Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tuff Writer Luv

I’ve gotten some questions/comments offline about my last post, a long time ago, on the Harlequin Matter (sounds like a great book title, doesn’t it?) that can only be characterized as…interesting. I know the situation has evolved over time, but I would like to address it. The general consensus was something along the lines of me being insane or possibly evil, or a combination of both, and perhaps I am. I am a literary agent after all. lol

However, I am also a writer. One who has enjoyed writing as a career and as a hobby. One who views writing for publication realistically even through the romantic haze that clouds its true nature. One who doesn’t believe that scribes are somehow gods, though some still do grant them that status. Because of that, I feel it’s time for some tough writer love. It’s for your own good. If you like living in the illusion wherein published authors wear black turtlenecks, smoke pipes (except the girls, who iron their hair instead), and espouse the virtues of using skulls for candle holders, stop reading right now. If you want a little dose of reality, keep going, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Writers serve a purpose. We are, for the most part, the flunkies of human existence, cursed or gifted, whichever way you choose to look at it, with the desperate need to communicate ALL THE FREAKING TIME through the written word. We record the human condition and display it for all to see and analyze, either in a fictional or nonfictional context, from the lowest lowly journalist to the lowest lowly novelist (we never get above lowly). In either case, we are valuable only so long as the stories we tell please or satisfy our audience. We are the jesters at the royal court of human nature, entertaining our audience so we can continue to entertain them again and again.

It is How We Are Made.

It is Who We Are.

It is What We Do.

Let me explain it a different way. Picture yourself on an airplane that finds itself in a bit of jeopardy. Maybe the wing fell off, and the pilot decides to do a water landing in Lake Michigan. For those who will worry, I will tell you right up front that the landing goes well and everyone makes it, okay? But let’s get on that plane, in the minutes before everything is okay. Let’s look into the mind of Passenger A for a moment.

Wow, that guy in first class is a doctor. With his training, he can save lives. Maybe he’ll even save mine.

Now let’s spin on Passenger B’s cognitive wheels for a second…

Wow, the person in the cockpit flying this plan is a trained pilot who’s practiced this sort of thing. With his training, he may save all our lives. Maybe he’ll even save mine.

And now for Passenger C

Wow, I’m glad that woman in 24 D is a nurse. With her training, she can save lives. Maybe she’ll even save mine.

And Passenger D

Wow, that man in 13F is a firefighter. With his training, he can put out fires if we crash and save our lives. Maybe he’ll even save mine.

Passenger E, your turn…

Wow, there’s a United States Marine in the exit row. With his training, he can take control and handle any intense situation, therefore saving lives. Maybe he’ll even save mine.

Passenger F, please weigh in…

Wow, there’s a minister in 10B. With his training, he can pray for all of us. He can help save our souls. Maybe he’ll even save mine.

And, finally, Passenger G

Wow, there’s a woman 20A scribbling away. Must be a writer. Wait, what’s that? We need to lighten the plane? Hey, you there in 20A…

You get my point?

I guess one of the last developments in the Harlequin Matter was that not only had the RWA revoked the publisher’s approved status until it straightened up and flew right, but the MWA had as well. All sorts of bad things happen to de-listed publishers, including werewolf attacks in broad daylight and surprise trips through wormholes to other dimensions where (fill in your least favorite president’s name here) is still in the White House. Also, the publisher’s authors’ books are not eligible for the Edgar Awards, which, like all book awards, is one group of publishing people’s way of telling another group of publishing people that they should pay attention to an author, if they haven’t figured it out already. Being de-listed, especially after years of being on the approved list, is not supposed to be in the publisher’s best interest. It’s supposed to be a big deal to be removed from a writer organization’s Nice list and put on the Naughty list.

I’m not fooling you, am I? You know, by now, that I’m going to, without hesitation and in a blatant manner, right here for everyone to see, state that it doesn’t matter. I might even write that when I read this tidbit, I rolled my eyes and snorted in an unagent-like manner that scared my cat. Oh, I know. I know! As an agent and a writer I was supposed to be all twisted in knots over this, but A) I’m not that kind of agent or writer and B) let me ask you one question: Do you honestly think that a reader searching for something to read will put down a book once she/he discovers that the publisher is not on the okey dokey roster of some group with W in its name?


