Harlequin: Still Not Getting It

In yesterday’s post, I got my rant on about Harlequin Horizons, the new vanity press arm of one of the largest romance publishers in the world.

At that time, Romance Writers of America had made a bold move, declaring that because of this, Harlequin was no longer eligible for the resources granted to publishers at their conventions — if they wanted to participate, they’d have to pay for floor space and signing space, and other kinds of facilities access that helps connect publishers to authors.

Kristin Nelson at Pub Rants posted the response from Harlequin’s CEO last night.  It was, uh.  A wee bit condescending:

It is disappointing that the RWA has not recognized that publishing models have and will continue to change. As a leading publisher of women’s fiction in a rapidly changing environment, Harlequin’s intention is to provide authors access to all publishing opportunities, traditional or otherwise.

That, after a list of ways that Harlequin has financially supported the RWA conferences (sending editors and participating in panels, throwing a party).  As John Scalzi puts it: “you are nothing without us!!!!”  (Go read Scalzi’s post on it.  I’ll wait.

The RWA wasn’t the only group to voice their disapproval of Harlequin’s practices and (here’s the important part, cats n kittens) act upon it.  Mystery Writers of America released a statement yesterday afternoon, objecting to Harlequin Horizons and the eHarlequin Manuscript Critique Service (which is heavily promoted on their forums and website, encouraging aspiring authors to pay someone to edit their manuscript.  Someone, presumably, at Harlequin.)  From the MWA statement:

Mystery Writers of America (MWA) is deeply concerned about the troubling conflict-of-interest issues created by these ventures, particularly the potentially misleading way they are marketed to aspiring writers on the Harlequin website.

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. Offering these services violates long-standing MWA rules for inclusion on our Approved Publishers List.

In other words, “Hey, Harlequin, you’re acting like a scam publisher.  Cut it out.”  They’re giving them until December 15th to respond and change the practices.  At that point, if changes aren’t made, books published by Harlequin will not count for writers seeking active membership in the MWA.

Also stepping in: Science Fiction Writers of America.  SFWA didn’t give Harlequin the deadline that MWA did; as of 11/19/09, Harlequin is no longer an approved publisher for authors seeking active memberships in SFWA.

SFWA calls on Harlequin to openly acknowledge that Harlequin Horizon titles will not be distributed to brick-and-mortar bookstores, thus ensuring that the titles will not be breaking into the real fiction market. SFWA also asks that Harlequin acknowledge that the imprint does not represent a genuine opportunity for aspiring authors to hone their skills, as no editor will be vetting or working on the manuscripts. Further, SFWA believes that work published with Harlequin Horizons may injure writing careers by associating authors’ names with small sales levels reflected by the imprint’s lack of distribution, as well as its emphasis upon income received from writers and not readers. SFWA supports the fundamental principle that writers should be paid for their work, and even those who aspire to professional status and payment ought not to be charged for the privilege of having those aspirations.

Their statement is the most blunt of them all so far.  The bolding is mine.  In one paragraph, SFWA states clearly the things that Harlequin Horizons obfuscates in all of their rah-rah-ing.

And, SFWA ups the ante a bit more:

Further, Harlequin should be on notice that while the rules of our annual Nebula Award do not expressly prohibit self-published titles from winning, it is highly unlikely that our membership would ever nominate or vote for a work that was published in this manner.

While the statement refers to the “self-published” Harlequin Horizons titles, I’m pretty sure it’s also saying that regular Harlequin titles are looking like long shots for the Nebula Awards while this is ongoing.

Now, here’s the thing — at the end of their initial chiding response to the RWA, Harlequin makes a tiny concession (again, via Pub Rants):

Most importantly, however, we have heard the concerns that you, our authors, have expressed regarding the potential confusion between this venture and our traditional business. As such, 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. We will initiate this process immediately. We hope this allays the fears many of you have communicated to us.

Part of the objection — but only part of it — to Harlequin Horizons was the misleading way they were using the Harlequin brand to lure authors in.  See, these writers forking over their money were under the impression that Harlequin was letting them into its exclusive club.  I mean, if you publish through a company called “Harlequin Horizons,” you’d think that’s what it would say on the spine, right?

Wrong.  What they fail to mention is that, once the books are published, Harlequin would distance itself from them.  The books might get the logo on the spine (take a look at it here, while it’s up), but the word Harlequin wouldn’t appear.  But, if you take a look at the cover templates they have, well, gosh-golly, those still look an awful lot like the standard Harlequin series titles. (.pdf link)  I’m pretty sure that cover template #3 there very closely resembles the style of one of the monthly series we carried back in my bookstore days — Harlequin Presents, maybe.

