By Ellen Gamerman 

The new Netflix adaptation of the racy "Bridgerton" books has put pop culture in a swoon, giving a mainstream stamp of approval to romance novels sometimes dismissed as trash and boosting a literary genre that has suffered setbacks in recent years.

"Bridgerton," which debuted last month, is based on bestselling author Julia Quinn's romance series set in the Regency era. The love story about a wayward duke and a high-society bachelorette starring a multiracial cast is projected to stream to more than 63 million households over its first four weeks, according to Netflix. The lavish show, which hit number one on the Netflix charts in 76 countries, has vaulted Ms. Quinn's roughly 20-year-old novels to the top of the general fiction bestseller lists.

"Hollywood studios are full of male producers, directors, writers," said Amy Pierpont, editor in chief of Forever and Forever Yours, romance imprints of Grand Central Publishing. "The idea that the same value that's applied to superhero movies would be applied to stories that center around women's lives has just not happened on a consistent basis."

The success of "Bridgerton" couldn't have come at a better time for the romance industry, which has been struggling to retain its power in the publishing world. Recent years have marked a steady decline in print and ebook sales of romance novels, which went from more than 98 million units sold in 2012 to 41 million in 2020, according to NPD BookScan, whose figures do not reflect sales of self-published titles.

Novelists, publishing executives and literary agents point to a range of challenges. Big retail chains have stopped putting as many mass-market paperbacks on their shelves, they say, while the consolidation of printing plants has complicated distribution efforts. Others say less expensive digital self-publishing has cut into sales by traditional publishers.

The pandemic has helped counter this decline, with an uptick in sales over the last year. Romance novels made up more than one in every six adult fiction print and e-book purchases in 2020, more than any category after general fiction, according to NPD BookScan.

Netflix's "Bridgerton" series is giving the romance business another jolt of energy. Shonda Rhimes is the force behind the show, the first scripted series to come out of her 2017 production deal with Netflix. The "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal" creator known for drawing passionate audiences is an ardent fan of the "Bridgerton" novels.

As "Bridgerton" took off, an internet cry went out for Regé-Jean Page, who plays "Bridgerton" heartthrob Simon, to become the next James Bond. YouTubers raved about his good looks and spoofed the show's period drama mannerisms. Etsy sellers started marketing "Bridgerton" Valentine's Day cards carrying one character's molten declaration -- "I burn for you" -- and a $700 dress inspired by Daphne, the virgin played by Phoebe Dynevor whose cluelessness about her own sexuality and subsequent education is central to the story.

Such success is noteworthy given that breakout screen hits are rare for romances with "HEA" -- industry shorthand for Happily Ever After. While TV and movie adaptations of young-adult love stories abound, Hollywood has been slow to fill the opening left by the decline of rom-coms.

"Friends who write fiction say, 'Everything I write gets optioned and nothing gets made,' and somehow I got this one deal and not only did it get made, it got made just beautifully," said Ms. Quinn, whose real name is Julie Pottinger.

Interest in the genre appears to be growing. Ms. Quinn's film agent Lucy Stille has started exploring Hollywood's appetite for historical romances by other writers. Over the summer, the production company led by NBC's Al Roker announced it was helping develop a series from the "Blessings" novels by romance writer Beverly Jenkins.

"I don't think that media companies until 'Bridgerton' have made use of the incredible financial power of romance," said Mary Bly, who writes as Eloisa James. She is fielding interest in possible adaptations of her romance novels as well.

Romance novelists include women with polished resumes. Ms. Pottinger is a Harvard graduate who studied at Yale University's School of Medicine before leaving early to focus on writing. Ms. Bly is a Harvard-educated Shakespeare scholar. Vanessa Riley, whose books include the "Advertisements for Love" series, received her PhD in mechanical engineering from Stanford University. Heidi Bond, who as Courtney Milan wrote the 500,000-word "Brothers Sinister" series, clerked for the former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Georgia politician Stacey Abrams wrote eight romance novels in the 2000s under the pen name Selena Montgomery.

In anxious times, such stories offer an escape. Chris Van Dusen, creator of the eight-episode "Bridgerton" series and a protégé of Ms. Rhimes, wanted to deliver a bright and vibrant world. "There's a youthfulness and a joyfulness there," he said.

"Bridgerton" could take romance novels further out of the shadows. "'Guilty pleasures' is a phrase that's used a lot -- I don't understand why pleasure is guilty," said Betsy Beers, an executive producer of the series. "What is wrong with actually reading a book and enjoying it and getting transported to another world?"

Write to Ellen Gamerman at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 13, 2021 14:24 ET (19:24 GMT)

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