Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Harlequin Horizons & RWA, MWA, SFWA, EPIC

I have an anecdote to tell you regarding a power-lunch with the head of Harlequin that happened years ago, but seems to be finally percolating to the top where the world can see effects. Of course, there's no way to trace what we see today to my influence, and what we are seeing today would be the biggest embarrassment of my life should it turn out to be connected to anything I ever said anywhere!

If you haven't heard the Harlequin flap by now, here's the scoop. Skip to the section break if you know all this.

Harlequin publishers which has grown to own many imprints, some of which you may recognize but not know Harlequin is the company behind them, has felt the pinch all publishers are feeling.

And they have responded by partnering with a vanity publisher.

Vanity = they charge the author to "publish" the book, do no editing, do little or no "promotion" (their idea of promotion is not an author's idea of promotion) and dump some copies on the author. If the book is successful by the efforts of the lone author, they take the lion's share of the profit, or maybe all of it.

Self-publishing means you become a "publisher" doing all the steps, work of several departments, dealing with many companies to assemble components, do all the marketing, do all the publicity, do all the promotion (all different things requiring different sorts of mental acuity and intelligence, plus training and talent), but if successful you keep all the profit (except for taxes which can be complex).

E-publishers are publishers. They do all that stuff except maybe the lion's share of the publicity, and still manage to pay the author a goodly cut of any profit. They're "real" businesses, as is a self-publishing author who actually does it all (or knows who to hire -- Mass Market publishers hire lots of sub-contractors.).

Harlequin recently announced they were entering into a venture with a known vanity publisher. The few clues in their announcement all pointed toward standard vanity publisher rip-off, with the one tiny detail that they "intended" to watch for successful books and offer those authors contracts for a Harlequin colophon bearing edition.

Here's Harlequin's Press Release.

----------------Section Break-------------

OK, so now that Romance Writers of America, Science Fiction Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, and even EPIC (ebook writers and publishing professionals), and many others have weighed in on this controversy, we should look at it from several different angles.

Here's the SFWA statement:

Here's a bit about the whole flap involving other writer's organizations.


And isn't it interesting that READERS don't have an official organization to post a position white paper on this subject?

Writers and readers need to pay attention because we are in a topsy-turvey revolution in the Fiction Delivery System which is part of the revolution in industry caused by the Web and especially Web 2.0 where customers of all businesses can find and talk to each other directly.

In the pre-Web world, two people in different countries who bought the same brand of canned peaches would never be able to FIND each other, never mind talk about how good or bad those peaches were. Today the web connects users of a product and even translates (sort of - it's getting better).

I am ever so grateful to people who post their experiences with appliances, bed sheets, and other expensive things I buy seldom. User comments are what count for me these days, not advertising.

In today's world, word of toxic peaches would flash around the entire world in 15 seconds because of Twitter. The blogosphere would ignite with warnings, and facebook would be alive with URLs.

I read a blog comment yesterday where someone said, "make one mistake and you're a hashtag on twitter." (a hashtag is written like so on twitter #NewMoon -- that's the hashtag for the Twilight film New Moon, but you also see it as #newmoon and other variants)

Twitter surfaces "trending topics" by searching for keywords in the 140 character posts. If a few hundred people start relaying posts about say, Heinz Peaches, suddenly #HeinzPeaches would become a "hashtag" and within a few minutes probably surface as a trending topic.

People love to talk about the mistakes corporations make, but rarely gossip about the perfect, easy, convenient, no-hassle service they get from a corporation.

Nobody I've found yet has said "do something perfectly and become a hashtag on twitter."

With novels or films, though, it's often the other way around. People chatter incessantly about what they liked, but have little to say about what they didn't like except "it's bad."

So there's been a lot of talk on Amazon Communities and on Goodreads.com about Romances of various flavors. People like their fiction separated by flavor, aroma, mood, color -- all neatly categorized so they spend money only on what they're in the mood for.

Good books get talked about at length and in detail, the characters, backgrounds, backstories, relationships, speculation about their futures.

Books people don't like get "It was bad." "I didn't like it." "This author just doesn't deliver."

The characters don't get analyzed, the background visuals don't get discussed in terms of how they do not explicate the theme, the motivations don't get sliced and diced, the story doesn't even get retold in reviews. All a "reader" knows is that the BOOK is no good, and if they haven't studied writing, they really think the problem is inside the book, or the writer, not in themselves.

Readers who are only readers rarely comment "I just wasn't in the mood for a sappy romance." Or "I got bored by all the action scenes and skipped them - I probably missed something important and that's why the ending made no sense." "It fell flat for me because I was still bummed by being jilted by my boyfriend."

We've studied reader tastes on this blog in some detail. If you're interested in how to account for taste, you might want to read my blog entry:

And follow the links in there back to some of the deeper explorations of how to account for the tastes of whole generations of readers.

