Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Real Losers in the Harlequin Horizons Debate

by Michelle Gagnon

So for those of you who don’t know, last week Harlequin announced that they were linking up with a vanity publisher (although they called it “self-publishing." More on that in a bit).

The initial announcement promised that for $600, an aspiring author could publish their book with the “Harlequin Horizons” logo on it (although after weathering a week of criticism for including the Harlequin name in the new imprint, it was renamed “DellArte Press”). For another $342, that book would receive an “editorial review,” (which actually will only cover the first chapter, or roughly 1700 words). The packages spiral upwards in cost to the whole enchilada, including email blasts which come in at just under $12,000 (just for the email blast, mind you--that doesn’t include any of the other costs).

Whoa. That’s a lot of money. And should your manuscript actually sell a million copies, despite the fact that you paid for the publishing, marketing, and editing, you’ll still share profits with Harlequin—to the tune of 50% of the net (and there’s an excellent, and very funny, post about that on Jackie Kessler’s blog).

Which brings us to the difference between self-publishing and vanity-publishing. With self-publishing, an author keeps any and all profits made from sales of their book. With vanity publishing, those profits are split with the publisher--you pay them to print the book, then they take a cut of the earnings.
Hence, the new Harlequin venture is undoubtedly vanity publishing. As the MWA said:

“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.”

I’m guessing the executives didn’t anticipate the firestorm this would incite. Almost immediately, the RWA responded by saying that in the future, Harlequin would be treated as a vanity press, and would no longer be eligible for certain amenities at the annual conference that they’ve received in the past. They were shortly joined by the Mystery Writers of America and Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, who also officially demoted Harlequin’s standing to a vanity press.
Mind you, this is across the board, not just for authors published under the new imprint.

Harlequin was “surprised and dismayed” by the reaction (their words, not mine) and so they backtracked--a little. In the next announcement, they said, “we are changing the name of the self-publishing company from Harlequin Horizons to a designation that will not refer to Harlequin in any way.” (hence, DellArte Press). No word yet on whether or not this compromise will change anything in terms of their standing with the various author associations.

One thing that’s been lost in all this is the impact on authors who were already under contract with a Hq imprint (myself included, as MIRA is their thriller imprint. So consider me biased). When I received the initial press release announcing the new line, I honestly didn’t think much of it--after all, how could this possibly affect me?

Within a matter of days, I found out. First of all, any author who publishes with Harlequin will lose their standing with nearly every organization. That means that New York Times bestselling author Heather Graham will no longer be considered a published author. Neither will Debbie Macomber. Neither they, nor anyone else who signed a deal with Harlequin (myself included), will be eligible for any future Rita Awards, Edgars, or Nebula Awards.

Crazy, right? As one commenter said in a forum, “It must feel like they (Harlequin authors) showed up to work and found out that the boss had decided to open a bordello.”

I’ll admit I’m not thrilled with the way that Harlequin has handled this from the outset.
However, I’m equally offended by the way the organizations have responded. Groups that I’ve faithfully paid membership dues to for years, whose boards I’ve served on, were just as quick to kick me and my work to the curb. The Harlequin authors are getting it on both ends. We’re being penalized for a decision made by our publisher that we had absolutely nothing to do with. And we’ve also been summarily marginalized by organizations we considered ourselves to be an intrinsic part of.

So what happens now? Perhaps renaming the imprint will satisfy the concerns of the various organizations. If not, perhaps Harlequin will make another concession—or they won’t, which will force some tough choices down the line.

And I suspect that many Harlequin authors are reconsidering their relationship with their publisher. Should some of Harlequin’s bread-and-butter authors like Graham and Macomber jump ship once their contracts are up, I doubt the profits from the new vanity line will offset the loss.


  1. Thank you for this post. I've been following the news closely but I haven't heard anyone speak out from the Harly author's side yet. I've been eager to hear that side of the story. It had been my dream to publish with Harlequin one day, now I have no idea what to think. It's all very upsetting.

  2. FWIW, Michelle, I never associate Mira with Harlequin. Different logo, different brand.

    I'm sure it's that way with readers, too, who after all are more intersted in the name on the cover, the cover art, the back cover copy and chapter 1 before they buy a pb original. Thus, Harlequin's change on the name issue should be of some comfort to the authors who write for them.

    The main thing I'm concerned about w/self-pubs is overpromising, either directly or by implication, what might be the benefits to a new writer. Closer to truth in advertising would be to compare the chances of "success" at self-publishing with playing roulette for a living.