I’ve read Harlequins for years. I practically teethed on them. I read them with my sick mother. I traded them with family members. I stuck by them even when a bunch of Gen-Xers obsessed with relationship slapstick who made fun of their moms’ Harlequins grew up and demanded something hipper and more relevant to their lives, which led to the dreaded chick lit trend until someone threw all the chick lit books in a pile in a stadium and…wait, that was Disco albums. Nevermind.

Anyway, at no point in time did I, Ms. Reader who spent my hard-earned money on books, give a flying rat’s bottom parts as to whether Harlequin was deemed suitable by the RWA, MWA, CIA, FBI, or any other acronym-monikered organization.

Readers buy books, and even if all the members of both of those groups had decided to boycott Harlequin for, well, I’m still not sure what the real gripe was, but if they boycotted them, that means Harlequin could potentially lose what, maybe thousands of readers? That leaves only a few hundred million around the world to keep their profits up. Sure, writers could try to enlist people who care about them and the cause, but I don’t see too much potential in that being successful. Not a lot of sympathy there (and if you don’t know why, see above) Can you picture that conversation?

Writer: Hi! I’m a writer and I would like you to refrain from buying Harlequin books.

Reader: Why? They’re my favorites!

Writer: Because of their non-standard business practices that offer authors the choice to publish their own books as opposed to finding a real publisher.

Reader: Huh?

Writer: They offer services to writers to self-publish their books.

Reader: So?

Writer: Well, some writers might think that they’re published authors when really they’re really not.

Reader: If they’ve got a published book, aren’t they published?

Writer: No! To be considered a real author, you have to be paid an advance by a traditional publishing house.

Reader: Why do I care if I like what I read?

Writer: Because some authors may be taken advantage of.

Reader: How’s that?

Writer: They may think they’re real authors when they aren’t.

Reader: Why wouldn’t they know the difference if that’s their profession? And who decides who a real author is?

Writer: Well, important people in publishing.

Reader: I thought I was the “important people” in publishing?

Writer: Um, it’s complicated.

Reader: Like on Facebook? Or in that Meryl Streep movie?

Writer: Well, er…

And on that note, and in the grand tradition of Atticus Finch, I rest my case.


ClothDragon said...

I thought Harlequin was using that other line to sell self-publishing to authors, charging gobs of money to be published and only letting them earn a small percentage back when/if the book was sold - something I thought was usually considered a scam.

It reminds me of all the accounting tricks the banks pulled, that weren't really illegal, but profited entirely from the loss of others -- and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. (I may have my information wrong since I get all of it from the few writing blogs I follow).

But Harlequin was never my thing, so my distaste affects them not-at-all. :)

Scott Jensen said...

I have not followed the drama, but are you saying that Harlequin is changing into a vanity press? If so, won't its quality of its books take a nose dive and ruin their brand name? That should be a far bigger concern for them than some writer's group boycott or black-listing ... though wouldn't that also further drive away quality authors and thus further destroy their brand name? Or have they started up a different brand name and are doing this vanity press under it and not Harlequin's?

kel said...

Well said.

Haarlson Phillipps said...

Way too verbose. Just say what you mean to say. Regards.

DED said...

Ha! Loved the last section: writer vs. reader.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Had a comment to post but Blogger lost it. Will try again later. :)

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

I did. Verbosity is my luxury here. I don't write like or claim to be a journalist like some bloggers do, at least not here. That's for the paying audience. :)

Sorry for the late response. No, H isn't going totally to self-publishing services. Just one division is offering them and last I heard they changed the name of it by removing the word Harlequin. The aspect of self-publishing that many overlook is that since it is the SELF publishing the book using the tools provided by the company, the quality should reflect on the writer, not the company. It would be like blaming the paintbrush for the lousy picture, as opposed to blaming the artist.


