Harlequin Romances

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Harlequin Romances

In a market where 60 percent of all households in the United States do not purchase even one book per year, romance novel readers spend an average of 1,200 dollars a year on their addiction, whether for escape or titillation. Though the compilers of "bestseller" lists scorn to include romance novels, the genre accounts for over 40 percent of all paperback sales in North America and is spreading in popularity to a surprising number of countries around the world. Employing strictly formulaic guidelines and innovative marketing, Canadian publisher Harlequin Enterprises controls 85 percent of the romance market worldwide. Any supermarket or variety store customer will recognize the mildly lurid cover with a title like Savage Promise or Fierce Encounter on sale by the checkout stand as a romance novel, and almost all will be familiar with the name that is almost synonymous with the romance novel, Harlequin Romance.

Harlequin Enterprises began as a small reprint house in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1949 under the leadership of Richard and Mary Bonnycastle. The Bonnycastles bought reprint rights to a variety of out-of-print books in the United States and Great Britain and republished them for Canadian audiences. When Mary Bonnycastle noticed the popularity of their reprints of the romance novels of British publisher Mills and Boon, she suggested that Harlequin focus on romances alone. Her idea was so successful that by 1971 Harlequin had bought Mills and Boon and begun to amass its own stable of writers to churn out romances.

In the 1970s, Larry Heisey, a marketing specialist who had previously worked at Proctor and Gamble, created Harlequin's most innovative and most successful marketing strategy. Reasoning that almost the entire readership of the romance novel was comprised of women, Heisey figured that the same techniques that sold cleaning products to women could sell them novels—a clearly recognizable brand name and convenient one-stop availability. He developed the Harlequin Presents series with uniform trademark covers, differing only by the particular title, author, and racy cover art. Further, he marketed the books in the places where women already shopped: the grocery store, the drug store, and the variety store. Using these skillful marketing practices, Harlequin's profits began to rise. In 1975, the company was bought by publishing giant Torstar, which also owns the Toronto Star newspaper. In 1985, troubled by competition from Silhouette Books, Simon and Schuster's new romance division, Harlequin slid around anti-trust laws in the United States to gobble up Silhouette, thus gaining the power to claim a huge share of the romance market which many claimed was on the verge of dying.

In the years following the start of the women's liberation movement, social critics had predicted the death of the pulp romance novel. Women, they said, would no longer be hypnotized by the gauzy fantasy romances that had allowed them escape in more repressive times. The critics turned out to be wrong. Spurred by its acquisition of Silhouette and its expansion abroad, Harlequin continued to grow. By the 1990s, it had become the world's largest publisher of romance fiction, releasing over 60 new titles per month and selling over 165 million books per year, in 23 languages and in over 100 countries.

Employing around 2,000 writers and cover artists, Harlequin Enterprises has created a system that turns the writing of romance novels into a kind of science. With strict guidelines as to length (exactly 192 pages for Harlequin Presents novels), and content (plots "should not be too grounded in harsh realities"; writers should avoid such topics as drugs, terrorism, politics, sports, and alcoholic heroes), Harlequin does not allow much room for pesky creativity that could lead to failure. Traditional romance novels all loosely follow the same general formula: a young and beautiful heroine with a romantic name such as Selena, Storm, or Ariana, meets a rakishly handsome man, often older, often darkly brooding, with a romantic name such as Bolt, Colt, or Holt. They encounter difficulties—perhaps she is unsure for most of the novel whether the man is hero or villain—but by the end of the novel they are passionately reconciled. Happy endings are an absolute requirement for the Harlequin Romance.

Company research shows that the average Harlequin Romance reader is a 39-year-old woman with a household income of 40,000 dollars a year. Forty-five percent of romance readers are college graduates and 50 percent work outside the home. With an ever sharp eye on the consumer market, Harlequin continues to branch out within its chosen genre, offering several different series of novels, with differing guidelines, to appeal to different readers. The Romance line guidelines for authors recommend avoiding "explicit sexual description," while the Temptation line suggests, "love scenes should be highly erotic, realistic, and fun." The Superromance and American Romance lines offer longer, more sophisticated novels, while the Love Inspired line consists of Christian romances where faith is featured as prominently as passion. The Golden Eagle adventure line and the Worldwide Mystery line represent Harlequin's more successful attempts to reach out to the male reader.

Even in foreign countries, the Harlequin formula seems to work. In 1992, the romances sold in Hungary at the astounding rate of 17,000 per day. Even in cultures that are very different from the Western European culture reflected in the novels, such as Japan and the Philippines, Harlequin Romances are welcomed with very little change apart from translation. Indeed, with Caucasian couples in rapt embrace on the cover, the books sell as rapidly in Asia as in Canada. In North America as well, even though heroes and heroines are almost universally white, the books are consumed ravenously by whites and people of color alike, perhaps proving the power of fantasy.

It is perhaps the mostly female writers of the novels who are left with the fewest illusions about the world of the Harlequin Romance. Signed to restrictive contracts, writers are required to choose pen names, also often romantic, such as Desiree or Jasmine, which Harlequin insists add to the fanciful image of their books. There is, however, a very practical side to the pen-name requirement. If an author leaves Harlequin to go to another publishing house, her pen-name remains the property of Harlequin Enterprises, who will probably use it on the work of another writer. This effectively prevents the author from retaining any following she may have gained under the pen name. Another conflict between publisher and author has arisen over the issue of the reversion of rights. It is common practice with most publishers to allow copyright on out of print works to return to the author, so that the author can make use of writing that is no longer being used by the publisher. Harlequin Enterprises has frequently not been willing to return rights to authors, often citing its ownership of the pen name as reason.

Though writers and agents have attempted to reason or force Harlequin into a position more favorable to author's rights, the publisher has not only refused but often retaliated by refusal to assign more books to recalcitrant writers, and by threatening to convert its contracts to "work for hire." Under a traditional author's contract, Harlequin writers are paid an advance fee for a novel (2,000 to 3,000 dollars for beginners, as much as 15,000 for a veteran). After the book is published, authors are paid royalties, or a percentage of sales. A hot seller can bring an author as much as 40,000 dollars in royalties. Under a "work for hire" contract, a publisher buys an author's work outright, with no further compensation no matter how high the sales. In spite of such threats, organizations like the Author's Guild and Novelists, Inc. continue to investigate Harlequin's questionable policies, including the legality of its 1985 acquisition of Silhouette.

Notwithstanding the drama unfolding around its own corporate policies, Harlequin Enterprises continues to crank out volumes of lushly improbable escape for readers mired down in "harsh realities." While men might find their escape in sports or action movies, women have tended to seek an exotic world, where women are surrounded by adventure with a passionate reward at the end. Somewhat like magazine serials and somewhat like television soap operas, these romances are not meant to be taken seriously; they are meant to provide a temporary reality far removed from mundane modern concerns. Their popularity is merely an indication of just how much this alternate reality continues to be needed in modern society.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

"Harlequin Enterprises Limited." http://www.harlequinenterprises.com. June 1999.

Linden, Dave Wechler and Matt Rees. "I'm Hungry, But Not for Food." Forbes. Vol. 150, No. 1, July 6, 1992, 70.

Mallet, Gina. "The Greatest Romance on Earth." Canadian Business. Vol. 66, No. 8, August 1993, 18.

Pollack, Richard. "Romance Slaves of Harlequin." The Nation. Vol. 254, No. 10, March 16, 1992, 33.