The Consumption of Historical Romance Novels: Consumer Aesthetics in Popular Literature


Leon G. Schiffman and Steven P. Schnaars (1981) ,"The Consumption of Historical Romance Novels: Consumer Aesthetics in Popular Literature", in SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Morris B. Holbrook, New York, NY : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 46-51.

Symbolic Consumer Behavior, 1981     Pages 46-51


Leon G. Schiffman, GSBA/Rutgers University

Steven P. Schnaars, Baruch College (CUNY)


Consumers of one type of popular culture product, the historical romance novel, are investigated and two preliminary findings emerge. First, the widespread initial acceptance of this genre of paperback books, without extensive formal advertising or other forms of "publisher-push," is due to extensive interpersonal communication among consumers. Second, consumers of historical romance novels tend to consume other forms of popular culture (i.e., movie-going, record-buying) as well. This suggests the possible existence of a "popular culture" consumer segment.


A prominent manifestation of consumer aesthetics in a society can be found in the production and consumption of what Hirsch (1972) refers to as cultural products. A cultural product is one that "embodies a live, one-of-a-kind performance and/or contains a unique set at ideas" (Hirsch 1972, p. 642). In other words, such products are generally consumed only once and then replaced with another form of the product. They are also usually non-material entities that serve an expressive or aesthetic function tor the consumer. Examples are books, movies, TV shows, plays, phonograph records, and sporting events. In contrast, products such as food, cleansing detergents and home power tools serve an almost solely utilitarian function for the consumer. Still other products serve both aesthetic and utilitarian functions (e.g.. automobiles).

It is also frequently helpful to dichotomize the concept of cultural product in terms of "high" and "popular" culture. High culture forms include quality literature, opera, the ballet, and symphonies; whereas the popular culture counterparts are bestseller novels, movies, TV shows, sporting events, and popular music.

The focus of this paper is on the consumers of one type of popular culture product, the historical romance novel, which has recently experienced widespread success. Specifically, our objectives are 1) to profile the consumer of historical romance novels, 2) to examine the extent and nature of product-specific interpersonal communication among historical romance novel readers and 3) to deliniate some of the consumer characteristics that differentiate members at different interpersonal communication subclasses.

However, before presenting the results of our study, it seems appropriate to review popular culture as an area of marketing study and to trace the origin and success of historical romance novels as a cultural product.


Consumer researchers have shown little interest in either the marketing or consumption of cultural products. It seems that the sheer number of products offered by the producers of cultural products and the generally very short product life cycle for such products are two characteristics that may have dissuaded marketers from implementing traditional marketing and consumer research investigations for specific new cultural products. In the form of analogy Lucy (1963) has captured some of the frustrations faced in the marketing of cultural products:

It is as though General Motors for each ten Chevrolets had to change the name, design and characteristics of the car and launch a new national advertising campaign to sell the next ten cars (p. 54-55).

In response to such a challenge, producers of culture products have developed some unique strategies. For instance, in the publishing field, paperback book publishers have traditionally relied on former successful hardcover titles as the major source of supply for paperback titles. Recently, however, reprint costs for bestselling hardcover titles have skyrocketed. Avon, a major paperback publisher which pioneered the historical romance novel, paid $1.9 million to Harper and Row for the rights to publish The Thornbirds in paperback. Such astronomical costs push the economic breakeven point so high that publishers must sell millions of copies before showing a profit.

Partially in response to these economic pressures paperback books have begun to appear as paperback originals; that is, they do not first appear in hardcover and do not carry the accompanying reprint costs. Historical romance novels are d prime example of paperback originals. While the risk of failure is substantially increased, the pocential for profit when a successful book is found is greater since it is not hamstrung by inordinately high costs.


Historical romance novels are a relatively new phenomenon. Figure 1 shows a genealogy for historical romance novels. It suggests that they have evolved from three types of books: 1) the explicit erotica of bestselling novels (e.g. Harold Robbins' The Dream Merchants, Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, and Sidney Sheldon's The Other Side of Midnight; 2) the novels of the romance genre, and 3) the gothic novels.



The often heard axiom that "you can't judge a book by its cover " certainly does not apply in the case of gothic novels. Invariably, the covers of such novels picture a lovely young woman in a flowing dress posed in front of, or running from, a sinister-looking castle or victorian house (which has only a single lighted window) on a brooding night.

