by Rob Lopresti
Last week I received a disturbing letter from the Mystery Writers of America, and it wasn’t even about my dues.
Recently, Harlequin Enterprises launched two new business ventures aimed at aspiring writers, the Harlequin Horizons self-publishing program and the eHarlequin Manuscript Critique Service (aka "Learn to Write") both of which are widely promoted on its website and embedded in the manuscript submission guidelines for all of its imprints.
Canadian-based Harlequin is, of course, one of the leading producers of women’s fiction. Their webpage boasts of 115 books a month, and offers a seemingly endless variety of series, including supernatural, Christian, historical, and NASCAR romances, to name just a few.
So, why exactly is MWA upset about their new initiatives?
It is common for disreputable publishers to try to profit from aspiring writers by steering them to their own for-pay editorial, marketing and publishing services. The implication is that by paying for those services, the writer is more likely to see his manuscript to the publisher.
MWA wasn’t the only bunch to get cranky, either. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and – more importantly – the Romance Writers of America (RWA) weighed in. RWA’s big threat: was to remove Harlequin from their list of approved publishers, which would mean their books could not be nominated for the organization’s awards. Carol Thomas reported that Nora Roberts, one of the best-selling authors in the world of women’s fiction, wrote, while acknowledging a place for self-publishing: “it’s a different matter when a big brand publisher uses its name and its resources to sell this as dream fulfillment, advertises it as such while trying to claim it’s not really their brand being used to make money on mss they’ve rejected as not worthy of that brand in the first place.”
As of November 25, Harlequin Horizons has changed its name to DellArte Press. (Harlequin is, of course, a character in the form of drama known as commedia dell’arte.) As I write this, Learn To Write is still on the Harlequin page.
The score card
Let’s keep the categories straight:
Traditional Publishing: The publisher pays the author. The publisher owns the books.
Self-Publishing: The author pays the printer. The author owns the books.
Vanity (aka Subsidy) Publishing: The author pays the publisher. The publisher owns the books.
Self-publishing gets easier all the time. There are sites on the web to help you do it. Some bookstores have staff to help you set up the book and machines to print them. (Full disclosure; my wife works at such a store.)
There can be good reasons to self-publish:
Small audience. You’re writing your memoirs for your grandchildren or a history of your neighborhood.
Known audience. You run the foremost website on knitting covers for machine guns. Everyone who would want a book on that subject already reads your website, so advertising is a cinch. Why share the money with a publisher?
Desire. You want to see your work in print and no publisher wants it. Hey, it’s your money; knock yourself out.
But there is NO good reason for vanity publishing. This is delusion; buying the pretense of having a "real publisher" endorse your work. As near as I can tell, DellArte is offering a vanity deal.
Learning to Write
As for the pay-to-critique thing … Nothing wrong with hiring a writing teacher if that’s what you want. As MWA makes clear, the problem is if the customer gets the idea that this somehow increases their chances with the publisher who is flogging the service.
I remember reading years ago of a major agent whose agency offered a for-pay critiquing service. I always wondered how the agent explained it to his real authors. “I’m just ripping off the rubes and suckers. I wouldn’t treat you like that. You aren’t a rube or a sucker, are you?” If you were the author wouldn’t you head for the door, hand firmly on your wallet?
In the old Italian comedies Harlequin was an acrobatic clown whose personality changed depending on the needs of the show. In real life such shifts and gyrations can be dangerous for your health and reputation.