Now S'n'F is passe and the Aga saga's had its day, what's going to be the next big trend as commercial women's fiction moves from clogs and moans to Bridget Jones?

SOME 20 years ago Mark Barty-King, then editorial director at Granada Publishing, offered pounds 50,000 for the rights to a first novel. In publishing terms, this seemed an inter-galactic sum. After the offer, Patricia Parkin, a fellow editor, and I sat in a nearby bar, nervously downing a few drinks. We had both read the synopsis and sample chapters, become tremendously excited about what we imagined to be the book's glittering prospects and had recommended it unreservedly for acquisition. But if it all went pear-shaped, we felt we'd be responsible for a catastrophic loss. What if the author couldn't pull off? What if readers weren't interested? Was this the end of our short careers? The complete manuscript of Barbara Taylor Bradford's A Woman of Substance was eventually delivered and went on to become an international bestseller, spawning a rush of lookalike "rags-to-riches" sagas.

But almost every publisher could tell a similar story. There is no science here. Publishing is a game of risk where editors back their hunches with combination of experience and instinct. Beyond a certain level of mild profitability, it's almost impossible to predict exactly how successful a book might be.

It's a special moment when an editor spots a writer in supreme control of their material, a superb storyteller who knows their characters and can manipulate a plot, keep you awake and make you cry - even against your better judgement. The book can go on to be published brilliantly, with a great jacket an expensive publicity and marketing campaign and widespread bookshop support. But that can only take it so far. Word-of- mouth publicity is what turns a book from a good seller into a bestseller. Only then will it generate the ultimate mark of esteem: copycat writing and lookalike publishing.

Women's commercial fiction is written largely by women for women and marketed specifically at them. It's an area of fiction in which, looking back, it's possible to distinguish various dominant trends. Before the Seventies the market was dominated by soft category romance, hospital, historical or romantic adventure, mostly from Mills and Boon, though writers such as Anya Seton and Georgette Heyer, published by general imprints, could separately command huge personal followings. Then there was a change. As women felt more liberated, so did the heroines of their books and we were allowed behind the bedroom door. So the direct heiress of historicals like Angelique and Forever Amber was introduced: the Bodice Ripper.

Rosie Cheetham, publisher of Orion Books remembers the moment well: "In the Seventies, Lesley Saxby, an excellent editor at Collins, was lured to Macdonald with the promise of her own list, Troubadour, where she wanted to publish more interesting romantic writers. Along from America came three housewives, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rogers and Laurie McBain with their novels The Flame and the Fire, Savage Love and Moonlight Madness. Lesley had outgrown that sort of thing. She disapproved of the overwriting and the ludicrous sex scenes but I thought they were totally trashy and utterly gripping so I asked if I could publish them as paperback originals." They were hugely successful.

The stories tended to be formulaic and soon replicas were being commissioned, many finding equal success. But the market became saturated, and a bubble was waiting to burst. Rosie recalls: "I began to think about what sort of contemporary novels would work in this overblown and highly melodramatic atmosphere. I thought, what if a woman could come along and write a romantic Harold Robbins? That would sell. Scruples by Judith Krantz absolutely fitted the bill and that's why I went bull-headed for it because I thought, 'This captures it.'"

At first Krantz's book did not work as well as she had hoped; British readers seemed uneasy with the American glitz. The Women's Room by Marilyn French was selling far more. In the end, it was only with the TV mini- series of Scruples that the novel took off. So the sex-and-shopping novel (or, less politely, the S 'n' F genre) was born, with writers like Shirley Conran and Jackie Collins who are still going strong today.

Rival genres were still having huge success. The world of Catherine Cookson could hardly have been more different from that of Collins and Conran, but her "clogs and shawls" novels soon generated their own regiment of imitators. And bridging the gap between the two apparently irreconcilable genres came that new breed of fiction heralded by Barbara Taylor Bradford.

Throughout this period, publishing lists expanded as they competed for valuable bookshop shelf-space. Women's fiction was booming and now its marketing and, in particular, the cover design began to preoccupy publishers. Each type of fiction had its own quite distinctive look - glamour photography for sex-and-shopping and rags-to-riches, narrative illustration for clogs- and-shawls. But then, in the mid-Eighties, the cycle took another turn, the market became glutted, the golden goose lay dying.

