The Queen Of Hearts Gives Up Her Throne

FOR WRITERS WHO SPEND THEIR workdays conjuring scenes of unbridled passion on the beach, in the mountains and everywhere in between, the annual Romance Writers of America conference is a chance to concentrate on the buttoned-down side of a business built on unbuttoning. But at last week's convention in Orlando, Fla., the buzz over seminars like ""Writing Erotic Sex Scenes That Sell'' paled in comparison to a story as scandalous as anything the 1,400 attendees ever dreamed up - and it centered on one of their own. Janet Dailey, 53, the fading queen of the romance world, admitted that three of her books included passages lifted from Nora Roberts, 47, the industry's hottest writer. The romance-novel world, which adores reading about scandal, is horrified that one sprung up in their perfumed midst. Says Carol Stacy, publisher of Romantic Times Magazine, ""One reader told me, "I will never buy another Janet Dailey book ever again'.''

Plagiarism? How can you tell when all this stuff sounds the same anyway? Yet the true confessions of literary piracy are rocking the publishing industry. Last year the romance genre sold more than $1 billion worth of books - 50 percent of all mass-market paperbacks sold. A lot of the credit goes to Dailey, who, with 93 novels and more than 200 million volumes in print, may be the most successful female writer in the country. She was the Cinderella of publishing - a poor, fatherless girl from Iowa without a college education who became a best-selling writer. So why would a woman at the top of her field resort to lifting words from an upstart rival? Industry insiders say jealousy and desperation played a role. But the larger truth is that behind her own fairy tale, Janet Dailey led a darker, more turbulent life than she ever let anyone see.

The plagiarism incident came to light by accident. In May a woman who read Dailey's 1996 novel ""Notorious'' and Roberts's 1989 book ""Sweet Revenge'' back to back noticed too many similarities and posted her concerns on America Online. ""I cried,'' Roberts told NEWSWEEK. ""Janet and I have known each other for years. I was shocked and upset - baffled.'' Roberts says Dailey finally agreed to apologize publicly, rewrite the copied parts of ""Notorious'' and contribute to a literacy charity. Roberts's lawyers claim Dailey then admitted under questioning that two more works included prose purloined from Roberts. ""Aspen Gold'' was published in 1991. Harlequin's ""Scrooge and Spurs'' is scheduled for December. Harlequin wouldn't comment, but HarperCollins, which published ""Notorious,'' is analyzing its 1998 Dailey release, ""Calder Pride.''

Dailey says that a series of family traumas in the early 1990s - her husband's cancer and aneurysm, the death of two brothers and of the family dog - triggered an unidentified psychological problem. ""I have already begun treatment for the disorder and have been assured that, with treatment, this behavior can be prevented in the future,'' she said in a statement released from her estate in Branson, Mo. (She refused to be interviewed.) In fact, the illnesses may have been only part of her problem. Dailey began writing in the mid-'70s at the urging of her husband, Bill, whom she met while he was the married owner of a Nebraska construction company where she worked as a secretary. Bill, 15 years Dailey's senior, exerted extraordinary control over his wife. He managed her business affairs and did all her research - including taking the notes when they piled into their trailer for trips to locales for the next novel. ""He called the shots,'' says Bambe Levine, Dailey's press agent until 1989, ""and she listened.''

Bill Dailey, a former carnival barker, has been a notorious character on the romance-novel landscape. In 1985 he shot a man in the chest who had allegedly insulted a singer at the Wildwood Flower, a Branson restaurant/bar the Daileys owned. In 1988 a Missouri judge ruled that Dailey had defrauded a Kansas man he'd hired to direct a movie based on one of his wife's books and ordered Dailey to pay $805,000. The couple were forced to sell a vast tract of land, as well as the equipment from their restaurant. ""Every dime Janet made had to go to paying off all these legal fees and debts from his entrepreneurial ventures,'' says Levine. ""If someone put a gun to your head and said you have to write a best seller in six weeks, are you going to be able to produce?''

Dailey's colleagues say she became reclusive in recent years. Her books, mostly family sagas in far-flung locales, became bleaker. Dailey hasn't been on The New York Times best-seller list since ""Tangled Vines'' in 1993. And Roberts was the next romance novelist to hit it big. ""Nora's career went up and up and Janet's was going down,'' says Kathryn Falk, the owner of Romantic Times Magazine, who befriended Dailey 18 years ago. ""She wanted to get detected. She's pleading for help. She's had a tumultuous life that would drive anyone to therapy.''

It may get worse. HarperCollins has stopped shipping ""Notorious.'' Industry sources say Harlequin won't re-release the dozens of books Dailey wrote there. Roberts's lawyer Jonathan Price says he suspects other Dailey books may be tainted, though he's not sure how many. Roberts has been so distraught she is only now getting back to writing. As it happens, the Romance Writers of America honored her last week with its Lifetime Achievement Award. But it may be Dailey's dubious achievement that readers will never forget.