Harlequin’s vanity press and your bottom line

The allure of vanity publishing

The vanity press siren sings, promising struggling writers salvation from the tempestuous seas of publishing

The cyber lines are buzzing these days about Harlequin’s new vanity publishing line, DellArte Press, and the eHarlequin manuscript critique service.  DellArte Press, originally called Horizons, drew snide references to prostitution (“Harlequin Ho”) as writers, angry at what they saw as Harlequin’s willingness to prey on pre-published writer’s dreams, vented their frustration. 

So what’s the big deal about publishers offering vanity publishing?  Random House and others own self-publishing companies.  Why is Harlequin’s venture different, and why are so many writers upset?  Why are major writer’s groups such as Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Science Fiction Writers of America, and other respected industry groups closing their conference and contest doors to the biggest romance publisher in the world?

They are trying to protect dreams. 

 Our dreams.

Creative people dream with more imagination and passion, dreams strong enough to survive the ravages of continuous challenges and setbacks.

Among published authors, only a handful have enjoyed instant success. The rest of us suffered through years of frustration, tears, and despair before we were offered our first contract. (Eight years for me.)  A glance through history at artists of all kinds reveals that this is nothing new.  Over the centuries many artistic geniuses led lives of desperation, poverty, depression. In many cases only after their deaths did their works gain public acclaim.

Case in point:  Henry David Thoreau. His A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), a publication he paid for out of his own pocket, was a dismal failure. Anyone who has self-published can appreciate that 700 copies of this book collected dust on Thoreau’s bookshelves.

 Case in point: Edgar Allen Poe, the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living through writing alone, resulting in a financially difficult life and career. (I read somewhere he received $9 in payment for The Raven.)

I could mention more, but my purpose is not to send you into a New Year depression, but to illustrate the power of writers’ dreams, even in the face of adversity.

But the dream takes its toll, leaving many writers tunnel-visioned and vulnerable. That desperation is tapped by greedy individuals bent on profit at any cost. They make promises carefully crafted to entice without legal indictment, suggesting to the hopeful writer that he or she will finally be published by sheer association if they buy their services–editorial, marketing or distribution. These vanity publishers line their pockets with hopeful writer’s money, never caring that their greed will add insult and hardship to the hopeful writer’s journey. Writer’s organizations like Preditors and Editors and our own RMFW have stepped in to protect us from our own ignorance, identifying companies suspected of being wolves in sheep’s clothing.  The professional writer’s groups serve as watchdogs against these “opportuneurs.”

This whole Harlequin brouhaha is about one of the good guys –  Harlequin, a global leader in romance for decades – stepping over to the dark side.

“The offer is reprehensible,” says Literary Agent Ashley Grayson.  “For between $600 and $1,600 you can pretend to be a published author. You won’t be really published, because no commercial publisher liked your book well enough to bring it to market. They will just pretend to offer it for sale if you pay the costs.”

Bottom line:

Invest time and belief in your talent. If you have shopped your first novel thoroughly and find no takers, start another novel. Your craft will grow with each book. Your writing will get better.  Keep trying. If you’re tempted to self-pub and decide to surrender your checkbook, go through this check list first.

/__/ You have used the (free) Query Tracker and accumulated over 100 rejections

/__/ Your book doesn’t fit the current publishing market

/__/ You have tried several small presses to no avail

/__/ Fellow CP’s tell you your craft is pub-ready and you can’t wait

/__/ Your frustration has morphed to rebellion-you just want t hold your &^*# book

/__/ You feel you must host your own book signing before you die

/__/ You’re ready to invest $$ and energy to print and distribute your own book

/__/ You realize self-publishing takes huge chunks of time from your writing

/__/ You’re willing to do your homework so you don’t get victimized

First step: shed any veils of ignorance before they cost you dearly.

I have had the pleasure of serving on the RMFW anthology committee for both Tales from Mistwillow and Broken Links, Mended Lives, books published by our own RMFW Press.  I have learned much about editorial preparation, promotion and distribution.  Should you get a chance to volunteer to serve on the committee for future anthologies, I highly recommend this opportunity not only for the joy of getting your work published, but also for the chance to become knowledgeable about publishing. Knowledge is power. 

Review the following options, and read the referenced articles I added at the bottom of this column. If it’s daunting, read one a day for a week. About sixty minutes worth of time.  Hey, since you have already invested months or years in your book, sixty minutes is a blink. 