Adding insult to injury if you go read the letter Harlequin sent to its authors over at Jackie Kessler’s blog (read her whole post, it’s brilliant), it reads a lot like, I don’t know, like they’re winking conspiratorially at their authors, saying, “well, you and I know they’re not good enough, but no one has to tell them that.”

Harlequin reassures:

Horizons books will not be distributed by Harlequin. They will not appear in stores next to your book. Self-published books are generally distributed through large online catalogs.

Um, which online catalogs, precisely?  What, a link to a Harlequin Horizons store?  This is not the same as the seasonal catalogs that publishers send out to bookstore buyers.

Horizons books will not have Harlequin branding. Horizons is a separate brand and will carry the double-H Horizons logo on the spine only, NOT the Harlequin brand.

and

Readers will not be confused. Harlequin is the gold standard for romance. Readers purchase Harlequin because they trust Harlequin to provide a great story. There will be no ‘dilution’ of quality. Horizons is a separate imprint with no Harlequin branding.

What’s that about protesting too much?  As Ms. Kessler says:

See the subtle dig here? Harlequin offers top-notch stories…and Horizons isn’t that. So if you choose to go the Horizons route, Harlequin has already said your story isn’t up to par. Despite the “Harlequin” name in Harlequin Horizons, you would not be a Harlequin author. And what’s more, Harlequin itself is saying that if you choose to print your book with Horizons, your story **isn’t good enough to be published by Harlequin.** So rather than encouraging authors to sharpen their skills and become better writers, they’re instead offering a way for aspiring authors to pay to print a story that isn’t ready for prime time. Yes, this is pay to play.

A-frickin’-men.  Harlequin knows exactly what they’re doing here, and they don’t. care.

Even worse, Harlequin’s rejection letters to people who submit manuscripts in hopes of being, y’know, paid for their work and getting a real publishing contract will point those people to Harlequin Horizons.

See how this just gets worse and worse?  Also, they offer the false hope that they’ll actually be watching the sales from Horizons authors.  From the “Our Advantages” page:

However, we understand you may aspire to be published with a traditional house – a noble aspiration. While there is no guarantee that if you publish with Harlequin Horizons you will picked up for traditional publishing, Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through Harlequin Horizons for possible pick-up by its traditional imprints.

Yeah. Sure. Most titles from vanity presses sell less than 200 copies. Most sell less than fifty.

There’s a lot of frilly talk about making dreams and visions and aspirations come true over on the Horizons page.  It turns my stomach.  It’s preying on the hopes of writers who probably don’t know better, and reels ‘em right in.  Harlequin Horizons sounds just like the scam publishers and scam agents out there, and honestly, I can’t see any difference right now.  Even their responses to the criticism read a lot like the weasel-wording you can find when the scammers show up trying to defend themselves on the Absolute Write Bewares and Background Checks forums.

The sheer abuse of trust is what has me the most infuriated here.  Harlequin is a well-known — probably the best known — name in romance publishing, and it’s using that reputation to lure writers into a terrible, terrible deal.  It’s using writers’ hopes and dreams to line its own pockets.

Now, is the information out there for savvy writers to give Harlequin Horizons a wide berth?  Absolutely.  The unfortunate thing is, though, not everyone knows where to look for the information they need to make better decisions for their careers.  It’s very easy, when searching for “how to get published,” to stumble onto the page of a scammer.  And they sound so very, very trustworthy.  I’ve seen two people from Chris’ boards get taken in or nearly so.  Last week my dad called me on behalf of a friend of his, asking if I’d ever heard of a certain publisher that had the friend thinking he’d be stocked in every B&N in the country.  It was a vanity press; I warned him off.

These three people are all pretty smart.  Problem is, they didn’t know the right questions to ask, and even when I said “OH GOD NO RUN AWAY,” they liked what they were being told.  Because it sounds easy.  Because it sounds like you’re going to get all kinds of exposure and help from these places, but when you look at it up close, you’re not getting anything near what they let you think they’re offering.

Have you seen the commercial for Ally Bank with the little girl on the bike?  Here, go peek.  Poor kid, thinks she’s going to go for a spin around the room, but really, she can’t go out of the red lines.  That’s what Harlequin Horizons is doing to people who sign up for their program.

By the by, I know I promised a breakdown of Harlequin Horizon’s  “services,” and you’re still going to get one.  It’s going to be in its own post, though, since I spent this one trying to recap the last 24-hours or so.

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