The Harlequin Fiasco
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I’m sure many of you have heard by now about a little thing I’m going to call the “Harlequin Fiasco.”
Last week was a busy week for Harlequin. Press releases were tossed around, articles were written, and people voiced their opinions about some of the new business ventures of this publishing giant.
I thought it would be interesting and take a step back from all of the emotional upheaval and recap exactly what has been happening over the past couple of weeks.
First, Harlequin announced the opening of a new ebook line, called Carina Press. Carina is latin for “keel of a ship.” According to wikipedia, a ship’s keel is the first part to be crafted, and is the structural support or skeleton upon which the rest of the ship is built. Pretty lofty expectations for an epress, wouldn’t you say?
They hired some internal Halrequin editors and Angela James, a well-known editor and advocate of ebook publishing, to be a part of their team. They opened submissions to all romance genres and even some genres outside of romance. Finally they announced that they would begin selling books this fall.
As far as I could tell, the press release got a luke warm reception. Some lauded Harlequin as being visionaries, loving the idea of opening the Harlequin market to authors who don’t fit the more traditional lines. Others worried that Carina Press’ business model would eventually penetrate Harlequin’s more established lines, leaving authors without advances that, up until now, had been paying their rent. Still more authors were concerned about their “no DRM” model (translate: ebooks from them won’t be encrypted if bought through their website) and how potentially making it easier to file share and pirate books would affect sales. Finally people speculated about how much Harlequin really believed in this epress. Although the press would be advertised in the eharlequin community, the Harlequin name would be nowhere on the books or in the marketing. The editors insisted in their FAQ that this line was totally separate from the rest of the publishing house.
That, in and of itself, would be news enough. But Harlequin wasn’t done yet.
Last week a second announcement was made about Harlequin partnering with Author Solutions to form a new line: Harlequin Horizons. For the sake of brevity, let’s put aside all of the rumors that Author Solutions is an unscrupulous company to do business with and focus on the joint venture itself.
Although both Author Solutions and Harlequin claimed this imprint to be a self-publishing press (definition here), it is a vanity press (definition here). Unlike other, more conventional publishers, a vanity press makes its money off of the authors who buy their services, not book sales. While an author pays to publish with self-publishing and with vanity presses, with self-publishing the author gets to keep the copyright to their work and receives 100% of the royalties. Not true for vanity presses, where the press keeps the ISBN number and the author would only get a fraction of royalties. In the case of Harlequin Horizons, the author gets 50%, while Author Solutions and Harlequin take the other 50%. (An excellent breakdown of different types of publishers can be found in the Examiner’s article on this subject, found HERE.)
So what’s the big deal?
It’s not the opening of the press that upsets people so much as how the press is being marketed to authors. Harlequin Horizons claims that if your books sales are high enough, you *may* be picked up and published through Harlequin proper. Harlequin also announced that it will include a standard paragraph in all of its form rejections suggesting that aspiring authors not work on improving their craft, but instead try publishing with their vanity line. If their sales are good enough, maybe, just maybe, Harlequin will reconsider.
There was also concern that authors published through Harlequin Horizons would be able to call themselves Harlequin authors, thus diluting the name brand that Harlequin worked so hard to build up.
These claims (and some outrageous pricing) led to a firestorm of opinions all over the blog-o-sphere. The most widely read, IMHO, where at Dear Author and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. It was like watching a train wreck. Some speculated that Halrequin’s parent company, Torstar, was trying to monetize the slush pile. Others were nervous that Harlequin would set a precedent and that soon many other publishers will start using vanity presses as vetting mechanisms for their slush, forcing aspiring authors to “pay to play” if they ever hope to be published by more traditional venues.
The news even made its way into the New Yorker. The use of the term “bodice-rippers” in this article generated even more comments suggesting that with one single press release, Harlequin had managed to undo years of hard work building credibility for the romance industry.
This all lead to announcements from RWA , MWA and SFWA, each slapping Harlequin’s hand for the opening of this new line. In brief, they each removed Halrequin from their eligible publishers lists, stripping the romance giant and its authors of many of the rights they used to enjoy.
Authors all over weighed in on the issue, including Nora Roberts, Shiloh Walker, Ann Aguirre, and Jackie Kessler (Jackie has a great summary of the debacle on her blog. If you haven’t read it, you should). Outspoken reader blogs like Teddypig and industry blogs like Galleycat spoke out about the deal. Agents like Janet Reid, Ashley Grayson and Jennifer Jackson offered their opinions, as did editors like one from Juno Books. Business analysts weighed in, one of them stating that publishing houses need to adopt models like this or risk going the way of the dinosaur. Victoria Strauss, from Writer’s Beware, offered her thoughts. Even a brave Harlequin employee spoke out about it. (And that was all of the links I could find in under ten minutes. I know there are more. If you have one, include it in the comment section for our readers!)
Everyone had an opinion, and as the week went on, I learned that this model wasn’t new. Michael Hyatt has already enetered a similar agreement with his publishing company, Thomas Nelson, and blogged some interesting arguments defending Harlequin’s decision. (Although, I must say, he calls Harlequin Horizons “self publishing” and, according to the wikipedia definition, Harlequin’s deal with Author Solutions creates a vanity press, not a self-publishing enterprise.)
Predators and Editors alerted its readers of the vanity press and Writers Beware warned of the pitfalls of choosing Harlequin Horizons to publish your work. This news was so big that the New York Times even wrote an article about it.
Harlequin finally offered a response, saying that it will remove its name, but not its support, from the Halrequin Horizons line. (Although going to their website shows they have yet to do anything.) This is a good first step, but many are saying it’s not enough. They would also like to see Harlequin change their form rejection letters to remove the paragraph directing unsuspecting authors to the vanity press.
So what’s should we, as writers and readers, take away from all of this?
In short, do your homework.
If you are a reader, be aware that Harlequin Horizons — or whatever they are going to call themselves in the future – doesn’t have the normal vetting and editing of their books that is seen with print and epublishers. In contrast to their more traditional lines, when you buy a Harlequin Horizon, the quality of the work will be variable. That’s not to say that they will all be bad, but many won’t meet Harlequin’s high standards for their category lines — especially if Harlequin proper is directing their rejected manuscripts there.
If you are a writer, please do your research before submitting your beloved manuscript to any publisher. Whether you choose print, epub, self-pub or vanity press, do your due diligence. While there are many reputable presses out there, there are also many unscrupulous people looking to make a quick buck. Don’t trust a single source. Follow industry blogs, run a google search, read books from the presses you want to publish with. Stalk websites like predators and editors. Educate yourself about the ins and outs of the publishing business. Join professional organizations like RWA, SFWA, or MWA (depending on the genre). Talk to people in the industry. Remember that as a general rule of thumb, money should always flow to the author, not from the author. If you publish a novel and end up in the red, then you didn’t do something right. Learn from your mistakes. Evaluate your strategy and adjust. Learn your craft. And most of all… write with your heart, but submit with your head.
This fiasco isn’t over yet, I’m sure. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, especially how this will affect the RWA national conference, the eligibility of Harlequin authors for RWA events and contests, and the grand opening of Carina Press this fall.