Harris, Monica 1968–
Monica Harris 1968–
In the United States, romance novels are an extremely important segment of the publishing industry. In 1996, sales of romance novels accounted for almost half of the $1.3 billion paperback book market. A significant proportion of these books—anywhere from 15 to 33 percent, depending on the estimate—are purchased by African Americans. However, until recently, no major publishing houses sold books that were designed with black readers in mind. That was before Monica Harris joined Kensington Publishing as senior editor of the multicultural Arabesque line. In the four years that she worked at Kensington, Harris published more than 70 romance novels featuring African American heroes and heroines. “Part of the thrill of reading a romance book is living vicariously, putting yourself in the place of the heroine,” Harris told Curt Schleier of The Detroit News “If the heroine is not what the reader looks like, there’s a distance.”
Monica Harris was born on August 2, 1968, in Washington, DC, the daughter of Benjamin L. Harris, an accountant, and Blanche R. Harris, an elementary teacher. She and her younger sister, Robyn, grew up in Willing-boro, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia. As a child, Harris participated in a wide range of activities: she was a Girl Scout for several years, and had part-time jobs as a newspaper carrier, a camp counselor in the local day camp, and an employee in the local hospital.
Harris learned to read at a very young age, and liked to pursue her own interests through independent reading. “I often discovered a topic (in anything from fashion to the Far East) and voraciously read as much as I could— until the next topic came up,” she said in a personal interview. She also showed an early interest in the publishing industry. “I wrote my first full length ’story’ at seven, illustrations and binding included. I made several copies and distributed them,” she said in a personal interview.
In addition to her academic pursuits, Harris also enjoyed physical activities, including track, baseball, softball, basketball, ballet, and gymnastics. During her years at John F. Kennedy High School, Harris participated in a wide range of extracurricular activities. She was a member of the school newspaper, marching band, Latin Club and International Club.
After graduating from high school in 1986, Harris went on to study at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she double-majored in literary and cultural studies and professional writing. While in college, she made a point of gaining as much practical experience in writing and communications as possible. She interned at the local television station, KDKA, and worked on the inter-library newsletter at the campus library. During the summers, she had an internship with a publishing house, Lippincott Publishing Company, a
Born Monica Harris, August 2, 1968, Washington, DC; daughter of Benjamin L Harris, accountant, and Blanche R. Harris, elementary teacher; one sister, Robyn. Education: Graduated from John F. Kennedy High School, 1986; B.A. in Literary and Cultural Studies and Professional Writing, Carnegie-Mellon University, 1990.
Career: Editorial assistant in the Romance Department, Dell Publishing, 1990-93; Senior Editor, Arabesque books, Kensington Publishing, 1993-97; Editor, Carol Publishing, 1997-.
Addresses; Office— Carol Publishing, 120 Enterprise Avenue S., Secaucus, NJ 07094.
Philadelphia-based medical publisher.
Harris graduated from Carnegie-Mellon in 1990, and a month later landed her first job in publishing, as an editorial assistant in the romance department at Dell Publishing in New York. In addition to her assigned duties, Harris began digging through the “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts. Within six months, she had discovered a Gothic romance novel that she was authorized to purchase. Later, she launched Love Notes, a four-page romance newsletter distributed nationally at major bookstores. By 1993, when Harris left Dell, Love Notes filled 10 pages and had a substantial following.
Harris’ next job, which would earn her national media attention, was at Kensington Publishing, the second largest publisher of romance novels in the United States. Initially, Harris was hired as a historical romance editor, until she mentioned to owner and CEO Walter Zacharius that she was interested in editing romance novels with African American characters. At the time, “there were very few on the market and only a handful were from major publishers since the inception of the romance genre,” Harris said in a personal interview. Just a few weeks after she was hired, Harris was charged with finding appropriate titles for a new line of African American romance novels.
A year later, in July 1994, Arabesque premiered with Forever Yours by Francis Ray and Serenade by Sandra Kitt. Both books received rave reviews. Forever Yours, which would become the cornerstone of Arabesque, remained on the Blackboard bestseller list for over four months, and appeared on the bestseller list of Quarterly Black Review and the Library Journal
One of Harris’ early challenges was convincing booksellers and readers that the new line was viable. To accomplish this goal, she talked to booksellers, trained her sales force to successfully market the line and surveyed Kensington’s established African American readers. Her success depended on a crucial philosophy, Harris told Hal Karp of Black Enterprise. “Going the extra mile.”
