The breathless story of the single gal in the big city who is more adept at shopping than relationships that has come to define “chick lit” is as out of style as last year’s Jimmy Choos, say publishing honchos. “What we’re hearing from a lot of booksellers is that if they see one more pink cover they’re going to scream,” says Hyperion’s senior VP and publisher Ellen Archer.
Ever since Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary” crossed the pond in 1998, contemporary women’s fiction — dubbed chick lit, to the chagrin of many authors and publishers — has spawned a seemingly endless bumper crop of titles with varying degrees of success. Breakout star Jennifer Weiner (“Good in Bed”) and one-hit wonder Lauren Weisberger (“The Devil Wears Prada”) are among the few authors who have generated sales and lots of buzz for the genre, but the sheer number of books by no-name writers targeted to lovelorn twentysomethings seem to have left the industry with a Cosmo-sized hangover.
“When you see ‘How to Write Chick Lit’ books in the stores and it can be deconstructed that way, you know they’ve jumped the shark,” says literary agent Daniel Greenberg of the Manhattan-based Levine Greenberg Agency.
But like its plucky heroines, the genre’s highly invested publishers and writers have found a way to reinvent themselves to attract new suitors. “Some people say chick lit is dying out, but I think it’s here to stay,” says Karen Kosztolnyik, senior editor at Warner Books, whose chick lit imprint 5 Spot was launched in September. “It’s starting to spin off into subgenres — from bride chick lit to ‘fancy moms’ lit about getting divorced or moving to the suburbs.” Not so coincidentally, the imprint’s “hot summer read” is Jane Porter’s “Flirting With 40,” about a newly single woman and her much younger love.
“Chick lit is evolving,” says Jane von Mehren, VP and publisher of Random House’s trade paperback division. “The genre is diversifying with different types of stories — now there’s glam lit, hen lit, even stories involving the paranormal. We’re seeing African-American and Latina authors selling very well.” The house is banking on Sofia Quintero’s road trip tale “Divas Don’t Yield” to tap into the ethnic chick lit market.
Archer believes the biggest opportunity for growth is in going after the older reader — “women 35 and up — the key-demo hardcover book buyers.” While the house has had success with authors like “Sex and the City” scribe Candace Bushnell (“Trading Up”) and up-and-comer twentysomething Cecelia Ahern (“P.S. I Love You”), Archer believes Hyperion’s new imprint will be a place where older writers and readers can “tackle meatier issues.”
Decrees the publisher: “There will be no chicks or hens here.” The yet-to-be-named imprint will be helmed by editorial director Pam Dorman, who edited Helen Fielding while at Viking.
Bushnell concurs that the future for the genre lies in more grownup heroines. “The characters in ‘Lipstick Jungle’ (her latest bestseller, currently in development at NBC) are really the same characters that were in ‘Sex and the City’ but grown up,” she says. “They’ve discovered it’s sometimes more exciting to be Mr. Big than to date him. That’s what women want to read about now.”
Some of the most eagerly awaited books in the genre have replaced sex with power as the key ingredient in one reconfigured formula for success. One such title that’s generating high hopes: “Because She Can” (Warner) penned by former ReganBooks editor Bridie Clark and due out next year. The roman a clef chronicles the life of a beleaguered editor driven crazy by her tyrannical female boss.
Clark worked for media maven Judith Regan for two years, prompting insiders to salivate over the prospect of having a hit that’s a thinly veiled expose. “It’s our ‘Devil Wears Prada,” says von Mehren.
Greenberg, who reps Clark, says he’s been “besieged by requests” from Hollywood for a look at the manuscript, but the book hasn’t been shopped yet. Perhaps that’s because producers are waiting to see if “Prada’s” bestseller status translates to bigscreen success.
Last year, when Chick Lit’s high priestess Jennifer Weiner’s “In Her Shoes” underperformed at the box office and among critics, industry execs were dismayed. “The book did so well, Jennifer has a huge following and the movie had big stars (Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette), so no one expected that,” says one insider. “It just shows that you never know what’s going to work. Publishers are really feeling that way about chick lit now.”
Regardless, Hollywood remains high on the genre. A sampling of projects currently in development:
- “Good Grief” (Warner Books) by Lolly Winston has been optioned by Universal’s Marc Platt. Michael Cunningham (“The Hours”) is writing the screenplay and it’s been reported that Julia Roberts is slated to star in the dramedy about a young window trying to rebuild her life.
- “Forget About It” (5 Spot), an unpublished novel by Caprice Crane about a woman who fakes amnesia, was optioned by New Line, with Scarlett Johansson attached to star.
- Wendy Finerman picked up “P.S. I Love You” by Cecelia Ahern (Hyperion) for Universal. Richard LaGravenese has written the script, which is scheduled to go into production later this year.
- Another Ahern novel, “If You Could See Me Now,” was optioned by Disney. “Chicago” producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are developing it as a musical, with Hugh Jackman set to star.
- “The Ivy Chronicles” by Karen Quinn, about a Wall Streeter turned nanny, has been optioned by Jerry Weintraub. Catherine Zeta-Jones is attached to star.
So is chick lit alive and well? “I don’t think the term matters anymore,” says Bushnell. “Women just want to read interesting, well-told stories about other women’s lives.”