Moving From Micro to Macro
Posted on December 4, 2009 Posted by John Scalzi 19 Comments
Lee Goldberg just popped up in the comments here to give us the latest on the Harlequin vanity publisher mess. Good on the Mystery Writers of America for keeping Harlequin’s feet to the fire on this.
It’s like Harlequin is determined to learn nothing here. The more they get smacked down for their ethical lapses, the more they entrench. Fact is, it’ll probably take a while for their increasing pariah status to have any impact on their bottom line, so they have no reason to change. At the risk of lobbing an insulting cliché into the discussion by assuming the core readership for Harlequin series product are millions of bored housewives, whoever the readers are keeping them going over the last several decades may be the last to learn of their appalling new standards and practices, and the last to understand why they’re bad.
I’m at a loss as to how to respond to those screaming that MWA/RWA/SFWA are punishing the writer and “there has to be a better way” – as this feels like a strike, I’ll use that analogy.
Strike’s cut both ways – when I’m on strike (or boycotting an offensive practice), I’m aiming to make the company in question change their behaviour in some specific way – I also have no income when on strike, so that hurts me – which is why we don’t strike without good reason. If Boycotting, i have to not have/buy/experience that thing I used to love to boycott (yea, some boycott things they already don’t buy, but that’s a subset). In both cases, the existing employees of said company will bear some brunt of this strike/boycott (the more effective my strike/boycott, the more brunt they will bear, of course).
But not striking and just letting said company do whatever offensive thing they want to do isn’t the answer.
SO – yea, the MWA/RWA/SFWA response may hurt some writers in the short run (my book doesn’t qualify for pro points) – but what alternative is there to make HH stand up and change their behaviour?
That argument, sadly, has fallen on deaf ears so far…
Has SFWA and RWA taken any further action yet? And if so, what?
SFWA has already delisted Harlequin as a membership-eligible market, so there’s not much more they can do on that end. No idea what’s new with RWA at this point.
Not sure why they just don’t set up a writer’s forum like Baen uses.
Twilight @ 2:
[nod] In this way, corporations are like many children at some points in their social development. The more you let them get away with, the more they will try to get away with.
To whatever extent a corporation can be said to have a goal, that goal — essentially by definition — is to increase its financial bottom line in the near- to (sometimes) medium-term. Any limits corporations have are imposed by (1) laws, (2) customers, (3) employees, and/or (4) suppliers.
In this case, what Harlequin is doing is legal, so #1 is out.
I don’t know if any body is proposing a customer boycott, but I suspect it’d be a tough thing to do. The issue — as seems clear from some of the discussion here (and reportedly elsewhere) — isn’t the easiest thing to communicate. So #2 seems iffy.
I haven’t a clue about Harlequin’s internal structure and politics, so I have no idea whether anything can happen via #3. Also, employees are often legally (and economically) constrained from acting in ways that might negatively affect the bottom line, even if it might be better in the long run.
So that leaves #4 … and writers are Harlequin’s major suppliers.
As soon as I heard about the Harlequin fiasco, I knew the MWA’s response would be swift, clear, and harsh.
I know because I’m the one that got my own publisher kicked off their approved list for much the same reason.
(Hint to Harlequin: No matter the publishing model, money flows TO the writer, never FROM the writer. Otherwise, it’s just printing.)
And so Harlequin goes from respected commercial publisher to the nation’s largest vanity press. I feel bad for Harlequin’s current roster of authors.
Baen’s is just a somewhat interactive slushpile; they wouldn’t charge anyone to publish something out of there.
I know of a few good writers who climbed out of the crab bucket that is the Harlequin Romance line to become known under their own name, for their own unique characters. This latest move just further reduced the chances of their other authors doing likewise. I wonder if that’s not a shrewd marketing ploy on Harlequin’s part: make it difficult for your current stable of writers to get work elsewhere, because none of it will be eligible for any type of award or industry recognition.
Your readers might be interested in reading the response that Harlequin sent to MWA’s first letter.
Reading the MWA’s most recent statement again, I was bowled over by the audacity of this policy of Harlequin’s:
Harlequin’s Publisher and CEO Donna Hayes responded to our November 9 letter, and a follow up that we sent on November 30. In her response, which we have posted on the MWA website, Ms. Hayes states that Harlequin intends as standard practice to steer the authors that it rejects from its traditional publishing imprints to DellArte and its other affiliated, for-pay services.
