Monday, March 05, 2007

More On Harlequin

Marie Tuhart, a writer I greatly respect, responded in the comments section to my Harlequin post of Saturday. Because there's been another post since then, I'm reprinting her comment here:

Maya: Since we know each other and you know I'm a fan of Harlequin, I do disagree with some of what you say.

Harlequin has tried over the years to break away from the "formula," and it hasn't worked. Now, with that said, the formula isn't working either.

While I do believe Harlequin needs to let its authors grow a little bit more in their books and not put so many restrictions on them, there are still some diehard readers that love and want the old formula.

What is setting things apart is its Harlequin's North American sales, not their United Kingdom division that is having problems.

Harlequin Presents and Romances are acquired and almost all the editing is done by editors in London. They have a different view of how the books should be and don't seem to be having any problems in sales.

The North American division has had problems for years and years. The demise of Bombshell this year tells me that while the line may have been a move in the right direction, it was marketed incorrectly and didn't attract the readers, had it been marketed differently.

The single lines may be up because of HQN--where they have allowed their authors to break the mold.

While Harlequin admits their bookclub is an issue, what is the actual issue with the bookclub? Is it the way they're distributed? Is it less consumers? I believe Harlequin has changed distribution channels twice in the last three years of the bookclub. That can cause major problems.

Also, I don't think they've taken into account their own website sales. There are many months that I'll hit the website only to find a book I want is already sold out on the website. I'm sure that has cut into the monthly bookclub sales as well.

Harlequin has been around for a long while, and I don't see them going anywhere. But they need to look at their North American series romance lines and see why they're not doing as good as their United Kingdom division.

Marie: Thanks so much for your comments. Your knowledge of Harlequin is definitely far greater than mine. But I don't think we're that far apart in our thinking on the company:

**We agree that the formulas aren't working any more for the bulk of the readership
**We agree that there will always be some readers who prefer the formula romances
**We agree that the reason Bombshell bombed was because of poor marketing (Readers: see my posts of August 15-16, 2006. Marie was the person I turned to when Harlequin made its announcement on Bombshell)

Having said that, the latest Torstar press release both provides some answers to your questions and creates some new questions. I didn't realize until I saw your comments that I didn't provide a link to the Torstar press release. I apologize for the oversight. Here's the link.

The first answer is that website revenue is included with the book club revenue in the figures for the North American Direct-to-Consumer sales. So, even if the Internet siphons off book club customers, the Internet revenues go into the column where the book clubs sales are reflected.

Torstar has been giving the "disrupted distribution system" as their excuse for poor book club sales for a long time. However, for the first time, the recent press release said that, in addition to the shipping disruptions and higher product cost, a long-term decline in the book club customer base contributed to the decline in earnings. That's also where the company said: "Improved sales through the Internet channel partially offset this decline [in book club sales]."

As far as differences in the sales figures for North American retail and the United Kingdom retail, the press release didn't give us enough information to tell. The UK numbers are lumped in the Overseas figure. The press release DID say:

The Overseas markets had mixed results in 2006 with improvements in the United Kingdom and the Nordic Group offset by lower results in Germany. In the United Kingdom improved retail results, primarily from adjustments to prior period returns provisions, more than offset lower direct-to-consumer volumes.

Direct-to-Consumer volumes refers to the UK book clubs and the Mills & Boon website. So, even in the UK, book club sales are off.

Overall operating profit from the three divisions was:

North American Retail: Up $2.7 million
North American Direct-to-Consumer (including book clubs & website): Down $6.5 million
Overseas (Including book clubs, websites and new programs in Brazil & Germany): Up $1.3 million

For the UK and the Nordic Group to have absorbed the losses elsewhere overseas, I agree that the UK operation is probably doing well. Because that figure is lumped in with the Nordic Group (that also did well) and the other foreign groups, we can't tell if that performance was better or worse than the North American Retail operating profit.

Marie, I don't know what the future holds for Harlequin. I see them making positive steps that I applaud. At the same time, their website indicates that worldwide sales in 1988 were in excess of 200 million books. In 2006, they managed to hold sales steady at the 2005 level: 131 million books.

I'll confess that I have an unsubstantiated theory about what's going on. Maybe later this week, I'll do a post on it.

Thanks so much for your comments. I appreciate them, and I appreciate you.

Visit Marie's website here.

Warm regards,



Marie Tuhart said...


I hadn't looked at Torstar's report before replying to you. I normally know exactly when they report for each quarter and go look for it because it is of interest to me.

You and I always have some of the same points. It's interesting how they lump together things. And I do know they've been having distribution problems on their book club. And the website ordering has had some issues as well in the last few months.

Let's hope this year signals a better year for Harlequin.

And I'm interested in your theory.

