Debunking the romantic genre: A talk with Harlequin’s Susan Swinwood

Image of a man and woman about to kiss, a poster for a Harlequin event

First of all, let me just say that there is always something happening in Toronto, and such was the case last night, March 19, 2014. My plan was to have a relaxing evening at home, watching episodes and baking cookies for my coworkers at UTP Journals, however, this was not to be.

Twitter, the social media king, alerted me to an event being put on by the Book and Media Studies Student Association at the University of Toronto. The event was about exploring the publishing industry from the perspective of romantic fiction, and the lecture was given by the lovely and extremely patient (she had quite the line up of admirers afterward during the reception), Susan Swinwood, who is the executive editor at HQN Harlequin, the giant of romance publishing.

Susan Swinwood, Executive Editor at HarlequinSusan’s detailed lecture really opened up the idea of what can be considered romantic fiction, and she made a great point: we all read it (and yes, even the guys). The theme of romance runs across a variety of genres, and we see it in almost every book we read, such as erotica (obviously), romance (obviously, again), historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, and so on. The only thing Harlequin does differently than other publishers is that it OWNS it. In all honesty, no other publishing house can claim the same prestige in one given genre the way Harlequin can with romance.

But Harlequin is not just those steamy monthly copies you see in variety stores and gas stations. Harlequin has grown and expanded with the times. Its series now include books that have a longer shelf life and stay in bookstores just like any other trade fiction title. These books are published by specific Harlequin imprints, such as HQN and MIRA, and they target not only their current readers, but also new readers who are looking for that popular romance author that isn’t going to disappear after a month’s time.

Significantly, Harlequin was also one of the first publishers to start developing digital copies of its books and backlist, taking advantage of what was new technology then even before it started to dominate publishing as a whole. And during the recession, Harlequin saw an increase in sales rather than the decrease that most publishers experienced. Romance has a dedicated readership and Harlequin is well aware of this and takes full advantage. The team effort that is put into producing and marketing all of Harlequin’s titles is just inspiring, to say the least.

I was also amazed by how well Harlequin has catered to its audience, publishing books in a wide variety of categories: historical, thriller, teen, paranormal, classic romance, African-American, and many more. Harlequin even has a line of books targeted at male readers! Branching out in this way ensures that Harlequin stays on top and stable despite publishing’s rocky foundation these days. It is something other publishers have been following suit with, becoming more digital and more innovative to keep readers reading.

Alas, like all publishing professionals, Susan was realistic and honest about the future of publishing. It has changed A LOT and continues to as technology keeps being developed and as I mentioned above, publishers have to keep abreast of it all in order to remain relevant. Despite this slightly depressing turn in the conversation, Susan finished by casting a ray of sunshine into the apparent abyss of publishing’s lifeline: as long as there are dedicated readers and authors who want the prestige of a physical book in their hands, there will be publishers and the printed word.

To conclude, I love romance, but I have never been an avid reader of Harlequin, and Image of two Harlequin books, the best man and the Returnedmaybe it was a bit because of the stigma attached to the brand from “bad writing” to “romantic fluff.” Those romantic series that are recycled every month and that I see my boyfriend’s grandma reading are probably still not my cup of tea, but I did pick up two of Harlequin’s imprint titles from HQN and MIRA that Susan brought along to give out (free books are always welcome!). The Returned is actually the inspiration behind the hit television series Resurrection, so fans of the show will definitely want to get their hands on this book, as I have heard great things about both the show and now (thanks to Susan), the book.

Now, I’m not saying Harlequin is for everyone, and I’m not sure if it is for me yet either, but Harlequin’s new brands certainly stand a good fighting chance for those of us who can’t stomach buying the ones with a half dressed man and a woman clinging to his bare chest on the cover (as you can see from above, the two books I chose do not feature this signature cover choice).

Either way, Susan Swinwood certainly cleared away the common misconceptions surrounding the romantic genre and gave it a whole new coat of paint. I will now be cringing a lot less when I say that one of my favourite genres is romance. It’s not sappy or nonsense, but what I and many women want to read (and want in their life. Ahem! Hint, hint, gentlemen). I mean, if you are willingly going to read Fifty Shades of Grey out in the open, Harlequin is a step up, at least in my opinion.

So pick up a Harlequin…I dare you :p

You can check out Harlequin’s titles on their website and on Twitter @HarlequinBooks

If you’re interested in other events the Books and Media Studies Student Association may have or the association itself, they are also on Twitter @BMSSA_UofT 

The inauguration day of Toronto’s new lit fest: Pages Festival + Conference

logo for pages festivalThere are a lot of people who will claim that festivals celebrating books and publishing are fading out of existence. However, with the rise of a new festival on the literary scene, the written word seems just as popular as it was the day Gutenberg invented the printing press!

