Romance novels were once the book world's dirty little secret. No more. Thanks in part to e-readers and ''Fifty Shades of Grey,'' they're now the hottest fiction genre going. An EW special report.

On the same July weekend pop culture’s ardent gaze was trained upon the geeks and superheroes strutting around San Diego Comic-Con, I found myself at an event I hadn’t even known existed a few months earlier, sitting in a hotel banquet room in San Antonio being gently schooled on the vagaries of love and sex and the magic of pineapple juice. Every year, the authors of anguished affairs and potboiler passions gather for the Romance Writers of America convention, now in its 34th year, to schmooze with top editors and agents, polish their craft in workshops, and generally come together in the name of love. This afternoon hundreds of writers were excitedly poking at their chicken breasts and congealed chocolate mousses while listening to New York Times No. 1 best-selling erotica/romance author Sylvia Day deliver the day’s crisply inspiring keynote address. ”There are millions of people who think that romance isn’t real writing,” Day said. ”But the only person who can make you real, make your books real, is you.”

Nothing makes you feel more like perhaps you’ve been doing it wrong all these years than sitting around a table with a bunch of romance writers. My table was a delightfully eclectic one: There was a 29-year-old erotica writer who dished about meeting her real-life boyfriend in a kink dungeon, a shy gay man who specializes in male-on-male paranormals, a serious woman who left her law enforcement career to write sexy crime procedurals, and a middle-aged woman whose niche is Scottish Highlanders. (”A man in a kilt,” she offered. ”What’s not to love?”) My lunchmates enthusiastically enlightened me on the endless variety of romance-novel subgenres, from shape-shifters to the Amish, and clued me in on the hot new trend: chiseled heroes who belong to mixed-martial-arts groups or motorcycle gangs. (What’s not to love?)

The history of the romance novel is mired in glib judgment and literary ill-repute. Somehow in our culture men who read comic books are hip, while women, similarly drawn to stories of heroes and fantasies, are written off as pathetic. ”Romance readers have always been the one category of reader that has experienced shame when they’ve gone to the bookstore,” says Angela James, editorial director for Harlequin’s digital-first imprint Carina Press. ”Not because they’re ashamed of what they’re buying but because of the person selling it to them. Whether by the look on their face or sarcastic, snarky comments. If you speak to any romance reader they will tell you that there have been times on the train or the subway where people see the book cover [and say,] ‘Oh, you read that?”’ Romance has long been the leading innovator in the book industry, and has become the second-largest book genre, just behind thrillers. Sales of romance novels, in all their permutations, exceed $1 billion annually in the U.S. There is a treasure trail of reasons for that, including e-books and Fifty Shades of Grey.

E L James, with her sadomasochistic-trilogy sales bonanza, is a polarizing figure here at the convention. More than 2,100 writers and industry professionals are in attendance (24 percent of whom are first-timers), and most seem to think her take on a BDSM relationship was disappointingly tame. Maybe that assessment is sincere — and maybe there’s just a tinge of competitive sour grapes at play — but it hardly matters. The Fifty Shades series has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and ignited a subgenre ember into a Burning Man blaze. For millions of women — 41 percent of romance-novel readers are women between the ages of 30 and 54 — Fifty was a gateway drug to a heady new world, and sales for romance novels exploded in its wake.

That did not, alas, earn the long-ridiculed genre respect. ”My mother is famous for saying, ‘Do you ever think you’ll write a real book?”’ says Sarah MacLean, a best-selling historical-romance writer who’s twice won the Romance Writers of America’s coveted RITA award for excellence and will publish her eighth book this December. ”She’s very proud of me, but in her mind if I’m this good at writing a romance novel, wouldn’t I be able to write literary fiction?” She adds, ”The challenge of outside perception is the same as with the chick flick: this idea that there’s something less valuable about it because it’s written by women for women about women.”

It’s hard to imagine another billion-dollar industry more dismissed by the critical mass. (Okay, maybe porn.) Stories propelled by erotic sex used to make mainstream publishers squirmy. Traditional publishing looked down on digital authors. Self-publishing was for losers. But romance publishers have historically led the book industry, tapping into markets overlooked by their elevated literary brethren. Beyond the noir-pulp business back in the 1940s, romance publishers were the first to fully embrace the mass-market paperback. (Today romance novels account for 32 percent of the entire paperback-fiction market.) Romance was also among the first to plunge into the great unknown of digital publishing, years before traditional publishing accepted that the ground under its stodgy feet was shifting forever. Digital romance sales currently make up a staggering 38 percent of all e-book sales. Now the genre’s leading a passionate charge into the frontier of self-publishing. So why doesn’t it get the love it deserves?

