Thursday Throwdown: How RWA Might Win the Battle, but Lose the War

By now, you’ve probably heard that RWA (Romance Writers of America) has pulled Harlequin Enterprises status as a recognized publisher as a result of its close ties to an entity known as Harlequin Horizons. I already explained in yesterday’s WTF Wednesday post what Harlequin Horizons is and how it’s tied to Harlequin proper, so I won’t belabor those points in this post. Instead, I want to talk about what pulling its recognition status means from the point of view of RWA and its members (and the future of both).

First, what does it mean that RWA no longer considers Harlequin a “recognized” publisher? Well, for Harlequin, it means they will no longer be able to sponsor events at the RWA National Conference. They cannot host a Publisher Spotlight session (which allows them to tell authors/agents at the conference what sorts of books they’re currently seeking, what programs they offer, etc.), and their editors cannot take pitches from conference attendees. Harlequin can still send its employees to the conference, but they will have to “pay their own freight” and they won’t get the visibility/cachet that holding a Spotlight and taking pitches provides.

It’s worth noting that this position is exactly the one that non-advance paying epubs and low-advance paying small presses are already in. Ellora’s Cave and Samhain and many other legitimate presses can’t do spotlights or take editor pitches because they don’t qualify, under RWA’s current rules, as “recognized” publishers. RWA’s rules specify that, to be recognized and permitted to do spotlights/editor pitches, the publisher must pay a minimum advance of $1,000 on every book they contract, and they must not ask the author to shoulder any of the costs of publication. By prominently featuring a vanity publishing option on their website and adding a line to their form rejection letters suggesting the Harlequin Horizons option as a route to publication, Harlequin effectively violated both of these criteria.

Now, it’s been argued by some folks that other publishers are engaged in similarly “rule-violating” practices and RWA hasn’t pulled their ticket, so this seems a bit like singling out Harlequin for special punishment. To some extent, that’s true. It is true that many other publishing houses own or are associated with vanity publishing arms. But if RWA has turned a blind to them, it’s likely because the publishing houses haven’t advertised those associations as blatantly or proudly as Harlequin seems to be doing. None of them, to my knowledge, suggest on their websites that authors seeking publication submit to their vanity publishing arm. And none of them, to my knowledge, recommend their vanity publishing company in their form rejection letters. That is how, IMO, Harlequin crossed the line and fell victim to RWA’s wrath while so far, other publishers have not.

This is not to say that other publishers are completely in the clear. Some of the practices are dubious at best, and it does seem to me that one publisher in particaly (I think it’s HarperCollins) has already violated the “minimum advance on every book” rule by establishing a line that specifically does not pay advances. Why/how did they get around RWA? I’m not sure, but I suspect that RWA took a wait and see approach because 1) it wasn’t sure whether the imprint would catch on at all and 2) there was no evidence that the regular HarperCollins imprints to which most of its members would be submitting would refer rejected manuscripts to the non-advance paying wing. It’s tricksy, I grant you, and more than a little questionable for RWA to continue considering them a recognized publisher, but I can see why they did it. The Harlequin case was a LOT more clear-cut, IMO.

Moreover, I think RWA was almost honor- and duty-bound to pull Harlequin’s recognition because it IS special. Harlequin is “the” romance publisher. It has been the RWA darling since the organization was formed. So when RWA has been saying for years things like “Money always flows to the author, not away,” and “Any agent/publisher that asks you to pay is a scam artist,” they cannot very well turn they other way when the premier publishers for their members (because it publishes more romances than anyone else) starts engaging in a practice which clearly violates the organization’s most dearly held precepts. Precepts which, frankly, I agree with.

I don’t necessarily agree with RWA’s stance on advances and I’d like to see that changed because I don’t think that’s the gold standard for good business practice in publishing anymore, but I cannot and will not argue that RWA should in any way endorse, support, or otherwise recommend a publisher that tries to get authors to pay for publication. Sure, authors can do that it they want to, and I would hope if they do, they understand exactly what they’re getting for their money, but RWA should not do anything which would have the effect of funneling its members in the direction of a publisher if that might lead to the publisher attempting to clean out the members’ pockets.

