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.

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28 Responses
  1. SonomaLass says:

    Great post, Sherry. You make an excellent point. This is symptomatic of a lot of other things going on in the industry, and the reaction is consequently more panicked and sever than is probably called for.

    I still think there’s more negative about HH than shows up in a simplistic logical assessment, however. They ARE using the brand to entice newbie authors, they ARE focusing on getting money out of authors rather than out of readers, and those ARE real changes that understandably disappoint those of us who thought highly of HQN before this. Not to mention, but I will, what fodder it provides those who already were inclined to denigrate HQN (and, by extension, the romance genre).

    • Thanks, SonomaLass.

      My feelings on this matter are very much in line with that of most of the commenters at DA and SB. So it puzzled me greatly that Jane simply did not seem to share our concerns, until I talked to my husband and the points he raised were almost point for point, exactly the same as Jane’s. (Mind you, he doesn’t read DA.) From someone on the outside looking in–or from someone with the perspective that we are headed into great upheaval already–it really isn’t all that alarming or even surprising. (He did not dispute that HH might not look good or smell right.)

      So that forced me to re-examine why I was feeling the way I did–and I don’t even think I felt quite as strongly about the matter as many other people. Why this sense of alarm on my part, why this sensation that I’m watching the beginning of a disaster movie and the timeline has suddenly accelerated? Which led to this post.

      • Evangeline says:

        I think that you–and many others–reacted the way they have because Harlequin Horizons could (will?) have an adverse reaction on not only the process of publication in the pending future, but also the present publishing process for new and established authors. Jane, and your husband, and perhaps others, view HarlHo from the perspective of viewing business as simply business.

        As a writer I am extremely wary of future business practices (the issue of rejecting manuscripts to nudge the writer to HarlHo, rather than the previous practice of either sending a great rejection letter or advising which line the manuscript may better suit). As a reader it does dilute Harlequin’s brand. As someone interested in the cold, hard brutal facts of business, TorStar, misguided though their intentions may be, see potential to continue to make money in the midst of these troubled times and, as they did with forming Carina Press, dipping their toe into a market that may be a major player in the publishing industry within the next ten years.

        I am seeking publication with NY, but I admit to also wanting to “wait and see”–to not bank on this present publishing model as the pathway to reach readers. Right now, there is a small, but possibly growing chance that if I sold a book tomorrow for 2010/2011 publication, that by the time my release date dropped, all the preparation culled from past and present published writers would be rendered moot. Now, I don’t think the publishing industry will collapse and turn into the e-publishing model, but things may and will change beyond what veteran writers have seen for the last twenty to thirty years–and honestly, the advent of Harlequin Horizons makes me wonder if the security being published by H/S is going to falter, and that the market will be as unpredictable for a category author as it is for a single-title author.

        • I think the Jane’s muted reaction is due to the fact that this is probably already how she sees the future, a market already even more fragmented than it is right now (fragmented as in flooded) and tilted away from major publishers with authors more as individual brands directly supported by authors. That possibility is not one we as authors really want to contemplate–it is already tough to make it with the support of a publisher, how much worse will it be when everybody is sinking and swimming strictly on their own?

          (My husband is a techie, and high-tech as an industry is squeezed from all sides and morphing and downsizing constantly. So he is not surprised by an industry in crisis where anything is being tried.)

          I think you are quite right in that a few years from now, things maybe beyond what we can imagine. Which was the entire point of my post. That future has suddenly been brought a lot nearer. It doesn’t matter that Harlequin is putting another name on the self-pub venture or what other temporary retreat it will undergo under the current pressure and scrutiny, the future is here and that future does not look pretty at all for those of us who are already in the system.

  2. Jessica says:

    Wonderful post Sherry. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

    • Thanks, Jessica. Usually I blog very little because it takes me a long time to write anything. But after a long debate with His Hawtness, everything I wanted to say was already formulated exactly in my head and for once I wrote as fast as I typed. :-)

  3. Eva says:

    That is an amazing, insightful post. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

  4. It’s awfully kind of you to mention my post. I thought your post stood on its own and made a number of points I hadn’t even thought of.
    Some time ago I decided to take the ebook course. I read them, I write them, it works for me. But recently, sales are going up and more ex-print and current print authors are joining the bigger epublishing companies. I’m getting more fan letters, more people have heard of me and my books. It’s a bit gobsmacking, as we say on this side of the Pond.
    Things are changing, no doubt, but it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. The concentration on the really big outfits who will maybe take half a dozen authors is pressuring everyone, particularly the midlist author.
    I don’t know about you, but I read around 4 or 5 books a week. I’m a book addict, and I need more than the big blockbusters to feed my habit. Those books have to come from somewhere.

    • Lynne, lovely of you to stop by. Yours was truly a standout post.

