Friday, November 20, 2009

Not That Anyone Asked Me, But...

[I suspect "Not That Anyone Asked Me, But... will be a recurring feature: the unsolicited opinion on the hot-topic du jour.]
Harlequin -- the corporation -- announced recently that it had joined with Author Solutions to offer what I'll call a vanity venture allowing writers to get books published with something called Harlequin Horizons and a cute -- their word, not mine -- logo of imbedded H & h.

In a genre with 400 books published each month, I don't see the upside for anyone other than Harlequin, and I see a reasonable amount of downside. Let me explain.

I assume the following to be correct:
  1. Self-publication means precisely that:  The author finds her own editor, her own way to get her book into paper or digital format, and does all her own marketing.  The only logo would be her own, and she would own all rights to the content, and the ISBN, if there is one.  All royalties go to the author.
  2. A vanity press is a company you pay to publish your book for you.  
  3. Harlequin Horizon is not self-publishing because while the ownership of all rights was a bit unclear, Hh was going to claim 50% of all royalties, which would be split between Harlequin and Author Solutions.
  4. While the current status (this story changes by the minute) is unclear, Harlequin's original announcement strongly suggested that a selling point for the writer was the acquisition of the Harlequin Horizons logo and presumed imprimatur.
  5. The structure of fees was a la carte, meaning that the writer could pay for editorial assistance, etc., but didn't have to.
  6. There are other publishers -- notably Harper Collins -- that have a similar service for would-be authors.  HC's is called Authonomy.  On the HC website, there is a link (under Our Other Sites) to the Authonomy page.  On the Authonomy page, there are small references to Harper Collins.  I did try to click on some of the features (e.g., Beat the Slush) but you need to register to read that content.  From the About Us link, it would seem that Authonomy includes the option to upload a portion of your work in a "community" situation so that other people can read it.  That sounds like an e-version of a slush pile, which is an intriguing idea.
Let's say all of the above is true (or was true sometime in the past 48 hours).  I can see the appeal to Harlequin (the corporation) of monetizing the slush pile.  Lots of manuscripts get rejected by Harlequin editors -- probably thousands.  Which means there are thousands of writers who want to get published.  Chances are, they'd be willing to pay to get published.  And who knows, maybe some of those manuscripts are good.  In which case, Harlequin Horizons gets some royalties on the back end in addition to the upfront money.

Fine -- we can see the financial advantage to Harlequin.  (Although the distinction between "price" and "cost" comes to mind here -- how much will they make and what will it cost them to make it?).  Let's look at how everyone else fares:

