Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Selling the SIZZLE

At 60 years old, Winnipeg-formed Harlequin Enterprises is still going hot and heavy

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He put his arms around me and kissed me for a very long time. I felt the hardness of his cheek against mine, and I tasted the salt spray on his lips. I felt as if I had lived all my life for this moment, as if I had been on a long and difficult journey from which at last I was in a safe harbor."

-- The Path of the Moonfish, by Betty Beaty

6Amazingly, the Toronto-based Harlequin Enterprises, the publishing world's category killer in the land of smouldering eyes and heaving bosoms, is still going strong.

This spring the company has been noisily celebrating the 60th anniversary of its founding here in Winnipeg in 1949.

In New York earlier this month, it sponsored a visual art exhibition of Harlequin romance covers.

The highbrow Canadian magazine The Walrus published a fascinating essay exploring the tensions between modern feminism and women's enduring attraction to the old-fashioned romance genre.

Toronto writer Emily Schultz released a literary novel, Heaven Is Small, set in the offices of a romance publisher that resembles Harlequin's Don Mills headquarters.

The current issue of The New Yorker magazine has a profile of romance queen Nora Roberts, who had her first manuscripts rejected by Harlequin in the early 1980s (before eventually joining its stable).

On a sad note, Harlequin's CEO in the '70s and '80s, Larry Heisey, the marketing genius credited with bringing Harlequin into the modern age, died in Toronto in late May.

"Harlequin didn't invent the romance novel, but they did manage to perfect the marketing of it," says Winnipeg used bookseller Kelly Hughes, the proprietor of Aqua Books on Garry Street.

"A Harlequin is now the generic term that everyone understands, just like Kleenex or Band-Aid."

Says Winnipeg esthetician Janice Wu: "I read Harlequins because they offer a reliable escape. If the formula works, there's no reason to change it."

Though Harlequin Enterprises has been owned by the Torstar Corp. since 1981, its seminal years in Winnipeg have not been forgotten.

The Winnipeg-born business journalist and magazine publisher Paul Grescoe documented them in his 1996 book, The Merchants of Venus.

Richard Bonnycastle, a patrician businessman and former chief fur trader with the Hudson's Bay Company, had taken a job managing Advocate Printers, a Winnipeg company owned by a family friend, Doug Weld, in Toronto.

Bonnycastle, his wife, Mary, and their three children, lived a country-club life on South Drive.

To keep the Advocate's presses busy in the late '40s, he hit upon the idea of reprinting mass-market paperbacks published in the U.S and England. He formed a partnership with Weld and another Torontonian, Jack Palmer, a magazine distributor.

"No one now alive remembers where the corporate name came from," Grescoe writes.

But he quotes Bonnycastle's youngest child, Judy, describing a "joyous family meeting" where their parents discussed the Harlequin logo.

"Dad had done a squiggle of this little guy in the diamond," Judy recalled.

"Her father's sketch evolved to the design that remains to this day.... Harlequin employees now refer to him as Joey."

Bonnycastle's reprinting strategy took off in 1957 when Mary and his secretary, Ruth Palmour, both recommended a line of chaste romances by the British company Mills & Boon.

The male-dominated publishing industry paid no attention as these frivolous women's fantasies became more and more popular.

Once a year, Bonnycastle flew to London, eventually taking with him his oldest child, Dick, to shake hands with with M&B's owners at the Ritz over another year's business.

Mary, as editor, chose the titles they felt were tasteful enough. A few years later Judy was serving as an editor as well. The artwork for most of the covers was done by Eaton's catalogue artists.

The middle Bonnycastle child, Honor, moved to Toronto for high school in the late '50s and was not involved.

As for Bonnycastle, he paid the books little attention. Instead he busied himself in Winnipeg civic life, becoming the city's first Metro chairman.

When he died in 1968, at age 65 (at the controls of small airplane he had landed at a hunting lodge), he was a revered public figure.

His newspaper obituaries made no mention of his business interest in Harlequin.

Bonnycastle Park on Assiniboine Avenue was named after him by then-mayor Bill Norrie in 1972.

Dick had been in Calgary since 1965. He moved Harlequin to Toronto in 1969 for marketing and advertising purposes. He bought Mills & Boon in 1971.

"If we had today's communications technology, we could have stayed in Winnipeg," says Dick, 74. "I would have preferred that because I never liked Toronto."

With her daughters having families in Toronto, Mary moved there, too. Dick eventually sold his interest to Torstar, largely because he preferred Alberta.

Harlequin, of course, has evolved into a vastly different company than it was in the '50s and '60s. Its books no longer leave much to the imagination.

"Increasingly, romance fiction is for women who move their hips when they read," jokes Grescoe from his home on Bowen Island in B.C.

"They've become soft porn."

Mary died 86 in 1995, Judy in 2000 of cancer at age 59. Honor is still in Toronto, where she is married to the magazine publisher Michael de Pencier.

Dick has spent his adult life in Calgary, where he has prospered in a variety of businesses.

It's a great feeling," he says, "to have started something that becomes the world's biggest in a category -- from nothing."

Between the covers

HERE are some cold facts on Harlequin's passionate business:

More than 1,100 authors from around the world are currently published by Harlequin. Among the best known to North Americans are Janet Dailey, Jayne Anne Krentz and Nora Roberts.

Harlequin publishes more than 110 titles each month under the Harlequin, Silhouette, MIRA Books, Luna Books, Steeple Hill Books, HQN Books, Kimani Press, Spice Books, Harlequin Teen, Harlequin Nonfiction, Gold Eagle and Worldwide Mystery imprints in North America.

In addition, Harlequin publishes five Spanish-language series (20 titles monthly) and four French-language series (20 titles monthly) in North America.

Harlequin sold 130 million books worldwide last year, or just over 4.1 books per second.

Approximately half of Harlequin's books are sold outside North America through a combination of wholly owned subsidiaries, joint ventures, licensee arrangements and multi-language exports.

More than 800 Harlequin titles hit the stands each month around the world, generated from publishing operations in 15 countries.

In total, Harlequin has shipped more than 5.8 billion books around the world.

Harlequin books are sold in 114 international markets on six continents, in 28 languages around the world.

Approximately one in every six mass-market paperbacks sold in North America is a Harlequin or Silhouette novel. More than one-third of American females have read a book published by Harlequin Enterprises at some point in their lives.

Harlequin purchases more than two original works of fiction every day.

Source: Harlequin Enterprises

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 20, 2009 A1

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