PONDERING: How Mills and Boon/Harlequin Reinvented Itself

Friday, August 20, 2010 1:00
Posted in category Ponderings

Mills and Boon Harlequin

Ten years ago, the once great giant Mills and Boon/Harlequin was in trouble. Its readership was aging and it wasn’t attracting young readers from the new generation of electronic savvy, newly affluent generation. The books were seen as dated and old-fashioned. If a hero used a laptop, it was a rarity, and condoms weren’t often mentioned. The demographic was all wrong. So without public announcements or making a huge fuss, HMB set about revamping and revitalizing its main category lines – its bread and butter.

Just in case you’re not familiar with it, market analysts, sociologists and the like divide the population into six categories. While efforts to alter it and bring it up to date have been running as long as the categorization, it’s still there. And by and large, it still works. Remember that analysts aren’t interested in the exception, but in the bulk of the population and its habits. There are always exceptions, but much fewer than there are people who prove the rule. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be exceptions, would they?

Here are the socio-economic groups and my explanations. If you want the dry official ones, they’re readily available:
A – dead posh, dead rich, of limited influence because they don’t go into society too much. A lot of inherited wealth. While the people in this group rule the world, they’re hard to reach and influence.
B – celebs, rich people, but more entrepreneurs fit here than in the A class. They can be poor people made good, by education, luck or a particular skill. Lots of leisure time and disposable cash, but not many in number.
C1 – upper middle class, in old terminology. Well off, professional, people like lawyers, university professors, surgeons. A fair amount of leisure time and nice hunks of disposable cash.
C2 – lower middle class. Teachers, doctors, office managers, PA’s. Harder working, less leisure time and disposable cash. In the C2 class we start to see aspirational people – people who buy the magazines that talk about the rich and famous, and who dream of something better. May have more intelligence than cash.
D – ordinary workers, clerks, factory workers, small traders. In the old days of class distinction, these are blue collar workers. In effect, they might have more cash than the C2’s but their status is lower.
E – Poor people who have to work like dogs to make a living wage. No inherited money, no saved wealth, very little leisure time or disposable income.

So there you have it. There’s an old sketch that shows this really well and makes you laugh.

There are more meaningful, more accurate classifications that are used by professionals, but the old ABC1C2DE classification will never die. It’s easy to understand and most people know what you mean. So a statistician preparing a report for other people will sigh heavily and change the 1.1 to 8.6 classifications to the alpha-numeric ones.

So in those terms, ten years ago and more, the HMB audience was primarily C2DE. They sold lots of copies of secretary/boss romances, about innocent, sweet virgins and rough to the point of abusive men. Until the market began to dry up. They also had to contend with an ageing readership. They would die, or move on to something else, and they weren’t being replaced by new readers.

Well that changed, didn’t it? Now you can read reviews of HMB books all over the place.
Modern coverTen year old cover

Clever, that. The ebook authors were keen on getting a wider readership, and let’s face it, a living wage, and they knew the ins and outs of book production. Many already had good reputations, websites, readers, and they’d already had what egos they started with pulverized by editors, low sales and publisher closures. They could work with the new writers. And at HMB, it’s the brand first, the category second, and then the author. The ebook author was also familiar with what sold best. They could bring that savvy to the company, but were still hungry enough to adapt to the tiny royalties, modest advances that the publisher produced. Because sales were great.

HMB has always been big on marketing and that, I think, is its secret. It does huge surveys to discover what the reader wants, and while they don’t always deliver that, they take the majority view, adapt it and use it. HMB are unmistakable, from cover design to the way they’re displayed in store. There is nothing like an HMB book – now – although there used to be. HMB have followed the market rule that one company is important for all, thus following the marketing observation that has been true for at least a hundred years. One to rule them all.

