The Harlequin Vintage Collection—A Lesson in Patience!

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Vintage Collection Covers

by Executive Editor Marsha Zinberg

“Pardon my Body”? “I’ll Bury My Dead”? Such phrases might sound a bit jarring to an ear attuned to the more evocative and romantic titles usually associated with Harlequin. So what are we doing publishing books with such kitschy titles?

The short answer is that they are a small sampling of the type of fare our company began with. And this collection seemed a logical contribution to our 60th anniversary celebrations. Harlequin mounted an art exhibition in May, entitled The Heart of a Woman, which got people from many departments poring over old covers. Soon we had postcards and notepads—not to mention business cards—created that trumpeted our roots in the late 1940s. And folks both within our building and in the broader publishing community seemed completely taken with this vintage art. So why not publish a few of the texts that accompanied them?

The assignment: Go through our publication list (from Day One!) and look at the accompanying covers. Choose six books and reprint them, EXACTLY AS THEY WERE THEN, as a small collection to celebrate our sixty years in business. Let’s do them in October…that should give you guys loads of time!

Well, ok. We don’t need to create new art. We don’t need to edit the text. Should be a walk in the park, yes? Not so much, we discovered.

First roadblock: We did not possess physical copies of the books. In Harlequin’s early days, before people began thinking about “posterity”, it likely didn’t occur to employees that we might actually want to keep one copy of each book! We’ve been doing that for decades now, of course, but apparently we didn’t sixty years ago. So we actually had to make use of the Internet, and hunt down in used book stores the titles we couldn’t locate. It goes without saying that we had no digital files of either the text or the art, so the text had to be painstakingly key-stroked to create new text files, and the cover images had to be digitized as well.

Next: choosing the books. We had a few limitations here. We wanted books whose cover art appealed to us, and we had to be in physical possession of the book, but in some cases, once we started reading the text, we simply couldn’t see publishing the story, for a host of reasons….content, language, political correctness, etc. Several were eliminated, no matter how striking the cover!

Now for the books: Remember, our intention was to publish the stories in their original form. But once we immersed ourselves in the text, our eyes grew wide. Our jaws dropped. Social behavior—such as hitting a woman—that would be considered totally unacceptable now was quite common sixty years ago. Scenes of near rape would not sit well with a contemporary audience, we were quite convinced. We therefore decided to make small adjustments to the text, only in cases where we felt scenes or phrases would be offensive to a 2009 readership. Also, grammar and spelling standards have changed quite a bit in sixty years. But that did entail a text edit, which we had not anticipated. AND, we had to clear those adjustments with the current copyright holders, if we had been able to locate them.

And of course, the covers: Though we used the original covers, they had to be scanned and touched up. In addition, we felt it important to give the potential purchasers some context for our decision to publish the books as well as some cues that this was in fact not standard Harlequin fare at all: i.e. these stories are mostly written by men, and romance is not usually a key element in the plot! So we redesigned the back covers and spines, and reproduced the red dye on the page edges, for added authenticity.

Everyone in house has taken such interest and pride in this project, and we’re delighted that the collection is now out in the marketplace. We hope they will also accomplish what the cover art exhibition attempted to do: “offer a unique insight into the profound changes that have occurred in women’s lives over the past six decades—from shifts in private desires to shifts in the politics of gender”!

To purchase books from the Vintage Collection, visit www.eHarlequin.com.

And PS—keep entering the Susan Wiggs Lakeshore Christmas contest!

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41 Responses to The Harlequin Vintage Collection—A Lesson in Patience!

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Harlequin Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. Joanna Terrero

    Marsha, thanks for sharing with us the epic voyage that carried out the Vintage Collection.

  3. Marsha–What a fascinating journey! I have many, many older Harlequins. I started collecting the older titles in the 1980’s, when they were common in used bookstores, primarily for the cover art. I envisioned using the books as a funky wall display someday. Maybe I’ll have to get to work on that. ;-)

  4. I’m curious if anyone has read any of the Vintage books — what did you think?

    @Jeannie — I have an old Mills & Boon cover from the 20’s(?) that I had printed and framed on my wall.
    ~Amy

  5. I’ve been keeping an eye out but I’m not sure where the bookstore is shelving them. I’ll have to ask, next time I’m out.

  6. i luv susan wiggs novels!

