In Which We Offer Our Unsolicited Opinion

August 17th, 2004 · 18 Comments
by Booksquare

We believe the recent changes at Harlequin, both from a product and editorial perspective, will turn out to be very good for the company and its authors. The first step to solving a problem is admitting it exists — and the company has done that. The second step is changing the way everyone thinks. That will be harder, as an article from today’s New York Times makes clear.

Thus we have generously taken the time and energy to offer our thoughts and opinions. We look at the points raised in the article, and we offer suggestions for the future. And we do this free — never let it be said that we don’t give, give, give.

The article starts with the rather startling statement that romance is dying, a slow, probably ugly, death (such deaths always are). This will come as a shock to many, but it’s in the newspaper — it must be true. Given the fiscal responsibility placed on the shoulders of romance, this is very bad news for the publishing industry indeed. Luckily, all is not lost — it’s just traditional romance that is suffering:

Explosive growth in the market for women’s fiction, particularly in newer genres like chick lit and women’s thrillers, has been drawing readers away from traditional romance novels, those formulaic bodice-rippers stocked with hunky heroes and love-conquers-all endings.

Wouldn’t it be cool if the so-called paper of record could lead off an article on what it calls “…one of the most profitable companies in the publishing industry…” without resorting to 70’s clichés? Given the fact that romance novel sales drive the publishing industry, surely they deserve a little more respect? If it weren’t for profitable genre fiction, publishers couldn’t afford to release half the titles they do. We expect better of the New York Times.

Some would (and have) argued that chicklit and women’s fiction are part of the romance continuum. If that’s the case, then the situation isn’t quite so dire. If not, well, we feel comfortable that formulaic bodice rippers no longer really exist, except in the style guides of newspapers. What the author really means is that Harlequin, the leading publisher of romance, is losing market share.

Much of the weakness has come in the market Harlequin dominates, series romance novels, in which it releases four to six books a month in each of roughly 18 book series. Sold under the Harlequin and Silhouette imprints, the series have names – like Desire, Temptation, Bombshell and Blaze – that leave little about their content to the imagination.

Those books – sold only in paperback and with such a short shelf life they come with dates printed on the spine – generate their heaviest sales in mass-market retailers like Wal-Mart and Target and at mall bookstores, particularly Waldenbooks. They have also been sold directly to consumers through book clubs, but that business has fallen sharply in recent years.

Setting aside the reporter’s bias, we believe this section is very important. Harlequin has grown stagnant over the past decade. Online readers complain about the “cowboy-baby-bride” syndrome, but it goes deeper than that. Once upon a time (the 80s), we read Harlequin American Romances because they directly addressed significant issues facing women. These were truly groundbreaking books, especially for a budding feminist. Sure, the endings were always happy — that’s the contract this particular genre makes with its readers — but the issues were genuine and authors didn’t seek easy answers.

We don’t see that level of depth in Harlequin books any longer. Or rather, social depth has given way to safety. Authors are encouraged, or seemingly encouraged, not to take risks, not to take on social issues, not to rock the boat. Editors will vociferously disagree, but we have seen the decline in content. Series romances, like, oh cozy mysteries, give readers guidelines about what to expect. You won’t ever see a brutal serial killer in a Lillian Jackson Braun book — ditto for books published in the Harlequin “Romance” line. Despite the fact that certain subjects remain taboo, that doesn’t mean that boundary pushing should stop. We think much of the decline in category romance comes from the publisher’s refusal to take risks. Readers are bored with a sense of sameness.

We think back to two favorite books by the publisher: Judith Arnold’s Barefoot in the Grass and Jennifer Crusie’s Anyone But You. Both of these books pushed back the edges of their respective lines, and both are widely lauded (though largely unavailable) today. We don’t hear (or rather read) about this level of appreciation or devotion in the current crop of Harlequin offerings. It would be great if the publisher looked at what created buzz in the past and tried to apply that to its new business plan.

