As many of you may have heard, Harlequin, the largest publisher of romance fiction, has entered into an agreement with the vanity publishing company Author Solutions. Now aspiring authors who do not want to go through the lengthy and potentially disappointing submission process, or who have been rejected by a Harlequin editor, can instead pay to have their book formatted and uploaded into an online catalogue, or, depending on how much the aspirant pays, printed up in book form.
This represents a massive shift at a major publisher, and it needs to be looked at clearly.
First, let’s do the full disclosure: I’m a professional author and have been for over 20 years. I’ve sold 17 novels to advance-paying print publishing houses. I’m a former Harlequin author via the Luna Imprint. I enjoyed working with my Harlequin editor, who was very good. My Paths to Camelot books were treated well, got fabulous cover art and I got good advances.
In addition, I am a current RWA member and RWA has come out very strongly against the Harlequin move. Obviously, I am also a member of the Book View Cafe where I have put up many of my books for free and for sale. So, I am both professionally published, meaning I got paid up front for my writing, and independently published, meaning I put my work out in various venues (in my case with the help of the other BVC members), usually paying for the hosting service, or paying a cut of the cover price to buy a slot on a virtual shelf somewhere like the Kindle Store. I am a self-described big booster of the ebook publishing revolution.
What is happening at Harlequin is not part of that revolution. It is a new variation of a very old scam, and I am both appalled that Harlequin is playing along with it, and surprised that they didn’t think of it sooner.
Actually, Harlequin didn’t think of it at all. Author Solutions thought of it. They have been busily buying up a number of small self-publishing and vanity press operations and consolidating them. Now they are reaching out to major publishers, many of whom are having trouble, because they’ve been gut punched by the economic recession and the ebook revolution.
So, what IS actually happening at Harlequin?
I want to start with a very misunderstood situation; how one enters into the writing business as an author. At its heart, the process of becoming a professional fiction author is like interviewing for any other job. I submit a resume (my novel or short story) to an interviewer (editor) at a company where I want a job (Harlequin). If the interviewer likes my resume, I get hired to do a job, like any other independent contractor (say, the guys out front right now building my new porch). Like any other contractor, I get paid a certain amount when I start the job and the rest when it’s finished.
So, that’s the way the system works. But Harlequin is proposing something very different with the Horizons program. When I wanted to research this new system, first I read what Author Solutions, the outfit Harlequin has taken as its partner in this new enterprise, is telling publishers:
“Author Solutions, Inc., provides publishers with a platform to help monetize unpublished manuscripts and efficiently develop new talent…Through ASI’s strategic publishing partnerships, traditional publishers can leverage their heritage and tradition to power a self-publishing imprint managed entirely by the leader in the industry. Authors get published and publishers can keep watch for the next great book. Costs decrease. Revenues increase. Potential is realized.”
Translation: We can make people pay, and pay dearly, to submit their resumes (manuscripts) to us, but we will let them they think they’re submitting their resumes to you. We won’t tell them that we, Author Solutions, have absolutely no power to hire them for a job at Harlequin or anywhere else. Additionally, we will not tell them, that we are not in the business of publishing books, which is the job they think they’re applying for. Unlike at Harlequin (at least under the old system) our money does not come from the sale of books, but rather from getting people to pay for editing, printing and videography services.
Then, I read what Harlequin is saying to perspective job applicants (authors):
“Harlequin Horizons is a division of Harlequin Enterprises Limited, a global leader in romance and women’s fiction. The intent behind creating Harlequin Horizons is to give more aspiring romance writers and women’s fiction writers the opportunity to publish their books and achieve their dreams without going through the submission process with a traditional publishing house.
“However, we understand you may aspire to be published with a traditional house – a noble aspiration. While there is no guarantee that if you publish with Harlequin Horizons you will picked up for traditional publishing, Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through Harlequin Horizons for possible pick-up by its traditional imprints.”
Translation: We know you want a job at Harlequin. We’re not hiring right now, and we’re not going to hire you anyway. BUT, if you pay out as much as you can afford to have your resume spruced up then maybe, should we be hiring in the future, we’ll take another look at it. Maybe.
You’ll also notice the language in the statement is very carefully crafted to disguise the fact that the resumes are not being looked over and spruced up by Harelquin editors. They are going to Author Solutions sales and marketing consultants. Those consultants are not responsible for getting manuscripts ready for publication, let alone interviewing the applicant for a job with Harlequin. Their job is to sell as many “services” as they can. Harlequin, of course, gets a cut of any money made from funnelling those applicants to Author Solutions.
Finally, I read the notice I got sent as a former, and perhaps future independent contractor with Harlequin. Here we get a glimpse of how Harlequin is actually going to treat the Horizons program and the people who pay to become part of it:
“Our editors remain committed to developing new talent through our regular submission procedures and dedicated to ensuring our published authors remain the global gold standard for romance writing. We also want our current authors to know that the books self-published through Harlequin Horizons will NOT be branded Harlequin, nor will they be distributed by Harlequin or appear in stores next to your books.”
So, Harlequin has been told by Author Solutions here’s a great way to make money out of that slush pile that’s just sitting there being all, well, slushy. Aspiring authors looking for a job with Harlequin are being told that they can’t have that job but they can instead pay out thousands of dollars to this other company over here that has no power to hire you but will make you feel almost as good as if you had actually gotten hired and surely feeling good is what it’s all about anyway. In the meantime, working authors are being told don’t worry dears, we’re not going to make you sit next to these people at dinner.
And Harlequin is now sounding amazed that anyone would think this system is a cheat to aspirant authors, an insult to working authors and anything other than a desperate attempt to make money for a publisher with a shrinking market share whose parent corporation, Torstar, is currently suffering severe financial losses. They are stunned that organizations that represent professional authors (RWA, SFWA, MWA) and work to keep them from being ripped off by dodgy contracts and ensure that they are paid fairly for their work are busily removing Harlequin from the status and standing they give to publishers with above-board hiring practices.
Looks to me like someone at Harlequin made the mistake of thinking authors can’t read.