We’re looking at different horizons

My daughter sent me an email the other day, telling me about her boyfriend’s Phi Beta Kappa initiation ceremony:

…the guest speaker was Nobel Prize winner Oliver Smithies, so that was pretty cool. His two main messages were: no matter what you’re doing or how unimportant it may seem, it’s important to learn how to do it well; and try to find something you love doing so that when you’re old and retired you still do it because you love it so much you can’t stop. Another fun thing he said was “think outside the box…but know what’s inside it too.”

I read that and thought, This Smithies guy may be a science geek, but he understands what it means to be a writer. And that’s when it hit me, when I realized just what exactly has been irritating the hell out of me about this whole debacle with Harlequin and its new vanity press.

Everyone is missing the point.

People have claimed to be stunned and perplexed by the swift decisive condemnation of Harlequin’s vanity press and its stated intent to steer rejected writers to its coffers. They’re confused by the vehemence of writers who are angry and indignant. A few writers have even said they’re angry but can’t quite put their finger on why. Yet everyone has been busy speculating.

I’ve read a variety of reaction from people on the publishing side of the business, very smart people whose experience and opinions I’ve come to respect. I’ve read blogs and comments from writers, including those who are published, not yet published and self-published. Readers have weighed in as well.

Some people have concluded the furor is due to an inability or unwillingness to accept change. Others think it’s because Harlequin betrayed their brand or presented the change ineffectively. Others fear readers will become disillusioned by a glut of newly inferior books. Some writers worry their work will be diminished in the eyes of those who might see no difference between it and that of those who choose the vanity press route.

Disturbingly, much of this rhetoric also has a subtle yet pervasive overtone that presumes most unpublished writers are rather dim-witted uneducated fools in need of protection from blind ambition and who will be easily duped by the lure of a vanity press.

I’m tempted to say, “Bullshit on all counts.” But that sounds so rude. Besides, it’s not that these people are wrong, necessarily, so much as that none of the commentary really addresses the heart of the problem.

The truth is, most writers I know are cautiously open to the idea of change in publishing, especially if it means getting their work into the hands of more readers. Most writers I know don’t give a rat’s ass about Harlequin’s “brand” and whether they change it, however inelegantly done. Most realize full well that books (we’re talking fiction here) produced by a vanity press and lacking marketing and distribution won’t ever make it into the mainstream of readers and will be read only by a handful of the writer’s friends and family members. And the vast majority of writers I know are already quite aware that vanity presses exist and are not about to be deceived into subjecting their work to that process. Really.

So, why the anger and condemnation?

Writers give all sorts of advice to other writers. It varies widely and usually comes with the disclaimer to pick and choose what works for you, disregard the rest. But there is one consistent message you will hear from every single writer who has achieved publication. Every single one of them will tell you about their multiple rejections, about the quantity of books they wrote and the number of years it took before they got published. Every single one of them will tell you the same exact thing: Don’t give up and don’t stop writing. Your work will improve with practice.

This is not mere hopeful wistful dreaming or a platitude to soothe desperate yearning (yes, that’s how writers have been characterized, of late). It’s a simple fact. Look at the backlist of any writer who has been around for more than a few years. Pick up any early book and compare it to something recent. There will be a difference, a distinctive improvement in quality but also in tone and confidence. Writing improves over time.

Writers know this. We accept it for the truth it is. In spite of what you may have heard, most writers are levelheaded, clear-eyed professionals who know hard work and time spent learning and practicing craft are the bricks paving the path to publication. Unfortunately, in our impatience and inexperience, we tend to misjudge the length of our individual paths.

This is why what Harlequin proposes to do is so offensive and just plain wrong, regardless of what they call it. Have you read the verbiage on the website of their newly renamed Dellarte Press? It claims to be all about you, the writer. It talks about the next chapter on your journey and achieving your dreams and indulging your passion. About taking control of your dreams and not wasting your precious time. About reaching your goals with the book of your dreams.

Oh please. Harlequin and their new business partner have missed it by a mile if this is what they assume to know about our “dreams.”

Sure, there are writers who are exceptions, and good for them for making their own informed decisions and realizing a different dream. But for most of us, the “dream” is not just to hold a book in our hands. The “dream” is not merely to see our name on a glossy cover.

The dream is to be good enough. Good enough to be published, to gain recognition for all our hard work, good enough for our stories to be purchased and enjoyed by readers. Good enough to receive monetary compensation, as professionals.

