Ranting and Raving, Harlequin Style

October 5th, 2006 · 9 Comments
by Booksquare

This week, the hot publishing news comes from Torstar: Harlequin will be cutting about 4% of its global workforce. This is a result of, yes, declining sales. And this, by the way, has been an ongoing theme for a few years.

Harlequin, the world’s leader in romance fiction, is not selling books in sufficient numbers. It’s not that the audience doesn’t exist; it’s that the publisher can’t seem to find the readers. Looking back at our archives (we do not advise doing this without a stiff drink), we see that over and over, there’s a similar theme. Harlequin books are not selling like they could or should.

We’re not going to rehash our previous rants. Much. Harlequin’s problems, as we see them, are many. It’s been clear since the mid-90’s that the publisher lost the interest of many long-time readers. This was due to what can now be called the “Cowboy/Baby/Bride” era. It was an ugly time. Just as Harlequin should have been drawing in a younger readership, it alienated that potential audience with books that were limited in scope — there is an audience for cowboys, an audience for babies, and audience for brides. There is even an audience for all three at once.

But Harlequin seemed to revel in all cowboys/babies/brides, all the time. Just glancing at the titles of American releases tells the story (though, you will note, as we did, an addition to the list: daddy; seriously, daddies, daddies everywhere, and not a bit of variety). The joke was that even if a book didn’t feature a cowboy, baby, bride, daddy, or even virgin, the title still suggested that it might. There’s a point where the titles of novels become so ridiculous, they alone turn off readers.

Recall, if you will, that this was the dawn of Amazon’s reign, and consumers who wanted to read Harlequin books had to race to their local retailer (not as easily located as you’d imagine) while the books were still on the shelf. Once in the store, readers, those lovely folks who plunk (or is it plop?) down cash, were faced with a vast ocean of sameness. This is how so many formerly core readers were lost.

It is also how casual browsers were lost. Despite all the different lines and book covers, there was a sense of everything being the same. As the audience began to embrace edgier, more urban fare, Harlequin’s category lines hunkered down in the traditional realm. Do not mistake us: there is room for more traditional reads, but the publisher went too far in one direction. It lost momentum.

Harlequin editors would argue that so many cowboys and babies and brides were on the shelf because they sold. Fair enough, but did those sales come at a cost of new customers?

Another flaw in the Harlequin model — and this was formerly a strength — is the distribution model. We once spent three weeks going from retail outlet to retail outlet, trying to find a Temptation title that we knew for a fact was for sale. Three weeks, multiple outlets, different cities (what can we say, have car, will drive it). We wanted this book, and, thankfully, Amazon came through at the end.

In the process, we discovered empty racks at Target, sparse selection at Borders, more empty racks, and general frustration. When a reader is motivated, she’ll seek out a book. When a reader is browsing in a store, she’s going to want the selection available immediately. The one-month-on-the-shelf model was great for its time, but this is the modern world, and empty racks are not what a publisher should be offering a reader.

Harlequin lives and dies by its lines, and there’s not reason to think that’s going to change in the near future. However, as the recent demise of Bombshell and other lines suggest, maybe it’s more about variety within the established lines rather than creating new imprints for every little trend. Hmm, we like that. More variety. Even more visual variety — we fear this might be too radical a suggestion, but what do we have to lose?

Cutting staff at Harlequin will certainly increase the bottom line. For corporate parents, that’s a fine goal. However, unless Harlequin seriously addresses the reasons why readers are going elsewhere, the story we’ve been reading for the past two years isn’t going to have a happy ending.

Update: Just moments after posting this, we hear rumors that several editors have been let go already. Yeah.

[tags]publishing, reading, romance novels, harlequin, torstar[/tags]

File Under: The Business of Publishing

9 responses so far ↓

  • Erastes // Oct 5, 2006 at 9:22 am

    H/M&B need to realise (as they did once with their 70’s penchant for Doctors and Nurses) that times change. People are reading in more places than just in traditional books, using digital readers, PC’s printing off e-books. That’s one thing. e-publishing is mushrooming daily, and now we have sites burgeoning where you can download audio stories too.

    I’ve been banging on to anyone who will listen that Harlequin/Mills & Boon need to enter the 20th Century, let alone the 21st.

    There was a huge healthy debate over at Romantic Times’ Forum boards recently because one of the editors wanted to know whether women actually read male/male romance (although my skin crawled that she generalised that all RT’s readers are women, that’s like saying all video-game players are men) and the response was an overwhelming YES YES YES. There are four pages of letters in this month’s issue of that magazine also affirming that yes, women like it. They write it, they read it. – I don’t know the figures but it’s about 80 percent of gay fiction is written and read by women.

    They certainly need to stop living in the 80’s and realise that romance is romance, no matter who is smooching who.