In addition to locating new material, reading and editing novels, and overseeing all levels of production, Harris also served as spokesperson for the Arabesque line. While most editors keep a low profile, Harris’ photograph was included when the first Arabesque press kits were mailed out. “I like promoting people that have worked hard to get where they are,” Harris told Hal Karp of Black Enterprise In a personal interview, she added, “I enjoyed speaking out for a genre I believed in, and giving the opportunity for talented and imaginative authors to publish their work.” Harris also encouraged her authors to schedule book signings at local bookstores to aggressively promote themselves.
Harris’ high-profile approach paid off as the Arabesque line became an immediate commercial success. By 1995, Arabesque was publishing three titles per month. This number later increased to four titles a month. While each of the titles received a printing of 50,000 copies— a fairly substantial number—many of the original titles have gone back to press for third and fourth printings, which is extremely unusual for romance novels. By late 1996, Arabesque was responsible for $4.9 million of Kensington’s $50 million in annual net sales.
As spokesperson for the line, Harris had a goal beyond promoting sales of the books she edited. She also wanted to dispel negative stereotypes about African Americans. “I liked reminding the media that there was more to the African American community than the popular (at the time) boyz in the ’hood movies and the similarly negative images in the news,” she said in a personal interview.
One of the goals of the Arabesque line of novels is to portray African Americans and their relationships accurately. “The heroes of the books were illustrated as tall, dark, handsome, responsible, successful and loving,” Harris said in a personal interview. “I enjoyed my part in showing loving, respectful couples as well as people who believed in themselves, were connected to their families and were involved in their churches. I enjoyed this part of Arabesque almost as much as I enjoyed the editorial process.” This positive approach also extended to Harris’ editorial decisions. While teenage pregnancies, crime, and other social problems are sometimes featured in the books, they are done so peripherally. “We prefer positive images, which are much closer to reality,” Harris told The Detroit News
Many of the Arabesque authors were first-time authors, some because they had been turned down by other publishing houses that were not interested in black romance novels. “What made me take on their work was not so much writing style but intriguing plots and memorable characters,” Harris said in a personal interview. “Those qualities also bring the readers back for more. The authors worked very hard revising their first manuscript to improve their writing style, and the hard work showed.”
As a result of Harris’ efforts, the Arabesque authors won acclaim inside and outside of the romance genre. Monique Gilmore’s No Ordinary Love was named “The Best Multicultural Romance Novel for 1995” by Affaire de Couer Magazine, while author Shirley Hailstock received the Virginia Romance Writers Holt Medallion for First Place in the Long Contemporary Category in 1995. Lynn Emery, Felicia Mason and Bette Ford were also nominated for Reviewer’s Choice Awards by Romantic Times.
In 1995, the Arabesque line was expanded to include historical titles as well as contemporary romances and romantic suspense novels. The first of its historical romance novels was Mildred Riley’s Journey’s End As the Arabesque line expanded, Harris continued to use innovative strategies to promote it. In 1996, a publicity drive promoted the month of February, a pivotal month known for its emphasis on black history and Valentine’s Day, as “Arabesque Month.” More than twenty Arabesque authors in several states met the public, read from their works and made appearances on radio and television. Meanwhile, other major publishing houses began to imitate Kensington Publishing’s marketing successes by bringing out their own African American romances. A 1996 article in The Detroit News described African American romances as “one of the hottest growth areas in publishing—novels specifically written for women of color.”
In addition to her editorial work at Arabesque, Harris also found time to judge writing competitions for Essence magazine and bibliotech, an on-line literary journal, and to donate her time to Literacy Volunteers of New York.
In 1997, Harris decided to leave Kensington Publishing to join Carol Publishing, based in Secaucus, New Jersey. At the time of her departure, the Arabesque line had released over 70 books and Harris had received a “career achievement” award from the New York chapter of the NAACP. “Although I was sad to leave the authors who had become my friends as well as my colleagues, I was looking forward to new challenges,” she said in a personal interview.
Harris hoped to build upon her successes in the romance genre, bringing her knowledge of the African American market to other segments of the publishing industry. “At Carol Publishing, I am building their African American non-fiction list as well as other genres. I hope to create a list of interesting authors and titles that will backlist over the years,” Harris said in a personal interview. “It’ll soon be the 21st century, and we must address the needs and desires of our multicultural readers in a way publishing has not done as of yet.”
Black Enterprise, December 1996, p. 62.
Detroit News, February 8, 1996.
Essence, March 1997, p. 60.
Bibliotech Web page, www.crispzine.com/contents/staff/conbio-harris.html.
Kensington Publishing Web page www.kensingtonbooks.com/company.html.
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