This year marks romance publisher Harlequin's 60th anniversary, and despite the economy, the house has reason to celebrate. Financially, it just posted a solid year, with revenue rising 2.2%, to C$472.9 million ($379 million), and operating profit increasing 11.2%, to C$67.4 million. Culturally, the house has represented women's fiction so strongly over the years that its book jackets are going to be featured in a retrospective exhibit this summer. Technologically, it has advanced in ways few publishers have, finding ways to use e-books to drive sales of print books. And globally, it is making inroads into developing overseas markets, particularly Asia.
Publisher and CEO Donna Hayes, who has been at Harlequin for 23 years, said one of the biggest transformations she has been part of has been the house's shift from a predominantly series business to one that is split about 50-50 between series romance (mass market paperbacks published monthly, following a model similar to magazine publishing) and women's fiction (single titles in multiple formats). Moving authors like Debbie Macomber out of series and into women's fiction has helped Harlequin broaden its appeal, said Hayes. She has also seen significant changes in Harlequin books' content; both editorial and jacket art have changed to reflect the time when the books were written. A retrospective featuring more than 100 pieces of original jacket art, “The Heart of a Woman: Harlequin Cover Art 1949—2009,” will open at the Openhouse Gallery in New York City on May 29, in time for BEA.
In addition to shifting print format, content and packaging, Harlequin has also made great strides in the digital world. Mass market paperback is still its primary format, but Harlequin has a robust e-book program, which Hayes said has added to—and not detracted from—print sales. Harlequin was the first major house to make its entire frontlist available in e-book format simultaneous with the print release. “The people who are buying digital content from us also buy an awful lot of print,” Hayes said, noting that that sort of purchasing behavior has made Harlequin less cautious about e-books cannibalizing sales of paper books. Harlequin has experimented with various models, and Hayes acknowledged not all of them have been successful. But one that has taken off is its line of short, low-priced e-books. Harlequin launched a spinoff of its erotic books imprint, Spice, called Spice Briefs, offering short digital books priced at $2.99. “They've been wildly popular,” said Hayes, and now Harlequin has collected those stories and is creating a print anthology.
Harlequin has been a global business for many years; some of its 16 international outposts—including Holland and Australia—recently hit their 30th anniversaries. One unique partnership involves Harlequin Japan's alliance with the second-largest telephone provider in Japan, which is selling a digital comic version of Harlequin books on cellphones. Additionally, said Hayes, expansion into India and China “will be a big part of our future.”
As part of its anniversary celebration, Harlequin wants to give away a free book to every woman in the U.S. throughout the year. It is offering 16 of its titles as free e-books. “We've learned many times, if we can get people to just try our books, they really like them and come back and buy a lot of them,” said Hayes.
Hayes's vision for Harlequin's future certainly involves e-books, although she said, “I still think in 10 years, the mass market paperback format will be just as popular as it is today.” Harlequin will also move into women-focused nonfiction in the next five to 10 years.