Sunday, November 22, 2009

Your Next Stop: The Twilight Zone

This past week in publishing has reminded me of the Twilight Zone. I kept expecting to see Rod Serling standing there, telling me I've just entered that new dimension "not of sight and sound but of mind." The only problem is I don't think a mind was involved in this sudden detour we've taken, at least not a sound mind. In case you haven't figured it out yet, I'm talking about the latest debacle to rock publishing -- Harlequin Horizons.

A little background first. Earlier this month, Harlequin announced the formation of Carina Press, a digital only publisher that will not offer advances but will pay royalties. This surprised me -- and I wasn't the only one. Just check some of the other blogs -- in that RWA doesn't recognize publishers that don't offer advances of at least $1,000 as "eligible publishers". Because this disqualifies almost all ebook publishers, it has raised the question of whether or not RWA needs to re-examines their criteria. The fact Harlequin was starting an e-book imprint raised more than a few eyebrows and had a number of people wondering if this might force RWA to revisit the issue of whether or not ebook publishers should be considered "eligible" or not.

Then the shoe dropped and boy did it land with a thud. A very big and a very loud thud. Harlequin announced it would be teaming up with Author Solutions to form Harlequin Horizons, their self-publication imprint. According to Publishers Weekly, [t]he imprint will recruit writers in two ways: authors whose manuscripts have been rejected by Harlequin will be made aware of the Harlequin Horizons option and authors who sign with Author Solutions will be given the opportunity to be published under the Harlequin Horizons imprint. According to an Author Solutions spokesperson, the imprint will offer special services aimed at the romance market, including unique marketing and distribution services. All services are on a pay-for-service basis.

The response has been fast and definitive. RWA has, at least for the moment, revoked Harlequin's "eligible" status. SFWA, calling Harlequin Horizons (now known by the initials of HH which will be on the spine of any book printed by them. Gee, that won't be confusing will it, since Harlequin Historicals have been nicknamed HHs for quite a while.) a vanity press, said the following: "Under normal circumstances, the addition of a new imprint by a major house would be cause for celebration in the professional writing community. Unfortunately, these are not normal circumstances. . . Until such time as Harlequin changes course, and returns to a model of legitimately working with authors instead of charging authors for publishing services, SFWA has no choice but to be absolutely clear that NO titles from ANY Harlequin imprint will be counted as qualifying for membership in SFWA."

Publishers Weekly reports that Mystery Writers of America (MWA) also responded to the news with a threat of sanctions. "An e-bulletin prepared by Margery Flax on behalf of Mystery Writers of America’s National Board of Directors said MWA was “deeply concerned about the troubling conflict-of-interest issues created by these ventures, particularly the potentially misleading way they are marketed to aspiring writers.” The MWA was refering to both Harlequin Horizons and the eHarlequin Manuscript Critique service, also aimed at aspiring writers. MWA said it would consider removing Harlequin from its list of approved publishers, declining membership applications from Harlequin authors, and barring Harlequin books from entering the Edgar Awards unless Harlequin agreed to discuss changing these ventures by December 15."

There are a number of other blogs commenting on HH. I recommend you check out the following for more information:


Read them. Think about them. Then decide for yourself if this latest move by Harlequin is in the best interest of writers and readers or is just another ill-conceived method of raising revenue for the publisher.

Why, you ask, does the creation of HH bother me so much? It comes down to trust. Trust between Harlequin and the authors submitting to it and trust between Harlequin and its readers. The books "published" by HH won't be edited or proofed the way a mainline Harlequin book will be. Nor will they be distributed the same or marketed. There is no guarantee they will find their way to any bookstore. All that is there is a carrot for any author willing to pay the money -- and it isn't cheap -- to be published by HH that their book might be picked up by Harlequin if it sells enough...the same promise they make about the ebooks published by Carina Press. Sorry, but I can put my book up on my website and Amazon and sell it myself, without having to pay the money to Harlequin.

But there's another breach of trust between Harlequin and its current authors and this, too, has been mentioned in some of the other blogs. It is my understanding that Harlequin requires its authors to do nothing that might dilute the brand. Isn't that exactly what Harlequin has done with HH? And doesn't that, in turn, constitute a breach in their agreement with the authors?

