Harlequin Enterprises - New Horizons or new controversy?

by Kayla Perrin

For anyone in the publishing business, this has been one of the most interesting weeks in a long time. Bloggers are busier than ever, and people who mostly lurk on writing loops are engaging in heated discussions.

What's the fuss?

Only the biggest industry news in a long time. Romance giant, Harlequin Enterprises, announced that it is starting a new venture, Harlequin Horizons. Normally when Harlequin starts a new line, it's a cause for celebration. Aspiring authors are excited about a possible new avenue to get published. But not this time. The reaction has been swift and ugly.

Why is that you may ask?

Because Harlequin Horizons is a self-publishing line. In other words, aspiring authors will have to pay Harlequin for the privilege of being published.

What has authors even more upset is that this line is actually worse than self-publishing, where the author keeps 100% of the profit for the money that she puts into getting her book published. In fact, the new Horizons line is actually a vanity publisher--authors will put 100% of the cost into publishing their work, and only get 50% of the net profit. Worse still, Harlequin is allegedly going to be suggesting that the authors they reject try the Horizons line.

For a humorous "summary", check out Jackie Kessler's blog.

When I said the reaction has been swift and ugly, that's no exaggeration. Even Nora Roberts has chimed in, taking a firm stance against Harlequin for encouraging rejected writers to pay money to get published. Her point--why should a writer pay for the privilege of having the Harlequin name on a book that Harlequin deemed unworthy of publishing traditionally? If you have a few hours to spare and you haven't already, check out the hundreds of comments on the Smart Bitches blog. Nora has been very vocal over there, and apparently she and a self-published author named Zoe Winters have been having a bit of a cat fight, debating the merits of self-publishing.

Writers' groups have been swift to respond as well. RWA--Romance Writers of America--sent out a letter earlier this week to its membership saying that by having a self-publishing/vanity publishing division, Harlequin no longer qualifies as an RWA approved publisher. This means that Harlequin is no longer eligible for free conference rooms nor comped conference fees for its editors at the national conference. I believe it also means that they won't link to Harlequin on its site or promote it in any way in promotional materials. Being published with Harlequin will also no longer qualify a member to join PAN--the Published Authors Network within RWA.

My reaction to reading the letter was a jaw-dropping, "What??" I mean, RWA without Harlequin? It is impossible for me to imagine. We're talking romance mega-giant here. I honestly felt that RWA needed to take another approach, perhaps engage in dialogue with Harlequin first before just dropping them. As another writer pointed out, if Harlequin is no longer a recognized publisher, then the current president and president-elect of RWA could be ousted from their positions. Perhaps not--but, it could certainly affect future presidents and board members. Not to mention how banning HQ books from the Rita competition will affect the contest. Many of the Rita categories cater to series romance. RWA would lose a ton of money on entrant fees if books published by Harlequin could not be entered in the Ritas. And we're not just talking series romance, we're talking single title romances published by Harlequin and romantic suspense published by Mira.

The very next day, I got an email from Donna Hayes that she sent out to all Harlequin authors. She said she was shocked to learn that HQ had been dropped from RWA's list of approved publishers after RWA had sent out that email to its membership. She said that RWA didn't even contact them to open dialogue re the matter. Personally, I think that's something that RWA should have done. Mystery Writers of America did just that, contacting Harlequin to give them a December 15th deadline to respond favorably to the issues that were causing them concern. If HQ doesn't make changes, then books published by HQ will not be eligible for the Edgar Awards, nor qualify for membership within MWA. SFWA--Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers--also sent a stern warning to Harlequin.

I'll go on record here as saying that I love Harlequin. I'm one of their authors, and I can easily argue that no other publisher has done for romance what Harlequin has. That said, I've never been a fan of self-publishing or vanity publishing, and I don't believe in selling false dreams for a price. Some people simply will never write well enough to be published. Sorry--that's just the harsh truth. So I don't like the idea of Harlequin Horizons--not at all.

But come on--to suddenly ban Harlequin as a whole from RWA, MWA, SFWA as if it has always been a sleazy publisher--well, to me, that is overkill. Donna Hayes, CEO and publisher of Harlequin, says that given reaction and author concerns, they will now take "Harlequin" from the name and simply call the line "Horizons." But this isn't pleasing critics.