      I also don’t believe it will be all doom and gloom. Some people prospered during the Great Depression too. But I don’t doubt the percentage of authors who do well versus those who don’t do well will alter unfavorably. And change is always upsetting to a large portion of the population.

      I’m delighted that your chosen course is working out well for you. Trust me, we are all keeping epublishing in mind these days. Best luck to your for continued success.

      P.S. Your comment at RRRJessica’s blog about why you attend RT was one of the reasons I decided to give it a go next year. I hope to meet you there.

  5. Jax Cassidy says:

    Thank you for writing what I was thinking.

  6. Jill James says:

    I think a lot of the panic was from Harlequin putting their name, valuable in many eyes, on a less than savory product. As if you could take the Rolls Royce emblem off a beautiful car, slap it on a clunker Dodge and call it a Rolls too.

    • I do not doubt it at all, especially in the case of Harlequin, a company that has invested so much more heavily in building the brand than building the individial authors. If the Harlequin brand suffers, all its authors suffer.

      Which leads one to wonder, why such a drastic step? Did the folks at the top not realize this was the reaction it was going to generate (it could very well be the case but the question still needed to be asked)? What is the matter with the bottom line?

      • Janine says:

        Great post, Sherry.

        What I wonder is how much of the problem with publishers’ bottom lines these days are due to sales in this genre, and how much are due to sales in other genres.

        Is the problem with Harlequin or with Torstar? Articles in the press have been saying that Harlequin itself is doing well, and feel-good genres of entertainment have historically done well in times of economic downturn.

        I wonder, if the romance genre were not viewed as the cash cow that finances the financial risks of publishing other genres, would publishing be doing better right now?

        • Hi Janine,

          Smooches.

          Okay, now with PDA out of the way, let’s talk. :-)

          I’m an accountant, so I’m always wary of what the financial statements say–financial statements can be made to say all kinds of things. But in this instance, the problem seems to be with more the parent company than Harlequin itself–which makes me long for the days when publishing weren’t concentrated like accounting, in just a few handful of huge firms.

          Harlequin is making money. But one of the ways Harlequin is making money is by putting more books out there. Do you remember when the lines expanded? Everyone made a to-do when Presents expanded to 12 a months, but other lines also expanded in number. Think about it. You double the number of products available to the same pool of buys. You will get an increase in sales total, but your sales per book will be down. So while the company’s bottom line improves, its individual authors earn less per book. So Harlequins authors already have a source of discontent. Combined with the other stuff I’ve heard which I am not going to discuss on a public forum, and you have authors who are already feeling like the proverbial frogs in the hot water…

          Which just means that Harlequin has been used as a cash cow for longer than we’ve thought about it.

          I really cannot tell you whether publishing would be better off now if it didn’t use romance to buttress its bottom line. Publishing has always had its pulp fiction, whether the penny dreadfuls of Victorian times, the dime novels of early last century, the sci fi lad mags that used to have a buxom babe menaced by a Martial octopus, etc. It just so happens that right now romance is the cash cow that gets no respect.

          Who knows, perhaps romance would reach the status SF has today. But I for one, am not sure a shrinkage to 6% of the market is what I want.

          • Janine says:

            Smooches back at you! A shrinkage to 6% isn’t what I want either; I was just wondering if romance could pay for itself, if it didn’t have to also pay for other, less well-selling genres.

  7. Maya M. says:

    thanks for shining a light.

    i came out of the atomic mammoth ginormous threads more confused than when i went in. learned more about the differences between selfpub and vanity press, but am dazed and disoriented about how the discussion is morphing, yet again, into print- vs. epubbed authors and new vs. established authors (or so it seemed to me). WTH?

    i am also utterfly confuzzled about the Horizon announcement mere days after the Carina announcement. Doesn’t this cut the legs right out under from Carina? By it’s own parent body?

    • Maya M,

      LOL, these things are such time sinks, aren’t they? I was actually surprised that the threads stayed civil for as long as they did; at least Harlequin didn’t come out swinging the way some of the e-pubs have in past fights.

      There is no doubt by now that the HH announcement has been a public relations disaster. And I don’t know whether you’ve heard, but Harlequin has said it will take the Harlequin name off the venture–read it this evening at my agent’s blog (pubrants.blogspot.com).

      So now as we sit down to the autopsy, I’m asking the same questions as you are. Last I heard, Torstar, the parent company, is in hemorrhaging shape. Lost $220 million dollars recently (can’t remember this quarter or this year; bad either way). My mind is still open, but it will be a heck of an argument before you can make me believe that a lot of pressure didn’t come from the parent company.

