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 Basically, they’re offering unpublished writers the opportunity to self-publish their work under the Harlequin umbrella, for a fee.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.