One teen falls for two boys while traveling in Italy, and another plots revenge after her boyfriend dumps her. These are the plots of Wish You Were Italian by Kristin Rae and Fool Me Twice by Mandy Hubbard, the launch titles of Bloomsbury’s If Only YA contemporary romance series. Due May 6, the novels exemplify the line’s focus on teenage girls who want what they can’t have and fall for someone they shouldn’t. Rae and Hubbard and three other Bloomsbury YA authors – Lindsey Leavitt, Emery Lord, and Jillian Cantor – will be spotlighted in the publisher’s First Loves promotion, which includes a group tour in May.

The series had its roots in the teenage reading tastes of Cindy Loh, U.S. publishing director for Bloomsbury Children’s Books. “When we first started talking about repositioning our young adult contemporary romances several years ago, I immediately harkened back to those really great series of the 1980s, like Sweet Dreams, First Kiss, and Wildfire,” she said. “I remember devouring those novels, and I think that today’s teens who love romances do the same – and they want to read more and more of them. But in a market where YA is driven by massive megabrands along the lines of Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Divergent, it’s hard for a stand-alone contemporary romance to make noise and get attention.”

After deliberating how Bloomsbury could “put our best foot forward” in the genre, Loh and her colleagues decided that establishing a line that linked romances thematically was the way to go. “We didn’t wanted to publish a random selection of romances, which is why we branded it with the ‘If Only’ tagline,” she said. “Every novel in the series provides a different ‘what-if ’ situation and fills in the blank. A hallmark of the line will be humor, which isn’t to say that every book will be a comedy, but there will be light moments in each novel. And every novel will be aspirational and ‘clean teen’ – suitable for readers as young as 12.”

The If Only line, which will add three titles annually, will include one-off novels as well as series, written by both established and debut authors. The novels will be published in trade paper, with a smaller hardcover printing for libraries. Loh noted that Bloomsbury has seven What If novels under contract, including Not in the Script by Amy Finnegan, due next fall.

First Up: The Debut Authors

Mandy Hubbard, author of eight earlier YA novels, two written under the pseudonym Amanda Grace, is also a literary agent with D4EO. She said it was a happy coincidence that she had completed a proposal for Fool Me Twice at the same time that Bloomsbury announced its plan to launch If Only. Her novel, in which a teen has a chance to get back at a boy who broke her heart and later develops amnesia and thinks they’re still together, was a perfect thematic fit for the series.

The idea for Fool Me Twice was hatched over lunch with a friend, who casually threw out the idea of a YA novel version of Overboard, a 1987 film in which Kurt Russell takes advantage of Goldie Hawn’s amnesia to convince her that she is his wife. “As soon as I heard that idea, it started niggling at me, and wheels began turning in my head,” Hubbard recalled. “And after a few days I called my friend and asked her if she cared if I riff off that plot, and she said that was fine with her. In the end, my novel actually has very little resemblance to the movie.”

Hubbard noted that her penchant for writing romantic comedy aligns well with If Only’s underlying premise. “I love humor, and I always joke that I’m a bit like Taylor Swift, in that I’m in love with love, and I can’t write books without romance in them,” she said. “Everyone can identify with the appeal of wanting a forbidden thing – that always seems to make us want it more. As a writer, I think it’s easy to find fun things in that vein to explore.” The author’s second If Only novel, a still untitled YA that offers a twist on the movie Maid in Manhattan, will be released in fall 2015.

Debut author Kristin Rae found her inspiration for Wish You Were Italian on a 2009 trip to Italy. She returned home with hundreds of photographs and the resolution to write a novel set in that country someday. Rae explained that, after hearing several contemporary romance authors speak on a panel in 2011, “My eyes were opened, and I knew that was the genre for me. So I began looking through my pictures from Italy and started writing.”

Inspired by the photographs, Rae set Wish You Were Italian in the various locales she had visited in Italy. In the novel, an American teen ditches her summer art program to tour the country, and loses her heart to both a local guy who is nothing but trouble and an American archaeology student. “I worked on the novel for almost a year before I was ready to find an agent,” she said.

As with Hubbard, fortuitous timing landed Rae’s novel on the launch If Only list. She’d already signed with an agent, Marietta Zacker of the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency, when Caroline Abbey, then a senior editor at Bloomsbury, now at Random House, called the agent to ask if any of her authors had written anything that fit the bill for If Only. Zacker sent her Rae’s novel, and a deal was soon sealed.

“It was so exciting that Bloomsbury was acquiring contemporary romances for this new line at that time, and it felt like just the right fit for my novel,” said Rae. “I think girls are naturally drawn to things we want but can’t have, and grouping these novels together gives readers many options to live that experience over and over in different settings.”

Spreading the Romantic Word

To coincide with the debut of If Only, Bloomsbury kicks off its First Loves promotional campaign in May, highlighted by an author tour. Beginning on May 13, Leavitt (The Chapel Wars) and Lord (Open Road Summer) will promote their new romances in three cities, with Hubbard, Rae, and Jillian Cantor (Searching for Sky) each joining them for one of the events.

In addition to the bookstore tour, all five authors will participate in a month-long blog tour in May, which will include participation from bloggers in the U.S., U.K., and Australia. The First Loves promotion also includes a dedicated Tumblr, where authors, bloggers, and fans are invited to share their stories, and photos, and visions of first love.

Linking Bloomsbury’s spring contemporary romances together in the First Loves campaign creates a bond among the authors and a louder promotional voice, noted Loh. “I love the idea of the power of authors joining forces to not only sound the horn about their own books, but about the other authors’ books as well,” she said. Rae confirmed that the group promotion is building author solidarity. “We are all reading one another’s books and are talking about what we can do to help each other,” she said. “We are genuinely excited for one another.”

As a postscript, three of the First Loves authors have a special appreciation for the importance of first love: Leavitt, Lord, and Cantor all married their high school sweethearts.

If Only: Fool Me Twice by Mandy Hubbard. Bloomsbury, $17.99 May ISBN 978-1-61963-229-5; paper $9.99 ISBN 978-1-61963-230-1

Wish You Were Italian by Kristin Rae. Bloomsbury, $17.99 May ISBN 978-1-61963-285-1; paper, $9.99 ISBN 978-1-61963-286-8