All of this is a very long way of saying I think RWA did the right thing here, and judging from what I’ve seen on Twitter and in the blogosphere, most of the RWA community agrees.

Buuuuut…and this is a big but, I don’t think, in the end, that Harlequin cares that it has lost its RWA recognition. I’m 99.9% sure that the honchos who made the decision to go into partnership with ASI and feature the Harlequin name and brand prominently in that effort KNEW they’d lose their recognition. And they did it anyway, because, in the final analysis, RWA’s stamp of approval was worth less to them than the potential revenue they can generate through Harlequin Horizons. (Incidentally, RWA isn’t the only writers’ organization that’s not happy about this. MWA is apparently threatening to pull Harlequin’s recognition status, too, although it’s giving them an opportutnity to comply before it boots them.)

Before I continue, I also want to explain that there’s a second level of publisher recognition, which has to do with whether RWA considers authors published by a house to be a) eligible to join PAN if they have earned a minimum from of $1,000 from a book, either in advance or royalty or a combination of both and b) whether their books are eligible to enter the RITA by virtue of being both in print and produced by a non-vanity/non-subsidy publisher. For this year, Harlequin authors will be allowed to enter because Harlequin’s status did not change until after the contest rules were established. But because RWA has classified Harlequin not only as “not recognized” in the way that Ellora’s Cave and Samhain or not, but has actually pulled their recognition because they are now a vanity/subsidy press, it’s quite possible that authors might NOT be able to enter Harlequin books in next year’s RITA, even if they aren’t published by the vanity/subsidy arm. (That would sure shake up the RITAs. All the categories for “category romances” would be eliminated.)

So, if Harlequin, the PREMIERE publisher of romance in the US (and probably the UK, what with Mills & Boon) doesn’t care about staying on the good side of the Romance Writers of America or about its authors’ eligibility to enter RWA’s premier published writing contest, what does it say about the future of RWA in general? Nothing good, obviously. As mentioned above, several other publishing houses have vanity arms, including Random House (Xlibris), HarperCollins (Authonomy), and Thomas Nelson (Westbow). Up to now, they haven’t been quite as overt in their efforts to sell aspiring authors on those options as Harlequin has been with this move, but if Harlequin can do it, lose their RWA recognition status, and NOTHING BAD HAPPENS TO THEM except that they don’t get to do things like Spotlights and editor pitches (which editors almost universally hate doing, anyway), believe me, they’ll ALL be doing it soon.

And that cannot bode well for RWA or its members, because if no publishers are eligible because they all engage in practices that look and smell unethical, how is the organization to help its members to discern the good guys from the bad guys? How is it to educate their members as to their best interests? How can it claim to lobby on behalf of its members’ interests if publishers don’t give a rat’s ass about complying?

The only way RWA or other writers organizations can affect publisher behavior is if their members start boycotting those publishers that don’t comply. In DROVES, to the point where the publisher can’t find enough good manuscripts to publish and keep their business going. But is it realistic to believe that romance authors, for whom Harlequin represents the single biggest chunk of the market for their books, will stop submitting to Harlequin because they’ve lost their recognition status and can’t enter the RITAs any more? My guess is that the answer to that is a big, fat no.

As disappointed as I am in this move by Harlequin, I’ll have to admit that I probably wouldn’t turn my nose up at a legitimate contract offer from them, because they are, all in all, a great publisher with excellent distribution, marketing, and reader loyalty. Yes, it might make me think twice, but in the end, what RWA thinks of my book or my publisher is less important to me than getting my book in the hands of readers. And Harlequin, with or without a tight link to a vanity publishing arm, is a force in that arena.

So, basically, I think RWA has won this battle, in the sense of doing the right thing under its longstanding policies and principles. Good for RWA. But in the end, it may well be that the war has already been lost.