Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Essay: The Attack on Harlequin, Not Self-Publishing

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

Last week's controversy revolves around Harlequin's soon-to-be-renamed imprint Harlequin Horizons. Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, and Science Fiction Writers of America have issued statements on the matter. There's also a couple of opinions being thrown around. Kat Meyer, for example, asks whether aspiring authors and readers are truly at risk. Victoria Strauss also asks why the big fuss over Harlequin Horizons, and not with West Bow Press (which provides something similar minus the brand name).

Before I begin, let me state my background. I'm an author in the Philippines who's been published by both traditional publishers and self-publishers (books like the Philippine Speculative Fiction series are products of self-publishers). Personally, I've even self-published the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler, albeit not in print. And before we continue, while the terms self-publishing and vanity publishing tend to be interchanged, they don't mean the same thing in this particular context: Jennifer Jackson clears up some definitions. For a quick breakdown, self-publishing entails the author publishing his or her book, while vanity publishing entails the author paying someone else to publish their book.

Traditionally, self-publishing has been frowned upon. The most common complaint is "why didn't a regular publisher agree to publish your work?" It also entails a lot of work on the part of the author, who has now taken on the role of publisher: getting quotations from printers, working on marketing, arranging for distribution, and collecting sales. In the past decade, through a combination of the Internet and cheaper technology (i.e. print-on-demand), self-publishing is slowly becoming a more viable business model, not in the sense of getting rich quick (haha!), but in terms of getting your work out there. A couple of indie publications are self-published, and the reasons why some authors and editors self-publish is because the bigger publishers don't see a large enough market to produce them in sufficient quantities. And sometimes, yes, it's the rejected manuscript which is rejected because it's crap. There are a couple of success stories, but bear in mind, these are the exceptions. Reviewers such as myself are wary of authors who self-publish: while there is a chance that the said work is genuinely good (or at least "publishable"), it's also likely that they are horrible (in the sense of having atrocious spelling, erroneous grammar, or an awful plot). I've personally encountered both. (For a different look at things, you can read Josh Jasper's Self-Publishing Done Right.)

Vanity publishing, on the other hand, is loathsome to professional authors because of the adage "manage flows to the author". There is an acceptable loss of cash flow in self-publishing because the author takes on the role of the publisher, and one hopes that they will recoup the expenses eventually (unfortunately, there's no sure thing in business, much less publishing). In Vanity publishing, the author is clearly not the publisher. And from the finances of the vanity publisher, whether the author sold one copy of his or her book or ten thousand, they've already made a profit.

From my perspective, if you're just going to use a vanity press, why not just become a self-publisher? It's going to be more time consuming, but you have more control over your work and it's arguably cheaper, as well as you not sharing your profits with someone else. Does that mean I'll never recommend vanity publishing as a possible route? No. I see rare circumstances when working with a vanity publisher could be helpful to an aspiring author. For example, if you're a talented, aspiring author who doesn't want to do the legwork, and happens to have a lot of cash available on hand, then this might be the route to take (but let's face it, when was the last time you heard of an aspiring writer having lots of money available?). The issue here is picking the right vanity publisher, and being objectively confident that your book will actually sell. (Unfortunately, there is truly no "objective confidence"--most people enter the self-publishing and vanity publishing arena [or even traditional publishing] thinking that their work is the best in the world and everybody will buy it, even when a professional doesn't think that's the case.)

Now let's begin to tackle the scenario with Harlequin. Here are the complaints based on the statements of the various author organizations:

Romance Writers of America (RWA)
  • Disqualification in RWA-provided conference resources because Harlequin is now a subsidy/vanity publisher. This isn't an attack on self-publishers (which, again, is different from subsidy/vanity publishers), but a binary policy of the group against vanity publishers (either you qualify or you don't). Perhaps room for argument here is that Harlequins Horizons is an imprint of Harlequin as opposed to its main business model, thus enabling certain imprints to qualify.

Mystery Writers of America (MWA)
  • Declining membership with the MWA and ineligibility to qualify for the Edgar Awards. Honestly, the stance of the MWA is more of an ethics issue.
  • The ethics issue here is the inclusion of the Harlequin Horizons program and the eHarlequin Manuscript Critique Service which is embedded in the manuscript submission guidelines for all its imprints. There is a conflict of interest here as Harlequin is recommending its imprint to all of its prospective authors (i.e. if you can't get published traditionally, try our vanity press!).
  • This isn't an attack on vanity publishers in general, but more along the lines of a traditional publisher advertising its vanity press to all of its clients.

Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA)
  • Ineligibility to qualify for membership. The SFWA has three complaints.
  • One is arguably faulty advertising (no distribution on brick-and-mortar stores, no editor so the author's skills doesn't actually improve).
  • The second complaint is brand dilution of the authors involved (what's not elaborated is that low sales can impact whether bookstores will stock your books in the future or not, hence why some authors take up new pen names).
  • The third is the income stream, the adage "money flows to the author" adage.

There are other concerns of course, which I want to bring up:
  • A lot of the complaints stem from the assumption that prospective participants in the program are ignorant and unaware of the risks, hence Harlequin is seen as predatory (it doesn't help that the imprint shares the brand name of Harlequin--at least before Harlequin comes up with a new name). Whether this is true or not is best left for readers to decide. I just want to remind people though at how many writers don't read the fine print, or even follow basic submission guidelines.
  • Dilution of the house brand. In attaching the Harlequin name, it certainly boosts the reputation of the imprint (especially compared to other vanity publishers). On the other hand, it also *possibly* (this is best left for customers to decide) diminishes the main brand (along with all the authors involved) as it associates itself with vanity publishing.
  • A lot are also assuming that the practice that would follow from such an endeavor is that rejected slush pile manuscripts will apply for the program in the hopes of not only getting published, but catch the eye of traditional publishers. At least as far as Harlequin's marketing spiel is concerned, there's a conundrum between "we respectfully reject your manuscript" and "sign up with us now!". It is possible however that the latter is not exclusive to the former, and that the latter's target audience is very different.

Some people are interpreting this incident as traditional publishers (and everyone under them) acting defensively against the not-so-new trend that is vanity publishing (and other alternative methods such as self-publishing). Unfortunately, several of the responses, such as statements from Stacey Cochran, feel more like knee-jerk reactions rather than actually reading and deliberating on the stances of the various people involved. The reason I outlined the stances of the three writing organizations above is to highlight that they have different stances on the matter, and it's not a scenario of "traditional publishers and their ilk are out to attack self-publishers" (and even that is a misnomer as it's not the self-publishers that the RWA has a policy against but vanity publishers). For example, Michael Hyatt (of Thomas Nelson) has a blog entry Why Agents May Be Opposed to Self-Publishing, in response to the recent fiasco. He cites three reasons, but as far as the three writing organizations are concerned (yes, I know, he was originally addressing it to agent complaints--but which agents, I wonder since that's not what I'm reading from other agents), only his third argument, "Self-publishing rips off the authors," is valid (the other two aren't brought up at all). And even then, it doesn't properly address the ethics issue brought up by the MWA or SFWA (Lee Goldberg has more on that particular issue).

I'd also like to stress that the reaction is also due to Harlequin's specific circumstance. Dear Author, for example, points out that Random House has a partnership with Xlibris, and there was no public outcry then (or at least not as loud as this one). And Victoria Strauss asks why industry people commend West Bow Press but not Harlequin Horizons? Is it just the brand name? (Personally, I see it as me being vested in fiction as opposed to nonfiction, hence me paying more attention to this incident.)

Some people are using this a segue-way to go into a traditional publishers vs. self-publishing argument when that's not necessarily the case here, at least as far as the three writing groups are concerned. (Individuals, whether authors, agents, bloggers, etc. will obviously have their own opinions.) Is it too much to ask from fellow readers to actually read what's actually being discussed, instead of reacting to what they think is being argued against? I know it doesn't help that jargon is being thrown around, especially since a lot of people (myself included) don't understand the differences between self-publishing and vanity publishing. I'm not saying that the three writing groups is completely in the right, but it would be more helpful if the critics actually addressed the issues brought up. For example, the change in imprint name might satiate the RWA but not the MWA or the SFWA. Changing policies and the copy writing might alleviate MWA concerns but not the RWA.


Anonymous said...

I don't think Random House has a partnership with xLibris. They just own 49% of the stock, is what I read. But it's not like they're directing the writers they reject to xLibris.

The Thomas Nelson issue-- well, you know, they're a "Christian" publisher, serving a specific subset of the population and thus not really mainstream.

Fred said...

And the fact that there hasn't been the same fuss over Thomas Nelson doesn't mean there shouldn't have been.

Lee Goldberg said...

Thomas Nelson was not on the MWA's list of Approved Publishers...Harlequin was.

Victoria Strauss said...

Random House's venture capital arm bought a stake in Xlibris back in 2000, but this was never a partnership, in terms of any collaboration or cross-referrals between RH and Xlibris--it was made very clear at the time that RH would not have anything to do with Xlibris operations, and as far as I know, there has never been any indication to the contrary.

Anyway, the point is now moot. Xlibris was bought by Author Solutions ealier this year, and Random House no longer owns any stake in it.