AAR’s Top 100 Romances List: Diving into the Data
Today the long-established website All About Romance released the results of its reader poll of the Top 100 Romances. The site has done this survey periodically over 20 years (this post has links to the earlier polls): in 1998, 2000, 2004, 2007, 2013, and now again in 2018. The method has varied somewhat over time; in earlier years readers just sent in their ranked lists (up to 100 but they could submit fewer items), and readers often used the previous lists to help refresh their memories for the current poll. This year the poll was a combination of reader submitted and site-provided candidates, and the final result was a ranking for the Top 10 and an alphabetical list for the remaining 90.
Obligatory social scientists’ disclaimer: This was not a scientific poll. It is not representative of all romance readers, all online romance readers, or even all AAR’s site visitors. It is a poll comprising responses from people who chose to take part. They were solicited via Facebook, Twitter, the site itself, and perhaps other venues, but as far as I know there were no attempts made to weight the responses to conform to any universe of romance readers. AAR has never claimed that it is representative; I just want to specify the makeup of the poll at the outset.
AAR was kind enough to offer the list as a Word document containing author, title, subgenre, and date of issue. I used the list to create an Excel spreadsheet of the 100 books. I made a few modifications, including using the original date of release of the books rather than re- or e-release dates, and I collapsed and standardized some of their categories.
There are 45 authors represented on the list, so as has always been the case, some authors have multiple books on the list, ranging from Lisa Kleypas with 9 to 21 authors with a single entry:
- 9: Lisa Kleypas
- 7: Susan Elizabeth Phillips
- 5: Nalini Singh
- 4: Ilona Andrews, Courtney Milan, Julia Quinn
- 3: Mary Balogh, Loretta Chase, Jennifer Crusie, Tessa Dare, Julie Garwood, Elizabeth Hoyt
- 2: Jane Austen, Joanna Bourne, KJ Charles, Georgette Heyer, Linda Howard, Eloisa James, Julie James, Sarah Maclean, Nora Roberts/JD Robb, Penny Reid, JR Ward, Mariana Zapata
- 1: Jennifer Ashley, Amanda Bouchet, Sarina Bowen & Elle Kennedy, Charlotte Bronte, Meljean Brook, Alyssa Cole, Kresley Cole, Grace Draven, Meredith Duran, Diana Gabaldon, Laura Kinsale, Thea Harrison, Stephanie Laurens, Julie Anne Long, Judith McNaught, Amanda Quick, Lucy Parker, Mary Jo Putney, Alisha Rai, Sally Thorne
Date of Release:
The median year is 2008 if you count the Austen, Brontë, and Heyer books and 2009 if you start with the next book after Heyer, which marks a jump from 1965 (Frederica) to 1991 (The Bride). So there are about twice as many books from the last 9 years as from the 18 years before that. That’s not surprising, as readers are more likely to remember more recent books than older ones, and the older books are more likely to be special favorites or especially admired.
There are 10 single-book authors pre-2009 and 10 post 2009, so we see a similar 18 v. 9-year breakdown with authors, although a number of the pre-2009 authors had multiple books in earlier polls (e.g., Mary Jo Putney, Laura Kinsale).
I aggregated the books into the main subgenres and then added sub-sub-categories. These are slightly different than the AAR categories; for example, I counted Heyer in Historical Romance rather than Classics.
By far the most popular category was European Historical Romance, then Contemporary, then Paranormal/Fantasy:
- 56: All Historical
- 55: All European Historical
- 25: Contemporary
- 16: All Paranormal/Fantasy (including Vampire, Urban)
- 3: Classics (Austen, Bronte)
- 3: Medieval
- 1: American Historical
The list is overwhelmingly made up of white authors writing books featuring white characters, which is consistent with past AAR polls. There are at least a few novels with one or more mixed-race characters (e.g., Duke of Shadows), but I don’t know the details of all the books so I didn’t try to arrive at a number. Feel free to tell me in the comments, but I’m pretty sure that for the most part, these books are about white people, and when there are non-white characters, they are primarily backgrounded and part of the overall context (e.g. Not Quite A Husband).
I didn’t even try to ascertain the sexual orientation/identity of the authors. There are no men on the list, so there are no gay male authors, but I’m not comfortable inferring beyond that.
Race and ethnicity is slightly easier, although I may well be undercounting since I only counted those whom I know self-present as non-white/mixed race.
There is 1 African-American author on this list: Alyssa Cole. Her book features at least one African-American main character. There may be other AA characters, but An Extraordinary Union is the only book I identify as being #ownvoices African-American.
