Harlequin: Taking Heat for Taking Risks?
So, news flash – the world of the traditional publishing is in chaos. The high advance/giant print run model is no longer viable, and publishers have gotten the message: change course or go out of business.
We’re all aware of this, right? I mean – not only is there a never-ending stream of articles, blog posts, and radio and television segments clamoring to tell us all about the dying industry, there’s even a blossoming mini-industry of conferences devoted to the topic – a mini-industry that appears to be quite a bit healthier than publishing itself.
Given that even the casual reader/author/consumer can’t throw a rock without running into a headline declaring the death of the traditional publishing model, I’m really perplexed at the smackdown (largely from agents, authors and aspiring authors) that Harlequin got after announcing it was going to try something different with the addition of a self publishing (aka: subsidy publishing) offering: Harlequin Horizons.
The SmartBitchesTrashyBooks blog had a great post yesterday that sums up what Harlequin’s new service is intended to be all about. Let me excerpt it for you here (but go over and read it, and read all of their posts – they write good stuff over there):
Thinking about self-publishing a book? Wondering what a publishing house really has to offer you, if you’re digitally savvy and know your XML from your epub, and already know marketing and promotion are on your shoulders?
To hell with apps: say it with me now. There’s a Harlequin for that.
Sound good? I think so. But, apparently not everyone agrees that this is a good service for Harlequin to be offering. Cries of “author exploitation” and “reader confusion” are flooding the blogosphere. And, I don’t get it. As a reader, it’s kind of a moot point. All disclaimers are in place, and if confusing the reader is really an issue, we’re already in trouble since there are a lot of self-published books out there doing their best to confuse us. Um, in spite of ourselves, somehow, we feeble-minded readers have still managed to find quality books (and on rare occasion we’ve even located a winning read amongst the so-called slush pile of self-published books).
I direct you to the comments of Michael Hyatt (CEO of Thomas Nelson, a well-respected publisher that is also experimenting with the offering of subsidy publishing services through their WestBow Press arm), over at agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog:
Personally, I think this is much to do about nothing. Shelf space is still at a premium. Self-published authors will not have easy access to that, any more than someone who produces a YouTube video will get their creation into a theater. I don’t think we need to worry that bookstore shelves will be flooded with substandard books.
However, if someone has a specific platform, why should the gatekeepers (me, Rachelle, and retail buyers) keep them from getting into print. Self-publishing, vanity publishing, subsidy publishing are all simply options. They aren’t right for everyone. But who should determine that? Agents? Traditional Publishers? The RWA?
The economy is changing. Technology is changing. Publishing business models are changing. We are only going to see more of this.
As a person whose professional interests lay in the continuing survival (and thereby, evolution) of storytelling in all its forms and formats – having a publisher like Harlequin (or Thomas Nelson) explore new business models that can potentially keep them financially viable, while also providing aspiring authors some options seems pretty smart. So, hearing that the Romance Writers Association, the Science Fiction Writers Association, and the Mystery Writers Association have taken very strong positions against Harlequin’s announcement of Harlequin Horizons kind of leaves me dumbfounded. What are they so angry about (or should I say, what are they so afraid of)?
For these organizations to argue that they are looking out for the best interests of their constituency by denouncing a publisher who is exploring new publishing models is ridiculous. Are their members really so naive and lacking in business savvy that they can not be trusted to navigate and weigh all their publishing options? And, if they truly believe that their member authors really are incapable of understanding various publishing options, shouldn’t the RWA, SFWA, and MWA be offering more information and education about the options — wouldn’t that be of more service to their constituency than across-the-board condemnation of new models?
Just how do these organizations plan on serving their author memberships when book publishers have gone completely out of business due to that pesky broken business model? Remember back in paragraph one of this post where we were talking about how the traditional publishing model is broken? Well, I’ve been working on this post for about an hour now, and I just checked the Internets to be sure, but yup – that traditional publishing model is still broken. So, unless the leadership and/or membership of the RWA, SFWA, and MWA have come up with their own solution to the broken publishing model, they might want to be a bit more open-minded about their definitions of publishing.
Aspiring authors, in particular, would be wise to consider their publishing goals and explore ALL their publishing options, as the first-time, unknown author is the least likely to reap any benefit from the broken model of traditional publishing. Who benefits from pushing the traditional, broken model of publishing? Pretty much no one – except maybe the writers associations who, it could be argued, are much guiltier of preying upon authors than are those publishers who offer options to the endangered traditional publishing contract. Consider this, the RWA and other writers’ associations refuse to acknowledge that publishing is changing and that the traditional model doesn’t work. They maintain the status quo in regard to their educational offerings, conferences and author support (all of these predicated on a broken publishing model) while continuing to take membership dues and conference registration fees. Not exactly providing a great service if you ask me.
Do I have any qualms or see any danger with WestBow or Harlequin Horizons? Actually, yes, I do. I think there’s a big risk to the Thomas Nelson and Harlequin brands there — not because they are offering subsidy publishing and editorial services, but because they are outsourcing those services to Author Solutions. Why is this an issue? Quality control. Any author who publishes with WestBow or Horizons is, in actuality, publishing with Author Solutions. Harlequin and Thomas Nelson have no little or no control over what happens once that author gets turned over to ASI, so Harlequin and Thomas Nelson may be risking the reputation of their brand. If Author Solutions screws up (and this can and will happen in any number of ways – customer service, production, accounting, etc.) it’s not Author Solutions that is going to take the hit, it’s Harlequin and Thomas Nelson.
So, who is really at risk? Not authors or readers– whom I’d like to believe are capable of making decisions about how and what they publish and read, but the publishers who are trying out new models. Of course, they’re at even more risk if they don’t try anything at all, and I, for one am impressed that they are not just talking about the broken publishing model, but are trying to find solutions. It’s sad that Harlequin’s history of author advocacy, smart business decisions, and leadership in the publishing world aren’t enough for authors (or agents) to trust them as they explore and introduce these new models.
Of course, this is just my opinion. What do you guys think? I’m all ears!!!
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