  3. All of the publishers are looking for new ways to turn a bigger profit for their stockholders, or their bankers, and it seems there is less thought given to their authors (especially the mid-listers) than ever before. For Harlequin's bean counters to make such a stupid and short-sighted decision (I can't imagine they discussed this blunder with the staff editors or any of their authors)smacks of desperation, with a nod to greed. Instead of having the respected name bolster a new venture, they may have destroyed the golden goose and its imprints may have to drop the name Harlequin from their mastheads to survive. I know this is great news for their competitors who will benefit from the editors and authors that will be streaming out of the building.

    Then again memories are short and I suspect the buying public doesn't really care one whit.

    As for the organizations reactions, and turning against its own member authors, I've seen the same behavior in my chickens. With one notable exception, when you expect more from your organization than a directory and a yearly invoice for dues, you're just being silly.

  4. Good post, Michelle. I would draw a comparison with the record business, with which I'm very familiar.

    Years ago, when I lived in Nashville, there was a sort of record demimonde called "custom recording". Someone who always wanted to have a record out would come to Nashville, pay money to one of these custom labels, record a song, and have a shipment of records dumped on their doorstep.

    Of course, they had no chance of ever becoming a legitimate recording artist, no matter how good they were. No radio station would play them, no record store would sell them, they just had to sell the records out of the trunk of their car.

    Sound familiar so far?

    I can tell you that no "real" record company would've ever dared open up a custom division, regardless of the money to be made. They would've faced pressures from both the trade groups, who considered custom label people to be true bottom feeders, AND from their signed artists, who wouldn't want to tarnish their own hard-won reputations with such an association.

    If Harlequin continues down this road, I would think an author revolt might well happen. Because as you said, you didn't have any voice in Harlequin's decision, yet you're being made to pay part of the price.

    If push comes to shove, I shouldn't think you or any of their legitimate authors would have any difficulty at all finding a home with a new publisher, one who does not dirty their hands in the vanity field.

  5. I understand your concern, and sympathize with the feeling of being caught in the middle. At the risk of sounding argumentative, what would you have liked for the organizations to do to show their displeasure?

  6. Hi everyone- and Happy Turkey Day to my fellow Americans!

    Good analogy, Mike- that's precisely the problem. I'm curious to see if other publishers will follow. Apparently St Martins owns part of a self-publisher, but doesn't funnel slush pile rejects to them (at least not that I know of- does anyone else know more details about this?)

    And Dana-
    I do think that rather than summarily dismissing longtime members (some of whom have belonged to, volunteered for, and paid dues to these organizations for decades), they could have a) tempered the email they sent out, instead contacting Harlequin directly with their concerns before sending all Hq authors into a panic, and b) added a grandfather clause for authors, or made a distinction between the new imprint and the old one. They could also have distinguished between writers who are being paid and writers who sign on to the vanity line.

    Here's an example: the Pepsico corporation sells Pepsi (obviously). They also sell Tropicana orange juice. One wouldn't posit that orange juice is bad for you, simply because one of the other products produced by the company happens to be. Groups like the MWA have basically said that because our publisher is now offering a vanity line, those of us with contracts, even multi-mullion dollar ones, are therefore self-published. Which is nonsense. We didn't sign up for vanity publishing. We all fought long and hard to get to this stage in our careers, and I felt like the letters from the various groups attacking Hq neglected to take us, and the impact their decision would have on us, into account at all. It was as if all the focus was on slapping Hq's wrist. And in so doing, the authors got slapped, too.

  7. You say, "they could have a) tempered the email they sent out, instead contacting Harlequin directly with their concerns before sending all Hq authors into a panic..."

    MWA did send a letter to Harlequin on Nov. 9 about their practice of advertising a paid writer critique service on their "want to be an author" pages. MWA gave Harlequin until Dec. 15 to reply. This was in the release issued.

  8. Karen-

    Yes, but then why not wait until Dec 15th to see how Harlequin will respond? As you can guess, that email from the MWA sent anyone who writes for a Hq imprint into a panic- without providing much information (will the MWA disqualify books already entered for this year's Edgar? What steps could Hq take to satisfy them? Will we lose out status as published authors?)

  9. I don't understand what you're saying. Do you think MWA has delisted Harlequin? It has not. It has not rejected all its authors as being published by a vanity press. MWA is waiting until Dec. 15 to see if Harlequin will be in compliance.

    I think you're confusing MWA with SFA and RWA, both of which have delisted Harlequin.

  10. Karen-

    If you re-read what I wrote, I was referring to the general stance of the organizations as a whole, without specifically singling one out.
    The post was intended to provide a side of the story that I felt hadn't been heard yet, that of an affected author.

    My intent was not to slam one specific organization, but to state the viewpoint of an author affected by all the sturm und drang--an opinion that many others have expressed in private forums. Hq authors are upset with Hq, and they're also upset about being marginalized (or being threatened with marginalization, which largely amounts to the same thing) by groups they considered themselves to be valued members of. That's simply a fact. Whether you agree or disagree with how we feel, that's how we feel.

