heart, Vengeance of Love, Redeemed by Love and Hearts of Fire.

Romance was in full bloom by the latter 1920s with such absorbing and dramatic bestsellers as Bandit Love by Juanita Savage, Birds Got to Fly by Ruth Blodgett and Love’s Ecstasy by May Christie. In 1928, Love’s Ecstasy had been stirringly billed as “the story of a country girl who followed love’s becoming call to a great city.”

During the 1930s, romantic novels found even greater audiences with a boy-meets-girl-and complications formula like those found in Adam And Some Eves by Concordia Merre. It was a novel “in which Adam learns about two kinds of love,” by an author who had written similar titles. Popular author Faith Baldwin contributed to the era with such titles as Beauty, Weekend Marriage and Men Are Such Fools. For the more worldly reader there was Europe At Love by Paul Morand and Sanie, A Russian Love Story by Michael Artzibashev.

Despite the Great Depression, it was obvious that romance novels were more than holding their own. The Sears and Roebuck catalog of 1937 included a section, which proudly offered “Glorious Romances.” Among the choices was Beauty for Ashes by Garee Hill. “It begins in sadness but ends in abiding happiness,” noted the promotion, which added an assurance about “the warmth of young love.”

One of the country’s most prolific hearts and flowers writers of the 1930s and early 1940s was Kathleen Norris who churned out such books with a proverbial passion. Secret Marriage featured Mary Burleigh who at 19 was “penniless and secretly married to her first love before she met the man she really wanted.” Next in Heartbroken Melody, Norris, as America’s greatest romantic novelist, tells the story of a girl in the world of business that learned how unsatisfactory office love can be. Still later Norris contributed the novel Burned Fingers about “a girl who mistakes false love for truelove and many, many others.

Another major romance novelist was Mignon Eberhart who filled the market in the late 1940s and 1950s with sweeping love stories like The Chiffon Scarf, which she penned for Triangle Books. Couples wrote romances too, including Graeme and Sarah Lorimer who produced Heart Specialist “all about young love” and Men Are Like Street Cars.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s a slightly different type of kiss-and-tell type of adventure was available to those so inclined. Not to worry, even the “modern” romance novel tended to follow basically the same boy-meets-girl formula that had appealed to earlier generations.

“The two have an immediate attraction but are separated by their own personalities or other impediments,” note Dawn Reno and Jacque Tiegs in the very informative book, Collecting Romance Novels. “Then, somewhere near the end of the book, they recognized the depth of their love for one another and overcome all obstacles in their path. Of course, in the happy ending, boy and girl are together.”

By the late 1950s, Harlequin had started publishing romances. Founded in 1949 in Canada by Richard Bonnycastle, the company didn’t start publishing romances until buying out publisher Mills & Boon, a British publisher of romances, which had been publishing romances since the 1930s. They started distributing in the United States in 1957. By about 1965, with the success of their romance division, Harlequin switched to publishing only romance novels.

The birth of the modern romance era is considered to have begun with Avon’s publishing of The Flame and the Flower, by Kathleen Woodiwiss, in 1972. This novel, which sold 2.35 million copies, was different in several ways. First, it was the first romance to be published directly as a paperback, without starting first as a hardcover. Next, it was sold mass market — in drug stores and supermarkets, rather than only in bookstores. As far as content, it was groundbreaking in that it was the first romance novel to “go into the bedroom.”

Romance novel sales exploded with mass marketing. By the 1980s, the modern romance was well established, and contemporary settings became commonplace, rather than only historical settings. Heroines became more independent, strong women rather than helpless ones, and some series became more sexually explicit. Since the 1980s, the genre has broadened dramatically, to include a wide variety of romance, from paranormal, fantasy and inspirational, all the way to vampire romances and romantica (which is erotic romance).

Harlequin is the top publisher of the romance genre today. They publish 120 books each month, in 29 languages and in 107 countries. They sold over 130 million books in 2007 alone. Over the lifetime of their company, they have sold more than 5.6 billion books.

Sylvia Forbes is a freelance writer based in Fayette, MO. Robert Reed with Antique & Collectible News Service contributed to this article.

How to collect books

There are general rules of thumb for collecting any type of book. Here are some of the main things to look for:

Condition. Bindings should be secure and pages should be in good condition, not torn or dog-eared, not missing, not written on. Covers should be present, clean and not bent or torn. A mint condition book is the best type of book to collect. However, if a collector finds one of the few remaining copies of a rare book, condition is less important. In most cases, a book with torn pages, a bent cover, a loose spine or chewed by the family dog is not considered collectible.

