The next time you’re at a used bookstore or thrift shop, don’t ignore the vintage category romances! Not only will you find some great love stories written by beloved romance authors, but a few of these lines also blazed a path for sensual contemporary romances.
Category romances are also known as series romances. A category romance is published in an imprint and offers a specific reading experience. For example, Scandalous is a historical category romance imprint of Entangled Publishing. Readers buy the book because of the brand’s promise and not because of the author of the book.
Candlelight Ecstasy, Second Chance at Love, and Loveswept were very popular category romance imprints in the 1980s. Many in the publishing industry dismissed these lines at the time, claiming they were carbon copies of Harlequin. Not only did imprints have similar cover art treatment, but quite a few authors wrote for more than one imprint under different pen names.
Scholars and historians disagree that these imprints imitated Harlequin. They argue that the Harlequin lines were becoming outdated because the stories didn’t reflect the world of the 1980s. Two editors, Vivian Stephens and Carolyn Nichols, changed the category romance market and caused a seismic shift in the publishing industry.
Candlelight Ecstasy Romance
In his book, Publishing Romance, John Markert says that Dell’s Candlelight Ecstasy line changed the “content of the romance novel” in the 1980s.
Vivian Stephens was the founding editor for this imprint. Unlike the contemporary category romance novels that were being published, she wanted the books to include American and career-minded heroines. The female protagonist had to be at least twenty-five years old. More importantly, the romance couldn’t be chaste.
Markert argues in his book that while the heat level was a selling point for readers, the “multiplicity of other socially relevant themes helped make Ecstasy the success it was”. For example, one of the first Candlelight Ecstasy Romances was Gentle Pirate by Jayne Castle (also known to romance readers as Jayne Ann Krentz). The hero had been injured in war and his arm had been amputated. This was a reflection of what readers saw in their world after the war in Vietnam.
Dell published 533 titles in the Candlelight Ecstasy Romance imprint from December 1980 to September 1987.
Second Chance at Love
Thanks to the success of the Candlelight Ecstasy Romance line, editor Carolyn Nichols was able to start an imprint that she had pitched years earlier. She wanted love stories about heroines who had past romantic relationships. The heroines may have been widowed, divorced, or had ended a serious romance. The common theme in this line is that the women were getting second chances at love.
The heroines were very different from what readers had seen in contemporary love stories. In previous category romances, the female protagonists were often virginal and barely out of their teens. Today, romance readers wouldn’t be surprised if the heroine in their current read is divorced, had lived with a man, or is an unwed mother. But back then, the idea of an older and sexually experienced heroine was a radical change.
Jove/Berkley published 478 titles in the Second Chance at Love imprint from June 1981 to December 1989.
After the launch of Second Chance at Love, Carolyn Nichols was hired by Bantam to create a category romance line for their publishing house. Once again, these books were going to be sensual contemporary romances. However, instead of focusing on a common archetype, theme or trope, Loveswept increased the attention onto favorite authors.
When asked about writing for the line, Deb Smith was quoted to say, “Loveswept authors were encouraged to push the envelope, and we did. Comedy, intrigue, super-villains, psychics, ghosts, exotic settings, over-the-top plots, red-hot romance and then some—very little was out of bounds, as long as it was written with a passion for unforgettable characters and plots.”
Why did these imprints close?
There are two reasons. First, the market became glutted when other publishing houses launched multiple imprints that focused on sexy contemporary romance.
The second reason has to do with the sensuality requirement. In the book Romance Fiction and American Culture, William A. Gleason and Eric Murphy Selinger state that,
Ecstasy and Second Chance, as well as Loveswept later, dealt with sex, but dealt with it sparingly and in context. However, many of the editors in the 1980s did not appreciate the multiple themes found in Ecstasy and Second Chance novels and focused on the sex angle, going overboard and insisting on page after page of sexual description. It proved to be the downfall of many lines.
Where can readers find sensual contemporary category romances?
Entangled Publishing has the Brazen imprint which promises a high heat level for readers.
Have you read a Loveswept Classic? Read these novels from groundbreaking writers and see how they influenced the romance genre.