The more educated a reader is in the art of writing, the more able that reader is to wade into the vast volume of self-published work and pick out the books that will, for her, be superior to anything the traditional publishers can ever produce for Mass Market distribution.

After the "quality" editing run suggested in that last link above has been done by the author and others knowledgeable in the craft, all books are equal.

The only remaining point is "market" -- or whether you as a reader are in need of reading this book.

With experience, a reader may trust an author, or a colophon (because for several years at a stretch a colophon will have been "edited by" the same person) or even a whole publisher like Harlequin to produce more of whatever they liked in the previous book.

Likewise with small publishers, ebook and/or POD publishers. With a few free samples, and a little trust, readers may part with money to read a series that they don't buy in a Brick-n-Mortar store or at Wal-Mart.

This was the theory behind my first non-fiction paperback, STAR TREK LIVES! What is specifically aimed at your taste and mood-of-the-moment will seem to be of "higher quality" than anything aimed at a mass market that only includes you.

And that's why the Star Trek fanzine fiction took off in a blaze of glory that literally changed publishing forever.

Prior to Star Trek fans pouring out millions (maybe billions by now) of words of fan fiction, Science Fiction fanzines carried pretty much only non-fiction -- any fiction was just sendups, short humor, amateurishness for its own sake.

It wasn't Star Trek that changed our world so much, it was fanfic.

Star Trek fanfic started out on two levels at the same time.

Devra Langsam (a professional librarian) and some librarian friends of hers started the first Star Trek fanzine called Spockanalia - focused on the phenomenon they called Spock Shock. That's the impact of the ALIEN on women that produced ALIEN ROMANCE; or more specifically alien sex, infatuation, crushes, etc.

Spockanlia was printed mimeograph on high-acid (cheap) paper that has deteriorated. But the writing was professional level because the editors were librarians and knew from good craftsmanship, because-lines and themes, and foreshadowing and character motivation, as well as the importance of expunging typos.

Just after Spockanalia appeared, some industrious individuals began their own Star Trek fanzines with stories they wrote themselves, often published on spirit duplicator, or even just by typing a few carbon copies in a typewriter and circulating the paper copies. (really! by snailmail!)

Soon though others with wordsmith skills began producing fanzines that they invited authors to contribute to. Then the 'zines began to compete on editing. Before long, the field diversified into 'zines specializing in certain types of stories, and Star Trek 'zine genres emerged complete with names the readers understood.

There was still the occasional self-published 'zine, but even then only teenagers skipped the step of getting the work really edited before offering it for sale. Lack of editing produced scornful reviews and readers shunned the 'zine. Kids lost a lot of money as the editing standards increased.  I know one self-publisher who did novel after novel of her own and each one pristine -- because each got edited by other eyes. 

STAR TREK LIVES! blew the lid on this secret, underground publishing venue and exposed it to newspaper and TV attention, attracting thousands and thousands more writers, editors, publishers of the do-it-yourself generation. The field of 'zines exploded as the word 'zine short for fanzine (coined in SF fandom in the 1940's) became a newspaper term that didn't need explanation each time it was used.

So what has this to do with Harlequin?

Have you figured it out yet? Think hard.

SELF-PUBLISHING is fanzine publishing.

In self-publishing, editing is seen as optional.  From the outside, that is. 

Today, the online posting sites for fanfic demand beta-readers sift the stories before posting for free reading. Some beta-readers rise to the top because they actually edit (why did Stephen bite Rosemary's neck?)

People shun wasting their reading time on un-edited work.

Self-publishing is considered "un-edited" by almost all the professional organizations, so they are stomping on Harlequin for launching a vanity-press.

The new Harlequin Horizons imprint is an imprint for self-publishing authors.

A colophon is the graphic squiggle that labels an imprint. A colophon would be like a Vampire Romance and a stylized V dripping blood, the Imprint would be Stefan's Vampire Romances.

Harlequin said that Horizons won't offer professional editing by their own (rather sharp) editors. Harlequin will point authors rejected by their slush pile readers to the self-publishing operation as a "viable" alternative.

Those are the two points that have all the professional writers' organizations miffed.

Harlequin (nowadays a respected name though it hasn't always been so) is using marketing techniques to the disadvantage of beginning writers who don't know what's being done to them.

Harlequin (as any professional writer's organization knows) stands to make a hefty profit from the new writers (over and over again) because their new Harlequin Horizons imprint will not be geared up to teach these new writers why their work was rejected by Harlequin.

So new writers will continue to make the same anti-commercial "mistakes."

What's the difference between a vanity press and self-publishing?

A vanity press panders to the writer's ego and charges big bucks for the service.

Self-publishing is a job that smashes your ego down into a micro-dot.