We all know this option.  Get lucky. Strike gold. Get an agent and a  contract with a nice advance from a major publisher that knows how to get your books on the shelves of the major book chains and Tattered Cover. Yes!  Reviewers listen up when the publisher sends press releases and ARCs (advance reading copies).  As the Mastercard ad spokesman says, this experience is “priceless.”


I can tell you from personal experience that this option is thrilling.  Sell your story to a small, respected  publisher.  You may be offered an advance anywhere from zero to $2,000 or $5,000.  True, it’s a little like eating Red Robin Burgers instead of the fine cuisine at Morton’s Steakhouse.  The  linen could likely be made of paper, and instead of bone china you may be using plastic forks. The hostess may serve double time as the cashier, and the condiments may have to be squirted, but the food is tasty and satisfying. It’s a bona fide publisher with an established distribution system, and you’re holding your book in your hand. More will be required of you regarding cover art, promo materials and publicity.  Your book may enjoy a longer shelf life than Option A, but your book will not be readily found on book store shelves.  That, too, is where you’ll invest extra energy.


It’s a big, big step from Options A and B to Option C. To self-publish, you will need to pay for everything related to your book’s production: editing, copy editing, title, print prep, cover production, legal issues regarding content, book printing, shipping, soliciting reviews, providing ARCS (advance reading copies) to potential reviewers, distribution, and all promotion (postcards, bookmarks, media kits, travel, book signings, costs related to book tours, media interviews.  After all this, you will receive 100% of the retail cost of any books you sell—if you avoid the self-pub preditors.  More on that later.

To successfully self-publish, you will need special skills. You’ve doubtless heard of many self-pub successes. Before you make like the little train who could and start chanting, “Yes, I can! Yes, I can,” consider these real-life self-pub examples (taken from http://www.llumina.com/self_publishing.htm)

James Redfield sold 100,000 copies of The Celestine Prophecy out of the trunk of his Honda before Warner Books picked it up with an $800,000 advance. It went on to # 1 on the NYT best-selling list and sold over 5.5 million copies.  Can you sell 100,000 (or even 50,000) copies of your book to gain a major publisher’s attention?  Or if you just want to rake in an average advance and forgo the fame and national distribution, how will you sell 5,000 copies of your book by yourself?

The 87-page book, The Christmas Box, took Rick Evans six weeks to write. After getting it published himself, it did so well he sold out to Simon & Schuster for $4.2 million.  Shall we talk about how well Rick Evans did in selling his book?  Evans was an advertising executive in November of 1992 when he wrote the book.  By mid-November of 1993 he had done his own marketing and found a distributor. They had sold 3,000 copies. By December of 1994 250,000 copies had been sold and Evans flew to New York with the agent his hard-earned sales had secured. 24 – yes, 24 – publishers vied for the right to print his book. Heady numbers, but look back at Evans’ early efforts.  Are you an experienced marketer?  Are you good at sales?  Are you prepared to work for a full year to sell 3,000 copies of your book? 

Twelve Golden Threads by Aliske Webb was rejected by 150 publishers. After self- publishing and selling 25,000 copies, she signed a four-book contract with HarperCollins. Look again at those numbers.  She sold 25,000 copies of her self-published book.

Keep these cases in mind as you contemplate the best route for your writer’s journey and for your novel.  If you choose this option, plan for success and be ready to work.

OPTION D – WARNING WARNING WARNING.  If you must close your eyes and jump and want no part of marketing or distribution, you can certainly approach one of the vanity publishers.  First, be aware that most if not all published authors advise against this option.  It’s not because they don’t want you to succeed.  It’s because they don’t want you to be victimized because of your dream.  This is precisely why RMFW, RWA, SFWA, MWA and other professional writing groups have developed updated guidelines that define an approved publisher.

Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware, and know that if you choose the vanity press route, you will buy. Any buy. And buy, so get your checkbook ready. In addition to paying for the book and its shipping, you will pay for any and all editorial and marketing services and goods. They may or may not be competent services, either, so be sure to get a list of references, and research them. Are the authors glad they published through this particular company?  Be prepared, too, for the most unkind bite of all: you will likely receive just a small percentage of your book sales –  perhaps only 25%. Contracts vary.  Read every word.


Because they have been captivated by a siren song. I don’t see much difference from this and time share salesmen.  They catch you on vacation, relaxing in a beautiful place, and they dangle beautifully appointed condos in front of you, promising luxury and beauty and serenity for the rest of your days if you just sign on the dotted line.  The writer, thirsty and yearning to be published, responds to slick advertising and well-worded promises that mean nothing–instead of researching and being a smart consumer.

