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The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance

by Paul Grescoe

To call romantic fiction pap is to miss the point business historian and journalist Paul Grescoe makes – that turning mush into millions is a great story on its own. From the birth of Harlequin soon after World War II to its present business turning out hundreds of millions of volumes a year, he follows the trail of Richard Bonnycastle – rancher, lawyer, politician, and founder of an industry he created less by plan than by serendipity.

Grescoe asks how such a dilettante could have created the Harlequin empire. The answer, he says, is in the men he hired, mostly marketing types from soap and pantyhose firms who, not surprisingly, figured that the best way to market books was to make them generic in spite of the quirks of the authors.

The Merchants of Venus shows the growth of Harlequin in volumes, business methods, authors, printing contracts, distribution deals, sorties into such things as science fiction, and more. At times, the density of detail is overwhelming. But his style and literacy, humour, and gift of phrase keep The Merchants of Venus from being just a business case study.

The scope of The Merchants of Venus is astonishing: it contains a history of paperback publishing, an analysis of romantic fiction, examinations of book distribution systems around the world, biographies of numerous publishing bigwigs like Richard Snyder of Simon & Schuster, and, of course, a chronicle of the growth of Harlequin.

Grescoe declares more than once that The Merchants of Venus is not an authorized company history. With the freedom to expose bad corporate moves, he examines errors like the firing of Simon & Schuster as distributor, an action that virtually forced S&S to create its own line of competitive romances to maintain the cash flow it lost. He also points out that several of Harlequin’s diversifications – romantic cinema, for example – were flops.

Throughout the book, Grescoe tries to come to terms with Dick Bonnycastle. Yet the Harlequin founder remains a $100-million mystery. There should be no mystery. For all its commercial success through creating branded genre fiction and branching out into firms that sell doormats and knickknacks to women, the product remains the literary equivalent of candy bars: fast, filling, and harmless in small doses.

The Merchants of Venus elevates romantic fiction to an important business story. It’s essential reading for publishers, fiction editors, book distributors.