— Bridget Jones's Diary, the 1998 best seller turned Hollywood hit, inspired a spate of similar tales, all starring imperfect career women looking for love.
This contemporary genre, known as "chick lit," short for chick literature, is now setting the pace for an otherwise struggling fiction industry.
"The mega authors — John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy — all have had a fall-off in sales," said Sessalee Hensley, fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble. "But the chick lit is growing, and they're growing exponentially."
In the $23 billion publishing industry, chick lit books earned publishers more than $71 million last year, and that's just the best sellers. Several publishers, including Harlequin, Broadway and Pocket Books, have created separate imprints to distribute the specialty titles.
The books feature everyday women in their 20s and 30s navigating their generation's challenges of balancing demanding careers with personal relationships.
"Nobody's got a great job," Hensley said. "Nobody has a perfect body, and God knows, none of them have perfect boyfriends."
‘Like Reading My Life Story’
The characters typically mirror the authors themselves. That's why 33-year-old Philadelphia writer Jennifer Weiner said chick literature captures a much more realistic side of women's lives. She believes it has an authenticity frequently missing from women's fiction of the past.
"I think that for a long time, what women were getting were sort of the Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz kind of books — sex and shopping, glitz and glamour, heroines that were fun to read about, but just felt nothing like where you were in your life," Weiner said.
A turning point in Weiner's own life inspired her first novel, Good in Bed.
She started the project at age 28, when a rough breakup left her dejected and depressed. The former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter turned her blues into a best seller by basing the lead character on herself.
The story of a plus-sized newspaper writer trying to navigate singledom touched a cord with her contemporaries and has sold more than 800,000 copies. Home Box Office is developing the book into a television series.
The women who packed a Weiner book signing in downtown Philadelphia one August weeknight reflected on the book's success.
"It was like reading my life story," said 30-year-old Danielle Medykowski, of Bucks County, Pa. "Just, I was reading it through somebody else's eyes."
A group of six Brooklyn-based writers hope to recreate that is the same feeling in their own chick lit manuscripts. Known as "The Little Red Writing Group," the 20- and 30-something women aspire to pen the genre's next best sellers.
For the last two years, the friends have met once a month over Sunday brunch to discuss their story development and characters. They strive to imbue their books with a tone that's similar to their chats among girlfriends.
"It has every single element: 'Oh, I'm so fat,' 'Oh, I want a date,' 'Oh, I don't make enough money,'" explained 32-year-old Elise Miller, who recently sold her book Star Craving Mad to Warner Books. "You know, it's all in there."
Author’s New Direction
Critics dismiss the books as nothing more than trendy beach reads. But the books appear to have staying power, now expanding into topics that move beyond the single life.