Books

Love and lucre

D’Arcy Jenish September 20 1999
Books

Love and lucre

D’Arcy Jenish September 20 1999

Love and lucre

Books

Romance fiction is a serious business. Should there be any doubt about that, consider the case of tiny Winnipeg-based Ponder Publishing Inc. Launched in October, 1996, by Mary Barton and her sister, Pamela Walford, Ponder has produced just three books and sales have been small, says Barton, who has kept her accounting job with a Manitoba hotel chain. Nevertheless, Barton, 36, and Walford, 42, are embroiled in a legal dispute with Toronto-based Harlequin Enterprises Inc., the worlds largest publisher of romance fiction. Their mistake: seeking a federal trademark for the term Ponder Romance. Harlequin is objecting to their use of the word romance. “We never imagined we could be confused with them,” says Barton.

But Harlequin isn’t taking any chances. The romance publisher has become No. 1 through timely acquisitions, astute marketing and, according to some industry observers, flexing its muscle when necessary. Harlequin, owned by Torstar Corp., publisher of The Toronto Star, sells about 160 million books annually in 24 languages and more than 100 countries, generating revenues last year of $525 million and a profit of nearly $88 million. The company publishes paperbacks in different product lines, each with a set look and length to enhance reader loyalty. “They do branding, and they’ve perfected it,” says Carrie Feron, executive editor of New York Citybased Avon Books, which has a small romance division.

Other publishers have a different approach. Avon publishes hardcovers and paperbacks of various lengths and prices. As well, the company promotes individual writers. “Were selling authors,” says Feron, “not product lines.”

Harlequin, by comparison, relies on standardization. Its 13 different North American series each have three key specifications—the number of tides issued monthly, page length and price, which can range from $3.50 to $4.75. What distinguishes them, says Katherine Orr, Harlequins vice-president of public relations, is the “level of sensuality.” For instance, the company publishes four books monthly under its steamy Harlequin Temptation label. The stories contain “conflict and sizzling sexual tension,” according to promotional literature, and one or two acts of lovemaking. The conflicts are resolved within the prescribed 220 pages, because in Harlequin books—as in the business behind them—romance rules.

D’Arcy Jenish