Why Are Harlequin Profits Declining? [Smart Set]

Smart Set

Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I curate new smart reads about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.

“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams


“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams

HarperCollins Acquisition of Harlequin and What It Means for Readers by Jane Litte

This piece at Dear Author focuses on the recent acquisition of Harlequin, but offers us a moment to consider that Harlequin’s profits have been declining since 2010. (However, that is not necessarily why it was sold by the parent company, as Litte points out.)

Why should Harlequin, as one of the most recognizable publishing brands in the market, with a clear target demographic, not be flourishing—especially as genre fiction is selling better than every other category in the ebook/digital age? Doesn’t Harlequin symbolize what everyone says is essential for a successful publisher of the future, with their direct-to-consumer reach and strong reader-friendly policies? Litte offers an excellent, informed overview of why it’s declining (in brief: mass-market print sales are WAY down, plus there’s increased competition), then discusses her fears that HarperCollins will mess things up for the future of Harlequin.

Questions raised:

  • Will Harlequin’s reader-friendly policies rub off on HarperCollins, or will they become more like the rest of the publishing community (that is: not-so reader friendly)?
  • Despite Harlequin’s reader-friendly policies, their digital growth hasn’t made up for the decline in print. Competition from self-publishing is undoubtedly having an impact. How much does Harlequin represent a canary in the coal mine for the rest of publishing? (Additionally, Harlequin faces a lawsuit from authors who claim they were shortchanged on royalty earnings—that can’t help matters when authors are considering how or with whom to publish.)

OMG! What If Barnes & Noble Closes? by Rachelle Gardner

There is a “rumor” that Barnes & Noble may close by the end of year—which is not a rumor I’m inclined to spread, because I think it has no basis and is nothing more than remorseless click bait by its originating author (not Gardner)—but it does pose an interesting thought experiment. What happens if the largest chain bricks-and-mortar bookstore retailer closes? Gardner discusses why it would not be an epic tragedy if B&N ceased to exist.

Questions raised:

  • How critical is the physical bookstore browsing experience to traditional publishing sales? What can it be replaced by? (What is it already replaced by?)
  • How much does the independent bookstore and/or library system stand to gain/benefit from such a loss?
  • What might be some surprising consequences or opportunities presented by the closure?

The Novel Is Dead (This Time It’s For Real) by Will Self

For a couple years now, I have been quoting a Guardian interview with Will Self, where he says, “I don’t write for readers.” (I use it when I teach about the philosophy and strategy of author platform, and try to clear the room first of people who take Self’s position, since platform growth is often driven by reader and community engagement and outreach.)

In any case, this long, florid piece by Self will be no surprise to those of us already familiar with his views. I find myself in the unusual position of both agreeing and disagreeing with him: the literary novel is a specialized interest (we agree), but I also think that’s always been the case (we disagree).

Questions raised:

  • Is the novel really truly dead? (I write this tongue in cheek.) I love this Twitter account that was created in response.
  • Seriously, though: I have noticed lately (in the last year or so), more and more people talking about reading, particularly the reading of literary fiction, as a moral activity, a way of fostering empathy. To me, this is a worrying sign—that people who love the artform of the literary novel are motivated to grant it some kind of moral high ground to “save” it, or that it must be considered to have special abilities that no other medium can match. I’d rather think more broadly and innovatively about how writing or stories can find an audience in a digital era. Is the literary novel itself not a construct of our particular time and place in history, developed to be a certain length and delivered in a certain package? What happens when writing isn’t best delivered between two covers, or even in ebook form? These static forms aren’t well-suited to survive (in the long, long term), and I don’t find it helpful to hold them up as sacred. Maybe the question here is: What are we afraid of happening? Or what is the worst thing that might happen if the (literary) novel is declining?

What questions do you have? Share in the comments.

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Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
Posted in Smart Set.


  1. Re the decline of Harlequin: In Canada, HQN still has the standardized, branded bookshelf in every Chapters/Indigo for the category romances. However, I notice the authors writing for them are almost all unknown names. They’re bleeding long-term authors with 20-40 books to their name. (In the past year, I personally know at least four authors in this group who’ve chosen to self-publish or form a a micro-press rather than sell to HQN.) I can’t help thinking that low royalty rates are responsible for a loss of stable, solid talent. They’d have to be investing more time and energy on recruitment and training than before unless they’re also letting standards slip.

    As for the single title romances, loss of shelf space means loss of exposure. With the bulk of sales happening online and/or digitally, and with readers being loyal to the author rather than the brand, my sense is that HQN is losing their midlist authors. Is it reversible? Frankly, without a change in contract terms and royalty rates, I doubt it.

    • Really interesting insights, Jan. Thank you. Seems rather obvious their contracts need to improve; I’d love to hear their internal conversations around this issue.

  2. The death of the novel, again? Ever since there was publishing, there was the lament of the death of the art. It is was not penny dreadfuls, it was the dime-store novel. What happens when those great gatekeepers don’t publish serious work like To The Lighthouse? And right there the whole argument evaporates. Virginia Woolf was published by Hogarth Press, a self-publishing operation started by her husband.

    Now, that the physical barriers to publishing have almost entirely been removed, what is stopping those so-called serious writers from writing and publishing their work? And here comes the terrifying part. Maybe this “serious” work is just not very good and no one wants it. Maybe the problem is the quality of the work, not the category it is placed in.

    I remember the essay Can Poetry Matter by Dana Gioia. Basically, it said the form of poetry has just become obscure and was only a form relevant in the artificial world of academia. Well, maybe these “serious” novels are going the same way. In fact, the style is becoming cliche–you can basically spot it on the first page. The serious novels of the past were new and fresh–mostly getting negative reviews of the sacred holders of the serious novel of the day. Hemingway and Woolf were not treated nicely. Maybe, these authors are going to have to do the hard work of creating a novel, not just get a writing degree, which is simply a credential.

    And this is the crazy thing. These writers, these artist, have a great freedom to pursue their craft, their art. There is nothing holding them back if they are really writers. Now, if they just want to be college professors, then the publishing credentials are important, but not absolute–there are artists in academia that got in on their own merits, a long shot, but a possibility. There is nothing stopping the “serious” novel from being written except for the limitations the writers puts on themselves.

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  4. In Australia, Harlequin is looking in Children books, as the demographic they cater to often have children and grandchildren and like to deal in physical books and children books are still traditionally offline…for now.

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