In May 2009 Harlequin Enterprises published number 4093 in the Harlequin Romance series: Adopted: Family in a Million by Barbara McMahon. The publishing of this book marks the 60th anniversary of the publishing of “A Harlequin Book” number 1, The Manatee by Nancy Bruff, in May 1949. The Romance series is one of 17 series under the Harlequin imprint and is the direct descendant of the first books, making an unbroken 60 year numbering sequence. The anniversary is a good excuse for an article about Canada’s most successful publisher. Harlequin is a very well documented company, so I’ll give a brief history of the company and focus on the books and the Canadian context.
The Birthing of the Harlequin 1949-1954
Since The Manatee Harlequin has shipped approximately 5.8 billion books through 2008 and is the global leader in series romance with 10 imprints encompassing 51 different series. When Richard Bonnycastle started the company in 1949 he couldn’t have imagined this success. Bonnycastle was the manager and part-owner of Winnipeg’s Advocate Printers, owned by Bryant Press of Toronto, both of whom printed the White Circle Pocket Library imprint for Wm. Collins Sons & Co. Canada Ltd. Bonnycastle saw an opportunity to use excess capacity at Advocate and suggested to investors that they start a paperback publisher. In late 1949 or early 1950 Bonnycastle hired Jack Palmer, then Sales Director at Collins, as Managing Director. He became responsible for choosing the books, arranging for cover art and marketing. Ruth Palmour, Bonnycastle’s secretary at Advocate, dealt “with Palmer [in Toronto] by letter and phone, getting the books printed and delivered to the wholesale distributors.” A few years into the new venture Palmer died and his shares were transferred to Bonnycastle.
It isn’t surprising that Bonnycastle had the idea to start a paperback company in mid 1949. That year some 12 to 15 million paperbacks were sold in Canada through 9,000 to 10,000 outlets by American, British and large Canadian publishers such as Harlequin, Collins and Export Publishing Enterprises Ltd. with their News Stand Library imprint. There were also short-lived companies such as Alval Publishing’s Crow imprint (started the same month as Harlequin, May 1949), Derby Publishing (last half of 1949) and Arrow Publishing (November 1949). All were trying to gain traction in the paperback market after the war during what has been described by Piet Schreuders as the “sex war” period. By mid 1952 the News Stands, White Circles, Crows and others were gone leaving Harlequin as the only Canadian paperback publisher.
From May 1949 until the end of 1954 Harlequin published 322 books. The number of books in the first full five years averaged approximately 60, from a low of 56 in 1952 to a high of 65 in 1950. Eight of the 322 were reprints of earlier Harlequins leaving 314 titles, of which only 14 were PBOs. During these early years all genres were published with 41% crime/thriller, 20% western, 12% romance, 22% other (primarily historical) and 5% non fiction.
In the first five and half years 210 different authors were published, 163 (77%) with a single title, 29 (14%) with two titles and 18 (8%) with three or more titles. James Hadley Chase had the most books with 13.
Another way to look at the variety in this period is the cover art. There were at least 15 signed cover artists and many unsigned ones, all of whom provided provocative covers with strong primary colours.
Harlequin 42 - April 1950
Harlequin 42 back
Harlequin 103 - May 1951
Harlequin 103 back
Harlequin 151 - January 1952
Harlequin 151 back