Beth Ciotta writes romance novels, but she doesn't spend her Saturday nights eating ice cream. She is happily married, and her house isn't full of cats. And while she loves what she does, she thinks the stereotypes about romance writers and readers are bunk.

"I tell people I write romantic fiction," says Ciotta, 48. "Because once you say romance novel, people think of all those cliches attached to it."

Romance novels, though written off by many as fluff wrapped in bare-chested Fabio covers, are serious business. According to Business of Consumer Book Publishing, romance fiction generated $1.375 billion in U.S. sales in 2007 - a 5 percent increase over 2006 - which made it the biggest fiction publishing category for that year. In fact, romance consistently holds the largest market share for fiction; in 2006, for example, the next largest market (sci-fi/fantasy) generated $495 million. And Harlequin Enterprises, the Ontario-based queen of romance publishing, celebrates its 60th anniversary this year; in that time, it has shipped more than five billion books worldwide.

Obviously, some people are still reading the novels filled with ripping bodices and windblown hair, even if those kinds of romance novels went the way of Max Headroom, snap bracelets and Clear Pepsi. Contemporary romance novels focus on anything from NASCAR to vampires. And the people doing the writing lead lives as full as their characters'.

"They are amazingly intelligent women who are exceptionally talented," says Sarah Wendell, coauthor of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels (Fireside, April 2009, $15) and a romance-industry blogger at "They're not just women in fanny packs or extremely rich women in big pink houses writing about love nubbins all day."

While working as a character actor in Atlantic City's casinos, Ciotta picked up a romance novel from a gift shop to read between performances. "I devoured that book," says Ciotta, who lives in Brigantine. "By the time I got to the end, I decided I wanted to do this."

She started writing where she read - backstage, between performances. In 2002, she won a Golden Heart, an award given to new romance writers by the Romance Writers of America. She has published 13 novels, and her 14th, Evie Ever After (Harlequin, $6.99), which is the third book in a contemporary series about a former Atlantic City showgirl-turned-spy, will be published in March.

Ciotta is now retired from performing in Atlantic City, and when she's not writing she works at Brigantine's library - where she has seen people from all walks of life check out romance novels, including her own. "A senior gentleman brought up my book and asked me when my next book was coming out because he enjoyed the series," she says. "You can never assume because of someone's gender, age or race what they're reading."

Or writing.

Shobhan Bantwal, 57, of Robbinsville, N.J., has two master's degrees. She works as a supervisor in the New Jersey state government and came to this country from India 35 years ago through an arranged marriage to a man who lived here - not exactly who you'd picture as a romance novelist, but it came naturally to Bantwal.

"I am a hopeless romantic and grew up watching Bollywood movies that are essentially romances with lots of drama and spice," she says.

She started writing while her husband, then an engineer, worked on an out-of-town project that left her alone Monday through Friday. "My evenings were somewhat lonely," she says, so she started writing articles about the Indian American experience, then moved to short fiction.

When she expanded to novels, she didn't think she'd ever sell Indian romances. But three years ago, New York-based Kensington Books started publishing ethnic fiction, defined as English-speaking books that focus on other cultures, and Bantwal was its first Indian author. Her first novel, The Dowry Bride, was published in 2007. The second, The Forbidden Daughter, came out in September.

Bantwal's work is an example of how an array of subject matter falls under the romance umbrella. Her books are set in India, have no graphic sexual descriptions, and address serious social issues (The Forbidden Daughter is about a mother whose doctor and in-laws want her to abort her female child).

Yet her books do follow the one rule required of any romance novel: a happy ending.

"Romances have come a long way," Bantwal says. "Romance authors are some of the most creative and prolific writers with their capacity to take the basic theme of boy-meets-girl and make it uniquely theirs by adding intrigue, drama, suspense, horror, paranormal elements, and a whole lot more."

Stephanie Julian, 43, of Reading, adds a lot of those paranormal elements to her novels, which are labeled as "romantica" - romantic erotic fiction - and published as e-books through Ellora's Cave at Her "Magical Seduction Series" includes fairies and werewolves and covers that put Fabio to shame.

But nothing about her screams, "I write erotic fiction." She's a suburban-dwelling professional woman who left her full-time job as a reporter for the Reading Eagle to freelance and raise two sons. That's when she developed a romance-a-day habit - sometimes more.

"When I first started reading them, they were the old-style books about women in jeopardy, and they were historical and they were big strong men with dainty little women who didn't know how to take care of themselves and needed a man," says Julian, a member of the Valley Forge Romance Writers group. Then she found contemporary romance novels - the kind of books that Ciotta writes. "They were writing about women who had jobs and women who were living in the world, and they were looking for a husband or at least a companion, and that was a whole eye-opening experience for me."

Even though the romance industry continues to grow, these authors don't think the haze of mockery surrounding the industry is going to go away anytime soon, even if the genre is poised to expand in rough economic times.

"Harp all you want, but it's a billion-dollar industry," says Wendell. "Harlequin started during the Great Depression, and with the economy in a great free fall, more and more people will be looking for literature with a happy ending."