The Harlequin Horizons Thing

As you know Bob(s), I’m a member of the Romance Writers of America (RWA). This is because a) there’s romantic content in many of my books, so there’s an obvious crossover of interests; b) I read and enjoy romance on occasion; and c) RWA is simply a kickass organization — quite possibly the most efficient and effective writers’ org I’ve ever seen. Beats the pants off both the Authors’ Guild and SFWA, IMO. Case in point:

There’s been some drama in the past few days in the romance sphere because Harlequin, arguably the biggest and indisputably the best-known romance publisher, has decided to open a self-publishing division called (for the moment) Harlequin Horizons. (They’ve already announced that they’re changing the name. See below.) Basically, they’re offering unpublished writers the opportunity to self-publish their work under the Harlequin umbrella, for a fee. The packages offered vary in price up to $1600, and offer services such as book trailer creation, professional editing, and cover design.

The problem with this is obvious: Harlequin has essentially just announced its intention to become a vanity press. They’ll still keep their traditional publishing arm, they say, but with so many aspiring authors yearning to see their names in print — and willing to pay for the privilege — I suppose their existence was just too much of a cash cow for the Harlequin execs not to milk. And who can blame them? With probably thousands of aspirants yearning for the chance to say “I’ve got a book published by Harlequin”, they stand to make money hand over fist.

Harlequin does, I mean. Not the aspiring authors.

Here I must quote one of the best pieces of advice I got from the Viable Paradise workshop years ago, hereinafter referred to as Yog’s Law: Money flows toward the writer. To put it simply, what makes someone a professional in any field is that other people are willing to pay them for their skill or expertise. If that “professional” has to go hunt down clients and pay them for the chance to practice their craft, well, that’s not very professional, is it? Naturally this applies to writers too. A pro writer may not make a ton of money, but she will still make it, not lose it. A writer who pays to get published isn’t a professional; she’s a gambler. She might hit it big; there’s a chance. But as they say in Vegas, only the house always wins.

Lots of people are reacting to Harlequin’s announcement, including agent Kristin at PubRants, author A. C. Crispin of Writer Beware, and many others. Most notably, RWA and one of its genre counterparts, the Mystery Writers of America, have weighed in both disapproving of Harlequin’s move. They’re even threatening sanctions.

To which I say: go, RWA! Go MWA! I can only hope SFWA, the Authors’ Guild, and other writers’ organizations will not be far behind on this.

Let me be clear: I’ve got nothing against self-publishing. I’m well aware that self-publishing has been phenomenally successful for a few, and it’s a valid model for anybody whose work doesn’t fit within traditional commercial lines. Without self-publishing, for example, the African American Interest genre would not exist, and traditional publishers would still be spouting dumbassery like “black people don’t read.” Also, I’m aware that some authors don’t want commercial success; they just want to publish their memoirs or Grandma’s recipes, to share with the family — or they just want to see their name printed on a book’s spine. Self-publishing gives them what they want without years of blood, sweat, and rejections. That’s cool.

But the vast majority of authors who self-publish are duped into it by ignorance, or pie-in-the-sky dreams of fame and fortune, or fears of shadowy conspiracies within the traditional publishing world. Too many vanity presses exploit these dreams and fears, leaving authors with nothing but a hefty bill. That’s unethical, and no reputable publisher has any business doing it. In fact, what Harlequin is doing exploits its traditionally-published authors as well. Those authors’ work over the years is what’s made the Harlequin brand so powerful that aspirants would be willing to pay $1600 for the privilege of sharing it. Wanna bet Harlequin’s planning to share its Horizons profits with the trad-pub authors? Shyeah. And I’ve got some nice beachfront property in Nevada for you, too.

And although Harlequin has already announced that it will be changing the new division’s name to something without “Harlequin” in the title, how much do you want to bet they’ll still make heavy use of the brand name in marketing the service to aspiring writers? A most unromantic seduction.

This impacts more than just the romance genre, as the MWA has clearly realized. For one thing, however great the potential financial gain in the short term, reputable publishers cannot be permitted to get into the business of exploitation — not without consequence. That hurts the whole industry in the long term. For another, fantasy writers like me who write “fantasy with strong romantic elements” (according to RWA) often attempt to sell books to romance publishers; Harlequin runs LUNA, one of the better-known romance/skiffy fusion imprints. If one of the juggernauts of the industry has decided to dilute its own brand like this, that cuts down on the number of places I can sell future titles. After all, how long will it be before “I’ve got a book out with Harlequin” becomes as meaningless and laughable as “I’ve got a book out with Publish America?