DED- Thanks commenting and for liking it.

Scott Jensen said...


That was my point and assuredly the reason why they removed the Harlequin name from their vanity press.

And I agree that it is the author's quality of work that determines the quality of any book put out by a vanity press. That is why vanity presses have the reputations they do. So vanity presses do deserve the blame they get. They didn't write the garbage but they did print it. It is why I have never heard of any mainstream media book reviewer reviewing a book put out by them and all the owners and managers of bookstores I've known over the years only shelf those written by local authors. And they shelf them out of pity, the small local PR they create, and, mostly, because they don't want to alienate by saying "no" to a local book buyer (the author).

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


Yes, you have a point but don't you agree that in a free enterprise system, a company can charge for services rendered.

Harlequin has the right, as a company in this free nation, to either pay a writer for his or her work or charge them to publish their work. Writers, on the other had have the right to refuse to pay to have their work published or to pay to have it done.

If this country were a dictatorship, then those with dictatorial power would decide the issue, but seeing this is still a free country and people have freedom of choice, they should be allowed the freedom to decide if paying to have a book published is a good or a bad deal.

We are suppose to be wise in our choices because we are suppose to be adults. The only thing I see here that's wrong is that people are trying help those who want to spend their money to get a book on the markets because they believe in their book. Harlequin and a score of other self and vanity publishers provide that service, because, again, this is a free enterprise system and companies have that right.

It's not that isn't a wealth of information out there on the pitfalls involved in self or vanity publishing, so I don't think anyone is being fooled at this point, do you?

However, on the other hand, if Harlequin or any other company is defrauding its consumers, then it's up to the law, not individuals or groups, to decide this in court.

Scott Jensen said...


I'm a libertarian so I have no beef whatsoever with capitalism and freedom of speech and press. If someone wants to self-publish his/her book, more power to them. In a way, that's what I'm planning on doing with my novel that our series of posts were about not so long ago ... though I could make a pretty good argument that the advertisers will act as quality gatekeepers since I won't go forward without them on board. But back to the discussion at hand.

My point was how changing from a we-pay-you publisher to a you-pay-us publisher can hurt the brandname of such a publisher. How even having a vanity press as one of one's divisions (a supposed separate brand) can hurt the rest of the divisions (one's other established brands). The damage can be done in a number of ways.

Let us use another industry as an example to illustrate my point. You run a modeling agency that has for decades provided models for the fashion and magazine industries (from high to catalog). Then you hit hard times and are looking for new ways of making money. And there is one. A very lucrative one. Being a modeling agency for porn. There's little difference between what you do for high fashion photographers and porn photographers or between fashion magazines and porn magazines. You decide to do it. You, like Harlequin, even initially give this new division a name that includes your venerable agency name in its own. What do you think will happen? What would happen is what happened to Harlequin. Now let us say just like Harlequin, you get backslash and take out your venerable name from the new division's name and loudly proclaim it is it entirely independent of your venerable agency. Do you think the phrase "the damage has already been done" might still apply? Would women who want to be "legit" models shy away from your venerable agency for fear that their reputation will be similarly tarnished? Might they also shy away because they might fear you'll try to get them to work for your porn division if they aren't up to the standard for your venerable agency but definitely are for your porn division (which has no standards)? You can say to yourself and others in the industry that the public doesn't care, but that doesn't mean the industry doesn't. It won't mean the industry won't declare you not one of them anymore. And what happens when they do that? Fewer and fewer "honest" aspiring models audition at your venerable agency, those you do represent look for representation elsewhere, some big-name photographers stop using your venerable agency's models, and the snowball gains momentum and size as it rolls down that nasty slope.

What this is all about is brand management. Marketing. Harlequin blundered. It is already paying a price and that price will likely increase as time goes on. If their board of directors hired me as a marketing consultant to repair the damage, the first thing I would do is shut down the new division and fire those responsible for it. Yup, the CEO's head would roll with the others. Secondly, I would push editors to win literary awards in addition to making the bestseller lists. The human sacrifice (firings) will appease the gods (industry), the pursuit of excellence will help win back favor, and then time will hopefully do the rest. However, I would warn the board that some of the damage might never get repaired. Their venerable brandname might forever carry a tarnish to it.