Here’s an analogy, though perhaps not the best one: Imagine you’ve signed up with a matchmaker, or a dating service if you prefer, with the goal of finding the perfect mate. After a few attempts that didn’t quite work out they suddenly declare you to be unlovable. For your send off, as a consolation, they show you a selection of truly fine wedding rings, since they know that’s what you really want more than anything in the entire world. Aren’t they lovely and sparkly? The more you’re willing to pay, the bigger and shinier a ring you can have. You say, but what about a partner? What about love? They say, oh no, trust us, no one will ever love you. But look, you can even have the wedding you’ve always dreamed about, just pay a bit more. And you say, that’s nice but I was looking for love and a life with someone. They say, sorry, never gonna happen, but look, here are the designs for invitations– it only costs a bit more for those, how many people do you know?

And here’s where the analogy breaks down, because you can’t really make yourself more lovable by working at it. Or maybe that’s just me. But you can and will become a better writer with hard work and practice.

Will you ever become good enough that people will pay to read your stories? Tough question. One for which there is no single correct and true answer. The odds say some of us may never be good enough, yet can’t predict which ones. It’s one of the risks we live with as writers. But there are answers to that question that are wrong and harmful and completely unacceptable and one of them is to tell a writer who is not yet quite good enough, “Here, buy something shiny instead.”

It is wholly inappropriate for anyone, let alone a major publisher, to blithely offer a vanity press as an alternative to — or worse, present it as a step to achieving — publication. It is the antithesis of our efforts and our “brand” as writers, a slap in the face of our professionalism. It’s a message that says, “Not only are you not good enough now, you never will be good enough, no matter how hard you try. The only way you will ever see your work in print is to pay for it.”

Damn it, Harlequin, you don’t know that.

If there is a message that should be sent with every rejection it should be one based on truth and integrity and respect, offered with a genuine tone of encouragement. Perhaps it should be the same message we writers give each other, time after time, without hesitation, without deviation:

“You’re not there yet. Go work on your craft. Practice. Write five more books. Read extensively. Learn all you can from your peers. You will get better. Just keep writing. And please, keep trying.”

We say it because it’s true. Because we understand what it means and what it takes to be a writer.

20 Comments

Filed under deep thoughts, publishing, writing

20 responses to “We’re looking at different horizons

  1. McB

    Great post. And it’s so much what I was wondering myself, but didn’t say because, hey, not a writer. But yeah. If you are good enough for them to publish, they should publish you. If you aren’t, then they’re taking your money, but none of the risks or responsibilities.

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  2. I thought Harlequin had some kind of send-us-money-and-we’ll-edit-your dreck service. That might be more useful for people who are not good writers but don’t know how to make their stuff good enough for someone else to want to publish it.

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  3. Thanks for figuring it out because you’re absolutely right. I may be unlovable and absolutely suck as a writer (just to follow your analogies) but that doesn’t mean I’m going to abandon all hope on either front. I’ll continue to work on self-improvement. And when I have a great relationship and a good publishing deal, I will laugh at HQN’s short sighted greediness.

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  4. Clear eyed as usual, Ms. James. I found the “bold innovations in publishing!” angle of the marketing annoying. A case might be made for bold, but certainly not innovative. As you say, if all I want is a book with my name on it, there are all kinds of steps I could skip, with or without a check to Harlequin. And yet, away I slog.

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  5. orangehands

    While I agree with your point, I think your missing that the others are making the same point, just using different words. All of this is about saying Harlequin just wants your money, and will take it by promising you the dream who have probably been working years toward. Some people see this as a betrayal of the brand of a publisher who until this was seen not only as a major force in the romance industry but a good company who helps writers.

    Its not that writers are “dim-witted uneducated fools in need of protection from blind ambition and who will be easily duped by the lure of a vanity press.” Its that Harlequin is trying to run a scam, and like all scams people – even smart, educated, cynical people- do fall for them, and its pissing off everyone. Writers are very kind and very protective of other writers, and they are calling it a scam so that those who don’t understand the business, or believe Harlequin’s bullshit rhetoric, understand its a scam. Because when you get a well-known, well-trusted publisher saying, “Hey, we don’t think this book is right for this line, but send it here and all your dreams will come true,” people are going to believe it. It doesn’t mean they are dim-witted, it means they are human.

    Self-publishing has its place. But this vanity press is offering things it has no way of providing. And Harlequin is giving away its name to a vanity press that has known problems, Author Solutions. So Harlequin is basically holding up its middle fingers to the writing community, and the writing community is now returning the favor.

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  6. OH, believe me, I’m not missing any of that. At all. It has been discussed ad nauseum on every email loop and blog I’ve read. And I’ve read a lot of them. Everyone gets that. I didn’t see the need to regurgitate it here, except by reference.

    And no, I have not heard anyone else making this point. You’re extremely intelligent, young lady. Read it again.

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  7. McB

    They make you think you’ve arrived.

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  8. You’re analogy to a dating service is a good one, but needs to be tweaked slightly, I think, because a rejection from Harlequin DOESN’T mean one’s writing isn’t good enough.

    It means they don’t want to buy it. Period. Maybe they don’t want it because it isn’t good, but maybe they are rejecting it because it doesn’t fit their line.

