While the recession might be hard on some publishers, the romance novel genre is booming, reports the NYT.
Harlequin Enterprises, the queen of the romance world, reported that
fourth-quarter earnings were up 32 percent over the same period a year
earlier, and Donna Hayes, Harlequin’s chief executive, said that sales
in the first quarter of this year remained very strong. While sales of
adult fiction overall were basically flat last year, according to
Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales, the
romance category was up 7 percent after holding fairly steady for the
previous four years.
What the story doesn’t say, is that eHarlequin, Harlequin’s website, is one of the best-thought-out commercial social networking sites on the net. It turns out that a significant
number of romance novel readers believe that they too could write a trashy book. Rather than just treating these people just as book buyers, Harlequin built a community around them and turned eHarlequin into the go-to site for romance novels.
There you can meet Harlequin’s editors and see what they’re looking for. You can meet other readers, have your writing critiqued, learn how to write compelling characters, about plot development, network with fans, meet and chat with your favorite writers. You can’t be interested in this genre and not go to this site.
eHarlequin isn’t just interactive in that its staff responds to readers, it takes the interaction steps further by making it possible for readers to meet and interact with one another. This is where people make friends. This is where talk about things that are of interest to them. Instead of just producing a lot of content for the site, Harlequin relies on the community to
create much of it. eHarlequin is less a producer of online content than it is a facilitator of social interaction.
So what? The so what is that Harlequin has turned consumers into community, one that builds and strengthens an audience for the company’s books. Harlequin isn’t just a consumer choice for these people, it’s something they’re a part of and that they have loyalty to. They’re ambassadors for it.
Contrast eHarlequin to the way most arts groups market. Their websites are little more than electronic brochures. They sell tickets in an increasingly crowded marketplace as a commodity rather than a lifestyle choice. They think of audience members as interchangeable; a ticket sold is a ticket sold.
In fact, a ticket sold is not just a ticket sold. Successful web companies today think of themselves less as producers of content than facilitators of community. The definition of success in the new web economy is not in attracting eyes for content, but in getting the people behind those eyes to create something in response. If they do, they’ll surely be back. If they do, they’ll bring other people back with them. If they do, they’ll expand the base that supports the community.
Nothing new here. Amway, Mary Kay, mega-churches, and more recently the Obama campaign have understood the power of building communities around you. Harlequin understands that if it can build and energize a community, it has expanded its market. And (and this is no small thing), by being part of the community itself, Harlequin comes to understand its audience better and gets to see what matter to them. This is market research gold.