Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Touring Harlequin's Past: Executive Editor Marsha Zinberg

Harlequin is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and today we're welcoming Harlequin's Executive Editor, Marsha Zinberg, to the blog. She's here to talk about Harlequin's history.

was founded in 1949 in Winnipeg by a consortium that included Richard Bonnycastle, who had been a lawyer and a fur trader for the Hudson Bay Company before taking a job at an outfit called Advocate Printers. At the start, Harlequin supplied Advocate with product, reprinting British and American paperbacks — romances, westerns, detective fiction — for the Canadian market. In 1957, it became the North American distributor for Mills & Boon. (Gillmor)
In 1958, Harlequin was sold to Richard and Mary Bonnycastle, who altered the course of the company. During the next ten years, they converted the company to a public corporation, changed its name to Harlequin Enterprises, moved it to Toronto, the current corporate headquarters and, most important of all, switched to publishing exclusively romances. (Jensen 32)
Marsha Zinberg's been with Harlequin for over 25 years, and remembers buying some of the "famous firsts" that are being reprinted as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations. The
Harlequin Famous Firsts are the first Harlequin series books by New York Times bestselling authors of today and they are part of our 60th Anniversary celebrations. They include:
The Matchmakers [1986] by Debbie Macomber
Tears of the Renegade [1985] by Linda Howard
Tangled Lies [1984] by Anne Stuart
Moontide [1985] by Stella Cameron
State Secrets [1985] by Linda Lael Miller
Uneasy Alliance [1984] by Jayne Ann Krentz
Night Moves [1985] by Heather Graham
Impetuous [1996] by Lori Foster
The Cowboy and the Lady [1982] by Diana Palmer
Fit to be Tied [1988] by Joan Johnston
Captivated [1986] by Carla Neggers
Bronze Mystique
[1984] by Barbara Delinsky.
The original years of publication should be linked to pages showing the original covers. You can take a look at more vintage Harlequin covers in The Walrus.
Covers have always been an integral part of Harlequin’s marketing. They are known for “the clinch”: the heroine being held by the hero, eyes locked in a mutually meaningful stare. [...] All of the early books had illustrated covers, but by the late ’80s, most featured photographs, which are now sometimes treated to resemble illustrations. (Gillmor)
As part of the 60th anniversary celebrations Harlequin is
sponsoring an exhibition of original cover art that will focus not only on the changing shape of desire and fantasy but also on the social meaning and context of these images. THE HEART OF A WOMAN: Harlequin Cover Art 1949—2009 debuts at the Openhouse Gallery in New York City on May 29, 2009, and will be on view until June 12, 2009.

By presenting 60 years of cover artwork, the exhibition offers a unique insight into the profound transformations that have occurred in women's lives over the past six decades. These changes have been captured and reflected on the front of Harlequin novels—from shifts in private desires to shifts in the politics of gender. Although it is the stories of romance that charm the hearts of so many women, it is the artwork on the book covers that offers the first tantalizing hint of the pleasures that await between the covers. (Harlequin Press Release)
The Openhouse Gallery's blog includes photos of the exhibition, close-ups of some of the covers featured in the display (as well as commentaries on them - you can read the commentaries better if you click on the individual photographs to enlarge them), and photos of some of the novels on display. There are some more details about the exhibition (and photos) at the I Heart Presents blog, Smart Bitches Trashy Books, The Globe and Mail and the CNN website.

: I was wondering if you could tell us a bit more about the exhibition, Marsha, and in particular what "shifts in private desires" and "shifts in the politics of gender" you've seen in Harlequin cover art?

Marsha: As we look over the art of our covers across 60 years, it is clear to see that women’s ideas of romance and desire evolved with the times they lived in. For example, after the Second World War, when women were returned to the confines of the home after working for the war effort, their romantic desires involved exotic locations where duty, romance and adventure collided.

Heroines were strong and confident, and often pushed the boundaries of traditional female behavior. Nurse/doctor narratives dominated Harlequin romances in the 1950’s and well into the 60’s, possibly reflecting women’s longing for the workplace challenges and opportunities that had been offered to them only a decade earlier during the height of World War II. Also, nursing was one of the few professional opportunities open to women….and it allowed them access to a very desirable hero, the doctor!

