Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Harlequin Mills and Boon have a Dirty Secret

The Changing Faces of Harlequin Mills and Boon Romances.

They say if you stop growing you wither and die. Perhaps that's why, on the Harlequin community boards, the current buzzword is Change.  Things are changing.  They are looking for new and fresh authors offering new and fresh perspectives on the age old stories of love and romance.

The range of imprints, the different genre styles under the HM&B label is continually growing.  You can read romances that feature just about any scenario you can imagine.  Intrigue brings you husky military types and cops who will protect and defend the range of feisty or vulnerable heroines on offer, Paranormal romance introduces you to some pretty interesting Werewolves, Vampires, Shape Shifters and so on along including people with Powers. Yes that's a capital P.

Then of course you have the old favourites, Historical and Contemporary Romances and Medical.  But there are genres within genres. The most obvious being Toasty Warm, Hot, Hotter, Off the Chart.  In contemporary this translates, (depending on your country of origin), into Sweet/Romance, Sexy/Modern/Presents, Desire and Blaze.  There are of course a whole lot of other subsections like the Inspire and Heartwarming range that offer sweet wholesome stuff with minimal heat. More like a candle flame than a raging forest fire. If that isn't enough the eBook only, Carina brand, offers just about anything else, with the only notable exclusion, according to the writers guidelines, being Incest and Bestiality.

You would think then, that with something for everyone, there would be something for everyone.  I had a conversation today with the owner of a second hand book store that made me stop and think, "maybe not". Actually I had 40 minutes to think about it, as I was in a neighbouring town and had to drive home.  This particular shop had the HM&B section partitioned into the older romances and the newer ones, with slightly varying prices.  .75 cents for older, one dollar for newer.

The owner was telling me that, once upon a time, not so long ago, (nice start to the story), most of her romance customers would head straight for the newer more expensive books.  Now they target the older books.  The recession you think?  My first thought.  But the owner seemed to think differently. In her opinion the older books are offering something to the readers they can't find in the newer stories. We had quite a long discussion about favourite authors, and she brought up one of her long time best reads. She no longer reads that author for the reason that, in making her books contemporary, the author has started to bring in elements that annoyed and even dismayed her.  Another pet peeve for the bookshop owner are children.  Babies and children seemed to be proliferating (something I mention on a previous blog).  Medical in particular seem to have more babies even than the Sweet lines of stories.

In meditating on this conversation it occurred to me that perhaps in bringing in all these Changes, HM&B might be leaving behind a core demographic.  I understand why the changes.  They want their romances to reflect current trends to be more attractive to the modern woman.  They are trying to attract a younger readership, and contemporary stories that reflect the realities of modern life, they consider are more likely to build a following in that demographic.  I also believe they are trying desperately hard to rid themselves of what they believe to be the public perception of supposedly cliché ridden story lines and hack writing that has dogged the romance genre for decades.

I just hope that they haven't altogether thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  The success of Harlequin Mills & Boon over many decades has been built on a certain style of book.  For most readers over those decades the idea of "A Pleasant Book" was comforting.  They knew exactly what they were getting within the scope of the genre. Not that they were all the same but there were certain accepted "Rules" about what was acceptable, what they believed their readership wanted to read.   Mills and Boon knew this and that is why when they heated up a notch in the 70's they created the Presents line so that people had a choice. The multiple imprints available today confirm this. Choice is important because everyone has slightly different ideas about what constitutes a pleasant read.

I used to divide my reading into two nicely delineated slots.  Comfort reading that included my Romances and my Golden Age Murder Mysteries constituted one of these.  Everything else was, well, everything else.  It included things that might challenge me, upset me, even annoy me. It included things I read for research or because people are talking about it.  So it was easy to choose. Not up to being challenged, provoked or disturbed...go to the Prozac shelf and select a Harlequin Mills and Boon, a Heyer or a Christie.

Now I have a middle section that doesn't quite fit into either.  What might that be, you ask?  My recently published HM&B Romances.  Because they are no longer always safe reads.  At times they challenge me, provoke me, annoy the hell out of me, and sometimes are deeply distressing.  God forbid they've turned into <gasp> NOVELS. Yes gentle reader,  the modern HM&B romance has a dirty secret.  If you aren't careful you might find yourself reading a novel.  Like a REAL book that has more to do with reality than escapism. More to do with delving into motivation and psychology than presenting "types" that we can identify with while living the fantasy.

Is this what the reader wants?  Well obviously they do.  The sales continue to grow and the fresh authors introducing these story lines are writing brilliant stories of contemporary life and love with new and innovative plots that tantalise and tease.  Will I read them?  I almost certainly will.  But like that delineation I make between a novel and the (loosely based) movie of the same name, these books will not be going on the Prozac Shelves.

So if you see a frumpy middle aged woman in a battered trenchcoat slipping furtively into a second hand book shop, it will probably be me.  I'll be in search of a comfort read on the shelf of older HM&B romances, handling them carefully so the dust doesn't set off my allergy, then asking the book shop owner to wrap them in anonymous brown paper so the rest of the world doesn't see my sad addiction. And that's my dirty little secret.  Sssssshh!


  1. Another great post, Fiona! I, too, have different reads for different moods. Sometimes I feel like a good historical read. And I have my favorite comfort reads. But I also enjoy fast-paced, sexy reads with spark. And I do believe Harlequin Mills and Boon has something for everyone!

  2. I love this post! I am so glad Wendy shared this on Twitter. What a brilliant essay on the changes made in the romance world of Mills & Boon. I loved those "safe" stories so much when I was a teenager and young woman. Now I am trying to write the modern stories that make women think a bit more. The greatest challenge is to write a "novel" in 50,000 words or less. As one author stated, it's like "staging Swan Lake in a phone booth." I should go back and read the originals as a lesson.

    Thanks for this post.

  3. A fascnating post Fiona - thank you. As an author who has now been writing for more than 25 years, the changes in romance writing/publishing have been a challenge and a fascination. It always makes me smile when romances are accused of always staying the same and never altering as times change for women and the readers we write for - but as your post shows the romance writing world is a growing, developing 'living' thing. Some changes will please, some less so but at least the books don't stagnate.

    Christine - I love that saying "staging Swan Lake in a phone booth." I must remember that!

  4. Thanks for the responses. It is interesting to mark the changes over the years. Some of my earliest vintage romances date from the thirties and in some ways the stories were more daring than the ones from the sixties and seventies. I have one from the late thirties where the heroine contracts a bigamous marriage as a teenager and bears a child who she lost. She meets the hero six years later. A movingly told story that makes me cry every time.
    Absolutely love the "staging Swan lake in a phone booth" quote. So very apt. It is amazing how much solid worth is being fitted into a relatively small book and getting smaller.

  5. Hi Fiona,

    I enjoy your posts. I loved reading the 70's M&B with the virgin heroines and now I also love all these hot steamy reads! Maybe because I needed those virgin heroines back then! And my own life evolved so I enjoy today's stories now.

    But if I do come across a vintage M&B- I definitely read it again!