    So I'm a little puzzled by the tone here. Do you disagree that Hq authors are the true losers in this debate? If tomorrow your publisher decided to open a vanity press, and you suddenly found yourself categorized as a self-published author, potentially ineligible for any major awards, would you say, "Oh well, they did what they had to do?"

    The ITW has been the one group to even bother acknowledging the impact this has on Hq authors, saying, ""Although we don't plan to make a formal statement at this time, our position is that ITW doesn't intend to get involved in Harlequin's business.

    In addition, our members who are Harlequin/MIRA authors remain honored and valued ITW members with all the privileges and rights of membership. No ITW members are going to be expelled or denied awards because of actions taken by their publisher beyond their control--that would be contrary to our charter."

    IMHO, that's the way an author advocacy group should respond- with as much concern for current authors as for future ones.

  11. Have you expressed your feelings to Harlequin about their vanity press program? Harlequin may have changed the name of their vanity press -- but there's no word yet on whether or not they will, for instance, change their stated intent to have the editors at ALL their imprints (including Mira) steer authors of rejected manuscripts to their vanity press.

    As Karen said, the MWA has *not* de-listed Harlequin, even though it and all of their imprints are now in blatant violation of the organizations rules for the Approved Publishers list. No sanctions of any kind have yet been imposed on Harlequin by the MWA. That will be decided if Harlequin hasn't changed their practices regarding the co-mingling for their traditional publishing activities and for-pay services (their critique services and their vanity press) by Dec. 15.

    I think your anger is miss-directed. The rules at MWA, SFWA, and RWA have been in place for *years* were the penalties for violating them. Harlequin opted to blithely ignore the consequences of their actions on their authors. The people who deserve your scorn are not the Mystery Writers of America, Science Fiction Writers, Romance Writers of America, or the Horror Writers's Harlequin.

    What has Harlequin told you?

  12. You wrote "our members who are Harlequin/MIRA authors remain honored and valued ITW members with all the privileges and rights of membership. No ITW members are going to be expelled or denied awards."


    I have to object to your implication before anybody gets the wrong idea: NOT ONE of the professional writers' organization has expelled ANY members nor have their threatened to.

    Let me repeat that so it's absolutely clear -- no members have been expelled, nor threatened with expulsion, by any of those organizations.

    On top of that, the MWA hasn't taken *any action at all* except to notify Harlequin that they are in violation of their long-standing rules and offer to work with them to resolve the problem.

    What the SFWA and RWA *have* done is say that no NEW memberships will be accepted from authors published by Harlequin or any of their imprints nor will books published by Harlequin or their imprints be eligible for their awards.

    As I said before, the MWA has not taken *any actions yet,* but so there is no confusion, let me quote from the organization's public statement, which is very clear:

    "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."

    Clearly, the MWA stands ready to work with Harlequin. As far as I know, Harlequin has not responded.

    You might ask your editors at Mira what they are doing to resolve the grave concerns about Harlequin's vanity press expressed by almost every professional writer's organization there is...except ITW.


  13. I understand that no organization has officially expelled current Hq author members. However, if in the end our books no longer qualify for awards consideration, can we really consider ourselves to be full members? If Hq's changes aren't accepted, and they are no longer an approved publisher, will we also be exempted from the directories? How, then, are we still members in anything but name alone?

    I'm not at all happy with this decision by Hq, as I said in my post. And yes, my agent and I have sent our concerns to them. But many Hq authors have expressed their dissatisfaction with the way some organizations have handled the situation (and yes, the MWA is among them, although certainly not the only one, as I said).

    I wonder if the time hasn't finally arrived for us to start a real union for published authors, something along the lines of SAG or the Screenwriters Guild, to address not only issues like this one but others like the recent shift in royalty rates on ebooks. I think that for me at least, this experience has made it clear that the needs and rights of published authors aren't being fully addressed by any organization.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Just for the record, books and stories published by Harlequin and its imprints still qualify for the Nebula and other SFWA awards. There is no requirement that a book or story needs to be published by a professional publisher in order to qualify.

    As for your comment that it's time for "a real union for published authors" -- I was extremely heartened to see MWA, RWA, and SFWA acting in parallel to address the Harlequin situation, the first time I can recall them doing so. The combined strength of all genre writers' organizations is much greater than that of each group by itself. I hope to see more of this in the future.