With stacks of books clogging the warehouses, we wondered if there was any way back. But quietly and steadily building in the background were Mary Wesley and Joanna Trollope. Mary Wesley had been acquiring a loyal and devoted following with the publication of her first three novels until she broke out with The Camomile Lawn and her sales really began to soar. Similarly, Joanna Trollope, who had changed direction from writing historical romances, hit a nerve with her fourth contemporary novel, The Rector's Wife, and the Aga saga had arrived. For the last few years it's been hard to move in a bookshop without falling over a white-bordered B-format novel with watercolour views of the village green - if not a Joanna Trollope, then a convincing lookalike. These novels took us away from the frenzied consumerism of the late Seventies and early Eighties and reverted to the basics of family life, usually in crisis and most often set firmly in green-welly land. They have been hugely popular. Sue Fletcher, editorial director of Hodder & Stoughton feels it's because "People don't want to be seen reading something that's rubbish, but neither do they want to read anything that's hugely intellectually challenging, experimental or difficult. That's what those Aga sagas were all about." Joanna Trollope was - and still is - way ahead of the pack with paperback sales of around 500,000 per title. Yet nothing is proof against the iron logic of escalating returns: with too many publishers commissioning too many pale imitations, the commercial potency of the genre has begun to decay.

What we're seeing now is the growth of a brave new women's fiction humorously and realistically addressing themes recognisable to women trying to make their way in their twenties and thirties - often career women with disposable income, unable to find either a heterosexual man or anything in the fridge! Authors such as Marian Keyes, Freya North, Sally Green or Fiona Walker are now writing mostly in the first person, with original, direct funny voices but all different in tone. And of course The Diary of Bridget Jones is still riding high on the bestseller charts with publishers already scrambling to find novels they can promote hard on her heels.

Clearly these trends reflect a vision of life that people want at a particular time. "A book and a moment come together, plugging into something going on at the time," says Clare Alexander, editor-in-chief of Pan Macmillan. But fashions do repeat themselves, suggesting that writers replicate the influences they found while growing up. Barbara Cartland's fiction had its roots firmly in the regency romances of Georgette Heyer; sex-and-shopping owed much to Jacqueline Susann, and the new independent young women's fiction of today has echoes of Jilly Cooper's lighthearted early novels.

Alexander believes that "the publisher's job is to spot authors not trends, to respond to what's on the page." Patrick Janson-Smith, adult trade publisher of Transworld, says he's looking for storytellers. "People who can touch the soul, manipulate the senses - that's what it's all about. Look at all the world's great classics. The people who tell good stories endure." And Rosie Cheetham acknowledges "the utterly addictive quality" that such novels must have.

There is no bestselling formula - cynical attempts to make a fast buck don't last. Where are the follow-up novels from Naomi Campbell, Ivana Trump and the like - the celebrity novelists commissioned so fashionably in the late Eighties? You only have to look at the bestseller lists to see the same tried and tested favourites appearing over and over again. Next year, publishers will be bankrolled by the publications of Joanna Trollope's Other People's Children (March), Jackie Collins's Thrill! (March) and Maeve Binchy's Tara Road (September), while the sales of their mediocre copyists will dwindle. As Julie Wright, fiction selector at W H Smith points out, "The public aren't stupid. If they're disppointed then they won't come back to give that author a second chance. The sales of Joanna Trollope, Mary Wesley, Kate Fforde or Kathleen Rowntree are not in decline. Fewer books are published in that area now but the same people are buying the same authors in the same quantity." There's no doubt that these authors create a demand for a certain type of fiction, but the best move the genre on and add their own particular slant to it.

The one thing publishers agree is that it's impossible to foresee a trend. "I won't know the next trend until it's arrived," says Patrick Janson- Smith. "We may be publishing it but you can only say after the event." However, Linda Evans, editorial director of Transworld, believes that there is a "move towards high quality commercial women's novelists such as Rosie Thomas and newcomer, Judith Lennox". And some believe that we may see less of this copycat publishing in the future.

The emphasis on marketing is relatively new. As publishers' market share is reduced and booksellers' budgets are slashed, the competition to get the books into the shops hots up. Where once the representative might sit and chat to the buyer about the content of the book, he now has to be able to sum it up in a soundbite, backing it up with a jacket and a worthwhile campaign.

Louise Moore, editorial director of Michael Joseph, agrees: "Bookselling has got so much more sophisticated and so much more quality-driven that you cannot have such a thing as trends. Each book has to stand alone in terms of its merit and quality. Just the best of each genre will work now. We must buy the best, pay more for it and publish it the best way possible." Says Linda Evans: "It's become more difficult to build an author book by book. If the first doesn't work, you rarely get a second chance."

The truth is that in women's fiction, or in any other fiction, publishers - when they can afford to - will go on taking a punt on an author who their instinct tells them has that magic ingredient, but until that happens they will be forced to go on playing follow-my-leader.

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