Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The Dream Girl

If Sigmund Freud had met Isabel Swift, then he'd have known exactly what women want. As editorial chief of the world's largest publisher of romance fiction, Swift makes her living providing women with the perfect fantasies. So what will she think of next?


Lone Star Country Club isn't scheduled to start appearing in bookstores until June 2002, but already, nine of Harlequin's top editors are gathered in a conference room in midtown Manhattan, staring at a description of the project's test-marketed premise, trying to sketch in a few sudsy plotlines.

When a Sunday-morning foursome finds a baby sleeping in his bassinet on the ninth green, pandemonium breaks loose at the posh country club. Surely one of the foursome of eligible bachelors must be the father of the baby, but which one? Millionaire rancher Flynt Carson? Nerves-of-steel heart surgeon Tyler Moore? High-profile attorney Spence Harrison? Or brilliant architect Michael O'Day?

Ordinarily, the editors at Harlequin don't cook up the plots to their romance novels. But Lone Star is different. It's a sixteen-book suite, a grand total of 4,096 pages, and that requires a lot of planning. Margaret Marbury, a mellow, earthy woman who specializes in editing these mini-series, sits at the head of the charcoal-colored conference table, a spiral notebook in hand.

"Should these guys have met in college?" Marbury asks, scanning the faces of her colleagues. "Or at prep school? Or just through the club?"

"If they're self-made men," points out Leslie Wainger, an executive senior editor, "it couldn't have been prep school."

The editors, all women, don't seem like creatures of the New York publishing Establishment, nor do they seem like the custodians of America's top-selling female fantasies. Almost none wear makeup. Only a couple are fashion-conscious. One looks exactly like a nun (round face, ruddy cheeks, jumper), and three, for reasons a bit more difficult to isolate (the wire spectacles? the curls? the gossamer voices?) remind me of Mia Farrow.

"She comes from a cultivated family. None of us read romances. We're all cold-blooded Wasps with no sentimentality whatsoever."

Marbury has an inspiration. "There could be one guy who's not usually a part of the group," she suggests. "He could be a last-minute stand-in because they didn't have a foursome. That happens all the time."

The editors like it.

"So who should have been there?" continues Marbury. "And why did he cancel at the last minute?"

"Maybe he's out of the country," suggests Melissa Jeglinski, another editor.

"Yeah," says Marbury, nodding, writing. "They can't find him. He's gone missing, perhaps?" There's a brief silence. "Amnesia!" someone shouts, and everyone laughs.

I turn to the woman sitting next to me. She is wide-eyed, pixieish, striking; her nails are unmanicured and she has pushed the shoes off her feet. Her name is Isabel Swift. Until now, she has said relatively little -- just watched with respectful pleasure. She smiles and shrugs. "Amnesia sells."

Swift would know. For the past two years, she has been the head of the editorial department at Harlequin Enterprises, the Toronto-based publishing concern that includes, under its roomy umbrella, not only all eight species of Harlequin novels (Romance, American Romance, Superromance, Temptation, Duets, Intrigue, Historicals, Presents) but also Silhouette Books (acquired from Simon & Schuster sixteen years ago), Steeple Hill (Christian romances), Mira (fatter, name-brand romances), and Gold Eagle (an action-and-adventure series -- i.e., romances for men). One out of every six mass-market paperbacks sold in North America is a Harlequin or Silhouette. Every second, five more are sold.

Swift is in charge of acquiring and developing the 700-plus titles her company pumps out annually. She also still finds time to personally edit Nora Roberts, the endlessly fecund ruler of the romance roost, who at one point last year posted four books simultaneously on the New York Times Best Sellers lists.

Isabel Swift may have the name of a heroine from a romance novel. But just about everything else about her -- her pedigree, her plastic-dinosaur collection, her loft on Greene Street -- suggests someone who would be more at home editing travel guides or science textbooks, not bodice-rippers. "Her thing for romances has been a puzzle to us all," says Holly Davidson, a professor at Brandeis University and Swift's cousin. "She comes from a cultivated family. None of us read romances. We're all cold-blooded Wasps, rational people, with no sentimentality whatsoever. Isabel herself isn't very sentimental -- she's always liked the absurd."