As for the readers, they've come to expect a certain product from Harlequin. Using the HH logo instead of the Harlequin name isn't going to keep them from identifying books published by Harlequin Horizons with the Harlequin brand. The same quality isn't going to be there. I guarantee it. If it were, the book wouldn't be rejected by Harlequin and referred to HH in the first time. Unless, of course, the whole purpose of this is to make money and screw the authors and reading public.

It is going to be interesting to see where this goes over the next few weeks and months. For those of you out there considering submitting to Harlequin, I recommend you keep you eyes open and your ear to the ground. There is no telling where this might end. I leave you with the introduction to the fourth season of The Twilight Zone: "You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas; you've just crossed over into the Twilight Zone."

29 comments:

Ori Pomerantz said...

In the world of e-publishing (including Print on Demand printouts), the major value proposition of publishers is the selection function. Harlequin wants to lose that value in return for some short term profits.

Either they don't care about the long term viability of their business, or they think it's circling the drain anyway. Either way, they're creating a vacuum and somebody else will fill it for fun and profit.

Ori Pomerantz said...

To add some thoughts to this. Publishers used to be gatekeepers. They are losing that role. Selectors have a far smaller profit margin. Harlequin management may have decided it's not worth being a selector instead of a gatekeeper, so this is their exit strategy.

C Kelsey said...

The interesting thing about this whole debacle for me is that I heard about it first from John Scalzi's blog. Reading there immediately followed with the revelation that the mystery and scifi associations all stood behind the romance association in this problem.

matapam said...

Yeeuch!

You have entered a world with no publishers, only those writers who pay can publish books, and there is no quality checking; you have just crossed over into . . . The Slush Zone.

Kate said...

It's rather like watching a train wreck. You know it's going to be horrible, but you just can't look away. One thing is guaranteed - there is a lot more to this fiasco than meets the eye.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Like Amanda, I feel as if I'm living in an alternate reality. Respectable publisher don't refer rejected authors to a vanity press arm. That's what shonky operators do.

Editors and Predators have had to change their listing for Harlequin.

John Lambshead said...

I am astonished and disgusted.
There is an old saying that bad money drives out good,
John

Amanda Green said...

Ori, I think the real issue is that the mother company for Harlequin doesn't care. They are taking a company that is well-respected and has seen its profits increasing and using it to bail out the rest of the company. That might work in the short-term, but it will be a losing proposition for HQ, their authors and, most especially, their readers.

Amanda Green said...

Ori, you're right about publishers being gatekeepers. That's been part of their "agreement" with their readers. The publishers would make sure only the "best" is published and the readers, in turn, would buy it. Now HQ is abrogating that responsibility. I don't buy the argument that the HH line won't be branded as Harlequin. All you have to do is look at the templates for book covers. They scream "Harelquin". As does the use of "HH" on the spine. And let's not forget about the fact the poor people who put out the money will be able to say they were published by Harlequin and who's to stop them?

Amanda Green said...

Chris, I have to say I'm proud of RWA and SFWA for their quick action with regard to this debacle. MWA has put HQ on notice and has given them a time line to sit down and discuss the issue. Still, in the meantime, HH is out there soliciting people to pay to publish, making sure they 1) don't realize this is a vanity press set up and 2) pay their money before the attorneys for the current HQ authors get involved because HQ is diluting the brand. (Not saying this will happen, but it wouldn't surprise me.)

C Kelsey said...

It's a shocking and sad event anyway. There's no wonder that Baen has such a loyal following. Toni actually listens to her readers. Yeah, yeah. I'm preaching the Baen gospel again.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam! Noooooooooo! Now you've given me nightmares. Zombie slush piles creeping through the streets, eating the brains of good books. And let's not forget the mind-controlled little kids, all demanding more and more bad Twilight rip-offs -- wait, that means there's something worse than shiny vamps and emo werewolves....NNNNOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

Ori Pomerantz said...

Amanda, of course it's a long term losing proposition. The question is why they are doing it. People don't shoot cash cows without a reason. Especially when their other business is a newspaper, and that business is headed the way of the buggy whip.

Anyway, unless Torstar (the owners of Harlequin) come to their senses, this will leave a vacuum. Harlequin is huge, at 110 books / month they are over 18 Baens. Who do romance readers trust enough to replace the Harlequin brand?

