PUBLISHINGRomancing the tablet: How Harlequin is revolutionizing the e-book market
by JOHN BARBER
Donna's heart fluttered tremulously as Dave faced the room to announce the company's disappointing quarterly results. Bursting with her own good news, it was all she could do to maintain a seemly frown as her handsome obelisk of a boss performed his melancholy duty. Oh, how it hurt to pretend that business was only so-so when she knew – when every woman knew – the forbidden truth. Yet hurt she must – anything to soothe the fiery emotions surging beneath the steely façade of that proud man. It was the fate of a woman.
As a result, Donna (Hayes, president of Harlequin Enterprises, distaff subsidiary of the Torstar media conglomerate) did her best to play down her own success at the company's recent annual general meeting. The fact that cheap, steamy romance novels currently contribute an unprecedented 50 per cent of Torstar's operating profit is just a seasonal anomaly, she suggests. “But it is unusual,” she allows.
In fact, Harlequin is a major player in what is so far the world's most successful market for electronic literature. While other publishers shrink from e-readers like lisping villains faced with a fully flexed Fabio, Harlequin and its competitors have found their perfect match.
No other readers have embraced the digital experience more readily than the insatiable consumers of romance and its numerous subgenres. Together with the publishers that serve them, they are busy showing the world the first plausible new model of 21st-century book marketing.
Harlequin typifies the trend, thriving even as its paper sales fall. “One of the things about our first quarter is that our increase in digital sales was more than what we saw in terms of declines in the physical space,” Hayes says – a modest-sounding achievement that is virtually unique among traditional publishers struggling to make the switch.
In the key U.S. market, where the digital revolution is far more advanced than in Canada or Europe, e-books accounted for 7 per cent of all titles sold in the last quarter of 2010, according to publishing information service Bowker LLC. By contrast, digital romance led all genres with a 14-per-cent market share.
“We have a rabid and loyal fan base among romance readers and they really can't get enough of our books,” says Amy Pierpont, editorial director of New York romance imprint Forever, “and that makes us very happy, as you can imagine.”
It also attracts notice, most recently from Internet giant Amazon, which launched its first venture into mainstream publishing this month with its new Montlake Romance imprint, which will publish digital, physical and audio books. “Romance is one of our top-selling and fastest-growing categories,” Amazon spokeswoman Sarah Gelman says, “and the fan base for this genre is very active and well organized.” Other imprints will follow as Amazon moves further into publishing, but romance leads the way.
But even the savviest publishers are struggling to catch up with romance readers, who have become the main force in the booming new market of self-published e-books. Inspired by 26-year-old sensation Amanda Hocking, who earned more than $2-million in a single year self-publishing “young-adult paranormal romance” e-books – many of them previously rejected by traditional publishers – several popular romance writers have discovered new riches through the time-honoured technique of cutting out the middleman.