Harlequin Uproar...

Anyone who has any involvement in romance writing will be aware of the current uproar over Harlequin’s decision this week to announce the arrival of Harlequin Horizons–a vanity press they’re opening up in partnership with Author Solutions. Please note that I said vanity press, not self publishing. Harlequin is might be trying to sell this venture as a self publishing option for authors, but the two are very different.

In self publishing, the author does it all– they not only write the book, but also arrange for its design, printing, marketing, and distribution. They’re 100% involved at all levels. And they get to keep 100% of any subsequent sales.

With a vanity press, someone else holds the reins. The author pays for a third party to edit it, they pay for (usually limited) artwork, they pay for production, but they only get to keep a percentage of sales (in the Harlequin Horizons case, authors get 50% of net.) Oh, and they generally also have the opportunity to pay yet more money for “distribution packages” which will not get them into bookstores.

I won’t go into why I think this whole situation stinks to high heaven–mainly because Jackie Kessler has already done that a whole lot more eloquently than I ever could. I will say, however, that I think its morally reprehensible that a major publisher like Harlequin brands its vanity press Harlequin Horizons and then states that the books produced will not have Harlequin support or branding. So why is Harlequin advertising the venture all over its forums? Why have editors been directed to note on all rejection letters that Harlequin Horizons is an available option? Why call it Harlequin Horizons at all?

Harlequin wouldn’t be the first publisher to be involved with vanity press. Random House own 49% of Xlibris, but the difference is, there’s no branding conflict. The two are clearly separated and Random House editors are NOT recommending on rejection letters that authors go visit Xlibris.

But the real WTF moment for me came from an answer Malle Vallik gave to this following question over on the Dear Author site:

If an author chooses to go to Horizons, do they lose “first publication” rights? How will that affect any effort to gain an agent or traditional publisher with their “bound copy”?

Malle’s answer: I’m not sure I completely understand this question. The author owns her content. How would she lost first publication rights? She has published it herself. Whether she is giving it away as gifts or marketing it, is up to her. Yup, clearly I don’t get your question.

I mean, seriously, I realized Malle was getting bombarded by questions and a whole lot of anger (and I applaud her bravery in staying there as long as she did–and remaining calm), but how could an editor (or former editor) not understand that question when first publication rights are the very thing that all editors buy?

To put it bluntly,  if you publish it anywhere, in any form, in its entirety, then you’ve lost first publication rights and most editors wouldn’t touch you with a long wooden pole. If you’re famous, with a history of good sales behind you, then that might be a different story–but you still wouldn’t be selling first publishing right. You’d be selling reprinting rights.

As I said, I think this whole situation stinks. If vanity publication is the path you want to take (and I would personally never, ever recommend this path to any fiction author), then there are better (cheaper) options out there. Harlequin are charging through the roof ($600–1500 for their services) and then taking 50% of net. On average, most vanity published books sell 75 copies. Do your sums and guess who is going to be out of pocket. Not Harlequin.

Edited to add: Here’s an agents take on it

  • http://shilohwalker.wordpress.com Shiloh Walker

    <Do your sums and guess who is going to be out of pocket. Not Harlequin."

    Exactly.

  • http://shilohwalker.wordpress.com Shiloh Walker

    “Do your sums and guess who is going to be out of pocket. Not Harlequin.”

    Exactly.

  • http://urbanfantasy.blogspot.com Rachel Vincent

    Actually, Keri, Malle’s not an editor. She’s the digital manager.

    Not saying I don’t agree with what you guys are saying. Just that she’s not an editor. ;-)

  • Keri

    But she was an editor before she became the digital manager. She’s also a published writer. So, how could she not understand a question about first print rights?

  • Patricia

    Wow, what a mess!!

  • Anon76

    Author Solutions published 13,000 titles last year. Titles that vary in content and quality. Titles that perhaps didn’t quite fit a publisher’s existing lines. Those books already exist, but are the readers buying them?

    And if not, why? (IMHO they aren’t. 2,500,000 copies were sold of 13,000 titles. That first number sounds impressive, right? But divide that down to the average number of copies sold per title = 192. Depressing.)

    Those books I spoke of are no different than the products readers will receive through Harlequin Horizons. Because these are Author Solutions products, not Harlequin products. Products designed to lure in writers, not readers. (13,000 packages sold to writers at a base price of $599 multiplies out to $7,887,000. Cha-ching )

  • http://evaulian-thebestoftheworst.blogspot.com/ Eva Ulian

    I am not going to defend Harlequin or Thomas Nelson but just describe what these new imprints are about. They are not Vanity Publishers because such would mean they send you thousands of unwanted books to your garage and you sell them even though they keep 50% or so of royalty. They are not Self-Publishers because that would mean you do everything, and I mean everything yourself but you get to keep, obviously, 100% of the royalty. People have tagged them as Self-Pub for convenience. But they are ASSISTED publishing, which means you ask them, in the basic package, to publish your book, exactly the way you want it, or seek advice if you want a second opinion. They then have a distribution system in which you as the author like in traditional publishing, if you have any sense, will aid to sponsor your own book since putting a book on a shelf doesn’t mean it sells. You get 20% of the royalty for soft copies. With traditional publishers you get more or less 5% of which 15% is given to your agent- who has done what? Given you access to a publisher, changed your book round so much because obviously you are not the expert that an ASSISTED publishing author is otherwise you would take the responsibility of investing in your book with real money.

