Categorically speaking: Which imprints are publishing category romance?

Categorically speaking: Which imprints are publishing category romance?

Kathleen O'Reilly backlistA call to authors and publishers to identify category romance imprints.

A recent conversation in the ARRA loop has raised an issue that I’ve been struggling with for some time now: How is category romance defined?

The answer used to be easy, because, well, that was pretty much the many flavours of Mills & Boon. Now, however, with new romance imprints popping up or being resurrected, and with the greater flexibility afforded to digital imprints, it’s become difficult to identify exactly which books are categories and which books are not.

Some of the issues that came up include:

– Word count limits (minimum and maximum)
– Imprints with specific story guidelines rather than simple subgenre branding
– Whether or not a publisher has to identify a book as a category romance in order for it to be considered as such

Although these questions stemmed from a desire to set guidelines around book awards, I think it’s a broader discussion worth having. My experience of category romances has been that while the shorter word count is a characteristic of these books, what makes them category romances are the set of reader expectations and writing conventions that form part of the line. So although we tend to lump these books together as category romance, in fact comparing them may be just as difficult as it would be to compare paranormal romance and historical romance, for example.

So there are a lot of things we can talk about when it comes to defining category romance, but for now let’s start with something easy: If you’re an author or you work for a publisher of category romance, I’d love it if you can identify which imprints publish category romance by commenting on this post. If you prefer, feel free to send me the information via email.

My goal is that once we have a definitive—though by no means static, as imprints tend to come and go—list, we can use it as a starting point to talk about the differences and similarities between the imprints, and also if how publishers define category romance is changing. More practically, I’m hoping that such a list will at least help ARRA when it comes to determining whether or not nominated books are eligible to be called category romances.

Kat Mayo is a freelance writer, podcaster, Twitter tragic, and compulsive reader. Her reviews have appeared in Books+Publishing, and she was the winner of the 2014 RWA Romance Media Award. She believes in happy endings, and kills fairies with glee.


  1. Liz Harris says:

    What an interesting posting.

    In the past, I tried my hand at a Mills & Boon, following their guidelines for the word count minimum and maximum, and for the lack of subplot, for example.  I read a number of HMBs at the time, and felt that the short length was essential wihere there were such constraints on plotting.

    A full-length novel (90,000 to 100,000 words) generally requires a subplot, more characters than traditional category fiction, and more in-depth characterisation, but these would not be expected by the reader who picks up a category fiction novel.  Such a reader is looking for a few moments of escapism from the real world, and that’s what Mills & Boon and category fiction imprints deliver.

    When I read the HMBs, I was struck by the similarities of theme, and wonder whether this might be another determinant of category fiction – the novels tend to repeat the same themes.  The secret baby/child springs instantly to mind, and the sheik theme. 

    In addition, the hero and heroine effectively fancy each other from the moment that they meet, even if they don’t recognise this.  Their character depictions involve an element of fantasy – the alpha male is larger than life and the heroine is beautiful, even if she purportedly starts out otherwise.  

    Category fiction novels are wish-fulfillment novels, through which the reader can escape reality. 

    Although I now write mainstream fiction (Choc Lit), I look forward to seeing the conclusions you come to after the responses you receive. 


  2. Category fiction novels are wish-fulfillment novels, through which the reader can escape reality. 

    I definitely don’t think this is true of all category romances. The Harlequin Superromance, line, for instance, is known for tackling some difficult issues and usually features protagonists with relatively “normal” backgrounds. Conversely, there are a huge number of single-title romances which feature paranormal or aristocratic protagonists and can easily be considered “wish-fulfillment.” Also, even the most “escapist” romances can have elements which are emotionally realistic or touch on serious real-world issues.
    I know this isn’t going to be much help in an age of digital publishing, but it used to be the case that category romances were distinguished from single-titles by the fact that categories were only in print for a month, so the way in which they were published was closer to magazine publishing. Another feature which <b>is</b> perhaps still relevant is the way the covers are branded, in order to emphasise the identity of each “line.” Both of these are external markers of the “category,” though. In any case, it could be argued that branding by line isn’t unique to category publishing: “The first Penguin paperbacks appeared in the summer of 1935 and included works by Ernest Hemingway, André Maurois and Agatha Christie. They were colour coded (orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime)” (<a href=””>Penguin</a>.
    I take the point about “specific story guidelines rather than simple subgenre branding” but if that’s the defining feature then category lines which are defined primarily by their subgenre (e.g. M&B medical romances) wouldn’t qualify.
    So that makes me think that the main textual feature of the “category romance” is really the length which, in turn, because of the need in every romance novel to keep the focus on the love relationship between the protagonists, means they’re likely to have fewer subplots and secondary characters than single-title romances though, again, that’s not necessarily the case. Many single titles are also very closely focused on the main protagonists and their story arc and don’t have huge numbers of secondary characters or subplots.

  3. Donna Fasano says:

    What a great article! I wrote for Harlequin (HQ) for 20 years as Donna Clayton, publishing over 30 category romance novels with the company. I recently acquired the publication rights to 11 of my previously-published HQ books, and after updating them, I self-published them under my real name, Donna Fasano. Some are available in paperback, although the majority of my sales come from e-books (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, etc). I have found Independent Publishing to be quite exciting and very rewarding. Readers are finding my books, buying them, reading them, responding to them in a wonderful way, and that makes me over-the-moon happy!
    There are many previously-published romance authors who are doing the same thing I am. Readers would probably be surprised to learn that many of their favorite authors are now self-publishing their books (both backlist titles and new works of fiction). And it’s a win/win situation; as Indie Authors, we can charge less for our books, but still earn more money than we would working for traditional publishers. I hope that romance readers all over the world will consider trying the novels of Indie Authors.

