Under the Influence

How a fur trader trapped Harlequin romance novels

The unexpected history of Harlequin romance novels involves a Hudson's Bay fur trader and the Toronto Star.
A selection of Harlequin romance novels from the 1950s, 1980s and today. ((Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.))
Listen to the full episode27:28

It is said that 60 per cent of all households do not purchase even one book per year.

Yet - almost 42 per cent of romance readers read one romance novel per week - and some spend upwards of $1,200 a year on books.

And even though the compilers of best-seller charts ignore the romance category, the genre accounts for over 40 per cent of all paperback sales - second only to mystery novels.

Which is good news for the one company that dominates the romance market worldwide:

Harlequin.

This week, it’s our annual Brand Envy episode, where I tell the stories behind some of the brands I admire. We’ll talk about a romance novel company that was started by a fur trader, an empire created by a cartoonist and a certain dairy product with its very own spokes-angel. Hope you’ll join us for the 2020 edition of Brand Envy. 0:57

I bet you didn't know this fact:

Harlequin Romance was started by a Hudson's Bay Company fur trader.

Makes sense - in no way whatsoever. But it's true. Richard Bonnycastle was born in 1903 and eventually became the Chief Fur Trader for the Hudson's Bay Company. After 20 years, he went to work for - and eventually became the owner of - a company called Advocate Printers in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

To keep the printing company busy during the war years, Richard and his manger Ruth Palmour began buying the reprint rights to a variety of out-of-print books and republished them for Canadian readers.

In particular, they purchased romance novels from a British publisher called Mills and Boon.

Bonnycastle's wife Mary began editing the books and noticed those romance novels were becoming their best-sellers. So she and Palmour went to Richard with an idea. They wanted to pivot the company exclusively to romance.

Richard couldn't argue with the logic. With that, the Harlequin company was founded in 1949.

Throughout the 1950s, Harlequin specialized not just in romance, but "medical" romance. How's that for a sub-genre? But that was because many of the books from Mills and Boon were written with doctor and nurse plots. It worked and readers ate them up.

Harlequin would eventually move its headquarters from Winnipeg to Toronto in 1969 and purchased Mills and Boon two years later.

In the 1970s, a marketing specialist named Larry Heisey moved over to Harlequin from Procter & Gamble.

Knowing the Harlequin readership was comprised mostly of women, he reasoned the same techniques that sold soap to women could be used to sell them novels. He applied that P&G strategy to Harlequin by creating distinctive Harlequin packaging that framed the author, title and cover art. His idea was to market the books in a place where women already shopped: Namely - grocery stores.

Heisey bundled free books with Ajax cleanser and Kotex boxes. Books were given away at McDonald's on Mother's Day and bundled with Avon products.

It was a disruptive strategy. With that, Harlequin's profits soared. Those big revenues attracted the attention of publishing giant Torstar, owner of the Toronto Star - which purchased Harlequin in 1975.

With the acquisition of several publishing companies in the U.S., Harlequin now boasted an 80 per cent market share on both sides of the border.

By 1986, Harlequin was selling over 180 million books per year with most sales occurring outside Canada.

By 1989, Harlequin had revenues of $325M and an operating profit of $56M - making up more than a third of Torstar's total profit.

Then in 2014, Torstar sold Harlequin to publisher Harper Collins - where it resides today.

Harlequin is a remarkable success story.

65 per cent of romance readers cite Harlequin first when they think of romance novels.

Two Harlequin books sell every second worldwide. And they are published in 16 countries and 32 languages.

From a fur trader's desire to keep his printing company busy to his wife's shrewd eye for the potential of romance novels, the company has grown to dominate a category in a way few brands ever do.

Proving all you need is love. And a good plot.


For more stories about enduring brands, click or tap the "Listen" button above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our podcast.


Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels, so host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)