July 22, 2005
Raleigh News and Observer

Harlequins for grown-ups
New line offers boomers books about and for mature women
By Bridgette A. Lacy, Staff Writer

Novelist Ellyn Bache was surprised when her literary agent told her that Harlequin wanted to publish her novel "Riggs Parks."
"I'm not a romance writer," says Bache, the 63-year-old Wilmington author of "Safe Passage" and "The Activist's Daughter."

But Bache was thrilled to be one of the first authors published under Harlequin's new imprint, NEXT.

Known for its romance paperbacks, Harlequin is expanding its market with Harlequin NEXT, a new line of mainstream women's fiction targeted to the 35 and older crowd.

Harlequin's romance books have become synonymous with over-the-top tales of love lost and found, but the new imprint will provide entertainment for women who have already achieved success and are asking what's next in their careers, relationships and social lives, says Tara Gavin, the editorial director of Harlequin NEXT.

Story lines of the first few releases include three girlfriends looking up old boyfriends; a former perfect wife rebuilding her life after her marriage falls apart; and the friendship and secrets of three women. Each month, four new titles will be available.

Bache expects "Riggs Park" to reach more readers than her previous books since the NEXT line is not only sold at many bookstores, especially chains, but also retail stores such as Target and Wal-Mart.

"People who may never spend $25 for a hardcover would probably take a chance on a book that sells for less than $10."

Harlequin sees the aging baby boomers as a growing demographic of women who read and won't be able to turn down a paperbook that costs less than some lunches — $5.50 to be exact.

And of course, Harlequin has a reputation as a widely successful seller of books for women. "They are huge," says Karen Holt, a deputy editor of Publishers Weekly. "They have dominated the romance market for years. They have had a lot of success with their Red Dress Ink series."

Red Dress Ink is the publisher's chick lit imprint, and Holt believes Harlequin was one of the first to have a dedicated imprint for the category. "They have spawned a lot of copy catters. And with NEXT, they seem to be trying to do for the middle-age market what chick lit has done for the 20- and 30-years-olds."

Gavin says chick lit focuses on women in the first stages of their lives, just starting out. NEXT addresses the woman who is asking, "What more can I do?

"It's a different market. Both are very viable," she says.

Unlike the romance genre — where every man is rugged, every woman is beautiful and the sex is always great — the plot lines of NEXT don't revolve around an attractive man or woman, Holt says.

"It's not idealized. They are trying to be positive but it's not that princess fantasy," she says.

And not all the women characters are young either, which pleases Bache. "There use to be a glass ceiling of age range you could write about as a main character," she says.

In Bache's novel, "Riggs Park," the main characters are 58. Marilyn and Barbara, who grew up together in the Washington neighborhood of Riggs Park, have been friends for 54 years. Marilyn, who has cancer, asks Barbara to come visit her in the Washington area, where the two investigate a secret from their past.

When Bache was younger, she remembers feeling that older women characters in books were often flat and uninteresting. The new imprint, she believes, will showcase how full a woman's life can be in all stages of the life cycle.

"You continue to live your life with the same intensity," Bache says. "This is an opportunity to explore these older years."

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