We also believe short distribution windows impact sales. Hardcore series fans hit stores (or subscribe) and grab new titles immediately. When we go to our local bookstores, selection is often picked over, if not non-existent. The rapid turnover of titles gives stores little incentive to restock popular titles, meaning casual shoppers don’t see the breadth of fiction available to them.

Authors must do hit-and-run promotion when their titles are widely available for short periods of time. Outlets like Amazon and Barnes & Noble increase exposure, but increasing shelf life will go a long way toward building authors and increasing sales. The constant turnover also creates the unfortunate impression that the books are interchangeable. Category romance is, by defintiion, short, but it should still be treated as distinctive. Especially by its publisher.

Too often, however, the bigger an author becomes, the harder it is for Harlequin to keep her – and it is her in almost all cases. One reason Harlequin is so profitable is that it pays advances that are much smaller than the industry average, often only a few thousand dollars for books in its romances series.

This isn’t quite a fair treatment of advances. From a writer’s perspective, bigger advances are always desirable. From a publisher’s perspective, advances represent cash out the door. The publisher doesn’t recoup its investment until distributors pay their bills. We believe that all publishers should be a little more generous, but that’s the writer side of us. The side that did this sort of work for ten years understands the underlying economics of increased advances (not that we’d ever say no to more money — we’re not stupid!). It’s a balancing act that always falls in favor of the one who writes the contract. Publishing is a business with certain responsibilities to other masters.

That being said, an advance is against anticipated earnings, usually based upon historical trends. Perhaps Harlequin’s profits are buttressed by smaller advances, but those advances usually earn out and the publisher pays overages (royalties). So smaller advances aren’t really going to affect the bottom line, except from a timing perspective. It would make more sense to say that the publisher’s profitibility has more to do with the royalty rates it pays. And that might be a key issue when it comes to retaining authors.

Recycling former writers can only last so long, however, and it cannot make up for all of those who have left. Catherine Coulter, for example, is another former romance novelist who, after writing for Harlequin’s Silhouette imprint, broke into the mainstream by writing suspense novels, often aimed at a primarily women.

One area where Harlequin could improve is keeping successful authors. Far too many authors see the publisher as a stepping stone. One reason is money, the other reason is the desire to tell bigger stories. Harlequin has taken steps to address the latter issue (and, we imagine, these move will lead to increased moneys for authors). Authors who move from so-called “category” lines to longer books credit their time with Harlequin for improving their storytelling and pacing ability — personally, we feel this is sometimes a detriment in longer stories as bad habits carry over with the good.

In order to keep top name authors, Harlequin needs to review what other publishers are doing right. Recent infrastructure changes have positioned Harlequin to better serve its authors — but will that be enough? As it learned recently when it tried to change language in its contract, today’s authors have better communications systems, giving them increased access to contract-savvy individuals. In order to keep authors, Harlequin will need to review things like its royalty structure, especially as it relates to ancillary rights such as electronic publishing.

While it’s true that Coulter wrote for Silhouette, she’s perhaps not the best example of this problem — she made her name in the historical arena before moving to suspense. Reprints are a time-honored publishing tradition — they’re going to happen. Backlist is a comfort zone for publishers, and while we’ve talked about the dangers with allowing publishers to retain rights to titles for too long, we understand the dependence on bread-and-butter reprints.

But rather than depending on Nora Roberts or other authors, Harlequin can do more to build the next generation. This includes encouraging authors to indulge their creative instincts rather than hold back because “that won’t work in category.” The romance reading public is obviously demanding more from its authors, and, in order to remain an industry leader, Harlequin needs to re-envision its editorial style.

Red Dress has had some moderately successful books, but it has not broken into the mainstream like other specialized chick-lit imprints. Those include Delta, the Random House imprint that has published Sophie Kinsella’s series of “Shopaholic” novels, and Downtown Press, the Simon & Schuster paperback imprint and publisher of Gigi Levangie Grazer’s “Maneater.””

