by Marsha Zinberg,
Executive Editor, Feature and Custom Publishing
Being more and more a believer that it is instructive to understand where you’ve been in order to know where it is you are going, I thought those of you who are newer to our Heartwarming bandwagon might want to learn a bit about how the Harlequin Heartwarming program actually came about. It’s a feel-good story about listening to our readers and doing our best to understand where they’re coming from.
It began with our direct-to-consumer customers, who are a pretty vocal bunch. They write letters, participate in panels, fill out questionnaires, and tell us what they like…..and don’t like! Though in recent years Fifty Shades of Everything are everywhere, there are also, we learned, plenty of romance readers whose preferences run 180 degrees to that trend. They’ve told us that they prefer more “wholesome” fare in their reading, that they don’t appreciate profanity or violence, that they’d like to read about people like them, community-minded, family-oriented folks dealing with society’s typical challenges…. but still managing to meet and fall in love and eventually commit to each other.
Harlequin’s response? Let’s test the waters! The Feature and Custom Publishing group was asked to put together a reissue program that would satisfy those readers’ preferences.
Hm. Just go find those books in our backlist? Just go dig oranges out of a bushel of apples? I was a bit skeptical. After all, our authors had been writing to the then-current guidelines; they were providing the level of sensuality that was expected and desired by readers of Superromance, or Silhouette Special Edition, or Romantic Suspense…whatever line they were writing for. They were fulfilling those readers’ expectations. And we were now trying to please different readers with different expectations. How was this ever going to work?
Fortunately, we’re blessed with an editorial staff long on memory, and endowed with broad knowledge of our authors’ styles, so, armed with some editor’s recommendations to augment our search, members of my team and I began digging…and reading.
Eventually, we found the kinds of stories we were looking for, though of course, many contained elements that did not perfectly align with our new wholesome criteria. We obtained permission from the authors of those books to edit any elements that were a little out of whack with what we were trying to accomplish, and the authors were not only gracious, they were actually thrilled! (Thanks for the new stories, Roz, Mary Anne, Mae, Cynthia, Patricia and Lynda….and you too Muriel!)
This exercise was really instructive for me, because what I noticed repeatedly was that those longer stories that were not heavily reliant on six or seven protracted love scenes in their stories (I’m not knocking it…the authors were writing to their readers’ expectations!) revealed plots that were more intricately crafted. There needed to be more surprises, more twists and turns to keep the reader engaged during that rising action/middle of the book area that is often prone to lethargy. Sometimes the authors accomplished this by simply developing their characters in unexpected ways, but there was, one way or another, more story. And many of the authors I spoke to told me that when all was said and done, they actually preferred the edited version of their stories to the originals!
Flash forward. It’s now been more than a year since the DTC marketers came to me with the news that the program was growing by the day, and they were keen for us to acquire original material for the line. Music to our ears! We’re so excited to be able to apply these learnings to our new Heartwarming offerings. I still ponder the whole romance/plot/characterization balance though. The issue reminds me of a speech I wrote for a conference way back when I was senior editor of Superromance, and made a point that surprisingly seemed controversial. I told potential authors that “in my opinion, the romance is not the plot.” Structurally, I see the romance as a sort of symbiotic vine that weaves its way around and through the arc of the plot, enriching it, influencing it, and itself enriched and fed by the characterization. For my reading pleasure, the romance is not in and of itself the goal the hero and heroine are working toward. I like something bigger to be going on. But then again, I like Dickens, and John Irving, and Downton Abbey……
Some authors (and editors) disagreed with me back then, and undoubtedly, some may disagree with me now.
What do you think? Is the romance the plot?