SFWA says Harlequin's retraction of the announcement of the name on the new imprint (Harlequin Horizons) isn't enough.

The first uproar was targeted at the idea of putting the rather prestigious name Harlequin on what would be mostly a product that does not meet Harlequin's publishing standards.

So it seems it should be enough to name the venture something else.

But SFWA (rightly, I think) is still shunning the entire concept of a major publisher with known precision standards owning and operating a self-publishing operation that is marketed to their slush pile rejects on a distant promise of "if the book does well, we will consider..."

The writer's organizations discount all efforts made through self-publishing operations, vanity press or hard working self-published authors -- even most epublishers are excluded from qualifying a writer for membership because they don't pay advances against royalties.

Professional writer's organizations sift the publishing world on how the writer gets paid.

It's professional. We do it for a living. People who don't do it for a living aren't qualified to become members. It's an attitude that unites professionals in all fields, and divides them from amateurs and wannabees.

Those who have been in the publishing business since before the Internet became a publishing venue have their understanding of what is actually happening (and why Harlequin decided to launch this venture) conditioned by a vision of the industrial world that is in fact no longer exactly true -- though it may become true again, as we work through this turbulence.

I've talked a lot about the business of publishing in prior posts here. You might want to check:


Harlequin made a business decision based on an assessment of where the world is going with book publishing and what they could do to position the company to make a profit in that new world.

The people I knew at the helm of Harlequin years ago are long gone, and I expect their corporate culture legacy is long gone too.

But I see the Harlequin Horizons venture as if it were actually on the because-line of a novel that started at the power-lunch I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Some trickle-down of the legacy of that lunch discussion, a bit of dust on a wall, a flake of paint here and there, some trace of something may have remained in the air at Harlequin and led somehow to this decision. (I can hope not, of course, because this decision is potentially very harmful to the very people I treasure most - the beginning writers.)

Here's what happened.

One day, I got a phone call from a secretary at Harlequin's Canadian HQ who said her boss (CEO) was going to be in New York (where I lived at the time) and would like to have lunch with me.

Huh? I mean REALLY!

She eventually convinced me it wasn't a hoax, and I made the appointment to meet him in New York at a very expensive, posh, hotel restaurant.

It turned into a six martini lunch for him. I talked his ear off.

Subject of his questions?

You won't believe this.


That's what he wanted to talk about. And of course, at that time if you started probing Star Trek fan activity from any end of the spectrum, you would end up talking to me on the phone (pre-email).

It seems that the press had convinced this mover and shaker of the publishing industry that women were the market for STAR TREK fanzines and those women were into the exact kind of story that Harlequin published, except with science fiction and aliens emphasized.

You have no idea how bizarre that concept was at the time.

So I spent over 5 hours explaining self-publishing, fanzine publishing, Star Trek publishing, emerging genres, trends, economics of fanzine publishing, content of the stories, target audiences, editing quality, prices readers were willing to pay ($20 for an amount of words Harlequin sold for $2.50 ) to get those particular stories.

This "lunch" lasted so long that we were the last people in the place as they were closing and retooling for dinner.  The staff had prepared all the other tables before one very obsequious manager crept up to softly suggest we might like to leave now.  (what an experience!  I've been thrown out of places coast to coast for being too talkative past closing time.  Politeness was beyond comprehension -- I mean this was New York!)

This CEO asked questions and made comments and comparisons that convinced me he understood what I had said. That was the truly astonishing part. I was actually able to communicate these ideas to someone in a position to take the entire Star Trek fanzine phenomenon to the next level, Science Fiction Romance!!!

Not STAR TREK ROMANCE -- that was owned by Paramount -- but rather the underlying abstract concept of how sexy a smart non-human could be in a story.

I did convince him there was a future for science fiction about romantic relationships (totally insane and ridiculous concept but he believed me).

In fact, another such power lunch conversation resulted, where I was invited to Washington DC (had to take the plane shuttle and the train downtown, then back in the same day) for lunch at a really exclusive club -- the kind of place that's members only; all posh silence and exquisite service once you're through the security.  The drapes in that place cost more than my house. 

I was invited to a place like that in San Francisco, too, a Yacht club.  They don't put a bill on the table when you're done.  It's in the membership fee. 

And that DC "lunch" too became a six martini lunch (not for me; I don't drink much) that left us the only two people in the place as it closed to retool for dinner. But lunch with a CEO that lasts about 6 hours is an experience and a half, especially when the talk really is all business. Lunch with editors isn't quite in the same category as lunch with the boss of the boss of the boss of the editor.  How many writers get to bend the ear of the actual decision makers? 

But nothing ever came of all that talking, that I know of.

I do know that for a while, the person at the helm of Harlequin understood fanzines, self-publishing, fanzine editing, and most importantly how very desperate the readership was for more SFR.