I get what all the fuss is about, but what I'm noticing on some of the loops I'm on is that people are suddenly bashing Harlequin in a way that isn't warranted. They're using this issue to gripe about other issues, like long wait times to get responses from HQ editors, rather than dealing with the issue at hand. The way I see it, there's no need in painting HQ as the evil giant.

For those who don't know, Harlequin is owned by Torstar, which owns The Toronto Star (and I believe also the Hamilton Spectator). The business of romance is booming, and when I spoke with a publicist at HQ earlier this year she told me that HQ's profits are carrying the company. With a new CEO at Torstar, my feeling is that the company which is struggling financially figured that a way to improve the bottom line was to start this new line within the one arm of the corporation that is turning a profit. Horizons is a joint venture with Author Solutions, a vanity press that people have detested for some time.

I'm not sure what HQ was thinking, but I'm certain they didn't expect this backlash. I hope that it leads them to squashing this new line. But I'm worried with the way RWA--an association I adore--chose to deal with this. I think that a 20 plus year relationship with the biggest romance publisher on the planet warranted a discussion before cutting them off at the knees. Even if HQ kills the new line and RWA reinstates them as an approved publisher, I can only imagine that relations will be strained in a big way. Is this what RWA wants?

People have argued that RWA owed Harlequin no warning. That may be true, but what about professional courtesy after a long and happy relationship? And I'm not sure how banning traditionally published novels by Harlequin helps RWA authors. They might start to feel like the ugly step-child, on the fringes if you will. And memberships within RWA could start dropping like flies.

Someone else argued that RWA has provided HQ an outlet to meet its authors at conferences and opportunities to meet new writers. Well, I'll tell you that without publishers attending RWA, a lot of people simply wouldn't go. I went to my first conference because I wanted the chance to pitch to publishers--and yes, I pitched to Harlequin. I'm not arguing that there hasn't been benefits to HQ by being associated with RWA. But RWA would suffer more without HQ than the other way around--IMO.

It'll be interesting to see what happens in the days to come. Maybe HQ will kill Horizons because they realize they really angered a ton of people. Again, I don't want to paint HQ with one evil brush. To do so would be to forget their huge contribution to the romance world. To do so would be to make their "legitimate" authors suffer. HQ has launched some amazing authors, such as Nora Roberts, Diana Palmer, Penny Jordan. They certainly have been good to me, allowing me to launch the Spice line with my novel, GETTING EVEN.

I think the reaction has been so emotional because no one expected this of the world's largest romance publisher. But I guess for me, my bottom line is love the sinner, hate the sin.

I'm sure you have thoughts. I'd love to hear what you all think.



  1. Excellent article Kayla. I have to wonder as well about the back story to all of this - re: Torstar. It's no secret that traditional print newspapers are in dire straits - so I can see how TOR might have been behind this as a money grab - esp. because HQ is their only moneymaking asset. I also agree with you about RWA. I think that RWA should have contacted HQ and opened the lines of communication and you're right - RWA will suffer more than the powerhouse HQ will - unfortunately it leaves HQ authors - such as you in the middle. We'll def. be following this story with interest in the weeks to come. Thanks so much for writing this!

  2. Yeah, I agree with Jojo Kayla! Great piece!!

    I absolutely am with you when you point out that 'some people will never write well enough to be published' and the idea of vanity publishers makes the little hairs on my arm stand on end... But ultimately this is probably just all about money. Not about talented writers, not about RWA's principles, not about helping emerging talents. It sounds like it to me... Thanks for the info and the great write-up, will now continue to follow updates about this important news.

  3. Hi, JoJo and Nina--thanks for your comments! There was much more I could have written. I forgot to mention that HQ is also now offering to produce "movie quality" book trailers for authors via the Horizons arm of the company--for a whopping $19,900. Can you believe that??? INSANE. And yes, Nina, I hate the idea of exploiting desperate wannabes, for lack of a better word, but as a published author I've met and heard from many and even read some of their work. I don't want to quash dreams, but we all can't be published. Just because you can write in general doesn't mean you are a story-teller. So yes, this move by HQ is a little sleazy, but I really see Torstar as being behind it.

    We'll see how this plays out!

