Harlequin Ho–I mean, Horizons…

Others have already posted on the controversial "Harlequin Horizons" situation–many more eloquently than I can probably manage–but I still think this is such a critically important issue that the more people who get the word out there, the better. First, a little background for those who don’t know. Harlequin Enterprises Limited (AKA HQE) is one of THE major publishers worldwide, predominantly producing books that appeal strongly to women. Many know them for their various lines of category (or series) romance novels and tons of aspiring authors submit to them hoping to be the next writer whose manuscript is picked up out of the "slush" pile.

Which is exactly what Harlequin Horizons (HHO)–or should I say, its parent company, media conglomerate Torstar–is banking on.

Just a few days ago, HQE started bombarding the world with announcements that it had "teamed up" with infamous vanity publisher, Author Solutions, to form Harlequin Horizons, a new "imprint" for aspiring romance authors to use should they choose to self-publish. Only problem is, the option HHO provides is most emphatically not self-publishing. It is, pure and simply, vanity publishing.

So, what the heck is the difference between the two? Good question. According to Writer Beware, a volunteer outfit dedicated to author education and protection, a vanity publisher is one that "prints and binds a book at the author’s sole expense. Costs include the publisher’s profit and overhead, so vanity publishing is usually a good deal more expensive than self-publishing." (http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/vanity/) Due to the ever-evolving landscape of vanity publishers hoping to cash in on aspiring writers by practicing sneakier and sneakier tactics, Writer Beware actually updated its description of vanity publishers to include:

"A vanity publisher relies on its authors as its main source of income–whether by charging fees for publication or other services, or requiring authors to buy or pre-sell their own books. It often presents itself as a publisher (sometimes claiming to be a “traditional” publisher and concealing its fees) rather than a self-publishing service, claiming to be selective despite employing little meaningful quality screening. Adjunct services (editing, marketing, and/or distribution) are generally minimal or of dubious value. A vanity publisher claims various rights by contract, and owns the ISBN and the completed books, which remain in the publisher’s possession until sold. Payment to the author is in the form of a royalty."

Self-publishing, on the other hand, may require the author to bear all costs of printing as well, but there the similarities pretty much end. Writer Beware describes it thus:

"However, rather than paying for a pre-set package of services, the author puts those services together himself. Because every aspect of the process can be out to bid, self-publishing can be much more cost effective than vanity publishing; it can also result in a higher-quality product. All rights, the ISBN, and completed books are owned by the author, who keeps all proceeds from sales."

The core difference between the two, then, is that with vanity publishing, the vanity publisher retains control over the publishing process, including profits and payment to the author. In self-publishing, however, the author retains complete control over the entire process from start to finish, and also reaps 100% of the profits once the publishing costs have been taken care of. With vanity publishers, on the other hand, the publisher is controlling how much of the profits the author actually sees on the back end.

Which is exactly the case with Harlequin’s new so-called "self-publishing" imprint, Harlequin Horizons. Not only is HHO charging exorbitant fees to publish (or should I say print), editor, or market (and yes, those last two will cost you extra–a LOT extra) an author’s books, it will also hold on to all profits except for 50% of the net profits, which it will "generously" forward on to the author as royalty payments. This tidbit according to statements released by Harlequin representatives (not to mention the HHO website).

Let me explain why this quite simply sucks for the author. First, it’s important to understand how author payments are typically calculated in the publishing industry. Major "traditional" publishers often pay their authors a percentage on the cover price of the book. This is exactly what authors should hold out for. Paying on the net, on the other hand, means that the publisher calculates an author’s percentage not on the cover price, but on whatever net profits the publisher makes on the book–AFTER deducting any discounts given to booksellers.

Wait, you say, discounts–what discounts??? The way the publishing industry currently works is that publishers give retailers and wholesalers a significant discount on books, usually anywhere from 40-60%. Let’s do the fictional math for my debut urban fantasy, Red Hot Fury, coming out in summer, 2010. Amazon.com lists the cover price for the paperback as $7.99. Let’s say my royalty rate per book is right in the middle of the average–8%. My cut per book if paid on the cover price (once I earn out the advance my fabulous publisher paid me and start earning royalties) would be approximately 64 cents. Now, doing the math based on royalties on the net, we come up with a much lower number. We’ll take the middle-of-the-road discount of 50%, which takes my cover price from $7.99 to just under $4.00, slashing my 8% cut in half to 32 cents. Ouch. That’s a significant difference.

Career-minded authors–like me!–should never stand for having their take-home pay slashed by 50%. Especially in a supposed self-publishing venture where already paid all costs associated with publishing the book. True self-publishing ventures result in 100% of the profits going straight to the person in control of the entire process: the author.

I can say with wholehearted enthusiasm that I would never in a million years recommend HHO’s current business model for any aspiring author. True self-publishing has its place and can be an awesome option for certain authors–especially non-fiction experts or niche writers. But a particularly-expensive, thinly-veiled vanity publisher is not one I would recommend.

Aspiring authors should always keep in mind Yog’s Law, formulated by SF author James D. Macdonald, staunch author advocate: Money flows to the author. Not away. Always.

Professional authors receive rejections–both before and after making their first sales. Receiving a rejection isn’t personal. It just means something about the submitted manuscript didn’t work for a particular agent or editor at a particular time. Whether because the writing isn’t quite up to snuff, the story just didn’t float that person’s boat, or the editor just bought a book similar to yours–doesn’t mean you should give up. Keep writing, keep learning the craft, and keep submitting. Remember that publishing is a business, and a subjective one. Just because one agent or editor tells you no doesn’t mean that all will. And just because this book didn’t result in an agent or editor offer doesn’t mean the next one won’t.

Even if you still decide that self-publishing is a viable option for you, there are much better-priced options, such as Lulu, that will allow you to retain control of the process. Just remember that most vanity and self-published books sell an average of 75-100 copies. Maybe you’ll beat that average–but maybe you won’t.

Either way, knowledge is key. Make sure you educate yourself and go into any publishing venture with eyes wide open. Remember, a vanity-publishing venture that calls itself a self-publishing venture and has a powerhouse publishing company behind it is still a vanity publisher at heart. If it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and sounds like a duck, it’s still a duck even if it calls itself a swan.

And when it comes to Harlequin Horizons as it currently stands, I just have one thing to say. Quack, quack, baby!!!

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One response to “Harlequin Ho–I mean, Horizons…

  1. I would have honestly thought Harlequin would have had better foresight to see what kind of controversy this would create. They go to the same conferences as writers and writing organizations, attend the same self/vanity publishing panels (in theory) – it’s as though the head and the body just aren’t communicating within the company, that whoever runs Harlequin at the tip-top is just looking at the money and not industry standards. It’s not a fluke, they’ve been in the business longer than most publishers so should know better. I can certainly understand why so many authors feel betrayed by them seeing as they’re now out in the dust.
    I feel worst for the writers with them who may/will now be declined membership into several prominent writing organizations and miss out on the benefits such membership entails. It’s not just the n00bie writers that are getting the shaft on this one…