This Valentine's Day, one publisher wants you to be the one doing the bodice-ripping.
Book By You says it sells thousands of personalized romance novels each year with titles such as "ER Fever" and "Pirates of Desire," where the reader is the star. It's not Bronte, but customers are going crazy for the novels that make them the main characters.
"I just wanted something unique and different," said Kym Sprague, who bought a book for her boyfriend of three years. "I thought it was pretty neat."
Customers answer 20 to 30 questions about themselves and their beloved, ranging from body type to pet names. Then the details are woven into one of the company's eight pre-formatted novels.
Clients go a step further and have their photos added to the book jacket. Then the personalized novel is shipped directly to them.
One customer had a marriage proposal included at the end — for $34.95 plus shipping and handling.
Turnaround time is quick. Publisher Michael Pocock said if customers order their personalized book on Monday they'll get it in time for Valentine's Day. Virtually all the orders are done on the Internet, Pocock said.
Customers normally order just a book or two. But there are also larger orders. For example, a book club of 12 people ordered a novel for each member, Pocock said in a telephone interview from his office in Canada.
Sprague said she got a kick out of seeing her and her boyfriend's names and lives played out in the book.
She even let her daughters take a peek at the handiwork, but only at certain pages. There are no explicit sex scenes in these books, but the company says there is "lots of heavy breathing and rolling around."
Pocock said each book is carefully crafted to avoid alienating any customers — avoiding topics like marriage or religion. But he said customers are universally thrilled to see themselves in the pages.
"When you think of Valentine's Day: it's chocolate, it's roses, it's dinner," he said. "This provides something that is quite unique."
The books are modeled after traditional romance novels — a tense plot, a happy ending and a few stolen kisses along the way.
Romance novels constitute nearly 40 percent of all fiction sold, according to a survey by Romance Writers of America. So it's little surprise the twist on the traditional seems to be doing well.
Pocock said he got the idea while sitting on a beach in California with his girlfriend in 1998.
Pocock was contemplating what to do with his life. He had been an officer in a publicly traded company in the 1980s, and was cast aside when the company was taken over.
"I thought, things that have happened to me are similar to what happen to other people," Pocock said. "That's where the concept came up of a personalized novel."
He started the company a year later.
It's a small operation. Pocock has three full-time employees (including himself), three-part-timers, and two writers. The company is based in London, Ontario, but the books are printed in Pennsylvania.
The company said it sells fairly evenly to women and men. It upped its male appeal with the latest book: "Racing Hearts," a love story based on stock car racing.
"I've been the victim of boring Valentine's Day gifts for many, many years," said Wendy Pickett, a 38-year old nurse who lives in Nehalem, Ore. and wrote "ER Fever" and "Racing Hearts." "Any time I can help the opposite sex is very cool."
It takes about a year for the company to develop the story for a book, working with their writers on the story and the spots where the characters can be personalized. Some customers get hooked after their first book and go on to buy all of them.
The company's busiest time is Valentine's Day, followed by Christmas. But the company said it is busy year-round with books being sold for anniversaries and lately, for spouses who are overseas at war.
"I've been on the phone with customers who bring tears to my eyes," said Pickett. "I hear their stories and it's all love and romance."
Richard Flynn, 23, bought one of the books for his fiancee last Christmas.
"It's really hard for a guy to pick out a gift for a girl that shows meaning and thought; this does," he said. "But you really have to know your girlfriend or fiancee, if you get the eye color wrong..."