…and yet oddly, nobody feels like thanking her. (Edited to add: this is supposed to signal that I’m being tongue-in-cheek, and my goal is not to say “This is the answer!” but to start a dialogue; but obviously some things don’t come across in clear text.)
RWA has announced that it will be holding a special board meeting to decide how to deal with Harlequin’s announcement that it will include a vanity press going forward. I’ve been thinking about this, up and down, right and left, on and off ever since the announcement was made, and I’ve come to a handful of conclusions, which I now share with you (and which I will eventually pass on to RWA’s Board just as soon as everybody’s done shooting holes in it).
Since this is long and boring, it is after the jump, so that those of you who don’t care about RWA and vanity publishing can breathe a sigh of relief and go on your merry ways.
Before I get into this, I have to tell you a few of my working assumptions walking into this.
1. RWA’s interests as an organization.
a. RWA has an interest in providing education to its authors. A publisher on RWA’s “Eligible Publisher” list belongs there if it provides a viable avenue for an author to have a serious career writing romance.
b. RWA has an interest in making sure that publishers who are compensated for coming to RWA conferences are there to help make money for authors (furthering RWA’s purposes), rather than off them (frustrating them).
c. On the flip side of that coin, RWA has an interest in facilitating interactions between all publishers that provide a reasonably-sized stepping stone in a career, and the career-minded romance writers who make up the membership of RWA.
Note what’s left off, and this may be controversial (at least until I explain what I mean): RWA, I do not think, has a legitimate interest in “punishing” Harlequin for its choice to run a vanity press (however outraged members of RWA might be). Nor does it have a legitimate interest in pressuring Harlequin to divest itself of the business. My point is not that no member of RWA has an interest in how Harlequin runs its business. We do; individually, if we want to “punish” Harlequin or pressure it to divest itself of its vanity press wing, we are free to do that.
What we are not free to do, as a group of authors, is to enter into a combination to tell Harlequin they may not make contracts at all with competitors. And the reason why we cannot do that is that it would be illegal under antitrust law. (Some people will point out that the DellArte folks aren’t really our “competitors”–but they do produce substitute goods, however imperfect that substitute might be–and they do it at substantially lower cost to Harlequin).
RWA should hesitate to take collective action that looks like our goal is designed to raise the price of our services, because we could easily run afoul of antitrust law. Protecting other authors? Fine. Making sure that conference comps are used wisely? Also fine. Collectively pressuring an organization to raise the price of the books that we produce? That’s a per se violation of antitrust law, and it’s punishable by criminal penalities, along side civil treble damages.
When I say I don’t think RWA has a legitimate interest in those things, I am not trying to say that the interest is not important to individual writers; I am trying to say that the interest must not be carried out through a collective organization of writers without risking massive legal penalties.
So, here’s the question I heard from a million (well, four) different people over the last handful of weeks: “Why are we punishing all the Harlequin lines for what is a breach by one part of Harlequin Enterprises?”
There’s an easy answer to that question: None of the Harlequin lines have applied for eligibility as a publisher. “Harlequin Enterprises” applied as a whole; “Harlequin Presents” did not. Therefore, Harlequin Enterprises as a whole is banned by any vanity/subsidy activity in any of its branches. I also note that even though Carina Press does not use the name “Harlequin” it still identifies itself as a division of Harlequin Enterprises, and so as a subset of Harlequin Enterprises, Carina’s existence should exclude the whole of Harlequin Enterprises, under the current bylaws and Harlequin’s current application.
Note that I place no moral consequences to this statement; this is just a neutral application of the bylaws, not yet a statement of what I think should happen.
Second Question: Could, say, Harlequin Presents be allowed to apply for publisher eligibility as an entity in its own right?
To answer this, we have to ask what constitutes a “publisher” under the RWA bylaws and its policies and procedures. And, interestingly enough, the bylaws are silent on the question. But, as a matter of course, it appears that RWA appears to give considerable deference to the entity applying for publisher status. Thus, for instance, both “HarperCollins” and “Avon Books” appear on RWA’s Eligible Publisher list, even though Avon is not, to the best of my knowledge, an actual separate corporate entity. Likewise, NAL and Berkley are both listed, even though they’re both under the mighty wings of Penguin. And so on.
RWA could try to define what constitutes a “publisher” in the bylaws, but that gets tricky. If they share editorial, do you consider them a separate publisher? What about cases where an editor may edit for several different imprints within a line (there are tons of those)? What about cases where editorial is separate, but marketing and art departments are merged? What happens if there is a reorganization? Does it really behoove RWA to enquire deeply into the business structure of publishers? What if a publisher outsources aspects of editorial elsewhere; do you ding them if they send copy-editing out to a freelance service that also freelances for Authonomy? Defining what constitutes a “publisher” sounds like a giant freaking mess. Currently, RWA appears to deal with that by letting publishers define who exactly they are when they apply for eligibility.