  16. Michael,

    The Horror Writers Association and Novelists Inc also joined in condemning Harlequin's action. I can't remember ever seeing virtually all the major writing organizations -- SFWA, RWA, MWA, HWA, Novelists Inc, and Sisters in Crime -- standing together so forcefully and publicly on an issue before. Only the Thriller Writers and Authors Guild have remained silent.


  17. MWA took action against Harlequin today but tried to mitigate the impact on current Harlequin authors...

    The Board of Mystery Writers of America voted unanimously on Wednesday to remove Harlequin and all of its imprints from our list of Approved Publishers, effective immediately. We did not take this action lightly. We did it because Harlequin remains in violation of our rules regarding the relationship between a traditional publisher and its various for-pay services.

    What does this mean for current and future MWA members?

    Any author who signs with Harlequin or any of its imprints from this date onward may not use their Harlequin books as the basis for active status membership nor will such books be eligible for Edgar® Award consideration. However books published by Harlequin under contracts signed before December 2, 2009 may still be the basis for Active Status membership and will still be eligible for Edgar® Award consideration (you may find the full text of the decision at the end of this bulletin).

    Although Harlequin no longer offers its eHarlequin Critique Service and has changed the name of its pay-to-publish service, Harlequin still remains in violation of MWA rules regarding the relationship between a traditional publisher and its various for-pay services.

    MWA does not object to Harlequin operating a pay-to-publish program or other for-pay services. The problem is HOW those pay-to-publish programs and other for-pay services are integrated into Harlequin's traditional publishing business. MWA’s rules for publishers state:

    "The publisher, within the past five years, may not have charged a fee to consider, read, submit, or comment on manuscripts; nor may the publisher, or any of the executives or editors under its employ, have offered authors self-publishing services, literary representation, paid editorial services, or paid promotional services.

    If the publisher is affiliated with an entity that provides self-publishing, for-pay editorial services, or for-pay promotional services, the entities must be wholly separate and isolated from the publishing entity. They must not share employees, manuscripts, or authors or interact in any way. For example, the publishing entity must not refer authors to any of the for-pay entities nor give preferential treatment to manuscripts submitted that were edited, published, or promoted by the for-pay entity.

    To avoid misleading authors, mentions and/or advertisements for the for-pay entities shall not be included with information on manuscript submission to the publishing company. Advertising by the publisher's for-pay editorial, self-publishing or promotional services, whether affiliated with the publisher or not, must include a disclaimer that it is advertising and that use of those services offered by an affiliate of the publisher will not affect consideration of manuscripts submitted for publication."

    Harlequin's Publisher and CEO Donna Hayes responded to our November 9 letter, and a follow up that we sent on November 30. In her response, which we have posted on the MWA website, Ms. Hayes states that Harlequin intends as standard practice to steer the authors that it rejects from its traditional publishing imprints to DellArte and its other affiliated, for-pay services. In addition, Harlequin mentions on the DellArte site that editors from its traditional publishing imprints will be monitoring DellArte titles for possible acquisition. It is this sort of integration that violates MWA rules.

    MWA has a long-standing regard for the Harlequin publishing house and hopes that our continuing conversations will result in a change in their policies and the reinstatement of the Harlequin imprints to our approved list of publishers.

    Frankie Y. Bailey,
    Executive Vice President, MWA

  18. I keep seeing references to the fact that various writer's organizations will not allow full status to writers who sign with Harlequin after what they've done, and I agree those groups did the right thing. But what I haven't heard is what will happen to authors who signed before when they want a new book published? Will they be able to sign a contract with Harlequin for that book, or will that action put them in the same category as the new writers to Harlequin? Or are those writers going to have to find new publishers to keep their status and have those book eligible for awards?

  19. "But what I haven't heard is what will happen to authors who signed before when they want a new book published? Will they be able to sign a contract with Harlequin for that book, or will that action put them in the same category as the new writers to Harlequin? Or are those writers going to have to find new publishers to keep their status and have those book eligible for awards?"

    No Active Status members are being expelled. If you became an Active Status members on the basis of a Harlequin title contracted, you're fine. Nobody is going to take your membership away from you. And if you aren't an Active Status member, you can use your Harlequin titles for membership -- if they are the result of contracts signed before Dec. 2, 2009

    If you are presently a Harlequin author and sign a new contract with them now, the books under that contract will not be eligible for Edgar Award consideration.


  20. My understanding, Pat, is that any current Hq authors who re-up with their imprint for future books will no longer eligible for certain awards. This is why we're all so concerned. The RWA has yet to respond to the changes Hq made, but if they follow the MWA, that means a lot of past Rita winners will no longer qualify for consideration.

  21. Oops. Small typo. I wrote:

    "on the basis of a Harlequin title contracted, you're fine"

    It should have read:

    "on the basis of a Harlequin title contracted before Dec 2 2009, you're fine