Time Ladies And Gentlemen To Move On or Be Damned

We really have reached a time to find a way forward in publishing to deal with the existence of self-publishing and paid-publishing services. The debate is quickly becoming entrenched in morals, standpoints, labels and some very foolish rhetoric.

“MWA does not object to Harlequin operating a pay-to-publish program or other for-pay services. The problem is HOW those pay-to-publish programs and other for-pay services are integrated into Harlequin’s traditional publishing business.”

MWA Statement.

Really? What an Intriguing statement. The MWA seem to suggest there is a way for Harlequin to integrate paid-publishing into their traditional business that might be somehow acceptable to MWA’s guidelines. Yet, if you read carefully through all the arguments on all sides (traditionally contracted authors of publishers who enter the paid-publishing field, writers associations, and authors who choose to use self-publish services), then, it can’t work. Someone somewhere is going to be mightily pissed off either way no matter how open or how much a publisher plays down the connection their paid-publishing arm has with their major imprints. Some Harlequin authors have complained that their brand has been diluted, even to a point literary agents have advised the authors they represent—from here on in—that they will not be submitting manuscripts to Harlequin as a rule. I’ve browsed many blogs and writers’ forums over the past week, and I still find the reality mildly tickling that authors somehow assign themselves to their publishers’ brand. It’s not your brand – it’s your publisher’s brand and it is for them to choose how they present, market and develop it. An author’s brand is their book and that’s how it should be. Being published by a commercial publishing house does not afford the author an input into the strategies of that business. If you don’t like the cut of the product inside the shop or where the shop is located on the high street – go shop your MS somewhere else.
Harlequin, last week, in a hail of criticism and delisting by the MWA and RWA, changed their paid-publishing imprint name from Harlequin Horizons to DellArte Press. This is a case of Mammy and Daddy authorities of the mainstream publishing industry not wanting any vanity publishing overtones nosing around their back garden. So, now, we have just a quiet undertone of…’we’re Harlequin, but Mammy and Daddy say you have to call us DellArte Press—shss, don’t tell anyone! No need to update your bank account details authors, because the all the money is still going to the same place.’ [Said even quieter] Well, actually, no, it’s not quite that way. ‘You see this nice company called Author Solutions is going to look after things for us and they will pay us a commission on every author sent their way. It’s not our fault. They made us do it, honest!’

“Harlequin views its participation in Dellarte Press as an opportunity to participate in this space, supporting aspiring authors as they test the publishing waters. We feel compelled to respond to new publishing models and ensure that writers continue to see Harlequin as a leading publisher in the formats most relevant to them and their evolving readers.”

Donna Hayes CEO Harlequin.
I do not believe Harlequin, or for that matter, Thomas Nelson—when they launched West Bow Press—did this as an independent decision based on the much trotted out PR line of how the publishing business is changing and we simply must respond. Both companies’ motivations may have been grounded in how they needed to find other avenues of development to maximise and introduce new profit streams, but I believe the impetus came directly from Author Solutions direct overtures to these companies. It has been very clear for some time ASI, following their acquisition of Trafford and Xlibris this year, were reaching a monopoly and saturation point on the author solutions market, and they had a clear strategy to move directly into paid-publishing services, but this time, under the mainstream umbrella. This is independent publishing at its best (or worst), depending on your viewpoint and how much you wish to indulge in the jingoism of what ASI think independent or indie publishing is. Come on, climb aboard and we’ll ride the latest ASI bandwagon and scream at the top of our voices, ‘way-on-down man’ and other such hip phrases and pointless fucking terminology.

“Our competitors’ recent moves into self-publishing (e.g., Harper Collins via Authonomy and Random House’s past investment in Xlibris), encouraged us to look beyond our traditional publishing footprint.”

Donna Hayes CEO Harlequin.

What total bollox!
Excuse me while I get someone to wake me from the obvious stupor I’ve been in that saw HarperCollins enter the field of self-publishing. HarperCollins never moved into self-publishing using Authonomy. Frankly, Authonomy is a display site for slush pile manuscripts and has been a complete and utter PR disaster for HarperCollins. It has nothing whatsoever to do with self-publishing. Have I used it? Yes. Do I regret using it? Yes. In fact, Authonomy has little to do with publishing at all. It has become a self-infested ego battlefield for authors who genuinely believed in what they signed up to—that they were actually somehow beating the HC slush pile and racking up editor points by getting peer reviews with the hope of making it onto the desk of a bona-fide HC commissioning editor. Pit writer against writer, and the one certainty is there will be blood in the water when it comes to feeding time. In my mind, get the RWA and MWA on the phone now and let them moralise and pontificate and release statements on that particular debacle. Authonomy has been a more damaging debacle perpetrated by a mainstream publisher than anything Harlequin or Thomas Nelson has done with what I accept have been clumsy adventures into paid-publishing by commercial publishing houses.
Yes, I hear the naysayers remind me of HarperStudio as another new publishing venture different to the mainstream. Really? Head on over there. See if you can get a submission to them. Open door? No. Closed door. I did originally have high hopes for HarperStudio, but it turned out to be another insular and ‘quirky’ and ‘cliquey’ imprint, simply operating in the circles of a closed mainstream publishing industry. When it comes down to it, HarperStudio is simply another HC imprint with a digital platform used to promote itself as much as its authors, and with an advance cap of $100k. Hardly leftfield is it, when most authors, successful or not, could only dream of an advance anywhere approaching $100k?
Back to matters important.

“We believe that writers are best served when they make informed choices. As such, Harlequin’s rejection letter templates will soon be modified to encourage the author to consider the wide range of publishing options now available to aspiring authors including submitting to another house, resubmitting to Harlequin, ePublishing, self-publishing, or working with Dellarte Press.”

