Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Thoughts on John Markert's PUBLISHING ROMANCE: The History of an Industry, 1940s to the Present

Looking back at my Goodreads history, I see that I began reading John Markert's Publishing Romance: The History of an Industry, 1940s to the Present all the way back in November of 2017. It's an invaluable piece of research about the history of the business, moving beyond Margaret Ann Jensen's Love's Sweet Return: The Harlequin Story (1984) and Jay Dixon's The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s (1999) to examine all of the North American publishers that, at one time or another over the course of the past 75 years, been actively engaged in printing and selling books in the genre known as romance. Markert's book serves as a vital resource for those interested in how business decisions have shaping the romance novel as we know it today; his interviews with many key industry players will serve as rich primary source material for scholars far into the future. But that very strength is also one of this volume's main weaknesses: taking at face value the assertions of his interviewees, or occasionally even misreading them, and not probing very deeply about other possible motivations besides business-related ones for the decisions they made, often make the book feel at times like a look at an industry by an outsider than a thoughtful, analytical history. The result, then, is a book as frustrating as it is informative, which is perhaps why it took me so long to get through it.

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 1 recounts the beginnings of the mass market paperback, with the creation of Pocket Books in the 1940s.

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.

Vivian Stephens
Chapter 5 introduces the "romance phenomenon of the 1980s," with the rise of "contemporary liberated romances," epitomized by Dell's new "Ecstacy" line edited by the innovative Vivian Stephens. Many more other publishers, finally overlooking their sexist contempt for the genre and recognizing the potential for romance to be a major contributor to their bottom lines, began to start their own romance lines, too, and to promote women to edit the books for them. Berkley-Jove's Second Chance at Love line, edited by Carolyn Nichols, and Bantam's Circle of Love, which was later dropped and replaced by Loveswept (also edited by Nichols, who had moved to Bantam in 1983) were the most successful.

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).

In Chapter 9, Markert's focus is on "Line Diversification." He opens by discussing publishers other that Harlequin that are players in the current romance market: the "Big Five" New York City houses Bertelsmann (which acquired Bantam and later Doubleday and Random House), Hachette, HarperCollins (now the owner of Harlequin), Simon & Schuster, and Holtzbrinck; and the three large independent houses Kensington, Scholastic, and Sourcebooks. At the opening of the twenty-first century, all eight companies are facing challenges from the introduction of digital and self-publishing; as Markert notes, "Mainstream publishers are now suddenly finding that they are not competing with each other but with smaller companies that have not been on their radar; they now find themselves trying to adapt, but they are reacting too slowly and losing ground to the smaller upstarts" (201). The bulk of the chapter focuses on formerly "niche" romance subgenres that now serve as the largest, or the main, income stream for many smaller publishers: YA for Scholastic; Christian romance for Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, Bethany House, Revell;  LGBTQ for Riptide, Bold Strokes, Cleis, Dreamspinner, and others; and erotica for Ellora's Cave, Samhain, Siren, Totally Bound, Entangled, Loose Id, and more. That many of the "xrotic" (erotic) publishers that Markert cites as success stories have closed their doors since the publication of his book demonstrates just how volatile the current romance market is.

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
Chapter 10, which discusses "romance publishing at the Outset of the New Millennium," proves the most disappointing of the book. As noted earlier, major changes have taken place in the industry since Markert finished writing his book, changes that are already remaking the industry: the closure of many digital-only publishers; the increasing rise of mid-list romance authors self-publishing; the closing of many Harlequin lines in the wake of Simon & Schuster's 2014 acquisition of the Canadian publisher; and the demise of Romantic Times, which Markert points to as a major influencer in the romance market.

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.

Photo credits:
Pocket Books: Pinterest
Vivian Stephens: Bowling Green State University Library
40 publishers: Bookfox
Kathryn Faulk at RT: youtube

John Markert
McFarland, 2016


  1. Thanks for the analysis and OMFG on his take on the POC colors front. I'd add that I'm not sure how much of the volatility of smaller, newer publishers is due to market forces versus how new, small companies in general in every industry tend to fail - nature of the beast in entreneurialism due to founders not knowing how to run a business, or having less deep pockets to withstand low points, or how tough it is for anyone to build a client base and brand, etc.

  2. Thanks for this! Overall, I agree with your take on this book. The marketing approach was novel and interesting to me, even though he seems determined to attribute everything about popular romance to marketers. Still, the book makes a useful companion to more literary histories.
    Regarding his section on African-American romance, it brought to mind Beverly Jenkins' take on race and readership: "People say, 'Well, I can't relate.' But you can relate to shapeshifters, you can relate to vampires, you can relate to werewolves, but you can't relate to a story written by and about black Americans? I got a problem with that."

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