by Michelle Gagnon
So for those of you who don’t know, last week Harlequin announced that they were linking up with a vanity publisher (although they called it “self-publishing." More on that in a bit).
The initial announcement promised that for $600, an aspiring author could publish their book with the “Harlequin Horizons” logo on it (although after weathering a week of criticism for including the Harlequin name in the new imprint, it was renamed “DellArte Press”). For another $342, that book would receive an “editorial review,” (which actually will only cover the first chapter, or roughly 1700 words). The packages spiral upwards in cost to the whole enchilada, including email blasts which come in at just under $12,000 (just for the email blast, mind you--that doesn’t include any of the other costs).
Whoa. That’s a lot of money. And should your manuscript actually sell a million copies, despite the fact that you paid for the publishing, marketing, and editing, you’ll still share profits with Harlequin—to the tune of 50% of the net (and there’s an excellent, and very funny, post about that on Jackie Kessler’s blog).
Which brings us to the difference between self-publishing and vanity-publishing. With self-publishing, an author keeps any and all profits made from sales of their book. With vanity publishing, those profits are split with the publisher--you pay them to print the book, then they take a cut of the earnings.
Hence, the new Harlequin venture is undoubtedly vanity publishing. As the MWA said:
“It is common for disreputable publishers to try to profit from aspiring writers by steering them to their own for-pay editorial, marketing, and publishing services. The implication is that by paying for those services, the writer is more likely to sell his manuscript to the publisher. Harlequin recommends the "eHarlequin Manuscript Critique Service" in the text of its manuscript submission guidelines for all of its imprints and include a link to "Harlequin Horizons," its new self-publishing arm, without any indication that these are advertisements. That, coupled with the fact that these businesses share the Harlequin name, may mislead writers into believing they can enhance their chances of being published by Harlequin by paying for these services.”
I’m guessing the executives didn’t anticipate the firestorm this would incite. Almost immediately, the RWA responded by saying that in the future, Harlequin would be treated as a vanity press, and would no longer be eligible for certain amenities at the annual conference that they’ve received in the past. They were shortly joined by the Mystery Writers of America and Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, who also officially demoted Harlequin’s standing to a vanity press.
Mind you, this is across the board, not just for authors published under the new imprint.
Harlequin was “surprised and dismayed” by the reaction (their words, not mine) and so they backtracked--a little. In the next announcement, they said, “we are changing the name of the self-publishing company from Harlequin Horizons to a designation that will not refer to Harlequin in any way.” (hence, DellArte Press). No word yet on whether or not this compromise will change anything in terms of their standing with the various author associations.
One thing that’s been lost in all this is the impact on authors who were already under contract with a Hq imprint (myself included, as MIRA is their thriller imprint. So consider me biased). When I received the initial press release announcing the new line, I honestly didn’t think much of it--after all, how could this possibly affect me?
Within a matter of days, I found out. First of all, any author who publishes with Harlequin will lose their standing with nearly every organization. That means that New York Times bestselling author Heather Graham will no longer be considered a published author. Neither will Debbie Macomber. Neither they, nor anyone else who signed a deal with Harlequin (myself included), will be eligible for any future Rita Awards, Edgars, or Nebula Awards.
Crazy, right? As one commenter said in a forum, “It must feel like they (Harlequin authors) showed up to work and found out that the boss had decided to open a bordello.”
I’ll admit I’m not thrilled with the way that Harlequin has handled this from the outset.
However, I’m equally offended by the way the organizations have responded. Groups that I’ve faithfully paid membership dues to for years, whose boards I’ve served on, were just as quick to kick me and my work to the curb. The Harlequin authors are getting it on both ends. We’re being penalized for a decision made by our publisher that we had absolutely nothing to do with. And we’ve also been summarily marginalized by organizations we considered ourselves to be an intrinsic part of.
So what happens now? Perhaps renaming the imprint will satisfy the concerns of the various organizations. If not, perhaps Harlequin will make another concession—or they won’t, which will force some tough choices down the line.
And I suspect that many Harlequin authors are reconsidering their relationship with their publisher. Should some of Harlequin’s bread-and-butter authors like Graham and Macomber jump ship once their contracts are up, I doubt the profits from the new vanity line will offset the loss.