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Thursday, 14 February, 2002, 08:36 GMT
Publishing for love's sake
Mary-Jo Wormell
Mary-Jo Wormell: "Just give me a good story"
By BBC News Online's Alex Webb

Valentine's Day is a yearly reminder that, although love may be all you need, it is also big business.

And one part of the love business that has always remained buoyant is the romantic novel.

On Valentine's Day 2001, a new publisher launched in the UK, determined to make inroads into the romance market traditionally dominated by Mills and Boon.

I really thought there was a gap in the market

Mary-Jo Wormell,
Heartline Books
Such is the cut-throat nature of the market in love stories that Heartline Books prepared its debut in secret and gave away its first book, Love Is Forever, for free.

One year on and Heartline founder Mary-Jo Wormell is pleased with progress.

"We have published or are publishing 40 books, and we've got more than 35 authors - half well-established, half brand new - which is really exciting," she told BBC News Online.

Ms Wormell is herself a Mills and Boon author, with some 40 books to her credit under the pseudonym Mary Lyons.

Heartline book cover
Heartline has dropeed "clinch" covers
"I'd been doing it for 20 years, it was almost like a career change - I just thought, 'Do I want to keep doing this all the time?'

"I thought there was room for slightly longer books, and I wanted to get rid of the couple in a clinch on the cover, so that you could actually read the books on the tube or on the bus without people thinking, 'She's reading a sloppy romance'."

If there is a rivalry with her old employer, it is something which Ms Wormell plays down.

"Compared to them we are a minnow and I won't knock them - I wrote for them for 20 years and was happy to do so.

"We're no threat to Mills and Boon and we don't even pretend to be, we're just giving another outlet to writers."

Ms Wormell is keen to stress that Heartline is striving to be author-friendly.


"I've been an author long enough to know how dreadful it is, sitting there with a computer, the hours and hours of silence.

"We ran our contracts past Mark Le Fanu at the Society of Authors.

"We don't give a one-off fee, we do proper contracts, with advances on acceptance and the second part of their advance on publication, and they're paid royalties twice a year."

But, she noted with regret, so far all of her authors are women.

"I'd love to have a man writer, but we just haven't had the right one yet," she said.

You definitely have to have an upbeat ending

Mary-Jo Wormell,
Heartline Books

The readership of romantic novels is still dominated by women too, though she does claim a constituency of what she calls "closet male readers".

But Heartline is making efforts to break some of the stereotypes of what romantic fiction is about.

"We write about divorcees, single parents feature quite a lot and in fact most writers tend to want to write about modern conditions, things they know about.

"And we do have women falling in love with a married man.

"But our stories do end happily - though it might well be that instead of wedding bells, the girl feels 'that was a romance, it was fine' and now she's got her act together, and tomorrow's another day.

Mary-Jo Wormell
Ms Wormell (standing) wants to be author-friendly
"You don't necessarily have to go off into the sunset together but you definitely have to have an upbeat ending."

Sex rears its ugly head, too - but Heartline's founder maintains this is not as revolutionary as it sounds.

"There's a myth about Mills and Boon-type novels that the chap has a pipe in his mouth and a jutting chin and just says, 'I love you, Cynthia' - in fact they've been bouncing around on beds for some time.

"We take exactly the same line as all romantic fiction publishers, which is that sex has to come from within the story."

Human nature

But Ms Wormell believes the present-day preoccupation with sex can be misleading.

"We all want love, this is a fundamental need - people have not changed.

"We put on this veneer of cleverness and jokiness but underneath everyone wants to be loved, everyone wants to have the right relationship - that is part and parcel of human nature.

"We've had the 'chick lit', and now we're getting the 'chick lit with babies'.

"But most readers are looking for escape, they're looking for a good story, a damn good read."

And a good story is what the Heartline founder is still looking for, when it comes to her own reading tastes.

"Persuasion by Jane Austen is one of my real favourites, but just give me a good story - I love all of Jilly Cooper's."

And Ms Wormell's own view of romance?

"My idea of a perfect Valentine 's Day is a candlelit dinner with George Clooney, Russell Crowe - or perhaps Sean Bean," she says.

See also:

01 Feb 02 | South Asia
Indian romantics to revive love letters
14 Feb 99 | Valentine
The accidental patron
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