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The Harlequin Horizons Debacle

disaster You know how people can remember where they first heard about a terrible disaster? The Harlequin Horizons debacle is like that for me. While most romance readers heard about it on a blog or a romance message board, I heard about it first on a writing site, AbsoluteWrite.com. Reading about scams that prey on writers is like a hobby for me. When I saw a warning for something called Harlequin Horizons, my first thought was “Some small publisher is going to get in trouble for using the Harlequin name.”

Imagine my shock when I found out this was an enterprise started by Harlequin Enterprises. Yes, the Harlequin. The biggest romance publisher in the world, and the only one still publishing category romance. The more details I learned, the more upset I became. To offer what is essentially a vanity press service, Harlequin is partnering (don’t you hate that word?) with Author Solutions, which is sort of a conglomerate of vanity presses. (They own iUniverse, AuthorHouse, and other vanity presses.) What’s in a name? Author Solutions represents itself as a self-publishing company. But publishing experts know that if the author uses one of these printers, they aren’t really self-publishing. It’s not self-publishing when a company makes you pay thousands of dollars and then pays you royalties. It’s not self-publishing when the company owns the ISBN. Of course, you don’t learn any of that when you visit the Harlequin Horizons web site, which is full of pretty colors and pictures of happy women writing. I guess the women in the picture haven’t received their bills yet. The packages range as high as $1,599 – and that doesn’t include editing, marketing, publicity, etc. You can get a great cruise for $1,599, and you’ll become more fulfilled from the cruise.

On the writing board, I first learned about this from a Harlequin author. Like many other Harlequin authors, she was upset at this turn of events. As the news rolled out, other authors, whether they wrote for Harlequin or not, were also upset. Sure, a few authors were smug about the chance to make fun of Harlequin (Way to support your fellow writer), but most were behind the writers. OK, a few thought that the Harlequin authors should make a statement by leaving their publisher. Never mind that many of those authors are currently under contract, so breaking ties with Harlequin with a contract unfulfilled would be really bad for their careers. Never mind that at this time, there is no other place to submit category romances. When was the last time you saw Avon publish a 50,000 word contemporary about a billionaire and his secretary? Right. If you write those, or other short contemps or short historicals, you probably write for Harlequin.

Meanwhile, Harlequin authors were upset because they had toiled through rewrites, rejections and revisions to get accepted, but now, a vanity press author could call herself “a Harlequin author.” Many felt betrayed. Worse, they had spent years defending Harlequin from obnoxious naysayers, only to have it open up a vanity wing. They knew the bad press was going to spring up even before the snarky New Yorker blog piece called “Harlequin Hacks.” (Yes, they went there.) And then the original article put up a picture of an actual Harlequin Historical, possibly leading people to believe that long-time Harlequin author Carole Mortimer was a vanity press author. What happened to the good old days, when the New Yorker published, you know, actual journalism, well-reasoned essays, and literature?

Much more informed blog posts went up about it all over. One very well reasoned response was from Victoria Strauss on the Writer Beware blog. As always, Victoria is a voice of reason. Yes, she thinks this is a vanity press, and she explains why. But she doesn’t think it’s a scam. A bad idea, yes. Outright scam? No. She has also tried to stamp out some of the paranoia that has arisen. No, she doesn’t think big publishers like Harlequin will all start using the slush pile to make money. There isn’t enough money in it, not when they can use the slush pile to find great new authors they are willing to pay for.

So where was Harlequin when they should have been behind their writers? If the posts by Malle Vallik, Harlequin’s Digital Director, are any indication, it seems they were all over the romance blogs, trying to put out fires. However, some of those explanations made me shake my head. When asked why someone might want to be self-published, Malle Vallik said one reason was “to have a bound copy to help in finding an agent,” so I knew right away she had a big problem. First, agents don’t want bound copies. That’s almost the equivalent of submitting your novel on scented pink paper. Second, vanity presses often acquire rights from their authors that can last years. Some even refuse to release authors who want out of the contracts. Why bother submitting a novel to an agent if the vanity press that printed it has tied it up for, say, three years or more? We don’t know yet what the Harlequin Horizons contract will look like, but I’m sure it will contain many surprises.