    Other publishers have bought the very manuscripts that were turned down by Harlequin. It happened to me, to lots of writers.

    Now, do you think their rejection letter said, “This is good, but not for us. We suggest you try elsewhere?” [snort] Not hardly.

    Do you think their rejection letters are going to START reading that way?

    Do you think they haven’t considered that they can make money off their slush pile, and also bury in obscurity writers who could be their competition?

    So I would change your analogy a little. I’d add that the agency sometimes knows for a fact that the person is lovable, knows another agency could fix them up, probably. But many people new to the dating game come to this agency first. Chances are good they’re naive. The agency can keep this person from going elsewhere and drain their resources, and at the same time cut off the competition’s supply line. Is that a great business plan or what?

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  9. Mary Margaret, I think a “normal” rejection from any publisher means exactly that: this piece of work is not right for us at this time. And there are many reasons for that, as we know. A rejection accompanied by the suggestion the writer go “realize their dream” with a vanity press, a route that will take money from the writer and pay the publisher, can be called many things and, yes, “a great business plan” is one of them. In the short term.

    How many of those writers will try again, either with Harlequin or through Dellarte? Even for the very naive, it won’t take long to discover the vanity press route is more nightmare than dream. Maybe Harlequin is assuming an unlimited supply of writers? Maybe they’re right.

    This type of referral added to a rejection sends a message to the writer, I think, that not only is the submitted work not “good enough,” neither is the writer. It doesn’t matter whether the publisher thinks the writer might be fixable or lovable to others, it matters what the writer hears. Rather than encouraging the writer to keep writing, to improve craft, to try again, it turns them away from publishing altogether. It tells them they are so awful the only alternative is to pay to see their work in print.

    As bad as it is to monetize their slush pile in this manner, and it’s despicable, I think it is far worse to send that message to writers.

    But maybe I’m the only one who hears it.

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  10. Lou

    KJames – as usual, that fine analytical mind of yours has “hit the nail on the head!”

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  11. orangehands

    Ok, I can and do see a difference between what you are saying and the other arguments being made by people. But I truly do see yours as a continuum of what others are saying. “You are not good enough so the only way to get published is to go to this vanity press” is, to me, the same as “your writing is not good enough so the only way to get published is to go to this vanity press.” And the first is something I’ve read in numerous other blogs covering this story. Others have said vanity press is not the first (or second, or fifth, or tenth) choice for writers, and they go to it because they believe no one will publish their stories, meaning, in the writers’ minds, their writing is not good enough. You add that writing is always improving, and there’s always a new chance for the work to be published. Others have said that by pointing those rejected to the vanity press as the next step/option, it gives writers who believe Harlequin the impression that this is their only way and chance to be published, and that there are no other publishers or chances with Harlequin when the writing is better and/or Harlequin needs lesbian vampire hookers becoming schoolteachers, which is what the writer happens to write. So again, I see it as “the others are making the same point, just using different words” in explaining why writers/readers/etc are pissed about Harlequin.

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  12. Well, okay. And it’s entirely possible we’re reading different blogs/comments. It would not surprise me at all to discover you’re hanging out with people who are more astute than I.

    Most of what I’ve heard is angry reaction about Harlequin 1) using deceptive business practices and 2) trying to turn the “publishing” model around so that writers pay the publisher.

    And yes, what I’m saying IS a continuation of that, but it’s a leap I don’t think many people have made. Yet. With a usual rejection, once you get over the sting and the depression, you pick yourself up and try again. But when you have a major publisher saying a vanity press is the best bet for you and your writing (sorry if I made too much of a distinction there, they’re pretty much the same thing in this discussion), that’s a very authoritative voice.

    The first part of the message is, “You need to pay us.” Or the more optimistic and consumer friendly spin, “Look what you can buy!” And everyone sees that as obviously wrong. But it’s also sending a different and more subtle secondary message, one I really don’t think people are consciously picking up on, that says, “Don’t bother trying to improve.” The consequences of that are far more devastating.

    Even if you’re a very savvy writer and have no intention of using a vanity press, being told that’s your best option is a horrible message to send. It encourages writers to stop trying. And it’s a damned lie.

    Or maybe I’m just being obtuse and making the same point with a different stick. Won’t be the first time. Or the last, I’m sure. 8)

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  13. orangehands

    Probably not. 🙂 But no, I think part of it is we’re reading different blogs about this story, since I think I’ve only read one or two that mentioned “trying to turn the “publishing” model around so that writers pay the publisher” as the main (or even mentioned) reason. I also don’t think I make a very big distinction between you the writer and you the writing (which can be a big problem in other conversations but fits in this one).

    Either way…boy did Harlequin screw up.