    The way I see it is that such publishers cannot publish in the traditional manner, give out advances that are not earned out and survive. The problem is indeed that traditional authors expect to have their book published, get a big advance, and if it doesn’t earn out hard luck for the publisher- they have to take risks. Well not anymore- you pay, and it’s only a partial amount, for the cost involved so your book is published and what replaces your advance is the increased royalty percentage, so no one loses out. I don’t see any unfairness in that at all, it’s what they have been doing in most countries, except the UK, for decades.

    You pay, only a partial amount, for the cost involved for publication in Assisted Publishing. The Agent Rachelle Gardner has given a detailed breakdown of cost involved in the publication of a book in Trade Paper which comes to $58,000 and Hard Back is $90,000. See her blog here: http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/2009/11/is-your-book-worth-it.html As you probably know, Harlequin asks for $600 and CrossBow $1,000 for a basic package. So, perhaps now you can appreciate why I don’t think it is possible that Assisted Publishing is there to make money off writers. They are there to give an unprecedented, excellent opportunity to writers who have no access to publishers because agents have denied them that access as judging such authors not fit for publication. Finally, publishing houses are opening up the doors to us, as most agents define us, SECOND CLASS authors. And I for one, thank them.

  • Maria

    Whoa that is so messed up I mean to own ones own book and not getting all the benefits that come with it.

  • Keri

    Eva, Harl Horizons (Or Dellarte Press as they’re now calling themselves), is NOT assisted publishing. It’s vanity publishing, pure and simple. YOU PAY THEM to publish your books, and then you give them half your royalties as well. That does not sound like a good deal to me. How our they assisting you? All they’re doing is providing editorial services (at a cost), printing your book (at a cost) and providing distribution services (at a cost). And those distribution services are nothing that you, as a self pubbed author, cannot do yourself (amazon don’t charge authors to list books–anyone can do it if you have an isbn). I have nothing against self or vanity publishing if that’s the route you want to go, but please be aware that there are cheaper options out there.

    As for your comments on traditional publishing–5% is on the low side. Most authors get around 8%. WHich might not sound much, but consider the fact that with traditional publishers you’re getting your books in store and online–with self/vanity publishing, you’re only available online, and then only minimally. Also, trad publishing provides all the publicity and backing, and they’re taking the risk cost wise, not the author. The author is paid an advance and may never get more than that, but at least they have money in hand, up front. With a self/vanity publisher, the author shells out money upfront, and takes all the risk themselves. They may never make their money back, let alone profit, as the average number of sales for a self/vanity press book is around 79 copies sold. The average trad published author will sell at least several thousand (although if they only sold that, it’d be unlikely they’d be offered another contract).

    Agents are worth their weight in gold, and don’t ever believe otherwise. For a start, they get your books in front of editors. Most traditional houses nowadays don’t take unsolicited manuscripts, and unless you’ve got an agent your market options has shrunk considerably. Plus, they often not only negotiate better money, but better contract conditions–a vital service in this day and age of publishers wanting everything they can get, believe me! And they also handle overseas sales–which can be a legal minefield for those who have no idea (which is most of us, lets be honest)

    As for those figures you quoted–did you actually read the full breakdown? Because yeah, it may cost a publisher $58,000 for a Trade, and $90 000 to publish a hardcover, but those figures include author royalties of 15 000 and 25 000. So as a self/vanity press author, you can deduct that figure for a start. You can also greatly reduce the printing and binding costs, because they’d be based on print runs of at least ten thousand, which no self/vanity author would generally do. Warehousing costs can also be taken out, because why would you need to rent a warehouse when a garage or a room in your house will do. I’m not sure whether the sales mentioned is sale staff costs, or not, so I’ll leave that in. Which brings down the totals down to 18 000 and 26 000, and that is the type of money I’ve seen some self / vanity authors spend. The major difference is, in one model, the author is taking all the risks, shelling out all the money, and has very little hope of getting any returns. In the other, the publisher is taking the risk, the publisher is providing the warehousing and staff, the publisher is providing the marketing, and the publisher is offering the means of getting your book onto store shelves. Which, despite the kindle, e-readers, and the advent of online sales and stores, is still where 95% of book purchases occur.

    As for your comments about second class authors, well, I’ll just say I very much doubt any agent or editor has ever said that. Yes, they more than likely have said your work is not ready for publication, but that’s something every published author has heard more than once in their publishing career. Hell, I read those words in rejection letters for at least ten years. And hell, they were right! My work wasn’t ready for publication, even if I thought otherwise at the time.

    As I said, I have nothing against authors choosing to go the self published or vanity press route, but I certainly wish more would see past the glossy images and carefully worded promises offered on glossy websites.

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