Into the 60’s and 70’s, when the women’s movement really began to take hold, the covers displayed women in the foreground, literally and figuratively, with men relegated to the background, where they were mere “accessories” to the story that surrounded the newly-empowered women, perhaps depicting that women were beginning to understand their own place in the world.

By the 80’s readers were being treated to visually complex covers made famous as “bodice rippers”. Men’s bodies were becoming objectified by their lack of clothing and hyper-masculinity. At a time when women were reaching unprecedented positions of power in the workplace, these covers were more romantically nostalgic than in any previous decade, perhaps indicating a dichotomy between personal success and personal desires.

The 90’s showed even further objectification of the male form, with women often appearing “on top” and in control of the romantic tryst.

As we move into the new century, the man as an object of desire has progressed. The woman is still seen on the covers, but the half-naked hyper-masculine man continues to take centre stage and the romantic themes run into the erotic. The desirability of the hero seems more linked to his beautifully developed body than to other signifiers of his wealth, accomplishment or occupation. Women have fully embraced their sexuality and their specific desires. It’s a far cry from the desires and gender roles of 60 years ago – and to study that evolution through our cover art is quite remarkable.

Laura: Most of the Famous Firsts date from the 1980s. It was an interesting decade for the genre, and for Harlequin:
In 1981, when Simon & Schuster launched Silhouette Books to challenge Harlequin's domination of the market for short, sweet romance novels [...], most forms of the romance genre derived from British models and most writers hailed from Great Britain or the Commonwealth. Harlequin [...] did not at that time publish its own books at all. Instead, its entire list of paperback romances consisted of reprints of novels that were originally acquired, edited, and published by the British firm of Mills and Boon. [...] Before the publication of the first Silhouette Romances, Harlequin had very little competition as a publisher of category romances in North America. (Mussell & Tuñón 1)
Harlequin also had little interest in publishing romances by American authors:
According to American writers who tried to break into the market in the late 1970s, the firm showed little interest in recruiting writers from North America or in expanding the typical settings of their books into North American locales. (Mussell & Tuñón 2-3)
Silhouette took a rather different approach: "Silhouette's first editor in chief, Kate Duffy, handled the [...] manuscripts by American writers that Harlequin had rejected" (Grescoe 161). The "War of Love," as Grescoe terms it (153), had begun and:
by the mid-1980s the competition was especially keen, with Harlequin, Silhouette, Dell's Candlelight Ecstasy line, Berkley's To Have and To Hold and Second Chance at Love, and others all vying for the same market. Harlequin entered the contest with its own series of Harlequin American Romances, with American authors and settings, to compete directly with Silhouette. In 1984, however, Harlequin bought Silhouette Books from Simon and Schuster, thus ending the most intense competition in the market. (Mussell & Tuñón 5)
Laura: What was it like working at Harlequin during this period? Could you tell us a bit more about how some of the Famous Firsts were acquired and the early careers of some of these authors?

Marsha: I began at Harlequin in 1983, and was hired as an assistant editor on the Superromance line, which had in fact been publishing longer romances by North American authors since 1980, when the line first began and was envisioned as a “longer Harlequin Presents”. At that time, they were often over 90,000 words long, so we really were trying to give the reader a substantial story!

Mills and Boon, which was responsible for our original Harlequin Romance and Harlequin Presents lines, was bought by Harlequin in 1972, and so their original material for us, some written by North American authors, in fact dated from the 70’s! In addition the Harlequin American romance line, when I began with the company, there was a special project underway, which had a code name: I think it was called Project 229---and that became the Temptation line!

They had begun to acquire manuscripts with more sensual content---though of course, by today’s standards, those books are pretty tame. I do remember that both Barbara Delinsky and Jayne Ann Krentz, as well as Vicki Lewis Thompson, were very early contributors to that line, and while Barbara and Jayne went on fairly rapidly to establish mainstream careers, they continued to write series romance for us.