I had such high hopes.

But no.

It never happened. None of the programs he was meditating on ever materialized.  He could see my vision and share it, but there was no way to make it materialize in the Mass Market Publishing world. 

So I forged ahead and wrote the DUSHAU TRILOGY for mass market paperback and it won the first Romantic Times Award for SF, and other such SFR works with the R part disguised as plot driver. (see http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com for free chapters of that and my Hardcover efforts to make this point.)

Now Harlequin Horizons appears out of nowhere.

Vanity Press!!!

Monday, Nov 23rd, one of the Agents I most respect, Agent Kristin, posted the following on her blog:

Today, Thomas Nelson Publishers joins the Harlequin hoopla in a ridiculous blog post. Ashley and Carolyn Grayson posted their response—to which I whole heartedly agree. I find it laughable that Hyatt believes that agents are speaking out against the ripping off of writers via vanity publishing arms because we see “self-publishing” as a threat.

As many commenters have already noted in my blog comments section, vanity publishing and self publishing are not the same. A distinction that Hyatt does not seem to understand. I suppose he also believes that venerated writing organizations such as RWA, MWA, and SFWA, all of which have a long tradition of helping and protecting writers, are similarly trying to keep the status quo by vehemently speaking out against such blatant ripping off of writers.

I also want to make this distinction.
----------end quote-------------

And there's lots more she has to say. See Agent Kristin's post for the links inserted in the above quote:

I really hope there's no connection with me because this is about the opposite of what I was saying to that CEO about the potential for SFR. But this is the very first time since then that Harlequin has made a business move even remotely flavored with that conversation's content. 

I'm not sure I'm flat out against Harlequin Horizons (just against the proposed method of doing business).

If the operation is smooth and high quality ( Vanity presses are famous for not-being high quality!), it's possible Harlequin Horizons might take us the next step beyond the tizzy publishing is in right now.

What I envision is packagers. Independent editors who select and edit novels in a specific narrow category, then when the novels are at the highest quality level, though aimed at some specialty audience, the packager uses an outfit like Harlequin Horizons to publish the work with the packager's colophon (not Harlequin Horizon's colophon).  The packager's colophon would then become trusted by readers.

Readers are the key element being ignored here.

All the professional writers organizations have spoken.  Where are the readers?  

A trusted colophon could become acknowledged by writers' organizations like SFWA, RWA, MWA, EPIC, etc. It could qualify the work for award consideration and as a membership qualification, in a defined category.

But I suspect long before that could happen, we will have a series of Awards created by various organizations for works in these nooks and crannies of reader taste. We already have the very respected EPPIES (which have been renamed) which have so many categories I can't count them.

As Alvin Toffler pointed out in his book Future Shock, the computer revolution, the information age, allows for customization of products that the industrial revolution handled as Mass Market.

The days of the mass market may be numbered.

The inflection point in history where that numbering may have begun would be the 1970's explosion of Star Trek fanzines that has continued into e-publishing on the web and overflowed into the universes of every other TV show you can think of (SF TV led the way, but today it's everywhere).  

But economies of scale have not yet hit the niche markets.

It's still too expensive to self-publish, e-publishers are struggling with narrow margins, and the only solution business school graduates know is to reach a wider market.

But art aimed at a wider market leaves the various narrow markets luke-warm rather than ignited in passion for more-more-more at any price, as Star Trek Fanzines did.

We might view Harlequin's move to vanity or subsidy press as an act of desperation as their mass market readership evaporates beneath them, and they need another source of revenue so they're setting up to fleece beginning writers who don't know that they don't know what they need to know.  

Publishers have to learn that the future of the fiction delivery system lies in the micro-market not the mass-market.

Or am I wrong? What am I missing here? 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Beats me. I don't get it.

    I could publish every novel I've ever written right now as an eBook or a blog novel at absolutely no cost to me.

    But, that choice doesn't mesh with my goals.

    I don't understand why anyone would even bother with Horizons.

  2. To my immense shame (but I feel it helpful to say this) sixteen years ago, I might have been so desperate to be a Harlequin author that I might have been willing to take this expensive gamble if it had been on offer, and to make it work.

    Before I knew any better, and for absolutely no ROI, I did pay a possibly predatory agent $8,000 because I did not know any better... then, I joined RWA, attended a few conventions, met some agents who do not charge for book doctoring, and the scales fell from my eyes (to coin a phrase).

    Generous NY print authors have divulged that they spend between $30,000 and $40,000 a year on PR, print advertising, private editing, donations, review copies, contests, online memberships and advertising, conventions etc etc.

    It's not cheap starting out! It's not cheap building a career.

    But, I can see that if "Harlequin" were part of the imprint's name, authors would be tempted... just as some are to publish as Kindle/Booksurge authors.