Maya Reynolds said...

Marie: The minute I read your comment, I went to look at the press release and wanted to kick myself for not giving the link. Sorry.

Re the theory. I've got a post planned for tomorrow already. I'll have to think about it for Tuesday night.

Laura Vivanco said...

I'm a UK reader, and when I read romances it's usually M&B, London-edited, romances. They're what's most readily available. I do try to get hold of US-published romances, and I read some of the novels that M&B publish which are edited outside the UK. That's just background, by the way, but I thought I should mention it, as I know there are gaps in what I'm able to get hold of to read.

So, what I wanted to get at was the issue of 'formula'. I'm not really convinced that Harlequin/Mills & Boon are really that different in this regard from other romance publishers. What I do think they do differently is break up their output into clearly differentiated lines. So if someone's looking for a traditional rich, arrogant sheik romace, they'll most likely find it in the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern line. If they're looking for a softer-edged sheik, maybe they'd be better off looking at the Harlequin/Mills & Boon Romance line. And so on. And there is quite a lot of variation within the lines. Moderns/Presents, for example, don't all have virgin heroines, nor are all the heroes being cruel to the heroines. There's always a lot of conflict between the two, but the reasons for it can vary.

Harlequin/Mills & Boon do sometimes take risks, for example in terms of their historical settings, they regularly have Westerns and there have been a few Roman-era romances recently. And they've been trying out new lines, including Luna, Next, erotic romance and, of course, the failed Bombshell line.

So I see quite a lot of diversity and some risk-taking within Harlequin/Mills & Boon's output. But I think one of their biggest problems is the prevailing prejudice, noticeable even among romance readers, against their books. Many romance readers don't know about the differences between the lines and they don't spend time getting to know which Harlequin/M&B authors' might suit their tastes. Instead, they write off the whole output because they read a couple of Harlequins they didn't like, or because they assume that all Harlequins now are the same as the ones they read 20 years ago. Then there's the automatic assumption some people make that 'short' means 'lacking in depth'. It's silly, really, because a big book could be rambling and padded. Nonetheless, some people think that short = superficial. Which may be one reason the HQN books are doing a bit better.

Marketing books in lines, with similar covers for all the books in a line, has its advantages for selling to people who've already worked out which line(s) they prefer, but when it comes to attracting new readers it possibly creates an impression of homogeneity which doesn't accurately reflect the variety within the lines.

Maya Reynolds said...

Interesting, Laura.

I don't want to put words into either your mouth or Marie's, so I'm asking here. What I *think* I'm hearing both of you say is that, once readers find their niche with the lines they like, they continue as readers.

If that's what you're saying, perhaps the drop of 35% in book sales over the last 20 years is not a drop in loyal readership, but a failure to attract new readers.

Since romance readership is very high, this *may* be attributed to greater competition among a larger number of publishers, spreading market share thinner.

I will readily confess that I was an avid reader of Harlequin in my early teens, but--as I began dating myself--got bored with all the protesting virgins.

When I became interested in romances again a few years ago (as the result of reading Kensington's Brava), I did make a point of buying three Harlequin novels (American) in each of four lines. As a writing exercise, I tried to determine the similarities within each line BEFORE checking the writing guidelines on the Harlequin website. I came damn close to nailing them; hence, my repeated use of the word "formula."

As for length, I think e-books have been very successful in selling shorter length fiction. The prejudice in e-books does not seem to be against the length as much as it is against the medium (reading on a computer) or the quality of poorly edited imprints.

Laura Vivanco said...

What I *think* I'm hearing both of you say is that, once readers find their niche with the lines they like, they continue as readers.

Yes, I think that's true. That's the principle that the book-clubs work on. I just wouldn't want to buy all the books produced each month even in my favourite lines, so that method of buying the books doesn't suit me.

Since romance readership is very high, this *may* be attributed to greater competition among a larger number of publishers, spreading market share thinner.

Could well be. In the UK there aren't many other romance publishers, and none at all if you want to buy print books at a relatively cheap price. I have a feeling that's the case in many of Harlequin's 'overseas' markets.

I did make a point of buying three Harlequin novels (American) in each of four lines. As a writing exercise, I tried to determine the similarities within each line BEFORE checking the writing guidelines on the Harlequin website. I came damn close to nailing them; hence, my repeated use of the word "formula."

I've been researching the Modern/Presents line, and I really was surprised by how much variety there was. Yes, they all have rich, powerful, sexy heroes who come into conflict with the heroines, but as I read more examples I found that while some of the heroes were antagonistic to the heroine (e.g. he's convinced she's a scheming gold-digger), in others the hero's trying to help the heroine but she's had a bad experience with men so thinks she hates him/wants to avoid him and in yet others they're just in an awkward situation for which neither is to blame. I'm sure there are other scenarios too. And some lines are much more diverse in terms of setting and characters than others. I'm fairly sure the guidelines for the historicals must give authors a lot of leeway. And the 'Romance' line is about 'intense emotion' but the types of jobs and locations can vary a lot, as can the source of conflict.

