The Millions

How ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Is Shaking Up the Business of the Romance Genre

The publishing house Harlequin enjoys a near monopoly in the romance genre. But will the self-published Fifty Shades of Grey destroy it once and for all? Chris Berube reports.

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To call the Canadian publisher Harlequin a monopoly in the romance genre might be an overstatement, but not by much. It purchased rival Silhouette from Simon and Schuster in 1984, and has been largely uncontested since. Its association with the genre is so strong that in 1999, the company sued an upstart publisher to prevent them from using the word “Romance” in their name. A few years ago it was estimated that more than 75 million Americans had read at least one of their titles. They have sold more than 6 billion books globally, and they produce 110 different paperback titles every month. They are one of the few publishers in the world that enjoy genuine loyalty from readers.

Then came E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. In just six weeks, the trilogy of BDSM erotica has sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S. alone.

While James’s books share DNA with the titillating paperbacks released by Harlequin, she is one of the few successful romance authors not released by the hegemonic publisher. James self-published the Grey books through a small Australian press before revised versions were put out by Vintage in March.

The success of James’s books presents a challenge for Harlequin. Now, talented amateurs—raised on Harlequin paperbacks—are able to put out their own content without the need of a middleman, whether online or through new services that offer tools and advice for aspirant writers. While more than 1,200 authors have been published under the Harlequin imprint, the company has received submissions from thousands more. If those would-be authors see James as a model for success, one can imagine them spurning the submission process altogether.

Courtney Milan did exactly that. In 2011, after publishing four historical romance books and a novella with Harlequin, she decided not to renew her contract with the company. “I ran the math, and it didn’t really make sense for me to keep working with them,” says Milan. “If you put your stuff online, you get 70 percent of the proceeds, and Harlequin was only offering me 8 percent of the digital price.” (Harlequin has denied the figure of 8 percent, but refused to reveal their number. According to a number of writers, Harlequin has since increased this percentage.) Milan says that with fewer places carrying mass-market paperbacks—Walmart has cut down on its orders, and Borders went out of business—the digital revenue was crucial. Milan is now taking time off from her day job to focus on writing, something that she says wasn’t an option while she was on contract with a publisher.

While this type of situation is common throughout the industry, it is particularly noticeable in romance. “Self-publishing lends itself really well to genre fiction,” says Amanda Hocking, who became the first superstar of the self-publishing movement when her paranormal young adult novels became bestsellers on Amazon. “People read romance books quickly, so it’s appealing to have these books available cheaper. And it gives the writer more opportunities to push the envelope.”

The amount of sexuality in a Harlequin ranges from the chaste Christian fables in their “Love Inspired” line, to the much more explicit “Harlequin Temptation” books, which have more of the shirtless-pool-boy-in-lust plots that have become fodder for parody. But the appeal of Harlequins is more than just vicarious sex. The protagonist of every book Harlequin puts out has to pass an editorial smell test as being “realistic.” “The reader needs to feel like she would have made the same decisions as the character, no matter how far out the scenario is,” says Susan Litman, who edits novels for the publisher. Litman believes it’s that aspect of the novels that has brought readers back to Harlequin for more than six decades.

Harlequin’s official position on self-publishing is that anything bringing more attention to romance fiction in general is in their best interests. In fact, it’s quick to capitalize on the success of the Grey books. In July, Harlequin will release The Siren, the first book in Tiffany Reisz’s trilogy of BDSM novels. It’s about a kinky writer and her sub-dom relationship with her English editor.

Six years ago, Reisz was a student at a Kentucky seminary school, studying Catholicism. Unbeknownst to her classmates, she was writing erotic fan fiction at night. “I was getting really good at it,” she says. “People were telling me that I should change the names of the characters, and then try to get it published. I thought, that’s ridiculous, no one could do that.” In 2009 Reisz finally took her friends’ advice, dropped out of school, and started pitching her stories. One of them was picked up by Harlequin. The Siren will be marketed by the company as a direct comparison with Fifty Shades of Grey. Like James, Reisz found infamy online by writing X-rated fiction starring pop-culture figures. In James’s case it was characters from Twilight, and in Reisz’s case her original stories were centered on characters played by Jason Isaacs, her favorite actor. Both writers include explicit sex scenes in their novels, the kind that would normally be excised from modern romance fiction. Reisz is getting a big marketing push for a first time novelist, which is a direct result of James’s infamy.

Another way that Harlequin is adapting is through the same technology that has enabled self-publishing. Since the introduction of the Kindle, Harlequin has become one of the most successful publishers in the format, in part because the device offers some level of anonymity. Readers who might feel shame about their predilection for tawdry paperbacks can now enjoy them discreetly. One could just as easily be reading Madame Bovary on the subway as Wild Western Nights, and no one else has to be the wiser. By the end of 2011, digital accounted for 18 percent of Harlequin’s global revenue.

And even Amanda Hocking is quick to point out that self-publishing is not for everyone, and that many authors, herself included, have parlayed their independent success into traditional book deals. She signed a deal with the publisher St. Martin’s last year, saying the decision has made her life “much easier.” Milan points to Theresa Ragan and Tina Folsom as examples of romance authors without established reputations who broke into the field through self-publishing. But a wide-ranging survey released in May found that less than half of all self-published authors earned more than $500 last year.

And even if self-publishing does eventually eat into Harlequin’s business, the publisher has a back-up plan. For the last few years, they have been actively “expanding the brand,” by publishing books outside of their traditional comfort zone. In 2006 they coproduced a series of romance novels with NASCAR to try and reach male readers. In April, the company released six nonfiction titles, including a memoir and a few books of dieting advice. Their most recent commission is perhaps the most bizarre: last month Harlequin signed a book contract with Kyle Humphrey and Graydon Sheppard, the creators of the YouTube sensation “Shit Girls Say,” to adapt their meme into a series. Harlequin may have one of the most powerful, immediately recognizable brands in the world, but they are working hard to dilute it. While true love may be a historical constant, modern romance is a much more slippery target.