As we approach warmer summer days and nights, I think back to my teen years and what I enjoyed to read on my summer vacations. The first thing that popped into mind was Harlequin books. Yes, I know, Harlequin, but I feel this genre is an under appreciated one.
For those wanting to know more about ‘Harlequin’ romances there is more to this name than meets the eye. Harlequin or rather Harlequin Enterprises is a Toronto-based company that publishes a series of romance novels. Most of my research has deemed this as “women’s fiction” but I’m not sure if I agree with that, I’ll let you decide, but I digress.
Harlequin was owned by Torstar Corporation, the largest newspaper publisher in Canada from 1981 to 2014, then purchased by News Corp (now a division of Harper Collins). What’s interesting is that Harlequin has deeper roots in Canada.
In May 1949 Harlequin was founded in Winnipeg, Manitoba as a paperback reprinting company. Their first product was Nancy Bruff’s The Manatee. At that time Harlequin published a wide range of books at the reasonable price of 25 cents! They reprinted works by James Hadley Chase, Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Somerset Maugham and their biggest success was in 1951 when Jean Plaidy’s Beyond the Blue Mountain sold 30,000 copies. Although the company had strong sales, they still struggled to stay afloat.
After the death of one of Harlequin’s founders in the mid-1950s, the remaining founder and chief editor Richard Bonnycastle acquired more interest in the company. Harlequin continued to struggle and more changes happened. In 1953, they began to publish ‘medical’ romances. Upon the death of Bonnycastle, the chief editor duties passed to his wife. She enjoyed reading the British romances of Mills & Boon and at her urging in 1957, Harlequin acquired the North American distribution rights. This partnership was made on a simple handshake during a lunch in London with Alan Boon.
At this point Harlequin had a “decency code” and rejected the more explicit content that Mills & Boon submitted to them for reprinting. Harlequin didn’t realize just how popular this genre was. Bonnycastle read one of the more explicit Mills & Boon novels and enjoyed it. Harlequin then conducted a market test with that same novel and discovered it out sold the more “chaste” novels they had been publishing.
By 1964 this genre became extremely popular and sales increased. A few years later the Bonnycastle family relocated operations to Toronto where the company became a major force in the industry. In 1970, Harlequin contracted with Pocket Books and Simon & Schuster and began to distribute the Mills & Boon novels in the US. And just one year later they bought Mills & Boon.
Despite Harlequin’s success, North American booksellers were reluctant to stock their books. Harlequin decided to sell their books “where the women” were (i.e., supermarkets etc.). They focused on the line of books rather than singular titles. They creatively gave away samples with other products and would send books directly to readers who agreed to purchase more, rather than using traditional advertising.
Around this same time, Harlequin only published one line of category romances. A small number of books were released each month known as “Harlequin Romance”. In 1973 at Boon’s urging Harlequin introduced a second line which contained more sensual content. This line, called “Harlequin Presents”, used three specific authors: Anne Hampson, Anne Mather and Violet Winspear. Bonnycastle disliked this, but they sold well in the UK and, as a result, they decided to distribute them in Canada and soon “Harlequin Presents” was outselling the other line.
Fast-forward to 1975 and Torstar acquired over half of the interest in Harlequin and, in 1981, the balance. At this time 70% of sales came from the US even though the company contracted only British authors. In 1975 they signed their first American author, Janet Dailey. Interestingly, around this time Harlequin rejected a manuscript by Nora Roberts (and we all know about her later success). A year later Harlequin cut off its contract with Simon & Schuster and Pocket Books. This was a mistake as Simon & Schuster picked up the writers Harlequin had earlier rejected for their newly former “Silhouette Books”. They successfully published several lines with new kinds of protagonists and explored different themes.
Harlequin woke up to their error and adapted, launching their own American-focused romances. This was part of the beginning of the “Superromance” which originated in North American and not the UK. They were longer books and featured American settings and characters.
Although Harlequin was chugging along it was slow to adapt to readers who enjoyed books with more explicit content. That same year Dell launched their own line with sales near $30 million. Silhouette did the same, selling out each month. The market had changed and readers started to complain about Harlequin’s boring plots and sales continued to drop.
In 1984, Harlequin purchased Silhouette and a few years later tried to buy Zebra but the deal fell through. After Torstar’s purchase of Harlequin in 1981 it began to expand into other markets by translating titles. They expanded into Europe with distribution agreements with other publishers particularly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and opening offices in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. With the fall of the Berlin Wall Harlequin expanded into markets that were previously unavailable. They spread into Hungary, Poland, and The Czech Republic.
In 1995 Harlequin moved into China and opened offices in Amsterdam, Athens, Budapest, Granges-Pacot, Hamburg, London, Madrid, Milan, New York, Paris, Stockholm, Sydney, Tokyo, and Warsaw, as well as licensing agreements in nine other countries. They focused on locality and language which was been part of this success. These local romances had a slightly different tone and were not translated literally.
In the 1990s Harlequin’s authors started leaving to write single-title romances for other publishers. To retain their talent, Harlequin launched “MIRA” to fill this gap which included writers like Heather Graham Pozzessere who’s book Slow Burn launched this imprint. At this point Harlequin expanded its range of books, evolving in various imprints.
In 2009 Harlequin announced the creation of a vanity press called Harlequin Horizons. Several writers groups denounced this move by blocking their imprints from conferences and awards. As a result, Harlequin changed the name to DellArte Press.
Around this time Harlequin published over 1000 romance novels, half released in North America compared to Kensington Books who only released 219. Harlequin’s overall selling of around 131 million books made it one of the most profitable in publishing with a worth of over $585 million in 2003.
This success was not without controversy, some of which is due to the CEO’s royalty for its authors, not limited to but also including their eBook royalties between 1990 and 2004. Despite this Harlequin continues to publish with its subcategories of romantic imprints which vary in tone and theme. There are approximately 32 romance subcategories under the Harlequin banner.
Harlequin also runs a community investment program to reward women’s work in communities in North America called “Harlequin More Than Words” where five women are chosen and a donation is divided equally among their charitable causes. A collection of romance-fiction short stories, inspired by their lives, is written by five of the company’s leading authors, for example Diana Palmer, Debbie Macomber, Susan Wiggs and Linda Lael Miller have all contributed. Proceeds from this anthology are reinvested in the “More Than Words” program.
Having said all this, Harlequin may be underestimated by those who have not read any of their titles or been aware of their history so I suggest giving them a try. There are so many to choose from. If you’re not into the ‘romance’ of a Harlequin there are thousands of other romance and relationship titles in WPL’s collection. I suggest searching the library catalogue for “Love stories” or if you would like something tamer “Christian fiction” as there are many great stories in this genre imbibing some of the same themes but with a much gentler tone. There’s also “Chick-Lit”, “LGBTQ“, “Interpersonal relationships — Fiction” and “Man-woman relationships”. If you prefer something spicier try searching “Erotic fiction”.
Give romance novels a try. You never know, you might like them!
— Teresa N-P
From CBC.ca : Harlequin’s new LGBTQ line of romance books ‘very empowering,’ author says. ‘Traditional romance has shifted … being a part of it is incredibly exciting,’ Philip William Stover says. Read the complete article at cbc.ca