Another constant in gothic novels is their content. Russ (1973) in a discussion of gothic novels as a form of popular culture, identifies a number of primary characters. The heroine, who is a shy, inexperienced young woman, begins in the novel without a man to love her. She is always virginal. Inevitably, shortly after the story begins, the heroine becomes involved with a second character known as "The Super Male." He is an older man of power and magnetism "who treats hey brusquely, derogates her, scolds her, and otherwise shows contempt for her" (Russ, 1973, p. 668). The heroine simultaneously develops an attraction to and repulsion from the Super Male; a sort of love-hate relationship that leaves the heroin, confused as to whether the Super Male truly love~ her or is trying to kill her. For the third main character there is an "Other Woman." She is beautiful, worldly, openly sexual anc preferred by the Super Male. 'Die heroine's only strategy is to be kind, womanly , anL an overall "good" person. A final character, "The Other Male," is frequently included. In contrast to tr- Super Male, this character is a less super, more gentle, tender character, who truly loves the heroine.

In terms of plot, the gothic novel usually revolves around some "secret" that is revealed to the heroine by others. She is rarely competent enough to unravel this "secret" herself. It often involve crime, sex, "The Super Male," and "The Other Woman." "The Super Male" is usually vindicated and "The Other Male" is found guilty.

The main themes employed in gothic novels are: 1) emotional fear, 2) incompetence, and 3) passivity of the heroine. Her life is controlled by someone other than herself. Moreover, sex is dealt with very conservatively by gothic novelists.

Traditional romance novels are similar to the gothics except "romantic love" between the heroine and a prince, duke, earl, or some other regal figure is the main theme. Barbara Cartland is the most prolific author of these novels with over 200 to her credit. Another major type of traditional novel, Harlequin Romances, has been exceedingly popular and profitable. The Canadian publisher that exclusively produces Harlequins claims that 20% of all paperback books sold in the United States are Harlequin Romance novels.

The popular best-selling novels by authors such as Harold Robbins and Jaqueline Susarin differ most strikingly from the gothic and traditional romance novels in their treatment of sex. They not only deal with sex explicitly, but it occupies a prominent place in the novel's story. While the plots of these best-selling novels vary, they frequently focus on the "rags to riches" storyline of some central character and an exotic industry (e.g., the automotive industry in Robbin's The Betsy, and the fashion industry in Krantz's Scruples). The plot almost always includes a heavy dose of power, wealth, fame, sex, and political cunning as the main character rises to the top.

Historical romance novels seem to combine the bestselling qualities of the gothic and traditional romance novels. Set in a bygone era, be it ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, victorian England, early America and just about every other memorable time period; their plots are remarkably similar. Between the covers they contain a little romance, a little adventure, and a lot of sex. This latter characteristic marks the primary difference between historical romance novels and novels of the gothic and traditional romance genres. As Alice Turner (1978) of New York Magazine notes:

Our heroine does not merely lose her virtue, she is almost invariably abducted, raped, ravished, indentured, bonded (sometimes branded), enslaved, prostituted, and betrayed in a dozen different ways. (p. 48)

The titles of historical romance novels almost always include some combination of adjectives such as "passionate," "furious," "savage," "tempestuous," "shame," or "torrid." Needless to say, these adjectives usually precede, or follow, the word love.

Historical romance novels play on situations that might reasonably be assumed to satisfy the fantasies of the reader. For example, Lorna, in So Wicked the Heart, is forced to submit to a handsome Yet sadistic pirate. Seventeen year old Tess, in Silver Jasmine, has her honor gambled away it, a card game by her cruel stepfather. In Wicked is My Fiesh, Andria is sold into sexual slavery "across three continents and two oceans." Finally, flaming Dawn, in the Passionate Savage, gives herself to the white hunter against the wishes of her Indian tribe.

To sum up, historical romance novels present a paradox in today's society. Obviously, the So-called "sexual revolution" has found its way into this form of popular literature. This should not be interpreted, however, as meaning that the overall role of the idealized woman has changed much. The heroine of the historical romance novel is as inept, manipulated, and passive as the women portrayed in the gothic novel of the past hundred years or so. The main difference is that now she is more sexually active.

Table 1 summarizes the contrasts between historical romance novels and their antecedents.




In publishing, while the more literary or "high culture" types of reading material sit on booksellers' shelves collecting dust, the popular culture version of this medium has been readily adopted by consumers in the true spirit of "crass commercialism." More specifically, a genre of mass-market paperback books which has recently experienced 1 strong surge of consumer popularity is the historical romance novel. A substantial percentage of newly released paperback titles now consists of such novels and their success in the marketplace represents a major innovation in publishing.

