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

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. 

Two women sit in armchairs laughing and holding books. Above them is a neon sign with the words
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…

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