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.

Authors:

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).

Categories:

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

Diversity:

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.

Notable Absences:

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:

  • Race/ethnicity:
    • 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.

AAR’s results:

  • 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.

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23 thoughts on “AAR’s Top 100 Romances List: Diving into the Data

  1. Looks like you found a list to munch on! I did vote in all of the rounds, even though Romance no longer makes up a significant percent of what I read.
    There were a couple of things your analysis brought to light. A big one is the lack of titles published between 1965 and 1991. This means no Old Skool romances still hold favor with enough readers to make the list. No Woodiwiss, no Rosemary Rogers, no Bertrice Small–none of those early authors. That time frame was also a boom time in category romance. Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz, Mary Balogh and dozens of others got their start in one or another contemporary or traditional Regency line. And yet none of those early titles made the list, either.
    A sign, perhaps, of the changing trend in what is written?
    The preponderance of European Historicals is not really a surprise, if my ‘keeper shelf’ is any example. I certainly voted for my favorites. I think the list would be better titled if the word “top” was replaced by “favorite” or “best loved”.
    I agree,it would be interesting to know the age range and other data relating to voters and how the different groups voted. I have a gut feeling that I belong to the biggest voting bloc and that that bloc is no longer the statistical norm for Romance readers.

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    1. Actually, I messed up a couple of the dates (or AAR did, or we both did), and there are one or two books published in the 1980s. But your main point still holds: the 1970s/1980s Old Skool books are not there. I glanced over the earlier AAR lists and they weren’t heavily represented even in the early polls, but some old favorites have dropped off the map (lots of McNaught and Devereaux, for example). As to category, AAR has never had much category representation apart from Regency trads. But those are gone too now.
      You’re right about the preponderance of European Historicals, those have always comprised at least half of the list. I remember when I first started reading AAR I didn’t know what a “European Historical” was! I’d never come across that category. I avoided most of the Old Skool books when they came out. I was reading Heyer and Stewart and Thirkell, so basically the Brits rather than the Americans writing UK-set historicals.
      Your gut feeling is also my gut feeling about the voters, with a few exceptions.
      I’ve been noodling around with the NPR list from 2015. That one is heavily curated and also lists series rather than the individual books in a series. But it’s still almost half Historical Romance (with a few more US-set, but not as many as I expected). There’s a book/series overlap with AAR of 35 (from AAR’s total of 45 separate authors), and another 4 authors who are on both lists but with different books/series. So NPR can get a lot more variation into their list in terms of authors and genres. The more I look at them, the less I think they’re really comparable because of the series and subgenre curating by NPR, but it does suggest to me that AAR is not as much of an outlier as it looks. It’s an industry issue, not just a site issue (although AAR is still at the seriously white-author, white-society book end of the spectrum).

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      1. I wonder if part of the preponderance of historicals is that they tend to age better than contemporaries? I’m not sure and I don’t have your data wizarding skills (or patience with numbers) to test that.

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        1. I’ve been mulling over this question and I don’t really have an answer. If I dig back in the RWA’s archived pages at archive.org I may be able to find older survey results, which would tell us if historicals were more widely read in the 1990s and early 2000s, which is when a lot of us older online readers discovered the romance listservs, and the websites that followed them. I can tell you that The Romance Reader, which was the other main review site aside from AAR that I visited and knew about, reviewed a lot more contemporaries and categories than AAR did. There were also closed Yahoo groups (one descended from the even older RRA-L group). My sneaking suspicion is that historical has always dominated online conversations more than it has dominated sales or overall readers (at least since the 1970s/1980s), but that’s really speculation on my part. I would need data to be sure.

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  2. I didn’t vote, but had the same thought you and Barb did about age ranges. I’m wondering if the average AAR voter is older than the average romance reader. That seems like the best explanation for the enduring popularity of European historical romances on their poll and on their site.

    Older readers (and I am one) came of age during the heyday of historicals and may have a soft spot for them for that reason? It is especially interesting to me how some older books like the Garwoods and Lord of Scoundrels remain on the list poll after poll, despite being (IMHO) not so amazing as all that. In the discussion I saw at AAR, at least one reader admitted to relying on her memory of books she hadn’t read in years.

    Another thing that may explain the ubiquity of some authors on the list is that there are authors who remind their social media followers to vote in the poll. That may skew results in favor of those authors’ books. Also, authors who keep writing in the genre have a better chance of seeing their backlist books make the “Top 100” than authors who stop or change genres, because they stay on readers’ minds.