As I moved up the ranks at Superromance, I acquired a number of Vicki Lewis Thompson titles for Superromance as well. Stella Cameron was also quite an early contributor to Superromance, while Debbie Macomber and Linda Lael Miller were establishing themselves with the Silhouette series. Debbie wrote for both houses, Harlequin and Silhouette, for quite a while, as did many of the authors, and often with different pseudonyms for each house. We always had to know who wrote under which name for what house…authors had multiple identities as a matter of course in those days!

Many of the authors in the Famous Firsts collection date the beginnings of their careers to about twenty-five years ago, which is when there was so much excitement and growth in our industry. As a newbie, I didn’t actually appreciate all that activity and competition then as I do now, when I can look back on it nostalgically. We were all madly acquiring then, with few constraints. We couldn’t get enough product out there to satisfy the voracious market, it seemed!

: I know some new trends we've seen lately have been the rise of paranormal romance and erotic romance, and millionaires seem to be evolving into billionaires. Anne McAllister recently wrote that twenty-five years ago, "Kids were not thick on the pages of books," which made me want to ask you about that. When did secret babies become so popular? How do you think the genre's continued to change and what's remained constant since the Famous Firsts were written?

Marsha: Anne is quite right that “kids were not thick on the pages of books” twenty-five years ago, but I do think the secret baby theme has been a classic for quite a while. It’s just that the focus shifted. The children in the plotlines came into the forefront more, as the plots more and more reflected contemporary society, which was dealing with the reality of single mothers, blended families and the baggage that heroines now routinely carried with them.

As the heroines aged, it was logical that a protagonist in her late twenties or early thirties was likely not a virgin, and likely not alone in the world. She had responsibilities and obligations, and they figured into her ability to commit to a relationship. So the family became more entrenched in certain plotlines…often serving as the main external conflict…and it was the stumbling block the hero and heroine had to resolve in order to have their happily-ever-after.

I do recall that as we discovered that women were actually drawn to babies and young children on the cover, we began to write about that aspect of the story in the back cover copy, to assure them that the children were part of the story…secret or not. And of course, when we discovered that the sight of a strong, handsome man cradling an infant or tenderly interacting with a young child melted female hearts, that element became another “classic” that has endured into romances of today.

Plotlines continue to reflect contemporary society, but I would be foolish not to mention that an alpha hero is still very appealing to a lot of modern women, and I can’t see that appeal vanishing any time soon.

Laura: The "1st Annual Romance Writers of America Conference was held in June 1981" (RWA) and Alison Kent's stated about the RWA that
I learned everything I need to know about writing fiction from workshops, articles, conferences, contest feedback, networking, critiques . . . none of which I would have received on the outside. I wouldn’t even have known where to go to find the information I needed on craft if not for RWA. Granted, this was prior to the days of Google, but I still believe RWA can give anyone a master class in writing fiction.
Has the RWA and the way it's worked to teach authors the craft of writing had an effect on your work as an editor?

Marsha: Certainly as this industry has matured, there has been a decided uptick in the professionalism of the authors, and that includes both their technical abilities and the attitude to and knowledge about the business side of publishing. The hands-on, one-on-one work I do with an author has not been affected by the RWA, but the quality of the work that’s being submitted, the format in which it is submitted, and the author’s participation in the selling/marketing of their work through their own P.R. efforts has definitely improved over the years, and I can’t help but imagine that all the information and networking providing by RWA has helped that process along.

Laura: And finally, since this is a blog which approaches the genre from "an academic perspective," how do you feel about some Harlequin romances being studied as literature rather than being seen as "a quality product, a kind of guarantee of an easy, thrilling, and satisfying read with an obligatory happy ending" (McAleer 2)?