Now I have nothing against Harlequin. The only news I know about it is what you guys here occasionally say about it. And correct me if I'm wrong but Harlequin publishes romances and, if so, they wouldn't even be a publisher I might ever pitch since I only like writing mysteries, science fiction, politics, and non-fiction (mainly business). This is just a theoretical discussion as far as I'm concerned. Just trying to understand the industry through you guys. :-)

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Your response assumes that all involved view the offering of self-publishing tools as something that makes a company an evil entity. Only writers who don’t understand the publishing world view it as such. Take someone outside, and they will probably look at that division as just another money-making endeavor. The problem with the perception of said company comes from ignorance and aspirations of success in an unfair hierarchy perpetuated by those who only find it unfair when they can’t breech it on any level. Just because Harlequin is offering them an option they don’t see as part of the established “way of doing things” and they judge it to perpetuate literary quality not good enough to meet their standards, doesn’t mean that it won’t meet other writers’ standards.

You use an interesting example, but it would only really be accurate if the modeling agency offered the tools to present yourself as a model, whether porn or otherwise. Your comparison of self-publishing to porn modeling says more about possible bias in your viewpoint than it speaks to the issue at hand. LOL You see this as a reputation damaging event that will scare “good” or “legitimate” writers/models away, when those terms are relative in these industries. To some companies, people who can produce the required product are always in demand, and those people don’t have to write like Hemingway or strut like Gisele Bundchen (and it would probably be better if they didn’t).

I think you’re saying that this move will chase away the good writers and thus Harlequin’s readers will gripe because of the lack of quality. I don’t agree. There will always be writers who write for money, regardless of the company’s dealings with other writers. There’s too many for EVERY single one of them to shy away, and in some cases, it may be good that some of the entrenched writers take a break and go search for another “less tarnished” publisher so that some new talent can sprout in their place.

Ooops, I think MY bias is showing now. LOL

One of the reasons Harlequin has been and continues to be venerable is because it represents all things publishing. It responds to reader needs and has always cultivated new writers. Now it’s got a division that offers writers a way to publish their work, just like a software company selling a Web design program to someone who wants to create a Web site. I think smart companies are in on everything in their industry to maximize their visibility and diversify their profit-making potential. That’s good business, not bad.

Yes, this is a theoretical discussion, and we don’t have all the info ourselves as this has been going on and changing for some months now. It’s good to be able to go back and forth with you because it offers different insights to blog readers. Thanks, Scott. --Sharene

Scott Jensen said...


I'm calling Harlequin evil? *LOL* Where did I say that? I feel straw being stuffed up my sleeve. ;)

As for my biases, they aren't mine. In numerous writing books, their authors warn new writers about vanity presses. And this isn't some new trend because of Harlequin. I remember the warnings in a number of writing books when I first looked into writing a novel some thirty years ago and have never seen a writing book since that recommends them. Not even books on how to self-publish one's book recommend going the route of vanity presses but instead they recommend to piece meal out one's book to specialists as they say vanity presses over-price for their services.

Now are you saying all those authors of writing books didn't know the industry they were writing about? Can you point to a single book on writing that advocates vanity presses that wasn't put out itself by a vanity press?

As for my example, it is a good one when dealing with brand management. As a marketing consultant, I have used it for decades in illustrating the importance of brand management to countless clients in all varieties of industries. Why I use it is become it is a bit risque and that gets people at dry meetings to perk up a bit. And never did I have a client not get the point. But if it helps, yes, you can simply replace the porn modeling division in the analogy with a division that charges models for representation that is associated with a we-pay-you modeling agency. Oh, and you will find ALL books about becoming a fashion model warn against paying a modeling agency to represent you. It is one of the first words of advice those in the industry tell aspiring models. It is one of the biggest and longest running scams in the modeling industry. A number of times I recall the heads of modeling agencies directly address this issue in press interviews and warning never to pay a modeling agency anything to represent you.

