Media Coverage of the Harlequin Acquisition: It Could be Worse. No, Actually, It Couldn’t.

And here's where nothing's changed.

Readers have been talking about what the potential results will be of HarperCollins/NewsCorp's acquisition of Harlequin most of the day. What does it mean for libraries, digital readership, international romance readers, and the people who work at both companies? All logical questions. 

And while Harlequin and HarperCollins have composed appropriately worded press releases and are making statements like “business as usual” and about fourteen thousand lawyers on both the US and Canadian sides are like GAME ON, there's the part that actually sucks right now.

The media response to the acquisition is as expected. Which is to say, it's so awful, I can't even describe it adequately. There are no gifs or emergency cute baby animals strong enough to dull the pain.

Here's Brian Stetler on CNN:

Harlequin has fallen for a charming billionaire along with the primary headline, Harlequin Swooped Up by NewsCorp

“Swooped?” “Charming?” For real?  

“Charming” is not the word describe Rupert Murdoch. Or was he tapping your phones and you had to be kind?

Also vying for first place in Completely Offensive Hogwash: the first sentence of Stetler's article:

News Corp (NWS), the publishing company chaired by Rupert Murdoch, said Friday that it would pay $415 million to acquire Harlequin, best known for romance novels sometimes nicknamed “bodice rippers.” (Murdoch is, coincidentally, newly single.)

Instant replay! Let's look at that again: 

(Murdoch is, coincidentally, newly single.)

YES. Because Rupert Murdoch's marital status is absolutely relevant.

Also: bodice rippers. Everyone, that means 25 tricep dips. GO! 

And then there's this steaming pile of crap, from the Globe and Mail, which is not (I checked) a TorStar publication.

Michael Babad writes about the signing of legal papers for a nearly half-billion dollar (CAN) acquisition, turning a Canadian company into an American subsidiary, as… a sex scene.

No, I'm not kidding. 

Have a look: Make Me Melt: The sale of Torstar’s Harlequin as a bodice-ripper.

In the corner of the room, on this warm spring day cooled only somewhat by the breeze from the lake, stood the Harlequin, arms crossed and still in shock that he wanted a divorce after 39 years.

True, her sales had sagged, and he was desperate for money to pay his $160-million in debts. And, she had to remember, it was News Corp. that courted Torstar. The wandering eye wasn’t his. Not at first, anyway.

But it chilled her to her very core to become just another member of the News Corp. harem. And obviously, he had forgotten the good times, when she was younger and more attractive, before her revenue and operating profit gave way.

She understood it, of course. It was a hard decision for him – he even said so in a statement to the press – and the $455-million was good money he so craved for his shattered industry. Which is why his hands were so lovingly stroking the paper that would seal the bargain. Intimate, really, like he used to be with her.


I'm embarrassed for everyone at Harlequin and HarperCollins after reading that. I'm embarrassed for all of Canada. I haven't cringed that hard in a long time.

This rage is too powerful, even for emergency kittens. I tried.  

Whether or not the figures of billion-dollar annual sales for romance are accurate (as Jane Litte has outlined several times, they include books that aren't romance, e.g. Sparks, Steel, et al), romance is a business. 

No, really. I swear. An actual business, with actual money that employs actual people and supports an industry that is in fact actually global.

A business that is, in the case of Harlequin for the time being, Canadian and apparently worth $455+ million dollars and will become  – did you miss this part, Mr. Babad? This is kind of important, given that you're writing for a Canadian newspaper and this is a Canadian company we're talking about here – a subsidiary of an American publisher. 

As I said on Twitter, do all nearly half-billion dollar acquisitions that change a Canadian company into an American subsidiary get written up as sex metaphors in The Globe and Mail?

No, of course not. 

I know to expect the standard lines of media coverage of romance. I expect muscle pain and eye rolling

I am not surprised.

But I'm so pissed off. Because Rupert Murdoch, whose ethics, political influence, and business decisions are part of a whole network of Wikipedia articles about him, is a “charming billionaire.” CEOs in charge of a merger are reduced to sweating caricatures in a badly written parody.

One dull side note: at least we were spared the portrayals had Donna Hayes still been CEO of Harlequin. Imagine those articles.

No, better yet, don't.

It's better this way.

Pretend I didn't say that. 

You'd think that this was enough of a story with very wide reaching ramifications that business reporters would be able to take it seriously.

But instead of examining the differences between the two companies, how Harlequin has often led the way in digital transitions in romance, how readers perceive the different publishers as brands, how each publisher has markedly different approaches to reader cultivation, library relations, and community building, and how each has followed very different timelines for all of the above plus many other initiatives in digital and print publishing, it's much easer and a well-worn path to just make sex jokes and call it a day.

One reason why I'm particularly disappointed is that this is an area of the publishing world I know little about, except to watch what happens when Random House and Penguin merge (so far: press releases, meetings, email address confusion, then layoffs and redundancies).