Marsha: I think it’s great. I have a master’s degree in English and always thought “literature” would be my life. Luckily, my views have broadened enough to know that literature contributes a segment to my pleasure reading, which is an important part of my life, but Harlequin romances are a very successful and beloved example of a genre, and there is a lot to be learned from any kind of genre writing—mystery, thriller, Western, paranormal--because it teaches discipline, adherence to certain agreed-upon parameters, and creativity in presenting a set of circumstances in a fresh, appealing way. There are only a certain number of archetypes in story-telling, “literature” or genre fiction, and creating compelling characters and an engaging plot line is not circumscribed by the type of fiction you are trying to create. Good writing is good writing….we can all learn from it, and we can and do all enjoy it!

Laura: Thank you very much for visiting Teach Me Tonight, Marsha!

If you'd like to read more about the stories behind the creation of the "Famous First" novels, you might want to visit the other stops in Marsha's blog tour:

June 1 --- BookBinge (what "
prompted the ideas for their books")
June 2 --- Plot Monkeys (changes in technology have affected editors and authors)
June 3 --- Blaze Authors blog (on differing writing processes)
June 4 --- Romance Junkies (more on writing processes)
June 5 --- Romancing the Blog ("
the real person behind the story")
June 8 --- Dear Author ("flux and constants in the romance industry")
June 9 --- Cataromance ("a few interesting facts and viewpoints")
June 15 --- The Good, the Bad and the Unread ("
the books that [...] turned them on to romance")
June 18 --- Pink Heart Society ("how they marked [...] the sale of their first book, and their first placement on national bestseller list")
June 22 --- The Misadventures of Super Librarian (Summing up readers' comments to the posts on the tour: "The majority of our readers start young," "Presents is often the first series read," and more).


  1. What a great post! Very enlightening! Thank you!

  2. jay Dixon's book "The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon" is also excellent on the history of UK side of the company. I found it particularly fascinating on the way in which heroes and heroines changed to reflect wider society, politics and cultural trends. We had a very lively debate on this at the Oxford Literature Festival last year!

  3. Thanks, Jessica. I'm glad you liked the post. I was very grateful to Marsha for coming to visit and giving us these insights into Harlequin's past.

    Nicola, you're right that jay Dixon's book gives a lot of insight into M&Bs. Like Marsha's comments about the changing nature of the cover art, Dixon's book explores the changing social context in which the novels were written. McAleer's book about M&B is rather more focused on the business side of M&B's history.

    I think that if someone was looking at the novels and the cover art in terms of social history, it might be interesting to compare the covers as they appear in different parts of the world, as well as which novels are sold in which countries, because it's not as though all the lines do equally well everywhere in the world. It would be a huge task, though, and not one I'd be able to undertake. I think An Goris has been taking a look at covers and back-cover copy and how that differs in various markets. There's also been a little bit of work done on how translations can change the texts, at least in part to make them more acceptable to their target markets in different parts of the world.

  4. I forgot to name Juliet Flesch, who in her From Australia with Love did compare different covers given to the same M&B book as published in different countries. She's also one of the people who's looked at differences which arise during translation. These were, however, topics she discussed relatively briefly since the book is, as the title suggests, about Australian romances in general.

    Eva Hemmungs Wirtén's 1998 dissertation, Global Infatuation: Explorations in Transnational Publishing and Texts: The case of Harlequin Enterprises and Sweden is about translation. It's on my to-be-read list, and it's available free online.

  5. Lots of food for thought in that interview. Thank you, Laura and Marsha.
    I read five, possibly six, of the books listed here from the 'famous firsts' group when they were first published, and still have some of them.
    One point of Marsha's that I think is worth underlining is the importance of an author being able to write well within a restricted framework, yet being able to create something fresh and unique every time. Genre fiction is often despised for being 'formulaic', yet any writer worth his/her salt has to be able to write to a given word-count and other fixed parameters when required. This ability is part of the craft of writing; it is required in good journalism and in non-fiction, including scholarly research, just as much as it is category romance. One would not make much headway submitting articles to learned journals if one were unable to set out one's argument within the set word-limit and a dozen other house-style rules!
    It does not surprise me that so many romance writers who honed their skills on category romance have gone on to greater fame, because they understand the disciplines of writing. Some contemporary 'literary' fiction is sprawling, unfocused and self-indulgent by comparison.