  7. Marsha, what a great story! (Easy for me to say, right?;)) My Harlequin 60th anniversary bag with the collection of covers never ceases to draw attention wherever I take it. My local librarians are begging me to help them get their own–has anyone considered selling them?

    A whole lot of work, but you’ve sure given an enormous number of people great fun and much to talk about!

    Jean

  8. Since they are merchandised in Mystery I can’t see sales information however, Love the Covers! Great job!
    Sue

  9. Hi Jean — I believe we’re out of the bags, but we *do* have some more vintage stuff coming soon. We’ll have an announcement on the blog when we have all the details!

    Hi Michelle — according to Sue, they could be in mystery (thanks Sue! :)). Or you can always order them from eHarlequin in print or eBook.
    ~Amy

  10. I flipped when I saw the covers on the stand at K-Mart. I purchased 2 books.
    Then I get to this website and read:
    \Remember, our intention was to publish the stories in their original form….. We therefore decided to make small adjustments to the text, only in cases where we felt scenes or phrases would be offensive to a 2009 readership.\
    Why bother publishing them?
    Most people who actually read books are adults and realize times were different in the past.
    I’m glad you do not publish any classic books. Rewriting Moby Dick or 3 Musketeers could change them a bit. Maybe a bad example but you see my meaning.
    These were written at a certain time and should reflect that period as offensive as that would be to the current readership. You could even use this as a selling point.
    Would a reader who is easily offended purchase a book with these covers?
    Most of the offensive paperbacks from the 40s and 50s were from the covers not the text.
    If you continue to publish these books please consider using full unaltered text. Other then above objections great idea.
    Thanks,
    David

  11. Pingback: Pardon My Body by Dale Bogard (Harlequin, 1952 and 2009) « Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books

  12. Walker Martin

    I can’t believe that you decided to edit and censor these books. I certainly have no interest in reading such pc nonsense. Either publish them as they were originally written or leave them unmolested on the the second hand vintage paperback market.

  13. Nigel Algar

    Your intention to “offer a unique insight into the profound changes that have occurred in women’s lives over the past six decades—from shifts in private desires to shifts in the politics of gender” is wrecked by your absurd decision to bowdlerise the text of these novels. Granted that these authors may not stand beside Faulkner or Twain – both whom have suffered at the hands of misguided editors over the years – but you’re playing fast and loose with literary history and it’s plain indefensible.

  14. I’m a collector of old vintage paperbacks, and I have been since I bought them new off the circular racks in drugstores and supermarkets when I was growing up.

    This business of sheltering our eyes from things you think might offend us now is absolute nonsense. Who do you think we are, a bunch of weak-kneed sissies? Even if it makes us uneasy every once in a while to look at our past, history IS history, and it’s ridiculous to try to cover it up.

    Please do us a favor, and keep publishing your X-rated romance novels, and leave the mystery and noir genres well enough alone. You say you’re delighted to have been able to reprint these books. I think you should be ashamed of yourselves, trampling on the work of others, especially when (as far as I can tell) it’s been done without their permission.

  15. Pingback: » Censorship and Bowdlerization at Harlequin.

  16. Ken McDaniel

    TAMPERING WITH THE PAST: It was an unfortunate decision of current Harlequin management/editors to reprint vintage Harlequin titles with selective censorship of the text, and perhaps cover art also. It is demeaning to current day readers to have some editors who feel they know what is best for customers to revise authors work from 60 years ago. I regret now purchasing the James Hadley Chase title, as I have made it a practice over my 50+ years of reading/collecting to NOT buy abridged fiction works. I understand also that Harlequin advertised these titles with statements that text had not been changed, which, if so, is a major indictment also of poor judgment and lack of coordinated efforts to produce a superior product. And why in the world would Harlequin go to the trouble to ressurect at added cost these old titles unless the attempt was to produce a superior product from their past. A regretable publishing event!!

  17. I bought all six titles directly from Harlequin. None of the books said anything about the contents being edited or censored to suit someone’s PC sensibilities. I think this is ludicrous, especially considering none of the titles in question is any more violent or offensive than the Gold Eagle books Harlequin also publishes. I celebrated Harlequin´s decision to reprint vintage paperbacks but now that I know they were censored I wish I could send them back.

  18. What a shame. It was a great idea but I certainly won’t be buying theses ‘fixed’ watered down versions. I’d rather hunt around for the originals, or buy from publishers who reprint novels in their original form, as the author intended. We readers are not stupid, you know.

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