When vanity and mainstream publishing collide

November 29, 2009

So I was thinking about the Harley/DellArte (formerly Harlequin Horizons) vanity press debacle over the holiday – even though I swore I wouldn’t – and hit upon a big snag that pushed my laissez-faire attitude right over the cliff: The Great Sucker the Author Incident.

It’s folly to think that mainstream and vanity imprints can live happy, yet separate lives under one roof. Anyone with a working brain realizes vanity publishing brings in huge bucks for the publisher, so the logical thing for the mainstream publisher to do is give a gentle nudge toward the vanity publishing option. True, nothing illegal about it, but it is sneaky. How to do this?

The Enticement:

First, you need to offer something delicious. Ahhh…a chance at mainstream publishing! So they put out this lovely blurb on their vanity site: “We will be monitoring your books for excellence and marketability, and MAYBE we’ll choose YOUR book for mainstream publishing!”

Wow! Gee! Where do I sign up? Here, take my money! And to prove their point, I’m willing to bet the beagle’s chocolate martini and stash of Twinkies that they’ll choose a few lucky winners to legitimize their claims. What better way to get the unpublished masses clamoring with their wallets in hand? Crikey, it sounds like a paid version of Authonomy. This is literary version of Russian Roulette. Some get an empty chamber, others get a live round.

In reality, there will probably be very, very few books that make the transition from vanity to mainstream – just enough to keep up appearances. Hungry authors who don’t know enough about the publishing business to discern a snow job of epic proportions will buy it hook, line, and sinker. And they’ll hand their money over to these guys rather than AuthorHouse or iUniverse. Very clever.

And this is my big Ah Ha moment. Anytime a mainstream publisher adds a vanity imprint, you can be certain of two things:

  • They need the money
  • They are going to woo you with hints at greater success in order to sucker you in.

This is a conflict of interest.

Who says the marketplace doesn’t work?

November 22, 2009

In a lovely bit of The Empire Strikes Back, Harlequin is now dropping their name from their vanity endeavor due to public outcry. Well that and Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, Science Fiction Writer’s Association all dumped Harley from their approved publisher’s list – as is their right.

See, this is what I love about the free market. We’re all free to make decisions and also free to decide whether those decisions will enhance or harm our endeavors. Obviously Harley had their deer-in-the-headlight moment, and the Powers That Be underestimated the power of the marketplace: MWA, RWA, SFWA, and their own authors. As a result they decided to take the Harley brand name off the vanity endeavor. Pretty ironic considering this is an Author Solutions party all the way and Harley was lending their name to attract victims authors.

But fear not, they’ll be adding a line to their rejection letters directing writers to their mahvelous and brave new publishing option. I have no doubt that plenty will jump on board. People are always looking for the short cuts in life, and this is no different. But the backlash has had a delicious affect on Harley’s lack of foresight. Interesting.

Sigh…it was Harley’s to lose…

November 20, 2009

While my stance hasn’t changed regarding Harley adding a vanity imprint, no matter how oily it is, I always believed this decision was theirs to screw up in a rather deliciously grand manner. And they seem to be trying – which surprises me because they’re a big conglomerate and they, ostensibly, know better, right? After all, they thought this all out with the precision of a NASA team readying the shuttle for outer space. They know the ins and the outs.

Or is this just an ill-conceived seat-of-the-pants plan that birthed itself on the corporate tables one dark and stormy night while corporate weenies’ faces streamed sweat while the Powers That Be screeched, “We need some freaking capital!”

Alas, the information coming from their spokesholes is fingernails-to-chalkboard stuff, and this makes me think they are either completely clueless to the vanity world, publishing in general, or just loosy with the truthy. They appear to have also underestimated the authorial reaction.

In order to attract the biggest amount of “booty” – meaning authors willing to fork over big money to help get Harley’s parent company, Torstar, out of their financial crisis – they’re saying some silly things.

A bound copy makes you more attractive to agents and editors

Ach, I’ve seen this reoccurring theme with many other authors who published via vanity, and it makes me want to scream. I can’t tell you how many iUniverse, AuthorHouse, Publish America books I’ve gotten as a form of submission.

[big flashy lights and sirens] NOTE: Do not EVER send a bound book to an agent or editor.

Do you know where they go? Right into the recycle bin. I don’t even crack the cover. Well, that’s not entirely true. I have a couple of times, and instantly regretted it. Some of these guys don’t even bother learning how to format the layout. If you were unwise enough to write your manuscript like an email [meaning you used an extra carriage return to denote a new paragraph instead of using indentations], then that is exactly how they will print it. And the worst part is the author paid a lot of money for it. If you want a bound galley, go to Kinko’s or Lulu.com.

