Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Why Harlequin Is Not Just The Minor Leagues For Single Title

Time and time again, I hear the same comments from authors to other authors at Harlequin (or any other series line). "Oh, you write for Harlequin? Ohhh. (note the tone in the typing)." "I used to write for Harlequin but that was just to learn how to write real stories." "So, you write for Harlequin? What formula do you follow?" In all honesty, I just cringe when I hear these comments for many of of these writers clearly did not get how to truly write for Harlequin or other series line.

I'll just come right out and say it. It takes a real author to be able to write for a series line, and certainly a strong writer to be successful at this.

First, think about the demands of writing for a series line, and let's begin with the word count. There are limits here. You have to be able to tell the same story the single title authors are doing in 90,000-100,000 words in 1/2 the space. This requires focus. This requires a command of the language and utilizing just the right words to say what a paragraph would have normally done in the larger formats. Instead of throwing in secondary characters to get the back story across to the reader, the author has to find a way to bring that back story into play strictly with the characters he or she has available, without detracting from the central story arc.

Secondly, we have to have focus. In essence, I like to equate the series lines to writing a short story. You have one story arc and you have to enhance it and grow that story so it is the most powerful thing possible. One example, outside of publishing, that I think makes the point clear surrounds food. When we go to  a potluck, we have so much food on our plate that by the time we are done, we really don't remember what we ate. Instead, we walk away from the table bloated (but telling ourselves we are full) but not really satisfied. On the other hand, think of a fine dining restaurant or elegant cooking. In this case, I am going to turn to a local chef here in the Pacific
Northwest, Graham Kerr. After his run as the Galloping Gourmet, his focus turned to stressing great food by enhancing the flavor and the color. You don't need a lot, but what you have is packed with flavor and excitement!

Now, when we talk about series writing, in that small amount of space, you have to use your storytelling skills to really pack a wallop of a story!

Next, and I think this is a big one! When you write for a series line, you are also working with the additional constraints of following an established theme of the line. Please note I am not saying a formula. This is that myth that I think far too many authors have bought into. When readers follow a series, they are expecting a certain theme or common idea that will resonate throughout all of the books. These authors don't want the same story over and over again, which is what that formula mentality would have created. What they want is the message and the theme.

Let me explain it this way. In many ways, there is no difference between authors who write for a series line and authors who want to write for publishers that produce books by deceased authors, such as Louis Lamour or Ian Flemming. We can even add in authors who want to write the latest Star Wars or Star Trek novel. I can probably add in here writers for your favorite TV series. The followers of all of these books or television shows expect something when they  read the book or see the show. They want that common theme.

Finally, and I think this is a big one. We know in publishing, one of the biggest keys to success is name recognition. We know the more your readers see or hear an author's name, that sales increase. Look, whether we like it or not, readers are inherently lazy! Harlequin and other series publishers know just this so they do what they can to increase the name recognition of their authors, and they do so with volume! I hear single title authors cringe when they have to produce more than 2 books a year. Some even cringe at one. And yet, those series authors are doing a heck of a lot more, while, need I remind you, maintaining that common theme of the line, maintaining jobs and a family life, and still doing aggressive marketing.

Please don't get me wrong. I am not someone who says single title books are bad and only those series books are great. I am also not saying that I haven't read some pretty bad series titles. A good book still requires great characters, great plots and great storytelling. What I am saying, however, is that there are many in the publishing business that might want to stop and consider before throwing stones of the talent necessary to tell these stories.

I would also add that the editors for these lines are bringing their A-Game! For these brave souls, they are able to work with such a diverse group of authors from all around the world and still maintain that common theme of the line they work with.

In simple words, I tip my hat (if I were wearing one right now) to those working with series titles.


  1. This blog rocks. I just happened to buy a big name new release single title yesterday and it's awful for all the reasons you mentioned above. It didn't have to be awful. But... We don't even have an encounter with the hero until after chapter 4 and up until chapter 5 it's just all backstory about how awful the two sisters' lives are. Do we really need 70 pages to do that in the beginning of the book? If I did that in my series releases, my editor would kill me. I feel like this current story I'm reading is just desperately trying to make word count--there's three stories going (sister 1, sister 2, and the now- engaged- to -someone else-ex romantic interest of one of the sisters looks to be getting his own story line too) none of them are particularly compelling--but the real reason is that the story line isn't a 90,000 word story line. It would be a really nice 70,000 word story though. Do you ever want to play 'name that tune' (you know, 'I can name that tune in two notes). Sometimes I read and mentally play 'I could write that story in _______words.' It's a nice brain exercise and I play it with my own stuff too to make sure it's not getting too over the top.

  2. Well said. Also, if a reader likes a certain series they also make note of the authors they prefer in that series.

    I hoped and tried to write for Harlequin for years but finally had to admit my voice doesn't fit. Nor do my characters. Fortunately, trying that path for so long has helped me write books that are entertaining readers and I'll continue. It's my dream career and I still read Harlequin series books.

  3. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. As one of the authors you're talking about, I appreciate everything you've said. I'm proud to write for Harlequin and proud of my books. It's wonderful to be recognized for the hard work required to produce three or four quality books a year.

  4. This blog does rock..and I totally agree with him....Formula?? Really?? He said everything I've been thinking and feeling when I hear these comments. Well said!

  5. Thanks Scott! I'm an author for Harlequin, writing books 50-55,000 words long. It's nice to see someone who appreciates what it takes to do that and is willing to put it out in cyberspace for everyone to know.

  6. Well said. As an author of nearly 50 Harlequin books, I appreciate your eloquent support of our genre.

    1. I as one of the reader of series books, and Have been reading Harlequin since 1975. one of my most favorite author was Betty Neels who wrote into her 90 th year. I read every book she wrote and Julie Miller along with Paula Graves, and few other who do series books I love them.

  7. What a delightful post! Thank you so much for putting this out there. Yes, I'm a Harlequin author and I love what I do, the team I work with is top notch and we have so much fun at Love Inspired that it should probably be illegal.... but the thought that my books are AFFORDABLE FOR THE MASSES is what makes me happiest. If you've ever been low on funds, you know what a wonderful thing it is to get a great read at an affordable price. I ♥ what I'm doing with Love Inspired.... And kudos to you for pointing out how wonderful it is!

  8. Great post! Thank you for supporting the work we series authors do! :)

  9. I've never written for a series, but it's insulting to think there are actually people out there who think writing category is a walk in the park, and all because the publisher offers guidelines of sorts.

    Those ignorant morons need a wake up call, but I'd settle for a good slap in the face.

    You hit all the points, Scott! Great post!

  10. As another of those series authors, thank you for this.

  11. Thank you from yet another author.