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Marketing Romance

Marketing, Technology, and the Changing Form of the Romance Novel 

By Ellie Majure (2017)

The purpose of this report is to outline the changes in the relationship between books and society from 1450-2017 and to show that the evolution of that relationship has allowed romance writers the freedom to be innovative with their writing. I argue that the evolution of the modern romance novel has been contingent upon the development of certain techniques—that these techniques have determined the changes in the format of the romance novel that have allowed for innovations and stylistic changes in the writing to thrive. I begin with a brief history of books and the development of the novel in the United States. Then I focus primarily on Canadian publishing house Harlequin in the latter half of the paper to display the emergence of the romance novel. Information used is pulled from scholarly articles, the popular press, and primary resources. [EPM]


The History of the Book

Although the Chinese developed block printing in the 9th century, Europeans did not discover printing technology until Johannes Gutenberg developed movable type printing between 1450 and 1455. Prior to Gutenberg’s invention, all manuscripts in Europe were written by hand, an incredibly time consuming process, and generally in Latin. Literacy was reserved for the high aristocracy and the clergy. Written entertainment simply did not exist. Stories were traditionally passed down orally (Giges). Gutenberg’s moveable type spread from Germany across Europe, and people utilized the technology to print religious texts and Greek and Roman classics. The Renaissance sparked an interest in Greek and Roman culture and history, thus the rise in demand for classic texts. This is where we see the first appearance of the most prominent marketing tactic in the book industry, the maintenance of the relationship between the publishers and the readers. These printed pieces were being marketed to men who were neither members of the aristocracy nor the clergy. They did not know Latin, and historically, their families were not literate. In order to meet the demand and increase the number of salable copies, publishers had to produce texts in local languages (Gutenberg’s Legacy). As the quantity of readable materials increased for the public, so did literacy rates. Gutenberg’s moveable type technology is also credited for facilitating the spread of information across Europe that would culminate during the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation freed Europe from the Catholic Church’s vise-like grip, thus increasing the variety of topics that were freely distributed in print throughout Europe.

Although the speed of printing was increased by the movable type technology, production was hindered by the binding process. The beginning of the 16th century saw a transition from heavy, wood-bound books to more portable, lighter pasteboard bound ones, but each book was done slowly, by hand (Winter). Before the development of the mechanized presses, inventions birthed by the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, fixed costs remained incredibly high, and authors had to pay these costs out of pocket. In order to make a profit, they had to be selective about the types of books that they printed. The consumer base was larger than it had been when books were being handwritten in Latin, but books were still not for the common man. They were for what might later be considered the middle class. Authors lived in and among their readers and looked for direct feedback regarding what their consumers wanted to buy. The relationships between authors and their audiences existed as an antecedent to product differentiation (Radway).

Maya Rodale writes in her book Dangerous Books for Girls that, “[in] the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, reading was often done as a group,” (Rodale). Group reading continued to direct the book market towards appropriate texts and away from novels. Rodale’s writing is done in reference to the romance novel, but the key aspect is that the books produced were targeted at family audiences. Thus novels were squelched and kept out of print. However, Rodale remarks that as space increased, the concept of privacy began to take hold, ultimately allowing for the consumption of fewer family friendly materials (Rodale).

As America industrialized, literacy rates increased further. People began to find themselves with time to read, to indulge. Publishing companies relied on subscriptions to distribute their books. People would buy a subscription, and new books would appear in the mail on a regular basis. The demand for more pushed the boundaries of what the existing publishing infrastructure could produce up until the 19th century when publishing technology was finally driven ahead. Mechanized printing presses—the cylinder press (1812), the bed-and-platen press (1824), and the rotary press (1844)—lowered the fixed costs of publishing drastically, and as capitalism blossomed, people began to recognize the book industry as a commercial industry (Printing Yesterday and Today). Books rose as highly demanded commodities (Radway). However, the first couple waves of individuals to flock to publishing were still limited by their own prices. Mass production allowed for an increase in books produced, but they were still hardcovers, bound in pasteboard. The binding costs held the prices too high for the middle and lower classes to meet. Variety began to grow, but the consumer base couldn’t expand with it. People wanted reading materials, but they couldn’t pay for them.

