When the You-Know-What hits the Fan

So, whoa, Nelly! If you’re a Romance author, things have been very interesting the last couple of days.

Harlequin Enterprises, publisher of category and single title romances for 60 years is in the middle of a HUGE controversy . . . if you’re an author or aspiring author.

For a really good breakdown of who’s saying what and what it means, check out author Jackie Kessler’s post

Read on for my rambling thoughts.

The background

Harlequin has started two new ventures. The first, less controversial (but not without controversy) is Carina Press. This is the digital publishing arm of Harlequin. The controversy here, more or less, is that Carina does not pay an advance.

The other venture is Harlequin Horizons which is a self-publishing venture. The controversy here, for members of Romance Writers of America (RWA) is that RWA has a list of Recognized, approved publishers. To be on RWA’s list, you must be a non-subsidy/non-vanity press. Meaning, that the publisher does not require the author to fund any part of the cost of publishing.

Keep in mind that Horizons isn’t really self-publishing. A self-published writer gets to keep ALL the money from any sales. Not so with Horizons. After the writer bellies up to the publishing bar and pays, Horizons keeps 50% of the net. Not the gross. The net.

If the author is paying the cost of publishing, what more expenses could there be? Makes me suspect hidden fees, but I’m getting cynical in my old age. How can Horizons be a self-publishing outfit if they’re keeping half the income after the expenses, which, by the way, the author pays.

The Problem

Check out the Harlequin Horizon site. It’s a pay-to-play game.

As of yesterday, Harlequin has been removed from RWA’s list of approved publishers.

Why should anyone care? Good question. For Harlequin, they can no longer attend the RWA national conference without paying the registration fee. They won’t get free space for signings and book give aways and they won’t get a spotlight. You may ask, so? Well, where do you think Harlequin gets its authors (before this little brou-ha-ha)? Those 10,000 RWA members sure make for a nice, concentrated source of potential and actual authors.

For RWA members there are some interesting impacts that are kind of boring for readers or non-members. PAN (Published Author Network) membership leaps to mind. I won’t go over them here.

If the Harlequin print lines remain as they were, what’s the big deal? Authors can still query Harlequin and can still get paid royalties and still not be expected to subsidize the cost of publishing their books.

The Harm

The harm of Harlequin Horizons, in its current incarnation, is a subtler issue that’s knottier to unravel. But let’s give it a try.

Analogies Galore!

In a perfect world people who self-publish would understand that self-publishing is NOT the same as traditional print publishing. This analogy is probably going to get me in trouble but, oh, well!

It’s the difference between playing football in the NFL and playing on your city-sponsored league team. If you’re an NFL player, you get paid to play football. And you get paid because you’re a damn good athlete. Elite, actually.

If you play football on your city-sponsored league team, you pay to pay. You’re still playing football, but that does not make you a professional football player.

An NFL player does not pay to play football.

Now, it’s quite possible that someone on a league team IS an elite athlete. If that’s so, then if they showed up at an NFL tryout, they would make a pro team. I don’t think anyone is confused about the difference between a professional athlete and someone who participates in an organized sport.

Professional writers get paid for their writing, and they get paid because someone else has determined that they write well enough to justify the check. A traditionally published author does not pay the publisher one red cent. They don’t enclose a check with their query letter or with their completed manuscript. Ever.

Self-publishing means you pay to play. You are a writer, because you did write something, after all. But you are NOT a professional writer. It doesn’t matter if you make money selling your self-published book. (But come on. Self-published books sell, on average, 54 copies. They don’t get the distribution, co-op, marketing, editorial, cover art, publicity that a professional writer gets for her book.)

Selling Books vs. Selling your Writing

There is a difference between being paid for your writing and making money selling books. If you self-publish, you are not being paid for your writing. You are selling books. This is why a self-published writer is still not professional writer even if she’s making money selling her book. (Which is rare.)

Here’s another hard truth.

You can’t make a living as a professional writer if your book sells only 10,000 copies. Heck, you can’t make a living if you sell 20,000.