Hopefully it won’t come to that. I guess we’ll have to see.

ETA: Ask and ye shall receive: SFWA has declared Harlequin a non-qualifying market for membership purposes, and issued its own statement in opposition to Horizons-or-whatever-they-call-it.

21 Responses »

  1. I’m guessing you haven’t seen the news, but there was a twitter-flash earlier this evening from SFWA, saying they’ll be making an announcement shortly as to their position on Harlequin.

  2. Yep, just saw it; I was in the middle of writing this rant when it Tweeted. Gotta love the internet. =)

  3. Heh, well SFWA’s response is up now! Nothing like a good smackdown in the middle of wank.

  4. What’s especially unconscionable is that Harlequin is planning on referring authors to their own fee-based editorial service as well as referring authors to their vanity imprint in their rejection letters. Simply changing the name of the imprint won’t address those serious breaches of ethics.

  5. These kind of things depress the hell out of me because it always feels like authors have no power. Even if all the big genre organizations get behind this, there’s always more supply than demand. Lower quality supply, surely, but one of the things that gets drilled into new authors is to embrace what you get because there are a million scribblers out there who’d kill to be where you are. I just hope HQ can see past the dollars to what this kind of thing will do to their brand if they become synonymous with self published crap rather than quality books. $1600 is a pretty low barrier to entry for playing around with a huge company’s image.

  6. Vastly confusing subject, this.

    Some random lj I was reading on this subject, which of course I can’t find again, distinguished between self-publishing and vanity presses. The idea was that with a vanity press the author only gets royalties after paying to have the book published, so in effect paying twice, while self-publishing lets him keep all post-pub income. But going by your links, self-publishing/ POD works the same as vanity. So is there any form of self-publishing where they make the book, you sell it yourself, and keep whatever you make? I bought Charles Saunders’ Dossouye from Lulu and glad to have it, but I hoped he was getting full return from my purchase.

  7. Yeah, I heard about that part; it’s heinous. So there’s no temptation whatsoever for them to reject a perfectly good novel in order to “encourage” that author to use their fee-based service, and not get a proper contract… right?

  8. Yes, that’s what I meant about long-term loss; if Harlequin starts to equal Publish America in people’s minds, they’re going to lose a lot of business. But somebody probably pitched this on the short-term numbers, and it’s true that for awhile, they’ll be flush with cash, because there are probably a crapload of writers out there who’d love to be “published by Harlequin”. From a quarterly bottom-line perspective, this is certainly a good move. Overall? It’s stupid.

    What I’m wondering is how the retailers are going to react to this.

  9. I’ve heard people try to make that distinction before, and I don’t get it. To my knowledge self-publishing is always called vanity press — the whole point is that you just want to see your name in print, regardless of whether anyone else wants to. Vanities will publish anybody, regardless of skill or writing quality. And the only real benefit of vanity/self-publishing is that you get to keep all the income you make from selling it (less cost of publication, and whatever other a-la-carte services you buy). Some self-pub authors are also willing to pay to have their work sold, on a consignment basis — so they pay a bookstore to stock their stuff, get some money from any copies that sell (which I’ve heard some people call “royalties”, but that’s an inaccurate term; it’s simply profit), and take back the remainder. A small-scale version of what major publishers do. But this is up to the individual author.

    However, what I suspect is happening on that LJ is this: if you follow the links from that Publish America page in my OC, you’ll find forums where some PA authors are rabidly defending the company and insisting that they’ve somehow got something better than a vanity deal. It’s the whole “I’ve made a bad decision and I don’t want to admit it, so I’m going to claim it was a good decision” effect — there’s a name for this in psychology but it’s early and I haven’t had coffee yet. (They should call it Dubyaism, maybe.)

    Don’t suppose you have the LJ link?

  10. What happened to my comment? Try again.

    Jackie Kessler’s blog, linked from Martha Wells’ lj

    Essence of Kessler’s entry, way down the blood-orange page:

    “Unlike real self-publishing ventures, Harlequin actually pockets money — according Malle Vallik, Harlequin’s digital director, who showed up at Dear Author (see specifically comment #18) yesterday, the author would get 50% of net. And this is AFTER the author has already paid for everything up front.

    Keep in mind:

    - Self-publishing: author keeps all the money after paying expenses.

    - Vanity publishing: publisher keeps majority of the money and the writer pays all the expenses.”

  11. There’s a lot of confusion about the differences between self- and vanity-publishing, especially because the author pays for both: it boils down to control.