Although serialization was not a new concept, in 1850 Harper Brothers changed the American book market when they launched Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The magazine was created in order to serialize unproven authors and introduce them to a wide audience at a low cost. The periodical allowed for the company to deliver fiction to the masses and to test new authors before they committed fully to them (Milliot). Bookbinding’s trajectory flew separately from that of book printing, but the two converged in the middle of the 19th century with the dime novel. Dubbed the dime novel in the United States, and the penny dreadful in England, these short books were loosely bound in paper and sold in easy to access places, such as newsstands and dry goods stores (Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls). Erastus Beadle and his brother Irwin began the dime novel trend in 1860 when they recognized the popularity of the serialized fiction and introduced paper bound copies of the serialized chapters on the market. The brothers drastically reduced their own production costs, which allowed them to lower prices down to a dime. Because they were less expensive and faster to create than books bound in pasteboard, more could be made at a time, and a wider variety of themes and topics could be produced for a wider audience.

The Beadle Brothers expanded on the Harper Brothers’ innovative serialization by changing the format of the material and the distribution. Rather than sell only by subscription, dime novels were sold in accessible places, such as dry goods stores and newsstands. One of the most important aspects of the dime novel was the expansion of the target audience. Dime novels were aimed at the lower classes, the youth, and women. Thanks to First Wave Feminism and the Industrial Revolution, women in mid 19th century America had more rights and jobs outside the home. These were books for working-class teenagers and women to devour on the train (Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls).


Origins of the Genre

The small, easy to read fiction was wildly popular, so dime novel publishers began to release novels in series. This is arguably the beginning of genre romance. Between 1830 and 1855, the Harper Brothers pushed the innovative idea to sell titles as parts of preset packages or libraries. The scheme “guided readers to acquire a collection instead of buying a single book,” (Milliot). Dime novel publishers, such as Street & Smith, picked up on the marketing tactic and began to quickly churn out titles that fit under the same series. Because dime novels were bound in paper, they were light and transportable. Copies could be carried on the train, hauled around during the day in a pocketbook, and read during breaks. And because they were generally easy reading, people devoured them. Each book in a series fit a formulaic model for that series. Each series was geared towards a specific target audience, and readers knew what would happen in each book. They didn’t have to take the time to compare one book to another. They trusted the series. Genre romance blossomed under this format.

A later romance series produced was the Eagle Series. Street & Smith, a popular fiction company, released many romance series geared towards women, the Eagle Series included. Inside the cover of the dime novels are advertisements for more books in the same series. They’re specifically tailored catalogues built into the book. The publishers promise the readers on one of the first pages, “Each of the books by the above authors is at least 320 pages in length, has an attractive colored cover and has been printed from new plates. They are marvels of value at the price,” (New Eagle Series).


This notice, along with the inclusion of lists of similar titles, stands as one of the earliest versions of in-book advertising.

In 1939 Robert de Graff took the innovative ideas of paper bindings and selling in series to target audiences, projected them onto the widened consumer base, and turned the novel into a mass-market product. The 1930s had seen the United States suffer through and begin to recover from the Great Depression. Consumption of novelty items dropped off and struggled to increase again. The Federal Government pushed communities to spend money in order to restart the circulation of the economy. But even after the Great Depression, the majority of people couldn’t afford to spend a dollar on a novelty item such as a book. De Graff recognized the gap and the desire, and hypothesized that $0.25 would be the price that could incentivize spending again (Stacy). De Graff bought the rights to print popular titles in paperback—titles that had historically only been produced as hardcovers. He gave the public exactly what he thought it wanted. He gave them quality writing in a cheaper form (Stacy). In order to distribute, he utilized both the magazine subscription system and the kiosk system (Eike). De Graff took his cheaper titles and placed them right in front of his target audience in train stations and tobacco stores.

The placement of de Graff’s paperbacks tapped into the market for potential impulse buys. Sexy, evocative covers caught the eyes of potential readers at newsstands, cigar stores, drugstores, lunch counters, and train stations (Menand). Installations of paperbacks were replaced on the same monthly schedule as the magazines. De Graff began his venture with established titles, but as Pocket Books became successful in the 1940s, he added original work to the catalog. De Graff utilized test runs and reader questionnaires, which allowed readers to have a voice in the title distribution. De Graff rekindled the intimate relationship between the reader and the author that was fostered in the late 1600s with the initial spread of literacy (Stacy).

The book industry also felt the effects of the Great Depression. De Graff’s 1939 push to paperback occurred at a time that was convenient for larger publishing houses. The established houses, such as Random House, turned to trade books in the 1930s because they were cheaper to make (Penguin Random House: Company History). Trade books are those that are marketed to a general audience. They generally fall into categories such as history, romance, mystery, etc. Non-trade books are academic, professional, technical, or reference books geared at a much different audience. Pocket Books’ success pushed the rest of the industry to develop a focus on trade paperbacks.

