Monday, December 7, 2009

You Can't Spell "MWA HA HAAA" Without "MWA"

We all know how I feel about self-publishing, so it likely comes as no surprise to you that my reaction to Dellarte Press (originally known as "Harlequin Horizons") is largely negative. I'm not the only one crying foul, though, mes auteurs: the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, and Romance Writers of America have objected to the project, with the latter two de-listing Harlequin as an acceptable publisher due to their violation of both organizations' "no vanity press"-type rules. (These reactions, as well as others like them, are what lead to Harlequin Horizon's changing its name in the first place.) Edit: I've been informed that the SFWA has also de-listed Harlequin as an eligible publisher for the same reasons as the MWA and RWA, but books published by Harlequin are still eligible for the Nebula award because no prohibition exists against granting it to self-published works.

The source of the brouhaha (at least, as near as I can tell) was that Harlequin was talking out of both sides of their collective mouth: on the one hand, they were saying that your manuscript wasn't good enough to be published by Harlequin Harlequin, but—but!—for the low, low price of $599.00 (packages run from $599.00 to $1,599.00), Harlequin Horizons would make you into a Real Live Author™! (Tragic character flaw not included.) The solution to this contradiction? Change "Harlequin Horizons" to "Dellarte Press." Et voilĂ ! You no longer have a traditional book publisher playing a weird joke on you by asking you to pay them to publish your book because they didn't think it was good enough for them to pay you.

So yes, I applaud you, MWA (to whom I ascribed the mysterious laugh in this post's title), as well as the RWA, SFWA, and the countless other members of the industry who voiced concerns over this less-than-honest move by Harlequin. Yes, I think self-publishing produces absolute bilge 99.999% of the time. Yes, I think authors who self-publish are more often than not shooting themselves in the foot (feet?) if they want to ever make money doing what they do. BUT. I also think that those self-publishing companies have the right to do what they do so long as they're being honest about it, and most of them are: they're not offering book deals or literary stardom, they're offering to bind your book for you. When a traditional trade book publisher, however—you know, the fancy advance-and-royalty kind—starts getting in on the game, it's no longer clear where traditional publishing ends and self-publishing—dare I say "vanity publishing"—begins.

Sure, Harlequin can take their name off the press to prevent confusion, but if they've got to take their brand off a product in order to sell it, what is that really saying about them and their enterprise?


  1. If they're still telling authors who are rejected from regular Harlequin to go check out DellArte as an alternative, it's still misleading. I'm shocked that no one at Harlequin thought through how much damage this would do to their image.

  2. Boo hoo.

    People wanna waste their money on a pathetic Harlequin product, that's fine with me, as long as Harlequin then spends some of that money paying real writers. That's better than fine.

    Also, far as I know they're still 'delisted' after the name change: if GE owns both Doubleday and PublishAmerica, that apparently means Doubleday is a vanity press.

  3. I agree with you that 99.99% of self-published stuff is bilge, that it is too expensive, and that it is misleading to use the "you're not good enough for this, but!" tactic.
    However, that tactic only applies to people that submit DIRECTLY to Harlequin as anyone with an agent would never see that option.
    Also, more money in the pocket of publishers via vanity presses = more money to pay professional authors for traditionally published books.

    Finally, I think the "Tragic Character Flaw" IS included... that $1599 your spending marks you as a stupid spendthrift.

  4. The name change was clearly a very pathetic attempt to save face with the major writing organizations. It changed nothing about the truly unethical part of this whole venture, which is the "advertising" in their rejection letters for their vanity publishing branch. A rose by any other name still stinks.

  5. What's unethical about advertising in rejection letters?

    Someone sends a company an idea for a product. The idea is shitty. The company says, 'We're not gonna spend a cent on that, but if you want to give us money for a crappy service, we'd love to lighten your wallet.'

    Are they preying on people's unattainable fantasies? Yeah. That's how you sell stuff. Harlequin is trying to monetize idiots. No, that's not the most moral thing in the world--but it _is_ the most common.

  6. I'm continually impressed by your clever post titles., yes, that was the best part of this post...wait, no...the tags are brilliant as well. Gold star.

  7. Best blog title on this subject yet. That's all.

  8. It's not misleading to tell someone, "We're not going to publish your book, but you can publish it yourself with our handy-dandy publishing rocket pack!" What was misleading was using the Harlequin brand name to promote this vanity publishing. What was misleading was the jargon they wrapped into Horizons' description that essentially admitted they were a vanity press while trying not to say it.

    It was a predatory move, trying to cash in on people who want to be a Harlequin author but for whatever reason aren't having success. Changing the name reduces the shenanigans without resolving the problem completely. Now you're more likely to have those people who really want to have the Harlequin name on their book try again rather than self-publish. You'll still get plenty of people who will fall for the "do well here and maybe we'll sign you" which is just this side of fraud. Harlequin should change its name to Matchstick.

