Racy Partnership Helps Harlequin Remain Competitive: A Q&A with Vice President of Public Relations Katherine Orr
Harlequin always tries to stay one step—or shall we say, one lap—ahead of the competition. The world’s largest series romance novel and women’s fiction publisher now is experiencing success with one of its recent partnerships—a seemingly unlikely relationship with NASCAR. Through a series of race-themed romance novels, the Toronto-based publisher has attempted to reach the approximately 40 percent of NASCAR’s fan base who are women. Based on fan reaction and sales, the two companies now have further expanded their relationship this year to additional titles.
Katherine Orr, vice president of Harlequin’s public relations, talks with Book Business Extra about how the prolific publisher continues to create opportunities to put its brand in front of audiences in new and unprecedented ways.
Extra: Can you tell me a little about the NASCAR partnership?
Katherine Orr: One of our authors wrote a story about racing, and it was a big hit. We thought, “Well, let’s just call up NASCAR.” And they were very receptive. With NASCAR, we embraced an opportunity by providing a wonderful and complementary and relevant entertainment option for over 30 million women race fans. These books are selling really well.
Extra: Harlequin is always on the move and in the headlines with new innovative partnerships. What advice would you offer to other publishers about always keeping ahead of the competition?
Orr: We keep aware of market trends and look for opportunities to learn. We enter some of our partnerships with no financial expectations, but with the goal of learning where and how to be in two years. … We’re like any other marketing company. People think of pretty wacky stuff that doesn’t always fly. We’ve tried reality TV. But in the end, our products are books. So we have to figure out what people want to read and what’s the best way to put it in their hands.
Extra: What is the typical process for developing ideas for new partnerships?
Orr: There is no cookie-cutter formula for winning partnerships—each one is unique and comes with its own benefits to both parties. Harlequin understands women readers, which makes us an appealing partner for a variety of products and services.
Extra: Why has Harlequin put such an above-average emphasis on distributing content through new digital options in recent years?
Orr: We decided to go to 100-percent [digital with our] front list for a couple of key reasons. First, our readers are buying e-books and have been asking for a wider selection of titles. Also, we strongly believe that digital is a growth area for all publishers, and the more titles offered by all publishers, the more the e-book market as a whole will grow. As a result, we are releasing more than 120 titles a month. The 120 is our front list, and then we publish some exclusive products—Spice Briefs and the Harlequin Mini—and put together bundles of backlist. That frequently adds up to 140 titles a month.
Extra: How have readers responded?
Orr: Women don’t select technology because they think it is cool; they embrace technology when they understand the benefits. The Harlequin customer is a woman; the fact that we are the first publisher to offer our complete front list as e-books really shows that women are keen for this format because they understand the benefits—convenience, immediacy, portability and no need for more book shelves.
… But I don’t think the book itself will go out of fashion. That’s the keepsake. That’s the impulse buy. There’s a lot of personality in a book.
Extra: The new, interactive www.HarlequinRomanceReport.com site, where readers confess their ultimate sins, emphasizes reader feedback and interaction. How is this interaction intended to ultimately grow readership?
Orr: … The Web site is a complement to the traditional Romance Report—a present we give the media on Valentine’s Day—and gives Harlequin the interactive and social media presence necessary to drive coverage and increase media and consumer awareness to push sales. Since Harlequin has always been at the forefront of people’s romantic wants and needs, who better than Harlequin to dissect the newest stage in the evolution of romance? The interactive, online component of the report will aggressively promote The Romance Report and the Harlequin brand. Even before this technology, we’ve always interacted with readers. We’re flooded with mail, snail mail or by the phone. Our constituents are tremendous communicators. …
Extra: What plans are in place to grow the company’s new nonfiction venture?
Orr: Nonfiction is a big growth area for us. It represents about 60 percent of book sales [throughout the trade industry]. We published one nonfiction title—a memoir with Angela Bassett and her husband, Courtney B. Vance—last year. We’ve recently made a deal with Delilah—she’s the Oprah Winfrey of the radio. She’s very inspirational. We’ll be publishing three of her books in 2008. You’ll also see things like relationship books and brand extensions of our authors, such as Debbie Macomber and Linda Miller. …
Extra: What can we look forward to in the coming year from Harlequin?
Orr: … I’m really excited about the nonfiction area. We’ll have some fun celebrity twists. Then, there are our series books that reflect the times. The vampire books are very popular, but they’ll run their course. Paranormal is really popular. Thrillers, with a romantic twist, are really on the rise. The Western romance is really strong. …The Harlequin titles will always be popular. These books take women to places they never would have gone.