By Ashly Moore Sheldon • February 12, 2023
Historically speaking, the New York Times (NYT) has not given much attention to romance novels, focusing instead on literary fiction. But things are starting to change. In 2020, novelist Olivia Waite started as a romance columnist for the publication and even published a Best Romance Novel list for 2022, the first of its kind. (You can peruse the list for free on Book Riot).
We decided to take a retrospective look at the romance novels that have topped the NYT Best Seller lists since its beginning in 1931, as well as a few other groundbreaking titles along the way. Obviously this eliminates some of the all-time bestselling romance books published earlier—like Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, and North and South, just to name a few. But we still celebrate them!
We're crediting Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell as the first romance to top the NYT Best Seller List. It was published in 1936 and spent more than 30 consecutive weeks at the #1 spot. Although not technically classified as a romance, this book went on to have a huge influence on the genre.
Best-selling romances from this decade include 1941s Saratoga Trunk by Edna Ferber. Set in New Orleans, it is the story of Clio Dulaine, an ambitious Creole beauty who meets her match in Clint Maroon, a handsome Texas gambler.
In 1952, Patricia Highsmith made history with her novel The Price of Salt, later republished under the name Carol. The book chronicles a romance between two women. Although not a NYT bestseller at the time, the book went on to be a sleeper hit and was the basis for a celebrated 2015 film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
For more than three decades Georgette Heyer was a powerhouse of Regency romance literature, citing Jane Austen as a major influence. One of our favorites is 1958's Venetia about an intelligent, spirited young woman navigating love with a notorious rake.
Published in 1966, Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls was the top selling novel of the year. The sexy pulpy story features three young women trying to make their way in New York City. Susann's second novel, The Love Machine, followed suit in 1969.
The seventies marked the rise of romance as a more legitimate genre as books that had previously been published as dime-store novels began to gain a larger readership. Here is a list of some of the bestsellers from this decade:
Danielle Steel continued to rack up #1 bestsellers (sometimes more than one each year) throughout the nineties. Other authors who hit this mark include:
Moving into the aughts, the top sellers of the growing genre began to see an influx of paranormal romances and cultural diversity with regular appearances from industry stars like Nicholas Sparks, Danielle Steel, and Nora Roberts.
In our current era, social media influencers have become major drivers in product placement, including book sales, further diversifying the field and promoting lesser-known authors. Here are some of the top titles of the last decade plus:
It's interesting to see the way that the NYT Best Seller Lists have been a sort of harbinger of trends over the years. The evolution of the romance genre plays out in the titles that rose to the top and the field is clearly thriving! Celebrate Valentine's Day by revisiting some of your favorite romances.