Avon Books and Harlequin represent the burgeoning and development of mass-market genre romance. Avon Books was established in 1941 as a paperback reprint publishing company. It bought the rights to reprint classics and trade genre fiction all in the paperback format. By 1969, it had released its first original title, and in 1972 made the New York Times bestseller list with mass market paperback The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss (Garrett).

Harlequin, founded in Winnipeg, Canada in 1949, had a very similar start to those of Avon Books and Pocket Books. The publishing company began as a reprint company, but unlike Pocket and Avon, Harlequin focused solely on category romance rather than all trade fiction. The company tried to reprint a variety of genres, but found minimal success. After analyzing the success of other publishing companies, Richard Bonnycastle (founder) and Ruth Palmour decided to focus the company’s resources on romances. They noticed that romance was doing well in trade sales and saw a promising market. In 1957, Bonnycastle approached Mills & Boon—a successful British publishing house—with interest in their titles. Mills & Boon at that time was on a downward trajectory, falling after a couple years of smashing marketing success (they had introduced lending-library tactics and sold serial rights of new titles to magazines). The staunchly formulaic company entered a loose partnership with Harlequin, and by 1963, Mills & Boon titles were the only ones that Harlequin would reprint, due to success rates (Faircloth). Mills & Boon had a dedicated consumer base; readers trusted their titles and plots. And Harlequin allowed them to expand into the North American romance market. In 1971, the two companies formally merged, coming together as Harlequin Mills & Boon (Mills & Boon: About Us).


The Industry Grows

The company evolved in the 1970s. Larry Heisey and Torstar Corporation arrived and commandeered huge, successful changes in the marketing and research departments. Torstar Corporation’s contribution to the company was to buy the controlling majority of the publishing house. The influx of money from the sale gave Harlequin Mills & Boon the extra funds to expand globally and to dump money on the marketing department (Mills & Boon: About Us). Larry Heisey, a former Procter and Gamble sales guru, took that money and reproduced the P&G techniques in the book world. De Graff and the Beadle Brothers had established the success of placing books in train stations and tobacco shops, but Heisey moved books even closer to his target audience (women) by penetrating the supermarket world. This, combined with Harlequin Mills & Boon’s Reader Service—a service launched in 1970 that delivered books directly to readers’ doors, along with questionnaires—established the company as a publishing tycoon (Faircloth). Recognizing the rise of television watching, due to the expansion of cable, in households in the 1970s, Heisey tested a TV ad campaign, spending $400,000. In ten U.S. cities, the average increase of net sales, after the advertisements had run, was 79%. Naturally, Heisey channeled more money towards television advertisement. “In 1975, Harlequin purchased over a million dollars worth of television time; 1976 saw this amount increased to one and a half million dollars,” (Jensen). As cable became more popular in homes across the United States, so did the name Harlequin Mills & Boon. The publishing house set a precedent in the book industry of favoring expensive marketing campaigns.

The ads were, in large part, massively successful due to the extensive research that was done to determine who exactly the readers were. Questionnaires and surveys were delivered along with the books through the Reader Service. And the simultaneous emergence and success of B. Dalton bookstores in suburban areas and malls allowed Harlequin Mills & Boon, along with other publishing houses, to gather more specific demographic information about their sales (Faircloth).

Harlequin diminished marketing costs by grouping similar titles together under one heading. The most popular author or book would be presented at the head of the series, and the majority of the marketing money would go towards highlighting that individual. Readers trusted that the rest of the series would follow the patterns they liked in the first book and that each book would discuss similar topics, themes, and values. Harlequin even continued to stock their novels in the magazine fashion on shelves (Tapper). The concept was the exact same as the dime novel categorization.

The entire romance industry picked up speed in the 1980s. Harlequin’s sudden and aggressive domination of the romance market in the 1970s was met in the ‘80s by innovations from Avon, Silhouette, Loveswept, and more. Kelly Faircloth quotes Nora Roberts, an American bestselling romance novelist, in an article as saying, “The American market was poised for the change, for stronger heroines, less domineering heroes, for more contemporary themes. For myself, and many of the writers who started during the early 80s, we were readers of the genre first. We knew what we wanted to read. So we wrote what appealed to us. And it worked,” (Faircloth). Writers who had grown up in the same time period as Roberts grew up through Second Wave Feminism, a sociological push for sexual equality and a paradigmatic shift in women’s “places” in households. Roberts explains that when she and her fellow writers reached their time to transition from readers to writers, they were writing for an audience that yearned for heroines that would not be dominated by the Alpha-men types of the novels from the 1940s-1970s. This fundamental desire changed the content of the books. They still fit the formula and still closed with an emotional, happy ending, but the characters changed. The changes of the ‘80s have come to define the contents of the contemporary romance novel. The ‘70s and ‘80s saw the beginning of social reflection in romance novels.

