Writers’ Organizations to Harlequin: If You’re Not Going to Act Like a Real Publisher, We’re Not Going to Treat You Like One

Someone at Harlequin, the big publisher of romance novels, figured out there was money to be made from all the people who so desperately want to say that they’re being published by Harlequin that they’d be willing to pay for it. Thus has the company started its own vanity publishing arm: It’s called Harlequin Horizons, where, if one is to judge from the Web site, lots of stock art women will be thrilled at the idea of paying between $600 and $3,500 to see their name in print. To further sucker entice yearnful unpublished romance writers, the site also notes “Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through Harlequin Horizons for possible pick-up by its traditional imprints.”

Or in other words: Hey, prospective writers! Harlequin cordially invites you to take nearly as much money as the company gives its first-time romance writers as an advance and give it to them instead, in the foolish and ill-advised hope that by doing all the work the publisher is supposed to do for you, you might get the attention of the company who is already putatively publishing your work. At which point the publisher will reach down from its lofty perch in the clouds, wave its magic wand at your wooden toy of a novel and make it a real boy, and then say to you, “yes, you actually are a writer, not just some foolish chump who has just spent hundreds or thousands of dollars to slap the word ‘Harlequin’ on your self-published work.”

This is basically a skeezy, cynical and horribly demeaning thing Harlequin is doing, padding its bottom line by suckering a bunch of folks who don’t know better into thinking that paying for publication is a legitimate path into the publishing world. In a stroke, they’ve become the sort of scumbag publisher that writer’s organizations warn their members (and their aspiring members) about. But apparently the folks at Harlequin thought that the response would be different with them, because, after all, they’re Harlequin, and they’re too big to fail.

I’m happy to say Harlequin thought wrong. The Romance Writers of America, the Mystery Writers of America and (I’m delighted to note) the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have all announced sanctions against Harlequin. SFWA and MWA have either chosen or threatened to remove Harlequin from the list of publishers which qualify writers for membership, and whose books are eligible for its awards, while RWA has removed Harlequin from the list of publishers that are eligible for free space and resources at its annual conference. Of the three, it’s obviously the latter which is the big deal. MWA and SFWA are tangential to Harlequin’s market space, but when the largest association of romance writers on the planet says Harlequin is in effect not a real publisher anymore, that’s a pretty important statement.

And it’s worked, of a fashion: Harlequin has announced that it’ll be changing the name of Harlequin Horizons in response to the backlash. However, it fully intends to keep its new vanity arm in order to gull the desperate, and in a press release, Harlequin’s Publisher and CEO Donna Hayes is frankly miffed at RWA for being upset that Harlequin has decided to become the PublishAmerica of the romance genre. After mentioning all the ways Harlequin has helped the RWA conference in the past (read: “you are nothing without us!!!!”), Hayes writes:

It is disappointing that the RWA has not recognized that publishing models have and will continue to change. As a leading publisher of women’s fiction in a rapidly changing environment, Harlequin’s intention is to provide authors access to all publishing opportunities, traditional or otherwise.

Let me translate that last paragraph for you:

It is disappointing that the RWA has not recognized that in a recession, our company’s commitment to its bottom line trumps any ethical or moral consideration when it comes to the treatment of writers who haven’t figured out that we’re supposed to be paying them, not the other way around. Harlequin’s intention is to suck money off these rubes in every way possible, so there.

Which is to say that it’s funny how publishers like to trumpet the inevitability of “changing models” when those “changing models” mean the publishers don’t actually have to pay the writer.

Hey, Ms. Hayes: Putting lipstick on a con job doesn’t make it any less of a con job. Changing the name of Harlequin Horizons doesn’t change the fact that you’ve just made Harlequin into the largest vanity press on the planet, and if you’re still planning to insinuate on your vanity press Web site that authors might get picked up by Harlequin if they sell well enough through your vanity arm, you’re still using your company’s brand identity to pry cash off the gullible and insensibly hopeful. Which is a predatory, scumbaggish thing to do.

If you’re a writer or a reader, be sure to take some time to give respect to RWA for moving quickly to stomp on Harlequin’s stupidity, and to MWA and SFWA for, in effect, backing its play. What would be nice is if Harlequin simply dropped this stupid, deceptive, money-grubbing ploy and rejoined the ranks of actual publishers. But if it won’t, I don’t see why anyone, and particularly writers’ organizations, should pretend it’s anything but what it is: the planet’s latest and greatest vanity publisher.

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