    Roughly speaking, if the author controls everything–editing, design, printing, sales, stock levels, etc–and the ISBN is registered to his own imprint then that’s self-publication.

    If the ISBN is registered to your ISBN provider, or your self-publishing services provider; if you don’t source the printing yourself, or you aren’t in charge of the stock, or you don’t know who is buying your books, or aren’t promoting them yourself, then that’s vanity publishing. I hope that helps (and yes, I’ve blogged about these things a lot over the last year or two).

    The Harlequin Horizons imprint is vanity because Harlequin takes the money AND retains control over all these things. It’s not self-publishing at all.

  12. That’s bizarre — for some reason when you put links in your comment, your comment got flagged as spam. I didn’t think I’d set that option in WordPress, but I’ll go fiddle about and see.

    I’m still not sure why the distinction matters. Either way, the writer is paying — a lot — to get published. And either way, the publisher is just publishing whoever comes along, with no vetting. Those are the salient points to me, not whether the author gets A Pittance or Half A Pittance when all’s said and done.

    But I’ll keep this distinction in mind, and try to use the correct terms from here forth.

  13. Hi Jane,

    Thanks for the clarification. I’m wondering, though — does anyone do true self-publishing anymore, in this day and age of a-la-carte services and package deals readily available online with companies like Xlibris? It seems to me that the kind of self-publishing you’re describing would’ve existed pre-internet, but the process has updated as technology has updated, and there’s really no reason for any writer to fret over paper quality and ISBN registration themselves if they can just pay a company to do it for them. I’m not even sure the author could do it themselves more cheaply, unless they’re already knowledgeable about the business — printing a small quantity is usually more expensive than the large amounts of materials, etc., that a big company might buy. Or the PoD equipment they might have in-house.

  14. Does anyone do true self-publishing any more? Good grief, yes.

    Loads of people do the pseudo-self-publishing thing as promoted by all those nasty vanity presses: they generally end up selling fewer than 100 copies of their books (and yes, I’m being generous here), and being very disappointed about the whole thing. But a few people DO still self-publish properly, and a few of those writers reap huge rewards: the most recent one I’ve heard of is called (I think!) Brunonia Brown. If my memory serves me right she spent upwards of $100,000 publishing her book and has now been picked up by a major publisher.

  15. Huh. Wow, thanks very much for enlightening me on this; it’s clearly an area I need to read more about. I’ll start with your blog. =)

    And OK, I stand corrected on the notion that it doesn’t matter whether HQ is opening a self-publishing or vanity arm (upthread). It’s clear the vanity element is an altogether different and more predatory thing. Though I still don’t think an established traditional publisher should even be doing self-publishing, not under its publisher name — not to publish and not to promote itself to prospective authors. Still dilutes (really, destroys) the brand.

  16. I don’t know about all POD sites, but my understanding with Lulu is that there’s no outlay to set up a book on Lulu, for the author or the company. The cost of printing the book is shouldered solely by the end consumer, so there’s essentially no risk. Lulu establishes the cost of printing a book, then let’s the author set the amount of markup the author will receive. Lulu then charges 25% of the author’s markup as a fee.

  17. I don’t know about the some of the terms you’re using. At this point, should we have some other term for self-print-publishing? Everybody’s self-publishing nowadays, and looking down one’s noses at the work coming out of small presses simply because they don’t come from big publishers seems as absurd as worrying about “webscabs.” And I’m not sure where you define “commercial success” when it could be anything from breaking even to “phenomenal success.”

    I know a lot of people who self-print-publish (usually in conjunction with self-electronic-publishing) and make money. Not big money, but money. Enough to cover costs and turn their hobby (most of them are role-playing-game designers) into a some spare scratch. Selling 100 copies of of a thing isn’t anything to be ashamed of, as long as you didn’t think you were going to sell 100,000.

    And the real predatory presses slyly encourage that bad business sense even as they market themselves to inexperienced businessespeople. And Harlequin in particular is using its brand to do it. Forget about how any future books will affect the brand, this is affecting the brand.

  18. Starting off here with the caveat that my post is tainted by one huge error: I’d been using the terms “self-publishing” and “vanity publishing” interchangeably, because I didn’t know any better ’til MJJ’s link to Jackie Kessler, and Jane Smith’s posts. Though my core point remains intact: what Harlequin is doing is unethical. It misleads aspiring authors, and sets up a situation in which the publisher is making money primarily off its authors, not off the books it’s publishing. This is the problem, whatever you choose to call that. I call it exploitation.