    I have mixed feelings about lists such as these. On the one hand, I always diverge from them—even just among historicals, I would have included books by Jeannie Lin, Cecilia Grant, Piper Huguley, and Rose Lerner, to name some newer names that didn’t make their list. And I would have loved to see some classic trad regencies such as The Duke’s Wager by Edith Layton, or Balogh’s The Temorary Wife. But on the other hand, a list like this at least provides a starting place to talk about what we appreciate in books.

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    1. I agree with you that a lot of the respondents are probably AAR veteran readers, who tend to be older. It may also be that there are a lot of newer visitors but ones who read similarly. If you’re not big into historicals, AAR’s site content is not going to be that useful for you, and while their reviews are more diverse in terms of subject and genre that that, they are still pretty well known for the old stuff. As I said on Twitter, blogs are sticky in terms of how they are seen, and even big changes in approach and content are going to take a while to shift readers. And sometimes they still won’t shift readers much.

      No question that some authors have readers who specifically come and vote for them and others don’t. We saw that a lot in the old DABWAHA tournaments as well. I mean, it’s possible that the people who put 9 Kinsales and 7 SEPs on the list are also huge fans of Mariana Zapata but I doubt it.

      I’m increasingly coming to think that these lists only work if they are clearly identified as coming from a particular individual or group of readers. Sure, arguing about the list can spur discussion about more novels, but the agenda-setting aspect of a “Top 100” anything means the person bringing a new book has to justify its inclusion. The status quo is European Historicals, over and over again for AAR. That alone should disqualify it as anything but an idiosyncratic readers’ choice poll. And yes, the 1990s and early 2000s were a heyday for historicals, but I can’t be the only reader who came to AAR and wondered where the reviews of other romances I read were. You literally could not talk about category romance without being condescended to, unless you were referring to the early categories of people who’d moved on to single-title, like Nora Roberts and Anne Stuart. And they were called out in the early 2000s for ignoring African-American writers but it never changed, because neither the readers nor the reviewers were interested. And that was true of all the big blogs in the 2000s. So I guess I think we need to more fully recognize and articulate that the big blogs are very much an outgrowth of a particular strain of the genre (or strains; erotic and m/m and paranormal became of central interest to both the reviewers and readers).

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      1. I just thought of another possible reason for the preponderance of older books on the list—there are so many more books published now that it’s harder for newer books to get the number of readers older books got in the days before self-publishing,when agents and publishers acted as gatekeepers. And since it’s a poll (even if unscientific) the number of readers who have read a given book makes a difference.

        I agree that “Top 100” is a misnomer and that it would be good to have “AAR Readers’” somewhere in the name. I remember the shaming of category readers back in the 1990s and yeah, it wasn’t cool. For a while in the 2000s after Harlequin started offering ARCs on Netgalley (I think they might have been the first publisher to do so) and blogs gave them positive reviews AAR was also started reviewing them, but I think it’s been a while since I’ve seen them reviewed there? I also recall that they were called out for lack of diversity in the reviews in the early 2000s and yeah, the track record on that hasn’t changed much, except perhaps for the addition of m/m reviews. So yeah, there are some definite drawbacks to this list.

        Additionally, the longer I read, the harder it is for any list of a hundred books to feel complete to me, in terms of encompassing what the genre has to offer. That is one of the reasons I didn’t vote. I wonder if the concept of a Top 100 causes other people who have read a lot in the genre to bow out of voting because after many years of reading, it gets hard to pick.

        But I guess I’m still hungry for conversation about what makes a book good, or even just among a given reader’s all-time favorites, because there are things that as a writer, I can learn from well-crafted books, and I always hope there are at least a few of those to be found on lists like this one.

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  3. Fascinating!
    I’m not aware of any of the authors identifying as LGBTQ+ (not that that means much, but I do tend to remember when I see someone mention that they’re queer) and I know that KJ Charles identifies as straight. I think it’s heartening that there are 3 m/m romances this time, although I wish one of them wasn’t Him.

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    1. I think at least one of the authors on the list identifies as bisexual, but I don’t know how public she is about it.

      Damon Suede’s first book is on the NPR list, but otherwise even in that list, which is subdivided by category, there aren’t a lot of LGBTQ+ books that are written by people who identify as the type of queer they are writing about. But that topic is such a minefield that I just avoid talking about it now. 🙂

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      1. Yes, it is a minefield. Thinking about the list more, I realized that a few of the authors on the list have written romances with LGBTQ+ MCs, just not the ones on the list. I counted 4 and interestingly (at least to me) 3 of them are POC – Rai, Milan and Cole.

