Love Story: Romance Novel Continues to Sell in Down Economy

Stories about romance and passion are flying off the shelves.

TORONTO, April 13, 2009— -- Homes aren't selling the way they used to. Cars? Not so much. So, what is selling these days in the depths of the recession?

Love. Hot, steamy, bosom-heaving love.

This year, Harlequin Enterprises, the world's leading romance publisher, is celebrating 60 years of "pure reading pleasure," and doing it in style. The company, based near Toronto, had fourth quarter earnings up 32 percent from a year ago.

Donna Hayes, Harlequin CEO, said they sell about 130 million books a year and put out around 1,200 titles.

"Every love story is different," Hayes said.

When it comes to romance, Harlequin is diverse. According to Hayes they have 13 different sub-genres including paranormal romance, historical romance, romantic suspense, home and family, "really sexy romances" and erotica.

They even have a special line designed for fans of NASCAR.

Business Strategies: Harlequin's Happy Ending

But for all the diversification, Hayes said there is just one central theme.

"Central to the book is a relationship between a man and a woman and how that develops over the course of the book," she said. "And in the case of Harlequin, the must-have in the formula is that you must have a happy ending. Trials and tribulations as you date and break up, argue or all those things, but at the end you are going to be together with the love of your life and you are going to feel really good about it. So that's the key and that's why people love to read our books."

What could be better in tough times? It helps that the books are just $5 each.

Harlequin says its readers span all ages, all economic groups ... almost everyone. Except for men.

Hayes said she isn't interested in going after the male demographic.

"I think one of the things that makes companies really successful is knowing what they are good at and sticking to that," she said. "Because guys are not as interested in relationships as women. Women are obsessed with relationships. Women love thinking about the relationships in their lives, and not just the relationship with their significant other, but with their kids, with their mother, their in-laws, with their friends ... and so it's a big part of what we think about all the time, and, you know, guys think about sports and other stuff and it's just not the same."

But, Hayes said, if men did read the books, they could learn "how women think."

Harlequin has other tricks up its romantic sleeve, because, despite what they say, people do judge a book by its cover.

They put an enormous amount of work and thought into the cover art, from what the models are wearing to how much they are wearing. It's a message to potential customers that this novel will be, as creative director Deborah Peterson says, a "good, romantic, sexy read."

The Harlequin Novel's Coming of Age

For example, here is an excerpt from "Love Child": "She pressed against him, wanting to feel his arousal. 'Jessica,' he whispered into her hair. 'Let's make love. Now.'"

Harlequin has also learned to change over the years. Sixty years ago, the loving stopped at the bedroom door.

One of the "racy" scenes in "Come Blonde, Come Murder," published in 1952, reads, "I lit a cigarette and thought about Evelyn Milroy. That long lithe body, the warm red lips, the glowing blonde hair. She was a peach."

As society changed, Harlequin changed. By the 1970s, after the sexual revolution, the romance wasn't nearly as reserved.

Paranormal Love

Now, there are hardly any boundaries ... not even human ones.

Author Gena Showalter specializes in stories about the paranormal. She wrote seven books last year.

"My absolute favorite character -- I have two -- for the females, one is Ana, she is the goddess of anarchy, and the other one is Belle, who developed automatic superpowers over the four elements," she said.

Like so many women, Showalter started reading Harlequin when she was in junior high school.

At first her parents didn't approve.

"I think they thought I was reading things a little too racy for my age but ... I was reading and that's a beautiful thing," she said.