Part of it may be the packaging. MacLean, for instance, writes historical romances, so her typical book cover features a ripe woman, her hair in a woozy state of grand disarray, wearing some great swath of jewel-colored gown. ”We talk a lot about ‘Oh, well, maybe the genre would be taken more seriously if not for the cover,”’ she says. ”But that dress has been on historical romances for 40 years. You see that dress, and a romance reader knows what she’s going to get when she picks up that book.” There’s comfort in the familiar couples clinch on covers, and in the predictable blueprint of storytelling. Romance readers want to be simultaneously seduced and lulled — repeatedly.

Last October The New York Times Book Review published its first ”Sex Issue.” In it, editors asked 15 writers to weigh in on writing about sex. Not one of them was a romance novelist. ”Everybody in the community is looking for ways to show our value and power,” MacLean says. ”So when there’s something so obvious as a Sex Issue that doesn’t talk to the one genre that writes sex as par for the course, it’s as infuriating as it is illogical.” MacLean’s gracefully furious letter to the editor was published two weeks later. Soon afterward, The Washington Post Book World, in a shrewd nod of welcome to a long-neglected fan base, assigned MacLean a monthly review column devoted to the genre.

One of the triumphs of E L James landing on magazine covers, or of a serious book review unapologetically giving space to a romance, is the banishment of the sense of shame that has dogged the genre since its inception. Millions of people, it’s clear, want to root for true love, and millions more get off on some full-hearted fetish. But buying a book that indulges those desires, and reading it on a crowded subway or a school pickup line — well, it simply wasn’t done, my dear. That’s partly why romance readers were such early adopters of digital formats. You could read whatever swoony (or kinky) thing you wanted, and no one could tell if you were reading Barbara Cartland or Carson McCullers. There’s also the convenience factor. Romance readers buy a lot of books — on average, 27 per year — and those can clutter your bedroom faster than you can say ”Oh my, Mr. Darcy.”

”If you’re reading and buying a lot, your house is being filled with a lot of books,” says Margaret Marbury, a vice president at Harlequin. ”From a practical standpoint, downloading makes a lot of sense.” The main reason romance e-novels have thrived, though, is that they’ve been able to embrace the ocean of romantic subgenres that mainstream publishing hasn’t had the bandwidth (or interest) to print. ”If you wanted to read erotica, if you wanted to read something like science-fiction romance, and you wanted to read it in great quantity, that was only available to you on digital,” says Carina Press’ James.

That’s not to say that all is right in the house of love. Despite that great expansion in genre publishing, there remains a stubborn rigidity in the romance community when it comes to non-Caucasian storytellers. In 1994 Beverly Jenkins wrote her first historical romance set in black towns founded after the end of Reconstruction. ”Oh, girl, I got enough rejection letters to probably paper my house and yours,” she says today, recounting a story of an editor who flatly denied the existence, let alone the value, of black love. ”Even now, 30 books and 20 years later, I’m still amazed when I see my books on the shelves, when black women say, ‘Finally, someone who knows our beauty and that our black men are not always thugs, but our heroes.”’ Yet in her prolific career, Jenkins, whose next book, Destiny’s Captive, will be published by Avon on Oct. 28, has never hit a best-seller list, which speaks to a failure of marketing, distribution, and reader imagination.

Sometimes it takes a broken heart to realize your destiny. In 2010 Bella Andre was dropped by Random House after her firefighter romance series failed to generate sales. She’d spent the previous seven years shuffling between publishers, and now it seemed that her career was over. ”People were like, ‘You’re going to have to change your name because clearly nobody wants to buy a book by Bella Andre,”’ she says. Some friends and romance readers encouraged the writer to self-publish. So in July 2010 she uploaded the fittingly titled Love Me — a sequel that her then publisher, Simon & Schuster, had never wanted to put out. She sent personal notes to every fan who’d ever contacted her during her career, urging them to seek out the new book on Amazon. ”I probably made $8,000 that month, which was bigger than the advance of $5,000 I’d been offered by Plume, and I retained all the rights,” she says. Five months later she self-published another sequel, and within weeks she became the first self-published author to hit the top 25 on Barnes & Noble’s Nook best-seller list, selling 1,000 books a day.

Andre was hooked, as were her readers, and she soon announced plans to write an eight-book contemporary romance series about a family called the Sullivans. She’s a naturally fast writer — on average she churns out four to six books a year — and she released the first one in June 2011. A year later, upon the release of book 5, Andre made the New York Times best-seller list with three of the titles. No fool, she’s decided to make The Sullivans into a 25-book series.

Still, while her e-book success was more than she’d dared to hope, she missed the thrill of seeing her actual books on a bookstore shelf. So in October 2012 Andre signed a groundbreaking domestic print-only deal with Harlequin MIRA for more than seven figures. Even better, the author, a Stanford economics graduate and savvy negotiator if ever there was one, retains her digital, foreign, audio, film, and TV rights. Today Andre, who called from Venice during a stop on a months-long sojourn in Europe with her husband and two children, rakes in millions a year from her books. That may not be a romantic story, but it’s definitely a Cinderella one: ”I’ve sold more than 4 million copies in self-published books. Which is a lot better than the zero books I was selling before!” How’s that for a happy ending?