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June 2001

June 2001
Harlequin Goes Gritty For Growth


Books about cute, hapless single women leading dissolute urban lives have been a hot publishing genre ever since Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary exploded onto the scene in 1998. The British novel's breakout success -- it has sold more than 1 million copies in this country alone -- spawned an entirely new genre, dubbed "chick lit" by the Brits. U.S. publishers were quick to capitalize on the demand for antiromance fiction: Viking scored with Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and other big houses also sold well with similar titles.

Of course, the romance category is much larger, accounting for 18 percent of all books sold in America -- a total of $1.35 billion in 1999. But this shift in readers' tastes still presents a challenge for the top cheesy-romance publisher, Harlequin Enterprises. This fall Harlequin will launch Red Dress Ink, an imprint devoted to the chick-lit genre. By marketing its books as trade paperbacks, Red Dress Ink will target a younger, hipper audience than that of Harlequin's traditional romance fiction -- mass-market paperbacks sold in series, usually through mass merchants like Wal-Mart or direct-mail campaigns, in addition to bookstores. The packaging won't carry the Harlequin imprimatur, and the books will have a very different editorial approach, à la Bridget Jones.

"This is not romance," says Margaret Marbury, editor of Red Dress Ink. "There are no traditional heroes in these books." Marbury's boss says such realism is what's needed to reach younger audiences. Isabel Swift, editorial vice-president at Harlequin, admits that "the 18-to-35 group is not our strong suit in terms of readers....It behooves us to reach that age group to the best of our ability." Harlequin dominates the series-romance category and is responsible for one-third of all titles in the genre. But it has pretty much saturated the market, and its overall sales fell by 3 percent, to $142 million, in the fourth quarter of last year. Additionally, Harlequin may be under internal pressure to strengthen its roster. Its parent company, Torstar, which also owns The Toronto Star, is controlled by a family trust, and the rumors in Toronto are that Torstar may spin out Harlequin to its shareholders as a way of giving the trustholders some extra walking-around money. One industry analyst notes that Harlequin is "ripe for exploitation -- the form that it takes could be anything from an IPO to a strategic alliance to a dividending-out of the assets." To do any of these, Torstar needs to show that Harlequin has growth potential, which doesn't appear to be coming from books that feature Fabio's silken tresses on the cover.

Harlequin has already come to grips with the fact that its series approach has lost a little steam; it has had some success with another imprint, Mira, which sells its books as single titles -- as Red Dress Ink will. In fact, despite flat overall sales, Harlequin's operating income climbed nearly 14 percent last year, almost exclusively on the strength of single-title sales. In contrast, Harlequin's core series-romance lines face some of the same distribution dilemmas that confront mass-market book and magazine publishers. The consolidation of independent distributors has made it tough for mass-market-paperback houses to get their wares into all those drugstores and greeting-card shops. And direct-mail sales -- Harlequin's other sales stronghold -- have plateaued across the board. A flat trend line, of course, is not something a company hoping to be sold or spun off wants to have appear in its financials. "We are looking to grow and expand in the single-title arena," Swift confirms. She also explains that it was part of the justification for the new line: "We need to continue to deliver a profitable business."

This article was commissioned by Inside magazine, which recently merged with Brill's Content.



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