Readers’ undying love of romance fiction

Romance fiction was already a billion dollar publishing industry when in the middle of the pandemic lockdown, the Netflix series Bridgerton introduced the romance genre to millions more fans across the world, who turned from screen to page in search of escapist stories. Amazon bestselling author Kate Bateman has written nine romance books that have readers yearning for even more.

Before she launched a writing career, Ms Bateman was known in the UK for her appearances as an antiques expert on popular shows such as Flog It! She grew up in Oundle, where her family had an antique shop on West Street, and she helped establish her family’s auction house in Stamford. She was living in Oundle before she and her husband moved to the United States for work seven years ago.

During lockdown we spanned the global time zones from Shanghai to Illinois via a Teams meeting to talk about her writing career in the romance industry.

The inspiration that sparked her career was a £1 bet with her husband. She recounts that after reading an awful historical romance book, she told her husband she could write better. He bet she would not finish it. “And I wrote the damn book!” she tells me triumphantly.

The majority of romance fiction is historical, and most novels are set in the Regency period. Publishers have little interest in the Renaissance or Victorian eras. Ms Bateman says her background in antiques probably helped a little; she has handled the furniture and accessories that form the setting to her novels, and has absorbed “what things are like by osmosis”.

But it is solid research in historic facts that is the source of inspiration for her plots and characters. But she cautions, she does not write historical novels, her novels are about romance and escapism, set in a historical period.

Ms Bateman describes herself as having two sides as a historical romance writer. “Historical Kate has those plot points. Romance Kate is like, ooh submarines, they are really small and dark. We can squish two people together. Romance, brilliant. So, it comes together quite nicely.”

In her book This Earl of Mine, her story about rescuing Napoleon from exile on St Helena using a submarine in 1815 is not fantasy. She was fascinated by the development of submarines at that time and decided to fall into “a research rabbit hole”.

While she ensures that her historical settings are authentic, she does not get bogged down in historical detail. Ms. Bateman reminds me that she is writing for a modern audience, and the historical fantasy is there for the enjoyment. Romance fiction has changed, and modern women do not have to be successful in the marriage market to be heroines.

“I don’t want to read about ninety percent of the historically accurate women who were owned by their husbands. It’s interesting for me to think about what women could do within the framework. They can manipulate or they can push the boundaries or they can find a clever way around something, and those are the women I like to write about.”

Modern readers are surprised and thrilled to find out that historically, some women were adventurous despite the legal and social restrictions. “I think people are surprised by the fact that women often did have agency. There were kick-ass women in history. People are like, well, she’d never do that because she wasn’t allowed out. I think you’ll find there’s this historical person who ran off with a pirate. It happened,” she said.

Although Ms Bateman writes as close to the truth as possible, she does allow herself some historic license to suit the escapism. Ms Bateman said: “In reality all the royal dukes were fat, gouty and disgusting. I make them all gorgeous, rich, 28 and hot.”

Romance book covers featuring these young, hot dukes are the genre’s most immediately recognizable feature: brightly coloured, alluring images usually depicting two lovers embracing passionately. Created in Italy, the hyper realistic images used to be physical paintings, but they are now computer-generated.

The covers promise romance, and within the covers, the books never disappoint; flaming sex scenes are inevitable in a page-turning romance novel. Ms Bateman explains that sex scenes are crucial to completing the characters’ relationship, as a lot of trust is needed during this delicate period of intimacy. She says that sex scenes are in fact, quite difficult to write. Each sex scene has to have a purpose in driving the plot by worsening or bettering the situation. This is where the difference between romance novels and literary novels comes in; sex in literary novels usually represent dysfunction, whereas sex in romance novels speeds up the path to its happy ending. Not all sex scenes are well written, particularly when terrible euphemisms, or graphic details are used.

“You don’t want to remember that you are reading about sex,” said Ms Bateman. “You can get super sexy and super romantic without actually doing open-door describing.”

With the popular romance TV show Bridgerton starring a diverse cast of actors such as Regé-Jean Page and Golda Rosheuvel, I asked Ms Bateman whether she feels a need to introduce racial diversity in her romance novels. She replies, “These are my experiences as a fairly posh white girl in England and so I think that’s what I would write best. I think there’s a danger in somebody like myself trying to write or pretend to pass off other voices. I much prefer to read a book written by a black author, or a Chinese American, because they will bring such a rich experience.”

She does see publishing trends that are more receptive to settings other than Regency England. One of her own stories is set in Egypt, and romance fiction set in Ming Dynasty China is gaining popularity. “What I’m the most thrilled about is the fact that there are more opportunities now for different time periods and voices,” she says.

Romance fiction is one of the few genres where women write for other women. It is a $1.3m industry. For Ms Bateman, being an Amazon best-seller isn’t easy; she has readers constantly begging for more. However, she is an absolute perfectionist. “I can’t write fast enough,” she says. “I want to put the best foot forward. They just have to wait.”

Her work ethic is condensed into the acronym “ABC”, which stands for “Apply your Butt to the Chair”. After dropping off her three children at school, she starts work at 9am in front of her screen with a cup of coffee, either writing, corresponding or practicing her writing. “I never stop, I’m always going to craft workshops. I don’t think you can ever stop improving.”

Ms Bateman’s readership comprises mostly well-educated women over 25 years old, with money to spend. Before the pandemic she used to go to Romance conferences with 3000 readers in attendance. What she wants above all for her readers is that they finish her books feeling happy. “I studied classic literature in university, so I read a lot of miserable, white men, who wrote about women, even their heroines, who all die!” she says.
“The doctor patches up your body when you are sick, but the person in the hospital bed still needs a book to cheer them up. I think that’s just as important.”

Jennifer Yang
May 2021