Divisions of expectations and desires in romance novels resulted in another strong push for the series model in the publishing industry. Publishing houses began to focus on splitting their romance sections into specific lines. Each line would fit the genre romance formula, but the contents matched the trends the houses saw in consumers’ desires (Faircloth). This version of product differentiation has become a standard in the romance novel industry. Harlequin also tried to dip into non-romance categories to attract new readers and to appease the desires for more innovative plots and characters. They used the series model and market books as mergers between categories. The idea was that books like romance mysteries could attract the attention of mystery lovers and that of romance readers (Tapper). The continuous expansion and segmentation of lines would suggest that the idea was a success. [EPM]

The 1980s also saw the beginning of the digitization of the novel. In typical capitalist fashion, the book industry began to scramble for new, innovative ways to package their novels. In 1985, Penguin launched an audio book campaign (Penguin Random House: Company History). In 1987, Harper & Row (previously mentioned in this paper as Harper Brothers) followed suit and bought Caedmon Records, the first publisher of spoken-word audio (Milliot). Bookstores and publishing houses, such as Barnes & Noble, Simon & Schuster, and Random House, began to invest in the production of e-readers in the 1990s. 1998-2003 saw a small flurry of e-reader technology from the Silicon Valley, but none really caught on (Lebert). Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007, and it was immensely popular. Each generation became more popular as the technology improved and the price dropped (Wagner). Until the e-reader, the mass-market paperback revolution required titles to turn over quickly in stores. Stores could hold popular copies of the publishers’ backlists but often ran out of storage space and had to send copies back. The Kindle put backlists at the fingertips of the public, immediately increasing the sheer number of titles readers had access to. The Kindle was the 21st century’s addition to printing technology (Epstein). The Pew Internet & American Life Project found in 2012 that people choose e-books when they want a wide selection of titles to choose from, want to buy a book quickly, and are traveling or commuting (Rainie, Zickuhr, Purcell, Madden, and Brenner). In summary, the Kindle is the 21st century’s addition to the printing and publishing technology, allowing for easier access to reading material.

Harlequin led the romance industry in the digital book game. By 2013, the company had multiple digital imprints operating under its name, with each line releasing at least one digital title per month (Harlequin Expands Digital First Efforts). In 2014, News Corp, parent company to HarperCollins, bought Harlequin for $455 million. Already the owner of Avon Books, News Corp became the top of the romance industry pyramid, directing the most popular and widespread variety of titles, lines, and digitization. News Corp bought Harlequin in order to expand HarperCollins’s global outreach, but also to assume Harlequin’s digital presence (News Corp, HarperCollins Complete Purchase of Harlequin).

HarperCollins continues to use back-ads that are reminiscent of those mentioned as being in the Street & Smith dime novels. These in-book advertisements have historically been successful. The modern, updated version of the back ad is—to pair with the ebook—the buy link. Beginning in 2013, HarperCollins began including buy links as part of the excerpts included at the end of romance novels. These buy links take the reader directly to the cyber storefront where the reader is placed in front of a variety of similar titles. Buy links are a useful marketing strategy, but they also allow the publisher to track the number of clicks, which is translated to interest. Buy links are now standard components to back ads. According to Shawn Nicholls, Associate Publisher for Avon mass market, Impulse, and Witness, in 2017 it takes 7-9 impressions to make a sale, compared to the 1-3 it took a decade ago. He stated in an interview, “The main marketing innovation [in my career]…has been the rise of digital discovery. Specifically, the importance of social media and newsletter platforms to remind existing readers of new releases, but also as a method of reaching new readers. Traditional book marketing never allowed for such targeted outreach and messaging,” (Nicholls).



The romance novel, like most trade books, is infamous for meeting a standard formula per book. But since 1450, it has undergone astounding technical and physical evolutions. Technology and marketing have changed the format of the romance novel in order to hold its status as a salable commodity, and the industry has worked hard to maintain a steady relationship with its readers. Because of that steady relationship, and the intrinsic trust rooted in it, romance writers have had a platform through which they could grow and evolve as well. The contents of the book—the values, the characters, the dynamics—can change because the industry continues to change the form of the book in order to keep it on the market.



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