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  14. I’ve never been a fan of Harlequin. Just don’t like what they publish, overall, although I’m sure there are some exceptional writers in their posse. Having said that, here are my two cents:

    This year I’ve read a lot, trying to see 1) what I feel works and 2) what doesn’t. Much (but not ALL, mind you I’m not slamming the self published) of what I have read that was either self published or e published is, IMHO, inferior to what is sold by the Big Houses. Why? Many times I see a lack of editing. And in once case I disliked both the hero and heroine; they both truly deserved the designation of TSTL (Too Stupid To Live.) Another story was bereft of research on so many levels and I had to ask myself, “What the heck was she thinking? Did she just pull this out of her ass and not bother to check and see if it was realistic or feasible?”

    Yes, The Dream is to be published, but I see Harlequin using their Big House name to lure in unsuspecting and/or un-publishing-educated novices into their pay-to-publish scheme. The “We don’t want it but if you’re really hungry to get it out there you can, with the flick of your credit card, join our stable.”

    And then they pony up, and when they end up with a garage chocked to the rafters of books no one wants, because they’ve sold copies to their friends and relatives and they have run out of people they know to sell to, in the end they might just as well as gotten into a multi level marketing organizations that promises a high return if you join up and peddle their product. And instead of going a route such as Lulu, they don’t even receive all the money for what they’ve paid to have produced.

    I see it as a well known name taking advantage of someone desperate to be published, and I agree with you;

    “You’re not there yet. Go work on your craft. Practice. Write five more books. Read extensively. Learn all you can from your peers. You will get better. Just keep writing. And please, keep trying.”

    And keep your hand tightly clenched around a totally different kind of book: your pocketbook.

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  15. Harlequin is huge and has so many lines, probably there is something for everyone. I do enjoy many of their Mira and HQN titles, and have read the work of friends published with other lines and have found it to be excellent writing even though not my first preference in reading material.

    People keep talking about all these writers who are going to be duped and frankly I’m wondering who they are. Maybe I’m the one who is naive, but I personally do not know any writer who would be fooled by this scam. And even if they were, initially, it seems to me once they got to the part where they’re told how much it’s going to cost, the veneer would erode and the red flags would start smacking them in the face.

    But if there is a sizable group of these unsuspecting writers out there, I find it heroic — and ironic for Harlequin who surely thought this venture would fly beneath the radar — that RWA, SFWA, MWA and NINC (groups whose membership includes some of the most savvy experienced writers in the business, most of whom would never be taken in by this nonsense) are united in their defense of and support for those writers who are less experienced. If there is any good that has come of this, that’s it.

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  16. I know an elderly lady who signed up for another “Self Publishing” company. I won’t name names here, but it’s run by a local man who self published a small book for his family and it took off- he is now a best-selling writer of overly saccharine drivel. If you “Publish” with this company, (she spent close to six thousand dollars…) he will write a positive blurb for your novel. Much of the “fees” are for “marketing”. She has a garage full of books that no one is buying. I was given another novel by a woman who published with the same company, and I have to tell you, it was awful. And full of typos. She paid three thousand. I did the math and with the number of printed books they gave her (selling at 14.99 a copy) it added up to approximately $150.00 per book. The quality of the book is lovely; the paper, cover, print and type all top shelf. It’s what’s inside that sucks.

    It is mind boggling to me that a name as big as Harlequin would pull something like this, and even more so that someone would be agreeable to pay such enormous amounts, but then again, people still send money to that very nice Nigerian man who is a lawyer and tells you in an official email that a long lost relative has left you a huge inheritance…

    P.T. Barnum said, “There is a sucker born every minute.”

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  17. orangehands

    “And then he infects three of his friends.”

    People fall for scams all the time. Some of them much dumber sounding than this, even. As for this particular case, while the writers who follow the blogs covering the story or belong to one of the writer groups calling this a scam (I am so in love with these groups right now, go RWA, SFWA, MWA and NINC), there are plenty of wanna-be-published writers who don’t have some kind of online presence, so they’d be even easier to sucker in since they haven’t studied the industry or talked to those in it to know what’s what.

    Seriously, the stories I could tell. Some of (common-sense) smart, cynical people.

    As for Harlequin itself, I don’t really read many writers writing under that or one of their brand names. I do, however, read authors who started under those brand names.

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  18. Pingback: Vanity Versus Direct Publishing « The eBook Test

  19. Mmmmm mm MMMmmmMMM MMMM

    Mmmmm mm MMMmmmMMM MMMM

    Mmmmm mm MMM MMMM dear BCB

    Mmmmm mm MMMmmmMMM MMMM

    For some of us, the dream is to hum “Happy Birthday to You” on a friend’s blog

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  20. Ahem. Yes, well, glad you were able to realize this particular dream, Merry.

    Knowing you, this is a subtle nudge to write a new blog post. Working on it. Right after I bake some cookies . . .

    [thanks for the birthday wishes!]

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