Remember how sad you felt when your neighbor’s son was arrested for dealing drugs out of his dorm room, or your cousin’s boss turned out to be running an investment scam? We typically think, “such a nice person who must have fallen into bad company…” We initially try to rationalize bad behavior. Then there’s Bernie Madoff who had everything and still chose to run the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme. Suddenly, financial desperation or a bad choice of friends is no cause or justification for criminal activities. Such a choice to step over the line makes us even sadder. Sad for the victims and sad for the families of the victims and the families of the offenders. I feel the same way about Harlequin’s decision this week to launch Harlequin Horizons, a self-publishing business, for romance authors who elect to take the self-publishing route.
Several times a year, we agents get a come-on letter from swindlers who say: “Make money off those authors that you can’t represent. Include our self-publishing offer in your rejection letter and we will send you 15% of whatever they spend with us. We will even write the recommendation letter to include. You do no extra work and can pocket hundreds of dollars every month.” I, and many other agents, toss these letters in the trash or send them around to each other with snarky comments. I know no legitimate, actively selling agent who falls into collecting kick backs for promoting shady deals. We decline because we make money by selling worthy books to real publishers who pay advances and royalties to authors. We know that self-publishing is a mug’s game and the only winner is the fake-publisher. The definition of a mug’s game is “a futile or unprofitable endeavor.”
And this week, one of the best kids in town has stepped out of the spotlight and into the shadows. The funny guy in the Harlequin logo, whose parents own the best run fiction factory in the world, has turned down a dark, mean street. So sad. What invoked this crazy scheme? Car thieves make a lot of money, but most parents don’t want their kids to go into auto theft. Just because writers will spend money to try to get published does not make it OK for commercial publishers to actively take their money. When I first saw the Harlequin Horizons website I thought it was an article in The Onion. Those wags just did a great fake news report on Ford’s New Car: the 1993 Taurus.
Who’s in this game? Author Solutions, no surprise there. According to their website, they hold the brands: AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Trafford, and Xlibris. Each began as a vanity or POD press to suck money from unsuspecting or unprepared authors by charging authors money to be published. Now these operations are merged. How Harlequin got sucked into this I can’t imagine. Harlequin comes from a good family and has a history of tough but honest dealings in the real publishing business. They don’t need this.
The offer is reprehensible: For between $600 and $1,600 you can pretend to be a published author. You won’t be, really published, because no commercial publisher liked your book well enough to bring it to market. They will just pretend to offer it for sale if you pay the costs. Harlequin’s follow up announcement today, blows even more smoke:
For the first time since figures have been kept, print-on-demand titles outpaced traditionally-published titles in 2008 according to Bowker. Self-published print-on-demand titles make up a large portion of this expanding sector. This is not traditional vanity press publishing; self-publishing is a large and vibrant part of the publishing industry today.
While the number of self-published titles may have exceeded the number of “real” book titles in 2008, the number of actual sales of all those titles to readers is virtually zero. Before they all got swept under the Author Solutions rug, Author House and Xlibris reps told me at a Book Expo that “actual sales of titles average fewer than 100 copies, all of which are bought by the author.” The self-publishing industry ranks as a “bestseller” any book that sells over 500 copies. Self-publishing is an expanding sector because those whose sole mission is to suck money have concluded that it is easier to get money from authors wanting to be published than from readers wanting to buy books. This does fulfill a certain twisted logic. Publishing a successful book requires editorial judgment, investment of resources, dealing with book-selling channels that increasingly demand a bigger share of the cash flow, and appealing to fickle readers. The self-publishing model is sooo much simpler. There’s only one customer, the author, and he or she buys all the books which are never manufactured until purchased. Of course this is a growing segment of publishing; the publisher gets money, takes no risk and retailers are not actively involved
So ask yourself: are you going to buy these books? Will your friends who read and who don’t currently buy enough commercially published books to keep profits up at commercial publishers suddenly start buying and reading books like this? For the same money, you can have a nice day at a spa, modest cruise, resort stay, or fabulous dinner with friends.
You can always invest in your own development as a writer or treat yourself to a reward. I think most romance authors, published or not, have too much self respect to fall for this.
Update: Here’s a link to the RWA response.