Looking For A Little Romance

Posted on June 1, 2006 in Uncategorized

‘Your voice is heard the moment you walk in the door if you want it to be,’ states Maddie Rowe, Editorial Assistant on the Historical Romance list since May 2005, describing how Harlequin Mills & Boon (H M&B) seeks to involve each employee, whether new or established. It might seem like a bold thing to say, but Maddie is currently working for her dream company – she adores romance fiction – and having come to the end of her PhD on C18th Women Writers in Popular Fiction, she moved to London from Oxford with working for H M&B high on her list of priorities. She says it in such a matter-of-fact fashion that I find myself thinking ‘Fantastic! What a great quote,’ rather than ‘yeah, right!’

With 600 new books a year being published in the UK, annual domestic sales totalling thirteen million copies, and a particular standard of quality to maintain, H M&B can’t afford to waste any time, or miss any opportunity, to improve. Making the most of your resources is a must for any publisher, and from my afternoon in Richmond interviewing everyone from Editorial Assistants and Directors to Product Managers, it is clear that the company means every word of their ambitious ‘key values’ statements (see Business Purpose & Values below) and that they have an admirable focus on their Human Resources.

My main contact with H M&B is Karin Stoecker, who moved from Toronto to London in 1994 to cover as Editorial Director for a year and ended up staying in that post. She is firmly of the belief, having been a journalist for ten years, that seeing a wide range of staff face-to-face, both at senior and junior levels, is the best way to display the company and what it is about. I couldn’t agree more, and found I got a fantastic perspective of the company, whether I was talking to someone who had been there for thirty years or for a few months.

Setting the standard

Linda Fildew is a treasure trove of information and insight. She started working for the company on 1 August 1975 and has never looked back – she says she is constantly given new challenges to keep her interested and motivated, and of course, she loves the books. Now Senior Editor on the Historical Romance list, she is confident and clear about what she wants from her authors. Linda takes great care with historical accuracy in the books. As she says, if the framework isn’t authentic it can pull the reader out of a story. You want the reader to focus on and enjoy the human relationship in the book, not whether a date for a particular event is correct. That said, when it comes to language, using the parlance of the day would actually get in the way of immersing oneself in the story, which is why they use a modern voice – albeit omitting specifically modern colloquialisms or terminology. I can relate to this: I loved reading Chaucer in Middle English at school but I still had to ‘translate’ as I went along, which was enjoyable, but meant I was having to wait to understand the story – not what I am looking for in a relaxing read!

Maintaining a certain standard is vital in a brand, she tells me, something echoed by every other person I have spoken to at H M&B. Trust in a brand means that a new author can often enjoy the same levels of sales as an established one, and finding and establishing new authors is a key endeavour of the editorial team. The team receives more than 2,000 unsolicited submissions each year, and each one of these is read, evaluated and responded to. There is a rota involving 12 people, who take a day’s delivery of manuscripts (they request that only the first three chapters are sent) that aren’t addressed to a particular editor. The aim is to get these evaluated by the time the next batch lands on their desk, but naturally this is flexible.

When the rest of a manuscript is requested (a decision that can inspire debate all by itself, because it commits the editor to doing a significant amount of work whether the book is purchased or not) the editor then draws up a detailed letter containing both praise and constructive criticism. H M&B believe very strongly that it is worth investing time in an author to develop them before they are published, as well as after.
Meg Sleightholme, the Editorial Assistant for the Medical Romance list, started working with an author a year and a half ago. She requested the full script of the first book, and was impressed, but didn’t feel it was quite there. She advised the author on how to develop her writing and suggested starting an entirely new book, as it can be easier to evolve the writing style that way. Two more submissions followed, which Meg didn’t feel warranted seeing the full manuscript, but a fourth has now come in and Karin is requesting the full book. Will it be this author’s breakthrough? It is impossible to say at this point, but it is this sort of dedication that enables the team to find twelve or thirteen new authors a year. As an author may write two or three books a year for the company, a quick calculation shows how vital encouraging and working with new talent is for the company.

Quick feedback

Talking to Product Manager Oliver Rhodes, it is fascinating to hear how he assesses the books he works on, and evaluates where the company can expand. For instance, in May 2005 the Sensation list launched a new stream called Bombshell – action adventure with strong heroines – with one title a month. This stream did so well that in October it was decided that it should expand to two titles a month, starting from March 2006. This lightening-fast response to demand in the market place shows how well H M&B understands their brands – and their flexibility in not only having the vision for growth, but also their ability to meet the demand.
 As well as working on some of the brand lists, Oliver also works on the successful MIRA list, which focuses on individual authors and includes thrillers and relationship novels as well as romance. Publishing on average two titles a month, at present the list contains books bought and published by the company in North America – though this will change as new titles can be commissioned over here. The challenges of this list are entirely different, and with success stories like Me & Emma by Elizabeth Flock, it comes as no surprise that the company will be giving a lot of focus to the list and promoting it strongly in 2006. It will be interesting to see if they can give individual authors the impetus they give their brand lists.