  • Wendy // Oct 5, 2006 at 9:58 am

    Faxed your resume over yet, Ms. Square?

  • Booksquare // Oct 5, 2006 at 9:17 pm

    Ms. Square does not have a resume. Ms. Square is fully employed with her blog and reviewing and other responsibilities. Also, she’s retired. She’s living a life of leisure. As you well know.

    I do think HQ is making steps toward modernity. I’m not sure they’re wholly the right steps, but they are trying. I think a bigger problem is being mired in the golden age of ancillary royalty rates and confusing electronic editions with print editions. But that’s another post for another day.

  • KathyF // Oct 7, 2006 at 10:07 am

    So at the same time they were saying Cowboy Baby Bride books sell, sell, sell they were also saying sales were down? Now, when I was a business major I didn’t actually pay attention in my classes, so maybe there is a sense in which this makes sense.

  • Trixie // Oct 7, 2006 at 2:31 pm

    Well, I must say that I think my friend BS has hit the nail on the head. I never have gone in for the babies, cowboys, bride books. I am rarely tempted to read HQ category lines. The sameness is what got me. It seemed the books had little purpose except to trot out the same tired cliches.

    Now, on the other hand, I do like HQ’s Mira and Luna lines. I have bought more of the trade-sized Luna books in the last 2 years than I have bought of the category books in the last 20.

    I hate to say this, but HQ has operated like the category lined were training ground for their rising star writers and many a writer like Nora Roberts, Linda Howard, Stephanie Bond, etc started as a category writer. They moved on to bigger and better. Too many of the writers don’t. They don’t grow.

    Now their training ground is full of stagnant writers. Instead of giving the spots to fresher writers, they stand by their tried-and-true writers with a loyal following. Admirable… but how many of the tried-and-true are tired-and-trite? If they are content to stay with the same HQ category for a decade or more, I say they’ve had their run. Stop giving them 2-3 slots a year.

    HQ should limit their category lines and expand on books that have a longer shelf life. It’s better for the writer and better for their bottom line. They are branching out into e-publishing, manga, etc, but they are too reliant on their old standby.

  • Jas // Oct 7, 2006 at 4:14 pm

    There’s room for category, but it has to be fresh. I agree that having writers hanging around for a decade is way too long.
    It seemed to me that a lot of the editorial staff imposed their taste on the writers, and the product that evolved was a result of that marriage. It’s time for a divorce.
    There are some talented editors there, but some of them need to hang it up and move on as well as the writers.

  • StacksTBR // Oct 13, 2006 at 5:56 pm

    Having worked for Harlequin for a number of years, and still having low-ranking friends-in-the-know over there, I concur with much of your article. The times have changed and the current executives at the company failed to see it happen. Many of them are still blind to the changes and hearken back to the heydays of their successes at Kmart. Yeah, that’s relevant in today’s economy!

    In your update you mentioned that editors had been let go recently and included a mildly celebratory “Yeah” at the end. I agree that many of the editors at HQ do need a shake, but those let go in the latest shuffle were not the ones responsible for the cowboys/babies/brides. From what I hear, they were new blood trying to change the status quo for the better. It’s really sad to see a company sacrifice the young and imaginative for the protection of the weak and entrenched.

    Jas commented that Harlequin editors have tainted the flavor of the books for the worse, and there is some truth in that. There is more truth in the fact that Harlequin is a publisher run by its marketing department. At Harlequin, the art and power behind creative fiction editing has been ball-gagged and chained to an overbearing and meddlesome marketing executive team. For years, any innovative idea has been ignored or given a half-assed marketing push. Those given the push are often pushed off a cliff before the market can even find them. Oh wait! How could the market find them? They are still on a lowly rack in Kmart instead of gracing the aisles of the grand bookstores that span North America.

    Even their riskiest endeavor of late has fallen far short of market expectations. Lacking in creativity and original works, it’s less than Spicy.

    The recent changes at Harlequin save a bit of cash year over year, but the problem isn’t cash. The problem is a lagging product and lack of vision from a leadership team stuck in the past.

  • Booksquare // Oct 13, 2006 at 7:11 pm

    Stacks — My “yeah” wasn’t so celebratory, it was more resigned (clearly my exasperation didn’t come through in the way it sounded in my head). These editors aren’t the problem — I think your comment about marketing is right on. As for the spicy thing…well, I would humbly point you to a recent review of one title at Paperback Reader. I was less-than-enchanted with the effort — which was a bummer because I will give them credit for really getting it together on the covers for this line…

  • Maria // Nov 2, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    I have about 80 or so Harlequin and Silhouette paperbacks that I would like to sell for .50 cents each. I will pay for shipping. Do you know of anyone who would be interested? Hope to hear from you soon. Maria