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