Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Harlequin Horizons & Thomas Nelson West Bow Press: Good For These Publishers and Author Solutions, Inc., Bad For Indie Authors

Just as Thomas Nelson did about a month ago, Harlequin has announced it is partnering with Author Solutions, Inc. (ASI) to form a self-published books imprint. This new imprint is called Harlequin Horizons (HH), and according to a Harlequin press release:

“Through this strategic alliance; all sales, marketing, publishing, distribution, and book-selling services will be fulfilled by ASI; but Harlequin Horizons will exist as a division of Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through the self publisher for possible pick up by its traditional imprints.”

So in other words, they’re basically just lending the Harlequin name to ASI for use in providing the same services it already provides via such vanity and subsidy outfits as AuthorHouse, AuthorHouse UK, Inkubook, iUniverse, Trafford, Wordclay and Xlibris. Some of these outfits have raised both hackles and eyebrows over at
Writer Beware!

Right in its press release announcement, Harlequin makes it clear that their involvement here is strictly limited to lending their name and monitoring sales, every other aspect of the publishing process for HH, from editing to marketing, will be handled by ASI. But wait, that’s not entirely true. There is one other area where Harlequin will be involved in the HH process: “acquisitions”.

First, Harlequin will refer authors whose manuscripts they reject to HH. Second, Harlequin will monitor sales of HH titles with an eye to re-publishing any big sellers under the Harlequin imprint.

This new HH imprint clearly has the potential to earn Harlequin a lot of money, given that they will be taking a cut of ASI’s proceeds on every HH publishing package and service bought by self-publishing authors. Given that HH standard publishing packages range in price from US$599 to $1599, and HH “VIP” publishing packages run from US$2299 to $3499, there’s most definitely gold in them thar hills.

Compare these rates (and services) to those on offer from Xlibris, iUniverse, Author House or any of the other subsidy/vanity outfits working with ASI, and you can easily see there’s nothing special or unique about HH. The services and pricing offered are on par with what you’d get going through any of ASI’s other outlets for self-publishing, and since ASI is actually handling the pre-publishing work, publishing, distribution and even marketing (assuming the author elects to pay for these services), you’re getting the same product as well. The only difference with HH is its affiliation with Harlequin and the implied promise that self-publishing through HH gives your book higher visibility among Harlequin editors—which carries the implied promise that your self-published HH book is more likely to be picked up by Harlequin for regular acquisition. While I’ve always warned indie authors away from subsidy and vanity publishing, I have an even greater concern with this new wrinkle.

For those of you who are wondering why I advise against working with a subsidy or vanity press, the reasons are numerous but primarily boil down to an economic argument. Such outfits are notorious for their high-priced “publishing packages” which bundle together all manner of services plus one to two dozen “free” author copies of the finished book, depending on the package selected. Very often, the author must sign away some or all of her publication rights to the vanity/subsidy outfit for a set period of time as well.

The bundled packages are bad news because you’re limited to working with their staff editors and designers (as opposed to hiring your own individually, to ensure their skills and working styles mesh well with your project), they typically include (and charge for) services you don’t want or need, and also typically overcharge for products and services you can obtain on your own at a fraction of the cost, or even for no cost at all. For example, as of this writing it costs $35 to register a U.S. copyright online; HH/ASI charges $204 for this same service. That’s a 583% markup, and all HH/ASI is doing is taking information you provide them for filling out the form, then filling out the form for you. Why not just provide your information to the U.S. Copyright Office directly and save yourself a fast $169?

You can bet you’re overpaying for virtually every service offered by HH/ASI, because there are two layers of middlemen with their hands out: ASI and HH. Even if you’re the type of author who would rather pay someone else to get your book ready for print, published, distributed and marketed, does it really make sense to pay both the actual service provider and a “services packager” like HH, iUniverse, Xlibris, etc.?

Here’s where my second major objection to the Harlequin deal comes about: self-publishing authors are being led to believe that they’re actually getting something of value in exchange for paying the HH layer of middlemen, and they believe that “something” is greater visibility, a greater chance of having their self-published book plucked out of the great unwashed masses of self-pubbed books for the full Harlequin treatment. But here again, they’re paying for something they can already get for free.

If your self-published book is selling in great enough numbers to garner the attention of a mainstream publisher, it doesn’t matter how, or through whom, you self-published. The mainstream will want to acquire the rights to your book. Having published via HH doesn’t make this outcome any more likely than if you’d self-published through Lulu, Createspace, Lightning Source or elsewhere.

You may be protesting that per the quoted press release, “Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through the self publisher for possible pick up by its traditional imprints,” but this is a paper tiger at best. Among the likely thousands of titles to be released under the HH imprint, perhaps the top 10% in terms of sales would merit further attention from Harlequin staff, and even then, only if the top 10% are selling more than a couple hundred copies a year.

You could publish via any author or publishing services provider, save yourself a LOT of money by being a smart shopper and not paying for services you don’t need or for which you’d be overcharged by HH/ASI, then invest some of your savings in the distribution, marketing and promotion options that make sense for you and your book, and sell as many (or more!) copies as you could sell of the same book published under the HH imprint. Self-published books that sell well attract publisher attention regardless of who published the book, or how.

If it’s really worth an extra 500% to get an HH logo on the spine of your book, knock yourself out. But I’d argue that if that’s your position, you’re not a very savvy self-publisher.

UPDATE: THIS JUST IN (to me, anyway) – yet another reason not to go with HH is this: in addition to all the upfront fees you must pay for HH to publish your book, they also intend to keep 50% of your net royalty on every copy sold (scroll down to comment #18, in which Harlequin Digital Director Malle Vallik says so)!! 50% of gross would be exorbitant since the standard bookseller cut is 40% of the retail price, but 50% of net is simply beyond the pale. And if you're handing over 50% of your net royalty AFTER paying HH hundreds or thousands of dollars for its services, that's just financial rape. Without even buying you dinner first.

Just in case that comment #18 from Harlequin Digital Director Malle Vallik on Dear Author should become unavailable at some point in the future, I'm copying and pasting it here:

1. Will rejected submissions to Harlequin indeed be “informed” that they can “opt-in” to Horizons? How do you assuage the stated concerns that this is a predatory process?

Malle: A writer receiving a standard reject letter will find a line included about self publishing. The writer, if she wants, can then contact HH. The writer will never be cold-called or contacted unless she has opted in.

2. Will Harlequin Horizons hold the ISBNs and pay out royalties from the sales, if any? How does this differ from the “vanity press” model? How does it compare to the “self-publishing” model, in which the author holds the ISBNs and keeps all money from any sales?

Malle: The content is completely owned by the author. Royalties are 50% net from both eBooks and print.

3. If an author chooses to go to Horizons for a “keepsake” or a “gift”, what does Horizons offer (except for the Harlequin name) to distinguish it from much much cheaper services such as Lulu?

Malle: It is any writer’s choice as to what self-publishing option she choses to purchase or if she wants to self-publish at all.

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.


Heather said...

Thanks for this information. I would likely have been one of those who bought into the... suggestion.

VI said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
steeleweed said...

If a traditional publisher decies to found another business, that's fine. However, it should not trade in the original name and Harlequin has change the name of vanity subsidiary.
What is disturbing is that rejects from the traditional house will be referred to the vanity house. It's just a question of how 'strong' that referral is, and the fact that they even mention the subsidiary house is enough to trick a lot of new writers who don't know any better.

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Heather & steele. I appreciate it. =')