Capturing American Romance Readers: An Examination of the 1984 Silhouette Acquisition
By Kacia Anderson (2022)
In the 1970s, Harlequin began to experience a decline in sales and an increase in returns on its publications. I contend that Harlequin sought to acquire Silhouette as a means of meeting the shift in romance reader market desires and catering to American romance readers. To explore this claim, I explore the rise of Harlequin Romances in the 1970s, the emergence of Silhouette in the early 1980s, and later the clashing and eventual absorption that occurred between these two publishers. To support my argument, I incorporate primary sources including an interview with Mr. Robert Snyder, Simon and Schuster’s president at the time of acquisition, newspaper publications regarding Silhouette’s debut, court documents as well as secondary sources like books that examine popular romance, the history of large publishers, and the changing desires of readership from the 1970s into the 1980s.
Harlequin’s Rise to a Multinational Corporation
Harlequin Romances, a household romance name, was widely known and recognized not only for its distinctive branding but also for the types of category romance it published. In the 1970s, Harlequin was recognized as “the undisputed queen of romance books” (McDowell). Harlequin was able to crack the code of what appealed to romance readers in the 1970s and lean into this knowledge. It was noted that “Harlequin was certainly the first publisher to be so systematic and successful to gear its products towards its readers” (Jensen, 37).
In capitalizing on this market understanding, Harlequin “reduced romantic aspirations… to a formula” (Rabine, 55). As a result, readers came to trust Harlequin products because they were uniform and to a degree predictable despite variations in authorship. Jensen in “Love’s $weet Return: The Harlequin Story” quotes a Harlequin romance reader as not “hav[ing] a preference in authors… As long as the book has the Harlequin trademark, I’ll read it” (42). This speaks to the brand recognition that Harlequin romances had with its white covers and script font, but also the trust the readership had in Harlequin to deliver satisfying category romance across its lines and authors. Key to Harlequin’s success was in part the category romance formula itself but also “foolproof” marketing which focused on fostering brand loyalty rather than tapping into the loyalty readers could establish with authors.
Key to contextualizing how, in the face of its rise, Harlequin still managed to fall behind in adapting to changes in reader desire is understanding Harlequin as a corporation. Harlequin had to not only balance wanting to grow as a corporation following the prosperity experienced in the late 1960s into the 1970s but also the conservative “editorial policies and concerns” (McAleer, 283). Traditionally, in the business world, a company managed expansion, gains in market control and production, and consolidation as a part of corporate growth. Despite this four-pronged method having clear steps and overall progress, there can be overlap in how a company pursues corporate growth.
Throughout the 1970s, Harlequin conformed to this model in attempts to acquire companies outside of its original “scope of business” in the United States and Canada (Jensen, 43). What I would like to highlight is the direct pursuit of diversification and vertical integration that severed the long-standing relationship between Harlequin and Simon and Schuster. Vertical integration describes the steps a company takes by which it can control “many or all steps in the [production] process” as a means of compounding its profits (Jensen, 42). By controlling the steps in the production process, Harlequin minimized the amount of outsourcing or paying other companies, needed to produce products. These production steps were not only limited to marketing and advertising of products but included the storage and distribution of a company’s product. The main driver of focusing on compounding profits would be increasing overall profits since a company can maximize profits at each step in the production process. While Harlequin executed the acquisition of many companies throughout the 1970s to increase its industry knowledge around marketing and publishing, acquisitions also allowed Harlequin to become less dependent on other corporations. By the end of the 1970s, Harlequin believed itself to have acquired the knowledge to execute its distribution without the aid of external business partners. Thus, Harlequin severed ties with its Canadian distributor and well as its American distributor, Simon and Schuster.
Despite strategic acquisitions of other publishers and magazine lines to increase profits going into the 1980s, rumors of misfortune swirled on the horizon. Harlequin began to experience an increase in returns because of its lack of offering one specialized product that readers knew they could trust. Harlequin had expanded to offer not only its trusted category romances but also Supperromance, Mystique, and Intrigue to name a few. Furthermore, the acquisition of Harlequin by Torstar was not favored in the public eye by critics and experts due to Torstar’s failings with the Toronto Star. At the same time, analysts began to point out that Harlequin was “a classic case of missing out on a changing market” (Jensen, 54). While Harlequin met the demands of the readers in the past, they failed to anticipate the developments in the romance market over the tail-end of the 1970s which left them behind the mark in the 1980s, especially in the United States.
Harlequin failed to take more American authors and publish romance that had American settings; instead choosing to lean into their “exotic settings” (Marble). This left Harlequin at odds with American readers who “just wanted to read about people like them, rather than British governesses in exotic settings” (Marble). At this point in romance history, American readers also “had a choice” due to the lack of American romance market share being held by a singular company (Jensen, 50). In addition to Harlequin and Silhouette, Dell and Berkely Publishing Group were other publishers entering the American market.
Harlequin’s American romance market failings were highlighted by Publishers Weekly noting that despite the money Harlequin invested in American market research, the company remained “functionally confused about what American women readers wanted” (Jennings, 50). Harlequin had no concept of the true market hotspots for their product in America due to a lack of familiarity in driving its distribution. It is not the change in distribution that contributed to Harlequin’s lack of understanding of the market; rather, it’s Harlequin taking over distribution that highlights how it lacked understanding of its market.
In all, Harlequin miscalculated the ease by which it could replicate the work of its American distributor. In fact, Harlequin executives overestimated the weight of the Harlequin brand with Harlequin Enterprises President at the time, Larry Heisley, stating “‘we’re the authority in romance’” – they truly believed they were beyond reach (Jennings, 50).
