by Madelle Morgan
"After nearly four decades of romance, Torstar Corp. and book publisher Harlequin are breaking up." - Linda Nguyen, the Canadian Press.
On May 2, 2014, Canadian media company Torstar announced the sale of Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. to the U.S.-based News Corp. for $455 million. Harlequin will become a division of HarperCollins Publishers.
Am I the only Canadian woman who felt a little weepy at the news?
Canadians are used to foreign companies swooping in to buy up successful Canadian companies. Our oil & gas companies, mining, forest products, retail and high tech companies are mostly foreign-owned subsidiaries.
Now Harlequin Enterprises is one of them. (Sniff.)
Harlequin is an icon to many Canadian women over fifty. We spent many snug evenings reading Harlequins while howling wind blew snow into massive drifts during long, freezing winters.
In our early teens we read sweet romances, because that's all there was. I discovered my first Harlequin romances at thirteen while babysitting, and had to read fast to finish the book before the parents returned.
A Few Milestones on the Road to Entrepreneurial Success
Harlequin was founded in 1949 by Richard Bonnycastle and a couple of partners in Winnipeg, a Canadian prairie city smack dab in the center of Canada. We have to thank two women - Richard's secretary and his wife Mary - who convinced him of the mass appeal of romance novels. Significantly, Winnipeg winters are extremely long and cold. Harlequin published its first medical romance in 1953.
In 1954 Mary Bonnycastle became Harlequin's chief editor. Three years later, Mary persuaded her husband to acquire the North American distribution rights for category romance novels published by the British company Mills & Boon.
Richard and Mary's son Dick Bonnycastle, Jr. took over the company in 1968 and grew Harlequin into an international public company. In 1972 Harlequin acquired (some say merged with) Mills & Boon, Britain's most successful publishing house at the time.
Mills & Boon had a number of popular authors, but Harlequin had the marketing expertise. Were you one of those teenagers who flipped through Harlequins racked in drug stores, scanning for the good parts? Women who actually had money could subscribe and receive a bundle of new books by mail every month, saving themselves the embarrassment of purchasing romance novels in a store. The money rolled into Harlequin's coffers.
Torstar bought a controlling interest in Harlequin in 1975. By the 1980s Harlequin was the world's leading romance publisher, distributing books in several languages.
If interested, you can read more about Harlequin's history on Wikipedia and in the book The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance, by Paul Grescoe.
How Harlequin Influenced My Life
Early Harlequin novels empowered women, led me personally to believe that I could have any career I wanted. Back then most young women were encouraged to become nurses, teachers or secretaries. But why be a nurse when you could be a doctor?
Harlequin launched the Presents line in 1973. Those novels expanded my small world, allowing me to travel vicariously to exotic locations. Who else loved those Greek and Italian millionaires in the early Presents novels?
As I grew up, so did Harlequin. It began publishing hotter romance lines like Desire, Temptation and Blaze. The tag line below says it all: "The things you can learn from books these days..." Millions of satisfied men and women owe a huge debt of gratitude to Harlequin.
In my thirties I decided to write a Harlequin! I targeted my first novel to the Desire line. A Harlequin editor rejected it for good reason, 'cause it was unsalvageable. But not to despair. According to those Harlequin heroine role models, women can achieve anything they set their minds to. I joined an RWA chapter and kept writing and submitting until my fourth novel was published by Ellora's Cave, another innovative publisher.
How did Harlequin romance novels influence your life?