Everything You Thought You Knew is Wrong

Earth time. by A National Acrobat
Earth time. by A National Acrobat

And this is what surprises me. Harlequin, you’re brilliant. You’ve made nothing but all the right steps in all these decades of publishing. You flourish where others founder. You took a great (welcome) leap with Carina, but this? This displays the business sense of a kindergartner.

–Moriah Jovan, Harlequin: Ur doin it rong

How fast is the publishing industry changing?

Two weeks ago, I praised Harlequin for their new digital-only imprint, Carina Press, noting that its business model, while not “new” by any stretch, was a great leap into the future for a traditional publisher to make, especially a well-established leader in its niche. Commentary about the new initiative was mostly positive all around, and purely measured on buzz, its announcement was a PR success.

Last week, they got a noticeably different response to another new initiative, the launch of a self-publishing program under the banner Harlequin Horizons, in partnership with Author Solutions, Inc.. The backlash was fast and furious  from both the Romance Writers Association and several outspoken members of the romance community, including Jackie Keesler, whose “Harlequin Horizons versus RWA” post is a must-read.

By almost any definition, last week was a PR disaster for Harlequin, but for authors, it was just the latest sign that everything you thought you knew about publishing  is wrong.

Ten years ago, when I worked for Poets & Writers, they didn’t accept advertising from vanity presses, and their definition was pretty strict and unwavering. A little over two years ago, when I worked for Writer’s Digest, we had some heated debates over how to handle the topic of self-publishing from an editorial perspective, as well as how to deal with the various advertisers in the space, some with worse reputations than others.

Earlier this year, Author Solutions acquired another one of its competitors, Xlibris; entered partnerships with traditional publishers Thomas Nelson and Harlequin to create self-publishing imprints; and partnered with Sony to make all of their books available as eBooks.

Other recent developments in the POD/self-publishing space include Amazon’s merger of Booksurge and CreateSpace; Lulu’s adding 200,000 eBooks from traditional publishers to their platform; and Andrew Sullivan is self-publishing a book via Blurb.

The publishing industry is changing dramatically, and while it’s much too early to predict where things will end up and whom will be left standing, one thing is very clear: the old rules are being thrown out the window.

Publishing, whether traditionally or DIY, is a business decision, not an artistic or political statement–it needs to be approached with a rational head; an understanding of the pros and cons; and a clear definition of what “success” means based on your own goals.

Everyone has their own agenda when it comes to publishing, but at the end of the day, it’s your book, your career, and your decision.

Anyone who tells you differently is either selling something, or clinging to the past.

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18 thoughts on “Everything You Thought You Knew is Wrong

  1. Exactly. Writing is made up of artistic decisions. How you publish is a personal business decision and YMMV.

  2. Publishing decisions are often part of the artist's intent when self-publishing in involved, aren't they? The decision to release a work under a CC license can be an artistic decision in itself, for example, can't it?

    Which isn't to say that you should make such a decision solely from an artistic perspective, just that practical limitations on the work (like having only glossy covers available) or meta-commentary play a part.

  3. What? A book is an artistic object, like a painting. Publishing is both a business decision and an artistic statement. To say it's only about business sucks the fun out of producing a book. What am I missing?

  4. You're not missing anything because you and I ultimately are on the same page. I believe that, first and foremost, there's a business decision to be made by every writer: is your book a commercial venture or an artistic one?

    If the primary goal is profit, all artistic decisions have to be made within certain parameters. If the primary goal is purely artistic, and profit isn't a concern, then all bets are off and creativity has free reign.

    Once that initial decision is made, some options will be on the table and some will be off.

  5. When it comes to writing, I think CC is a business decision first, an artistic concern second. And as I noted to Henry, once that initial decision of commerce vs. art is made, all other options can be viewed in their proper context.

  6. Hey Henry, hey Will. Business has to be part of the decision making process or we're kidding ourselves. I think a lot of people forget that punk had Malcolm MacLaren pushing the buttons. The decision to make my ebooks free is certainly based on the business proposition that I need readers if I'm ever going to make a living.

    On the other hand, I want to make my living writing so I can do more of it and give more of what I do away for free. HOW I publish is part artistic integrity – I am now at a stage where I don't think I'd be comfortable publishing my fiction through the mainstream because I want absolute editorial control, and I want to run my own marketing (which will of course have business repercussions Ihope will be favourable). On the other hand, I'd happily write articles I was paid for for journals with an editorial standpoint I could run with (I do do this).

