Rhymer Rigby reports.
The power of love: years of romantic fiction | The Independent
Penny Jordan has sold about 80 million books, which puts her - numerically, at least - in the same league as Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. Hands up who's heard of Ms Jordan?
Or how about Debbie Macomber 60 million or Nora Roberts an astonishing million? The hyperbolic numbers don't stop there, either.
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They are printed in 26 languages and, the odd scuffle with the censors notwithstanding, available virtually everywhere. Hallowes' claim that the company 'is a great British success story' sounds, if anything, rather modest. Except for the fact that, being Canadian-owned if quasi- autonomous, it isn't really British any more.
By the '30s, the company had moved solidly into women's light fiction, and, by the '50s, its florid historical romances had become a part of the national tapestry. The first sex scenes intramarital, of course appeared in the '60s, and the content has steadily become saucier ever since, embracing masturbation, lesbianism, bondage and other steamy indulgencies of modern fiction. As well as providing a barometer of social mores over the years, the company has diversified.
Alongside the short romances it is best known for, it now also has Mira, a general fiction imprint that turns out thrillers, crime novels and chick-lit, not to mention its Blaze and Desire series, whose racy stories put the 'adult' into adult fiction. Based in Richmond, Surrey, the business was independent until , when it was bought by its Canadian distributor, Harlequin.
Both are now ultimately owned by Torstar, the Canadian newspaper group, and are turning in a performance that puts many of the company's struggling papers in the shade. Editorial offices are in New York, Toronto and London, and most of the company's 1, authors are based in these countries, although not all - it recently signed its first author in India.
The company's response here has always been that it's proud of its books, noting that some other publishers are sniffy even about their own romantic fiction. That is just plain wrong, admonishes Hallowes; you may not believe the product is haute litterature, but you have to believe it's good. Yet, while girly romance and the modern alpha female may be uncomfortable bedfellows, the business at least has a good record on the gender issue. Marketing director Clare Somerville notes that, in the s and '50s, the company was one of the few that provided women with decently paid, intellectually stimulating jobs.
Mills & Boon romances are actually feminist texts, academic says
Thus we are presented with the irony that a publisher doing a great deal to encourage new authors is one that many would-be writers turn their noses up at. The big surprise for those who see the brand as anachronistic is that its digital business 'has exceeded all expectations'. They may not yet sell quite as swiftly as the paperbacks - maybe one every five minutes in the UK - but they're catching up fast. It's a performance that other publishers, no matter how highbrow, would love to emulate.
And in Japan we do romantic digital manga. Most people read it on their cellphones - it's been an enormous success.
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We usually have top 10 bestsellers on the Yahoo comics website for Japan. The company's new efforts may be doing well, but what about its core business - the series books, the popular romances with titles such as The Timber Baron's Virgin Bride, The Cowboy and the Princess and The Disgraceful Mr Ravenhurst? Are they really relevant for today's Facebook, celebrity and reality TV-obsessed young women?
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But we do have young mums, the people who read Grazia and OK. Once people get hooked on the brand, they stay with it. It's getting them hooked It's the usual story - attracting new customers without alienating your base. To this end, in Britain the company has begun re-imaging its books in a less fussy style, as well as doing tie-ins such as a recent one with the Rugby Football Union, whereby the romantic encounters are with fictional rugby hunks.
There are plenty of opportunities with new markets such as India, an upcoming launch in China and further expansion, says Haynes - Turkey and Russia are in the firm's rose-tinted sights. What is perhaps surprising here is the universality of the books. But in terms of the general snobbery around romance fiction, the focus on female experiences and emotions may be part of the reason why it is dismissed as frivolous. Romance fiction allows both readers and writers of fiction to do this in a safe, creative environment.
And romantic love is a bedrock of human existence! Representation is very key — in fiction and the arts especially — and we want to make it clear to these writers that we would love to hear from them. A great place to start is our author guidelines. If you are submitting to Harlequin Dare or Heartwarming, click here. This is just the start of our ongoing commitment to make sure that RomanceIncludesYou at Harlequin. Our editors are also only ever a tweet away, so if you have more questions, get in touch — we would love to hear from you!
Strongly consider the hooks in your story — what is going to reach out and grab an editor, and therefore grab your reader too?