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ENTERPRISE: What Women Want, Or Kitsch Rewarded

4 minute read

“Place your hand on a woman’s heart and she’s yours instantly,” said the arrogant Greek Julius Spiridon—who was certainly devastating enough to know what he was talking about.

But Gale was not just any woman. She had been hurt and embittered after being cruelly let down by the man she loved, and had vowed never to let a man touch her heart again …

—A Kiss From Satan by Anne Hampson

Those lines have a ring as old as the novel itself, which was born as romantic kitsch for women when Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded was published in 1740. But A Kiss From Satan was written this year and, even in the midst of a pornography boom, it and similar well-scrubbed (though timidly suggestive) paperbacks for women are spinning a new fortune for a Toronto-based publisher, Harlequin Enterprises. The firm’s profits have more than tripled every year since 1970, and now stand at $1.6 million on revenues of $15 million. Harlequin, which has editorial offices in London, has well over 600 gloppy melodramas (Never to Love, Moon Over the Alps, Desert Nurse) in print, some in as many as 15 languages. The company introduces eleven paperback titles monthly; each sells an average 350,000 copies. A monthly magazine of Harlequin romances is sold in Canada and is scheduled to hit newsstands in the U.S. in March.

Having thus swept the ladies off their feet, Harlequin, as insatiable as any Don Juan, has now come up with a marketing approach that promises even further sales. On the premise that the romantic melodramas are addictive, President W. Lawrence Heisey, a 43-year-old Harvard Business School graduate, is offering 2,000,000 copies of a single title, Dark Star, for only 15¢ each. The plot: prim secretary competes with dusky movie starlet for affections of compelling Latin. Dealers across the U.S. are getting the book free; it would normally command about 36¢ wholesale, 60¢ retail.

What turns a normal woman into a Harlequin junkie? The formula requires three ingredients: an exotic setting (Rome, the Caribbean, Africa), a demure heroine whose modest station in life is similar to the reader’s, and a usually rich, arrogant hero who initially patronizes the heroine, then sweeps her off her feet “like a leaf in the wind” into a blissful, totally unLiberated marriage. Curses never go beyond an impetuous hero’s “God’s teeth!” (“What a shocking remark!” exclaims the heroine.) Sex never gets further than a kiss, but manages to crop up in perfervid abundance anyway. (Flushed heroines protest, “No, I don’t go in for promiscuous kissing.”) And the ubiquitous third-person narrator wonders: “What on earth was the matter with her … turning color just because Glyn Harney was now talking about … beds.”

Harlequin books were not always so tame or profitable. Founded 25 years ago by the late Richard H.G. Bonnycastle, a onetime fur trader for the Hudson’s Bay Co., the firm originally churned out cheap reprints of mystery and adventure books—and porn. In 1954 Harlequin’s chief editor died, and Bonnycastle asked his wife to take over the job, which she held until 1967. A woman of more delicate tastes, Mrs. Bonnycastle set the firm on a new course, relying heavily on a London publishing house (now a subsidiary of Harlequin) which has exclusively female, mostly English writers.

With most of those women now middle-aged or better, there is some understandable concern about their prolific creativity at Harlequin. When it appears that they are beginning to lose some of their romantic sparkle, a sort of “monkey-gland” treatment is prescribed to get creative and other juices flowing again. Some authors may find themselves in a London hotel for an elegant lunch with a darkly handsome Latin. Apparently the treatment works. “Keep those good clean books coming,” reads one fan letter typical of the many thousands that the company receives.

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