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Romancing the tablet: How Harlequin is revolutionizing the e-book market Add to ...

Donna's heart fluttered tremulously as Dave faced the room to announce the company's disappointing quarterly results. Bursting with her own good news, it was all she could do to maintain a seemly frown as her handsome obelisk of a boss performed his melancholy duty. Oh, how it hurt to pretend that business was only so-so when she knew - when every woman knew - the forbidden truth. Yet hurt she must - anything to soothe the fiery emotions surging beneath the steely façade of that proud man. It was the fate of a woman.

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As a result, Donna (Hayes, president of Harlequin Enterprises, distaff subsidiary of the Torstar media conglomerate) did her best to play down her own success at the company's recent annual general meeting. The fact that cheap, steamy romance novels currently contribute an unprecedented 50 per cent of Torstar's operating profit is just a seasonal anomaly, she suggests. "But it is unusual," she allows.

In fact, Harlequin is a major player in what is so far the world's most successful market for electronic literature. While other publishers shrink from e-readers like lisping villains faced with a fully flexed Fabio, Harlequin and its competitors have found their perfect match.

No other readers have embraced the digital experience more readily than the insatiable consumers of romance and its numerous subgenres. Together with the publishers that serve them, they are busy showing the world the first plausible new model of 21st-century book marketing.

Harlequin typifies the trend, thriving even as its paper sales fall. "One of the things about our first quarter is that our increase in digital sales was more than what we saw in terms of declines in the physical space," Hayes says - a modest-sounding achievement that is virtually unique among traditional publishers struggling to make the switch.

In the key U.S. market, where the digital revolution is far more advanced than in Canada or Europe, e-books accounted for 7 per cent of all titles sold in the last quarter of 2010, according to publishing information service Bowker LLC. By contrast, digital romance led all genres with a 14-per-cent market share.

"We have a rabid and loyal fan base among romance readers and they really can't get enough of our books," says Amy Pierpont, editorial director of New York romance imprint Forever, "and that makes us very happy, as you can imagine."

It also attracts notice, most recently from Internet giant Amazon, which launched its first venture into mainstream publishing this month with its new Montlake Romance imprint, which will publish digital, physical and audio books. "Romance is one of our top-selling and fastest-growing categories," Amazon spokeswoman Sarah Gelman says, "and the fan base for this genre is very active and well organized." Other imprints will follow as Amazon moves further into publishing, but romance leads the way.

But even the savviest publishers are struggling to catch up with romance readers, who have become the main force in the booming new market of self-published e-books. Inspired by 26-year-old sensation Amanda Hocking, who earned more than $2-million in a single year self-publishing "young-adult paranormal romance" e-books - many of them previously rejected by traditional publishers - several popular romance writers have discovered new riches through the time-honoured technique of cutting out the middleman.

When 21st-century romance first broke away from the pack, most analysts attributed its success to the onset of a recession. "In times of economic stress and turmoil, books about faith and hope and love are always good," Pierpont notes. Two years on, however, deeper factors with broader implications for all publishing have become evident.

The most obvious is price. At a time when consumers are organizing effective online boycotts of e-books they consider too expensive, romance novels are notably cheap. Electronic versions of most new fiction typically sell for about half the $25-to-$30 price of the hardcover edition, according to Hayes. But even at $3.99, she says, Harlequin e-books are only 10-per-cent cheaper than the paperback originals her customers are used to.

"Harlequin has always tried to sell as cheap as possible and sell as many copies as possible," notes B.C. author Peter Darbyshire, who served his literary apprenticeship in the company's suburban Toronto "love factory" and subsequently wrote two academic articles on Harlequin's worldwide cultural influence. "That's always been their approach, and it works perfectly with e-books."

Building on the same tradition, a new breed of self-published romance authors is determined to drive prices down even further. Many of Hocking's books sell for 99 cents. After writing almost 20 novels for conventional publishers, veteran romance author Jenna Petersen is currently riding high on sales of Rogue for the Night, which she self-published on Amazon and sells for $2.99.

"I can charge a lot less to the reader and actually make more money per book," notes Petersen, who also writes the Passionate Pen, a romance industry blog. Where a typical contract would return 60 cents in author royalties on the sale of a $7.99 novel, Petersen explains, she nets $2 of every $2.99 online sale through Amazon. "So I sell a third as many books and make the same amount of money."

Or more: Romance readers not only want their books cheap, they wants lots of them. Petersen is currently self-publishing a new title every month, drawing mainly on previously rejected manuscripts, and is aiming for a regular production of four novels a year - much more than the one novel every nine months her traditional publisher, Avon, was willing to issue. "There's no way to build an audience off of that," she says. "The readers kind of forget if they haven't seen you for a year."

Other publishers may fret about the disappearance of bookstores, but romance specialists hardly notice. "At Harlequin, for years one of the things we really focused on is providing books to women wherever and whenever they want to shop," Hayes says. "Women are so busy already that not having to make a separate trip was a great way for them to buy our books."

Accustomed to the convenience of buying books at any number of checkout counters, romance readers migrated early to digital. "They buy really often and they love the convenience," Hayes says, "so that's worked out very well for us."

The romance industry also benefited from the fact that it was a thriving social network, indeed a seminal example of digital-era "fan culture," long before Facebook. As a result, according to Forever's Pierpont, romance readers were the first to exploit the new networking tools. "Romance fans are real fans," she says. "They feel like the author is a friend and they feel like they're part of a community. They want to feel connected, and social media has completely allowed us to do that."

Perhaps because they are restricted exclusively to women, online romance communities are notably congenial and effective in making connections. Such strong "community bonds" not only forestall piracy, according to Pierpont, the online proliferation of happy-ever-after blogs, review sites and online forums creates enormous marketing leverage to publishers - a natural advantage traditional publishers are struggling to duplicate.

Perhaps the most powerful reason for the success of romance is that it is a pure genre - and the one most popular among women, who are responsible for 70 per cent of all book purchases in North America, according to Hayes. Unlike traditional bookstores, which stock a broad selection of titles, online retailing loves genre. Browsing is organized according to genre categories, with "literary fiction" reduced to a catch-all for oddments that fail to promise either love requited or, in the cease of the similarly burgeoning mystery genre, justice triumphant.

"In traditional bookstores, genre is ghettoized," Darbyshire says. "But with e-books, certain genres like mystery, sci-fi and romance are actually becoming dominant sellers." And will soon dominate reading itself. "E-books are going to change everything about how we read," he says.

To the extent it favours the mass production of cheap, fast reads adhering to hackneyed formulas, the digital revolution will find few converts among the English teachers of the nation. But for the ever-optimistic believers in true romance, the digital age promises the best of all happy endings - one that never ends.

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