In the 1930s, the British publishers Mills & Boon began releasing hardback romance novels. The books were sold through weekly two-penny libraries and were known as “the books in brown” for their brown binding. In the 1950s, the company began offering the books for sale through newsagents across the United Kingdom.
A Canadian company, Harlequin Enterprises, began distributing in North America in 1957 the category romances published by Mills & Boon. Mary Bonneycastle, wife of Harlequin founder Richard Bonneycastle, and her daughter, Judy Burgess, exercised editorial control over which Mills & Boon novels Harlequin reprinted. They had a “decency code,” and rejected more sexually explicit material that Mills and Boon submitted for reprinting. Realizing that the genre was popular, Richard Bonneycastle finally decided to read a romance novel. He chose one of the more explicit novels and enjoyed it. On his orders, the company conducted a market test with the novel he had read and discovered that it outsold a similar, tamer novel. Overall, the novels were short and formulaic, featuring heroines who were sweet, compassionate, pure and innocent. The few heroines who worked did so in traditional female jobs, including as nurses, governesses and secretaries. Intimacy in the novels never extended beyond a chaste kiss between the protagonists.
On October 1, 1971, Harlequin purchased Mills & Boon. By this point, the romance novel genre “had been popularized and distributed widely to an enthusiastic audience” in Great Britain. In an attempt to duplicate Mills & Boon’s success in North America, Harlequin improved their distribution and marketing system. By choosing to sell their books “where the women are,” they allowed many mass-market merchandisers and even supermarkets to sell the books, all of which were exactly 192 pages. Harlequin then began a reader service, selling directly to readers who agreed to purchase a certain number of books each month.
The beginnings of American romance fiction
In the US, modern romance genre fiction was born in 1972, with Avon’s publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, which was the first of the modern “bodice ripper” romance novels to follow “the principals into the bedroom.” Aside from its content, the book was revolutionary in that it was one of the first single-title romance novels to be published as an original paperback, rather than being first published in hardcover, and, like the category romances, was distributed in drug stores and other mass-market merchandising outlets. The novel went on to sell 2.35 million copies. Avon followed its release with the 1974 publication of Woodiwiss’s second novel, The Wolf and the Dove and two more sexually graphic novels by newcomer Rosemary Rogers, Sweet Savage Love and Dark Fires. The latter sold two million copies in its first three months of release. By 1975, Publishers Weekly had reported that the “Avon originals” had sold a combined 8 million copies. The following year over 150 historical romance novels, many of them paperback originals, were published, selling over 40 million copies.
The success of these novels prompted a new style of writing romance, concentrating primarily on historical fiction tracking the monogamous relationship between a helpless heroine and the hero who rescued her, even if he had been the one to place her in danger. The covers of these novels tended to feature scantily clad women being grabbed by the hero, and caused the novels to be referred to as bodice rippers. A Wall St. Journal article in 1980 referred to these bodice rippers as “publishing’s answer to the Big Mac: They are juicy, cheap, predictable, and devoured in stupefying quantities by legions of loyal fans.” The term bodice ripper is now considered offensive to many in the romance industry.
In this new style of historical romance, heroines were independent and strong-willed and were often paired with heroes who evolved into caring and compassionate men who truly admired the women they loved. This was in contrast to the contemporary romances published during this time, which were often characterized by weak females who fell in love with overbearing alpha males.  Although these heroines had active roles in the plot, they were “passive in relationships with the heroes.” Across the genre, heroines during this time were usually aged 16–21, with the heroes slightly older, usually around 30. The women were virgins, while the men were not, and both members of the couple were described as beautiful.