      And yet the way the HH website was set up, the language that was employed, the total lack of subtlety in the entire exercise still leave me kind of slack-jawed. The best case scenerio–for my respect for Harlequin, that is–is that the company execs protested strenuously against it, knowing this meant their name will be dragged through mud and their pleas fell on deaf ears and Torstar brought in its own people to handle the venture.

      Collusion on Harlequin’s part–I’d rather not think about it.

      And believe you me, the whole time this was happening, I was thinking, poor Angela James! She really does not deserve to be knocked askew like this again.

    • Janine says:

      LOL Maya. I have only lightly skimmed the ginormous threads because there is only so much print vs. epub, new vs. established, and authors vs. readers I can take.

  8. Evangeline says:

    Okay, after reading many ginormous threads, I have to say I’m actually a bit nervous about the reaction to Harlequin Horizons by three of the major writing organizations (RWA, SFWA, MWA). Not only has the RWA pulled the entire Harlequin company off of its recognized publishers list, but every H/S author will be in limbo regarding PAN, PRO, the RITAs, attending RWA conferences, etc–if not the ramifications felt from those SFWA members writing for LUNA and Silhouette Nocturne, and those MWA members writing for Worldwide Mystery and MIRA.

    However, I am glad that the RWA took such a swift and active stance against HarlHo–particularly after the bad blood that cropped up under Diane Pershing’s presidency and the accusations of the RWA being an outdated and outmoded organization. Here’s to hope that this decisive movement will spread to other issues RWA members are dealing with (namely that unnamed publishing house whose advances have dipped below $1000), and that it will urge more romance writers to be more conscientious and proactive with the money they do earn from publication (whether it be advances+royalties or royalties).

    One last thing I’m concerned with is how Carina Press will be viewed post-Harlequin Horizons. I think the vanity press partnership has soured the perception of Harlequin for a large portion of the online writing community, and it just may spill over into Harlequin’s e-publishing imprint.

    • No matter how you slice it, Harlequin does not need RWA that much. It’s a nice place to go for a party and to make their authors feel good, but where exactly are those category authors going to go? If I were writing at Harlequin, if they are going to renew my contract, I am not going anywhere. PAN designation at RWA pays me no money and the RITA nets me no additional sales–you see what I mean? When it comes down to a label versus real money, there is no question what I’d choose.

      (And since you wrote your comment, we’ve already seen what other swift and active stance RWA can take: Jane of DA.)

      I said already in one of my comments that I really feel bad for Angela James–getting side swiped like this again, going into her new job against a strong headwind of ill feelings on the part of writers toward Harelquin Enterprises as a whole. But then again, I think this is all part and parcel of the bucking changes we are undergoing. If this is Jurassic Park, the part where water ripples in a glass is long past, this is where the T-rex comes charging out of the trees.

  9. etirv says:

    Hi Sherry! I’m still trying to digest all this… definitely deserves attention.
    Just want to wish you Happy Thanksgiving!

  10. Hi Sherry!

    I discovered your site after Emily Bryan has referred your name on a comment she left on my blog.

    I’m still giving my first steps on writing my first book. If it will be ever published I don’t know or wonder for now.

    I believe a lot on studying so I read several manuals on creative writing; so I’m already aware that ‘one should not write for money’, ’cause it may never come or it passes years and years until it does happen…

    I’m sad to start searching for all these published author’s blogs and read about all this commercialism on the world of writing.

    Anyway… That’s not why I dropped by in the first place. Emily wrote English is not your first language but you chose to write in English anyway.

    That made me feel a bit better, as I have made that decision for myself and you can see from my writing that I’m just on my first steps getting comfortable with english… (still a bit stiff).

    I live in an english-speaking for almost 2 years now, so everything pops-up into my mind already partly in English – the other 50% it’s hard work but isn’t all writing? :)

    Can you tell me your first experiences writing in your second language? Or any advice at all?

    Thanks for your time.
    Vanessa

    • Hi Vanessa,

      Sorry for the late reply. I’ve been so busy with my deadlines and your comment deserved a longer answer than I would have been to give at that time.

      So now the book is in, let’s see what I can tell you.

      I didn’t start writing with a thought toward publication until I’d been in the States ten years. By that time, English had become my primary language. I thought in it–not partly, but entirely.

      I never made a choice to write in English. Rather, I couldn’t have done it in any other language. (I needed a dictionary to write in Chinese at that point, because I kept forgetting how characters looked like. And as the vast majority of my reading had been in English for a while, I no longer knew what exactly was good writing in Chinese.)

      And of course, it made no sense to write in a different language since U.S. is the largest market for historical romances and books are published in English.

      My advice is general, whether English is your first language or not: Read. Read the best books you can find. Understand what is it you love most about the books you love, and then try to recreate it.

      That’s how I started. Hope it helps.

  11. missing word: I live in an english-speaking COUNTRY

    (sorry)