WTF are you doing to Harlequin and Carina, HarperCollins?

by Sunita

[Updated below.]

I don’t follow romanceland news as assiduously as I used to, let alone participate in it, but I am still very interested in publishing as an industry and cultural force. So it was with both bemusement and horror that I took in the information that Joanne Grant and Angela James, the Editorial Directors of Harlequin Series and Carina respectively, had been informed that their positions were being eliminated and their last day at the company would be July 19. Neither executive appears to have received much advance notice, and of course the annual RWA conference, where both would have been working and have already planned for, is next week. This kind of corporate behavior is up there with investment firms and professional sports teams, two entities whose personnel policies no business should want to emulate.

While most of the romance chatter has been in reaction to Angela James’s removal, it’s a Very Big Deal for all of Harlequin and Carina. Some people speculated that it signals the end of Carina, but I don’t think so. In the Absolute Write forum thread for Carina, Sonya Heaney points out that HC did something similar in Australia:

The director of Harlequin Australia’s digital-first imprint left last year, and when no replacement was appointed – and then the imprint’s website disappeared – people were pretty sure it would fold. However, now Harlequin Australia has taken over the line fully, and the same editors and publishers for HQ and Mira are dealing with the digital-first authors.

HC hasn’t put out a statement yet that I’ve seen, and I haven’t been able to find any trade stories (e.g. Publisher’s Weekly) as of this writing, but Anna Zabo posted an excerpt from the email that went out to (some but not all) Harlequin and Carina authors. For obvious reasons people are concentrating on the removals of Grant and James, but I found the first two paragraphs of the excerpt equally interesting:

The series editorial team will be led by Dianne Moggy, VP Editorial. Dianne will be responsible for all Global Series and Carina Press Editorial programs, as well as the Author Engagement and Communications team. Dianne’s senior editorial team will be Glenda Howard, Sr. Executive Editor NY; Bryony Green, Executive Editor UK; Kathleen Scheibling, Executive Editor Toronto; Kerri Buckley, Sr. Editor Carina Press; and Malle Vallik, Editorial Director Author Engagement.

The Harlequin Brand Group will aggressively build the Harlequin and Carina Press brands and grow sales through new programs like Harlequin Studios, the Feel Good Project and other New Business Development opportunities.

This supports Heaney’s argument that HC is changing the structure rather than starting to eliminate imprints, although structural change could well result in line consolidation (remember that Harlequin killed a bunch of lines recently). Everything will now be under one umbrella and a layer of editing/acquisition, the layer that gave Harlequin and Carina some of their distinctiveness and internal influence, has been eliminated. This can’t be good for authors, any more than the elimination of lines was, the argument that they could submit to existing lines notwithstanding (anecdotal evidence is that some authors have been able to migrate but lots haven’t).

The second paragraph, about growing sales through new programs, led me to check out what these new programs are. Harlequin Studios is predictable: given the explosion of demand for new content at streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon, it makes sense for HC to have a Harlequin-branded TV initiative, and they have recently made a deal with CTV for 20 TV movies.

The other initiative, the Feel Good Project, is … well, it did not leave me Feeling Good. I’d seen a banner for it when I hopped over to the Harlequin Books site a couple of days ago but didn’t know what it was for and didn’t click through. I did this time and discovered it’s some weird amalgam of author appearances, workshops on wellness and self-actualization, and local boosterism. Here’s a link to information on the first Feel Good Day, to be held in October in San Antonio, TX. The tickets cost $199 (!!!), and tickets to the end-of-day cocktail party are an extra $35. I would imagine that spending the entire day at this thing would make cocktails an absolute necessity.

I’d rather stick a fork in my eye than spend a day like the one laid out here, but I’m not the target audience. I also know that one-day conventions and events are quite popular, e.g., the RARE cons held in Europe, Avon’s KissCon, and successful indie author cons, which have been going on for a while. My guess is that HC is trying to expand its a presence in this medium, focusing on its existing base and then perhaps moving outward to non-white, younger, international participants. Perhaps.

I have no idea what this means for romance readers who aren’t part of this demographic, or the authors who write for them, but it can’t be good if HC is aggressively pursuing a Goop-meets-romance strategy under the Harlequin brand. But given the collapse of the mass market print book and the migration of romance authors and readers to self-publishing, trad publishing is scrambling to find a way to stay profitable in the future. HC is a big conglomerate with aggressive demands for profit from its imprints. Harlequin is a very valuable brand, but it’s not a highly profitable brand these days, from what I can tell.

It makes me very sad. I stare at my 400+ Harlequin TBR and think, why am I writing about Harlequin as if it’s still what it was in the past? It’s not the same, the authors aren’t the same, and it’s going to get more and more distant from that past which I’m so attached to.

I don’t have a witty or pithy conclusion. I’m just sitting here gobsmacked and depressed with a lot of other readers. I feel so badly for Angela James and Joanne Grant, who have done wonderful, wonderful things for the genre. I wish them nothing but the best and hope that the world is still able to find them new positions that reward their talent and experience.


Publisher’s Weekly has a story on the restructuring. It basically confirms what the email said, i.e., Harlequin Series and Carina are being consolidated under one branch, Harlequin Brand Group, while the rest of the imprints (HQN, Mira, etc.) will now be housed together under the Harlequin Trade Publishing Group. Harlequin Teen has turned into Inkyard Press and will be in Harlequin Trade.

The split makes some sense to me, since Mira, HQN, Harlequin Teen, and more recently Graydon House have been treated as standalone imprints with different editors, books lengths, and the like. What it also does is emphasize that single titles are now trade books. I wonder if there will still be many mass-market-first books published anymore? My guess is no.

One more thought: I see the comment that romance is a huge market and highly profitable for publishers repeated a lot. The figure of more than $1 billion in sales is also set forth to justify the critical position of the genre to publishing. But it’s worth remembering that the definition of romance being used there is not what romance readers consider genre. Nicholas Sparks, all of Nora Roberts, romance-adjacent suspense, etc. are usually included. Right now, the core romance novel, what we voracious romance readers have traditionally considered romance, the book where if you take the romance out there’s no story, is not what is on the upswing today. The growing markets are YA and inspirational, with RS and other-world romance (PNR, UF) staying strong. My guess is that WF and historical fiction with romantic elements are also doing OK. But Harlequin wouldn’t have cut lines if those lines were profitable.

Mass market has never had big margins, and the migration of readers and authors to self-pub has killed single titles in the genre. And Amazon’s horrible search functions haven’t helped, not when so many books are sold through Amazon.