  4. Great piece, Kayla. I'm just a tiny pawn in the great Torstar board so I can't say much except that I'm dismayed by the whole mess. I really feel for the authors affected by RWA's decision, as well as the HQ and Mira editors and agents trying to make sense of it all.

  5. Kayla: Thank you for your post.

    Here's a thought: Suppose the RWA had talked to Harlequin first, rather than just blacklisted it. Would this have made any difference?

    I don't think so. Harlequin would have gone on with its plans to launch Horizons, no matter what anyone said or did. Which is what it's doing now, despite the huge outcry.

    I'm sure Harlequin will make a little money off Horizons. But it won't be enough for Torstar's needs.

    And it will come at a terrible price, the trust and goodwill of the whole community of writers and other literary professionals. Sooner or later this will result in a deluge of red ink for the company.

    Perhaps Harlequin thinks it's too big, too powerful, too profitable to listen to anyone else. Didn't the Greeks have a word for this attitude?

    It's called hubris---the misplaced confidence in oneself that a tragic hero exhibits just before the fall that ends in his demise. Hint, hint, Harlequin.

    Keep up the good work!

  6. About the whole RWA thing, I have to wonder: did Harlequin talk to the RWA before opening Horizons, even though doing so clearly went against the RWA's rules? I doubt it. Harlequin isn't dumb; they've been a member of the RWA to know what will and what won't fly with them. They chose to open Horizons despite this knowledge - and yes, I'm aware of the Torstar problem and think that they were probably told to open Horizons, but in the end, what matters most is that fact that they did it, not why. Imo, if you knowingly break the rules, then why should you get warned? Then again, I'm not a Harlequin author stuck between a rock and a hard place, so it's easy for me to say this :)

  7. Hey Kayla

    Great article. I admit I too have been rabidly following this whole matter.

    I feel for the HQ authors, but at the same time, a giant like HQ should've known the rules and not thought they were above the 'law', that they could get away with it just because they are the biggest romance pub in the business. The money that they ask for Horizons package too is insane, and looks like all they care about is making money off wannabe pubbed-writers hope. And the thing is, Horizons will make you printed, not pubbed, and this does look sleazy and exploiting the dreams of the many who want to have a book out with HQ. And frankly too, who has that kind of money?

    I say RWA showed lots of guts to do what they did - HQ is probably their biggest asset but rules are rules and ethics are there for a reason. RWA didn't compromise on its integrity where this matter is concerned and didn't go the hypocrites' way by allowing HQ to do what it wanted just because it thought it could and because HQ was their biggest members/conference magnet.

    Sorry to be so blunt, but that's my take.

    I really wanna see what will happen next, but what may remain is that HQ shot itself in the foot and lost a lot of credibility and respect in the process. Too bad it will trickle down to the hard-working authors who have books out with them.



  8. Z et al, great comments. I guess I like to think that with some warning, Harlequin could have been swayed to see the error of their ways. But perhaps you're right, Mary Ann--they would have moved forward anyway, especially with the Torstar troubles. (It'd be nice to see HQ break from Torstar...ha ha).

    However, I don't think they even thought about RWA eligibility. It simply hasn't been an issue before, and hey, they *are* HQ. No way should RWA bend the rules for them, and if you're an RWA member you know that's something RWA would never do. That's a different issue than warning them. Smaller pubs have had to worry about meeting eligibility requirements for RWA, but HQ has never had to worry about any of that. I think it's likely they figured their latest move wouldn't get them banned because they have the long-standing legitimate arm of the company. It's their 60 year anniversary this year. *Should* they have considered it? Absolutely. I just figure they thought it was a given they'd always be in, that RWA wouldn't take a hard-nosed approach with them.

    If they don't kill the line, then the future in the romance biz is going to be interesting to say the least. Why destroy a reputable name with a sleazy new venture? We already know how hard it is for romance to get respect in general...

    Oh well.

  9. This is a tough subject. On the one hand, RWA is looking out for the interests of the authors, published and pre-published. HQ authors deserve to keep their sterling reputation in the romance world. And there is no one more vulnerable than one who is chasing a dream. Pre-pubs deserve, if not protection at least a cautionary flag from RWA before they go the self-pubbed route.

