Skip to content

Looking Back at New York Times Bestselling Romances

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.

A few years later in 1938 Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca nabbed the top spot, reinvigorating interest in gothic romances.


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.  

Another standout is Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor, published in 1944. This historical romance drew favorable comparisons to Gone With the Wind and was banned in Boston for its sheer sexiness.


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:

  • Love Story by Erich Segal (1970): This tragic tale about a young couple facing terminal illness spent a whopping 41 weeks at the top spot on NYT's list. Coming out that same year, the film starred Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal.
  • The Lord Won't Mind by Gordon Merrick (1970): This story about two men who fall in love at an Ivy League college made a mark as the first best-selling gay romance.
  • Shanna by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss (1978): Woodiwiss is credited as the pioneer of the "bodice ripper" subgenre.
  • Scruples by Judith Krantz (1978): This NYT bestseller about the proprietress of a chic Beverly Hills boutique heralded the beginning the "bonkbuster" subgenre featuring glamorous, financially independent protagonists and salacious storylines.


The contemporary romance genre hit its stride in this decade with the success of serial bestsellers like Danielle Steel and Jackie Collins. Here are some standouts.


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.

2010s and beyond

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.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to connect with a community of readers like you and get daily book recommendations, literary tidbits, and more.

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

Leave a Comment

Related Subjects

Copyright © 2023 Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Do Not Sell/Share My Personal Information | Cookie Policy | Cookie Preferences | Accessibility Statement
ThriftBooks® and the ThriftBooks® logo are registered trademarks of Thrift Books Global, LLC
GoDaddy Verified and Secured