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For love and money: Harlequin and the mainstreaming of erotic fiction

Sylvia Day, E.L. James

Earlier this spring, romance juggernaut Harlequin Enterprises announced a new ebook partnership with Cosmopolitan magazine. Launching on Aug. 15, the Cosmo Red Hot Reads From Harlequin series will feature two monthly 30,000-word titles, designed for reading on mobile devices.

The series might not have attracted much attention had it not been for the fact that the first two titles will be written by bestselling erotica author Sylvia Day, who received a seven-figure contract for her efforts.

This hefty sum is not without precedent for Harlequin: the company, a division of Torstar, has offered comparably cushy deals to authors such as Susan Wiggs, Linda Lael Miller, and Harlequin Teen star Julie Kagawa.

What is significant is the fact that Harlequin had to poach Day from her former publisher, Penguin. The mainstream success of erotic fiction “ led by E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy “ is attracting major publishers to territory traditionally controlled by Harlequin, leading to more competition and escalating advances.

What does this mean for one of Canada’s most successful publishing companies? There is a greater awareness now in the marketplace of how wide the audience for super-sexy editorial can be, says Malle Vallik, Harlequin’s director of editorial digital initiatives.

The mainstreaming of erotic fiction began in March 2012, when Random House imprint Vintage acquired James’s self-published Fifty Shades trilogy in a deal reported to be worth seven figures. The blockbuster series went on to sell more than 70 million copies by the end of the year, securing a 75.6 per cent profit increase for Random House (and $5,000 Christmas bonuses for all its employees worldwide).

Like James, Day’s meteoric success began when she was still a self-published author, selling 100,000 copies of her ebook Bared to You (also available via a print-on-demand service) in April 2012, before receiving a deal a month later with Penguin’s Berkley imprint. Her second title with Berkley, Reflected in You, was a Canadian bestseller and debuted at number one on The New York Times‘ bestsellers list “ pushing out James’s Fifty Shades trilogy.*

Tamara Faith Berger, Lisa Gabriele (a.k.a. L. Marie Adeline)

Homegrown authors are also cashing in on the boom in erotic fiction.

Before the manuscript was completed, rights to S.E.C.R.E.T., a novel by pseudonymous Toronto author L. Marie Adeline, had been acquired by publishers in more than 30 countries. Dubbed the Canadian Fifty Shades by media at last October’s Frankfurt Book Fair, S.E.C.R.E.T. (published by Random House of Canada imprint Doubleday Canada) follows an underground society of women who guide each other to sexual liberation.

For the February launch, Doubleday Canada promoted the novel via a multi-tiered marketing campaign featuring appearances by a male model and a public unmasking of Adeline (revealed to be Toronto author and TV producer Lisa Gabriele) on CBC Radio’s The Current. Social media, including a dedicated Twitter account ­(@SecretNovels), played a key part in the rollout.

We went above and beyond what we typically do for a book promotion online, says Cassandra Sadek, director of online marketing at Random House of Canada.

A website (secretnovels.com) provides supplemental content, including backstory tidbits and music playlists. A Facebook page has been instrumental in nurturing the book’s fan base, while providing a mechanism to track readers’ expectations for the forthcoming sequel.

The online campaign has paid off. According to Tracey Turriff, Random House of Canada’s senior vice-president of marketing, by April, S.E.C.R.E.T. had spent six straight weeks at number one on BookNet Canada’s bestsellers list, with nearly 100,000 copies sold.

While the building of S.E.C.R.E.T.‘s online community mirrors the trajectory of Fifty Shades’ early buzz, Sadek says Doubleday Canada did not explicitly link the two titles in its promotional copy, in hopes of differentiating between them.

Coach House Books, on the other hand, gave in to the temptation. Last summer, the Toronto press hosted a sex trade-in sale through which readers could exchange a copy of Fifty Shades for a discount on Tamara Faith Berger’s erotic novel Maidenhead.

In our copy we talked quite explicitly about Fifty Shades, that this was a smarter and dirtier version, which gave people something of an entry point, says Coach House editorial director Alana Wilcox. But I don’t think it dramatically changed our marketing. It’s not the same crowd of people reading Maidenhead as Fifty Shades.

Wilcox says there wasn’t much consumer response to the promotion, but Maidenhead “ which concerns a teenage girl’s sexual awakening (borne through a sadomasochistic entanglement) “ did well critically, winning The Believer magazine’s annual book award. This month, Coach House is releasing a single-­volume reprint of Berger’s first two novels, Lie with Me and The Way of the Whore, collected under the title Little Cat.

If you thought that Fifty Shades was pretty extreme, you’d have a hard time getting through Maidenhead, Wilcox concedes. We didn’t want to push too much to that crowd. You don’t want to horrify your readers.

Although the titles have their differences, James’s trilogy did prove helpful in getting Maidenhead onto booksellers’ shelves. Wilcox says that, while initial orders for the book were lacklustre, stores ordered more copies as Fifty Shades’ popularity grew.

We had some bookstores that just wouldn’t order [Maidenhead] because it was dirty, and then they came around, she says. I think it would have been harder to get it out there and taken seriously without Fifty Shades.


Promoting erotica is old hat for Harlequin, but even the company’s more risqué titles are enjoying greater exposure, with popular authors such as Tiffany Reisz dealing in subjects once considered too taboo for mainstream publishing. The genre’s recent popularity has translated into a noticeable sales boost for Harlequin author Megan Hart, whose novel Switch landed on The New York Times‘ bestsellers list last fall.

However, Susan Swinwood, executive editor at the digital-first ­imprint Harlequin HQN, says James’s success hasn’t affected what the company publishes so much as how. Ultimately, Fifty Shades demonstrated that self-published digital titles can take off in the mass market.

The digital side of things has really exploded in the last six or eight months, to the point where we really have to watch who’s publishing digitally and how they’re performing, and whether or not the author is interested in going with a traditional publisher for print or for future digital rights, says Swinwood.

While Harlequin and other publishers pore through fan-fiction and writers’ websites in hopes of discovering the next E.L. James, erotica remains something of a specialized genre. Agent Hilary McMahon, vice-president of Westwood Creative Artists in Toronto, has observed a rise in self-published, very low-priced ebook originals, but says it’s still not a large part of her business. It’s interesting that, post“Harry Potter and post-Twilight, I was inundated with queries featuring wizards and vampires, says McMahon, but I’ve seen surprisingly few queries about erotic fiction.

Still, Swinwood says there’s no denying the shift in consumer attitudes catalyzed by Fifty Shades. It opened up a lot of people’s minds to what erotica is, she says. It’s been a popular genre underground for a long time. We certainly weren’t the first to publish it and we won’t be the last. But [Fifty Shades] validated people who were already reading erotica, and made it more acceptable for people who were new to it.

From the May 2013 issue of Q&Q.

Correction, July 2013: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article stated that Sylvia Day’s Reflected in You debuted at number four on The New York Times‘ bestsellers list.