Hot Off the Press: Fast-Moving, Innovative Romance vs. Slow Academic Publishing

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 13 May, 2014

Academic publishing tends to be slow. In part that's unavoidable: research is time-consuming and so is peer review. But it can have unfortunate consequences when the piece is about a fast-moving topic.

Olivia Tapper's "Romance and Innovation in Twenty-First Century Publishing" was published this month in Publishing Research Quarterly and as Tapper's title suggests, discusses the innovative nature of romance publishing; unfortunately, there have been some significant "innovations" in romance publishing since the article was submitted. This is not to say that the article is now irrelevant: it's not. Tapper's

paper makes the argument that contrary to the stereotype of romantic fiction as conventional and change resistant, contemporary romance publishers have proven themselves to be consistently forward thinking and progressive, utilising industry innovations in content, technology, branding and business practice to cement their genre’s status as an exemplary model for twenty-first century book publishing.

With regards to their content, Tapper highlights the proliferation of romance novels "which combine romance with another genre or genres" and

In addition to embracing new genres and genre hybrids, the romance sector has also striven to meet the needs of an increasingly global readership that encompasses an ever-growing multiplicity of cultures and contexts. Although publishers generally remain averse to explicit political content within the novels themselves, romance publishers are nonetheless making progressive political statements when it comes to the kinds of books they choose to commission.

She gives as examples an increasing number of novels "designed to appeal to 20- and 30-somethings," to "emergent Afro-Caribbean readers" and to "the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community." In addition, "Through strategies such as diversification of content, cultivation of reader feedback, early adoption of ebook technology and consistently strong branding, publishers of romantic fiction have shown a marked willingness to work within, not against, the changing times."

The problem is that from early on Tapper chooses to focus on Harlequin Mills & Boon and its CEO, Donna Hayes, because "HMB under Hayes has carved out a niche within the digital sphere that has been critical to its continuing success."

It was bad luck that Tapper's article was published on the 9th of May and, on 2 May 2014, "News Corp announced [...] that it has agreed to acquire Harlequin Enterprises from Torstar Corporation. Harlequin will become a division of HarperCollins Publishers, a News Corp subsidiary." As Jane at Dear Author observed, this acquisition raises a number of questions because

Harlequin has very reader friendly policies and HC not so much. [...] Harlequin has made a concerted effort to provide diverse content, offering Asian and African American protagonists. [...]

Harlequin is also in a unique position in that it is one publisher that has sold direct to consumer successfully and because of that has a better understanding of readers. They were one of the first to digitize its backlist (2011) and make the frontlist available digitally (2007).  They believe in putting their content where the readers are including at nearly every retailer including small ones like All Romance and in libraries. While it is still a publisher, it’s a fairly reader connected one.

We don’t know how this acquisition will change for readers. It may not have any effect.  [...] But I admit to being worried and I hope that my worries are irrational and that this acquisition will mean continued pro reader policies.

Many of these "pro reader policies" were established during the tenure of Donna Hayes, whom Tapper identifies as an important source of Harlequin's "aggressive and forward-thinking business practice." However,

Harlequin announced Wednesday [4 December 2013] that Craig Swinwood, its chief operating officer, will be the new president and CEO as Donna Hayes, the first woman to lead the company, moves into retirement. (Scrivener)

This announcement was made about five months before the publication of Tapper's article and I can't read her analysis of the state of romance publishing without wondering whether she would change it in any way in the light of recent developments.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's interesting to see that Tapper observed the way in which

the romance sector’s movement across markets has created a global audience for their publications, so that authors writing in and for one particular region can expand their audience by marketing their works across national boundaries; using this strategy, Australian and New Zealand authors such as Sarah Mayberry and Karina Bliss have achieved considerable sales success in North America. Following Harlequin’s example, other major publishers like Kensington, Random House and HarperCollins have also capitalised on the potential for expansion via international marketing, and the romance sector as a whole has shown a laudable willingness to enter into nascent but as yet untested market regions.

When News Corp commented on their acquisition of Harlequin, they too focused on the benefits of "marketing [...] works across national boundaries":

“Harlequin is a perfect fit for the new News Corp, vastly expanding our digital platform, extending our reach across borders and languages, and is expected to provide an immediate lift to earnings,” said Robert Thomson, Chief Executive of News Corp. “Harlequin has a devoted audience around the globe and an empathetic insight into contemporary cultures, which is itself a remarkable resource. This acquisition will broaden the boundaries of both HarperCollins and Harlequin, and is a significant step in our strategy to establish a network of digital properties in the growth regions of the world.”

Brian Murray, President and CEO of HarperCollins, struck a similar note: "Harlequin’s business has grown internationally, and will give HarperCollins an immediate foothold in 11 new countries from which we can expand into dozens of foreign languages for authors who choose to work with us globally."

It'll be interesting to see if and how romance publishing changes as a result of the acquisition. And it's probably also worth noting that Tapper's article, already a bit behind the times when it was published on the 9th of May 2014, was in fact released "Online First"; it may have to wait a few months longer before it's given a slot in the print edition.

-----

Jane. "HarperCollins Acquisition of Harlequin and what it means for readers." Dear Author. 4 May 2014.

News Corp. "News Corp to Acquire Harlequin." 2 May 2014.

Scrivener, Leslie. "Harlequin CEO Donna Hayes retires, Craig Swinwood takes over." The Star. 4 Dec. 2013.

Tapper, Olivia. "Romance and Innovation in Twenty-First Century Publishing." Publishing Research Quarterly. 9 May 2014. [Abstract]

 

The image of "Richard March Hoe's printing press—six cylinder design" came from N. Orr's History of the Processes of Manufacture (1864) via Wikimedia Commons.