    I’m not sure how/if it matters whether work is self-published in print or electronic form. The same issues apply re copyright (e.g., first publication rights) whether the book is published in paper form, as a CD, a podcast, whatever. But since I’ve already revealed my ignorance in one area of this debate, let me ask this: why do you feel there should be a different term for self-print-publishing, as opposed to any other kind of self-publishing? I’m not getting your point here.

    And note that I said nothing about/against small presses. I have no problem with small presses that publish multiple works by multiple authors, choosing those works on the basis of quality/content (not whether they’re friends with the owner), and using contracts/business plans designed to make money primarily off the work — not the author or prospective authors e.g. the slushpile.

    What I have a problem with are small presses that aren’t actually small presses, because they only publish the owner’s work, or that of the owner’s friends. (Maybe this is what we need a word for… I’ve been calling it a vanity press up to this point, but clearly that’s an incorrect use of terms.) That’s a self-publishing operation trying to raise its status/disguise itself by calling itself a “small press”. It’s deceptive, which brings us back to the problem of bad ethics/exploitation. I agree with you; there’s nothing wrong with self-publishing in and of itself, and there are a lot of good reasons why some authors would do so. But I think they should be open about what they’re doing, for the readers’ sake as well as their own.

    And I define “success” in terms of the author, not surprisingly. Does the author make money, both short-term and long-term? The amount of money doesn’t matter (though I know some publishers might disagree); what matters is that the author took money in, didn’t just pay it out.

  19. Starting off here with the caveat that my post is tainted by one huge error: I’d been using the terms “self-publishing” and “vanity publishing” interchangeably, because I didn’t know any better ’til MJJ’s link to Jackie Kessler, and Jane Smith’s posts. Though my core point remains intact: what Harlequin is doing is unethical. It misleads aspiring authors, and sets up a situation in which the publisher is making money primarily off its authors, not off the books it’s publishing. This is the problem, whatever you choose to call that. I call it exploitation.

    Having thought things over on the car ride home, I think I’ve messed up some terms too. So let me try again (mostly for my own benefit, I’m working things out here, if you’ll permit).

    I have an issue with the way you (and the SFWA, and many others in the discussion, and Yog’s Law) use “author.” It incorporates the trade-publishing worldview as a given. And in a world where every author can be (and in some cases should be) a self-publisher, it invalidates a lot of authors.

    Case in point: I have a friend who was regularly publishing fiction on the internet and making money under a donation model, but who constantly felt that the work was of less value because they weren’t being published. The fact that they were often making a bit more than they’d get selling to a magazine did not ease their mind.

    Anyway, replacing “author” with “licensor” turns Yog’s law into a truism of contracts. The licensee has to pay for the license because otherwise they have no incentive to do anything with the license. Which is precisely what happens with a predatory vanity press. But that’s why discussions that turn on vanity press/self-publishing/print on demand being inherently inferior to licensing arrangements bug me. The problem isn’t that the author is assuming the risk, the problem is that certain companies are persuading authors to make bad business decisions, trading on some combination of naivety, idealism, and earned trust. Harlequin earned readers’ trust, and now they’re using it to sell a bad product.

    What I have a problem with are small presses that aren’t actually small presses, because they only publish the owner’s work, or that of the owner’s friends. (Maybe this is what we need a word for… I’ve been calling it a vanity press up to this point, but clearly that’s an incorrect use of terms.) That’s a self-publishing operation trying to raise its status/disguise itself by calling itself a “small press”. It’s deceptive, which brings us back to the problem of bad ethics/exploitation. I agree with you; there’s nothing wrong with self-publishing in and of itself, and there are a lot of good reasons why some authors would do so. But I think they should be open about what they’re doing, for the readers’ sake as well as their own.

    Look, maybe it’s because I hang out with these RPG people. It’s a different market, and a different system. Even on the big trade-publishing scale, a publisher like Wizards of the Coast is just going to print variations on their own game. So if you set up your own press as the shell business to help you put your work onto paper, that’s just what you do. They don’t win industry awards because readers have been fooled into thinking they’re better than they are because they have a small press label on them. They win because they are good.

    Being able to license your intellectual property to an outside company means that it’s more marketable, but that may or may not translate into aesthetic worthiness. And when small small presses may be running at about the same level as a self-publishing operation, the only difference is who’s doing the branding and who’s risking the money.

    (As you can probably tell, I don’t buy the idea of publishers at any level being accurate arbiters of taste. I don’t know why book producers are given so much more credence over movie and music producers, or why independent publishers are looked down on in a way that independent filmmakers or garage bands aren’t.)