Dust Jackets. For hardcover books, they are an asset and add to the value of the book as well as protecting it. However, paperback romances don’t usually have dust covers.

First Editions. The first printing of a book is almost always considered the most valuable. Usually they are clearly marked, but not always. Sometimes it appears confusing because a book may be printed, then sold to another publisher and printed again.

Book Club Editions. Most collectors aren’t interested in book club editions or library editions. However, if a collector is filling in a series and has no others available, it is helpful.

Signed books. Sometimes collectors get lucky and find a signed copy or one with a personal message from the author. Always check the first pages of a book to see if there are any signatures. It’s always exciting to find a book with a signature or special markings that have been missed by the seller.

What to collect

There are an unlimited number of ways to collect romance books. With the thousands of books available, one of the most rewarding ways is just to choose and save books that a person enjoys reading. No matter what the future value, the book has already delivered its worth in reading pleasure. However, below are more specific ways that collectors develop their romance collections.

1. Specific Authors. One great way to collect is to find all the titles by a particular author. For a little help in finding popular authors and books, the Romantic Times has published a list of the top 1001 best romances at Romance Reader has narrowed their list to the top 100 romances, at The Romance Writers of America posts an annual list of those writers who have made the bestseller lists of the New York Times, Publishers Weekly and USA Today at

2. Limited Runs. Some of the publishing companies, or their company imprints, issued only limited runs of their books. A few of these include Silhouette, Harlequin and Loveswept. It is usually harder to find books that had limited runs when they were published, and this often raises the value.

3. Cover Art. Some people collect romance books just because of the beautiful artwork on the cover. Artists such as John Ennis, Pino Daeni and Jon Paul are well known for their skill in painting portraits. Another way to collect art is to collect the covers featuring a certain model. Fabio is probably the most recognized name as far as romance cover models, but there are many others, such as Jack Hartnett, Mike Dale and John DeSalvo.

4. Sub-Genres. Readers often find that they enjoy reading one particular sub-genre over another, whether it is a time-travel romance, inspirational romance, intrigue, gothic, western romance, paranormal, multicultural, fantasy, vampire romance or one of the other types of romances available. Some authors write in more than one sub-genre, so collectors will need to figure out which titles fit in their collection.

5. Series. Serial romances are romances that are released in numerical order, usually on a monthly basis. Some series are relatively small at 50 titles, while Harlequin Presents is one of the largest at around 3,000 titles and still growing. Collectors can decide on a specific series of books to collect, such as the first hundred books published by Silhouette or the entire Loveswept Series (Note that the first 10 books were not numbered of the 200 book series). Some collectors like the added challenge of finding romance series that are no longer being published, such as Kismet and Rapture Romance. Series have even been written by one author, such as the Janet Dailey Americana Series published by Harlequin, in which author Janet Dailey wrote a romance situated in each state in the U.S.

6. Other Possibilities. Collectors can be creative in the way they develop their collection. Some try to collect all the books written with the setting in a particular state, while others collect books with the exact same titles but written by different authors. Some look for bloopers, mistakes painted on the cover or obvious mistakes made in the book, such as calling a character by the wrong name in one chapter.


Just like other collectibles, condition, scarcity and age are three of the top determining factors as to what a romance novel will bring. Add another factor — author, for romance novels. Prices vary widely, and romances can be bought for as little as a dime at yard sales or more than $1,000 online. As examples, books published by Jayne Bentley (who also wrote as Jayne Ann Krentz, Jayne Castle and Stephanie James) in the 1970s may go for up to $60, the original printing of books by Diana Palmer may go for $4-5, and the original books of Betty Neels can run from $2-5. For more specific details on which particular books by which authors are most collectible, obtain the book by Dawn Reno and Jacque Tiegs, titled Collecting Romance Novels.

Future of Romance Collecting

Currently, the romance genre is booming and doesn’t show signs of diminishing. However, romance publishers are now developing alternative forms of delivery and reading. Services such as DailyLit allow readers to read books through e-mail and RSS installments. LibreDigtial, an Internet digital warehouse, digitizes printed books into electronic book format, called ebooks, which are then readable on a variety of electronic devices. It is too early to tell whether any of these types of formats will become “collectible.” Currently, digital forms of romance books comprise only about 1% of the romance market.

With the millions of romance books still in existence, romance collectors will have plenty of choices for collecting in the years to come. And, like the end of a romance, the happy ending to this article is that now collectors have enough info to start building their own unique and rewarding romance book collections.

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