Publishing Roundup: Harlequin Romance, Oyster, and the Rise of the Independents

It’s time for another publishing news roundup, straight from the Ooligan source! Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in the bubble of our little publishing house, but it’s important to remember that there’s a whole lot happening out in the publishing world right now, given that the whole industry seems to be teetering on the brink of a massive overhaul.


News for big publishers is a bit bleak this month as Harlequin, the classic romance publisher of Fabio-covered, bodice-ripping fame, was sold to News Corporation and, consequently, HarperCollins Publishers for $415 million at the beginning of May. Following the announcement of their sale, Harlequin reported a 14-percent decline in profits from the first quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of 2014—no doubt a consequence of their continued struggle to keep up with the increasingly digital market of the romance industry. A larger than average number of romance readers consider themselves frequent or avid readers, and they appreciate not only the anonymity of reading romance on e-readers but also the instant accessibility and decreased price of the e-book format. Because of this, romance as a genre is shifting to a primarily digital format faster than many other genres out there. Indeed, a 2012 survey by the Romance Writers of America found that nearly 50 percent of romance readers are likely to buy books to be read on an e-device, and there is little doubt that this number has since increased. Harlequin is an old enterprise, having been founded nearly sixty-five years ago, and publishes nearly 110 books every month. However, the New York Times reported that, in 2012, 50 Shades of Grey outsold Harlequin’s entire North American retail sales, and even though that romance giant provided a boost for romance sales everywhere, Harlequin did not manage to survive the most recent round of mergers (starting with the merger of publishing giants Penguin and Random House in 2013) that drastic changes in the publishing industry have brought about.


In other digital news, Oyster Books, a book subscription service that is quickly attempting to become “the Netflix of book borrowing,” made a leap toward its goal in early May as it partnered with over 500 new publishers and now offers over 500,000 titles for borrowing. Among these publishers is giant HarperCollins, which alone added nearly 10,000 titles to the Oyster database, including massively popular titles such as Life of Pi and American Gods. Many sources are calling Oyster’s claims to be the Netflix of books hyperbolic. As the International Business Times points out, it’s impossible to compare the way that people consume books to the way people consume television. The monthly price for Oyster is $9.99 for unlimited borrowing, unlimited being the buzzword here. However, people read a lot slower than they watch films and television shows. IBT estimates that, at the rate at which the average person reads, each book would still cost them about $2.49 apiece at Oyster’s monthly rate. That’s only a little bit less than the cost of owning the books in an e-book format, nevermind the fact that many of these books are available through library e-book lending services for free. Oyster CEO Eric Stormberg insists that he’s competing by offering not only a larger volume of works but also works that can be attained more quickly after a book’s release than it might be through the library. Right now, that time gap is probably be the key to Oyster’s success. Given that they still haven’t even stretched themselves to the Android market, their success or failure remains to be seen. Only time will tell if people are willing to buy into an e-book subscription service.


Lastly and most optimistically, the market climate seems good for independent publishing houses right now. As big publishers continue to squabble and generally have a hard time adapting to change (see the battle happening between Hachette and Amazon currently), independent publishers such as the profiled and discussed in Publishers Weekly are really finding their place in the market. The same is true for independent bookstores, which, in an increasingly Amazon-centric world, are finding more and more business from people who miss the warmth and community of visiting a local bookshop. Hopefully, these trends will only continue to bring success to the little guys.

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