So what’s the big deal? Why is the publishing industry so upset? First, the whole mess is one big stinking pile of conflict of interest. The writer submits their manuscript to the publisher or an agent. You might get rejected, you might get accepted, you might get some kind of encouragement. You’re not supposed to get a sales pitch. It reminds people a little too much of some notorious scams. For example, in the late 1990s, a number of agents started referring rejected authors to a company called Edit Ink, which charged five dollars a page (yikes!) for their so-called services. The catch? These agents were getting a kickback from Edit Ink. Can you say “New York State Attorney General”? Then there was so-called agent Dorothy Deering. Not only did she charge hefty fees to represent writers, but she got even greedier when she opened up her own vanity press and referred her clients to this press without disclosing that, um, she owned it. Can you say “mail fraud charges”? There are many similar cases, even more in recent years as the Internet made it easier for anybody to open up their own publishing company – and some have proven more legitimate than others.

While the Harlequin Horizons enterprise brings up concerns about conflict of interest, this is no “Edit Ink.” It’s not even a scam, just a really bad idea for writers. It’s also a way for a respected publisher to muddy the waters and damage its name. Still, that doesn’t mean we have to like it. It didn’t take long for Romance Writers of America (RWA) to issue a statement in response to this. It started with “With the launch of Harlequin Horizons, Harlequin Enterprises no longer meets the requirements to be eligible for RWA-provided conference resources.” The sound you heard when that was posted was the jaws of authors dropping, and you can read more on Ann Aguirre’s blog. Essentially what it means is that according to these changes, Harlequin authors won’t be eligible for the RITA, and Harlequin isn’t eligible for RWA conference benefits such as signings, editor meetings, and publisher spotlights. To illustrate: when I attended RWA National in Dallas in 2007, Harlequin participated in at least three sessions on publishing and four separate publisher spotlights, on everything from Harlequin Presents to Love Inspired.

Before you knew it, Mystery Writers of America had issued a statement, and then came a statement from the Science Fiction Writers of America. These statements are big news. Why? Because MWA and SFWA both removed Harlequin from their approved publisher lists. This is huge for authors. As a writer, you can’t join these organizations unless you qualify by publishing a set number of short stories to professional markets, or publish a novel with an approved publisher. With these changes, a new author who publishes a suspense novel with Mira or a fantasy with Luna would not qualify for membership in MWA or SFWA. Yikes! The SFWA statement makes no bones about this. “Until such time as Harlequin changes course, and returns to a model of legitimately working with authors instead of charging authors for publishing services, SFWA has no choice but to be absolutely clear that NO titles from ANY Harlequin imprint will be counted as qualifying for membership in SFWA.”

Harlequin responded (at least to the RWA statement) by being “surprised” and “dismayed.” They did say, however, that in response to this, they would change the name of the new venture from Harlequin Horizons to a name that didn’t use the word “Harlequin.” But is that enough? SFWA’s statement made it clear that this name change wasn’t enough. Will RWA be appeased, or will they ask for more than merely a name change? And what, if anything, will Harlequin say in response to MWA and SFWA, and any other writers organization that makes a stand?

Will Harlequin go beyond the righteous indignation of being “surprised” and “dismayed” that RWA dared to do its job and protect writers? It may be too late. Surely the company has already signed contracts and spent a lot of money building this new enterprise.

To be fair, Harlequin isn’t the first to “partner” with Author Solutions. Earlier this year, Thomas Nelson, the largest Christian publisher in the world, started up a similar enterprise earlier this year. Like Harlequin, they came under fire. They named the new vanity imprint WestBow. If you know much about Christian fiction, you’ll know that until a few years ago, WestBow was Thomas Nelson’s fiction imprint. Needless to say, even though they are no longer published under the WestBow imprint, former WestBow authors were upset that people might mistake their books for vanity press books. In a comment on literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog, Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt explained that they had chosen the name WestBow because they had already registered the domain name, gotten the trademark, etc. He also added, “Honestly, we didn’t think about the impact it might have on authors who published under that imprint when it was our fiction division. Our bad.”

At least he admitted they might have made a mistake. I’m still waiting for Harlequin to say “Our bad.” Instead, in their response to RWA’s statement, they come across like the evil other woman in a Harlequin Presents.

-Anne Marble

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