Dangerous gossip, star-crossed lovers, backstabbing friends, a notorious cad, an upstairs-downstairs romance. All are woven into Anna Godbersen’s The Luxe, set in 1899 Manhattan, which HarperCollins published in 2007. This saga of high-society life in a less-than-innocent age continued in 2008 with Rumors, and Envy, the third installment, went on sale January 27. Graced with cover art featuring a close-up image of a beautiful young woman in a billowing rococo ball gown, the books have obviously caught the eye of the teen audience: the sales tally for the series is now at 300,000 copies.

And it has some sales momentum, too: first-week sales for Envy were 40% higher than first-week sales for Rumors and 90% higher than those for The Luxe. “It’s been an amazing run from the start,” says Cristina Gilbert, senior director of marketing for HarperCollins Children’s Books. “Word of mouth has been huge for these books, and we have provided tools to help pass that word on.”

One key tool is a dedicated Web site with numerous features designed to pull readers into the Luxe world. Video components include a trailer starring lavishly costumed characters and an interview with Godbersen. There are also profiles of the books’ characters, “rules of decorum” for living in privileged late 19th-century society, a quiz to determine which Luxe girl teens most resemble, and a “carriage ride” through Old New York. And images of those glamorous cover beauties abound.

The look of the books is, by all counts, a big draw. The covers are photographed by Karen Pearson and designed by Andrea Uva, a designer at Alloy Entertainment, the series’ producer. “Each cover is even better than the last,” observes HC executive editor Farrin Jacobs, who acquired the series at auction from Alloy. She recalls watching the gown-clad cover model for The Luxe handing out copies of the book at BEA in 2007. “I saw so many people stop in their tracks when they saw her and reach for a book,” she says. “In that dress, she was irresistible.”

Jacobs is understandably quick to credit Godbersen’s writing and storylines for the novels’ success. She says that, on the basis of readers’ feedback, “teens are interested in the portrayal of what girls were like in a time that is so different from ours, yet also can relate to the characters’ feelings and experiences.” She praises the author’s realistic depiction of period particulars, noting that Godbersen spent a good deal of time researching the era at the New-York Historical Society.

Liz Marotte, buyer of young adult books for Borders Group, Inc., agrees that the Luxe series delivers on all levels. “The covers are gorgeous and rich and catching to the eye, but it’s nice when the read is there too,” she says. “The stories have all the glory and glamour of Manhattan in an exciting time and you really care about the characters. There is meat here. We are of course still seeing success with the bratty and tatty YA titles, but this series has something for the Pride and Prejudice reader and not just the Clique reader.”

Anna Godbersen.
Photo: Chris Mottalini.

Also feeding the success of the series, says Marotte, is its strong crossover appeal. Borders has placed what she describes as the “gorgeous” floor display for Envy in its romance section and is giving the book end-placement display in its young adult section. “We felt it important to place this in two spots, since these books are not just for teen readers. A 35-year-old romance reader is going to love them too, as well as adults who like historical fiction.”

And she also underscores the importance of word-of-mouth endorsement. “Enthusiasm for these books has that grassroots approach that we love in young adult,” Marotte says. “Once you read one of these books, you can’t help but pass it around.”

The fourth and final volume, Splendor, will pub this coming October. Another lovely lady will appear on its jacket, of course. “The big question,” asks Marotte, “is what color will this dress be? It’s always a coup to know in advance.” She acknowledges that she did in fact know before Envy’s release what the color of the cover dress would be—white, with a deep scarlet ruffle. “But I was good—I kept it under wraps.”