When Red Dress titles were initially released, they were shelved with romance in many stores. The logic was simple: book is published by Harlequin, it’s a romance. This gave other publishers an unfair advantage in the chicklit market. Red Dress, while innovative, doesn’t seem to take the same risks as other publishers — or perhaps the risks it takes feel a little behind the curve. We’re not sure. By the time meatier Red Dress titles hit the shelves, we were deeply immersed in Downtown Press, which started out by leaping off the chicklit cliff.

Of all the existing Harlequin imprints, Red Dress is probably best positioned to move rapidly as readers grow and demand more. HQN may also be able to move quickly, as long as the editors are challenged to look beyond trends and to take risks, especially since the genre offers so much elasiticity.

Ms. [Donna] Hayes, the Harlequin executive, does not dispute that nontraditional romance subjects are taking a bigger share of her readers’ attention. That is why, she said, that Harlequin has expanded its line so much in recent years. “Our intention is to expand more into hardcover and the trade paperback format,” she said. “That is not to say that we are going away from romance in any way. It means that we want to appeal to a broader reader group.””

This is why we believe Harlequin’s recent moves will ultimately be successful. Nothing remains the same, including the romance genre. Reader tastes change, society changes. It makes sense that a publisher would change, too. We think it’s a matter of unleashing author creativity and closing the door on the status quo. So, our suggestions for improving Harlequin’s sales (in no particular order):

  • Trust Authors and Editors. Established Harlequin authors are given some leeway, but not enough in our opinion. New authors not only represent the next generation of stars, but most likely they represent readers. Rather than relying on marketing and focus groups, why not trust the instincts of professionals. Because that’s what authors are.
  • Rethink Distribution. Is a shelf-life of a month really the best approach? Is it possible to build buzz and authors by giving them more of a chance to be picked up by shoppers?
  • Funny Should Never Be Safe. The publisher has tried and failed several times to establish a so-called humorous line. Humor often comes from less-than-pretty emotions — let it show.
  • Think Outside The Box. Stop doing what’s worked in the past. There is a “that won’t work in category” attitude among authors, and this is a direct result of Harlequin’s editorial trends. Heck, dare to have a not-so happy ending. Leave the reader wondering. And, no more “and baby makes life complete” — to wildly paraphrase Jennifer Crusie, when the kid comes, that’s when the romance starts going downhill.
  • Give Readers Credit for Intelligence. Romance readers are notorious for being book junkies — they read broadly and they read frequently. They don’t need safe themes or easy solutions. Studies show that romance readers have college degrees — treat them that way. We have wide spectrum of tastes, ages, and genders. Acknowledge all of us.
  • More Variety. We can’t tell you the month or the year, but we can tell you when we stopped by category romance. It was the day when we saw nothing but cowboys, babies, and brides. Every line, every title. That’s the lingering perception we have — and, sadly, while the themes have changed somewhat, when we see a full complement of category titles, we don’t get a sense of real variety.
  • Quantity Is Not Quality. This one is hard for us, because we know many authors who make livings writing for Harlequin. But the truth is that a rapid-fire writing calendar does not translate to quality work. Treating books like assembly-line projects devalues them.

We’re curious what others think. Are we nuts here? Are we on to something? Should we be paid big bucks to solve the world’s problems? Because we’re always available…

File Under: Publishers and Editors

18 responses so far ↓

  • Jill Monroe // Aug 17, 2004 at 6:44 pm

    Found this article fascinating. Why do you suppose the book clubs are losing sales since more and more people are buying their products through the mail?

  • booksquare // Aug 17, 2004 at 6:56 pm

    I think there are two reasons for the decline in bookclub sales, both dealing with choice. Bookclubs offer a set selection of titles every month — not a lot of choice in that respect.

    And, building on my theory that there’s a sense of sameness to Harlequin titles (or rather the perception of sameness from the consumer perspective), I think people are more wary about commiting regular money to something they feel isn’t want they want. So again, it seems like there isn’t a lot of choice.

