In ten chapters, Markert takes the reader from the emergence of contemporary mass-market publishing in the 1940s, with Pocket Books' innovation of printing cheap, paperback editions of volumes previously published only in hardback in the American market, to the mid 2010's, just on the cusp of the self-publishing revolution. Because of the major innovations the industry has witnessed during the last decade, Markert's book already feels dated, only just hinting at the major disruptions to the industry that the Kindle and other e-reading platforms, self-publishing, and the subsequent decline of the mass-market paperback romance have made. But for those wishing to know more about the business of genre romance in the twentieth century, Markert gives a detailed history:
Chapter 2 focuses on Canadian publisher Harlequin from 1949 to 1979. Beginning with its move from a general mass-market to a specialized product publisher of romance only, Markert charts the decisions that led to the company's dominance of the genre romance market, particularly after newly appointed President Lawrence Heisey began to market the Harlequin "brand" rather than its individual books and authors. Much of the same ground is covered in the above-mentioned Love's Sweet Return, although interviews with key Harlequin layers add color and detail to the familiar story.
Chapter 3 presents a round-up of the other, primarily New York City-based, publishers who entered (or attempted to enter) the suddenly lucrative romance market in the wake of the emergence of the new "sensual historical romance" pioneered by Avon with the publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss's paperback original The Flame and the Flower (1972) and Rosemary Rodgers' Sweet Savage Love (1974). As I wrote about earlier on the blog, this chapter notes the now almost forgotten role that Playboy Press took in the popularization of what later became known as "bodice ripper" of the 1970s, in particular their invention of the "heaving bosom"-style cover illustration. But it also touches upon other, often less successful publishing forays into the newly lucrative romance market, by publisher such as Zebra Books, Fawcett Books, and Richard Gallen Books.
Chapter 4 traces the introduction and growth of Silhouette Books, a romance line created by Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books to compete with Harlequin, after Harlequin terminated its distribution agreement with S&S. The battle for romance market share between the two companies lasted only four years, from 1980 to 1984, until Harlequin offered to purchase Silhouette and integrated the other company's lines into its own.
Chapter 6 focuses on less successful attempts to cash in on the growth of the genre romance market, such as those at NAL and Ballantine, few of which survived after 1985. Markert attributes their failure to poor management decisions, pushing editors to churn out higher and higher numbers of books, leading to a subsequent decrease in literary quality. Markert also notes the beginnings of romance "niches," or subgenres, during the mid-1980s, with Christian publishers entering the market, and Harlequin's new line of romance-mysteries.
Chapter 7, which draws primarily on a dissertation by Katherine Kirkland and on Markert's own previous research, examines what Markert terms the editorial reasons for the failure of many romance lines in the 1980s. "Editors, however, were somewhat myopic in their evaluation of the field. Editors asked romance readers to tell them what they wanted from the novels of the 1980s, but by and large they turned a deaf ear to the input they solicited," Markert opines. This chapter contains some pretty broad, and not always substantiated, claims, I felt, claims that occasionally veer into sexist territory. Did writers who wrote because they cared about money, not because they had a passion for the genre, truly lower romance writing standards? Did younger editors, caught up in the sexual revolution of the 1970s, simply ignore the wishes of older readers for books with more traditional gender roles, or is this rather the interpretation of more established romance writers, discontented by the requests their younger editors were making of them (see Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance)? Might the failures of many publishers who tried to enter the romance field be due to poor or misguided marketing, rather than (or only because of) "authors of dubious talent [seeking] to grab their fifteen minutes of fame" (133)?
Markert seems on firmer ground in Chapter 8, in which he describes Harlequin's recapturing of romance market supremacy after its purchase of Silhouette from Pocket Books. The purchase of Harlequin by Torstar in 1975 marked the beginning of a shift in the business, from what Markert terms "a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants upstart" to a "corporate giant" (144). Under the direction of David Galloway (1983-88), Brian Hickey (1988-2001) and Donna Hayes (2002-2013), Harlequin grew from a company with sales of over $300 million (1989) to $468 million (2010). The chapter concludes with a discussion of the myriad publishing lines Harlequin has opened (and closed) over the twenty-five year period between 1990 and 2014, and a discussion of Harlequin's growth in the international market: by 2010, its books had been published in 111 countries and in 32 languages (184).
This chapter ends with a discussion of the "long, somewhat tortuous road for American American romances" (242), from Elsie Bernice Washington's Entwined Destinies in 1980 to the introduction of several African-American romance lines by publishers whose other lines continue to feature primarily white protagonists. Markert proves rather oblivious to his own whiteness in this section, stating, for example, "The cover is likely to feature a picture of an African-American if the author is African-American, and this can be off-putting for a white reader." He cites African-American romance author Farrah Rochon to support his claim: "I think... a [white] reader might say [to herself] that this isn't for me if it has a black character on it," he quotes Rochon as telling him in an interview (246). That Rochon was probably too polite to point out to white Markert that such white readers were acting out of racism doesn't excuse his use of her quote to make it seem that "being an African American writer garners sales among African [Americans] but at the same time prevents them from becoming a success among a wider audience," is just an unfortunate fact of the business rather than the result of lingering stereotypes and racist attitudes among white romance readers, editors, and publishers.
|Kathryn Falk announcing the closure of Romantic Times|
Markert concludes by arguing that "the forecast of publishing's demise is greatly exaggerated. Mainstream houses may not be doomed, but they do have to change the way they do business, and they are" (281). Given the current tumult in the book publishing market, particular in the genre romance market, I'm not sure I am as sanguine about traditional publishers' futures as Markert is. Even if his future predictions for the the traditional romance market prove to be flawed, Markert's survey of the wider romance publishing business in the second half of the twentieth century gives those of us who study the genre, as well as those more generally interested in its history and development, a wealth of information and primary sources in which to delve.
Pocket Books: Pinterest
Vivian Stephens: Bowling Green State University Library
40 publishers: Bookfox
Kathryn Faulk at RT: youtube