Summarizing the year's activity (1977) in paperback books, Ray Walters of The New York Times characterizes the rapid growth of historical romance novels as follows:

At the start of the year, stories about adventurous young women in search of passionate love in some colorful land and century past, spiced to gratify the tastes of a generation of female readers familiar with "The Joy of Sex," were still occasional things in the paperback racks. Avon Books still had the genre almost to itself with such writers as Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers. Now the racks bulge with hundreds of such titles from every house along publisher row. One quarter of the titles that made our best seller list during 1977 were what some critics call "hysterical romances." (p. 25)

To illustrate just how well historical romance novels have fared in the marketplace, Table 2 lists the print sizes for some of the more popular historical romance novels.



To comprehend the magnitude of these figures they should be compared with the traditional industry benchmarks for success (Turner, 1978):

Roughly, when a "lead" or top title sells 500,000 copies, joy abounds. Half that is not too awful. A "middle of the list" book (the non-best seller) gets maybe 100,000 to 200,000 copies printed. (p. 49)

Thus, the combination of lowered costs and high sales volume has made historical romance novels an extremely profitable form of popular culture for its producers.

This widespread positive response to historical romance novels represents an ideal situation in which to study consumers of popular culture. Marketers of paperback books and students of popular culture, in general, might benefit from an understanding of the consumer dynamics of historical romance novels.


The data for the present study were collected at 28 branch stores operated by seven cooperating department and discount store organizations situated throughout a major Northeastern metropolitan area. The individual stores included in the sample were geographically dispersed throughout the urban and suburban sections of this area and are highly representative of the possible department stores and chain discounters available to consumers in this area. While paperback books are made available to consumers through a host of other retail channels, this group of retailers represents a major channel of distribution for paperback books. The book department sales personnel, at each of the stores, assisted by placing a questionnaire and a stamped, self-addressed envelope in the inside cover of a historical romance novel when a female customer brought one (or more) to the cash register for purchase. The effect of this procedure was to sample the population at a variable rate. In particular, members of the "heavy reader" segment had a greater likelihood of inclusion in the sample since they were more likely to approach the cash register with a book and, therefore, be given a questionnaire.

Of the 316 questionnaires distributed by the sales personnel, 143 were returned by the cutoff date, producing a response rate of 45%. Initial analysis of the questionnaires indicated that no particular store exhibited an unusually high or low number of responses.

Table 3 profiles the historical romance novel reader in terms of her demographic characteristics and responses to cultural product-specific statements included in the questionnaire. Overall, as Table 3 illustrates, the historical romance reader is young, has stopped her education after high school, is employed, and has an average family income of between $15,000 and $20,000 a year. She is a frequent reader, in many cases reading more than three books a month, and reports that she is reading more this year than last. in addition, the typical reader of historical romance novels shows a propensity toward being a paperback innovator and is likely to have been asked her advice regarding a paperback book title.

In terms of the consumption of other cultural products, the historical romance novel readers in our survey were more active than the general public as surveyed by TGI (Target Group Index, 1978 edition). Specifically, while 55% of the historical romance novel readers reported that they had gone to at least one movie during the past month, only 29% of the TGI did so. Similarly, for record albums, 40% of the historical romance novel readers reported they had purchased at least one record in the past month, while only 32% of the TGI sample did so.

On the basis of these findings it seems reasonable to propose that there is a "popular culture consumer," that is, a segment of the population that is more likely to purchase and consume a variety of different popular culture products.




One aspect of the market popularity of historical romance novels that is especially germane to marketers and consumer researchers is the fact that this genre of paperback books initially gained widespread acceptance without extensive formal advertising or other forms of .1 publisher-push". Rather, their successful diffusion seems to have stemmed more from "demand-pull" on the part of consumers. This suggests that word-of-mouth conversation has played an important role in the success (or failure) of a paperback title or category.

In our study of historical romance novel readers, we asked respondents whether they had provided or received advice about paperback books. Together these measures provided some insight into the opinion leading and seeking characteristics of our historical romance novel readers. Our results show that 62% of the respondents served as opinion leaders and, in turn, 48% sought the opinions of others with respect to paperback books.

Schiffman and Kanuk (1978) contend that "interpersonal communication can not be neatly dichotomized into dominant all powerful opinion leaders and passive opinion receivers" (p. 283). Rather, they suggest that emphasis be placed on identifying the degree to which consumers engage in interpersonal communication about a product.

Reynolds and Darden (1971), Schiffman (1972), and Schiffman et al (1975) have combined measures of opinion leading and opinion seeking to construct a more holistic picture of the interpersonal communication process than is possible by examining either of the variables separayely. More specifically, these studies have employed a 2x2 cross-classification of the dichotomized opinion leadership and opinion receiver variables to construct a four-way categorization of interpersonal communication. Table 4 illustrates this cross-classification table.



