U Star Novels In the Media
Turn your love life into a romance novel
09 February 2009
She leant back into the strength of his warm embrace as he enfolded her, a shower of kisses tumbling down her neck, trailing across her collar bone, before lingering at the well of her clavicle to drink in the warm scent of her perfume; Old Spice.'
It's not an ironic aftershave ad – this shower of kisses belongs to a romance novel called Spanish Sizzle and the Old Spice-scented clavicle is all mine.
Launched in October 2006, U Star Novels is the only purveyor of personalised rose-tinted literature in Britain. Founder Katie Olver set up the business after searching for something to give her sister-in-law. She loved romance novels and I thought it'd be great if I could put her in one but the only companies doing that were in the US,' she says. 'What they offered wasn't right for a British audience: their books were purely romance and quite cheesy. People are looking for something that's more current – and saucier.' U Star definitely provides that.
Each of its seven titles (two of which are same-sex) is rated for sexual content according to a 'lovin-o-meter'. Fill in a selection of details, from your name and profession to favourite perfume and even newspaper (naturally Metro is one of the options), and you can give yourself a Jackie Collins makeover. It's not for the shy, either: U Star's raciest number, Fever In France, outsells the others by a ratio of six to one. 'If people decide to order a book, they seem to decide they may as well go the full hog and get the filthiest one,' says Olver. U Star's latest title, Amsterdam Lessons, scores maximum points on the lovin-o-meter. According to one reader: 'Every time I picked it up, I tingled all over just at the thought of what was going to happen next. I wanted this to really be happening with us but it did feel as if I was reading something we were doing.' That's something Olver had to be careful about when commissioning writers. 'There are a few subjects we definitely stay away from, such as affairs, engagements or breakups,' she says. 'You want a happy ending in these things.'
It's something that could be said for romance fiction in general, the market leaders may be formulaic but they must be doing something right. Mills & Boon, which claims to sell a book every three seconds, has been labelled 'fairy stories for grown-ups' by one of its authors, Sara Craven.
According to Catherine Jones, chair of the Romantic Novelists' Association, that shouldn't be sniffed at. 'What is wrong with a bit of magic and escapism in our lives? Most romantic novels are read by grown-ups who fully understand the difference between real life and fiction,' she says. 'Does watching a James Bond movie send the male half of the audience out on to the street thinking they can save the world? Probably not. Romantic fiction is just the same: women read it, enjoy it, then buckle down and shift the ironing pile.' It might even help our relationships, Jones says: 'When life seems dull and humdrum, being transported to an exotic location or taken away into a world of love and laughter might lighten your day and thus your partner's.' Surely placing yourself in the narrative would only add to that. 'I'd like to think our more erotic titles, such as Amsterdam Lessons, might have spiced things up in the bedroom for readers,' says Olver. 'I've sent it to sexperts and they've said it should give people more confidence sexually.' U Star readers range from couples who have been married for 20 years to those who have been together for just three weeks. And, perhaps surprisingly, customers are split 50/50 between men and women. 'We've had feedback saying their husband bought it for them but ended up reading it himself – or they read it together,' Olver says. Despite being tempted by a dirty Amsterdam Lesson, I simply couldn't pass up on the chance for a spot of Mr & Mrs Smith-style action – Spanish Sizzle transformed both me and my boyfriend into daring MI6 agents. The best moments weren't all Mills and Bond, though: when it asked me for my favourite meal, little did I realise it would make a post-coital appearance. But there, it was, on page nine: 'In the warm glow of the fire, Fiona and Ian lounged on the floor of the cosy living room, among the debris of a Blue Moon Thai takeaway.' It may not be 007 but a spot of Spanish Sizzle could leave us all shaken and stirred.