Thursday, November 19, 2009

Harlequin Horizons: Redefining The Published Author or Damaging The Brand?

money grabAs most of you have probably heard, Harlequin Enterprises launched Harlequin Horizons, a self-publishing vanity publishing venture short-term money grab. Customers of the services “pay to play” at being a published author only without the traditional quality control or distribution resources (although even these services can be bought—to an extent).

This event has been the shot heard round the romance world. Below are links to sites with plentiful information about the news:

Absolute Write
Smart Bitches
Dear Author
Writer Beware Blogs!
How Publishing Really Works
RWA responds (via Ann Aguirre’s blog)

Art is sacred, and it distresses me to think that a good author would have to pay for anyone to read her book. In my opinion, by creating the story, she’s already taken a risk and made her investment. Money flows toward the author, sayeth Yog’s Law.

There are also the factors of quality control and consumer rights. Regardless of what it means to be a published author, why would we ever want those to be compromised?

To me, Harlequin’s new venture seems to represent a major (and surreal) step forward in the redefinition of the publishing hierarchy. Vanity presses have existed for a long time, but in recent publishing history, a few well-known publishers have established various kinds of financial connections with them. Obviously, these partnerships are lucrative, or we wouldn't be hearing about them.

Enter Harlequin, which has decided to monetize its slush pile by marketing Harlequin Horizons to authors whose manuscripts it has rejected.

In effect, the company has inserted a sizeable brick into the foundation of an eventual publishing pyramid structure that includes vanity and self-published books at the base, digital books in the middle, and a much smaller number of prestigious/bestselling print books at the top.

I’m not concerned that bookstores and online communities will be flooded with poorly written/edited books in the next few years. I mean, if authors are savvy enough to create distribution channels that rival those of traditional publishers, then they don’t need to pay Harlequin Horizon’s outrageous costs. (Umm, $19,999.00 for a book trailer? Really?? PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, a full length feature film, was produced for around $11,000.) They’d simply locate more cost-effective options and self-publish (the key being they’d own the ISBN and keep all profits). To readers, these books will be practically invisible.

But establishing a reputable brand is much like erecting a towering house of cards—what takes a long time to build can be toppled in only seconds with one careless wrong move.

Harlequin’s new venture has unsettling implications, not the least of which is, what is a publisher’s incentive to invest in new authors when it makes more money by luring them into a pay-to-play business model? On the other hand, the rise of vanity publishing as co-opted by publishers, along with new territories that digital publishers are conquering, may lead to alternate definitions of what it means to be a published author.

To achieve a midlist status in the new publishing pyramid (and beat out the much larger number of vanity-published authors comprising the base), one must be not only a skilled writer, but also a shrewd marketing machine. In effect, publishers seem to be communicating more and more that authors need to deliver a built-in customer base. And as the digital publishing realm matures, fewer people will define a published author solely in terms of her physical book being placed on a bookstore shelf. Or even as belonging to a publishing house.

Ultimately, it’s the story that counts, and I’m willing to read a great one regardless of source or medium (most of the time). When it comes to a niche genre like science fiction romance, beggars can’t be choosers. In addition to whatever romantic SF I could find, I was reading fanfiction SFR before the digital market was even born, as were I’m guessing many of you. But I also have high hopes that sound—and reputable—publishing innovations will help SFR authors become more successful in the future.

Joyfully yours,