As for will the move by Harlequin "chase away the good writers and thus Harlequin’s readers will gripe because of the lack of quality", yes, your biases does show through. What appears to be a typical agent viewpoint that there is an endless sea of quality writers out there desperate for any chance of getting their books published. That you can line up all the current published ones against a wall, gun them down (possibly gleefully), and an endless line of more will eagerly take their place before the firing squad. Did I get the same amount of straw up into both of your sleeves there? I hate lop-sided straw men or straw women. :)

Now if we want to talk about bad analogies, we can discuss: "Now [Harlequin has] got a division that offers writers a way to publish their work, just like a software company selling a Web design program to someone who wants to create a Web site." That analogy confuses me. Who are you talking about? The teenager who wants to build her own website for her "cool" cat? If you're saying that vanity press authors only want to print a book for their own library and not sell it to others, I can see your point. Is that what you're saying? If, however, you're implying that a software company is trying to sell web design software to an uneducated public (no college degree in computer science) and telling them that they can then become a successful professional web designer, I (and I'm sure the Better Business Bureau) would really like you to give me a link to such a software company that is pitching their web design software that way. Having been a VP of Marketing for a computer consulting firm, I have never seen any software company pitch their web design software that way. It is either a very powerful insanely-complex web design program pitched to IT professionals or a simple-to-use relatively crude web design program sold to the public for them to make a website for themselves.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Hi Scott,

Thanks once again for participating in this discussion. I thought Sharene did a marvelous job of explaining that Harlequin is only offering another way to get a book out there.

Also, I’ve noticed that somehow this discussion has been turned into Wylie-Merrick, the champion of self-publishing. This is could not be further from the true. We are only advocating a company’s right to offer this service as an alternative way to get a book into reader’s hands.

And yes there are many how- to-write books that suggest self-pub shouldn’t be a writer’s first choice. We fully agree with that. People who wish to become professional novelists should first seek publishers willing to pay for the right to publish their product. However, what happens if someone wants to do it themselves? Are you saying that they shouldn’t have the right to do so because that might not be good for them? This doesn’t sound like a Libertarian viewpoint to me. It actually sounds very ultra-liberal—ban all porn because it might ruin a person’s eyesight. LOL

Yes, it is difficult to market a self-published book, but thousands still self-publish every year and I’m assuming that most know all the pitfalls. You are like many writers, Scott, in your assumption that anyone who self-publishes a book must be somehow misguided. This is not a very fair attitude and in fact is almost disrespectful. Have you, yourself, ever self-published a book? If not, don’t you think it rather presumptuous to assume failure? I, on the other hand, have self-published and did so knowing, full well, all the pitfalls in doing so. Yes, my book didn’t do well, but not for all the normal reasons which you and do- it-yourself advice writers proclaim. I self-published for the same reason most writers do. I had shopped my book to every publisher who published what I had written and was left with the choice to either publish it myself or put what I had sweated blood to produce under my bed and forget about it. I decided to pay someone to set up and print my little novel. It was my money and my choice and I’m glad I did it for the pure pleasure of seeing my writing in book form. I never tried to market my book. That was not my reason for publishing it. Would you deny me that privilege? Would you also deny a company’s right to offer that service?


Wylie Merrick Literary said...

As a followup on my last comment, here's a link to an interesting article for those who don't know much about self and POD publishing from a guy blogger who published his novel. You'll have to type the URL into your search engine as this comment section doesn't allow us to make links active.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

My response was too long so I'm posting the first few of my major points below...

1. I never meant to imply YOU called Harlequin or any other like entity evil. I was tapping into a generalized mindset out there and using it as a shadowy nemesis (a THEY, if you prefer) to get my point across. Hey, we all gotta have a foil, don’t we?

