Young female readers, #BookTok fuel spicy romantasy genre’s staggering sales figures

Day 65:22A romance bookstore owner explains the fairy-driven frenzy pushing romantasy books to record sales

If you’ve been on TikTok or in a bookstore lately, you’ve probably noticed the buzz around the hashtag #romantasy, or of titles like House of Flame and Shadow, Iron Flame and Trial of the Sun Queen.

Romantasy, a subgenre that combines romance and fantasy, is seeing runaway success, with authors like Sarah J. Maas now outselling even her publisher Bloomsbury’s previous fantasy blockbuster, the Harry Potter series.

In 2023, Maas’s books brought in £61 million ($104 million Cdn), while Harry Potter sales were at £41 million ($70 million Cdn), an industry report provided to CBC News shows.

“You’re seeing the progression of our generation who love those Y.A. [young adult] books like The Hunger Games and Twilight, and now we’re growing up and we are older, so the material that we want is, you know, a bit more mature,” said Nicola MacNaughton, co-owner of Calgary’s Slow Burn Books, which she opened less than a year ago with her sister, Shannon, to meet growing demand for romance books in general.

Book publishers and industry watchers are taking note of both the genre’s enormous popularity among young female readers, and the power of #BookTok, the hashtag used on TikTok to discuss books, to elevate its traditionally published writers and self-published indie authors alike. 

Sisters Nicola MacNaughton, left, and Shannon MacNaughton are co-owners of the romance bookstore Slow Burn Books in Calgary, Alberta. (Nora Hanako Photography)

Videos with the hashtag #romantasy have around 800 million views on TikTok.

Fuelling the commercial success is the appeal of romantasy’s strong female characters, MacNaughton said. But she said it’s also being able to step into a whole new world — one complete with mystical animals, fairies, vampires and even monsters.

“And the nice thing, too: you have that guaranteed happily ever after. You know that the author is going to put you through a lot. But at the end of the day, they’re going to put you back together and make you whole again.”

Pick your spice level 

It also doesn’t hurt that the books often feature pretty spicy sex scenes, said Duncan Stewart, a consumer-forecasting analyst for Deloitte who lives in Toronto and specializes in media and technology, including book publishing. 

“There was always a genre of romance that was more sexually explicit, but it was kind of considered not mainstream,” said Stewart, who has read many romantasy titles. While some are more innocent, he said others are graphic enough that they might not have been publishable 40 years ago “without running afoul of censorship law.”

Just as notable, he said, is that the depictions of sexuality are becoming more inclusive, reflecting diversity in gender identity and sexual orientation.

“The romantasy genre is doing an extraordinarily good job reflecting not merely modern human sexuality, but specifically the sexuality of people under the age of 30.”

WATCH | Author Nisha J. Tuli uses TikTok to drum up interest in her books:

The “lifetime value” of readers in that demographic is considerable, given the number of book-buying years ahead of them, he said.

It’s significant for the book industry that the genre is resonating with teens, as well. 

Just looking at Maas’s sale of 40 million copies, Stewart said the revenues from that are “on the order of half a billion in revenues.

“In book terms, that is a material and world-changing number.”

Rania Husseini, vice-president of print at Indigo, told the Globe and Mail earlier this month that the impact of romantasy books on sales is “absolutely a phenomenon.” 

She said 25 per cent of the chain’s top 20 fantasy authors fall under the romantasy umbrella.

That growth has been reflected across a range of romance subgenres. One U.S. report said sales of romance print books increased 52 per cent between May 2022 and May 2023, with younger readers finding out about titles through #BookTok and even romance TV series adaptations such as Bridgerton.

A woman poses for a portrait standing with her hand on her waist.
Winnipeg-based romantasy author Nisha J. Tuli. (Lindsay Caitlin Photography)

Indie titles picked up by publishing houses

Nisha J. Tuli from Winnipeg says she has always been a big fantasy reader, but what launched her career as an author was when she started to read romantasy around the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I read some of it and I was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I want to write,'” said Tuli. 

She’s since written 14 titles.