HMB were also pioneers in ebooks, at least as far as the big publishers were concerned. They didn’t concern themselves with readers and technology, but in the product to be read. That’s where most of the money lies, as Amazon has discovered. They saw what was coming, and it wasn’t that difficult to predict, but they were the first of the big publishers to put serious money into ebooks, ebook stores and delivery of the book to the client. I think that their insistence on DRM has held them back, and it certainly hasn’t prevented bootlegged copies becoming readily available, but that glitch apart, the digital side of the business has done really well. They’ve started a non category e-publishing arm, Carina Press, which is attracting names from the e-publishing community, and although there is no formal crossover, it’s noticeable that the main site has bought some new authors from e-publishing, like Maya Banks and Red Garnier.

And the stories. This is the really clever bit.  HMB has changed the content. Never foolish enough to believe that the surface – book covers, presentation etc – is all that’s needed, they have always focused their attention on the repeat buyer. The mail order business, now defunct but for years a mainstay of the company, delivered 12 books to your home every month at a discounted price. The books were heavily aspirational, appealing to the C2DE buyer, and cheap. They closed the mail order business and started the online one.

They’re still cheap, but the content has changed a little. The stories have changed, too. The bedroom door is now wide open in most categories, the covers are being revamped (a big one coming this autumn) and HMB has recruited a slew of new authors, some of them from the ebook sector, previously renowned for innovation and edgy fiction. The heroines are tougher, less Cinderella, more Mulan, going out there and making things happen. Most don’t take abuse from the hero for long, or if they do, the hero has blackmailed them into doing it. They don’t just run with the secret agent hero, they know how to use a gun and fight back. But the hero, the treasure to be won, hasn’t changed a lot. He’s still alpha, and he can still be abusive. However, he doesn’t cheat on the heroine, he uses condoms and he knows one end of a laptop from the other. It’s more like we want our men to behave, but with a fantasy overlay. The newer lines have increased the scope of the company, from the more erotic Blazes to the Nocturne line of paranormals. And subtle changes in the stories have reaped their rewards, as has the relative anonymity of the ebook. With a Kindle, nobody need know what you’re reading and women have been rediscovering the guilty pleasure of the HMB.

The authors at HMB are for the most part, frighteningly professional, highly intelligent and used to the insults that regularly fly their way. Terrific women, for the most part, and they have good support from their publisher. Some have chosen to leave the company for the world of the single title, but the HMB style is so specific that they haven’t always met with success. However, before the rise of independent ebook publishers, most of the emerging talent in the romance world had dabbled with category at some point. Jo Beverley, Suzanne Brockmann, Linda Howard, Elizabeth Lowell – they all started in category. Now, not so much, but there are long-term HMB authors who are happy where they are and happy with the career they’ve made with HMB. Some never move on. It’s a comfortable sinecure. You produce your 4 books a year, they provide the marketing opportunities, the branding and the distribution. For writers not entirely happy with promotion, it’s a great way to get into the writing world, which, if you haven’t guessed it by now, can be brutal. Royalties are pretty pathetic, but you reap rewards in the regular releases and the heavy marketing that HMB does.

So they’ve succeeded, the editors and managers at HMB. They’ve lowered the average age of the reader, and they’ve lifted the socio-economic profile. With our help, and by producing stories that engage the interest of the new readers. Often overlooked by people who take them for granted, the parlous state of the company only a few years ago demonstrates how savvy they are, how much nous they’ve used to get where they are. A long time ago, at business school, one of my tutors was the cybernetician Stafford Beer. He’d have been fascinated by the way HMB has managed its interfaces, and impressed by the way the company has adapted to changing times. Still not progressive, but that’s not what it’s there for. It’s there to provide the working woman with an hour or two’s break. And that remains its ultimate philosophy.

Eight years ago I had a historical manuscript ‘orphaned’ at HMB (that’s when the editor who has encouraged you and wants your book leaves – the new editor wants a new list, so you’re dropped). I had to tone down the sex to almost nothing and increase the complications, give the hero a mistress, perk it up. I rewrote that sucker three times and then got a form rejection from the new editor. So I put back the sex, took out the mistress and sold it somewhere else, where it’s done pretty well. I can’t help thinking that I’d have had a better chance these days with the original manuscript, but as yet I have no intention of trying again. One day I might. When I find the time.

Lynne Connolly

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