If you self-publish, how on earth are you going to manage 10,000 copies of your book? The stores that move significant numbers of books will not carry your novel. No Wal-Mart. No Sam’s Club. No Barnes and Noble or Borders.

Amazon might carry your book but you aren’t going to sell 10,000 copies on Amazon. According to author royalty statements, it’s a lot if a book sells 1000 digital copies. Your average self-published author simply can’t possibly make a living wage through self-publishing.

Is Harlequin Deceiving Writers?

Here’s the first issue: Harlequin Horizons is conflating published with professional. It’s vocabulary legerdemain. And it’s deceptive.

Not so long ago, the difference between published and professional was too small to matter. Technology has changed this. Today it’s possible to publish a book without being a professional writer. It now behooves us all to clearly make that distinction.

If you pay Harlequin Horizons to publish your book, you are not a professional writer. There is no editorial review process. There’s no editor or editorial board. I could, if I wanted to, sign up with Horizons and have them publish my 250 page novel consisting solely of the letter A.

Why authors are so upset and you should be too

Harlequin says, outright, that they consider Horizons to be an additional pool of potential professional writers. Separate from the slush pile. Separate from agented submissions. This is where there’s an ethical decision to make. Or that was not made.

They’re holding out the carrot of becoming a Professional writer, but, unlike actual professional writers, these writers have to pay for the carrot.

In the world of writing, that spells S.C.A.M.

To use yet another analogy, there are now two doors to becoming a professional writer for Harlequin. One opens when you’re judged worthy. The other opens when you pay AND you’re judged worthy.

The criteria, by the way, is decidedly muddled between the two.

But I can clarify.

In the first case, it’s quality of writing (assuming a project appropriate to Harlequin’s lines)

In the second case, what triggers the worthiness look-see is sales. If you write a fantastic book, pay Horizons to publish it and sell 54 copies, no one at Harlequin is going to pay attention. If you write a crappy book, pay Horizons to publish it and sell 2000 copies, they’re probably going to take a look. In other words, writers who are great marketers are privileged over writers who can write.

If Horizons were completely separate from the traditional print arm of Harlequin, there probably wouldn’t be a problem. Random House owns xLibris, after all. But Random House isn’t sweetening the xLibris deal by promising to pick writers out of the pay-to-publish pool for publication with a Random House imprint. Random’s rejection letters don’t include a referral to xLibris. Harlequin, however, intends to divert rejected writers to its pay-to-play division. The slush pile is now a source of potential revenue.

From Harlequin’s perspective this must look like a total win. The thousands and thousands of writers who aren’t yet writing at a professional level can make the company money. It’s so brilliant I’m breathless.

In the current incarnation, it’s also unethical.

(And is IS thousands. Thousands of writers are querying and only a handful of them will ever get paid for their writing.)

Some more truths.

Writing is hard. You need talent and you need dedication. You must be willing to look at your work product and accept that maybe it’s not good enough yet. You have to spend time learning about story telling. Let me assure you that there are a lot of aspiring writers who are unwilling or unable to face the truth, let alone acknowledge the problem might be with their book.

If you want to be paid for your writing, you have to submit your work to publishers. The hard truth is that people who don’t know you and who really only care about making money, will read your work and say yea or nay.

One of the ways a writer finds out if she’s good enough is to submit to publishers who pay writers for work they think will make them money.

If you’ve been doing this and all you get are rejection letters, then chances are the book you’re submitting isn’t good enough. Yet.

So you go back and you revise and edit and maybe even write another book instead. You keep doing that. You keep working and studying and learning. Because writing isn’t easy. It really isn’t.

Paying someone to publish your book isn’t going to change that fact.


One Response to “When the You-Know-What hits the Fan”

  1. RKCharron says:

    Thank you for this great post Carolyn. It clarifies the issues. And contains great advice for aspiring writers. I wish every aspiring writer would read it.
    Thank you very much for sharing.
    Love & Best Wishes,