Two book titles are shown in this composite photo. At left is Heart of Night and Fire and at right is Trial of the Sun Queen.
Trial of the Sun Queen, right, is Nisha J. Tuli’s bestselling novel. Heart of Night and Fire, left, is anchored in Tuli’s South Asian heritage. (Submitted by Nisha J. Tuli)

As a new author, she couldn’t initially interest the publishing houses, but like many other indie-published romantasy authors have discovered, that hasn’t prevented her books from finding an audience. That’s because romantasy communities on BookTok have been so effective at boosting sales.

Her most popular book, The Trial of the Sun Queen, the first title in her Artifacts of Ouranos series, was originally self-published.

“But it ended up selling really, really well. And then a publisher acquired it last summer,” reprinting the series’ first two books, which she said have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and taking over with the third and fourth, due later this year. 

Tuli, who previously worked in communications, credits some of her books’ success to the fact that making BookTok videos comes naturally to her, though it’s even more helpful when her readers post.

MacNaughton said she and her sister have certainly noticed in their bookstore the power of social media to fuel sales. “The nice thing about BookTok and Bookstagram is that you don’t have to be traditionally published to get your book out there and to have people know about it. That’s really made it a lot more democratized in the marketing of books.”

A young woman smiles while standing in an aisle at a book store.
Tasnim Geedi, a #BookTok influencer from Toronto, said TikTok is the first platform that helped give credibility to romance titles in general. (Submitted by Tasnim Geedi)

Tasnim Geedi, a BookTok influencer who shares her observations about romantasy using the handle @groovytas, said she sees TikTok as the platform that helped lend credibility to romance fiction in general.

“Romance is quite maligned compared to other genre fiction, because it’s primarily written by women for women,” said Geedi, who is a nursing student in Toronto and a former Canada Reads panellist. It was seen as “frivolous, or like a guilty pleasure” that couldn’t amount to “real reading.”
Romantasy readers “are primarily female, and they’re the ones that are kind of dictating the market right now … and now we’re seeing more books being pushed out to meet that demand.”

WATCH | Check out one of Tasnim Geedi’s BookTok videos:

Having grown up primarily reading fantasy series like Shadowhunters and Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Geedi notes that the fantasy genre — with its mostly male authors and main characters — is not always known for portraying women positively.

“Especially women of colour, they are not taken with such care. But now that we’re seeing a lot more diverse authors, a lot more female authors in the space, I think that’s making it much more successful on TikTok, and also, like, the mass market in general.”

She points to British author Tasha Suri as an example of one of those more diverse authors she enjoys reading. Suri’s titles, like Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash, are romantasy novels that reflect her South Asian heritage.

Subgenre has been around since at least the ’90s 

Rachel Sargeant, a book blogger from Vancouver who focuses on fantasy and queer romance books, points out that while it might have acquired the #romantasy hashtag in more recent years, the subgenre wasn’t invented by Maas.

“We’re looking back at Mercedes Lackey and like J.R. Ward and all these, these women who wrote these fantasy romance books in the ’90s and the 2000s,” she said. “I feel like those aren’t being put in the conversation at all.”

A young woman flexes a bicep and holds a book standing in front of a full bookcase. Her T-shirt says "Read books and fight the patriarchy."
Rachel Sargeant, a book blogger from Vancouver whose TokTok handle is @amodelwhosread, says while it might have acquired the #romantasy hashtag in more recent years, it wasn’t Sarah J. Maas who invented the genre. (Submitted by Rachel Sargeant)

Sargeant attributes part of the success of romantasy to its relative accessibility compared to traditional fantasy, which can get quite bogged down in world-building and “high fantasy jargon” — part of the territory if you’re reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or and George R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series.

“And it’s because it is based in [the] romance plot, it tends to be really fast-paced, it tends to have more things that a reader can instantly connect with.”

But even though the pace isn’t nearly as plodding as traditional fantasy can be, Tuli said the fantasy elements are still so transporting for the reader. “Probably none of us would last more than a day in any of these worlds. But still, you still want to be where you might meet that handsome Fae King, who’s gonna sweep you off your feet, as unrealistic as it is. 

“No matter how old we get, it’s still fun to pretend.” 

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