Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Own Your Decisions in Publishing

The writer loops have been all a-flutter with Ann Voss Peterson's very honest and well-reasoned post about why she's decided to no longer publish with Harlequin.

I applaud her frankness and her willingness to provide hard numbers to back up what most people who pay attention to the business side of things suspected or knew about publishing with Harlequin. It was great to see the bottom line of the number of books sold and the actual amount earned over various titles, and to see what the average royalty rate is (after sifting through all the various rates for different formats and different sales channels and different foreign markets.) I also applaud her right to make this decision and own it.

But what bothered me about some of the reaction out there in writer-land were the: "this is another example of publishers ripping us off!" comments.

Um. No. Harlequin isn't ripping authors off.

They aren't violating their contracts (like some publishers have), or failing to pay what they agreed to pay (like some publishers have)... They paid her what she was due according to the contract she signed.

To suggest that publishers are taking advantage of authors, infantilizes us. I don't know about you, but I consider myself a grown up. Immature, sure, but a grown up capable of making my own decisions.

Authors who sign contracts aren't (usually) idiots. They aren't being bamboozled. Yes, as that post illustrated, if that particular author had sold the same quantity of books on her own, or with just about any publisher, she would have made more money. BUT the big question is... Would she have sold that same volume of those particular books with anyone besides Harlequin?

It's kind of moot for her, because the self-publishing option wasn't viable when she published the books in question, so perhaps it's more interesting/relevant to wonder: if you're an aspiring author today, who's written a category-style romance, and you're trying to decide what to do, would you do better self-publishing or publishing with Harlequin? (Let's assume you've written a book strong enough that Harlequin wants to publish it and you're weighing the to-sign-or-not-to-sign question.

Only the crystal ball knows with certainty how things would turn out (and mine's in the shop), but especially for an unknown author who's written a short-format romance novel--a market that Harlequin virtually owns, owns globally--one would have to consider at least two major questions:
  1. Can I compete with Harlequin and sell as many copies of my book as they could and get it translated into as many languages and into as many markets?
  2. Would I rather make more money per book, or reach a wider audience?
There's no right or wrong answer--each of us has different goals and even when we have similar goals, we might choose to bet on a different horse, so to speak, but the questions have to be asked.

In my mind, by publishing with Harlequin, you give up revenue per book sold in order to: a) get the wide distribution (that's enough for some people), and b) gain name recognition to possibly launch yourself elsewhere at some point in the future.

We all make bets. None of us can predict the future or guarantee how many copies of any title will sell. But the point I started out this post planning to make is ;) whatever you decide to do in publishing: own your freaking decisions. If you're published by Harlequin, or whoever, and not making a huge amount per copy, don't let the pundits talk about you as if you're a child who was taken advantage of by your publisher.

And don't be that child.

Read your contracts before you sign. Learn about the industry. Think things through. Know yourself (your strengths/weaknesses and how much time and money you're willing to spend on marketing/promotion) and then decide how you want to be published. Weigh the pros and cons of all the options as best you can with the information available right now.

Then, if the world changes tomorrow and you regret a contract you signed?--and at the pace at which the industry is changing right now, it's hard to believe we won't all sign a few contracts we'll later regret--then don't whine. At least not publicly. Instead, whine to your friends (within reason) and drink beer (without reason).

Rant over.


Beth said...

Good points. :D I hadn't seen that article/discussion. But I've seen other discussions on the subject of HQ. I'll be watching that market with great interest.

Eileen said...

I think you've made a good point about the quantity and distribution of Harlequin books. The things that bother me, though, is how often when i question something, the answer is "it's industry standard." I've only been in publishing about 10 years now (not that long in the grander scheme of things) and I've seen a lot of clauses that are not favorable to the author become "industry standard."

We accept the less favorable clauses because we don't feel we can fight them alone and we're all very well aware of how many people there are who would gladly take our places.

We're not infants, but I, at least, am a big chicken and while I may grumble about payment on publication, I'll still sign on the dotted line.

Maureen McGowan said...

Thanks for commenting, Bethanne. :)

Eileen... I agree. There is another side to it. I just get frustrated by some of the rhetoric, some of it, I suspect, from people who've never managed to sell a book to a publisher in the first place.

It seems as if everyone who used to complain about how NY didn't "get" them or had no taste, in the wake of rejections, are now saying that anyone who does publish with NYC is an idiot. And Konrath has become their pied piper. He's really good at it.

And I think it was awesome that Von Peterson posted that detail about her earnings. If more authors did that, then they'd have a stronger position from which to negotiate changes.

One thing I'm hopeful about right now is that with all the rapid changes in the industry, and other publishing options available, that authors might finally be able to negotiate changes for some of these industry standards.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Maureen, and an equally great blog by Peterson, such a reasoned, sensible approach to things.
What is great about these publishing changes are there is no one way to achieve success as a writer, but that doesn't change that success is still hard and rare no matter what the approach is.

Anonymous said...

An excellent post. I found myself the target of quite a few "Why are you publishing with *them* or their associates?" posts after that article came out and it bothered me greatly.

If you feel you can self-pub and do it well - go for it. But I'm a bit tired of seeing successful writers who piggybacked on the backs of big publishers leap off and then turn around and declare all trade publishers to be monsters.

My mother told me to always be polite to those you meet on the way up - because you could meet them on the way down. Not that I'd wish for anyone to fail but it's important to remember that actions have consequences.

jmo, ymmv.

Anonymous said...

"If you feel you can self-pub and do it well - go for it. But I'm a bit tired of seeing successful writers who piggybacked on the backs of big publishers leap off and then turn around and declare all trade publishers to be monsters."

This is exactly my issue with Konrath and his devoted followers. Look, I've done ghostwriting and editing for self-published authors. I keep in touch with some of my clients to see how well their books are selling. From what I can ascertain, all of them (save one, and that person had an existing platform) spent more just to get a decent book on Amazon than they'll ever make in revenue.

If one has no public following, the chances of self-publishing genre fiction and racking up an impressive number of sales on Amazon are pretty slim. I also have my own agent and have pursued the traditional publishing route. My name is still fresh and I've yet to build an audience. I cannot say if I will or will not self-publish in the future. But if I do, I highly doubt I'd encourage new writers to go it alone straight out of the gate.

Molly O'Keefe said...

So good, Maureen. Such an important post.
I really appreciated Ann's post too - blunt conversations between authors about money are so so important and I applaud her honesty.

The Harlequin contract is a double-edged sword. But none of it is a secret - it's all right there in the contract. And they never promised anyone a career - you can get out anytime. But signing and saying you're getting ripped off diminishes your power. Own your shit!!!

Anonymous said...

oh and yes - we're all going to sign some shitty contracts, even without the benefit of hindsight.

Anonymous said...


Some of the authors I know tell me that Harlequin contracts are indeed particularly bad — so no, it definitely is no secret. However, they write for this publisher strictly for their own P.R., to continue to build platform. You do what you gotta do.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Ugh! I was traveling Wed and yesterday. So I coudln't comment on this awesome post and couldn't post yesterday.

But I plan to save all my thoughts for next week. I can't wait to share with everyone my "self-publishing" numbers.

Yes, yes yes - we have to own our own decisions. But to do that I think we all need a little more information.

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