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