• Business

The Global Boom in Bodice-Rippers

3 minute read
Andrea Sachs

Romance novels, an inexpensive escape for women, are helping some publishers hide from the worst of the recession. Frequently an impulse purchase, mass-market paperback romances, often bought on the run at drugstores and supermarkets, cost $4.75 to $5.99–a bargain when hardcover editions are typically $25 or more. Trade romances, which cost up to $14, are still a relatively good buy. The bodice rippers piled up nearly $1.4 billion in sales last year, the largest share of the consumer book market. More than 1 out of 4 books sold is a romance.

Harlequin Enterprises, the Toronto-based company that is the world’s largest romance publisher, has been a great story for parent company Torstar, which owns the Toronto Star. Newspaper revenues are declining, but at Torstar’s Harlequin division, revenues were up 8.7%, to $225.5 million in the first half, although the weak Canadian dollar accounted for some of the increase. That’s an impressive result in a year when publishing giant Random House reported that its sales were down 4% in the first six months of the fiscal year.

Harlequin CEO Donna Hayes credits the recession with having lifted the company’s profits. “We tend to do better than we would otherwise because we have the benefit of the kind of story that is very uplifting in all of our books.” A happy ending is a sine qua non of romance fiction: girl catches guy, and all is well with the world. Hayes also credits series romance books, sold monthly like magazines, with lifting sales. “Where else can you get two or three or four hours of entertainment for $5 or less?” she asks.

Romance fiction, like romance itself, is global. Harlequin sells in 114 markets on six continents. With more than 110 new titles a month, the company has big bills for authors (1,100 worldwide) and translators (the company publishes in 28 languages). Harlequin doesn’t localize the novels, though. “A love story is a love story,” says Hayes. English-language writers in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia provide most of the output, which Harlequin has found sells just as well in other countries.

Covers are another story. Famous for their bodacious bosoms and six-pack abs, they must be toned down in some markets. “We’d be likely to have more modest-looking covers in India,” where, says Hayes, “generally, women are less likely to want to carry around a book that is very explicit.” Not so in the West. “Increasingly, romance fiction is for women who move their hips when they read,” joked a Canadian journalist.

Once a romance habit develops, a reader tends to stay hooked. “It’s a lovely addiction to have,” says Diane Pershing, president of the Romance Writers of America, the romance authors’ guild. “The average romance reader is such a loyal person that if she finds a new author she likes, she’ll get the entire backlist. That helps sales.” (Pershing is the author of 19 romance novels, a dozen of them with Harlequin.) Studies bear that out. Bowker, a research firm, says nearly a third of purchases are author-driven. Harlequin’s star, Debbie Macomber, is No. 1 on the New York Times mass-market paperback fiction list, with 140 million copies in print in her career.

Harlequin, determined to follow its female audience, is branching out into nonfiction and young-adult literature. It is a leader in e-book sales but intends to focus on romance novels for a happy financial ending. “Women for the most part are pretty obsessed with relationships. I certainly know I am,” says Hayes. And in Harlequin’s world, she adds, “they may not walk down the aisle, but the ending will be positive.”

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