Donna Hayes CEO Harlequin.

The biggest criticism RWA and MWA has of Harlequin’s DellArte Press is that authors are not being given informed choices. They are right. I actually don’t believe this comes out of malice by Harlequin, or for that matter, Thomas Nelson. The use of slush piles to fuel and direct authors toward a paid-publishing service to which the publisher has a vested and financial interest is questionable. In some ways, our mainstream publishers are as naive as many of the authors who enter publishing and get hung drawn and quartered by vanity presses and poor author solutions services.
I knew two years ago this was going to happen. It was one of the reasons I started this site, as well as to advise, explore and research the publishing industry as a whole. Commercial publishers were never going to ignore the profits gained by using their brand to extract further capital and profit from paid-publishing services. If along the way, a gem was unearthed their editors might have missed, then good and well. Except, Thomas Nelson, and particularly Harlequin, have really presented this one badly. The finger pointers will say, ‘see, that’s the murky side of self-publishing’, but actually, I believe much of the current debate over the past few weeks has nothing to do with self-publishing. It has had to do with how publishing in general has dealt with self-publishing becoming a significant topic of discussion and influence in the world of publishing. This should not have a poor reflection on self-publishing as a whole. The truth is; self-publishing finally arrived with a bang these past few weeks at the doorstep of mainstream publishing and the family don’t like it one bit—it was the choice of mainstream publishers to bring the girlfriend from the wrong side of the city home and bite the carrot, not self-publishing sneaking in the door. And boy, did mainstream publishing fuck this one up! Don’t blame us – the self-published fraternity. We’ve been happily doing it for years. Come on over. We’ll show you how it actually should be done, and all without destroying your business or your reputation.

“Any author who signs with Harlequin or any of its imprints from this date onward may not use their Harlequin books as the basis for active status membership nor will such books be eligible for Edgar® Award consideration. However books published by Harlequin under contracts signed before December 2, 2009 may still be the basis for Active Status membership and will still be eligible for Edgar® Award consideration (you may find the full text of the decision at the end of this bulletin).”

MWA Statement.

I actually thought, overall, the MWA presented a more conciliatory stance on this issue—though, I can’t accept this particular part of their statement. It is deplorable and repugnant. It sets wholeheartedly out to punish the authors it so gallantly suggests it will protect. In a conflict, you don’t ever dare to take hostages. Hostages are always the innocent caught in the middle of a conflict, and yet, pay the highest price. That’s exactly what the MWA have done. By all means punish the perpetrators, not the ordinary foot soldier that is desperate to dance any tune played so long as their passion is fuelled and a meal is put on the table. Is this really the best you can do, MWA?
I see two distinct standpoints in this debate. Yes, the argument is insular. We have the moral dilemma of what is right and the way publishing has always been with the mainstream industry, and we have the reality standpoint, of what is and will continue to be an option for authors to publish outside of the mainstream.
Here is another perspective from Dick Margulis on Selfpublishing review.com addressing Henry Baum’s article, Once Again: Vanity Publishing Doesn’t Matter.

“We’re seeing the world from two different frames of reference. You’re sitting inside the book looking out, and I’m sitting outside looking in. So our perspectives are not the same. But we ought to be describing the same reality, right? So let me try this:

Yes, if the author is a master of the craft and has written an excellent book, accepted input from peers, self-edited it carefully, and then published it through a vanity press, it can be just as good a book, in terms of content, as it might be if self-published some other way. You are absolutely correct about that. I might quibble that unless the author is also an experienced typographer it is likely the finished product won’t be a thing of great beauty, but most readers won’t care about that aspect if it’s a good read.

Unfortunately, the numbers work against the author, not only because vanity publishing is a bad financial deal for the author of that masterpiece but also because the vanity imprint taints the book in the minds of everyone in the book business. The reason is that the vanity press’s only criterion for “accepting” a book for publication is that the author’s check clears. So the marketplace is awash in hundreds of thousands of new titles each year that are pure dreck, not even worthy of being called books. How is anyone supposed to find our author’s book in the midst of that mess?”

Dick describes a mess of hundreds of thousands of titles per year, but the reality is that most self-published books never get even close to daylight and that mess. That mess is there on its own and has actually nothing to do with the hundredths of thousands of self-published books out every year. Most, sadly, appear and disappear without notice.
The moves by Harlequin and Thomas Nelson were business stabs in the dark and following criticism from writers’ advocates, they will all simply disappear and we can go back to debating bunny rabbits, kittens, and Sex & the City.
No, we can’t. This isn’t going away, even with the RAW and MWA continuing to delist publishers who engage in paid-publishing services – or at least engaging in paid-publishing services they don’t have a veto on. What has tired me most about this debate is that it has become the be-and-end-all of where we are. It is not. Author Solutions are in discussions with at least three or four other major publishers. The RWA and MWA know this, so don’t let’s pretend this is some kind of blip on the publishing calendar. Why do you think there has been such a heavy-handed reaction to Harlequin and Thomas Nelson by the RWA and MWA. This is their marker in the sand for all who they fear will follow.
I have thought long and hard about a paid-publishing model that might satisify all arguments on all sides. You know what – that model doesn’t exit, because the moral-driven publishing mainstream will always ground their arguments in YOGS Law, and the reality of paid-publishing services, whether offered by author solutions services or an imprint owned by a large publishing house, will continue to exist as long as there are authors. The time is fast approaching, when we need to agree to disagree, but still shelter under the same umbrella.
Here is the future. In January and February, at least two more publishers will join the fray. Hopefully, they will have learned the lessons of Thomas Nelson and Harlequin. The best thing that could happen is Author Solutions does not emerge as the roller behind the next one. Whatever the New Year holds – this won’t be the last you will hear of this merry dance.

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