World's Biggest Romance Publisher Turns into World's Biggest Scam Artist

Harlequin Enterprises is the biggest publisher in Romance and one of the biggest publishers in the world. They are the gold standard when it comes to romance, and romance is the biggest selling genre right now. Over 500 romance novels are published every month, and while the rest of the publishing world is hitting hard economic times, romance publishers continue to turn a profit every quarter. Harlequin included. But Harlequin is a corporation, and the one thing that corporations are always looking after is the bottom line. So who can really blame Harlequin for expanding into new forums and new publishing models? They recently opened an epublisher that will take advantage of the current trend of digital publishing. They also announced a brand new program called Harelquin Horizons.

Harlequin Horizons claims to be a program for "self-publishing." Self-publishing has a widely understood meaning in the publishing world, and make no mistake, Harlequin Horizons is not a self-publisher. It is a vanity publisher. How do I know? Well, you just have to know what to look for. In this case, Harlequin doesn't try to hide the fact at all. Their standard packages range from $600-$1600. There is one rule that every author must remember: money flows towards the author. Always. The only time an author should sign a check is when he or she is endorsing the back of it.

There are certain facts that make this even worse than it appears on first blush:

1. The books will not be sold as Harlequin (they will be branded as HH), but the website has Harlequin splashed all over it. Why? Because Harlequin has now decided that authors, not readers, are the customers. To that end, they are making themselves as attractive as possible to their new customer base.

2. According to Malle Vallik at Dear Author, rejected authors will be encouraged to submit to Harlequin Horizons.

3. According to the same link, Harlequin will not only require authors to pay up front, but will also pay out royalties. 50% on net, as opposed to the industry standard, which is gross. What does net mean? Well, the publisher can subtract just about anything they want from whatever the gross is, and then pay 50% of that. Basically, authors are being fucked twice by Harlequin, but they're not even getting kissed.

There is no gentle way to say this. There is no way to paint this reality in a positive light. With these facts, it becomes obvious that Harlequin Horizons is a scam. Full stop. It is nothing less or more than a scam. And how good a scam is depends entirely on the marks. In this case, Harlequin has decided that authors will make a great marks. And why not? Aspiring authors do make great marks. Writing a book takes a great deal of time and effort. A person could spend years on their novel. Completing a book comes with a sense of pride, a sense of accomplishment, and more than anything else, the desire to see that manuscript in book stores, bound, with a beautiful cover. The dream is the finished product. Harlequin knows this. Of course they do. How many queries and submissions have they fielded over the decades? Probably millions. And now there is a way to take advantage of all of the hopes, dreams, and emotions that are laid bare in a cover page. (Note: professional authors don't write cover pages that way. No, professional authors, and aspiring authors who understand the business, know that that's not appropriate at all. They are not the marks.) I don't like to see people scammed. As a published author, I especially don't like to see aspiring authors scammed.

What does an author lose by buying into a vanity publisher? Quite a bit, actually. They lose money (that they may or may not be able to afford. People take out loans and spend money they don't have all of the time to realize their dreams). In a way, I think that is the least odious part of this. After all, it's not illegal to sell a service to gullible people, and for some, a published book might be worth $600. What a person does with their money ultimately is no concern of mine. It's the other, less material losses that are so debilitating.

They lose time. Every second they're fucking around with Harlequin Horizons is a second they are not spending researching real publishers, querying real agents, and writing a better book. Writing is constant work. That's the reality of being a published author. It never stops, and the time you invest in writing is actually only part of it.

They lose their book. Once they "publish" with Harlequin Horizons, that's it for them. In publishing, there's a "first publication rights." That's exactly what it sounds like. And it's like virginity. Once it's gone, it's gone. The first publication rights are the most valuable asset any author has. Books are republished and reprinted all of the time, but publishers will generally only do that for known authors with known audiences. A book that is published through Harlequin Horizons will never, ever be a salable commodity to another publisher. Nobody is going to buy their book and treat it like a real commodity. Also, that book will not be in bookstores, it will not find an audience, and it will be a failure. You see, vanity publishers are nothing new in this world. Book stores (big chains and independent sellers) are on to their tricks. Because books produced by vanity publishers never sell (for many reasons including these books are not edited. More on that later) bookstores will not give up precious real estate by stocking them. Harlequin Horizons claims that these books will be available through their store and amazon.com and B&N.com, and that's true, but the vast majority of all book sales still happen in brick and mortar stores. The simple fact is, nobody buys books produced by vanity publishers. After all, when was the last time you bought a book from Publish America?

Multiply these losses across not hundreds, but thousands and thousands of people. Many of those people will be "repeat customers" (that's the nature of vanity publishing). This is not ethical. It's not right. It's not good business.

What really kills me about this is that Harlequin knows full well what it is doing. This is not an accidental scam. And yes, there have been publishers open their doors with shady practices who genuinely didn't realize they were trying an already failed business model. Generally, these publishers fail quickly and the harm they cause is minimal (though seems very great to the people who were damaged). Harlequin Horizons is not a program set up with good intentions but poor vision. This is clearly designed to fleece people of money. It is too cleverly designed to be an accident.

And why? Why target aspiring authors? Because they're there. And because history has demonstrated again and again (Hi Publish America!) that it works. The fact that they are taking "royalties" is really the same as spitting in the author's face. It's not illegal to do this, but it sure is unethical and sleazy.

