Monday, October 27, 2003

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.

Lucrative niche

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

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