There are 5 POC authors (non-African-American) on this list: Courtney Milan, Alisha Rai, Nalini Singh, Sherry Thomas, and Mariana Zapata, and they have a total of 16 books on the list. Some of these books feature non-white main characters and others do not.
There are 3 Queer Romances on the list, 2 European Historical and 1 Contemporary.
Besides the dearth of African-American authors and characters/contexts and the relative underrepresentation of POC and queer voices and characters (I’ll get to why I say that in a minute), there are some other non-diversity-related absences. There are very few category (series) romances (I believe none are in the post-2009 period) and no Regency trads except Heyer. There are no inspirational romances. There are very few Romantic Suspense or erotic romances, two big subgenres according to other data we have.
The list is overwhelmingly dominated by European Historicals set in the 19th century, and even the three Medievals are all by Julie Garwood, who is not noted for her historical verisimilitude. If we count Garwood and the three classics by Austen and Brontë in the European Historical category(obviously the classics are contemporaneous but they are often read as historicals) we get a total of 61/100 books set in the late Georgian and Victorian eras (historians sometimes call this the long 19th century). Even if we set the diversity question aside, this result just doesn’t line up with the overall romance readership.
Representativeness and the lack thereof:
The reason I feel comfortable making this last assertion is that we have survey data on romance readers. It’s a few years old, but it’s a representative survey carried out as part of a larger readership survey. The RWA pays Nielsen to conduct reader and industry surveys. Their most recent surveys don’t break down respondents’ subgenre preferences, but there is a 2014 survey that does and was summarized at RWA’s website when it came out. Here are the category breakdowns (they sum to more than 100% because readers can tick more than one category), for reading in print and ebook respectively:
- Romantic Suspense: 53%/48%
- Contemporary: 41%/44%
- Historical Romance: 34%/33%
- Erotic Romance: 33%/42%
- New Adult: 26%/26%
- Paranormal: 19%/30%
- Young Adult: 18%/18%
- Christian Romance: 17%/14%
Romance is a fast-changing industry, so these numbers are almost certainly out of date. But the current RWA website’s Statistics page still lists Romantic Suspense as the leading category at more than 50% readership, with Historical Romance and Erotic Romance trailing at less than 50% readership (they don’t give more precise numbers than that, unfortunately). Author Earnings’ Data Guy has a 2016 presentation that measures Amazon sales and uses different metrics, so it’s not strictly comparable, but it also has Contemporary and Paranormal earnings above those for Historical Romance. I just don’t think there’s any way to see romance readers as overwhelmingly reading Historical Romance over the other genres.
Of course, it’s possible that AAR’s readers consume the subgenres in the same way as the larger romance readership but think Historicals are just much, much, better. But I don’t think that’s what is going on here.
On diversity of readership, and by extension diversity of books, the AAR poll results are out of step with RWA’s 2014 results as well. RWA’s reader breakdown by race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation and identity:
- 73% White/Caucasian
- 12% Black/African American
- 7% Latino/Hispanic
- 4% Asian/Asian American.
- Sexual orientation and identity:
- 86% of survey respondents identified as heterosexual or straight
- 9% identified as bisexual, pansexual, or other bi+ identity
- 2% identified as gay or lesbian.
- 0.3% African-American authors (1/45)
- 0.1% African-American books (1/100)
- 13% POC authors (5/45)
- 16% books by POC authors (16/100)
- 3% books with Queer characters (3/100)
RWA’s statistically representative reader sample and AAR’s poll results are pretty far apart, assuming that people like to read books that feature characters who look like them at least some of the time. We know that non-white readers read many books featuring white characters and white-society settings. But if there are anywhere close to a representative number of non-white respondents in AAR’s survey, they are submitting on their lists almost NO books featuring characters who look like them. And, of course, the white readers aren’t submitting those books either. The authors and books are out there, and they’ve been out there since the 1980s. But they have very rarely shown up on AAR’s Top 100 lists in the past and they don’t show up in 2018.
This doesn’t just matter because #ownvoices should be recognized and read. It matters because lists like this contribute to our understanding of the default “good romance novel.” AAR’s reviewers don’t claim the poll is representative of anything but their readership, but every time the phrase “Top 100 Romances” gets repeated without qualification, it entrenches the idea that the majority of the best romances feature white characters in 19th-century Britain. And that idea doesn’t just fly in the face of what Romance Twitter thinks. It flies in the face of what a representative sample of romance readers measured by a professional survey organization tells us about who they are and what they like to read.
I think what surprises me most about the AAR list is how much it hasn’t changed over two decades. The names of the multi-book authors change, sure, but the genres, settings, and character traits don’t change nearly as much. Despite all the churn in books, readers, and reviewers, the overall shape of the romance oeuvre valued by AAR’s readers displays remarkable consistency.