Wednesday 18 November 2009

Harlequin Horizons: Looking To The Future, Or Exploiting The Naive?

The news that Harlequin has teamed up with Author Solutions (owner of Author House, and several other pay-to-publish services) to create a new "self publishing" imprint called Harlequin Horizons is perhaps not surprising. A few weeks ago, Thomas Nelson transformed its existing West Bow Press imprint into a similar "self publishing" scheme alongside Author Solutions; earlier this year HarperCollins formed an alliance with Blurb, Accent Press began its own pay-to-play erotica imprint, respected UK-based military history publisher Osprey took a similar route with Author Solutions; and for some time now US literary agency Objective Entertainment has been referring the writers it rejects direct to Author House with a letter which suggests to those writers that such publication could be their route to mainstream success. While Author House used to offer a commission of $100 on all successful referrals I have seen no evidence that this is part of the deal here: but while it's probable that the publishers taking part in these schemes will make a reasonable amount of money from the books which are sold, without that referral fee it's difficult to tell what's in it for Objective Entertainment.

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.

  1. 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;
  2. 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.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a wonderful solution, however, I believe the problem is rooted in educating the writing hobbyist in the fact that most professional writers also have day jobs. The fantasy that writing a novel is somehow going to make everyone who dabbles in it rich and famous needs to be squashed before the huge slush piles will ever recede. But we all know this isn't going to happen because all is takes is one Stepheny Meyer to prove that it can be done. So why take away the dream, the fantasy of possibly making it in a business that allows one to dream big? It only costs a little to hold a life-long dream, that of writing and publishing that book you've thought of all your life. If indeed the writer understands all the ramification involved, who does it hurt?

Anonymous said...

I just blogged about this as well,Jane. I'm sure I'll have more darts flung at me than you will, so rest easy.

Your idea is based on the POD business model that already exists - it's a back-end vanity deal where the author is the sales force. On the whole, it's a very sound idea because authors do end up buying stacks of their own books because it's the only way they'll get sold.

The risk to the publisher is when the percentage of authors don't buy their own books, and this forces the publisher to eat the setup fees to the printer, layout editor, and cover designer. If you're trying to raise money, you want to shoulder as little risk as possible.

Speaking strictly from an evil publisher standpoint, the vanity route creates zero risk for the publisher - as oily as it is.

Leslie said...

As a reader, this makes me very insecure about reading new books. I'm going to depend even more upon reputable book critics (NOT the blurb on the jacket, not even comments from other writers)and will be drawn more and more to books form the past rather than books by new writers.

WritingToFly said...

It will come back to bite them. Their brand will be diluted by this move, threatening their core business - which are their current readers.

Anonymous said...

Leslie, as a reader it shouldn't worry you at all. These books won't ever get on store shelves. The reader won't be affected by this changeover. Only ones affected are those authors who think shortcuts will work.

Leslie said...

Behlerblog: Thanks! :^)

Derek said...

And Author Solutions says they're talking to more mainstream publishers about creating similar ventures.

I looked at the Harlequin Horizons website and their services look pretty generic.

The big difference I noticed with Thomas Nelson is that they'll put the books in a catalog that their reps will take round to stores, and that your books can be made returnable. That at least gives you a chance to sell a few copies.

j purdie said...

If Harlequin want to lie down with dogs that's up to them. As your post says they aren't the first and wont be the last. With Google nabbing a lot of rights in their new settlement perhaps we'll see all publishers rushing headlong into vanity publishing? Google will take all the sales and squeeze them just as Amazon has. Interesting times ahead for publishers.

Jane Smith said...

Anon, I agree that education is the key: that's what I try to do with this blog, but sadly not everyone reads it. As for your comments about taking away the dream: that's not what I'm trying to do at all. If writers want the thrill of holding a book with their name on the cover then they can use Lulu or similar to produce a POD edition of it for the cost of a single copy--which is a lot different to the hundreds of dollars which Harlequin Horizons is going to charge them. I hope to help appraise them of that: after that, they can make their own decisions.

Lynn, I agree with you about the POD model being bad for writers: we're reading from the same page here. But bearing in mind that if I'm right we're going to be seeing more and more deals like this in the future, I'd prefer it if the publishers who got involved could cut the nonsense about the books possibly moving over to their mainstream lines and be honest and realistic about the chances of that happening--which as we both know are slim-to-none.

WritingToFly: I suspect that this move will only really dilute the Harlequin brand in the eyes of knowledgeable writers. As Lynn of Behler has already explained, the vanity-published line isn't going to make any real impact on reviewers, booksellers or readers, and so most of them are barely going to know of its existence; and mainstream publishing is woefully ignorant of the true impact of vanity publishing, the limitations of self-publishing, and the difference between the two, which is partly why these schemes seem so appealing to them.

Damn, I am cross about this.

Jane Smith said...

Derek, just because those books appear in a catalogue doesn't mean that the sales reps will show them to the booksellers. They have little enough time available to sell as it is: they'll concentrate on the books which are going to sell through, and skip over the vanity books. And even if the sales reps try to sell them, the booksellers will quickly learn the score and refuse to consider the vanity-published books. I don't think it'll happen once word gets round.

Derek said...

Jane: What you say does sound reasonable.

"Anonymous" -- you mentioned author fantasies. On the HH website, a proper edit (i.e., three levels) is priced around $5,000. Most newbie authors probably have the fantasy that their work is so good, it doesn't need $5,000 worth of editing. If these books were really going to sell, the editing would need to be a compulsory part of the package.

Jane Smith said...

Derek wrote,

"Jane: What you say does sound reasonable."

And I didn't even pay him. Ha!

