Monday, July 11, 2011

"The Good News is You Write for Harlequin...."

"The bad news is, you write for Harlequin." This was one of my favorite lines from the RWA conference. Super Agents Gottleib and Steve Axelrod said it during the PAN keynote address on the State of the Union.

This was their answer regarding the outrage a lot of Harlequin authors have and had about the change in royalty rates for digital books. For those that didn't know Harlequin has been paying the same royalty rate for digital books as print, while the rest of the industry has been paying %25 of net sales. This has outraged Harlequin authors and for pretty good reason - it's less than the industry standard. So, before Nationals, Harlequin changed it to 25% net for single title authors and 15% for category authors. And they made it retroactive.

Harlequin thought they were doing a good thing - and they were. Making it retroactive was more than they needed to do. But still...there was outrage.

1. Harlequin handled it in sort of a ham handed way. They sent a letter to agents. Almost no author got a letter directly and many authors don't have agents. So, instead of handling the release of this new information - it exploded on author loops where rage and paranoia breed like crazy. And I think because Harlequin thought they were doing a good thing (and they are) they had in the letter an opt out date. So, if you don't want the 25% you have to notify us in writing. Well, for people who have been writing under one of the most unchangeable nonnegotiable contracts in the publishing world - this was sort of...laissez-faire.

2. The discrepancy between category and single title was a shocker for a lot of writers. I don't think a lot of women knew that there was a discrepancy in royalty rates between HQN/MIRA and series imprints. Harlequin's rationale is that reader's of series romance read according to line - not according to author. And so some of that money needs to be kicked back to maintaining the brand.

This is true is broad strokes. For the most part people don't seek me out. But they sure as hell seek out BJ Daniels or Karen Templeton. But I think Harlequin starts to fall apart when it comes to this mandate and the digital world. Sure, lots of people do a one click buy of all the Presents books in a month - but that is changing by the minute. By. The. Minute. And I think Harlequin knows that. There sure as hell are plenty of authors hammering on their doors willing to tell them.

All the publishers know that. Another one of my favorite lines was Steve Axelrod telling the publisher of St. Martin's that everything will change when publishers realize they've been underpaying their authors on digital rights.

Right now romance digital sales are keeping Economic textbooks in warehouses and paying the printing costs of those literary novels no one ever reads.

Part of the optimism felt by everyone at Nationals was due to everyone feeling like they've cornered their role in the digital world. Authors can self-publish, agents can help authors do that, and publishing houses have all opened digital first lines, hoping to get new talent and new money in their doors.

I'm a sit around a wait kind of gal. Or maybe it's lazy. Or maybe I don't see the point of getting too riled up until we really see how things are going to shake out. I don't know, but I can't get super wound up about the 25-15% thing. Maybe it will change. I hope it will. I hope the women shaking their fists understand the repercussions of waking up the monster. Because the only thing I really know is - 'the good news is, I write for Harlequin. The bad news is, I write for Harlequin.'


Maureen McGowan said...

The reaction to that news was interesting for sure... Made me shake my head when you told me about it.

I think it yet again proved why an author wants/needs to have an agent if they want to play in a big sandbox. Someone to deal with this stuff, parse through it, explain it and if needed fight.

Personally? (and who cares what I think, I don't write for Harlequin) I'm not sure I buy the justification they've given for the lower digital rates for series books, because, when it comes to back lists, I think readers will be buying their favorite authors, not the lines... They may buy the new releases by lines, but not sure that's how they'll buy the back lists... but I'm guessing. Harlequin might have market research to prove me wrong.

That said, I might buy the argument that they have a HUGE number of books to digitize (way more than in their single title imprints) and that they may not sell more than a handful of most titles, so perhaps they can't afford to promise as high a royalty rate on those books, because they need to cover the costs of the digitizing and getting them out there... But that would have been a pessimistic reason (we don't think these will sell well enough) so I can see not using it.

I do predict that the agents of some of the already big name former series authors will opt out and negotiating higher rates... That's what I'd do if I repped Tami Hoag or Nora Roberts or Jennifer Crusie, or Tess Gerritsen or Suzanne Brockman or any of many now NYT bestsellers who have series romances in their back lists... Or maybe it's such a small drop in the bucket for those folks they won't care... But I'll bet those are the titles that will sell best. The titles that are rare and hard to find in print, yet readers are curious about... (and readers will be buying those by author, not line)

Eileen said...

There was an opt out date, but not all the authors were notified? That seems . . . wrong. I'm always impressed by the authors who seem to be able to navigate through publishing without an agent. I feel like I lack some kind of gene or something that would let me do that. This is one of those instances, where even having that gene wouldn't help.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I think the backlist thing is going to be TOTALLY about the author TOTALLY. And for sure those huge names are getting different royalty rates - they have to be. Those books getting reprinted every three years aren't getting the same contracts I am.

And I've been thinking why I'm not so up in arms about this - is it because I have an agent? Probably. She gets fifteen percent to be the cool head and she is. She's said she thinks this will change and soon. I believe her.

Then I thought, well, maybe it's because I don't have another contract with Harlequin - but backlist is backlist and with a single title launch that backlist will hopefully see some action. So, i should really care. Why don't I?

Was I going to get those rights back? No. not for a while. And even if I did get them this really all boils down to - I'm so lazy. I know that I wouldn't have self-published. So, right now, this seems like free money I dont have to do anything to get. I don't even have to opt out. I just have to go with the flow.

Sinead M said...

Interesting, Molly. Digital royalties and the discussion around them are going to be a point of contention until a publisher gets it right.

It will be interesting to see which one does, and how the other publishers react..

Stephanie Doyle said...

Totally agree with everything you said. As I said before - getting your backlist, revamping your titles, finding the actual word file or whatever... all pains in the butt.

I'll take my 15% for now.

Patrice Kavanaugh said...

I think I'll choose whether or not to get riled up about this if/when I'm in your position, that is, being published by Harlequin! Until then, I'll observe from the sidelines...and keep my fingers on the keyboard, writing, editing, polishing.

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