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In the market for romance.

Monica Harris never envisioned that one day she would break new ground in publishing. But only three weeks after suggesting the idea in a job interview, she was creating a new publishing line, Arabesque Books. With 72 titles and 6 million copies in circulation, it's the first and only romance line from a major publisher to feature African American characters in books written by African American women.

Today, as a senior editor for Kensington Publishing Corp., the second largest publisher of romance novels (next to Torstar, publisher of Harlequin and Silhouette novels), Harris does whatever it takes to produce three Arabesque titles per month. No easy feat in the competitive paperback fiction market, which rakes in almost $1.34 billion annually. Romance novels account for a large share of that market, close to 46%.

Charged with locating new material, reading and editing the work of her 65 authors and overseeing all levels of production, Harris also holds the unusual position of spokesperson. Most editors keep a low profile, but when Arabesque press kits were first mailed, Harris' picture was included.

But at age 28, the Willingboro, New Jersey, native is hardly an overnight success. Her story is one of persistence, passion and a love for words that goes as far back as she can recall. "As my mother tells it," she says, "I was so anxious to read, I started teaching myself."

In 1990, Harris graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University with a double major in literary and cultural studies and professional writing. Following graduation, Harris snagged a job at Dell Publishing, where she spent the next three years as an editorial assistant in the romance department. In addition to doing the required grunt work, Harris began digging through the "slush pile," a term for unsolicited manuscripts.

Within six months, Harris struck gold with a gothic romance novel she was authorized to purchase. About that time, Harris took the initiative to create Love Notes, a four-page romance newsletter distributed nationally at major bookstores. When Harris left Dell in 1993, Love Notes filled 10 pages and had garnered a vast following.

Once established at New York-based Kensington, she was challenged by company Chairman and CEO Walter Zacharius to "go out and find some books." Four weeks later, Harris bought two books that became anchors for the Arabesque line. One of them, Forever Yours, by Francis Ray, became a bestseller and is now in its fifth printing. More bestsellers followed, as did numerous awards. All in all, the brainchild of Harris and Zacharius now accounts for $4.9 million of Kensington's $50 million annual net sales.

Harris attends up to 10 writers' conferences a year and a multitude of book signings. "I like promoting people that have worked hard to get where they are," she says. The young editor encourages and inspires her authors to join in, beginning with going to the corner bookstore and saying, I'm an author, and I'd love to do a book signing. It is this aggressive strategy that has taken nearly every Arabesque publication back to press - each first printing is 50,000 copies and reprintings are at 10,000 - an unusual occurrence for the romance genre.

Harris claims her greatest challenge with Arabesque was to convince booksellers and readers that her books were viable. This meant talking to booksellers, training her sales force to successfully market the line and surveying Kensington's already established African American audience. Harris credits her success to doing one thing consistently: "Going the extra mile."
COPYRIGHT 1996 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:romances for African American readers
Author:Karp, Hal
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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