Swift grew up in Georgetown; prepped at Madeira, the tony all-girls boarding school; and got a degree in English at Radcliffe. Her mother, the editor of a bimonthly arts magazine in Washington, was forever dragging young Isabel to museums and introducing her to artists of renown.

Yet Swift, as she's always quick to tell anyone who questions her sincerity, developed an unquenchable taste for romances when she was barely a teenager. In high school, she attempted to write a Regency romance with her best friend, Alessandra Stanley, now the New York Times bureau chief in Rome. (Stanley no longer has a copy, but she's pretty sure Wicked Marquis was part of the title.) During college, Swift always had a romance on her night table, and shortly after graduating, she read five on one rainy Sunday -- realizing not a moment too soon that she was going to need a job to support her habit. She found one as an editorial assistant at Pocket Books, then moved to Silhouette as soon as a junior editing position presented itself. She has been with the company, absorbed by Harlequin in 1984, ever since.

"I get very interesting reactions when I tell people that romances are my life," says Swift, who at 45 still subscribes to Mad magazine and wears three studs in her left ear. "Many will tell me how stupid that is, and in a very straightforward and startling way, like, 'Oh, they're all the same!' and 'They're all mindless fluff!' Then I'll wait 90 seconds, and they'll say the classic, 'Of course, I've never read one . . .' "

At the moment, though, the contempt of strangers is the least of Swift's concerns. Harlequin may publish more than 60 books a month, and its novels may be available in 100 countries around the world, from Oman to the Republic of Nauru. But the appetite for its products has precipitously declined in the past few years. In 1992, the company sold 205 million books worldwide; by 1999, that number had dropped to 158 million. A good deal of this has to do with quirks in foreign markets, and Harlequin has still managed to keep its profits up by slightly raising cover prices. But even in North America, where the economy has never been more chipper, Harlequin is selling 10 million fewer books per year than it did five years ago.

In some ways, a downturn in sales was inevitable. Back in the eighties, the romance industry exploded. Almost every publishing house had a romance imprint; seminars flourished on how to write them; the media ran hypey stories about how to get rich from them; a trade organization, the Romance Writers of America, was born.

Today most of those imprints have folded. But "women's fiction," a broader genre of which romances are just a part -- Waiting to Exhale has a place under this umbrella, as does The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing -- is booming. Harlequin, for a variety of reasons, is now considered the most downmarket provider of such fare, the McDonald's of the women's-publishing circuit. Its products are cheap, quick, fatty; billions and billions are served. "People don't think that Harlequins are romance novels," says Jennifer Crusie, an author who got her start at Harlequin and now has a handsome book contract with St. Martin's Press. "They think they're cheap, sleazy romance novels. I can't tell you how many times I've heard somebody say, 'as bad as a Harlequin romance,' and you know that person has never read one."

To make matters worse, the Harlequin author base has gotten older, and so have the readers for whom they write. "We don't have many authors who are under 30," says Swift. "We once had more."

It falls to Swift to change all that. It won't be easy: Today women have a bigger, more tantalizing buffet of entertainment to stoke their romantic and sexual imaginations. Buns on NYPD Blue. Mr. Big. And for the especially frisky, there's always the Starr report.

But Swift is on a mission. She wants to drag Harlequin into the twentieth century, if not the twenty-first, and she has a plan for getting there. If she succeeds, the Harlequin brand could return to its old, formidable self -- like a wilted heroine flowering in the arms of her baron.

"Cowboys. Babies. Secret babies . . ." Swift is walking purposefully through the production library of Harlequin's New York office, rattling off the things that sell. "Amnesia. Marriages of convenience. Opposites attract. Twins . . ."

Acres of purple- and white-spined romance novels line the shelves, arranged chronologically by publication date. The Catch of Conard County. Cowboy on the Run. The Seductive Sheik.


Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift