Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

WTF Wednesday: Bait and Switch

It’s a fact of life that vanity/subsidy presses exist. It’s also a fact of life that some authors, desperate to have their book in their hot little hands, will pay for publication. And in some cases, that’s the best decision the author could make, because the author’s goal isn’t to make a career out of writing.

Here are a couple of scenarios in which I think authors who self-published made a right decision:

1) The 80yo woman I met at an RWA chapter meeting who was hand-selling her vanity-published romance novel. Yeah, she could have gone through the traditional channels to try to get it published, but it was set in an odd time period/place for the traditional markets and, let’s face it, at her age, she’d probably be dead before it ever saw a bookshelf. She wanted to have her book published and she didn’t mind selling it herself. She knew what she was getting into, and she was pleased with the result because she had the right expectations.

2) My SIL wants to write a children’s book about her experiences growing up with a significant disability. This would be a hard sale in the traditional market AND the main reason she wants to do it is to gift the book to the hospital that did her surgeries pro bono. She’s not looking to make money from it, but looking to “give back” for something that was done for her. Given her desires and expectations, a vanity-publisher looks like the best/most likely option.

But now, along comes Harlequin with a new vanity publishing venture called Harlequin Horizons. If you haven’t already encountered the kerfuffle that’s ensued in Romancelandia over this, you haven’t been paying attention or your Internet has been down for a couple of days. The primary thread on the topic can be found over at Smart Bitches, so if you have a few hours to invest, feel free to hop on over there and read the 200+ comments.

I’m very troubled by this, but not because I think Harlequin might be diluting its brand or because there’s anything inherently wrong with a traditional publishing house holding an interest in a vanity publishing house. (Random House has a 49% share of Xlibris, and I see no issues with that.) It’s that Harlequin is playing a bait-and-switch on aspiring authors, and they are doing it in such a blatant fashion, as if they think it’s business as usual.

But it is NOT business as usual for reputable publishing houses to refer authors to their vanity publishing arm in their form rejection letters. Yet this is precisely what Harlequin is apparently planning to do.

Let’s be clear here…an agent who refers an author to a vanity house for publication and receives a cut of the profit if said author ends up publishing there is considered a sleaze. RWA will not recognize said agent as reputable and will not allow him/her to schedule pitches at conferences, etc.

And yet, this is EXACTLY what Harlequin is proposing to do–funnel rejected manuscripts to a vanity publisher from which it gets a cut of the profits. (It is worth noting here that Random House, while owning 49% of Xlibris, does NOT mention or recommend Xlibris in their rejection letters. Why not? Because it’s always been considered unethical to do so. And it should, in my never to be humble opinion, remain that way.)


And then, to add insult to injury, the Harlequin Horizons site makes a lot of vague promises about how publishing with it will help authors achieve their dreams of being picked up by Harlequin’s traditional publishing arm. It suggests Harlequin will be “mining” Horizons for bestsellers to bring them over into their traditional lines. This is akin to the NBA starting a “pay-to-play” league for basketball hopefuls and tell them they’ll be “scouting” this league for new stars and that said players will have a better shot at making the big time than those who go through the regular slush pile (i.e., colleges, where players who are actually good enough to go onto the NBA typically pick up scholarships AND an education). It’s flat-out deceptive, not because there’s NO chance that it will happen, but because the chances it will are as ridiculously tiny as that the next Michael Jordan would have to pay the NBA for an audition.

Now, I know there are plenty of people out there who subscribe to the “buyer beware” model and think that this is all just fine and dandy. Harlequin is in business to make money and this is just another avenue of revenue for them. It’s up to authors to know what they’re getting into and be savvy.

I agree with that to a large extent. I do think it’s up to authors to do their homework and understand what, exactly, they’re signing up for.

But by the same token, I am disappointed in Harlequin. I have always considered them to be one of the most reputable, honest, and author-focused houses out there. For years, their website has been a reliable source of information about the busines and the craft of writing, and they have helped so many authors achieve their dreams for real. To now see them now embrace a model that involves selling false ones (and at very high prices) makes me more than a little sick to my stomach.

So, please, Harlequin, invest in a vanity publisher if you must, but please, don’t weaken your reputation as one of the most ethical, author-friendly houses out there. I have loved you for so long for your commitment to doing the right thing by authors, both those you publish and those you reject. Please don’t change.

1 Comment

  • Jody W. November 18, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Yes, I’m very uncomfortable about the fact that Harlequin’s brand is being used to lure in authors but they claim it’s only so people will understand they publish romance. Why not call it Romance Horizons? They also have stated they don’t say their brand will be on the books, marketing efforts, etc, but do they specifically and uncategorically state that IT WILL NOT? Or do they leave that area blank and hope to lure in more suckers, who will assume quite reasonably that Harlequin will be part of their machine since it’s freakin’ splashed all over the website, the ads, etc.


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