    HQ is looking for another revenue stream--something all businesses need--and it looks like they found one. They weren't obligated to discuss their plans with RWA. They answer to their own board and stock holders for their business model.

    Likewise, RWA is not obligated to consult HQ before enforcing its own rules.

    I'm sure this controvery is far from over. I just hope we all remember that romance is about love. We need to show each other a little. Whatever our stand on the issue, we can discuss it without taking personal swipes (like the flame out directed at Nora on Smart Bitches the other day). Thanks for a great venue for discussion.

  10. Kayla - thanks for the link to Jackie Kessler's blog. Really enjoyed that.

    My take is that print publishers can see the new electronic future of publishing, and Harlequin took the absolute looniest step in that direction. The e-publishers have already been the ugly stepsisters at RWA conferences, because the implication there is, if your story was so great, why didn't a print publisher buy it?

    However, print publishers are notoriously narrow in the subject matter/setting/time periods they will buy. If it's not vampire/werewolves/Regency/CSI-lite, readers aren't interested, they say. But how can readers buy anything else if that's the only things on the book store shelves?

    Enter e-publishers. I've read exceptionally well-written romances that take place anytime, anywhere, featuring characters of all stripes. The e-publishers can take chances without being saddled with boxes and boxes of returns. They also pay teeny advances but larger royalties.

    The business model is not a favorite of RWA, who are working on writers' behalf to ensure that even worse business models like Harlequin Horizons don't rise up. I'm personally intrigued by all the posturing and sabre rattling that goes on between RWA, print publishers and e-publishers.

    The future of publishing is in flux and old-school print publishers are doing what usually happens to industry, which likes the status quo and won't evolve, even as the technology has already evolved without them. For Harlequin to have opened a door for unpublished authors to be forced to pay to be considered for publication would have been the slippery slope that every other publishing house would have followed with glee. Why pay editors to comb through the slush piles when they can make money from the slush authors?

    And that would not have ended with the romance industry. Which is why the mystery and sci-fi groups chimed in on things.

  11. I just started following this issue but I don't claim to be an expert (and I do have a book subbed to Harlequin).

    From what I read, this might be a good financial move for Harlequin, but it was hardly a wise business decision.

    That said, I understand Harlequin is the mother company, but can't RWA just ban books published by Horizons?

  12. Lynne, that would make the most sense to me--ban the books published by Horizons, since the others have always been accepted. I guess RWA is making a stand against the company as a whole. :-/

  13. Great article, Kayla. I do think RWA did the right thing -- sometimes you have to take a stand, and if you start splitting hairs by recognizing one line and not another in the same publishing company, pretty soon the rules don't mean anything, IMO. What makes me the saddest about the Horizons venture isn't just that bad writing will be published and the brand diluted for HQ's working authors -- it's also that many new writers will probably take this "easy route" to "publication" at their first rejection -- writers who do have talent and would have been better off honing their craft, writing more manuscripts, and continuing to try for legitimate publication. I would guess that most successful HQ authors didn't achieve publication the first time they sent in a submission, but they were motivated by the early rejection to work harder and improve. Now, instead, the rejection letter from HQ will divert them to a vanity press dressed up to look like legitimate publication to novices in the industry.

  14. What HQN is doing is simply wrong and unethical.
    RWA got so many letters from their members asking them to stand up and be our advocate in this, and most published authors are delighted with RWA's swift response.
    RWA had no need to contact HQN before they acted. It is all in RWA's by-laws.
    Virginia Henley

  15. I can't understand the rationale behind this move --other than an attempt to make more money, though it seems they were already doing well. Maybe some marketing genius convinced them the CreateSpace and other models are performing well, but they should have taken a look at the other side of that coin - the reviews. Just sayin'.

  16. Good point, Phyllis, about aspiring writers taking the "easy" way--and then they'll be happy to point out that they're published by HQ. They should, instead, hone their craft--absolutely.

    Cate, The Toronto Star yesterday said that their current financial situation is a nightmare...this is what had to be behind it. But good point about them seeing all these other venues like Lulu and CreateSpace and probably thinking it'd be a good idea to jump on the bandwagon.

    Virginia, I know a lot of authors are proud of RWA. I hope all the backlash leads to the change we want!


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