At Harlequin there is good news on multiple fronts as Harlequin’s financial performance improves and their e-publishing initiatives are showing real signs of resiliency and development. Harlequin began their e-book program in October 2005 when they launched 9 titles and the company announced last week that all front list titles will have e-book versions. To spur growth and motivate buyers the titles are priced below the list price of print titles. As many know, the Harlequin community is incredibly loyal and by accounts read more than 2x as many books as a typical reader. The e-book customer is little different in their (her) dedication: She is willing to overcome the invariable technology issues of e-books to enjoy the benefits of e-books and loves the immediacy and portability that the e-book format enables.
In addition to e-books being available at all known e-retailers and in all formats, the company is also experimenting with content on mobile phones. This distribution method has been insanely popular in Japan and Harlequin has launched a monthly subscription offer that includes chapters, games, polls and reading lists. Priced at $2.49 it is competitive.
The Harlequin community has always been cohesive and eharlequin.com their web community site is now 10 years old. The site traffic is significant with ¾ million page views per month: What other publisher has traffic that large? Currently they receive over 20,000 posts per month discussing and reviewing books, interacting with editors and even pitching their own titles: Fifteen members sold books to Harlequin in 2006.
Yet another more recent initiative is Harlequin Presents (I ♥ Presents) which was launched in February 2007. Among the features, editors and writers post blogs and interact with readers who comment on average 13 comments per blog post. Harlequin has a built in advantage in developing social networking but they could have fumbled it. What is increasingly clear is that they are the dark horse in publisher’s race to engage their customers. Harlequin is proving that social networking will improve reader engagement, has the potential to turn customers into product ambassadors and facilitates two way communication between publisher and customer. Harlequin’s branding is well known in print but they are increasingly making it known online.
And with that intro, I asked Malle Vallik, Harlequin's director of digital content my five questions:
1. Harlequin has always been about community and somewhat 'cultish' in the level of obsessiveness of its readers. Is that an accurate description?
The majority of our readers are avid readers and incredibly knowledgeable about both our authors and our various series. A Harlequin Presents reader loves her Harlequin Presents stories, has favorite themes (like Mediterranean heroes) and knows when the books are available for sale. She shows up on the date the book goes on sale in a bookstore or mass merchandiser and at online retailers on the first of the month when the new titles are released.
Moreoever, our readers do like to share their thoughts about the books; that is what community and all the other new social media platforms offer – a means to connect readers from around the world and authors to readers.
2. Harlequin is doing a lot in online community building and social networking, is the ability to leverage these new technology tools a dream come true for Harlequin in that you are able to build immediate and direct relationships with highly responsive customers? Has this been all good? Tell us how it has it fostered changes in the organization.
Overall, it’s fantastic! You have basically hit the nail on the head. We can build immediate and direct relationships on a global scale. We can connect readers from Texas to Switzerland and connect readers to authors no matter where they are in the world.
We can also connect aspiring authors to our editorial team. Our community hosts writing events from authors along with editor meetings and pitches.
3. What new markets have opened up for Harlequin due to your web initiatives? Any surprises - like men as readers for example. Are these markets segments - narrower elements of existing markets - or are they completely new to Harlequin?
We have been able to create new products specifically for the digital market, whether it is bundles combining several titles together like the NYT bestselling author Jennifer Crusie 4 novel bundle. Or a bundle that makes shopping easier – what we call a one-click bundle. You can get all 8 Presents novels published in one month, with just one click and one download!
We launched the Harlequin Mini, a short story, available only as an eBook in August 2006, and launched Spice Briefs, short erotica, a spin off from our Spice imprint, again available only in eBooks in August 2007. We are publishing 2 – 3 Spice Briefs every month and are publishing both new and existing authors.
Perhaps our biggest surprise is how willingly women are approaching eBooks. It is still a very small part of our business but clearly a big growth area for the future.
4. Do authors bring you new ideas for using networking and the internet in new ways? Does what you do on the web result in new content? How much user content is solicited and used?
Yes, authors bring us new ideas. We work very closely together as a partnership with our authors: we have a website exclusive available to our authors where we offer suggestions on how to use digital more effectively and authors also contribute their case studies and ideas here. This is a collaborative learning experience for us both as we figure out how to maximize time commitment to return.
5. What is next for Harlequin on-line and social networking?
We just launched 100% frontlist in eBooks
We have launched the Harlequin Author Spotlight podcasts and will be soon launching a series of podcasts on how to write romance novels.
We are strengthening and expanding the back end power of our community by building a new platform that will be much more richly integrated into our website and let community members create meaningful profiles that include links to other social media.
We held our first author reading in Second Life yesterday, September 25 with author M.J. Rose, THE REINCARNATIONIST.
We have plans to acquire more eBook only content and other interesting new content for eBooks, create a new kind of eBook (more details to come!) and to continue to work with authors to launch more blogs.