With an out-of-work husband and two children to support, Christine Mead needs a cheap -- and uplifting -- break from life.
So lately she's been escaping into sweet and heartening stories of love and passion, where heroines overcome insurmountable obstacles to find their happiness.
"I am left with a satisfied feeling at the end of a good book, a feeling of hope that all can, and will, be OK," said Mead, who lives in the small town of Festus, Mo., and suffers from fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis.
Mead, 41, rarely goes anywhere because of the price of gas, and the family has been relying on a food pantry. Romance novels, she said, are "a distraction from not knowing what's going to happen next."
Love may not conquer all in real life, but its power in relatively inexpensive books is quite a comfort in this economy. Publishers are seeing strong sales in the romance genre as other categories decline and consumers cut back on spending.
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., a global giant in women's fiction, reported fourth-quarter earnings up 32 percent over the same period a year earlier, with U.S. retail sales up 9 percent in 2008.
For the week of May 10, romance book sales overall were up nearly 2.4 percent compared with the same week last year, according to Nielsen BookScan, which covers 75 percent of retail sales. Travel book sales were down 16 percent, detective/mystery and self-help were each down 17 percent and adult fiction overall, of which romance is a subgenre, was up 1 percent.
Jennifer Enderlin, associate publisher for St. Martin's Press, said romance is doing so well, the publisher is releasing 32 titles this year (more could be added), compared to 26 last year.
Books from notable authors, including Lora Leigh, Lisa Kleypas and Sherrilyn Kenyon, are experiencing healthy sales, she said.
Enderlin and other publishers said they're not surprised by the genre's success.
"If you really think about it, there is a little romance in virtually every book," said Laurie Parkin, vice president and publisher of Kensington Publishing Corp. Kensington has seen a 5 percent increase in sales for mass market paperback romances for its fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, she said.
"But especially when business is bad or business is down, people want to escape a little bit," Parkin added. "I think romance offers that in a wonderful, wonderful way."
When life is more stressful, people need that escape even more, said Nancy Molitor, a clinical psychologist in Wilmette, Ill. She said movie attendance and alcohol sales are also up. Romance novels are affordable and you can easily get them from the library or purchase them used.
"It's a healthy and positive coping mechanism," said Judith Orloff, a medical doctor and author of "Emotional Freedom." She said the stories help people find an oasis of calm.
Christine Dionne, 38, of Cloverdale, Ore., said romance was the soothing balm after one of her two sons died playing an asphyxiation game in 2004 at age 10. Now, she's reaching for more lighthearted fun romances as a distraction from financial and family troubles. Her husband, a truck driver, has had his hours cut and the farm where she works has taken a hit.
She said the books make her feel like she's something bigger than her tiny town and the small house that she rarely leaves. With little money to go out (she doesn't drive), she shops at Goodwill. Ramen has become a staple in the house.
"It's my connection to the world and I can visit other places and be somebody else -- for just a little while," said Dionne, whose surviving son is 12.
Katherine Petersen, 43, of Menlo Park, Calif., said she feels more energized to resume her job search after she finishes a good romance. Petersen is blind and has been looking for work for about a year.
Before, reading was a hobby. Now, it's her saving grace. She said it's something she can do in braille or by listening without the company of others and without spending a lot of money.
"When I'm reading, I'm thinking about something else," said Petersen, whose background is in public relations. "I'm certainly not worrying about that job letter I just sent out or who I have to call or how I am going to pay the electric bill. It's kind of a freedom from that."
But escapism is only part of the attraction, said best-selling author Janet Evanovich, who started out writing romance and then morphed into mystery. She likes romance because the characters are quirky, vibrant women who take charge, are tenacious and are able to overcome crises in their lives -- characters women can identify with.
The books are a feel-good read, Enderlin said. The endings may be predictable, but there's solace in knowing that things are going to turn out like they should.
For Diane Pershing, president of Romance Writers of America, the recession-proof romance is a no-brainer. Romance novels offer "rich, complex stories about good people overcoming obstacles to achieve intimacy and an eventual joining of their lives," she said.
"Along the way, they have great sex," she said. "What's not to like?"