The Romance Writers of America organization has already responded to this situation. The RWA is one of the biggest organizations of professional authors in the world. They have already declared that Harlequin is not "an eligible publisher." This means that they no longer recognize them as a good publisher for aspiring authors, and their presence at the RWA Conference in July will be greatly, greatly reduced (that is essentially the biggest professional conference in romance publishing).

I do believe this will have a long-term disastrous effect on publishing. Authors who understand what's happening are not going to be impressed by Harlequin Horizons, and may find other publishers. Readers who are fooled by the Harlequin brand into buying these books will get products very much below their expectations and will no doubt lose their loyalty. Because, you see, vanity published books will not receive any editing. They will be printed as they are submitted, and I don't care who you are, every author needs a good editor.

Most troubling, however, is the long term effects on Harlequin itself. When the vanity arm begins to make more money for Harlequin (and it absolutely will. This is set up to be pure, unmitigated profit) how much attention do you think HQN will pay to their traditionally published authors? You know, the authors that lose money. The authors that are a risk, no matter how slight? The authors that require a certain overhead in the form of editors, line editors, cover artists, and promotion? Where do you think Harlequin will direct its resources once they realize which division is better for the bottom line? Especially in this economic climate? No, I do not think they will shut down all of the other publishing lines under the Harlequin umbrella. But I do think that the division bringing in the most resources will be given the greatest priority, and that other divisions, authors, and books will suffer for it.

I'm not a Harlequin author, but I am deeply disappointed, disgusted, and even outraged by this decision. I will discourage potential authors from submitting to Harlequin, if only to help protect them from being caught in Harlequin Horizon's snare.

Comments

There's something so outrageous to me in taking people's money for this. Taking advantage of people's hopes and providing nothing real in return is just cruel.

Great article.

What bothers me the most about this loathsome practice is that authors rejected by the traditional publishing arm of Harlequin will be encouraged by the publisher to submit to Harlequin Horizons. I would imagine even slightly savvy writers who have heard the arguments against self-publishing might be swayed by a recommendation from the most powerful publisher in the romance business. They are banking on their being able to use their reputation as a respectable house to pull this off. How totally immoral and gross.

Some words on the concept of paying royalties on the net profit a work generates.

This is a hugely bad idea for the author - in effect it's offering the publisher, with regards to HH, free reign in it's accountancy practices. Which doesn't sound like much - until you realize how skewed accounting can destroy any paper profit, until there's no net left at all from any single work.

First off, there are the costs of setting up the print run: There are going to be physical costs, ink, paper, labor, and even with the lack of editing that is mentioned in the article there are still going to be labor costs involved with a number of things that normally considered part of the editing process: typesetting and formatting, mostly, but still real costs.

Fine. And honestly, I can't contest any of those costs as being real costs towards producing a book.

But, let's say, against all odds, that this book becomes the next Harry Potter, and takes off. (Or for a better example - the next Joy of Cooking, which had begun as a self-published work, before it took off.)

Well, HH will still have other costs they can apply against the income from that title. There's the depreciation and maintenance costs on the printing presses, and other physical hardware required to produce the books. And since 99.9% of the other books published under this imprint will not make money, HH will be free to apply all of the depreciation to the income from this one title, to show there haven't yet been any net profits.

Right there, that's enough costs to eat up any potential profit from a thousand book print run.

But it's only the first of many accountancy tricks that could be used to make any apparent gross profit disappear.

For anyone who thinks that I'm being alarmist, consider the experience of Peter S. Beagle. He's an author who has had several well received books, and one run-away hit, back in the 70s: The Last Unicorn. Unusually, compared to the number of fantasy and SF titles that make it as best-sellers, it was also picked up to be made into a movie, which was, while not a blockbuster success, moderately successful. As a measure of its success, the film has been available in home formats for a while, and even had a 25th anniversary edition of the DVD released.

In spite of this, Beagle hasn't seen one cent in royalty payments from the copyright owner - because he was to be paid from the net profits, and the company has been using every trick in the book to show that it's still losing money on the title.

For a run-down on what happened, check out this link. The short version remains, however, if you're going to be paid on the net profits for a creative work, it's going to be very hard to prove that there were any net profits at all, unless the company you're working with feels inclined to be generous.

For myself, the idea of a vanity press being generous is so unlikely as to be knee-slappingly funny.

This is just utterly grotesque. The sad thing is that there are a lot of people out there who aren't very savvy and will be sucked into this and will be hurt. As OtakuLoki says, paying royalties off of the net profit is a fantastic way to screw authors over.

Honestly, folks would be better off doing actual self-publishing than this. They'd probably sell the same amount of books (a pitiful handful) and they'd be able to keep the profits.

Paying on net profit is such a scam. IIRC, there were a number of interested parties in the Michael Keaton/Jack Nicolson "Batman" who agreed to get their residuals from net profits on the movie, which is ranked in the top ten highest grossing movies of all time. Warner Bros. has to date successfully insisted that that movie has never shown a profit, so they've never paid out a nickel in residuals. Bastards.

Very disappointing, this scam. Pay to be published and then accept a piece of the net action? Harlequin should be ashamed.