It's really that difficult to see this as a business transaction that has considerable ramifications – global ramifications – for writers, employees, and readers?

Apparently. Because, as usual, when the business is about women, it's not worth the time to come up with something new or even interesting. Thanks for the reminder.


Ranty McRant

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Karin says:

    Yeah, I know. One of my Twitter friends who does political commentary used the phrase ‘bodice ripper’ tweeting about this. I don’t want to fight, so I’m ignoring.

  2. 2
    msmonkeyboy says:

    The opening line of the New York Times article on the sale: OTTAWA — The News Corporation said on Friday that it would acquire Harlequin Enterprises, the publisher of bodice-ripper romance novels, for 454 million Canadian dollars, or $413 million, in cash from Torstar, the publisher of The Toronto Star.
    The rest of the article is a straight-forward reporting of a business merger, but they had to get “bodice-ripper” in there right away so we could know not to take it seriously.

  3. 3

    I love (read: hate) the way that the articles are from HarperCollins’s perspective and what they will gain from this acquisition, rather than the market share and force that Harlequin is bringing. It’s a small difference in tone, but everything is “this is what we’re getting!” rather than “this is why Harlequin is important!”

  4. 4
    Stephanie Scott says:

    Truly the CNN writer was a novice because he didn’t mention Fabio. Every romance reader knows Fabio represents modern romance.

  5. 5
    Nancy says:

    We can add Reuters to the news outlets who have no respect for the genre. I had hoped that the company I work for wouldn’t fall into the trap that others had.  Apparently I am not that lucky. According to the article, Harlequin “churns” out “bodice ripper” books rather than publishes them. No respect for the folks who write the books or all the people involved in getting those books to market.

  6. 6
    Brian Stelter says:

    Thank you for the feedback. I’m taking it seriously, and I certainly see this as an important business transaction.

  7. 7

    As much as it might disgust you to hear Murdoch’s relationship status, at least just this once we have a man being treated in the media the way powerful or wealthy women typically are when they’re in the news.

  8. 8
    Amanda says:

    I recently wrote a term paper for one of my graduate courses on how to publicize romance novels. During my presentation, people were actually surprised to learn that romances were on every NYT bestseller list, save for genre specific ones.

    Seriously, people. This stuff sells. Big time.

  9. 9

    If only there was a required reading list of academic texts on the genre which they had to have worked their way through before being allowed to write anything about romance. It couldn’t include Radway, though, or we’d just reinforce the stereotype that we’re all middle-aged housewives looking for nurturance.

  10. 10

    I can’t wait to see Harlequin’s new imprint: HARLEQUIN RICH OLD WHITE GUY

  11. 11

    The jokes are pathetic and weak. They demonstrate a fundamental lack of industry knowledge on the part of the writers creating them. Romance is the biggest fiction genre, representing something like a third of fiction sold in the US, and about a sixth of all trade/consumer book sales. Harlequin is a HUGE player in that field, and people making fun of it are morons.

    But isn’t this the same Harlequin which was deliberately playing a shell game so they could keep 75% of the royalties they owed authors? (rhetorical question)

    I guess I am just past caring what happens to the steaming pile of fewmets that is Harlequin. They found a legal loophole that let them cheat thousands of their writers out of what in aggregate was enormous sums of money. Personally, I’d be happier if they simply went out of business because writers refused to work with them anymore, but I suspect we’re a ways off from that.

  12. 12
    HJ says:

    Thank you.  This needed to be said.  Just look at the amounts involved, the sheer size of the business and the numbers of people who will be affected by this both directly and indirectly.  This should be reported seriously, especially given the nature and track-record of the purchaser.

  13. 13
    Marie-Anne says:

    I guess we’ll have to look to Canadian media to once again actually report something without turning it into a joke about what women supposedly read.

  14. 14
    Irene Vartanoff says:

    We could take it as a compliment that romances are so interesting that the dry facts of yet another old man buying a multimillion-dollar company have inspired—yes! inspired!—many younger men to write purple prose.

  15. 15
    Alice in Nova Scotia says:

    As a Canadian, I apologize for the guy who wrote that stupid article that was in the Globe & Mai today.  And to think I thought we’d scrape the bottom of the barrel with the likes of Rob Ford & Justin Beiber.  Please don’t judge us all by these nut-jobs.

  16. 16
    Karen Duvall says:

    Calling all romance novels “bodice-rippers” is like calling all movies set in the historical west “spaghetti westerns.” They don’t make them anymore. Welcome to the 21st Century.

  17. 17
    MissB2U says:

    I plan to come here for updates on the deal and the fallout.  At least there will be well written and respectful coverage and comments.  I’m so over the Romance genre shaming crap that gets dished out to us on a regular basis from those whose claim to the literary high ground is nothing short of specious.