2. I never recommended vanity publishing for any writer, as it’s my opinion that if you don’t know enough about publishing to take a more traditional path to finding the success/career you want, you’re probably going to screw up self-publishing, too. :) Any job in entertainment is that way. Everyone thinks he/she can get on American Idol and become an overnight sensation with little effort. It’s happened, but that doesn’t mean it will happen for you, and don’t be surprised if it doesn’t. It might, just like your book might become a self-published sensation, but odds are it probably won’t. Self-publishing is a huge risk that should never considered unless a writer completely understands his/her own goals and what self-publishing can or can’t do for a book. Unfortunately, so many desperate writers have turned to this method and failed that everyone blames the “vanity” presses for making the opportunity available.

3. I think writers should have the option to self-publish if they want it, even if it’s a bad idea. There is a difference between describing what a self-publisher offers and demonizing it. Our industry went writer-centric for a while and things got out of balance, and many writing books had the underlying theme of writer empowerment. Other books more reasonably stated that self-publishing is what it is—extremely difficult and risky in both time and money. It is up to the writer to make that career decision. You can’t blame the company offering the tools any more than you can blame a fast food restaurant for someone’s obesity issues. People make choices. Sometimes they’re good and sometimes not. Sometimes they choose to eat a greasy cheeseburger and sometimes they choose to publish their book about their little puppy named Sparky in Swedish. Either is a risk…but I digress.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Here's the rest of my comment on your comment. :)

4. In regard to your example, you use the “sex sells” philosophy? Distracting and at the same time…distracting. LOL But I wasn’t distracted, so your plan didn’t work. HA HA! That’s how I could tell that it wasn’t the best example you could have used. The second example didn’t thrill me either, and I got your point. There’s a difference between scammers and self-publishers, though some companies may be one and the same, and painting all companies with one big brush does them and the writer a disservice. This is why I don’t advocate self-publishing unless someone has done a BUNCH of research, about the same amount that goes into finding a publisher (or should, but most people just assume all established publishers have their best interests at heart—if that were the case, literary agents wouldn’t exist).

5. As for the “endless sea of quality writers”…that depends on your definition of “quality.” Everyone assumes a quality book is literary, but commercial publishing doesn’t always publish literary. Only those houses wanting to entertain readers of literary fiction publish literary. Publishing is NOT about furthering the noble cause of enhancing society by introducing it to the next Great American Novel. If that happens, we all get together and shout, “Way cool!” If it doesn’t, we all take our checks to the bank and consider it a good day’s work that we’ve entertained someone. I certainly never suggested gleefully gunning down current published authors…I may have stuffed straw up your sleeve, but look what you stuffed in my hand. Violence, Scott, is soooo not the answer. :)

6. And finally, one bad analogy deserves another. I’m not actually going to give you one, but I just wanted to use that line. lol I do Web design, and I’ve seen a number of companies sell software deemed as “So simple a monkey could use it! Or even a VP of Marketing!” Yes, they market to their target demographic, but, like self-publishers, they are ALWAYS discussing the simplicity of their tools and I’ve seen a number of them market to a variety of users who want to create a personal OR business site. They’re not lying because they state what it can do and the software is simple and useful…for some of those users. Not for all. Some people aren’t going to be able to achieve the desired results with the software. Others won’t be able to get the package open (or download to work). You have to have a basic understanding of the what the whole Web site building thing is about before you even can determine what will suit your needs and get you the result you seek, just like self-publishing. People who rush into it ignorant of the fine print in the advertisements will not be happy with the outcome, but that’s not the fault of the company. Should a software company have to offer classes in Web design to not be considered a scammer when promoting its product? At some point, the consumer has to engage in the learning process, and those who don’t shouldn't design a site or publish a book.

Whew, I'm winded and it's past my bedtime. As ever, Scott, it's been fun discussing with you. And I didn't really mean it about the monkey and the VP of Marketing. Well, maybe a little. LOL

Mary McDonald said...

"Reader: I thought I was the “important people” in publishing?"

I think you just boiled the whole publishing thing down to the essence right there.