  • Sarah // Aug 17, 2004 at 7:57 pm

    This is an excellent, excellent post. I do think Harlequin/Silhouette has to really take a long, hard look at their business practices, and while short-term it may seem upsetting and harsh (I know of one author who’s considered to be a real favorite in online circles who got screwed over by Historicals going mail-order only) but longterm, I think it may serve the company well. Romance goes through many growing pains every few years, and hopefully, this will energize the genre in a way that other previous pains couldn’t.

  • rae shapiro // Aug 17, 2004 at 8:02 pm

    Whew. Terrific. Now i have a computer that needs your thoughts…

  • Kate // Aug 17, 2004 at 8:38 pm

    Booksquare makes some excellent points, but when she suggests omitting the happy ending, she’s redefining romance. A romance, per se, must have a happy ending — which isn’t to say that Harlequin shouldn’t have lines without happy endings. But H/S will have to clearly flag them as “not romance” or risk breaking its long standing contract with readers.

    Two of Booksquare’s points are worth emphasizing. Harlequin’s royalty structure and its low editorial standards in category encourage amibitious, talented authors to write single title for other publishers.

  • booksquare // Aug 17, 2004 at 9:14 pm

    On Happy Endings…

    There are happy endings, and, well, there are happy endings. Why not leave questions? If the author has done her (his) job, there should be no question about certain aspects of the story. But for others? Why not let readers draw their own conclusions? Why, of all genres, does romance have to make it absolutely clear? Romance, by definition, promises a happy ending (ie, resolution to the will-they-or-won’t-they plot), but do we need to have it hammered home? Why not leave some aspects of the story to the reader’s imagination?

  • Sylvia Day // Aug 17, 2004 at 11:36 pm

    As a romance writer and a voracious romance reader I took offense to Mr. Wyatt’s “Romance is not dead, but it may be suffering a slow death.” comment. Your rebuttal was succinct and well done!

  • Susan Gable // Aug 18, 2004 at 5:52 am

    Excellent article! I especially love the part about trusting authors and editors. Give them a little more space to do “their thing.”

    However, you said this:
    Authors are encouraged, or seemingly encouraged, not to take risks, not to take on social issues, not to rock the boat.

    You mention Judith Arnold’s Barefoot in the Grass as a book that deals with social issues – I’d like to point you in the direction of Superromance as a whole line that OFTEN has books that make use of today’s society’s concerns. Even though most of my books have kids they also deal with revelent topics – one dealt with organ donation/transplant, one examined how issues surrounding fertility advances can have a major impact on the people involved (a surrogate mom who wanted to keep her child) and the one I’m finishing now involved a hero dealing with both a pregnant teenage daughter and a pregnant heroine. (That hero hates me. )

    We’ve had books with alcoholic heroines, dealt with spousal abuse, illiteracy, a hero who stutters…and let’s not forget Fay Robinson’s groundbreaker, A Man Like Mac, in which the hero had wheels. (He was a paraplegic.)

    So for anyone else out there looking for a “meatier,” more relevent read, check out Superromance. Maybe you’ll find something there you like. 🙂

    Keep up the great blogging work!

  • Larissa Ione // Aug 18, 2004 at 8:24 am

    Brilliant rebuttal! I hope that with the changes going on at H/S, category romance will see new life. “Safe” is just not working anymore. Yes, there is still a market for babies and cowboys and brides, as well as virginal heroines and ultra-alpha heroes to “teach” them, but newer readers also want something that is representative of TODAY’s women and today’s issues.

    So thanks for the excellent post! Maybe it’ll open some eyes!

  • booksquare // Aug 18, 2004 at 8:48 am

    Susan’s right — I did forget to mention that Superromance hits meatier issues. Part of the reason is the distribution issue I mentioned above — it’s rare that I even see the line on the shelves.

    I stand (or rather sit as it’s early for me) corrected.

