May 6, 2014

HarperCollins and Harlequin: this merger is kind of a big deal


Sad board room cartoon via Shutterstock.

Sad board room cartoon via Shutterstock.

The Penguin Random House merger was approved in February of last year, and it’s surprising that the other Big Five haven’t become the Big Four or Big Three by now. Well, HarperCollins bought Harlequin for $415 million at the end of last week.

Brian Murray, CEO of HarperCollins, said Harlequin will operate as a standalone imprint within HarperCollins. Craig Swinwood, CEO and Publisher of Harlequin, will remain in his current position, and he will report to Murray.

Harlequin’s headquarters are in Toronto, but that’s cool with Harper. Its international presence is part of its charm: Harlequin’s books are published in thirty different languages, accounting for 40% of its revenue.

Imaginative media coverage has gone so far has made romance readers angry. Michael Babad of the Globe and Mail reported the story in his best “bodice-ripper” voice. (Admittedly, MobyLives has reported news stories as fan fiction before.)

Brian Stetler‘s articles at CNN had over-the-top headlines: “Harlequin has fallen for a charming billionaire” and “Harlequin Swooped Up by NewsCorp.” Romance readers are pissed off that media sources aren’t taking the genre more seriously.

Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books writes, “The media response to the acquisition is as expected. Which is to say, it’s so awful, I can’t even describe it adequately. There are no gifs or emergency cute baby animals strong enough to dull the pain.”

She pointed to Stetler and Babad’s coverage, pointing out the first sentence of Stetler’s article:

News Corp (NWS), the publishing company chaired by Rupert Murdoch, said Friday that it would pay $415 million to acquire Harlequin, best known for romance novels sometimes nicknamed “bodice rippers.” (Murdoch is, coincidentally, newly single.)

He’s single, ladiezzzzz!

In all seriousness, the reporting of any merger is pretty sobering. TorStar (the company that owns the Toronto Star) is selling Harlequin so they can pay off more than $100 million in debt. HarperCollins is vying for Harlequin’s ebook data and its international reach, so it can stay afloat in the book world with competitors like “the world’s first truly global trade book publishing company,” the challenges of steep discounting, and the increasing power of online retailers.

And NewsCorp (which owns HarperCollins) is trying to stay in the game when the power in the book industry is undergoing some tectonic shifts. It’s not going to be the only company that makes a major acquisition in the wake of last year’s merger. But this may be the media’s only chance to make cracks about Fabio in book publishing news, so they’re going for it (full-throttle!).


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.