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PRAGUE-How do you introduce romance fiction to a country where women believe the genre is evil?

Answer: Make friends first.

That's how Harlequin Books' Dagmar Digrinova turned a potentially hostile reception into 7 million book sales in the Canadian publisher's first full year in the former Czechoslovakia.

"It was very dangerous," says Ms. Digrinova, Harlequin's managing director for the Czech Republic and Slovakia and a former publisher of the post-Communist teen-targeted Watch Out Girls!

Although formula love stories were popular during periods of democracy earlier this century, starting in 1948 communists declared them capitalist trash and banned them. The fall of communism in 1989 cleared the way for Harlequin, which began to test the waters in November 1992.

Ms. Digrinova's innovative marketing strategy was to sell the books through the same distribution channels as magazines, such as newsstands, and to position the company as a dispenser of feminine advice. The combination was a hit among females unused to special treatment.

Created in-house under Ms. Digrinova's watchful eye, Harlequin television and cinema spots, filmed with red and pink filters, showed women leaving dull companions for romantically appealing men.

With enough enthusiasm to incline even the soberest accountant toward romantic fiction, the 42-year-old Ms. Digrinova also persuaded magazine and newspaper editors to interview her on topics such as kissing, and she bluntly told readers even if they don't have a real man in their lives, they can read about one every month.

The response has been so overwhelming-a landslide 19,000 letters came from women seeking advice in the first two months-that she hired a psychologist to answer the flood and is using the addresses, now exceeding 50,000 names, as a database for direct mailings.

About 16 Harlequin book titles appear monthly on newspaper stands for about $1 apiece. Each is color-coded red, purple or white, according to its racy content.

Fancy Harlequin promotional parties, in Prague and in the elegant spa town Karlovy Vary, feature well-known writers and actors socializing with faithful Harlequin readers.

The most loyal of the bunch are the 55 "Harlequin ladies," who receive free books a couple of days before publication in return for unpaid market research in the small towns and villages where they live.

The Harlequin lady program is another example of Ms. Digrinova's innovative use of public enthusiasm for the books. She started the program after several women called to ask how they could volunteer for Harlequin.

Of the estimated $10 million market for romance fiction in The Czech and Slovak Republics, Harlequin has captured about half. And, while more competitors have arrived this year-including Bantam books' Love Stories series-Ms. Digrinova sees that as a challenge.

"I welcome any true competitor," she says.

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