    The thing that bugs me the most is I host a show called Podcast dell'Arte and now I have to endure that boil of a vanity press sharing my name.

    Of course, now that they're not using their name to scam hopeful rejects, I doubt we'll see the furor that we did when the announcement was first made.

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  10. @bingol --

    The problem as I understand it is less that Harlequin has a vanity press arm and more that it's not an entirely separate business from that publisher.

    The authors' rights organizations don't care if there's a vanity press owned by the same company that owns a traditional publisher, what they care about is whether the two businesses share staffs and whether the traditional publisher does what Harlequin apparently plans to do -- send rejection letters as advertisements.

    Personally, I applaud the RWA, SFWA, and MWA for taking a stand on the issue. Harlequin should be smacked around for making a boneheaded move like this.

    Also: Bertelsman AG owns Doubleday Broadway Publishing. PublishAmerica appears to be an independent vanity press. General Electric doesn't own any publishing companies (at least according to the Columbia Journalism Review).

  11. Mmmmm. I love Harlequin. I love them more now that they are a Vanity Press. It goes with the sleazy, trampy, theme. I've always been secretly fond of whores-- it's the last honest profession.

    So, I think it's fitting. Harlequin publishes books about whores, and now they publish books FOR whores. I wonder if Kevin Weiss will accept sexual favors in lieu of cash (he released a video response to the MWA snubbing).

    Poetic justice. I love it!

  12. Definitely one of the best blog titles ever.

  13. "It was a predatory move, trying to cash in on people who want to be a Harlequin author but for whatever reason aren't having success."

    Yes. But isn't that a _good_ thing? At the moment, I applaud any publisher working to develop new income streams.

    "[W]hat they care about is whether the two businesses share staffs and whether the traditional publisher does what Harlequin apparently plans to do -- send rejection letters as advertisements."

    They clearly do care about this, and I'm not sure why. I guess their membership is comprised largely of unpublishable writers who are all-too-easily scammed? If so, good on them, for protecting members. That's their job, just like Harlequin's job is profit.

    And sorry about that GE thing. I meant that as a 'what if?' I should've said, 'Sheinhardt Wig Company.'

    I guess what I'm (over) reacting to is this: all the writing blogs I've seen seem to feel more closely allied to incompetent amateurs who'll spend a thousand bucks on a vanity press than to the professionals picking their pockets. Not me. Me for the predacious shitbirds trying to keep this crappy industry alive.

  14. bingol--
    What Matthew said. It's not unethical to make money, and part of sales is to make you product as appealing as possible to the people who will want to by it. Harlequin is doing more than that. They're stepping over the line when they hold their product, Dellarte, out to a freshly rejected author as a way "to have a bound copy to help in finding an agent."

    Any agent will tell you that is false advertising.

  15. Lisa: I agree that that line is stupid and dishonest, but I'm not sure that people are primarily responding to one single line. If Harlequin just changed that claim, would anyone who's now complaining be satisfied?

    I suspect the answer is 'no.'

    I'm just not convinced that writers have really thought this through. If I'm a good writer, doesn't it _help_ me when publishers develop new revenue streams? Doesn't it help the industry?

    Why should I care more about people who are of their own free will contacting Harlequin with crappy manuscripts, and who of their own free will pay a bundle for an idiotic vanity press offer, than I care about publishable authors and Harlequin itself?

    I say, if you're clogging the system with dreck, you at least outta suffer the insult of a few idiotic offers. And if you spend money on those offers, I feel sorry for you, but as long as you're an adult, that's none of my business.

  16. Sneaky is as sneaky does. I think they'll hook, line and sink a few authors with their name change, but I'll be sure to keep my shifty-eye-glasses on.

  17. I've said it before and I'm going to say it again: the Word of God says the root of all evil is the LOVE of money. When will it end? Probably no time soon on this end of eternity!

  18. The pernicious thing about Harlequin's Dell'Arte line is that all form rejection letters from Harlequin are now telling the rejected authors that they CAN be published via Dell'Arte--and Dell'Arte tells writers that Harlequin is "monitoring" their publications and may choose to publish them after all. Oh, and while the "packages" may run up to $1,599, the additional services can run the cost up thousands more. It is an evil, barefaced scam, and good for SFWA, MWA, and RWA. (SFWA would have delisted them too if it had a list of acceptable publishers in the first place; now it has simply made it clear that HQ no longer meets their criteria for professional publication credits.) Considering the long and close relationship of RWA to HQ, and the fact that RWA was the first authors' organization to speak out, they deserve special kudos for their courage.

  19. Joseph L. Selby has it right: shenanigans.

    But this is the corporate world. Shenanigans-R-Us.

    We're supposed to play the games, pour le moment, whatever they may be.

  20. Nice title.

    And I agree that the whole 'this will help in finding an agent' is misleading. OK, they want to make money, but if they truly believed in this venture, they wouldn't need to pull people in via false advertising.