    And it seems like it’s just a short slip from there to webscabs and technopeasants. What’s really the difference between paying to print a novel and paying to print a chapbook and not paying at all and simply posting the words on my blog or reading it out loud and syndicating the audio files?

    But going back to HH, they’re hawking publishing products designed for markets in the thousands to people who are looking at a market in the hundreds, if they’re lucky. And that’s what’s dishonest: specifically trading in the trust their readers place in them as publishers to give bad advice about publishing so that they can profit.

  20. The licensee has to pay for the license because otherwise they have no incentive to do anything with the license. Which is precisely what happens with a predatory vanity press.

    I’m not sure I understand you here. Can you clarify?

    Going by what I think you’re saying… Ostensibly the licensee has a big reason to pay for the license: they want to make money off the licensor’s work. (Argh. I don’t see any particular reason to use licensor/licensee instead of author/publisher — copyright law has worked on the license/rights model for generations now, so why don’t we just stick with the more familiar terms?) This, of course, assumes that the author’s work is of sufficient value-to-the-public (note I’m not saying quality here) that the publisher can make money off it. This is the whole principle of “publishing”: offering that work publicly. The assumption underlying this whole model is that the public actually wants to see it.

    The problem comes in when the public doesn’t want to see the work — whether because the author is unknown and the public just doesn’t know the work exists, or because the work isn’t good, or whatever. A true publisher will assess the work to determine why the public doesn’t want to see it, and whether demand can be created. If yes, the publisher invests what’s needed into creating that demand — marketing, editing, good cover art, whatever. This is the case whether we’re talking about a self-publisher or a corporate publisher, small press or large press. Again, the assumption is that the public wants it, or can be induced to want it, so the publisher becomes a partner with the author in trying to create and fulfill this demand.

    What these vanity presses are doing is working on a different assumption: that the public doesn’t want it. And they’re not willing to do what it takes — not just marketing and editing, but building a reputation, which is equally important to consumer confidence — to encourage the public’s interest. So what they’re doing isn’t really publishing, i.e. offering to the public. They might put something out there, but that’s to satisfy the author. Now, where this assumption matches the author’s expectation, no problem. This is why Lulu isn’t a problem to me — anyone who uses it knows what they’re getting into, and they aren’t offered pie-in-the-sky promises. Nobody gets duped — not the author, not the public.

    But when either the author or the public are taken advantage of, that’s not really publishing, not in spirit. IMO this applies equally to big publishers and small presses: if you’ve got to lie (or deceive) to sell your work, then your work’s not good enough to stand on its own. I’m just as offended when I see authors — self-published or otherwise — claiming to have won awards that they didn’t, or plagiarizing others’ work, as I am when I see publishers — self, small-press, or big — claiming a reputation they haven’t earned, or claiming to “publish” when they’re really just ripping the author off. The bottom line is that the work is not being offered to the public in good faith.

    And when small small presses may be running at about the same level as a self-publishing operation, the only difference is who’s doing the branding and who’s risking the money.

    But this is a crucial difference in the mind of the consumer. If an author’s work is good enough to convince someone else to invest in it financially, that goes a long way toward encouraging the public to buy. If only the author is willing to invest… well, authors have to believe in themselves, to function. But that doesn’t mean they’re any good.

    Granted, neither does getting an investor. You’re right in that publishers aren’t arbiters of taste. Publishers have never been arbiters of taste; what they are is arbiters of what the public wants. What the public wants is often tasteless. But even the most tasteless published book is out there because someone, either the author or some other folks, thought it might be what the public wanted, and was willing to bet money on that chance.

    What’s really the difference between paying to print a novel and paying to print a chapbook and not paying at all and simply posting the words on my blog or reading it out loud and syndicating the audio files?

    There is no difference. You’re still paying for the medium, with everything you’ve described above. Blog-owners generally pay for their blogs in some way, whether it’s with ads slapped onto their free LiveJournal or actual money sent to an ISP or whatever. Podcasting requires a substantial investment in equipment: a computer, a good microphone, editing software. And in either case the author has to pay in time and energy to build up the blog or podcast’s reputation — which means publishing other stuff of sufficient quality to attract an audience — or nobody will see/listen to it. All of this is a massive investment, when you get right down to it. A very risky one.

    Which is why the best “selling” (in terms of audience) blogs/podcasts/etc. still have outside backers — advertisers, a big media corp paying the blogger(s) so they post frequently, etc. Having investors means the creator has more time to spend on creating, not arguing with advertisers about banner sizing and why they haven’t paid their bill yet, etc. In theory, this helps the creator create a better product.

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