    The point is, it's not as imple as one or the other, and each plays into the other. Anyone book business person who just cares about the bottom line will go bust; and anyone who claims artists are about nothing but freedom of expression at any cost needs to read a history book.

  7. I didn't mean to suggest that I thought publishing was *only* an artistic element, or an artistic decision *versus* a practical decision. Just that, as you say, it's not as simple as one or the other.

  8. “So you mean to tell me I can buy your book next week at Barnes & Noble,” says Mommy A.

    “No, actually, B&N won't carry independent titles like mine,” I replied.

    “What do you mean, independent title?”

    “I am releasing this book myself, I did it myself. ISBN, editing, distribution, without a publishing company.”

    “OH! So it's self-published! How cute! So you can give it as Christmas gifts! What a nice idea. I should do that.”

    That's the conversation I had yesterday at a birthday party our kids were at together.

    We can talk in our little community about how the publishing industry is changing and that the very earth beneath our feet is shifting. But most readers don't give a shit about independent writing and the term self-publishing is like lipstick on a pig.

    Wish us luck.


  9. Luck!

    However, if you are listed in the Ingram's catalog, you DO have the option of *being ordered* by someone walking in off the street. I would advise you to do that.

  10. is your book a commercial venture or an artistic one?

    Not necessarily sure it has to be either/or. Could be on a spectrum.

    As for primary goals, those war with each other every day. I'm an impatient control freak artiste with an entrepreneurial bent. It all runs together for me.

  11. What goes unmentioned in any debate over the legitimacy of self-publishing i the ego factor. In the minds of some, if not most, traditionally published authors, there is a cachet about having achieved the goal of getting the nod from the mainstream industry. They have worked hard. They have followed the rules. They have suffered multiple rejections. They have “paid their dues.”

    Then along comes someone who refuses to follow those rules and seeks alternatives. Should that someone actually be successful, it would challenge the accepted wisdom that there is only one legitimate way to become a published author. To those who embrace that accepted wisdom without reservation, that success would lessen the glow of their own achievement.

    So, those who would choose to self-publish (or sign with a publisher that doesn't pay advances or do print runs) are given dire warnings that they will never have their books in bookstores (not true) or will be scammed by their “publisher” (ironic, given they begin receiving royalties six months or less after their book comes out, and without any of it being held back against returns, and that their book remains in print as long as they and the publisher agree to keep it there).

    There is a huge level of turf-protection evident whenever one discusses alternative models of publishing with those who have succeeded in the traditional one; Harlequin Horizons is just the latest installment.

    Ten years ago, when on-demand printing was in its infancy, there was some basis for many of the cautions propagated by mainstream authors and agents, and their organizations. That they continue to repeat the same, decade-old “facts” as if nothing has changed says more about them than about the business models they condemn.

  12. Ego and turf protection are probably the BIGGEST factors in anti-self-publishing sentiment, and why vanity publishing and indie publishing are often combined in the debate to muddy the definitions.

    There's also the condescension of protecting the “innocent writer”, as if they're somehow an exception to the rules of caveat emptor and due diligence. Ten years ago, falling for a vanity publishing scam was easy; nowadays, though, there's simply no excuse.

  13. Agree absolutely with both of you. I talked a lot about industry protectionism earlier this year (if we independent writers are so awful, what is there to worry about? We'll soon go away), and got the answer you allude to above – that people are looking out for the interests of writers.

    I am, just to put it on record, quite capable of looking after my own interests wuithout someone to hold my hand. And if I'm not, well then more fool me. Please don't speak on my behalf – I have a big enough mouth of my own!! (That's aimed at those who do, not at you two, to be clear :))

  14. Hmm. People put their own money up for movies, plays, inventions, political campaigns, cabaret shows, etc. … and no one minds or thinks them any the less “legitimate.” What's with book publishing?

    The one thing you need to do this is…money. No doubt about it. Also control. Also keep your rights. All of them. However you can do that. So, if you can, I say go to it. If you can't, don't. In other words, traditional publishing is the poor sap's way out, right? Let's get that rumor started!!!

    I think if any “traditionally” published (and actually “traditional” publishing is self publishing) author would have his or her druthers, they'd keep their rights and everything else, not succumb to an editor who has a distorted view of what a success might mean (for the house, not the author) and a lack of control over many important aspects pertaining to the book.

    There are projects of mine that I think are good for a “traditional” book publishing route – frankly, I think there's money to be made that way. But I also have projects that I know are not currently marketable by any but very small companies that just keep closing down or saying, “We love it but we can't.” If you can put the money forth for printing and for marketing and learn from mistakes (yours and others) … why the heck not? We live in a time where we can have a choice.

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