Harlequin hopes e-book offerings will seduce more readers

Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. Tuesday said it is courting the e-book as a means to distribute its romance publications.

Starting this month, the publisher will release 40 per cent of its total monthly shipments of about 100 books in various e-book formats, including those for Microsoft, Palm and eventually Sony.

Harlequin experimented with the format in the late 1990s, but with limited success. Other publishers did the same, but the market wasn’t receptive to it at the time, said Malle Vallik, editorial director of new business development at Harlequin’s offices in Toronto.

Tastes have changed, said Vallik, and Harlequin’s audience – overwhelmingly women – is now prepared to give the format a chance.

“Women don’t do technology because it’s fun and different and cool, they do it because it actually serves as a benefit for them,” she said.

Harlequin started publishing e-books on a limited basis last October.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reception,” she said. “Clearly there’s an audience out there – whether they’re getting them from library use, their laptops, downloading them onto a smart phone or some kind of a reader.”

Consumer tastes have changed, but so has technology, said Jean Bedord, a Cupertino, Calif.-based senior research analyst for Shore Communications Inc. The massively popular iPod, for example, allows people to listen to audio books.

“The platforms are becoming more ubiquitous,” she said. “We’ve got past this whole thing of the form has to be aesthetically pleasing. People are using the device that they find most useful.”

One of the main barriers to e-book adoption is still price, said Bedord. If prices were lower, the audience would come on board faster, but it’s still a relatively young market.

Pricing for printed materials is well-established, so “they know how to tweak the pricing mechanisms, whereas with e-book distribution, it’s a totally different set of players. They’re just not sure how the market is going to react to that.”

Vallik said that Harlequin prices its e-books below its printed volumes, but they’re not radically cheaper, partly because Harlequin paperbacks aren’t expensive items to begin with.

They do have advantages that the printed page doesn’t, she said, like the ability to change font size and be stored electronically rather than take up shelf space. Starting this October, Harlequin will add e-book-only features, like behind-the-scenes notes from the books’ authors. “Kind of a bit like DVD features,” she said. Harlequin will also publish “Harlequin Minis” in electronic formats: short novels of 10,000 words that can be read quickly.

Sony confirmed its interest in the market at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, when it announced its Sony Reader product, which should be available later this year.

The company launched an e-book reader in Japan a few years ago, but never exported the product overseas, said Sony Canada spokesman John Challinor. Like Vallik, he believes the North American market will be more accepting this time around.

“We believe there is a critical mass of consumers . . . who are looking for a reading alternative that provides them with a little more convenience,” he said.

“This product is the physical size of a novel; it’s about a half-inch thin, weighs less than a pound and holds 80 books. Compare that to having to carry around 10 novels when you’re on vacation.”

Sony has not confirmed a final price point or ship date yet, but Harlequin titles will among those available for the Sony Reader at launch. Vallik said Harlequin is currently working with Sony on the final format.

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