All you can say is “Jesus Henrietta Christ!” That takes some balls, sending a writer a rejection letter telling them, no, you’re not good enough for us, buuuuut if you pay us, then sure we’ll publish you.
TheMadLibrarian @10 said: “This latest move just further reduced the chances of their other authors doing likewise.”
How do you figure that? I’m honestly curious. Most category romance writers aren’t moving out of “the crab bucket” on the basis of awards. It’s due to strong sales or new directions. Jennifer Crusie (who wrote under the same name — her name) started writing bigger, more women’s fictiony stories. JR Ward changed her name and her genre — moving from family-focused contemporary romance to alpha-male urban fantasy. And the only Harlequin books that tend to get awards from places like MWA are put out by MIRA, not category lines.
Diana, MIRA’s included in the de-listing. I feel bad for my freinds who are published with them, but I don’t see what else MWA could do, other than total capitulation on the vanity-press issue, and that ain’t gonna happen.
News from RWA is that they’re meeting with Harlequin, and will make an executive decision in January. I’m hoping they’ll continue on the strong stance they’ve taken.
I guess there are two questions that I haven’t seen answered yet. First, are there any other writer’s organizations that put additional pressure on Harlequin the way that SFWA, MWA,and RWA already have?
Second, what will Harlequin have to do for SFWA, MWA,and RWA to reverse the decisions that they have already made?
Sure, there’s the Author’s Guild, National Writer’s Union and Writers Guild of America for starters.
Authors Guild could stop considering Harlequin as an “established American publisher”. I’m not sure if they care, though.
Harlequin has made a first step in that they’ve taken the Harlequin name off of the operation and changed it to DellArte. And they canceled their ms. critique service, although I don’t know if that was a particular point of contention, given that they’ve been doing it for years.
To get their status back, however, they have to keep DellArte completely separate from their regular publishing lines. That means that they have to not tell authors considering DellArte publication that if they sell well, they might get the chance to be published with Harlequin’s regular lines. And they have to stop the practice of recommending to authors rejected from Harlequin’s regular lines that they check out DellArte in their rejection letters. And further, it means that Harlequin’s editors, pr and marketing staff not be involved in DellArte’s operations in any way and not be monitoring the titles published under DellArte.
This, if I understand it correctly, is what Random House does with its XLibris self-publishing unit. It owns it, but Random House itself doesn’t operate it and it doesn’t direct authors to it or dangle the carrot of Random House publication in front of XLibris authors. It’s not that Harlequin’s parent company has set up a self-publication service, but that they are using unethical practices that involve Harlequin’s regular publishing operations. This makes them a vanity press, not a self-publishing operation as they are claiming, and so puts them afoul of the writers’ groups by-laws.
Additionally, even if they changed these things, they would have to show that they are charging authors fair prices for services comparable to other self-publishing service providers, and so far, the indication is that DellArte’s prices are quite inflated. You can get the same services for a lower price, in fact, from the company that DellArte is working with.
From Harlequin’s response, they clearly are concerned about Amazon, which is not a publisher but is increasingly doing publishing things, such as electronic publishing for the Kindle, data storage, POD and self-publishing services, etc., and which still dominates the on-line sales market as a vendor. And so DellArte seems to be an attempt to capture some of that market, steal it from Amazon and make it more attractive because Harlequin is actually a publisher, while at the same time turning Harlequin or its parent company including Harlequin into a sort of on-line sales vendor.
A lot of publishers are experimenting right now — such as Harper’s Authonomy which is a little like DellArte except no money is involved, and setting up electronic publishing companies to do translations and so on. So Harlequin is trying to argue that this is what they are doing too — trying a new business model to take advantage of new technology. You will notice that they have not responded directly about the practices to which the writers groups are specifically objecting. Which seems to indicate that it’s unlikely that Harlequin will change those practices unless they get a lot of bad press over it.
That they are willing to meet with the RWA, does show that they might make more changes. But their mentioning of other writers groups such as the International Thriller Writers (who I hadn’t heard of before,) that don’t mind what they are doing is a clear threat that they really aren’t horribly worried if these writers groups are in a snit and that authors interested in publishing say romantic suspense and wanting to work with Harlequin should go join ITW instead.
But that doesn’t mean that the RWA, MWA and SFFWA don’t have any leverage here. That Harlequin did immediately back down on the name also indicates that they did expect some protest and had a plan B. So they may also have a fallback plan C. So maybe they can be pressured into that and stop the objectionable practices. The pressure, though, does rely on media exposure, it seems to me.
I’m disappointed by the lack of “repent, Harlequin” jokes.