With publishers in the grip of a financial squeeze, we are likely to see more and more turning towards such publication schemes in an attempt to transform their slush-piles from time-drain into a lucrative income-stream: the problem with the way it's being done here is the implication that this is a route for the writers involved to find real publishing success. And despite Author Solutions' attempts to position itself as a self publishing service provider and not a vanity press, it still charges writers for publication: in some cases several thousand pounds, which is a significant sum considering that the average Author House book sells just fifty-four copies (which for the authors who go ahead with Harlequin Horizon equates to a cost to the author of $11.00 per copy sold—a dismal result which becomes even more chilling when you consider that figure is based on their cheapest package of $599, and their prices go much higher than that).
There is a way for publishers to make real money from their slush piles without steering aspiring writers towards vanity publishing, and with relatively little upfront expense of financial risks to the publishers concerned.
It would entail a new imprint which offered print on demand printing only, standard template typesetting and jacket design, and basic levels of editing available only at a cost. Sales and promotion would be down to the author; all the publisher would have to do is download the text to the printers system and assign an ISBN—at no cost to the writer. Writers being what they are, they would almost certainly buy enough copies of their own books to move each title into profit under such a scheme, as the proliferation of vanity presses which work to exactly this model has proved.
The more astute among you will now, of course, all be screaming at me that this brave new system that I've proposed is nothing more than reverse-end vanity publishing: a scheme where no up-front costs are charged, under which writers fund their own publication by buying copies of their own books to resell (think PublishAmerica). You're right, of course. Which is why any publisher seriously considering creating an imprint like this would have to commit to two conditions, which it would have to be stringent about imposing.
- It would have to make clear at every opportunity that such publication would be unlikely to lead to mainstream publishing success, or to result in any significant financial reward for the writers concerned, and to provide accurate and honest information about the realities of self- and vanity-publication and the differences between them and mainstream publication;
- It would have to take steps to ensure that it only published books which were unlikely to do well if published by the more usual mainstream routes. Because, with all due respect to the writers who I would expect to see targeted by such a scheme, it would be a shame to see a good book appear on a list like this, as the lack of publishing support would make it highly unlikely to see it fulfil its true potential. It would be possible for this filtering to be carried out without employing teams of slush-readers: all that would be required is a big-enough stack of form rejections from reputable agents and publishers.
There are all sorts of bells and whistles which a canny publisher could add to this model in order to add value for the writers involved, and increase the publishers' financial return: online courses in writing and promotion, an online forum to encourage reciprocal sales efforts between writers; conferences where publishing professionals speak to give writers a chance to expand their knowledge and increase their expertise. To make it even more valuable, editorial assessments and critiques could be written by any willing writers which the publisher already had signed up, which would provide those writers with some welcome extra income too (which the publisher could take a commission from, in order to cover the administrative costs of running such a scheme). All these possibilities would result in better books, more sales, and an improvement in income for the publishers involved.
While I don’t think that this business model is perfect, it has to be better than the one which Harlequin Horizons works to; and there would be two further benefits would should not be overlooked.
The first is that slush piles would significantly reduce in size, as books with little mainstream potential were published through the new imprints.
The second is that by offering this more-ethical route into paid-for publication to the writers without real mainstream potential, the number of writers available to be exploited and swindled by the vanity presses would dwindle away. The publishing business could kill off this blight by beating vanity publishers at their own game. Which has to be a good thing.
I have banged on about a scheme like this before: you can read my earlier post here. And if you'd like to read more about Harlequin Horizons there's a shocked-and-stunned discussion of it over at AbsoluteWrite, Kevin A Gray of Author Solutions steps into the fray at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books; Dear Author voices an opinion; and literary agent Kristin Nelson adds her views to the discussion.