Publishing Innovator of the Year: Harlequin
"Wherever women are, we are,” says Malle Vallik, director, digital content and interactivity for Harlequin Enterprises. You’ll hear this mantra uttered by other Harlequin executives, but it is much more than corporate speak. It is part of a “deliberate strategy,” says Vallik, and the driving force behind Harlequin’s evolution over the past 60 years. “We were the first publishers to take books into the supermarkets and to mass merchandisers because that’s where women shopped,” Vallik says. The company—which publishes more than 120 titles each month in 28 languages—was also one of the first publishers to launch a full-scale e-book program (dating back to 2005) and the first to make its entire front list available in e-book format, as well as offer “enriched” e-books with interactive content. It was one of the first in the industry to launch mobile content, and has been a pioneer in offering short-form content via e-books and mobile platforms.
Its mission “to be wherever women are” has even led the company into some unusual marketing venues. “Over the past few years, our partnership with NASCAR turned some heads!” says Brent Lewis, Harlequin’s vice president, Internet and digital. “A huge number of NASCAR fans are women, providing great exposure for Harlequin, and Harlequin is now publishing NASCAR-based romance stories.”
It is for such innovation that Book Business named Harlequin as the Publishing Innovator of the Year, honoring the company at an awards dinner March 23, at the New York Marriott Marquis Times Square, during the Publishing Business Conference & Expo.
Success With a Bit of Spice
One of the Toronto-based company’s most successful innovations to date is its Spice Briefs (short-form e-books) program.
“The launch [in 2007] of digital-only short stories for women has been a tremendous success,” says Lewis. “The program has been expanded beyond its original editorial of erotic romance (Spice Briefs) to include paranormal romance (Nocturne Bites) and historical romance (Historical Undone!). Digital short stories have enabled us to successfully entertain women with new stories, but have also enabled Harlequin to expand its brands, find new authors, [and] experiment with new editorial concepts cost-effectively.”
Both Spice Briefs and Nocturne Bites have spawned print products as well. “We have created an anthology that collects 10 to 15 of the stories,” says Vallik, who has authored six Harlequin novels under an alias.
So does Harlequin see short fiction as the future of e-content? Part of it, says Vallik. “We made … those short so that they would be distinctive in the marketplace. I think short content [comes into] play when you think of things such as mobile devices simply because of the reading experience.” However, Vallik notes that longer formats and serial books also will play a role in e-content’s future. “I think it is very much a reader choice, and … readers also have different moods. Sometimes you want something short and snappy … and other times you just like to throw yourself into an epic. Sometimes … a shorter thing will work on one kind of format or one kind of channel, but that’s not always the case,” she says.
E-books: ‘Just a Choice’
E-books—which still constitute a relatively small percentage of Harlequin’s sales (about 3.4, according to a recent New York Times article)—are important to Harlequin’s future, but not its entire future, says Vallik. “… They are simply another format choice.” Also, she notes, “E-books bring a number of benefits including backlist—being able to find titles that are harder to find. So, we don’t see e-books replacing print, but really it is just a choice.”
Lewis agrees. “We believe the printed book is not going away anytime soon; however, digital reading … is growing rapidly. Publishers must pay attention to what has happened to other media: newspapers, TV, music—massive numbers of people still enjoy all these forms of media. The product is still relevant, [but] the issue is that the historic business models of each are under threat,” he says. “As publishers, we must innovate and adjust to protect ourselves.”
Central to the shape that Harlequin’s innovations take, again, lies its mantra to be wherever women are. “The heart of our strategy is to make sure our content is available to readers at all times on whatever platform they choose,” Lewis explains.
Hence the company’s launch of mobile content in April 2006, with its Harlequin On The Go mobile application that offers a variety of content options to readers, such as daily, serialized novels.
Especially overseas, says Lewis, “Mobile is already playing an important role at Harlequin. We have an exciting agreement in Japan with Softbank Creative, one of Japan’s largest mobile content providers. It has become an important part of our Japanese business, and we regularly dominate the … best-seller list on major sellers such as Yahoo Japan.”
