Bodice Ripping 2.0

The Fast Interview: Harlequin's Brent Lewis on how romance novels are being read — and written — on cell phones and why size really doesn't matter.

Publishing isn't dead, it's just sleeping — with a vampire. Harlequin, one of the world's largest publishers of romance fiction, has reached well beyond the supermarket checkout line by using Web 2.0 tactics to engage with its 50 million readers. It now offers all of its current titles as ebooks that can be read on mobile devices, even phones. It has launched ebook-exclusive content such as the Spice Briefs, a line of erotic but short ("because size doesn't matter") stories. It also has embraced other digital tactics such as audio books, podcasts, and serialized novels on XM radio. It has united its community of readers with MySpace pages, the Paranormal Romance Blog (what makes vampires sexy?), and book readings in fantasy worlds in Second Life. In many ways, Harlequin is well-suited for the fast-moving digital world: It releases about 120 new titles every month. Brent Lewis, Harlequin's director of Internet and digital, talks about the business of romance in a world of perpetual beta.

What's driving the Web 2.0 stuff?

Consumers. At Harlequin we have a very powerful brand that people have been very loyal and engaged to since the business began. We started with a toe in the water with ebooks and we saw consumers were pretty accepting of that format. We certainly were surprised by the success of ebooks. Our ebook program went from nine titles per month when we launched in October 2005 to 100 percent of our front list two years later.

One often hears that publishing is dying. Is this a way to keep it viable?

I don't think traditional publishing is dying, but it's an extremely mature industry. It grows one or two percent a year. Publishers are looking at digital as a chance to get new readers and perhaps sell more books. Secondly, it's the way consumers are evolving. People want their stories in digital format.

Is it profitable?

It's an investment right now. But we certainly see enough interest in it that we believe it will be profitable in the short term.

I was stunned to learn that people are reading books on mobile phones. Does a bodice ripper have the same impact on your cell?

Apparently so. We chunk down most stories so you're only getting about 500 words per day. I believe strongly that mobile will become an important delivery mechanism for publishers in North America. In Japan, a lot of new authors have emerged who actually write their stories on their mobile phones. In 2007, five of the top 10 best selling books in Japan were written on a mobile phone. They became so popular in mobile that publishers actually printed them. I look to that as a leading indicator.

Earlier this month, you spoke at the O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference and said that technology changes but outcomes don't. What's that mean?

We really have four outcomes: marketing, products, commerce, and relationships. That's what we've been doing at Harlequin since the business began. The technology changes all the time, and some of it has a short lifespan. So what I emphasize — and I've been working in the Internet space for over a decade — is don't fall in love with the technology, fall in love with the outcomes.

Fall in love — spoken like a true Harlequiner. So what are the lessons here?

Embrace digital. There is a lot of fear of digital in publishing and in entertainment. It's fear of the unknown. But it's not going away. Burying your head in the sand is not a strategy. You really need to embrace this and figure out how it can work for you. And a lot of that involves experimentation. At Harlequin, we're doing things with Second Life, podcasting, blogs, and a lot of different things to promote our stories.

Have you discovered the meaning of perpetual beta?

It's the idea that nothing is ever a finished product. We're always experimenting, always evolving. Technology is changing so quickly that you can call yourself finished but a technology will come along to make your site, your blog, or what have you, better. The idea that you're finished is completely untrue.

If you think you're finished, you probably will be finished, and soon.

Exactly. It's a dangerous mindset.

But with experimentation, there are often mistakes and things that don't work out.

Absolutely. Even when you do have success, the speed at which technology changes means the success might not be sustainable for a decade like in the previous world. It can be a very short-term win. You have to move forward. You will do a lot of things that won't work. It's important that you try and learn from them. In this space, you have to be very fluid and ready for change. Nothing is going to stay still like it did in the past.

What things failed?

I try to forget about those. One of the things we tried to do was an application that people had to download onto their phones. It was just too cumbersome with mobile interfaces. We found that being available through WAP — wireless area protocol — is better than creating customized applications. The key is keeping it as simple as possible.

You're working in MySpace and Second Life. How important has social networking become?

That's one of the big advantages for Harlequin — what I term relationships. At Harlequin, we've had relationships with our customers since the business began, like reader parties and book clubs, because our brand evokes strong feelings in people. Web 2.0 allows us to use technologies to have relationships with more people and, more importantly, to allow our readers to talk to one another. Harlequin readers love to talk to each other.

In Second life, we've been experimenting with virtual worlds. We had our first event in September, a reading by M.J. Rose, which by Second Life standards was quite successful. One of the key objectives for us was to build custom environments in Second Life to facilitate the readings. With M.J. Rose, we did a piazza, which was from a scene from the book. In the second reading, for Deanna Raybourn's Silent in the Sanctuary, we built an abbey. The book is a mystery based in Victorian England. We had Deana doing a reading from her book. We actually had a Victorian costume party that was incredibly successful. People were lined up at the door — the virtual door — to get in.

Does your digital program take advantage of the The Long Tail?

With ebooks you can really embrace The Long Tail because you don't have the restrictions of the physical world. You can keep your entire catalog of books available to customers without taking up warehouses and warehouses and warehouses. It's allowed us to sell books readers wouldn't otherwise have been able to find. We've also gone back and created customized products — special bundles based on theme, authors, or mini-series. Economically we wouldn't have been able to do that in a print version, but in the digital world we can. Like Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, says, there's an audience for everything.

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