  18. 18
    Jenns says:

    Ugh. I think I gave myself a headache with all the eye rolling I just did. And Babad needs to stick with his day job. Because clearly he’ll never make it in humor or in fiction.

    I must be getting cynical. I’m not even angry about the way the press is handling this, just bored and annoyed. Another day, another story about romance, another chance for uninformed snobs (mostly men) to make tired, stupid jokes about a genre – or more accurately, an industry – they know nothing about.

    Having said that … The thought of “charming billionaire” *coughcoughgag* Murdoch being mentioned as newly single (and just the thought of him being associated in any way with Harlequin) squicks me out.

  19. 19
    Cate M. says:

    True, her sales had sagged,

    Ugh, what the hell kind of misogynistic “joke” is that? Just…ick. It’s not enough to write a cutesy article about a huge business deal,  but he had to shove that in?

  20. 20
    Diane Cardamone says:

    So, are we surprised CNN would tell the story of the sale of Harlequin like a 15 y/o checking out a hot babe & can’t get his eyes above her tits?

    At least they aren’t screaming “de plane! de plane”

  21. 21
    Stephanie says:

    Last night, I watched Diane Sawyer do the lead on a news article about 55 colleges being investigated for failing to provide appropriate support to women who have been assaulted (sexual and otherwise).  The voice over detailed how some women “weren’t even drunk or partying” when they were assaulted.
    Now we have this douchebaggery coming from both sides of the border – I am so done with the media.

  22. 22
    Jo says:

    @Brian Stelter “Thank you for the feedback. I’m taking it seriously, and I certainly see this as an important business transaction.”
    You are? Huh. Somehow I missed that with all the swooping, bodice ripping, cringeworthy pictures and references to the always charming Mr Murdoch. My bad.

  23. 23

    And you didn’t even quote the one about how Harlequin was “thrust into the arms” of Murdoch.  Or some such [insert four letter word here.]

  24. 24
    Milly says:

    And this is yet another reason why I cancelled my subscription to the Globe & Mail last year.  I’m thoroughly disgusted at the coverage of this.  Maybe we should pair the writer of the Globe article with David Gilmour.

    Sarah, you hit it right on, this is yet another Canadian company being sold to a foreign corporation.  I think we can all agree that if we want to keep jobs in Canada to support our own economy then we have to stop selling our companies to the highest bidder.  I drive by the Harlequin offices every day – I wonder how many are going to lose their jobs.  For those of you who don’t know, TorStar is the owner of The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily newspaper – the same paper that brought the Rob Ford scandal to light.  This is a significant business transaction that will have an impact on publishing.  So my next question is this:  Harlequin accepts coupons but Harper Collins does not on Kobo… does this mean yet another publisher who will lock prices at a ridicoulously high rate for digital content?

  25. 25
    Sandy C. says:

    Most of those articles (99%) are a joke. Truly amazing.  Real people are being affected, including people I’ve never met, such as editors, authors, photographers, marketers, etc.  (Selfishly, I’m wondering what’s going to happen to the monthly Harlequin bundles, if there are going to be huge changes to the different lines, and so on.)  It’s truly disgusting to see how much of the media is handling this, and that one attempt at a parody makes me want to yell, “Please don’t quit your day job!”

  26. 26
    Teresa Hill says:

      This is nothing compared to the headline yesterday in some rag named Courthouse News Service about the New York Appeals Court ruling in favor of Harlequin authors in our lawsuit:

    Harlequin Authors Hit 2nd Circuit’s G-Spot

    For some reason, the headline isn’t on the actual article, but it shows up on a Google News Search here:…0.0…1ac.1.MeeVTb0-r3o#authuser=0&gl=us&hl=en&q=harlequin+sold+G-spot&tbm=nws


  27. 27
    jimthered says:

    I’m not sure if it’s any consolation, but comic book fans used to have to endure lots of BATMAN tv show-type sound effects (“Pow!”  “Bam!”) in almost any coverage of anything related to comic books.  I’d like to say it has passed, but there are always writers who go for the cheap, easy shot.

  28. 28
    Christy says:

    Wait a sec! I thought that foreign takeovers of Canadian companies had to be approved by the Canadian government…would some fellow Canadian correct me if that is not so. Yet another Canadian company gone with likely significant loss of jobs. Too depressing. I will need a pick me up: a good ‘what to read next’ list stat.

  29. 29
    Rose Lerner says:

    Yes, yes, yes! It also REALLY bothers me that in this “Harlequin merger as sex scene” article, Harlequin is further demeaned by being portrayed as unwanted and “past her prime.” When in fact this sale seems like clear proof of Harlequin’s astronomical value. (And that’s not even getting into how appalling the assumption is that women are unattractive once they get to a certain age.)

  30. 30

    “Or was he tapping your phones and you had to be kind?”< <

Comments are closed.

↑ Back to Top