  • Writers -- The unpublished author now has another route to publication.  If she (I'll go with the feminine pronoun on statistical grounds) just wants to see her book in print, then Hh is one of many options, and probably not the cheapest.  If she thinks that by choosing to publish through Hh she increases her chance of publication, the jury is out.  Harlequin insists in its press release that it will monitor sales of Hh books for possible additions to its existing imprints.  Even if we take this at face value, selling Hh books is going to be hard for the Hh author.  As a rule, vanity press publications sell only modest amounts of books, and presumably a lot of those are purchased by the vanity author.  In monetary terms, therefore, it would seem cheaper to go back to the traditional route of finding an agent or sending an unsolicited manuscript to the Harlequin imprint editor.  Less upfront costs, but if you finally make money, it's a larger net gain.
  • Readers -- I don't see a net gain or loss for readers, as it is unlikely that any of us will ever stumble upon an Hh book.  In fact, I worry a bit that if a good writer wrote a quirky romance and published it through Hh, we readers might never hear of it.  I'd like to think that someone would read it and get the word out, but I may be seeing that through the relatively narrow prism of Romlandia (meaning those of us active on the Internet).  The Hh author of a delightful but quirky book would need to be pretty savvy about how to get her book read by the right people -- and would the fact that she published through Harlequin's vanity venture hurt her efforts?  Especially if all Hh authors thought they had written the delightful but quirky little-romance-that-could...?
  • Already Published Authors -- I'm not a published author, so I hesitate to speak for them.  I've read different comments, ranging from "distanced regret, but this doesn't affect me" to outrage.  RWA, which represents published authors, took a bold step of announcing that Harlequin Enterprises had lost its eligibility under the RWA bylaws because of the vanity venture with Author Solutions.  The ramifications of that may be moot by the time of the 2010 RWA convention, but if there are authors who felt Harlequin's move hurt them personally, they may have been pleased to see RWA take swift action.
  • Reviewers -- This can only mean more submissions to online reviewers.  It may be a de minimus addition -- Jane at Dear Author reports she gets 5 submissions each day, so that might only go up to 6 -- but it could be more, particularly if Hh authors figure out that a favorable review online is the best route to higher sales figures.  (I don't know anything about Romantic Times reviewers, but they might draw the line at vanity books and have a policy against reviewing them, period.)
  • Publishing Industry -- There's an alternate scenario that not many people are talking about.  What if traditional publishers, including Harlequin's many imprints, are the dodos here?  What if the paradigmatic customer for Hh isn't the writer of a rejected manuscript, but the writer of a great manuscript who believes she does better on her own, even counting the costs and effort in self-marketing.  If a lot of talented writers went the self-publishing or vanity route, there might actually be a slew of good books out there that people eventually would want to consider when making their reading choices.  And if the model worked -- if romance writers actually made more money acting as their own publishers, or through a vanity venture like Hh -- then a lot of things could change.  Harlequin might have a smaller pool of applicants for publication.  Already-published authors might defect to self-publication.  Editors might quit working for publishing companies and have viable options in self-employment, selling their services to self-publishing authors.  Agents might restyle themselves as freelance marketing consultants, cherry-picking the best authors and books to represent, much like they do now.  Lots more people would wear pajamas to work.  (Wait, is that a potential upside?)
  • Fans of the Romance Genre -- (Is there a better name for us?  Let me know if there is.)  A few months ago, there was a flurry of press coverage for authors like Nora Roberts (prolific and rich!), Julia Quinn (medical degree from Yale!), Eloisa James (tenured professor at Fordham!) and for online sites like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (witty and they use words like woo-woo and heteronormativity!).  This was a bit of a double-edged sword:  on the one hand, it was nice to have mainstream media acknowledging romance novels as being written and read by intelligent, well-educated people; on the other hand, does the author of a romance have to have an advanced degree to be deemed worthy by USA Today?  (I wrote a longer screed about this topic here.)  Well, I don't think this week is going to mark a high point in the fluctuations of media coverage for romance fiction.  The New Yorker dragged the discourse back to the truly bad-old-days of calling them "bodice-rippers," not to mention referring to the potential users of the Hh service "hacks."  The New York Times reported it straight, straight enough that Author Solutions reprinted the piece on its website, but there's still a whiff of exclusion in the presumption that anyone could have a dusty romance manuscript in their desk drawer.  We -- fans of romance -- are back to being wannabe authors, which diminishes us and the genre.
In the end, I don't think this was a good move by Harlequin.  Harlequin is one of the names that symbolizes the romance genre to the outside world, meaning the same people who recognize the term "bodice-ripper."  Strange how the terms that outsiders know and use are all so pejorative, isn't it?  I contend that Harlequin demeaned its own name by suggesting that its seal of approval could be bought for a couple thousand dollars.  And when it demeans its name, it demeans romance fiction generally.  In the publishing world, I don't doubt that Harlequin is already a bit of a joke.  Unless you take the position that Harlequin's cred couldn't have sunk any further, this week has not improved its reputation.  Of course Harlequin is out to make money, and the vanity venture should do that.  But at what cost to the romance genre?

4 comments:

  1. Excellent post! I love the new blog!

    I haven't been paying close attention to the Harlequin controversy but I did receive an email about it from RWA. I'm extremely surprised that they've adhered to their own rules and excluded Harlequin from their list of approved publishers. This decision is laudable but it can't have come easy to the board members, many of whom are themselves Harlequin authors. In effect, Michelle Monkou (the current RWA president) has excluded herself from eligibility for the RITA contest and a slew of other published author benefits. The potential ramifications of this decision are huge. I'm very interested to see what happens over the next couple of weeks...

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  2. Darn it -- I was in a scale back blog reading mode and now you, with this fantastic must-read entry into the fray. I know how I feel in my gut and I'm still trying to find the right language for the dismay I feel -- a lot of it flowing to authors that are published by Harlequin. How must they feel? And will we ever know ... ?

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  3. Is there a better name for Fans of the Romance Genre? Yes, FRoGs.

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  4. @Sarah -- Thanks. I believe the eligibility issue for the RITA is open to interpretation. Also, obviously, RWA and the folks at Harlequin Enterprises need to iron all this out. It's disingenuous for Harlequin to say that RWA is behind the times -- those organizations are pretty well tied at the ankle, so it might have been smarter if HQN had consulted RWA before their big press releasse!
    @Janet -- I haven't been monitoring authors' websites -- but as you might imagine, Harlequin authors may wish to be discrete on this topic. Other commenters in the publishing industry and elsewhere have expressed the concern that Harlequin's move sets back the effort to have the reading public see romances as legitimate.
    @Crossword Man -- Cute! I'll run it up Romlandia's flagpole, see if anyone salutes.

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