Eventually, We’re Going To Stop Giving It Away For Free

February 21st, 2005 · 2 Comments
by Booksquare

Before we get started, we must say, again, that while many ills can be laid at Harlequin’s feet (and we can detail them, if provoked), ripped bodices are not on the list. We reiterate our plea to journalists everywhere: drop the cliches. They make you look like hack writers. Try to come up with something fresh for us to rant about. We need a good challenge.

Now that we’ve settled that, let us delve into the conundrum that is TorStar profits and why they’re dwindling. More than one Booksquare reader thought we were up to this task, and we live in fear of disappointing. Tempting as it may seem, the fault does not lie with The Da Vinci Code and uncountable Atkins diet clones. Let us explain why:

  1. Reading Da Vinci takes about two hours, maybe three if you stop to look at the pictures. Unless readers engage in the highly improbable chore of re-reading the book to the exclusion of all other books, there’s a lot of empty reading time remaining.
  2. Thrilling as they may seem, diet and cooking books rarely constitute full-time reading pleasure. If you find yourself addicted, there are programs. Most are discreet. As long as you stay out of the Malibu facilities.
  3. There have always been bestsellers being read by women.
  4. There have always been diet fads and associated recipes.
  5. The easy answers are rarely the real answers.

The problem at Harlequin, and its solution, are stated quite eloquently by its vice-president of overseas operations:

The key to boosting the division’s performance will not be cost cutting, Mr. [Diego] Castelli said. The bottom line is that “we’ve got to sell more books.”

Since this article is ostensibly about TorStar’s woes, it is reasonable for analysts to look at divesting the book division as a way of building profits. But to suggest that Harlequin is unattractive because it’s branded is sort of funny given that HarperCollins is desperately trying to do just that. Branding isn’t the problem; people like to know what they’re getting. Comfort is vastly underrated. The problem is that Harlequin stayed on road too traveled. They’ve been playing catch-up for the past several years, and had already fallen behind reader tastes before that.

We’ve spent much time analyzing this problem (see link below re: Unsolicited Opinion), and our core conviction remains. Too much sameness in what is being published (we can date the decline to the cowboy/baby/bride era), not enough risk-taking. Rather than embracing younger readers, far too much time was spent alienating them. If the fictional worlds are supposed to reflect, even on a fantastical level, the worlds of real women, there were major missteps. If we may be brutally honest (and, what the heck, we’ve burned so many other bridges), a major failure of the publisher has been to create a sense of sophistication. Big cities in Harlequin books feel like small towns. We like small towns, but cities are grittier, dirtier, faster. If you’re going small town, go small town. If you’re going big city, be true. And remember that small towns are as sophisticated as big cities.

There is a generation gap in romance audiences, and Harlequin doesn’t seem to know how to bridge it (hint: let your authors tell you…unless they say jumpsuits. Nobody wears jumpsuits. At least not without a strong dose of irony.). We get romance, we buy into the “I can have it all” ethos of the genre, we believe (despite evidence to the contrary) that there’s a lot of good in humans. But unless Harlequin lets the rose-colored glasses turn red and black and orange and white and lime green, it won’t build its audience beyond the faithful.

And that’s really too bad. We learned feminism from romance novels. We learned that we can be what we want, on the terms we define. We learned that weird isn’t as weird as you’d think. We learned that smart chicks rule. If you grew up female in our era (and we’re not as old as we feel tonight), you know these are major accomplishments. Once upon a time, Harlequin novels actively contributed to this radical dialogue. Now, we think, the publisher has chosen to play it safe, and that decision is repelling readers (we won’t discuss covers, but to suggest that they come into play). If you’re going to explore the female experience, do it. Broadly (ha!). One size will never fit all.

Book selling is rough. It’s not going to get easier. All publishers must constantly re-evaluate their relevance. This doesn’t always mean picking up and starting something new. It does mean taking chances. Putting everything on the table (everything). And realizing that your audience is diverse. Very diverse. Now is the time for all good publishers to come to the aid of their readers. And if this means selling a variety pack of soap, then sell the variety pack.

File Under: Publishers and Editors

2 responses so far ↓

  • Susan Gable // Feb 22, 2005 at 7:46 am

    You could not, and do not, disappoint, Booksquare! Excellent discussion of the article. My fear is that because the company is having difficulties, the response will be to play it “even safer” and go even more with “what has sold/worked in the past.”

    And I agree that’s not a good move. I think the Bombshell line seems to be doing well – and frankly, *I* thought that one was a risk. A big risk. But it’s working, paying off for them from what I can gather. Only time will tell, I suppose.

    I was interested in the part of the article where they said that Harlequins aren’t books, they’re “packaged products” and as such need “direct marketing support.” Ummm…well, most books AND products need marketing support. They don’t sell themselves except for those rare books that catch fire and spread by word of mouth – and you can’t create that no matter how hard the marketing department tries to.

    I’d also suggest easing up on the hooky titles as a way to catch more readers – the new ones that we want to lure in. I recently ran into someone who had read my second book, and she flat out told me that if she had gone only by the title, and hadn’t taken the time to read the back cover blurb, she wouldn’t have bought the book.

    I hear a lot of complaints about the titles even from the faithful.

    Susan G.

  • booksquare // Feb 22, 2005 at 10:20 am

    Yes, all books need direct marketing support. Otherwise the poor things would just go out and sit on the shelves while nobody knows they’re there. I think the author was trying to suggest (horrors!) that Harlequin focuses on the brand rather than the individual title. But that’s just a guess as I don’t read minds full time.

    I have to agree that the titles are big problem. They don’t reflect the stories within, and as long as they continue to focus on the so-called hooks (which, for me, are the antithesis of my world — knowing that I’m an exception to most rules!), they’re going to alienate younger readers. And as I keep saying, romance readers read broadly. If they’re not buying HQ books, they’re not buying other books. I’d even go so far as to say for some readers, these books serve as gateway fiction. People who don’t read, necessarily, start with something they think is quick and easy, and before they know it, they’re hooked on books.