I repeat; we will not read a bound book unless we ask for it. So Harley is lying to you – which is shameless.


Ach, et tu, Brute? This is not self publishing. It’s vanity. Oh, these pesky terms that people use to muddy the waters.

Self publishing is when you, the author, are the publisher and you pay and control every aspect of production. You buy and own the ISBN; it is your name on the copyright page.

Vanity is pay to play, and they control every aspect of production and its eventual disposition. For example, you can’t tell them to do a 1,000 unit print run unless you pay for it. Never ever forget who’s in charge with a vanity operation. Clue: it ain’t you.

This is an outright lie, and this makes me cranky. Yes, I realize that and a fiver will get you an overpriced Starbuck’s.


RWA has decided that Harlequin is no longer eligible for RWA-provided conference resources and SFWA has removed Harley from their list of approved venues as of 11/2009.

Now this is what I mean by allowing the free market to work. If Harley wants to take this route, they have the honor of experiencing the up and downside. Only when payback hurts enough does change happen, and it’ll be interesting to see how, or if, this hurts. They will be forced to weigh the consequences of being removed from two very influential groups against huge profits. They will most certainly suffer the wrath of their own mainstream authors. On the “upside” Harley is to romance what California is to tax hikes.

More than likely Torstar – Harley’s parent company – won’t care one bit. Harley has their chestnuts hovering over very hot fire. What to do? What are they allowed to do? It’s times like this that I adore being an indie trade press. We may have far fewer decimal points in our bottom line, but the only ones who tell me what to do are the beagle, the accountant, the sales teams, and the readers.

Mistaken Identity

If Harley wants – needs – to do this in order to keep Torstar’s lights on, that’s their business. I have no doubt they’ll make a pile of money. I think it’s sad that a lot of authors will take this route because the first thing they’ll think is, “Wow, Harley? They’re BIG, so how bad can it be? They wouldn’t screw us.”

Weelllll…if it keeps the heat on, yes they will. But this falls under “Author Beware.” We can’t outlaw stupid, as I said before, so the best thing anyone can do for themselves is to keep their ears close to the ground. Read the blogs, learn, consider all the ramifications.

It’ll be interesting to watch the reverberations throughout the industry and how this will affect other publishers who want to add a vanity imprint to help their own bottom lines. Long live the free marketplace. They are the ultimate boss.

Having said all that, I still believe this is still a non-event and Harley will remain untouched within the reading community [where it really counts!] because the vanity books won’t see the light of day. Readers will continue to buy their books in bookstores – as it should be. The world will continue to turn, the beagle will continue to imbibe. For the most part, all will stay right with the world.

Unless we have a law banning tequila…

Harlequin Goes Vanity

November 18, 2009

I took some time to read the various posts on writers boards, and from the sounds of things I think the sky is falling. “Omigod! Harlequin is opening up a vanity press!” The cries! The outrage! The sadness.

I’m more than willing to eat crow here, but I don’t see why this is such a big deal. It’s another vanity press. Yes, it’s Harlequin – a big name – who’s “selling out” to the vanity machine for a huge financial boon. Sure, they’re in it to make money. So what? Who’s getting hurt? Their mainstream authors! is the response. I don’t see it that way.

I broke down the various comments that I collected around the internet:

Obscene profit

“Yessiree, we’re here to take your money just like iUniverse, Publish America, AuthorHouse, and a gajillion others.” It may be a lesser way to find one’s work in print, but so what? No one is putting a gun to authors’ heads and raiding their wallets. It may be a somewhat oily way to make money but there isn’t a law against doing so. If people are willing to fork over their hard-earned money, that’s their business. Live and let live.

Taking  advantage of authors

Now before the beagle takes a chunk out of my leg thinking I’ve gone mad, let me say that my position on vanity publishing hasn’t changed one bit. BUT as long as authors are fully aware of what they’re getting into, then who am I to cast aspersions? And sure, there are those who fork over money thinking they’ll be on store shelves, but you know what? You can’t outlaw stupid.

There are always going to be people who make bad mistakes because they didn’t know any better. The information is out thereabout vanity publishing – to ad nauseum – so anyone who goes in wearing blinders is going to get a big surprise. Does that mean we outlaw vanity publishing? Geez, it reminds me of when my kids’ grammar school outlawed running at recess because someone might get hurt. Of course someone might get hurt…that’s life! On the other hand, many people could be very happy.

The mistake is assuming the role of publishing police. Crikey, it’s still a free world (for now), and that means people should be allowed to make dumb mistakes and take stupid risks. You can’t save ’em all. Buck up.

