Putting a Personal Twist on Romance Novels

If your sweetheart gets another box of chocolates this Valentine's Day, will you be in the doghouse?

As Feb. 14 approaches, couples all over are scrambling for something besides marshmallow hearts and red roses to give to their beloved. One out of the ordinary choice is to give the one you love a book — but not just any book.

Personalized romance novels, a newfangled twist on shopworn grocery store pulp, are catching on as presents for the romantic holiday. With these campy novels, couples can pay to have their names — and the details of their own love story — woven into the plot of traditional romance.

"We'll have plays on words and bad puns, but they are sold in the tens of thousands," said Kathy Newbern, co-founder of Your Novel, which produces the kitschy copy.

To get their names in print, customers decide on a book — most companies offer several stories to choose from — then fill out a questionnaire with details such as their love's hair color and nickname. The information is inserted into the context of pre-fab story and presto, a personalized romance.

Don Fox of Port Saint Lucie, Fla., bought the novel "Treasure Seekers" for his wife last Valentine’s Day and included details such as the type of car he drives and his wife Josephine’s favorite radio station in the text.

“It’s something my wife and I will have forever. It’s unique," said Fox, 43. "If you get a box of chocolates, it looks just like the box you got before that one. Then you eat it and it’s gone.”

The novels come in “mild” and “wild” versions and the plots take place in various standard romance novel locales such as a dude ranch and the white sand beaches of Tahiti (search). While their text won't win any Pulitzer Prizes, they offer a quick read and, at $55.95, the books won’t break the bank.

However, some people say they'll never be seduced by the price-friendly page-turners.

"I'd rather spend the $55 on food and a nice bottle of wine and cook for her," said Dale White, 27, of Erie, Pa. "I wouldn't buy a book like that because it isn't original. It seems like a template gift."

Michelle Greene of Long Island, N.Y., agrees that the lovey-dovey tales with happy endings are about as inviting as a thorny rose.

"I wouldn't want [a book like that] as a gift," said Greene, 21, who called the idea "corny." “I'd rather have a guy tell me something from his own heart rather than having someone else write something about me, especially something clichéd.”

But those who produce the books say customers are drawn to the novels for their personal touch.

"It's a sentimental gift," said Michael Pocock, founder of the Canadian-based Book By You Publishing. "We have some of the most romantic customers."

Pocock added that the books aren't just re-hashes. He and his team can spend the better part of a year producing the next syrupy edition in the Romance By You (search) collection. "It is a lot more work than anyone imagined. We take it very seriously."

Customers who have had their stories immortalized in print say the experience is gratifying. 

"It was an addictive read because it makes you the star," said Pete Hart, 34, who received a pre-fan novel called "Vampire Kisses" from his girlfriend. "I was referred to as Pedro in the book, which is my nickname. I found that quite charming."

In "Vampire Kisses," Hart's girlfriend also included the name of the restaurant where they met, which had Hart recalling the first days of their courtship.

"It brought back many wonderful memories of the night when I first met my beautiful girlfriend," he said. "It allowed me to see just how much of a sentimental experience our meeting was for her."

And just because the romance industry is often geared toward women doesn’t mean men aren’t enjoying these page-turners too. Though he's not normally a romance fan, Fox said the book his wife gave him had him hooked.

”It read more like a novel or novelette and less like a typical romance novel," he said. "I enjoyed reading it. Besides, I was in it.”