Head over heels for sassy chick lit
Publishers add imprints for plucky novels as genre catches on with young women
By Anita Jain
Published on October 27, 2003
Beyond torn clothing: "This generation wouldn't be caught dead reading a bodice-ripper," says Louise Burke, editor of Simon & Schuster's Downtown Press.
She's in her 20s or early 30s, works in publishing or advertising, and lives in the big city. She has to contend with messy roommates, noncommittal boyfriends and callous bosses.
Following in the footsteps of Bridget Jones--the weight-obsessed, lovelorn fictional character who sparked the "chick lit" frenzy five years ago--a legion of plucky heroines have flooded bookstores with their tales of single woe. The books have found a niche among young urban women looking for a sassy voice that defines their generation. Their popularity is breathing new life into a sagging book industry dominated by older readers.
"At heart, these books are about female empowerment. It's what the 20-year-old wants to read now," says Carrie Feron, editor of Avon Trade. "People love this format."
The trend has grown to such a crescendo that two publishers set up separate chick lit imprints this year and are rushing out these books at a rate of two to three a month. Simon & Schuster launched Downtown Press, featuring a shopping bag logo, and Kensington Publishing introduced Strapless.
HarperCollins and Harlequin Books caught the wave earlier, starting imprints Avon Trade and Red Dress Ink, respectively, in 2001. Random House has had a special marketing program called XYZ to tout the books for a couple of years.
Since Bridget Jones's Diary, written by British author Helen Fielding, debuted in the United States in 1998, publishers have disgorged hundreds of these titles. The most recent sensation is The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger. The novel is based on her stint as an assistant to famed Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Published in June by Doubleday, the book has already sold 500,000 copies in hardcover.
"This generation wouldn't be caught dead reading a bodice ripper. They're more cynical, more savvy," says Louise Burke, editor of Downtown Press. "They relate to these books in a way that my generation didn't relate to romance."
No longer trendy?
Still, some publishers believe that the phenomenon is losing steam. Chick lit has been declared passe in Britain, where the trend originated. The plots are formulaic and the themes identical, critics say.
"The field will start to blur, and you won't be able to distinguish the good from the bad," says Deborah Schneider, Ms. Weisberger's agent. "Publishers shouldn't do so much of it."
St. Martin's Press has forgone a separate imprint for its chick lit roster, despite the runaway success of The Nanny Diaries, which has sold 875,000 hardcovers and more than a million paperbacks since it was published more than a year ago.
"If you have an imprint, you have to have something to fill it, and you become less choosy," says Elizabeth Beier, who edited another chick lit hit, The Dirty Girls Social Club. "There's a potential to kill the golden goose."
Most publishers aren't worried about the movement tottering on its high Prada heels yet. They see the format as one that has staying power. Downtown Press plans to up the number of chick lit titles it publishes a month to two from one. Red Dress Ink recently increased its output to three a month, while Avon Trade aims for two a month.
They are banking on the loyalty of readers like Aren Cohen, who works at the Guggenheim Museum and devours about half a dozen of the cheeky novels each summer. "It's all the best and all the worst of that experience of being a single twentysomething gal in the city," the 31-year-old Manhattanite says.
Chick lit has also found a following among teenage girls. "The books are about shopping, about men, about what their lives are going to be," says John Scognamiglio, editor of Strapless, Kensington's imprint.
Regardless of the merits of the books themselves, they have young women reading. As bookstores begin displaying chick lit titles in separate sections, fans are scooping up two or three at a time, say publishers.
Industry experts say publishers can make more money from chick lit than from traditional fiction. Most chick lit authors are first-time writers who receive small advances ranging from $5,000 to $50,000. But their books sell far better than those by peers in other categories.
Chick lit novelists commonly rack up sales of 50,000 books, while many unknown writers in other genres could expect to sell only 5,000 to 10,000, Mr. Scognamiglio says. He adds that Strapless in a matter of months has become Kensington's third-best-selling imprint among five.
The push for a separate imprint at Kensington came from the sales department, which noticed how chick lit was flying off the shelves. "They wanted a book a month and wanted an imprint name to go with it," the editor says.
Isolating chick lit under a separate imprint demonstrates that a publishing house is serious about the genre, giving editors access to better books earlier on. After a heated auction, Downtown Press was able to snag Ms. Weisberger's second novel for more than $1 million.
The price may be worth it if it keeps young women reading. "This audience may graduate to more difficult subjects," Ms. Burke says.
Copyright 2003, Crain Communications, Inc
Amazon's New Search EngineAmazon.com unveils new book search engine
SEATTLE, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- Amazon.com unveiled a massive new search engine Thursday called "Search Inside the Book", containing 33 million pages of a collection of 120,000 books.
