Reading Romance Novels on Cell Phones

April 16, 2007 — -- It is a truth universally acknowledged that the pressures of modern life leave most of us yearning for a little romance, even if it's only of the fictional variety. With apologies to Jane Austen, few would think to argue with this sentiment.

And now, the publishers of the famed Mills and Boon romance novels have decided to marry fiction and technology, by introducing pocket-sized thrills for the single girl on the go. Click and text hello to the downloadable romance novel, ready to read on your cell phone.

Harlequin, the parent company behind the M&B imprint, has signed a deal with ICUE, a British company which specializes in transferring books onto mobile phones.

The first set of romance downloads -- priced between $4 and $10 per novel -- is set to hit the British market in May, with high hopes that it will repeat the company's success in Japan, where women have taken to reading mobile romances with a vengeance.

E-books have already enjoyed success in the United States, and Jane Tappuni, spokesperson for ICUE, told that she expects mobile books to take off in the same way in the U.K.

"M&B novels have a fanatical fan base, and we don't expect those readers to necessarily give up their books for mobile phones, but rather, hope to reach people who tend to read less and use their phones more," Tappuni said.

People like the 20-something reader, who, as Tappuni acknowledged, "probably thinks of romance novels as something quite old-fashioned."

Old-fashioned and a bit embarrassing, according to some 20-somethings:

"My impression of M&B readers is that they are quite old."

"When I think of M&B, I think of these historical, bodice-ripping novels that my grandmother used to love."

And that's coming from fans of the genre.

This move to make the novels available on mobile phones could very well succeed, for it allows people to read them without having to admit to reading them. As Lavanya Ashok, a 24-year-old investment associate said, "I had to perfect the art of furtively reading romance novels, amid much parental disapproval, in high school. So I am thinking that cell phones might provide the perfect cover for that."

Like Ashok, many of the genre's devotees encountered their first M&B novel as teenagers, often on their mother's or grandmother's bedside table. But there are others, like 27-year-old Jane Roberts, who only began reading them recently.

Roberts recalled "picking up one of the Modern Romance series out of plain old curiosity. I was surprised to find out how easily I could relate to the characters -- they are career women like me.

"Besides," she added, "everyone needs an injection of romance in their lives!"

Maybe so, but a lot of people don't want to acknowledge reading romance novels. According to Alison Byrne, Mills and Boon's publishing director, many people "even find the covers of our novels embarrassing." With titles like "The Desert King's Virgin Bride" and "All Night With the Boss," that is perhaps unsurprising.

But this time, there will be no need to hide one's face behind the covers, for those two books are among the 28 new titles set to hit the mobile download market next month.

Of course, to romance novel skeptics, even the promise of a discreet read holds no water. Benedicte Prot -- while no fan of M&B novels -- said, "It's better to read a Harlequin romance in broad daylight than spend an entire train ride fiddling with a small electronic item. I think that would look totally lame."

Perhaps attracting new readers isn't just a matter of changing covers, after all. Then again, maybe the mobile phone -- with its ubiquitous, functional presence -- isn't the best vehicle for modern romance.

Ashok offers an alternate suggestion for the publishers of M&B: "Clicking my way through intense sexual banter on a little screen is somewhat unappealing ... listening to a romance novel narrated by a husky-voiced seductress on an iPod captures my imagination much more."

Maybe modern romance isn't such a misnomer after all. And, with iPods being such must-have, "flaunt it" accessories, M&B publishers would do well to consider the idea.