The evening of March 13, 2014, I attended the official launch day of the inaugural Pages Festival + Conference: Unbound, hosted at the Randolph Theatre in Toronto.

Because it was the first festival event, there were various speeches, introductions, and expressions of gratitude that had to be given at the beginning. The main spokesman on behalf of the festival committee was the artistic director of This is Not a Reading Series, Marc Glassman, who was also the proprietor of the bookstore Pages Books & Magazines on Queen Street West in Toronto for 30 years. Glassman was the one who founded the festival with the objective to explore the “evolving word” in the digital age.

It was during this interlude that I took the time to look around, and I noticed that besides myself and maybe ten to fifteen other audience members, the majority of the night’s spectators was made up mostly of an elderly crowd. I quickly found out why with Glassman’s introduction of Bob Bossin: folksinger, activist, writer.

banner of Bob Bossin

My attendance of the festival having been a last minute decision after a long day at work, I was unaware of the musical and historical delights the night had in store for me. It seemed that everyone in the audience knew who Bob Bossin was but me. However, it didn’t take long to realize that he was a man with a few interesting stories to tell and some catchy tunes to sing.

Davy the Punk book by Bob BossinThe book he has written is called Davy the Punk and is a narrative about the life of his father, Davy, who turned out to be a lot more than just a father figure. Referred to as “Davy the Punk” by those he worked with, Davy, unbeknownst to his son at the time, was an intimate part of Toronto’s gambling underworld in the 1930s and 40s, and one of Toronto police’s most elusive quarry.

While I haven’t read the book myself, I was fascinated by the small excerpts Bob gave us, from free baseball tickets magically being given to his uncle and new bride to unsuccessful police raids on his father’s place of business. Bob’s renditions truly brought the era to life through his manner of expression and his Godfather-like “gangster” impressions. His personal investment in his father’s story was evident throughout the night and during the conversational interview held between him and former Premier, classmate, and old friend, Bob Rae.

But perhaps the most memorable part of the evening was when Bob Bossin reunited with his 1970s Stringband and played old favourites that had the audience singing along.The folksongs were simple enough to pick up, and I found myself easily joining inBob Bossin and the Stringband with the rest of the crowd. I think my favourite song of the evening had to be “Show Us the Length” — crude and catchy, I was chuckling to myself and humming the song long after the performance was over. I now wish I had thought to record it, but if you’re interested in hearing clips of the Stringband’s music you can check it out in the Jukebox section of Bob Bossin’s personal website <http://www.bossin.com/>, and it thankfully includes my favourite (which you will have to listen to yourself to discover why I find it so  utterly amusing).

Although I wasn’t able to get a book that evening (I wasn’t exactly relishing the idea of battling the older crowd intent on reminiscing and getting their books signed), I definitely recommend checking this title out, especially for its rich take on local history where “Toronto the Good” shows its darker side.

While I wasn’t able to attend any other festival days, there is no doubt in my mind that each was as delightfully entertaining in its own way with more author events alongside panel discussions during the day-long conference.

If you are interested in learning more about the Pages Festival + Conference, you can learn more about it on their website, Facebook page, or Twitter.

Also, if you are as intrigued by Bob Bossin’s book as much as I am, you can get a copy at The Porcupine’s Quill, Indigo, Amazon, or independent bookstores.

At home with Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro

A couple of days ago Margaret Atwood interviewed Alice Munro on Google+ Hangout, her first live appearance since winning the Nobel Prize. Anyone around the world could tune in for the chance to see this unedited chat between best friends.

Random House is always great at providing its fans with new media and VIP access to authors and author content, and the publicity and marketing staff took it one step further by giving readers around the world the chance to have a live onscreen view of the Novel prize-winning short story writer everyone has been dying to see since the groundbreaking announcement: Alice Munro.

Despite some whiplash flipping back and forth between video feeds, somewhat poor video quality (at least on Atwood’s end, unfortunately), and the usual technical difficulties, the Google Hangout was a hit with 572 live viewers. I’m sure plenty more have tuned in after the fact now that Random House has uploaded the recorded conversation to YouTube.

The conversation lasted approximately 18 minutes with Atwood asking Munro a variety of questions that probably only she could ask and receive an open and honest response to, such as why Munro’s love for short stories, her response past hate mail, and what she thinks of the accusation that her characters aren’t likeable enough.

Readers are often in awe of the authors they adore, making them out to be superhuman or something along those lines. Not so, as Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood prove through their very down-to-earth and human banter about people, books, and writing, with all the familiar idiosyncrasies of everyday life.

The video, which you can conveniently view above in this blog post, is therefore a fun and intimate glimpse into the friendship of two of Canada’s most prolific writers. Well worth tuning in for old and new fans alike!