Amanda Green said...

Kate, not only a train wreck, but one in high-def and in slow motion. I agree that there is more to this than we've seen so far. The only thing that has really surprised me is the speed of reaction from RWA, SFWA, MWA and Preditors and Editors. Well, that and the fact HQ apparently thought they'd be able to get away with this with no one objecting. I find myself wondering how this will effect HQ with regard to their established and successful authors. Will the few thousand they get from those going to HH offset the losses they'll have if their more well-known authors don't submit to them any longer or -- and this is a possibility -- they band together and sue to void their contracts and regain rights to their books because HQ has diluted the brand, something HQ won't let them do.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, it always amazes me when a company thinks it can turn its back on its customers and suppliers -- ie, its authors -- and no be called on it. Especially when they have taken steps that erase years of work to prove Romance is a legitimate genre of fiction.

Amanda Green said...

John, you are absolutely right. And it also violates the premise that, in publishing, money should flow to the author, not from him.

And this is what worries me the most. Reading the comment threads of some of the other blogs reporting on the HH situation has had me shaking my head. There are so many wannabe authors out there who don't understand that premise. Nor do they understand the differences between vanity and self-publishing, etc. They are who will fall victim to this scam -- yes, imo, it is a scam -- because Harlequin is a known and, until now, respected name.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Now, the way I've always understood it, in order for publishing to work, there is one iron-clad rule that should never, ever be broken: All money flows to the author. Sure, it may turn to a trickle, it may even dry up and stop completely, but when it does flow, it damn well better flow one way.

The only items the author should have to lay cash down for are paper, toner, and postage. Anything else, the whole affair turns into an utter scam at worst, or a "company store" setup at best.

Just my two cents.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, until now, I'd have said HQ listened to its fans. This has just reminded me why I, too, preach the Baen gospel. Toni and the rest of the company not only think about their fans, but their authors as well. For that, a tip of the hat and a big THANKS to Toni and the rest of her crew.

Kate said...

Ori,

In every case I've seen where a failing company milks its last cash cow dry, it's been a desperate attempt to stave off bankruptcy - and the end result is bringing down the profitable company along with the failing one. Usually with a whole lot of other issues as well, sometimes legal ones, sometimes "merely" ethical.

Occasionally (Enron, MCI and such) there's provable fraud. More often there's shady, unethical business practice but nothing that's actually outright illegal.

Amanda Green said...

Ori, they are already turning in ever increasing numbers to some of the various ebook presses. Also, if things continue spiraling down for HQ, I can see their authors forming some of the types of writers co-ops Dave has talked about here. Already a number of them have blogs together, much like this one. It wouldn't be hard to add in an ebook wing. Plus, it is very easy to simply put a book up on Amazon directly and sell it.

It is going to be interesting to see what happens over the next few weeks and months, especially with how many of the HQ authors, big name HQ authors, are up in arms.

Amanda Green said...

Robert, absolutely. Yet, as we hear all too often, people wanting to be writers fall for the "pay me and I'll tell you what is wrong with your book" scams -- yes, there are some legit book doctors out there. I'm talking about the agents who want reading fees and who also "refer" a potential client to a "service" that will all but guarantee publication. This is worse, imo, because not only are they selling the "right to publish", but they are making representations that aren't true. For ex: selling it because you will have a nicely bound copy of your manuscript to send to an agent when you ask for representation. First of all, no agent wants a bound copy. It will end up in the trash. Secondly, if you put the book out through HH, it is already published. Most agents aren't interested in second rights to a book.

I see images of PublishAmerica with the Harlequin logo and it makes me very sad.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, unfortunately, I'm afraid you may be right here. Especially in light of some of the things said by the HQ parent company the last few weeks. We've all known publishing is changing. What I hadn't expected was something like this.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

After reading some of the other discussions on this across the blogosphere, I see that there are a lot of folks wound-up about this -- and justifiably so! Unfortunately, I've also seen comments from a fair amount of people scratching their heads saying, "so what's the big deal?" and really can't understand why this is such a Bad Thing. And it's poor, naive souls like these who HH is counting on to line their pocketbooks.

