Finding love between the covers

Despite the many misconceptions associated with romantic fiction readers, a growing and dedicated international market is proving with their hearts, as well as their wallets, that love really does conquer all.According to Nielsen Bookscan Australia, one in five paperbacks sold across all fiction genres in this country is a romance novel published by Harlequin Mills & Boon, the world's leading publisher of romantic fiction.Romantic fiction is continuing to achieve impressive sales worldwide and with the evolution of technology taking publishing in new and exciting directions, getting access to stories on love and romance is proving easier, cheaper and more discreet than ever. Those with a real passion for the genre will be able to meet their favourite romance authors on March 26-27 at the Australian Romance Readers Conference at Bondi Beach.In 2009 the first Australian Romance Readers Conference in Melbourne welcomed 175 enthusiasts and this year organisers are hoping for an even bigger turnout."The conference is such a wonderful experience for fans to meet their favourite authors and also to get together with other like-minded people who share a passion for romance," says book reviewer, genre advocate and conference panellist Kate Cuthbert.She says it also presents an awards ceremony, acknowledging and celebrating the success of our home-grown romance writers.Wollongong's Ever After bookstore, which specialises in romantic fiction, has been appointed the official bookseller at the event. Fans can even have their books signed by their favourite authors.First established in Crown St in 2004, Ever After has moved to much larger premises in Kenny St, where shelves bulge with an impressively extensive collection of romance fiction - some titles you won't be able to get anywhere else in Australia.Business is thriving and bookshop owner Lucy Abarcia says she has a dedicated customer base who return regularly to buy new releases or stock up on a particular romantic sub-genre."Our customers range from teenage girls to middle-aged working women to the elderly," she says. "Each customer has a different preference for a style of romantic literature and we try and cater to all of them."Abarcia attributes a recent spike in interest in romantic fiction, in part, to the recent Twilight phenomenon."The interest in Twilight has definitely brought new customers into the bookshop looking for adult versions of paranormal romance," she says."Paranormal romance is a sub-genre that has enjoyed significant growth as a result and has only started to slow down a bit over the last six months or so."She believes that a move forward in technology means that romantic fiction has become far more accessible."Buying books online can be an easier and more convenient way to access the literature you want - our shop isn't open 24 hours a day, but our website is."Abarcia also acknowledges that ebooks are beginning to have an impact with her customers."Lots of our customers have e-readers like iPads and Kindles," she says. "This has definitely had an impact on the book industry because not only can customers go online whenever they want and get their books immediately, they're also able to get them cheaper.She says her bookshop has seen sales of erotica books slow down as a result of the convenience of the ebook, which offers readers discreet and immediate opportunities to get their hands on this particular sub-genre. "But there will always be plenty of customers who, like me, prefer to read a real book rather than reading it on a screen," she says.Ever After hosts a romance book club, which meets on the last Saturday of every month and Abarcia says new members are always welcome. Harlequin Mills & Boon has been publishing romantic fiction for over 80 years and sales have been consistently high, peaking during difficult times like war or natural disasters, when indulging in romantic escapism is at its most appealing.The company publishes more than 800 volumes annually and boasts an extensive range of romance sub-categories, which includes desire, teen, historical, intrigue, medical, nocturne, non-fiction, paranormal and romantic suspense.Enthusiasts in the Illawarra are no exception when it comes to indulging in a good love yarn and it appears that in most cases you need look no further than your local charity shop.Lifeline in Auburn St, Wollongong, has an extensive romance fiction section which customer service volunteer Linda Llewellyn says is a very popular genre."We have an excellent turnover of romance novels at this store," she says."We see customers from all ages come in and buy them; in fact, there's one lady who comes in regularly to buy a large quantity to take to a local nursing home for the elderly residents."When they've read them, she donates the books back to the store and buys another lot."She says they receive lots of donations of romance books so there's always plenty of new titles.Wollongong romance fiction enthusiast Annette enjoys digging out a romantic bargain at Lifeline."I started off reading the Sweet Valley series when I was a teenager," she says. "Then I guess you could say I graduated to Mills & Boon as I got older."She has a preference for historical romance and reads about three titles per week.For enthusiasts who aren't able to make it to Bondi for the romance readers' conference, love is still in the air. That same weekend you can be swept off your feet - and pick up a few romantic bargains - at the Lifeline Big Book Fair at Kembla Grange, Friday to Sunday, 10am-4pm.

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