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You’ve surely noticed them while you wait in line at H-E-B: stacks of paperbacks, all of their covers some slight variation on the classic image of a tall, handsome, shirtless guy with five-o’clock shadow holding up a swooning, partially clothed brunette, the sun setting in the background.

If, during such moments, you manage to resist the power of the romance novel, well, you’re the exception. This powerhouse genre brings in more than a billion dollars a year. “The thing is, it’s so optimistic and satisfying emotionally,” says Erin Fry, editor and publications manager for Romance Writers of America (RWA). “People want to believe in happily-ever-after.”

And they get their fix—it turns out—largely from Houston. It all started in 1979, when five romance scribes attended a writers’ conference at UH. Feeling overlooked, they decided to start their own group, which blossomed to 37 members the following year, and eventually became RWA. It was perfect timing, as the genre was exploding worldwide thanks to the ascendance of Harlequin Books and a certain flowing-maned gentleman named Fabio.

Today, RWA—with headquarters in northwest Houston—is huge, with more than 10,000 members and 145 chapters nationwide, including three in our area alone, who meet monthly and take part in contests, workshops, author readings and lectures, and annual conferences. And the organization has shepherded to fame some of romance lit’s most notable authors: Kerrelyn Sparks, Shana Galen and Barbara Dawson Smith are all card-carrying members.

Fry, who’s been a fan of the genre since she was a teenager here in Houston, says these books offer something for everyone. “There’s so much variety in the romance genre,” she notes, “whether it’s the typical modern-day/small-town story or paranormal romance with vampires or the more sexy and erotic stories.” The key, she says, is to keep an open mind. “There definitely is a stereotype of the romance novel and the romance novel reader, but you have to give it a try first,” she insists. “It all comes around to the idea that love conquers all.”

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