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Step Aside Mommy Porn, Amish Women in Bonnets Make for Instant Best-Sellers

Amish romance novels--christened "bonnet books" by the Christian publishers who sell them--sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year.
 
 
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This story was originally published at Salon.

With mommy porn bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey whipping up a sadomasochistic storm in the female book market this summer, it might seem safe to assume that old-fashioned romance novels, in which the protagonists prefer hastily confessed feelings and innocent first kisses to heavy petting and handcuffs, would begin to disappear from the shelves. After all, now that someone is finally writing erotica for the estrogen set, who needs tender love stories?

The Amish, that’s who. Or to be more accurate, women, principally Christian, who love to read about the Amish. Amish romance novels are big business. Most feature a pretty girl in a bonnet on the cover. There are quilting bees and work frolics, pie bakes, and buggy rides into the sunset. Almost all of them follow a particular young woman in her search for the fulfillment of romantic and family love.

Not that the course of true love ever did run smooth, even in Lancaster County, Pa., or Shipshewana, Ind. As is the case with any romance novel bound for the bestseller list, there are innumerable obstacles on the way to the altar for the Hannahs and Rachels and Roses and Betsys of the “plain” world. (“Plain” being Amish or, in some cases, old-order Mennonite; “fancy” is reserved for the modern lifestyle of decorative clothes, cars and electricity.)

Sometimes the obstacle is another bonneted girl. Sometimes, as is the case with the book that started it all – Beverly Lewis’ novel  The Shunning – it’s the call of the “English” world. More often than not, it takes about four books to get everything resolved. If you like  Leah’s Choice by Marta Perry, why not pick up Book 2 in her Pleasant Valley series,  Rachel’s Garden? (Which, incidentally, was my introduction to Amish romance novels. My boyfriend bought it for me on a lark while waiting in line at Walgreen’s.) Anyone who falls in love with Pleasant Valley will be happy to know there are still two more books in the series:  Anna’s Return and Sarah’s Gift.

Such sequels obviously fill the coffers of Christian publishing houses like Bethany House, Harvest House and Livingston Hall. The phenomenon that is Amish fiction, itself a subset of a larger genre of romances christened “bonnet books” by editors and marketers, is in some ways representative of a publishing industry bent on the bottom line. Bonnet books by top authors rarely sell less than 100,000 copies and several Amish fiction writers produce more than one book a year.

According to Steve Oates, vice president of marketing for Bethany House, bonnet books are a sure thing and have been ever since Beverly Lewis single-handedly gave birth to the genre in the late ’90s.

“If you put a head covering on the woman on the front, you’re going to sell a lot more copies,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “It’s that simple. Even if the book isn’t about the Amish – maybe it’s about a Mennonite girl or even a young woman living in John Bunyan-era Europe – if you put some sort of bonnet or hat on her, it’s almost like magic. We have an author, Ann Gabhart, who writes for our sister division, Revell. She made the switch over to bonnet books and doubled her sales.”

Regardless of when and where the stories are set – northeastern Indiana, northern Ohio, central Iowa or, as is most often the case, in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country – they do sell, and even though sales of Amish fiction, like that of literary and popular fiction, have slowed somewhat over the past couple of years, these novels are still in high demand, particularly among Christian women in rural communities where the closest Wal-Mart is sure to shelve the latest Beverly Lewis or Mindy Starns Clark. (Incidentally, Wal-Mart accounts for 50 percent of the sales of Amish fiction’s top authors.)

 
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