Competition with the regular authors – the “it’s not fair!” factor

What’s not fair? Authors who are legitimately pubbed by Harlequin haven’t given up anything. They worked hard and got a contract because their stories were good enough to catch Harlequin’s attention. Those authors still enjoy full distribution and shelf space in the bookstores – which is far better than what their vanity brethren will have. So what that they have the Harlequin logo on their books? Those books are going nowhere. They don’t have the full weight of the Harelquin marketing and promotion machine that the mainstream authors do.

There is nothing sweeter than seeing your book sitting on a bookstore shelf. It’s the final page to all the blood sweat and tears of writing your book. Ok, group happy sigh everyone…well, except the vanity gang. In their case it’s a matter of “What distribution?” There isn’t any. And this is one of the main reasons I believe this is a nothing event. The vanitywill be sold on the backs of their authors. Those books will gather dust or be sold out of car trunks, while the real Harlequin books will flourish on the shelves as they’ve done for many years.

“I’m published by Harlequin!”

Ah yes, the name-dropping appeal. The snob factor. I see many vanity authors strut about how “they’re published.” We all know that vanity publishing isn’t a publishing credit. The vanity author has been printed. There was no vetting for talent other than double checking one’s bank balance. That isn’t to say that everyone who goes this route is a lousy writer; it’s just that the overwhelming odds tend to bear that out. But that doesn’t stop the author from using the “published” verbiage. With Harlequin, this will make them downright insufferable. Ok, I’m being facetious to some extent. Look, so what if they say they’re published by Harlequin? Does anyone believe it won’t lose its appeal if those vanity books start collecting dust in authors’ garages due to lack of sales, promotion, marketing, and distribution?

Diluting the Harlequin name/losing respectability

This is an interesting thought, and I saw this repeated in virtually every blog I read. Lauren Roberts, brilliant owner of BiblioBuffet asked me if I would ever consider doing the same thing – adding a vanity imprint. I quickly down one of the beagle’s margaritas to gather my composure. “Are you kidding? I’d be gutted and filleted. We’re too small to take that kind of publicity/reputation hit.”

But Harlequin? They can handle it. They’re HARLEQUIN, after all. They are big enough to weather this. It’s no different if Random House decided to join the vanity gang for some extra cash as well.

Does anyone believe that because Harlequin has a vanity imprint that authors will snub their mainstream line and query elsewhere? Not on your life. They are the Yoda of Romance, and they will be just fine, thankyouverymuch. And if their authors decide otherwise and leave Harelquin for green pastures, then Harlie will have to analyze whether it’s a big enough problem to change their ways.

I’m certain that the industry will make allowances to adjust for the vanity line so those books don’t leech over into territory that’s reserved for mainstream authors – like RWA, for instance. If Harlequin has a brain, they certainly don’t want to lose their RWA status. Chances are strong that the vanity authors won’t be eligible. At least I hope not. This would certainly dilute RWA’s exclusivity.

The long and short of this is how this affects readers. Readers have no clue, nor do they care, about this vanity imprint. They’ll go about buying romance novels in the bookstores, just like they always have. The vanity books won’t even be a blip on their radar screens.

The only people really affected are those who choose to pay money to be published. Vanity writers cannot compete with mainstream authors, so this gives them their own sandbox to play in.

Look. vanity is vanity, no matter whose logo goes on the book. As pay-to-play publishing stands today, it isn’t a viable option for those who desire to see their books on the marketplace. I say let the free market take care of itself. The dregs of the vanity books won’t see the light of day anyway. Yes, Harlequin will make some lovely profits from this venture. It’s a business like any other business. It may not smell real good, but it’s not a crime. Publishing is evolving in ways that many of us don’t like. But I don’t see this as preying on authors as much as I see authors not doing their homework, or sacrificing their craft for the easy shortcut.

Unless there is something I’m missing, my suggestion is to lighten up. This is no big deal. These authors are not your competitors in any way, shape, or form.

I will patiently await the darts to find the soft underbelly of my blackened heart. But please be careful of the beagle. She may be worthless, but I’ve grown fond of her.


Edited to add:

Malle Vallik, Harlequin’s Digital Director appears to be one page shy of a full chapter. First off, they are trying the usual glorp that other vanity presses do by calling it “self publishing” rather than what it is; vanity. The poor dear is trying to field questions and appears to be unlearned in all things vanity:

4. If an author chooses to go to Horizons, do they lose “first publication” rights? How will that affect any effort to gain an agent or traditional publisher with their “bound copy”?

Malle: I’m not sure I completely understand this question. The author owns her content. How would she lost first publication rights? She has published it herself. Whether she is giving it away as gifts or marketing it, is up to her. Yup, clearly I don’t get your question.

Good holy mother of all things pure and innocent. If this poor woman doesn’t know what first rights are – or even understands the question – then I think the marketplace will take care of Harlequin’s debacle in no time at all.

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