Another thing that I've noticed is that some of my favourite authors take their time and aren't prolific, so someone sampling the lines is perhaps less likely to come across their work than that of some of the other authors. That could make a difference to the results too. For example, Jenny Crusie wrote 6 books for Harlequin Temptation between 1993 and 1996. Someone who picked up just 3 books from the entire output of that line in one of those years might have missed her work. But it would have been there. That's why I think it's important to get to know the authors as well as the lines, because they do have individual 'voices'. Yes, there are guidelines, but romance itself has 'guidelines' about the HEA, for example. And within the restrictions of the genre/the guidelines of the line there are authors who bring their characters to life, some who push boundaries, some who think up interesting twists (and some who do a combination of all these things), while others won't. That's as true of the genre as a whole as it is of a particular category romance line.

Marie Tuhart said...

Laura, I love your comments especially since you live in the UK.

I do think North American Harlequin has missed the boat in attracting new readers, but I don't think the UK has. Presents and Romance lines both sell out quickly not only in the bookstores (locally where I am) but also on Harlequin's site (many times)

I do think there has been a failure to attract new readers. But I also think there's a failure in people not giving the books a fair chance (not you Maya).

I've been reading Presents and Romances since the early 1980's, I've watched the lines grow and change. But they kept the basic concept, a to-die-for-hero, a spunky heroine, and lots of romance. (that's the only formula I see).

Many of the North American Harlequin lines miss the boat with this concept. I've heard authors talk about how they're required in the North American lines to have a certain number of love scenes, and a kiss has to happen by page such and such. But with the UK lines I've seen where there hasn't been a kiss until half-way through the book and sometimes there is never a love scene.

I still enjoy these books as much as I enjoy my erotic romances.

Maya, you're always so gracious in letting us voice our opinions and listening. You've hit some very good points.

Maya Reynolds said...

Laura and Marie: I've delayed responding to your comments because I was looking to see if I'd kept that little exercise I did on guessing the formulas in the Harlequin lines. It was about two years ago, and I couldn't find my notes.

I went over to last night and checked the writer guidelines. I was frankly surprised to see how much less defined they were than when I did that exercise. There were even a couple of imprints where the guidelines had been taken down for editing.

Instead of statements like the hero must be a powerful, wealthy man and the locale must be set overseas, I actually came across this: "seeking manuscripts with a genuinely individual quality."

This new willingness to give writers more freedom encourages me further that Harlequin is on the right path.

Laura Vivanco said...

Maya, I'm a fairly new reader of M&B romances, and although in the historical line I've read books published from 1990 onwards (and they've always been pretty varied in locations etc), in the other lines I've pretty much only read books from the past couple of years, and almost all from after 2000. I wouldn't have seen any of the older guidelines, because I've only started researching M&Bs quite recently.

I suspect that some lines must have been more varied than others, even before these recent changes, because of what I've noticed in the historicals, and there's Crusie, who's hardly 'formulaic', who was writing Temptations for them in the 1990s. I'm not trying to deny what you're saying, I'm just wondering whether the guidelines for some lines were more flexible than those for others. I know from reading jay Dixon's book about Mills & Boon that there was some discontent among the editorial staff there when Harlequin started exerting more control over the editing processes. She worked for M&B until 1986, so she presumably kept her contacts there for some time, and she interviewed M&B authors while writing the book. She says that in 1994 there was a

purge of English authors from the Mills & Boon list. Torstar replaced the English editorial director Frances Whitehead with the Canadian Karen Stoecker and stopped publishing those authors who were not selling, encouraging the more popular authors to increase their output. Authors are also, for the first time in Mills & Boon history, given a regular update of their sales figures, and encouraged to write books around the themes that sell well - which are currently Christmas; children; "shared past" plots, and cowboy heroes. [...] Harlequin's authoritarian stance also negates the diversity in the storylines that has always been one of the strengths of Mills & Boon which, under British management, was generally left to the author [...]. The Canadians are changing this. (1999:24)

It would be really interesting to see different versions of the guidelines and how they've changed over time. The Romance Wiki has some guidelines from the 1980s, but they're for Silhouette and other publishers, not Harlequin, and there aren't yet any of the more recent guidelines.

Maya Reynolds said...

Laura: I agree. It would be interesting to see how those guidelines have changed.

I've enjoyed this discussion enormously and thank you and Marie for making it far more interesting than I could alone.