Harlequin Dips Toe in Self-Publishing Waters (or Shoots Itself in the Foot)

By Neal Comment

harlequin-horizons-logo.jpgLast week, Harlequin announced the launch of Harlequin Horizons, a new division billed as “[an] opportunity for women’s fiction writers and romance authors to publish their books and achieve their dreams,” provided they’ve got at least $599 to subsidize that publication. The partnership with self-publishing specialists AuthorSolutions drew instant opposition from several authors guilds, which quickly branded Horizons as a vanity press operation: The Romance Writers of America announced Harlequin wouldn’t be eligible for favored-publisher privileges at next year’s national convention, the Science Fiction Writers of America flat-out declared “NO titles from ANY Harlequin imprint will be counted as qualifying for membership in SFWA,” and the Mystery Writers of America said it might also take that route, but not until after they’ve given Harlequin a month to set things right. SFWA can play hardball because not very many of its members are qualifying on the basis of Harlequin publications in the first place; MWA has a slightly more delicate situation in that a not-insignificant portion of its membership publishes under Harlequin’s MIRA imprint, although not nearly as strong a contingent as would exist in the RWA ranks—if SFWA’s hardball is largely ideological, RWA’s hardball is both ideological and material, and has already had an impact, as Harlequin is already looking to rebrand the enterprise.

(Making Light has all three statements in one handy spot, by the way, and lots of commentary. Which is also in abundance at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.)

Not everybody hates the Horizons concept, however. Publishing industry analyst Kat Meyer argues this is exactly the sort of new business model experimentation publishing needs to survive, and says “it’s sad that Harlequin’s history of author advocacy, smart business decisions, and leadership in the publishing world aren’t enough for authors (or agents) to trust them as they explore and introduce these new models.” Meanwhile, Michael Hyatt—who has a dog in this hunt as his publishing company, Thomas Nelson, has entered into a similar arrangement with AuthorSolutions—has rebuttals to the three most prominent lines of attack; let brand owners worry about maintaining the integrity of their brands, he argues, and let authors make their own decisions about the publishing options that might be right for them.

And this is pretty much the issue in a nutshell: Is Horizons a potentially useful alternative to publishing’s broken business model, as Meyer suggests, or it is, in the words of John Scalzi, “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”?

Let’s tease out some context: The pay-to-play model does have a historical lineage, and has not always been regarded so prominently as a means for unscrupulous “publishers” to prey on aspiring authors’ dreams, but as authors have increasingly banded together, declared themselves professionals, and attempted to establish the proposition that money should flow in the direction of the writer as a fundamental principle, respect for the model has diminished. You could argue, however, that it’s a question of how much the developing writer should—or should be expected to—invest in his or her success: Is it enough to deliver a manuscript, or might it be appropriate to invest some of one’s own capital the way an entrepreneur launching a business in any other field might?

So what do you think?