Amazon's registered customers can receive specific pages by entering words or phrases into the search engine. Search Inside the Book allows users to view search results by returning images of actual pages, without the ability to download an entire book.
Wired magazine said the breakthrough creates a powerful research tool, while respecting copyright law. The magazine called the technology "one of the boldest maneuvers yet in an intense commercial competition."
The magazine said the Amazon.com archive is intentionally crippled. A search retrieves not text, but pictures of pages. You can find the page that responds to your query, read it on your screen, and browse a few pages backward and forward. But one cannot download, copy, or read the book from beginning to end.
Amazon.com will limit users to fewer than a few thousand pages per month, or no more than 20 percent of any single book.
From: AuthorsGuild Staff [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Friday, October 24, 2003 5:09 PM
Subject: Amazon's New Book Database
You might have read about Amazon.com's "Search Inside the Book" program, launched yesterday, in which the entire texts of participating publishers' titles are available on the Amazon.com website. Visitors can locate titles containing search terms they choose, and then access the two pages preceding and the two pages following the page containing those terms. Amazon sets a limit that permits a user to see no more than about 20% of a particular work. The company reports that publishers consented to the placement of all 120,000+ titles in the program.
We've reviewed the contracts of major trade publishers and concluded that these publishers do not have the right to participate in this program without their authors' permission. We wrote to these publishers after we learned about the program in July. Most argued with our interpretation of their contract (no surprise there), but some have said that they would remove a work from the program if the author insisted.
Whether your works should be in the program is hard to say. This program will likely prove to be useful in promoting certain titles. Midlist and backlist books that are receiving little attention, for example, may benefit from additional exposure in searches. For other titles, the program may erode sales. Most reference books would be at clear risk in such a database. So would many (if not most) travel books and cookbooks. Most fiction titles are not likely to be greatly threatened.
When we learned of the program, we thought that it would be impossible to read more than 5 consecutive pages from a book in the program. It turns out that it's quite simple (though a bit inconvenient) to look at 100 or more consecutive pages from a single lengthy book. We've even printed out 108 consecutive pages from a bestselling book. It's not something one would care to do frequently, but it can be done. So a reader could choose to print out all the fish recipes from a cookbook in the program. Or the section on Tuscany from a travel book. We believe readers will do this,
and the perplexing question is whether the additional exposure for a title -- and the presumptive increase in sales -- offsets sales lost from those who just use the Amazon system to look up the section of a book when they need it.
Other books at especially high risk include those that sell to the student (particularly college student) market as secondary reading. A student could easily grab the relevant chapter or two out of a book without paying for it. Students certainly have the time and most likely the inclination to do so, and, with the help of some willing colleagues, could print out the entire texts of books in the program.
We'll be sending you more information about the program shortly, and we're going to be in further touch with the major publishers. If you'd like a book removed from the program and your publisher isn't cooperating, please let us know.
Copyright 2003, Authors Guild. This work may be forwarded and posted, so long as it is not edited. www.authorsguild.org
October 15, 2003
By Oline H. Cogdill
Margery Flax, a New York City office manager, has become immortal. Or at least her name has. In a new mystery series by South Florida author Elaine Viets, "Margery Flax" is a 76-year-old eccentric landlady who has a penchant for purple. Flax, 52, couldn't be happier that her name is being taken in vain. She planned it that way.
Flax got into a bidding war during a national mystery writers' conference to have her name used in a Viets novel.
"I love the character," said Flax. "She has an attitude about life that I really like, and is independent. She speaks her own mind and makes her own choices. She's what I hope to be when I am that age."
Flax had only one request about her namesake -- that she love purple. "Other than that, I wanted the character to be what the author wanted it to be."
Auctioning off character names for charity has long been a fund- raising staple of genre writers' conferences. Winners pay to have their name -- or that of a friend, relative or even a pet -- used in an upcoming book. The named character may make a one-time cameo or, as in Flax's case, may become a series regular.
Now South Florida authors will be donating the name of a character as a thank-you gift for special donations to public radio and television station WXEL-Ch. 42 [and FM 90.7] during the station's fall membership drive Oct. 18-31. South Florida authors who will be donating character names include James Patterson, James W. Hall, Barbara Parker, James Grippando, Viets and Jonathon King. Carl Hiaasen is offering lunch with the author in Islamorada in a package that includes a two-night stay at Cheeca Lodge. Tampa author Tim Dorsey will be donating annotated, autographed manuscript pages of his upcoming Cadillac Beach, which is set in Miami Beach. Station officials won't say yet how high a donation to WXEL should be to get a name in a novel, but this may open a new chapter on fund-raising for the channel.