So here’s a simple solution: Carry on with the status quo and let the publisher define what constitutes a publisher. Under the bylaws, I see nothing that says that Harlequin Presents, Harlequin American, Harlequin Historicals, and so forth can’t apply as separate publishers in their own right.
Problem solved. Right?
Well…. no. Because while this alleviates the conflict with RWA’s first interest (it limits the “RWA Eligible” publisher list to include only those that could viably advance an author’s career, thus not giving RWA imprimatur to an imprint that doesn’t meet its criteria), it doesn’t do anything for the second interest, which is that it gives comped space at RWA’s conference to a publisher who has stated that it will include advertisements for DellArte press in rejections, and so anyone who pitches to an editor from, say Harlequin Presents at RWA Nationals may end up getting what is essentially an RWA-comped referral to vanity publishing. No good.
Quick fix: Amend the policies and procedures to say that no RWA Eligible publisher can refer rejections to a vanity or subsidy publisher (this is obvious); and amend the policies and procedures to say that a publisher must produce at least N books a year (where N is an amount that may be hypothetically set at 24).
This would allow publishers to manipulate what constitutes a “publisher,” to spin off parts of themselves. I don’t think this is a bad thing—publishing is changing, and I think it’s okay for traditional publishers to experiment. In fact, to the extent that I want to have a career in 20 years, I think it’s vital that traditional publishers experiment. RWA doesn’t have to grant recognition to all those experiments immediately, but at least it won’t be punishing publishers for the experimentation. Not all of the experiments will be good, but we shouldn’t be so hidebound that we disallow the whole for the part. (Let’s be clear: I dislike vanity publishing and am not a fan of DellArte; but I am a huge fan of Carina, and am pleased that Harlequin is trying to make digital publishing work for them. I also think both experiments disqualify the whole of Harlequin Enterprises, under the current bylaws. Right now I am stating what I see to be the Law of the Bylaws, not Courtney’s Moral View of the Universe, Seen through the Lens of Harlequin).
So, what would Courtney’s little plan mean, specifically?
First, it means that some divisions of Harlequin may actually be able to come to Nationals, so long as they certify that they won’t be sending rejections to slush.
Disclosure: people most likely to benefit includes me; since the single-title arms of Harlequin accept only agented solutions, it might be a simple matter for them to certify that they aren’t going to refer rejections to vanity publishing. But it might help other divisions, too—for instance, I don’t know if the London office will also refer to DellArte.
Second, it means that RWA can allow Harlequin to tailor its response to minimize the damage done to both Harlequin and Harlequin authors.
Third, while it doesn’t provide RWA with a tool to collectively pressure Harlequin into changing its business practices, it does provide Harlequin authors with a very specific request to bring to editors, thus making individual pressure more effective. My guess is that you might find that some lines will begin compliance before others; this allows Harlequin to come up with a piecemeal solution to the public outrage.
Fourth… no, first, wait and listen to the silence right now, because this is the part where what I’m thinking goes kaboom, this provides a way for solid e-publishers to become RWA Eligible, with only minor alterations to their practices.
What? You don’t see it? It becomes trivial at this point. Say you’re Samhain Publishing. You create two lines: Samhain Regular and Samhain Gold. Books accepted into the Samhain Gold category are guaranteed an advance on royalties of $1,000.
“But Courtney,” you say, “that is not a minor alteration. The e-publishing model doesn’t include an advance.”
Well, why not? Let’s face it—if an e-publisher isn’t publishing 24 sure-thing-you’ll earn more than $1,000 in royalty-books in a year, it doesn’t deserve the resources we’d devote to it at Conference. I have no problem restricting RWA conference resources (which members provide through conference fees and membership dues) to publishers that guarantee a certain level of income for writers.
One of the reasons I believe e-publishers should be included in RWA eligibility is that I really do believe that the best of them provide substantial career opportunities for their authors. (I mention Samhain as one of them because I think Samhain is one of the best e-publishers—they get most of my e-publishing dollars. Thanks, Samhain!). This change allows Samhain to continue to take risks on new stories, but to get credit for the guarantee they can make.
“But Courtney,” you say, “you’re still missing the point. Advances would require leveraging, and e-publishing is a lean, mean business that doesn’t leverage.” Ha! Nowhere in the bylaws does it say an advance needs to be paid on signing. Tons of print published authors have portions of their advance due on publication; some of them even have portions paid after publication.
So create something like Samhain Gold, which guarantees an advance of at least $1000, to be paid when earned, or one year after publication, whichever comes first. I’m guessing that this is going to make not one iota of difference in the way Samhain pays the authors that it promotes to Samhain Gold; Samhain then gets to send editors to conference (comped) (provided that they take pitches only for the Samhain Gold line), and we have a very simple test for allowing e-publishers: If you believe you can guarantee decent royalties for a good number of authors (although not for all of them), you’re in.
If you can’t provide that, work at building an audience and come back later.
All righty. Courtney has now solved all of RWA’s problems; now it’s time for her to go solve her own. You tell me how crazy I am.