  • Kim // Aug 18, 2004 at 8:50 am

    As a former graphic designer, I have to say that one of the reasons HQ books may not be selling as well is their cover designs. While I understand wanting to keep a uniform look for each line, what ends up happening is all the books seem the same. Not only that, but the covers for their lines are, frankly, boring. I have to admit that their art department is coming through with more exciting up-to-date covers for their newer lines, like RDI, but they need to follow through in their series romance. Even when they come out with a new line, like Blaze, the covers look monotonous with almost nothing to distinguish one Blaze from another.

    Perhaps if, as Booksquare suggested, they extended the shelf life to two months, that would give their art department more time to create covers that look like they were for books for this millennium, were more individual, yet still held to that line’s identity. If they’re one of the most profitable romance publishers, then they can afford a bigger, more innovative art department.

  • David Thayer // Aug 18, 2004 at 1:36 pm

    What caught my eye about the article was Harlequin’s profit margin and dominance in their market. Other publishers don’t even come close.

  • booksquare // Aug 18, 2004 at 2:13 pm

    Though I didn’t expand upon it, one of the keys to Harlequin’s profitability (besides the sheer number of books they move — romance makes up approximately 51% of the fiction market) is the fact that they pay lower advances. I was very struck by a comment made by Kosmos Kalliarekos about how publishers tend to eat advances in the $250,000 to one million range. Just as low advances affect author morale, overpaying advances affects the bottom line. Especially when you consider that the cash outlay of an advance creates a negative balance for an extended period.

    If you pay a lot of large advances without commensurate income, it affects profitability. Harlequin generally exercises fiscal conservatism when it comes to advances. This is both good and bad, as noted, but they don’t find themselves upside-down on too many titles.

    Now market dominance — it’s a stated goal, and Harlequin’s recent changes are pre-emptive moves to maintain that dominance. I can’t fault that, though I think a diverse market is far more interesting.

  • Anonymous // Aug 18, 2004 at 5:51 pm

    You are absolutely right on every point.

  • Sidonie // Aug 20, 2004 at 4:59 pm

    Publishers are playing it safe by listening to their marketing team and their focus groups–who aren’t even a genuine tally of romance readers around the globe–and it’s hurting them. Harlequin is the first publisher to address the fact that they’ve made some mistakes, but it is a bit late. Most readers that have cut back on their catagory purchases because of the staleness of the genre aren’t going to be very eager to leap back into it after being burned for so long.

  • anon // Aug 22, 2004 at 6:31 am

    I find it unusual that nobody has really mentioned one issue that is certainly cutting into Harlequin sales… there are thousands of readers who have dsicovered the vast variety of reading material available in eBook format.

    While some people may never want to read an ebook, there are many, many readers who prefer ebooks over paper, for simple reason… an ebook can be stored on a pocket pc…up to 15 or 20, easy and be carried in the purse. Ebook book publishers are also well known for NOT following the formulaic romance pattern. There will always been critics of ebooks…but fewer and fewer of those critics are readers. I could point any number of online groups with not just hundreds but thousands of members who hardly ever pick up a series romance. And this is understandable, once you’ve read ebooks from quality epublishers. The variety in ebooks is astounding and you can find books hot enough to scorch your hand, along with a plot that is beyond the normal, well written and very intriguing. And hardly a baby in the bunch.

  • Vikki // Aug 22, 2004 at 5:19 pm

    I like the spirit of your rebuttal. However, I recently read some Romance Writers of America data which indicates some HQ romance lines are showing lower sales numbers than others. In my humble analysis of the numbers the “traditional’ lines with the cowboy-baby-bride books are doing pretty well.

  • Laurie // Aug 23, 2004 at 6:41 pm

    Thanks for your great rebuttal! I agree that category themes need an overhall, and editors need to stretch the envelope. My bet is they’d find readers far more accepting of new ideas and plotlines than they think they’d be. Happy endings are here to stay in romance, but they can be there in the shadows, not as someone else said “hammered home”. Let the authors loose to tell stories in a new way in category! And change those covers! We need some flash, symbolism, mystery, and enchantment….not just a man, woman, and baby on a swing. Category could be so much more – variety should be the main catchword.