Whatever options you’re considering, remember that the publishing industry was an industry based on ink and paper, stuff you can feel and touch.  Digital technology and the Internet have  forever changed that. We cannot go back, and none of us know how it will all settle. 

Publishing with a big house has changed, too.  They have the muscle of distribution and promotion, but companies are consolidating, editorial staffs are shrinking, and the big publishers offer less services and expect more from their authors. Editorial staffs have been drastically slashed. Many NY editors don’t have the time to edit, and will only accept pub-ready novels.  Editing duties have been absorbed by agents, many of whom used to be editors themselves, or by independent editors hired by savvy writers who recognize that their novels need help to become  pub-ready. 

All publishers, big and small alike, expect their authors to promote–not just their books, but books by other authors from that house, as well.  Authors are expected to establish and maintain such self-promoting vehicles as web sites, blogs, Tweets, and other social media sites.  They expect their authors to plan and attend several book signings, and may expect their authors to pick up the tab for previously provided services such as book marks and other promo pieces.  

There’s that new frontier, e-publishing, an area publishers and authors alike are eyeing.  The game is changing every day with e-readers, e-books, fan fiction, and innovative on-line writing contests held by publishers to eliminate the cumbersome system of the slush pile. 

Be it published words on paper or “published” digital words on a state-of-the-art e-reader, though, the world is hungry for stories … and writers are driven to tell them.  In our efforts to write and market our stories, we affect our own bottom lines.  If we decide to write nothing, we’ll reap nothing.  If we decide to submit nothing, we’ll hear nothing.  If we decide to wait until someone else decides the fate of our novel, we will keep waiting until our timing, our talent, or just dumb luck improves. The stars will align and our books will be featured in Publisher’s Weekly.

If not, consider your options carefully.  Print on demand, small presses, book doctors, paid editors– you choose.  It all depends on your objective. If you just want to see-touch-smell-sign your book, POD may be the fastest, simplest method. 

If you want to be famous, a large publishing house will probably be your long-term goal. Patiently develop intermediate steps to raise your craft to the level needed to break in.  Develop your “brand” or “platform” (see resources, listed at the end of this article), which will help convince the publisher that you can create the type of “buzz” needed to enhance their sales efforts.

Perhaps you’re good at marketing and sales. If you are blessed with the captivating charm and story-telling abilities of another famous self-publisher, Mark Twain, you can take the self-publishing route and sell enough books that the New York publishers can no longer afford to ignore you.

If you’re content to make a modest amount of money, you can self-pub and hand-sell 500 copies of your book, or sell your novel to a small publisher who has a modest but existing chain of distribution.

See?  You need not be desperate or fall victim to people determined to fleece you by using your own dreams against you.  Harlequin, Shmarlequin. This, too, shall pass.  They’re too big to be ignored, and this crisis will play itself out.  You can use this crisis, though, to crystalize your writing goals and spare yourself financial loss.

If you pay to get your book printed, and it’s printed at a reasonable price, it’s self publishing. If printing costs are exorbitant, if you’re nickle-and-dimed for many added-at-the-last-minute-after-you’ve-said-yes services, it’s vanity publishing. If you don’t earn 100% on the sale of each book you’ve paid to produce, it’s vanity publishing. Stated differently, if the printer you have paid to print your book takes any percentage of the income from books you sell, it’s vanity publishing,  and not good business sense.  Do not be fooled!  You cannot improve your chances of being published with the big publisher, Harlequin, by paying for their DellArte Press/aka Horizon services.

You can hold your own book in your hand without resorting to a vanity press.  And this, I think, is the gem of wisdom that lies beneath all this Harlequin hoopla.

* * * * * There is much to learn about how publishing works. The following articles will help you understand the critical difference between major publishers, small publishers and self-publishing companies, including Print-On-Demand and an overview on e-publishing. You are your novel’s strongest advocate. Becoming informed about marketing options will help you make the best decision about your story.



Nora Roberts’ comments about Harlequin’s vanity press: http://tinyurl.com/ygpvt5y 

Laura Resnick’s definition of publishers and vanity presses http://tinyurl.com/ybkzjbz

Good overview of publishing (scroll down to middle of the page): http://tinyurl.com/ye45cpl

Platform: how to sell your book http://tinyurl.com/yjjtqum

 * * * * * * * Wishing you much luck and joy with your writing!

Have thoughts on the topic?  I invite you to share them here.   –Janet


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Filed under get published, success techniques, The Writing Life

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