Feathers Ruffled in Romance Land

By Poison Ivy,

You may have heard that Harlequin has inked a deal to steer authors they reject to a press to which they had subcontracted the name Harlequin Horizons. It all blew up a short while ago. Such was the outrage in the romance community, Harlequin quickly realized the harm this move does to its well-known brand. It has since renamed the proposed press DellArte. (Which might cause the Bantam Dell Publishing Group to demand they change the name yet again, but that’s another story.)

Why did Harlequin move so fast? There were hundreds of negative comments all over the media, and especially on influential romance blogs like SmartBitches and Dear Author. And the Romance Writers of America promptly tossed Harlequin off its list of recognized publishers, declaring this supposed self-publishing venture was nothing more than a vanity press. Meanwhile, several other influential writers’ organizations said they viewed the situation with alarm and might consider similar moves. Additionally, Harlequin’s own authors publicly expressed their fury that writers whose work was not considered good enough to be published by Harlequin could soon claim that they were Harlequin authors anyway. Many people concluded that the Harlequin brand was tarnished. Now, Harlequin is distancing itself from its deal, though it has not renounced its plans.

Huge amounts of money are at stake here. Large established publishers feel very much under attack by the new technologies that are changing the way reading material is sold and delivered. Rather than resist all knowledge of Kindles, Sony Readers, and the Nook, of CreateSpace and Lulu and iUniverse, of Samhain and Wild Rose Press, publishers are frantically seeking revenue streams that make use of new technology. Harlequin has already stuck a toe in epublishing, and now is committed to a separate epublishing press, Carina. Harlequin is by no means the first publisher to link itself with some sort of vanity press or self-publishing venture. Thomas Nelson previously announced similar plans.

As to quality, although there are plenty of badly written romance manuscripts that get rejected, the truth is that there are plenty of quite good enough ones (that could use some editing) that for various reasons are not published by Harlequin. They all get submitted to Harlequin, because it’s the largest publisher of romance novels in the world. These rejected stories may not fit the Harlequin image, or they don’t follow the latest angle, or they have known sales killers such as pets and sports teams, etc. But people might read them in modest numbers. Anyway, whether readers will or not won’t matter to Harlequin, since the authors will pay to be in print and Harlequin will not be responsible for selling these books.

The reason Harlequin can do this at all is that the younger generation of would-be authors expects to pay to publish, not finding it unethical, and is comfortable with the idea of self-publishing, plus expects to self-market. Paying to get published may be the wave of the future. Authors already are expected to pay for their own publicity by the major publishing houses. That has only happened in the last five to ten years; it went from voluntary to mandatory. Will paying for their own editing and printing be the new paradigm? Perhaps.

I guess it all depends on the hopes of the author. Who’s to say that if you can self-publish your book and sell 150 copies that it’s a failure? In the bad old days, rascally printers charged a fortune and conned you into huge print runs of thousands of copies. Then you were stuck with thousands of unsold copies in your garage. Now your risk is much lower because your initial buy-in is a much smaller dollar figure, and your publicity on the Internet is free. So you arrange to print on demand, or you order a small print run because these are quite economical now, and then you promote it yourself. Thus entirely cutting out the publisher as the middleman.

You will not sell nearly as many copies of your vanity press or self-published book as a conventional publisher can. Authors who imagine that they can outdo the sales of a mass market paperback printing–even a very small one–are in la-la-land. The statistics are against them, as this excellent breakdown of probable costs and sales from the L’esprit d’escalier blog proves.

But even so, what if in the future, all authors self-published? Then conventional publishers would have no authors. This is another reason why publishers are in a panic. They know they can sell more copies of your book than you can, but only if you are willing to come to them. Publishers don’t write books. They edit, produce, and market them to stores, or sell them directly. So it is not surprising that Harlequin and Thomas Nelson and other publishers will continue to investigate offering new versions of the services that as conventional publishers they already do. They have to stay in the game. If the action shifts, they have to go after it.

Many feathers have been ruffled, even though not everyone is free to speak out publicly about Harlequin’s current move. Perhaps ten years from now no one will raise an eyebrow at any of this because publishing will be very different. But today, while the publishing industry is in flux, the prevailing standards and the new standards are rubbing against each other uncomfortably.