How to get a job at Harlequin Mills & Boon

Have you ever sent a speculative letter to a company, or applied for a job you didn’t get, and been told that they will keep your CV on file in case something comes up in future? It always seems like such a slim chance to me, even though I have been called for interview by companies who have indeed kept my CV, so I was delighted to find not one, but two of the people I spoke to had in fact got their jobs at H M&B by sending in speculative letters. Jackie McGee, head of Human Resources informs me that they keep CVs for six months (the Data Protection Act means they can’t keep them for longer) and that they are a vital part of their recruiting practice.
Work experience is also offered – in fact, they are downright keen to get more people in – and can either be full or part-time. Naturally, there is a limit to the complexity and responsibility level of tasks that are handed out, but it is a great way to make an impression on the company, and if the way they treat their employees is anything to go by, then it would be a great placement to have under your belt (see below for further information).

I talked to both Jackie and Karin about what they look for in an employee, and was encouraged by their open approach. Work experience is useful, but not essential, for instance. When it comes to editorial, Karin is naturally keen for people to love the genre, but is mainly concerned that people are passionate readers – list knowledge can be acquired when in the job. A strong work ethic, wide range of interests, desire to make a difference, and energy are traits both Karin and Jackie agree are vital for someone wishing to work at Harlequin Mills & Boon, and they believe it is a great place to begin and develop a career. Given how much they like to involve staff from the moment they join, I strongly suspect they are right.

Responsibility

One of the most impressive aspects of H M&B is the level of responsibility members of staff are given. I have worked at both a small publisher and a large publisher, and enjoyed both immensely for entirely different reasons (see page 11 of issue 112 of Inprint for some of the pros and cons of each). What H M&B seems to have achieved for its staff is the range of responsibilities that you get in a small company – it isn’t just that you can speak up, you have to! – with the perks of a larger company.

Take the role of Editorial Assistant: having talked to Lucy Brown (Tender Romance), Meg Sleightholme (Medical Romance) and Maddie Rowe (Historical Romance) there is almost too much to take in. Each is responsible for their own group of authors (about eight or nine), reading their share of the unsolicited manuscripts, line editing, proof corrections, and helping to come up with titles and covers. Each of these areas requires a huge amount of effort and involvement. There is a covers meeting once a month, for instance, for which two or three scenes have to be written per book, which the Marketing department then uses to get six or seven possible images for the title, and it isn’t just anyone who could do these roles. These women have developed particular skills – both before coming to the company, and whilst there – and the success of their titles clearly owes a great deal to their creativity and ability to work with their colleagues and authors to get the best results.

Developing staff is company policy. Talking to Samantha Gough (Assistant to the Managing Editor), who deals with keeping books on a critical path and the company’s internal database (Harlequin Editorial Resource System), I was surprised that she hadn’t originally considered publishing as a potential career, given her enthusiasm for books. Having previously worked her way up from waitress to manager at Pizza Hut, followed by a spell in public relations for a motorcycle racing company, she joined the Customer Services team at H M&B in 2002 and found it suited her down to the ground. Interested in a move to Editorial, she was given her chance in May 2005 when she moved to her current position. Now she is keen to progress in this area, and has cheerfully volunteered to help with the unsolicited manuscripts pile in addition to her current duties.

I imagine it is this positive attitude and work ethic that inspired the company to help fund her Open University degree, and which motivated someone to nominate her for an Employee Recognition Award (Passionate number 3, see box). Wary of blowing her own trumpet, as she puts it, she is hesitant to tell me about it, but her pleasure and pride in having been given such a public vote of confidence and support is abundantly clear, and an absolute delight to see. Clearly the work Jackie McGee and the Leadership Team spent on these awards is well worth the time and effort.
Motivating staff is a complex and delicate business, which, given the sales results, quality of the books produced, and the warmth and sheer energy I encountered, is something that H M&B know not a small amount about.

Employee Recognition Awards

Jackie McGee and the Leadership Team created the nine awards below as a fun way of saying thank you to staff, and hand them out at the annual company meeting. Nominations are anonymous and it is the Leadership Team (who can’t be nominated) that makes the final decisions.

Passionate
1. Individuals who have demonstrated they are passionate about our product.
2. Individuals who have demonstrated they are passionate about our customer.
3. Individuals who have demonstrated they are passionate to develop themselves and the business.
Super-Trooper
4. Individuals who make the workplace a cheery place to work day in day out
Focussed
5. Individuals who have readily accepted and taken on responsibilities to grow the business.
6. Individuals who have shown they are driven, against all the odds, to achieve results.
7. Individuals who have made exceptional efforts to eliminate wasteful processes and introduced new and better ones in their place.
Innovative and Entrepreneurial
8. Individuals who have shown tenacity for risk-taking to drive the business forward.
9. Individuals who have been forthright, and challenged ‘what we do and why we do it’ and who have suggested alternative solutions.

Business Purpose and Values

Our purpose:

• We will provide the highest quality romance fiction and other related entertainment products.
• Our goal is to be the market leader and to take the commanding position in building the genre we created.
• We are committed to being at the leading edge in our editorial, marketing and production abilities and techniques.
• We will continuously strive to exceed our consumer’s expectations.
• We will achieve this through an organisation and working environment that attracts the best people and fully develops and challenges individual and team talents.

Key Values Statement

We will achieve our business purpose by:

• Taking pride in what we do and how we do it.
• Each individual taking personal responsibility for delivering the highest quality product at the right time every time.
• Acting with fairness and integrity in all our business dealings.
• Achieve our purpose/goals through learning, and by sharing experience and knowledge in a supportive environment.
• Recognising and celebrating success.
• Encouraging new ideas and innovation.
• Clearly and consistently communicating goals and objectives throughout the organisation.
• Being dedicated to growing the business through new product development, new business opportunities and people development.

For this and more information, visit www.millsandboon.co.uk