  4. Kwana says:

    Very good post and should be a great discussion. I’m with new publisher Crimson Romance an imprint under F + W media and am under the category Contemporary romance with my debut Through The Lens. I think what makes it a category romance is the shorter word count (around 50,000 words) but there are no strict guidelines beside’s that. They want unique voices, smart, savvy heroines and there must be a happily ever after. They have other categories of: historical, paranormal, spicy and romantic suspense. This is different from the traditional way of category romance with stricter guideline of hero and heroine’s age, jobs, wealth etc. Thanks so much for bring the discussion up.

  5. Sami Lee says:

    As Laura stated the term ‘category’ was originally used to identify books that were shorter and only available for a limited time. It is a term that brings to mind print romance fiction, and for a long time that has been synonymous with M & B. So using the term cateory in an attempt to encompass all writers both print and digital becomes problematic. I’ve written books that are the right length to be considered category, and the right style as well as their focus is solely on the hero and heroine and their relationship. But they were digital first books published by Samhain Publishing. So are they considered category? I honestly don’t know as I’ve never called myself an author of category romance due to that long held impression of mine that category=Harlequin. And in most awards there’s a whole separate category (pardon the pun) for erotic romance, which is what I write.  It is the erotic elements that set those books apart from ‘traditional’ romance, not length, and they are judged as a group separately from traditional category romances.
    This is a fascinating discussion and one I hope we can find some answers to. Ultimately we might need to look at using different language when calling for award nominations, e.g. erotic short, non-erotic short for example, and specify page or word count to distinguish the difference between what would have been considered a ‘category’ romance. Unless we can all eschew the idea that category=print, we would have to do something like this if print and digital is ever to be treated equally in this regard. To answer the question posed, I think Samhain Publishing release many books that would adhere to the guidelines of what has been traditionally thought of as a ‘category’ romance (focus on two main protagonists, around 50-60k in length, HEA), the only difference being that they are digitally published first before they come out in print. Is that a criteria that would prohibit an author putting their work up for a nomination as best category romance? Is erotic content also a prohibitive factor?

  6. Such a tough question when things are changing so much. For me (and I’m a long-time category romance reader) the appeal of category romance is that you know what to expect. I know that with any romance there’s a happy ever after, but categories also share a certain rhythm and style. You can pick how intense the focus will be on the hero and heroine or whether secondary characters will be allowed a role given which category line you’re reading. You know the level of sexiness (though over the years, that does vary). You know if it’ll be light (bring back rom coms!) or intense or suspenseful.

    I guess I’m saying that I see the appeal of categories as precisely what defines them–the fact that readers know what to expect. You say to yourself, I want XXX sort of story, and you know precisely which category will supply it. Gasp! horror! (cause I’m also an author) the author can be less important in picking the story than the fact that it’s from that category.

    Also just to throw this in. Has anyone seen Harlequin’s announcement that they’re launching “Harlequin Series Digital First”?

    I’m wondering if this is bringing categories (series) into digital books? 

  7. Liz Harris says:

    If I may pick up on something that Laura (Vivanco) said, word count alone could not define category romance.  Non category fiction novels today come at different lenths.  DC Thomson, based in Scotland, publishes what are called Pocket Novels.  These can be termed novellas, too.  The submitted word count for the Pocket Novels is 50,000 words.  They, too, have a short shelf life, but they would not be defined as category fiction.

    Whatever the topic of the Harlequin novel, gritty or not, the reader would – in all the HMBs I’ve seen – know the outcome from the start.  I agree with Jenny when she says that the reader knows what to expect – they want happy ever after.

  8. Non category fiction novels today come at different lenths.

    Category novels come at different lengths too (and I have a feeling I read that Harlequin/M&B have been fiddling with the lengths in various lines). I had a look and it seems that
    Harlequin Presents/M&B Modern/Sexy are around 50,000 words
    Harlequin/M&B Historicals are around 75,000 words
    Harlequin Superromance are “85,000 words. Harlequin’s longest contemporary series with a big book feel.”

    Whatever the topic of the Harlequin novel, gritty or not, the reader would – in all the HMBs I’ve seen – know the outcome from the start.  I agree with Jenny when she says that the reader knows what to expect – they want happy ever after.

    That’s true of HM&Bs, but it’s also true of all the single title romances published in the US with “romance” on the spine. Readers who pick up an Avon single title romance, for example, know they’ll be getting an HEA. I think the situation’s different in other countries. In the UK (which is what I know about as I live there), you can’t generally be sure that a single title work of “romantic fiction” is going to have an HEA.

  9. I can’t answer the question or add to this debate, because my question is more simple – what is meant by “category romance”? I’ve never heard the term before.

    You distinguish it from genre and subgenre, terms I understand, and imprint, so I’m wondering what it is, in a nutshell. I mean, I know you’re asking how category romance is defined, but to someone who’s never heard of it before, can you tell me what you mean by “category”?

    Is it a series within an imprint/publisher, like Harlequin Nocturn or Mills & Boon’s Medical Romances? Looking forward to learning something new here, cheers!

  10. Thanks for the great blog post!
    I was wondering if you ever received responses as to which other publishers are publishing category? So far I have Harlequin, Crimson, Entangled, and Destiny, any others?

  11. Kat says:

    Just a quick update on this thread. The response hasn’t really enabled us to come up with a definition! There was a panel on defining category romance at the recent Australian Romance Readers Convention. Most agreed that category romances needed to have a ‘line promise’ but there were others who defined them solely by word count. I have a transcript of the session, and one day—one day!—I plan on posting a summary.

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