In North America, says Lewis, “We are just beginning to see this emerge with impressive usage on mobile apps such as Stanza [for the iPhone] and now [the Amazon] Kindle.”
Conversing With the Reader
Not surprisingly, Harlequin was also a pioneer in social media. It was among the first publishers to host author readings in virtual world Second Life in 2007, and it created its own online community more than 10 years ago, says Vallik. Harlequin now has a dedicated community manager and several message board hosts, she adds.
“It is really about having a dialogue with … our readers, and often we hear things … that they wish we would publish more of,” Vallik explains.
“We have over 5,000 people who have joined our community with a profile. We have expanded in the last couple of years to really use new media—wherever women are, we are,” she reiterates. “So we are on MySpace, … Facebook, … Twitter; we have blogs and podcasts. It is [about] always trying to make the connection with the reader—show her a little something behind the scenes, hear what she is interested in and really build a relationship. Our readers have always had a relationship with us. They feel very loyal to us, to the authors, to the characters, so digital tools are simply new tools to have better conversations or more frequent conversations.”
To encourage even more reader feedback, in August 2008 Harlequin created TellHarlequin.com, which invites readers to join a “reader panel”—essentially an editorial advisory board. The panel (which consists of about 8,000 readers) is asked monthly to provide feedback on Harlequin stories, book covers and new book ideas.
Reasons to Celebrate: Turning 60 and a Teen Launch
Harlequin is celebrating its 60th anniversary with an exhibition called “The Heart of a Woman: Harlequin Cover Art 1949—2009,” which opens this month at New York’s Openhouse Gallery and features 60 years of Harlequin cover art illustrating “the profound transformations that have occurred in women’s lives over the past six decades,” according to the company.
Harlequin also is tapping “one of its best marketing tools,” says Harlequin Publisher and CEO Donna Hayes, offering free content to reach new readers. “… We wanted to give a free book to every woman in America,” says Hayes. “We are sampling via free print editions and have also created a Web site, HarlequinCelebrates.com, where visitors can download up to 16 free books, one for every romance series we publish.”
Also, this summer, Harlequin will launch its new Harlequin Teen imprint.
This follows Harlequin’s launch of a nonfiction imprint in fall 2008—its first book was “Love Matters: Remarkable Stories That Touch the Heart and Nourish the Soul,” by radio host Delilah.
You could say it has been a good 60th year so far for Harlequin—its sales have remained strong, following a fourth quarter in 2008 that saw a 32-percent increase in earnings over fourth-quarter 2007, according to The New York Times.
As Easy as It Looks?
While Harlequin has made many of its pioneering efforts look easy, every innovation has its challenges, says Lewis. “… We’re creating something new, and [that’s] my favorite part of my job. Sometimes people look at you with eyes that say, ‘You want to do what?!’” he says.
As an example, Lewis cites enriched e-book editions: “We put extra content into the e-book [such as] author notes, alternative endings, character backgrounds, etc. This has been a building process, and numerous efforts never saw the light of day, as we felt they were not good enough.”
Key to implementing innovative ideas, suggests Vallik, is the ability “to get past some of the existing systems and processes that could block you. I think a good example for us is just even launching e-books, where we quickly went from doing seven books a month to doing 120. It was a small, dedicated team, and we went out [and] figured how we could do it without putting extra weight onto the existing systems because there is a lot already going on.”
Vallik also stresses the importance of being willing to learn as you go. “I think it is part of trying new things, which [you] absolutely have to do. You are going to [learn] so much more on the day you launch than in even the six months or however long it took you to launch,” she says. “So, it is partly speed to market, to actually try it.”
For Harlequin, there seems to be no other option. “Innovation has been critical to [our] sustained success as a leading publisher for women,” says Hayes. “Women have changed and will continue to change; [we] must innovate to keep entertaining Harlequin readers”—wherever they are.