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The new pulp fiction: Romance novels for graying baby boomers

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Romance novels from Harlequin's NEXT series at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Lincoln Center. (Photo by Julie Onufrak)

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Connie Brockway's novel "Skinny Dipping," published by Onyx, at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Lincoln Center. (Photo by Julie Onufrak)

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The cover of "Prime Time" by Hank Phillippi Ryan, a novel in Harlequin's NEXT series. (Photo courtesy of Hank Phillippi)

Cealie is spunky, fun and sexy as the heroine in June Shaw's first novel, "Relative Danger." She wears spiky heels and black lace underwear. On a journey of self-discovery through the South, she tries desperately to avoid Gil, her "hunky ex-lover." But Gil's Cajun restaurants keep popping up, and Cealie has a hard time resisting temptation. Suffice it to say that a pivotal scene takes place in a Jacuzzi.

Cealie also happens to be a widowed grandmother about 60 years old. So is Shaw, who, like her heroine, is relishing this period of her life. After twenty years of teaching, Shaw is realizing a lifelong dream with the publication of her mystery romance, which is now a Harlequin paperback.

Shaw is one of a growing number of writers of romance novels that feature characters in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s. As baby boomers age and their market power grows, more books for and about them are appearing. Boomer women want to read romantic stories about older women who are finding love--and sex--later in life. And boomer authors seem willing to oblige by writing what they know.

"As writers age, what interests them changes," said Nicole Kennedy, public relations coordinator for Romance Writers of America, the national association of romance writers. "That's why you're seeing books come to light now that you wouldn't have seen 20 years ago." RWA includes authors of women's fiction, an umbrella term that includes mainstream novels, romantic fiction, and chick lit, as well as authors of "hen lit," or chick lit with older heroines, in its membership of more than 9,500.

The romance fiction industry as a whole is going strong. According to an RWA market research study, 26.4 percent of all books sold in 2006 were romances, generating $1.37 billion in sales. What's more, with almost a fifth of readers between the ages of 45 and 54, it is clear that many baby boomers are reading romance novels--and at least some are looking to where they can see themselves in the genre.

It's really natural to read things that touch you, said author Jenny Gardiner, 45, whose latest book is called "Sleeping with Ward Cleaver," from Dorchester Publishing of Wayne, Pa. "That's the kind of writing that I'm drawn to, and I can't imagine I'm the only one."

Sandy Smith, 61, who used to read nothing but romance novels, found "Relative Danger" on Amazon.com and read it cover-to-cover over a weekend. "It's geared for the adventurous grandmother," she said. "The one who would like life to be as exciting at 60 as it is at 30."

Like their chick lit cousins, hen lit writers' heroines are on the hunt for love. But there are differences.

"When I read a contemporary romance, I always think, 'Who's doing the laundry?'" said Connie Brockway, who describes her novel "Skinny Dipping," which is published by Penguin imprint Onyx, as a coming-of-age story for a woman in her 40s. In hen lit, romance cannot be the No. 1 character, she said. "You've got friends and family and work and obligations. There are so many more things involved in life than just romance."

The depiction of sex--long a requirement of many romance genres--can still be spicy, but tends to be subtler and more emotionally complex in hen lit. "It's going to talk more about the communication that's going on emotionally," said Brockway. "The more graphic scenes are going to be played for laughs or excruciating familiarity. You're probably not going to write scenes extolling the shape of her breasts, or how her skin is like alabaster."

The most recent attempt by the romance publishing industry to capitalize on the baby boomer audience came from Harlequin, the top-selling romance book publisher in 2006. In July 2005, Harlequin created a line of books--102 mass-market paperback titles--called NEXT to cater specifically to readers who are "moving into a new phase of life," wrote Heather Foy, senior manager of public relations, in an e-mail message.

Foy said NEXT was not designed for a particular age group. It is described on Harlequin's Web site as stories "for every woman who has wondered 'What's next?' After all, there's the life you planned. And there's what comes next."

Though NEXT was cancelled in January, Harlequin said it has not abandoned the audience. "The line was growing and developing a loyal following, but not at the rate needed to keep the books in our mass-market series portfolio," Foy said in an e-mail. She said that Harlequin does not disclose sales data for its products. "However, we have not pulled back from NEXT--instead, we are exploring ways to better get these very rewarding and wonderful stories to readers."

Several authors said books like the ones in the NEXT line must be marketed properly to succeed.

"Younger readers are a harder sell because they kind of want to believe that [aging] will never happen to them," said Barbara Samuel, 47, who has written historical and contemporary romances for the past 20 years, and is now writing primarily women's fiction.

There is no magic formula for getting readers to pick up a book, and authors have different ideas about how best to go about it. "The key is to get a buzz going," said Hank Phillippi Ryan, 58, an investigative reporter who has written two mystery romances for the NEXT line. "Word of mouth is still the best marketer." To that end, book clubs and book signings are still popular ways of reaching out to readers, as is the Internet.

Most agree, however, that the audience is out there. And no one is surer of this than June Shaw, the author of "Relative Danger."

"Most people reaching retirement age aren't ready to curl up and die," said Shaw. "They're ready for adventure in different areas of their lives."

Maybe even adventure involving a Jacuzzi.

Email: jro2111@columbia.edu