Category, continuity and familiarity

At the RNA conference I talked to several authors who write for the Harlequin Kiss/M&B Modern Tempted line. Or at least, authors who used to write for that line, since it’s being pulled. It’s had a chequered history, further complicated by the way it’s been marketed differently in different geographical markets. In a twitter discussion earlier, I wondered where writers like Kelly Hunter would now find their niche and several people said that her books used to be published as Presents/Modern. I was surprised by that, so I did a little googling.

I think her career is illustrative of the problems that Harlequin/M&B have had with marketing these younger, less angsty, less fantasy romances, so I’m going to take a little time to outline it.* Hunter’s one of my favourite contemporary romance writers and her books have won many accolades. I don’t know why she’s had so many rebrands, re-titled books, and moves across line but it sucks. She’s not the only one, of course. All of that contributes to the confusion surrounding the different lines and none of it is the author’s fault.

(The dates are UK release. Sometimes this was before the US release, sometimes later.)

Wife For a Week/The Trouble With Valentine’s: Modern Extra/Presents
Priceless/Bedded for Diamonds: Modern Extra/Presents

Sleeping Partner/Trouble in a Pinstripe Suit: Modern Extra/Presents Extra

Taken by the Bad Boy/The Maverick’s Greek Island Mistress: Modern Heat/Presents

Exposed: Misbehaving with the Magnate: Modern Heat/Presents
Revealed: A Prince and a Pregnancy: Modern Heat/Presents
Playboy Boss, Live In Mistress: Modern Heat/Presents

Untameable Rogue/Single Girl Abroad: Modern Heat/Presents Extra
Red-Hot Renegade/Her Singapore Fling/Single Girl Abroad: Modern Heat/Presents Extra

The Man She Loves to Hate: RIVA/Presents Extra
Flirting With Intent: RIVA/Presents Extra

Cracking the Dating Code: RIVA/Presents Extra
With This Fling: RIVA/Presents Extra

The One That Got Away: Modern/Kiss
What The Bride Didn’t Know: Modern Tempted/Kiss

40% (6/15) of her books have had more than one title. That’s tough to deal with when you’re trying to build a brand. Fortunately, the re-titling seems to have mostly stopped.

In the UK, she’s written for Modern Extra, Modern Heat, RIVA and Modern Tempted. One of her most recent books, The One That Got Away, came out as a Modern. With that exception, all her books have actually come out in the same line here since Modern Extra, Modern Heat, RIVA and Modern Tempted are renamed, rebranded versions of more-or-less the same thing. At some points they have been branded to look very similar to the Modern line and at other times they have been branded completely differently. With the shift to RIVA, the line expanded to include some authors who had previously written for Romance, and thus had a lower heat level than the Modern Heat books. But the overall feel of the line was much the same. I’ve written before about the distinction between Modern and Modern Heat (and how it’s nothing to do with heat).

Four rebrands for that line in 8 years. That’s a LOT. No wonder readers are confused. There were periods when the line disappeared altogether. There were times when books with old and new covers were available simultaneously. You had to work hard to follow what was going on. And it seems, since the line is finally being pulled, that none of the re-launches had the desired effect of reaching a new (younger?) audience. It’s impossible to know what would have happened if they’d messed around with the branding less, but I can’t feel that the chopping and changing helped.

In the US, it is even more complicated. Several of Hunter’s books were Presents and several were Presents Extra. The One That Got Away was one of the launch titles for the Kiss line, which was somewhat unfortunate since it’s really much darker than most of Hunter’s books and didn’t suit the line at all. And was given a massively inappropriate cover.

The One That Got Away UK cover:

The One That Got Away US cover:
There are no yellow balloons in that book.

Presents Extra was always a mix of some books that were M&B Modern and some that were Modern Extra/Heat/RIVA. I think that must have been incredibly frustrating and confusing, since the two lines really are quite different. Kelly Hunter’s books and Lynne Graham’s books, much as I love them both, have virtually nothing in common. If you’re hoping for something Graham-esque and you get something Hunter-esque, you have every right to be disappointed.

So, I have no idea what the future is. It’s not obvious to me, from here in the UK, that Hunter would write for Modern, since she’s only had one Modern title before, and that was somewhat atypical of her style. I can see exactly why US readers might expect her to write for Presents, though, since her books have always been divided between Presents and Presents Extra. I’ve always thought of her voice as the epitome of the RIVA/Kiss/Extra line – it’s fun, it’s contemporary, it’s intelligent, it’s sexy but it’s not high-fantasy laden with dramatic emotional intensity. It’s not what I’m expecting when I buy a Modern.

And that’s the thing. Category romance is predicated on the idea of selling a consistent product. People want to know what they’re getting when they buy a Presents or a RIVA or a Modern Extra Hot Pepperoni. Rebranding and remixing the lines is ALWAYS going to have some negative fallout because it removes that confidence. When a category line is new – or looks new – it’s unfamiliar and it’s uncertain. So if you’re going to launch a new line, you’ve got to be sure the positive gains will outweigh that. You need – through your branding and your titles – to make it crystal clear what promise the line makes to its readers. And, I think, you have to give the new line enough time to settle in and become familiar.

I guess the decision will be different for all the Kiss authors. Maybe some will move back to Romance/Cherish. Others to the intensity of Modern/Presents. Maybe some will move to single title, or another publisher. A few have written Cosmo Red Hot Reads and I can see that being a natural home for some of these voices. I’ll read whatever Kelly Hunter writes next, but I’ll be a bit sad if there isn’t a home for books like hers in a Harlequin/M&B category line any more.

*I’m slightly worried that this post comes across as obsessively stalkerish and I don’t mean it to be! I thought it was helpful to talk about the category changes in terms of a single author’s career because it’s much easier to understand in concrete terms. And I picked Hunter because I’ve read all her books, I think she has a very distinctive voice, and she’s gone through a lot of the changes I wanted to talk about. It’s not really meant to be a post about Kelly Hunter. I’m sure she understands her own career better than I do! Also, because it’s a post about Harlequin/M&B, I haven’t included the details of her other books.

One comment

  • The UK category situation is interesting and confusing. From a US point of view, there are only the Presents and Romance categories (not counting the American lines). Presents Extra has never meant much to me except as Presents with the word Extra tacked on. I’ve certainly never distinguished between them. I think I’d have to read a group of books with the intent of figuring out their UK designations to really get the distinctions you’re talking about. I do occasionally notice that an HP is more down to earth than others but compared to the Romance line I still feel it’s a Presents.

    The covers of the Kiss books never drew me in. They said light hearted contemporary to me, and I read Presents for the fantasy, angst, and heat level. Though I read more by author than by line. I don’t pick up just any Presents; I read the HP authors I like. If there’s an author I really like, I’ll follow her across lines, but I’ll read her Presents backlist before the Romance. :)

    After rereading a bit, I think I understand a little more. You say: “Kelly Hunter’s books and Lynne Graham’s books, much as I love them both, have virtually nothing in common. If you’re hoping for something Graham-esque and you get something Hunter-esque, you have every right to be disappointed.” To me, Hunter and Graham both mean Presents. It seems like maybe UK readers have been trained by the many categories to see finer distinctions whereas US readers have only the broad distinction to make. But then I almost never read analytically so other readers may be more aware.