In Which Pink Might Be An Appropriate Color For The Elephant

October 28th, 2004 · No Comments
by Booksquare

Torstar, parent to Harlequin Books (no, we don’t have time to look up the corporate structure, we may not have proper corporate names), has reported another drop in earnings. This is a scary trend. The article is unclear, but seems to suggest that the company’s net sales were in line with other publishers (either that or the net sales were in line with the U.S. division — if only we spoke Canadian). Thankfully, all the balance sheet gobbledy gook is summarized neatly for us:

“In the simplest terms, in book publishing we sold fewer books than we expected, leading to lower revenues and lower profits. . .

A Booksquare reader wonders if the decision to stop publishing Nora Roberts is taking a toll on the bottom line. Perhaps — her new titles surely positively impacted sales. But we have a feeling that one author wouldn’t swing the numbers that much. We’ve discussed the fact that the publisher isn’t growing its audience; given the devotion of the romance readership (and when we say devotion, we remind everyone that most romance readers buy books across all genres), we remain convinced it has much to do with subject matter.

We think Harlequin needs to position itself to move faster. One or two year roll-outs for new lines may be how business works, but what about making changes within existing lines? Tastes change rapidly and even book publishing must be fast on its feet. We’re not saying the desire for harder-edged heroines and/or action-adventure stories has waned, but it does feel a little like the moment has passed. We believe a great time to launch Bombshell would have been before Buffy slayed her last vampire.

And this might have happened if authors were trusted more. Harlequin’s lines are designed to appeal to specific readers. There is some comfort in knowing, from the perspective of tone and, well, sexiness, what you’re getting. But we sense the authors are being asked to play it too safe while the readers want something else. They’re certainly voting for that with their pocketbooks. We said, the last time we wrote on this topic, that Harlequin should trust its authors more — we’ll say it again: Trust Your Authors. They’re readers, too. You don’t have to abandon what works, but be more innovative, push the envelope, see what works. Your authors know how to do this — we know many of them. They are smart and they are talented. It’s possible that the experiment might work; given recent sales trends, it certainly can’t hurt.

We cannot help but look at the success of chicklit compared to the relative failures (from a sales perspective) of Harlequin’s various “funny” lines. Humor is decidedly subjective, but it’s clear from the fact that people are plunking down $12.95 and up for funny books that there’s a desire for this type of read. We don’t know what the goals for the lines were (we suspect sales are a given — we’re talking style of humor), but it’s clear they didn’t work…while chicklit continues to thrive. We don’t think it’s the authors; this type of failure has all the hallmarks of the marketing department driving the editorial process. Whenever marketing gets involved, it is almost a given that innovation will be stymied. We haven’t made sufficient study of the marketing species to know for sure, but we suspect they have no real idea of what people really want, especially when it comes to books.

We’d also suggest that short books don’t necessarily mean your hero and heroine must be joined at the hip. There is sufficient room to give these people well-rounded lives, friends, and family. Make them real. Make them human. We once read a story where, if he’d been described on the news, the hero would have been a candidate for serial killer. Seriously, this guy was an outsider-loner to the point where we had to wonder what sort of mental problems he had. He didn’t even talk to his co-workers. Letting authors create better-developed characters might help. The excuse that there isn’t time is a cop-out. Yeah, readers want the romance, but how about mixing it up a little? Give us variety. Give us characters with friends. Hobbies. Flaws.

Previously, we suggested that the publisher consider playing with the sacred happy ending. This was a surprisingly controversial suggestion. We didn’t suggest eliminating it — we simply believe this shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all concept. If women are marrying later, having children later, succeeding in business…and the publisher is looking for younger readers…we think maybe it’s time to address a wider range of possibilities for, well, happiness. As evidenced by chicklit sales, there is an appetite for edgier (and we do use the word advisedly) stories with romantic plots. You can fulfill reader expectations while still appealing to a broader range of possibilities.

We cannot allow this discussion to end without a brief foray into the world of marketing and distribution. We’ll start with the latter: it’s time to re-evaluate distribution. Seriously, if the books aren’t on the shelves, they’re not going to sell. Since our last rant, we have made it a point to check out the book offerings when we hit our local Target(s). Let’s just say it ain’t pretty. Perhaps the faithful know when to hit the stores…but the faithful aren’t going to grow the business. Carrying a full complement of Harlequin books requires substantial shelf space. Is there a way to, well, maybe tailor the process a bit more for retailers who need it? And maybe somehow have books available for purchase?

Finally, we must discuss the covers and titles. We know they offer visual clues about the contents of the books (though some titles have the ability to both repulse and mislead). Again, we focus on a younger audience — what kind of covers would work for them? While thematic groupings are nice, is it possible that too much similarity might lead to a sense of same old, same old? Just a thought.

Romance must constantly evolve to stay fresh. The romance is only part of the story. This is why the genre is so broad: if it were just two people falling in love, well, you’d be satisfied after reading one or two books. That the love story happens within the context of the rest of the story is what makes readers pick up book after book. This is the basic rule guiding genre fiction. You have the structure, but everything else is fair game.

File Under: Publishers and Editors