Years ago, I read–listened to, rather–It’s Not About the Bike, Lance Armstrong’s memoir. The book chronicled his struggle with cancer, his subsequent recovery, and the winning of his first Tour de France victory. I have by now forgotten most details from the book, except for one particularly gory and memorable scene.
Armstrong had been hurting for a while, his body issuing miscellaneous warning signs. But like most young men, and I would imagine, especially like most young athletes in superb conditioning trained to withstand tremendous amount of pain and discomfort in the pursuit of glory, he ignored his symptoms. And ignored them. And ignored them.
Until one day he threw up a sinkful of blood.
If you are sufficiently plugged into the romance world, you already know that it’s been an eye-popping, jaw-dropping couple of days. Harlequin’s announcement of the self-publishing (or is it vanity publishing) venture it has branded, the riveting threads at Dear Author and Smart Bitches, and RWA’s swift and dramatic rescission of Harlequin’s status as a RWA-recognized publisher this evening.
In a way, you can say that I have no dog in this fight. Harlequin is not my publisher. My personal eligibility status at RWA will not change. And as I am so freaking slow writing for even one publisher, I really have not been eyeing anyone else in the business for potential contracts.
And yet I found myself on the phone this evening–a rare thing as I’m almost never on the phone–groaning together with my friend, who does write for Harlequin, among other publishers. Her inbox has been inundated with hundreds of emails from the Harlequin author loops to which she belongs–and she gets her mail in digest form.
Afterwards I tried to explain the whole thing to His Hawtness, not just the facts of it, but why I was on the phone groaning. And it was difficult. The spouse is a very logical man. He asked a series of very reasonable questions. If there are already other vanity publishers, how does it make any difference that now there is another one? If Harlequin Horizons tells people that they are paying for only possibilities, not concrete promised results, how does that hurt its current authors? And how does anyone even know whether the venture would be a success, since the rates listed on the Harlequin Horizons website are, if not exorbitant, at least quite outside industry norms?
HIs Hawtness is not the only one asking such questions. Jane of Dear Author, I believe, is also trying to nail down the exact source of the outpouring of discontent. These two people have never clapped eyes on each other, but they have something in common: They have both long been aware of the decline and oncoming death of publishing as we currently know it.
We do too, we authors. We see the unsustainable business model, the erosion of profits, and the stagnation of reading as a form of entertainment. We prepare ourselves mentally for what news might come. But we, in a sense, are Lance Armstrong: We are still ignoring the symptoms as much as we can.
Harlequin Horizon is that sinkful of blood that can no longer be ignored. For me, it’s unease turning into anxiety. For many other authors, I imagine it’s anxiety turning into near-panic. How bad are things if Harlequin Enterprises, much envied and admired for its nimbleness, market penetration, and profitablity, not only turns to vanity publishing, but puts its vaunted brand name on the venture?
I understand business cycles. I understand the changes often happen in bursts. I even understand that Harlequin might NOT be pressured by its struggling parent company to produce maximum cash to help the entire conglomerate’s bottom line, but simply decided on its own to respond to a changing environment by trying something unprecedented. But that does not alter the fact that the formation of Harlequin Horizons and the subsequent reactions to it together comprise the most visceral signal I have encountered thus far on just what kind of convulsive, likely cataclysmic changes there will be.
Let me make myself clear. I am not saying that Harlequin Horizons will bring down publishing–far from it. Publishing is already going down. If publishing is the Titanic, then the current brouhaha surrounding HH is not the iceberg–not at all–but the scraping sound and the jolt that alert the passengers after the fact that something has gone awry.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know what happened. Pandemonium. First-class passengers got on the lifeboats while steerage passengers drowned. And a lot of us authors, not to put too fine a point on it, are steerage passengers on the good ship Titanic. What is going to happen to us now?
To me, that, more than anything else specifically about Harlequin Horizons as a venture, is the reason for the hundreds of email digests my friend is receiving from her fellow Harlequin authors. It is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It capstones all the worries and jitters that those of us who still have contracts have been experiencing–and fighting.
Of course, there is still hope. To go back to the example at the beginning of this post, Lance Armstrong not only survived cancer, he went on to an astonishing athletic career, achieving more than he ever did before. Who knows, maybe there will be a renaissance of reading. Maybe the business will finally arrive at a sustainable, responsible, and profitable model. Maybe we will in the end have less number of books published overall, but a far greater number of outstanding books.
But in the meanwhile, between that sinkful of blood and eventual glory, there were some awfully rough times for Armstrong. And there will be in this industry for us. No doubt about it now.
ETA: This post is very much influenced by Lynne Connolly’s post at The Good, The Bad, and The Unread, which I read last week.