The resultant cells of the table are defined as follows:

1. The Socially Integrated -- those who score high on both opinion leadership and opinion seeking.

2. The Sociallv Independent -- those who score high on opinion leadership and low on opinion seeking.

3. The Socially Dependent -- those who score low on opinion leadership and high on opinion seeking.

4. The Socially Isolated -- those who score low on opinion leadership and opinion seeking.

The primary advantage of this cross-classification is that it distinguishes between different modes of interpersonal communication.

Table 5 lists the percentage of respondents observed within each cell. To compare the distribution of these figures, the percentages found by other researchers using this 2x2 table are presented.

It can be seen that with the exception of audio equipment, the only high ticket item of the seven, historical romance novel readers are the Most Socially integrated; that is, more of them engage in interpersonal communication than the consumers of other product categories. Conversely, fewer of them are socially isolated, do not engage in any interpersonal communication, than the users of other products.

Overall, these observations lend support to the contention that historical romance novels gained widespread consumer acceptance through word-of-mouth conversation. Were publishers, as well as other producers of popular culture, able to influence this process even partly, they might be able more effectively to market cultural products and better serve consumer needs.




The four category interpersonal communication composite variable described in the previous sect-ion was crosstabulated with the other variables drawn from the survey instrument. The results, which are presented in Table 6, show that those that are socially integrated (are both opinion leaders and opinion seekers), exhibit the following characteristics:

they are younger and less educated

they eat out more frequently

they tend to view themselves as swingers

they are less likely to see TV as their primary form of entertainment

they are more likely to like romantic movies

they are more likely to seek out the advice of others regarding various products and brands

they are more likely to have others come to them for advice concerning various products and brands.

Social Independents (those who are opinion leaders but not opinion seekers) had the following characteristics:

they attend the fewest club meetings

they are the least likely to like romantic movies

they are the most educated.

Overall, the significant differentiating consumer characteristics presented in Table b offer paperback book publishers an opportunity to target to consumers on the basis of interpersonal communication. If a segmentation scheme based on this dimension were implemented, publishers might be able to reduce the risk involved in introducing new paperback titles and, in turn, better serve the interests of the reading public.




This paper reports a number of preliminary findings with one cultural product, the historical romance novel. In particular, it suggests that the widespread adoption of historical romance novels, without extensive formal advertising, is due in large part to interpersonal communication among consumers. Further research with other cultural products is needed in order to achieve a clearer understanding of the dynamics of consumer behavior with regard to such types of products.

A possible area for future research might be to study whether there exists a "popular culture" consumer segment. The preliminary findings of this study suggest that this might be the case.

Finally, producers of cultural products could benefit from further research regarding the marketing and consumption of popular culture. Marketers and consumer behavior academicians should be encouraged to pursue this area of research.


Paul M. Hirsch, "Processing Fads and Fashions: An Organization-Set Analysis of Cultural Industry Systems," American Journal of Sociology, 77(1972), 49-59.

Dan Lucy, "The Economics of Publishing or Adam Smith and the Literature," Daedulus, (Winter, 1963), 42-62.

Fred D. Reynolds and William R. Darden, "Mutually Adaptive Effects of Interpersonal Communication," Journal of Marketing Research, 8(November, 1971), 449-454.

Joanna Russ, "Somebody's Trying to Kill Me and I Think Its My Husband: The Modern Gothic," The Journal of Popular Culture, 7(Spring, 1973), 666-691.

Leon G. Schiffman, "Social Interaction Patterns of the Elderly Consumer," in B.W. Becker and H.Becker (eds.), Combined Proceedings, (Chicago: American Marketing Association, 1972), 445-451.

Leon G. Schiffman and Leslie L. Kanuk, Consumer Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978), 283.

Leon G. Schiffman et al., "Interpersonal Communication: An Opinion Leadership/Opinion Seeking Composite Approach, in Edward M. Mazze (ed.), Combined Proceedings (Chicago: American Marketing Association, 1975), 228-232.

Alice K. Turner, "The Tempestuous, Tumultuous, Turbulent, Torrid and Terribly Profitable World of Paperback Passion," New York Magazine, (February 13, 1978), 49.

Ray Waiters,"Papaerback Talk," The New York Times (Book Review Section, January 1, 1978), 25-26.



Leon G. Schiffman, GSBA/Rutgers University
Steven P. Schnaars, Baruch College (CUNY)


SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior | 1981

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