I'll take Derek's point about editing a step further: if the books which were rejected by Harlequin proper could be made good enough with a little bit of good editing, then they probably wouldn't have been rejected. So right there, on that page where Harlequin Horizons says editing costs $5,000, you can hear the sad little sound of authors being exploited.

I'm not feeling any better about this yet. I've just read through the thread on Absolute Write which I linked to and on page five, I think, I've discovered that it's possible for Harlequin Horizons authors to have a trailer made for their books in order to attract the attention of a movie producer. All for $20,000.

My first flat in London cost me £21,000. I feel queasy.

Anonymous said...

I'd prefer it if the publishers who got involved could cut the nonsense about the books possibly moving over to their mainstream lines and be honest and realistic about the chances of that happening--which as we both know are slim-to-none.

On this we agree. It's disingenuous to make people believe they actually have a snowball's chance in hell of being picked up to go mainstream.

But I can't help but feel this is a bit of "the sky is falling." The vanity and mainstream companies will never compete against each other anymore than iUniverse or Publish America books compete with Random House - or even weency little us, for that matter. One option gets stashed on store shelves. The other gets stashed in garages and car trunks.

Yes, this vanity plan is hideously expensive, but it's a free world and no one is holding a gun to these vanity authors' heads. The research is out there, and you cannot outlaw stupid.

Maybe I'm wrong, but this strikes me as much ado about nothing. If Harlequin blows it and starts making ridiculous promises then all bets are off, and we'd all go after them just like we do other skank publishers.

JFBookman said...

Jane I think you've nailed this one. It is hard to see any other reason for Nelson or Harlequin or any other houses that jump into this game being motivated by anything other than the gullibility of aspiring authors. Self-publishing is on the rise, ereaders are a rising tide, and "fear of the stockholder's meeting" is slithering through the underbrush. This just seems to be a case of jealousy about all those author $$ going to Lulu et al, and a way to cash in on their imprints. Will 1 out of 1,000,000 authors actually become successful through these plans? From the look of it, no.

catdownunder said...

This is surely just going to make it more difficult to get published too? Much easier to suggest to the first time author with a reasonable mss that might have made it to publication down this route. I can hear it around the editorial table, "Hmmm not bad but needs a bit of fur cleaning. Let's send it to self-publish and see how well it purrforms."!

Anonymous said...

I think perhaps you should have filed this entry in a blog called How Publishing Really Doesn't Work.

Yes, publishers are moving towards creating revenue streams from the slush pile, but only by clearly separating their own publishing activities from those of their referees. (I think this is still arguably unethical in itself, but that's another argument.)

The conditions you've identified under which publishers could ethically establish POD/self-publishing imprints make it clear why such a scheme will never, and can never happen.

For instance, you say that publishers would have to make it clear to authors in the scheme that their work stands very little chance of commercial success? I see the point - not to hold out false hope, which could be deemed fraudulent.

But to do the opposite, to dash all hope, runs counter to the very essence, the DNA, of good publishing - the triumph of hope over experience. Good publishers have to hope and believe that every book they publish stands a chance of success (even though statistically the odds are overwhelmingly against that), and so do the vast majority of their authors.

For publishers to reduce expectations to the point where they are just producing basic self-publishing services - well what's the point? There are already plenty of companies doing that. For the mainstream publishers to offer any additional value, there has to be the belief that the work itself has real value. And thus we are back in the land of quality-led publishing; the half-way house you propose just won't work, and I don't see why anyone would even want to try.

Anonymous said...

After Thomas Nelson opened a self-publishing imprint, my first thought was that others would follow.

The backlash has begun though. The Romance Writers of America has revoked Harlequin's recognized publisher status.

Which in my mind means credible author's are about to get unfairly tar & feathered by association.

Lee Goldberg said...

Today, the Mystery Writers of America notified their members of the actions they are taking in response to Harlequin's manuscript critique business and their self-publishing venture:

Recently, Harlequin Enterprises launched two new business ventures aimed at aspiring writers, the Harlequin Horizons self-publishing program and the eHarlequin Manuscript Critique service (aka "Learn to Write"), both of which are widely promoted on its website and embedded in the manuscript submission guidelines for all of its imprints.
Mystery Writers of America (MWA) is deeply concerned about the troubling conflict-of-interest issues created by these ventures, particularly the potentially misleading way they are marketed to aspiring writers on the Harlequin website.

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. Offering these services violates long-standing MWA rules for inclusion on our Approved Publishers List.

On November 9, Mystery Writers of America sent a letter to Harlequin about the "eHarlequin Manuscript Critique Service," notifying Harlequin that it is in violation of our rules and suggesting steps that Harlequin could take to remain on our Approved Publishers list. The steps outlined at that time included removing mention of this for-pay service entirely from its manuscript submission guidelines, clearly identifying any mention of this program as paid advertisement, and, adding prominent disclaimers that this venture was totally unaffiliated with the editorial side of Harlequin, and that paying for this service is not a factor in the consideration of manuscripts. Since that letter went out, Harlequin has launched "Harlequin Horizons," a self-publishing program.

MWA's November 9 letter asks that Harlequin respond to our concerns and recommendations by December 15. We look forward to receiving their response and working with them to protect the interests of aspiring writers. If MWA and Harlequin are unable to reach an agreement, MWA will take appropriate action which may include removing Harlequin from the list of MWA approved publishers, declining future membership applications from authors published by Harlequin and declaring that books published by Harlequin will not be eligible for the Edgar Awards.

We are taking this action because we believe it is vitally important to alert our members of unethical and predatory publishing practices that take advantage of their desire to be published. We respect Harlequin and its authors and hope the company will take the appropriate corrective measures.