Amanda Green said...

Robert, the ones who really had me shaking my head are those who took on authors like Nora Roberts, among others, in some of the threads, saying it's all well and good for "la Nora" -- the commenter's words -- to come out against HH. According to this commenter, the HH model is almost perfect for the author trying to break into the business. Then there were those who didn't believe there are people out there so desperate to see their book in print that they'd pay their last dollar to do so. Either these folks are trolls for HH -- a possibility -- or have no grasp of how far some people will go to have their dream come true.

One of the best threads for finding all sides of the argument is over at Smart Bitches. I put the link to the argument in the blog. The comments were well over 600 the last time I looked and well worth reading, especially the well-reasoned comments from some very well-known authors, not all of whom write for HQ

Ori Pomerantz said...

Amanda: Then there were those who didn't believe there are people out there so desperate to see their book in print that they'd pay their last dollar to do so. Either these folks are trolls for HH -- a possibility -- or have no grasp of how far some people will go to have their dream come true.

Ori: This is the reason most fiction authors have such a bad negotiating position. There are plenty of wannabees who'll do an acceptable job for a pittance, and might even pay for the right to do it.

I sometimes dream about writing fiction. But then I wake up and feed the four kids breakfast. I log on here and read the struggles of Dave Freer, who is a much better author than I am ever likely to be. By the time I have enough caffeine in the system to get started on the work day, I thank my lucky stars that writing courses about IT security products is sufficiently unglamorous that few people want to do it.

Amanda Green said...

Ori, that's only a small part of the problem for fiction writers. Although, as more and more people use the internet to post their work, it may become a larger issue. No, a large part of the reason why authors don't make more than they do is that the publishers do hold all the cards, at least under the traditional operating system. Unless you're a Stephen King, a Nora Roberts, a J K Rowling etc., you aren't going to sell hundreds of thousands of books. So the publishers don't have any impetus to pay you more. They know you have a solid following and will sell X-number of copies per book.

The internet is changing that, along with e-books. I think we will see more and more authors forming co-ops and going with more non-traditional publishers. But that's a totally different matter from the Harlequin Horizons issue.

HH is trying to pull a fast one. It's saying it is a self-publishing venture and holds out the offer of possibly having your book picked up by HQ itself at some later time. What it is trying to use sleight of hand with is the fact that you are going to pay big bucks to get your book into print, there will be no real editing that you don't provide -- or pay for -- nor will there be marketing push or placement. Plus, and this is the kicker, the author doesn't retain 100% of the profits from the book as he would with a true self-published book. He gets only 50%. Can you say VANITY PRESS.

Let's face it, most of us rarely, if ever, read a POD or self-published book. The odds of reading a vanity press book are even smaller. Why? Because we have to know about it and be able to find it. Something that is about as likely to happen as Dallas having snow all winter. It can happen but the odds are truly stacked against it.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Amanda, the reason publishers hold all the cards is that publishers can find authors a lot easier than authors can find publishers. This is exactly because there are so many people who want to be authors.

To pick Baen as an example, Baen can publish six books a month. Baen probably can't be profitable if they publish less than three books a month - they need to amortize their fixed expenses over enough books to make a profit.

How likely is Baen to be unable to find three books to publish a month? For that matter, how likely is Baen to be unable to find books for all six monthly slots?

Compare that with the difficulty even an established author has in selling all of his/her proposals.

Amanda Green said...

Ori, that position is weakening and that is why so many publishers are running around as if their heads have been cut off. They haven't figured out how to adapt to the new technology and means of distribution and production.

However, it is important not to forget the real issue here. Harlequin, through HH, is saying they are presenting those who want to be writers with a chance to self-publish their books. That is, at best, a misstatement of what they are offering. In truth, they are doing nothing more than running a vanity press and there are reasons why professional organizations not only refuse to recognize the vanity presses but warn people away from them. Unless and until HH changes things, they are doing nothing more than trying to play the wizard, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," and let him fool you with his smoke and mirrors.

Ori Pomerantz said...

I agree, what Harlequin is doing is dishonest and evil. I have no problem believing a large corporation is evil, especially when it's a legal kind of evil. What I'm to understand is how they can be so stupid.

If they think their business is dying anyway, that would explain it.