        I didn’t participate in the survey.

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        1. I checked their reviews of Rai, Milan, and Cole, and it doesn’t look like they reviewed any of those books by them, just the ones with cis & straight characters. Which is not entirely surprising. They were much later than the other big sites to review even cis-gender m/m books.

          I didn’t participate in the survey either. I’m congenitally incapable of filling out a Top 10 Romances (or any other category) Novel list, let alone 100, and the only time I participated in an AAR survey (one of their yearly ones, back in the LLB days) I found it a deeply unsatisfying process. So many categories! And often categories I don’t even think about when I’m reading. I’ve never had an easy time ranking my reading in terms of “best” except for those DA end-of-year lists, where I could just go through my reviews and pick out the ones I gave the highest grades to. 😉

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          1. Now that is interesting! Made me check their archives – and they did review JR Wards mm Lover at Last. As well as a lot of KJ Charles. (And Cat Sebastian but she’s not on the list). I didn’t have time to see how many reviews they have of the ownvoices / adjacentvoices queer romance writers that I’m familiar with.

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            1. They started reviewing m/m quite a few years ago, with one reviewer (Pat Henshaw) who eventually left to become an m/m writer herself. They used to categorize them as “male/male” but they got rid of that designation and didn’t replace it with anything, apparently, so you can’t use their Power Search function to find LGBTQ+ books by category (they have LGBTQ+ and Queer Romance as categories, but there are barely any books in the results). My recollection is that they reviewed a lot more m/m than anything else, and that has only changed in the last 2-3 years. But I could be wrong.

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    2. Thank you for digging deeper on the representation of the 3 queer romances on the list. While I can understand going for the “general category” label, I think it can be misleading to talk about “queer romance” without acknowledging how very narrow and specific the queer representation involved is. Given the nature of the romance genre, there are a lot of people who identify as queer for whom m/m romance isn’t any more representative than m/f romance, and the use of the more general category conceals that.

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      1. I agree, and I wish there was some way to be more specific that didn’t make me worry about erasing identities/orientations or assuming something about the writer that I’m not really in a position to know. I tend to think of m/m as a particular type of a story, with different characters than a book with non-binary, bi, trans, ace, etc. characters. Some m/m books fall into the latter category in terms of exploring what I think of as queer-focused topics and issues (or just everyday life from a queer-focused perspective), but a lot don’t.

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  4. I have had problems with this list since I first became aware of it, precisely because it’s been promoted/’sold’ as being THE list. THE Top 100. And it has never been, because as big as ARR was/may still be, it really has never been all that inclusive. So yeah, I definitely wish it was made clear everywhere, every time it’s brought up, that it’s the Top 100 submitted/voted on there, and nothing more.

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    1. I think a lot of people don’t realize the extent to which the Top 100 list was used by new or returning readers as a source. I saw it in a UBS in the Bay Area, taped to one of the romance bookshelves. If you used that list, you’d have to find other ways to learn about a lot of the genre. And I imagine the site still gets a lot of traffic for the Best Of lists and the Special Title Listings. So yeah, it’s not without influence and its lack of inclusivity reinforces the lack of inclusivity in the genre. They could retitle it the “AAR Readers’ Favorite/Top 100” without losing much, and it would be a more accurate description.

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      1. Precisely–and they could* have done that at least three iterations ago, when it was first brought to their attention (in public, at the very least) how problematic that lack of inclusiveness, and the limited representation inherent to a self selecting segment of readership, are when talking about THE ONE AND ONLY TOP 100 anything.

        * I’ll go so far as to say they should have done it then, if only to avoid the continued criticism, but (and I’ll catch hell for this) there’s an element of white victimhood in their response whenever things like this are brought up to them. “We try SO HARD, and look how our efforts are never appreciated as intended!” and the like.

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        1. There’s definitely a lot of defensiveness in some of the responses. I understand that they feel attacked, and some of the reviewers and site owner/managers have been trying to make AAR more inclusive, no question. But I think that not all of them understand how AAR’s long history isn’t something that can just be waved away, especially when aspects of that exclusionary history continue to be perpetuated. They aren’t personally responsible for past decisions, but every time they choose not to break with that past, they reinforce its strength.

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          1. They aren’t personally responsible for past decisions, but every time they choose not to break with that past, they reinforce its strength.

            Yes, this!

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