What do Harvard Business Publishing and Harlequin – the publisher of a gazillion romance novels – have in common? More than you might think. I’ve blogged before about Harvard’s efforts to create a community of readers, thinkers, and kibitzers. It turns out that Harlequin has been doing the same for nearly 15 years – long before the Internet made it easy, or at least easier.
The romance novel publisher has a devoted following of mostly women who devour its books, and Harlequin has helped them create a community that talks about a great deal more than the torrid fiction itself. I spoke with some of the people who run Harlequin recently, and Eleanor Elliott, Director, Digital Capabilities, Digital & Internet, explains how they think about their readers:
Harlequin has always had a direct relationship with our readers, and it’s not just about us connecting to them, but also about encouraging and facilitating the connections they make with each other and with our authors. We’ve had an online community for almost 15 years where readers can talk to each other, to Harlequin employees, and to our authors. And while we absolutely talk about what books we’re reading, we also talk about our lives. Over the years our community has shared many milestones together – we’ve celebrated marriages, births, debut author contracts (we love those!) and we’ve also shed a few tears and supported each other through difficult times.
Every year at the Romance Writers of America conference, we host a “Pajama Party”, and it’s always delightful to see people who’ve connected online meet each other IRL (In Real Life) for the first time. It’s very gratifying knowing we created a place where friendship can grow.
What I love about that attitude is that it shows a way of thinking about readers that goes way beyond the obvious and the utilitarian. I’m hoping that some traditional publishers read Eleanor’s words and say to themselves, “Why don’t we do that?”
What’s my angle? As a reader, writer, and passionate follower of all things book-related, the narrow thinking about audience of most of the traditional publishers has always mystified me. More recently, I’ve become alarmed as audiences have continued to fracture and shrink. It’s harder and harder for any but the most established authors to find audiences and the traditional publishers seem absurdly myopic and unhelpful in this regard.
Set against that Harlequin’s flexibility in the face of technological change, as indicated by Eleanor, again:
We use social media extensively. Our digital strategy is not different from what Harlequin’s strategy has always been – which is be where women are. That’s why, decades ago, Harlequin put books in grocery stores. Now, women are the heaviest users of social media, and we need to be there and communicate with them on their terms. We use technology such as discussion forums, chat, blogs, and live video streaming with integrated chat to facilitate that connection. But it’s really not about the tools and gadgets…it’s about how those tools enable the connection that matters. In fact, when we relaunched our community earlier this year, we stripped back on some techno-toys and went with a more traditional discussion forum platform because our members told us that all the bells and whistles got in the way of true, meaningful discussion.
Now, that’s how publishers should be thinking. Yes to technology, but in service to the community. Exactly.
And while so many traditional publishers are predicting Armageddon, Harlequin is cheerfully expanding beyond romance into ‘serious’ fiction and non-fiction and keeping its technological options open. As Craig Swinwood, COO, North America, explains,
From Harlequin’s viewpoint, the publishing landscape is one of great opportunity. One of the pillars of our strategy has always been to provide great reading entertainment for women, whenever, wherever and however they choose to read. As digital publishing increases the availability and accessibility of this content, Harlequin is well positioned to adapt and innovate along the value chain to enhance the reading experience. Great editorial is key and we remain committed to providing it based on how our readers want to consume it.
So today, even though I’ve never read — and certainly never written — a romance novel, I’m grateful to Harlequin for getting what the reading experience is all about and putting its customers first. Thanks to Eleanor, Craig, and Melanie Dulos, who connected us. May traditional publishers begin to get this idea of relating to readers before it's too late.