The Emergence of Silhouette
Based on where Harlequin was in the global market throughout the 1970s, acquiring other publishers and fortifying their lines and readership, one would think Harlequin’s undisputed reign over romance was untouchable. However, it can be argued that Harlequin’s rigid romance formula in combination with the termination of Simon and Schuster’s distribution rights paved the way for Simon and Schuster’s Silhouette to capture a portion of the romance readership, especially within the United States.
Simon and Schuster was the exclusive distributor of Harlequin books beginning in 1970 through its subsidiary, Pocket Books. It primarily gained its profits, seventy-five percent of it, from distributing Harlequin romances in America. In 1979, when Harlequin opted to increase vertical integration, it ended this distribution deal. As a result, Simon and Schuster president, Mr. Richard Snyder, stated they “had no choice but to launch Silhouette, or we were in big trouble” (McDowell). Snyder’s action here, that is, creating competition for Harlequin, launched what is referred to as the “romance wars” (Jennings, 50).
To stave off massive profit losses, Simon and Schuster launched Silhouette aggressively yet strategically. In 1980, Publisher’s Weekly reported that Simon and Schuster would be spending three million on a TV ad campaign to launch Silhouette. Within the year, Silhouette added lines such as “First Love,” which was a young adult series, and venturing into an even more explicit line, “Silhouette Desire” which features “luxurious worlds” with “sizzling chemistry” (Harlequin).
Silhouette was able to flourish for several reasons. Furthermore, Silhouette was able to capitalize on Harlequin’s “unwillingness to publish another American author” (Kamblé, Teo, Selinder, 57). In fact, Silhouette is where acclaimed author Nora Roberts got her start after her novel was rejected by Harlequin. Silhouette leaned into American authors, returning creativity into the hands of authors rather than editors, and was not above poaching Harlequin authors, gaining the likes of Janet Dailey, Sondra Stanford, Anne Hampson, and Charlotte Lamb. Instrumental to this poaching was Silhouette (and Harlequin) competing for key corporate players with Silhouette hiring Harlequin’s Vice President of sales and marketing, P.J. Fennel.
Silhouette and Harlequin Clash and Subsequently Collide
In 1984, the Wall Street Journal reported that Torstar, the Canadian parent company of Harlequin at the time, announced that Harlequin was in negotiations for the acquisition of Silhouette. Just under two weeks later, it was reported that Simon and Schuster agreed to sell its imprint to its rival. The results of these negotiations resulted in Harlequin purchasing Silhouette for a reported ten million dollars and the restoration of Simon and Schuster’s right to distribute Harlequin in America.
For decades before the emergence of Silhouette, Harlequin Romances dominated the romance industry through its publishing of category romance at lucrative pricing. At the time of Harlequin acquiring Silhouette, the Simon and Schuster imprint was relatively young with its first publication in May of 1980 (Marlyes 1980). Despite its youth, Silhouette quickly dominated the American Romance market, capturing approximately 30 percent of the romance market share within this period and adding additional lines within its first two years.
With both Harlequin and Simon and Schuster going toe to toe in the romance category, it’s no wonder they clashed while trying to capture the romance readership. When Silhouette first launched, Harlequin soon pursued an injunction against Silhouette citing the uncanny resemblance to the Harlequin cover readers had come to love throughout the 1960s and 1970s. This lawsuit detailed how Silhouette “infringed” on Harlequin’s trade dress by which Silhouette was able to capitalize on the “secondary meaning” that Harlequin represents to romance consumers (Pederson). Secondary meaning refers to how the “public has come to associate its name with a single source” (Pederson)
Silhouette’s attempts to model its competitor to break into the market resulted in romance fiction readers confusing the two offerings based on branding alone. However, readers soon learned the differing content Silhouette provided. Silhouette was able to offer a range of products meeting “readers’ demands for longer, more sophisticated stories with Silhouette Special Editions (1982) and Silhouette Intimate Moments (1983)” (Marble). Silhouette listened to the types of romance that readers wanted to read and what writers wanted to write. Harlequin was known for being “cautious and conservative” with the contents of its romance books which was in complete contrast with featuring “realistic gender roles, sexier with gentler heroes” and quickly evolving to a more “explicit” series that featured premarital sex (Brocklehurst; Makinen, 29). Harlequin’s historic conservative trend is also noted in the contrast with partner Mills & Boon.
While the types of category romance Harlequin produced did not go out of style and still sold, the romance industry began to fragment. As a result, different variations of romance that were, for one, hard to keep up with and two, harder to stand out developed. In comparison to Harlequin, Silhouette often seemed “ahead of things [romance variations]” (Marble). The lines Silhouette produced like Special Editions or Intimate Moments would occasionally feature experimental elements that other publishers had not tested like paranormal activity, time travel, and suspense. Silhouette benefited from “extensive market research” in which every aspect of books published was pre-tested (Maryles, 51). Silhouette’s market research examined what plotlines appealed to their target demographic. With Harlequin’s market research left Harlequin directionless in how to capture American readers, Harlequin began to model newer lines after some of the less risqué books that Silhouette released with Harlequin American and Harlequin Intrigue.
After a pricey romance war, Harlequin came out on top with the purchase of Silhouette Books. The Silhouette lines still exist today, albeit, under different names as branding evolved with time. Harlequin has rebranded traditional Silhouette lines to include the Harlequin name in the line title. Following this purchase, Harlequin returned to former glory as the “undisputed leadership of the romance category novel in the United States” (Pederson). The lessons learned by Harlequin impacted the company’s trajectory well into the 1980s with it being noted that “Harlequin learned how important it is to listen to its authors and keep up with the times” (Brocklehurst).
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