letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 112
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 2
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: fantasy (1), YA (1)

Unless you were hiding under a rock these last couple days in the publishing world, you will have heard of Harlequin’s new venture Horizons. There are plenty of comment threads about it: Absolute Write, Dear Author, etc.

RWA responded by revoking Harlequin’s approved publisher status (text on Kristin Nelson’s blog). Then MWA got into the mix (text of their statement on Lee Goldberg’s site). Harlequin responded by…. changing the name of the venture, which, imo, doesn’t address the points that RWA and MWA were raising. Or, as SFWA put it in their statement: “does not believe that changing the name of the imprint, or in some other way attempting to disguise the relationship to Harlequin, changes the intention.”

Here’s how some other agents feel about it:
* Ashley Grayson – Harlequin Horizons, a mug’s game
* Janet Reid – here and here.
* Rachelle Gardner – a self-publishing rant.

Jackie Kessler’s version of the author/Harlequin conversation over the last couple days is a must-read!

Some quick definitions:

Self-publishing — Writer as publisher. The writer undertakes to arrange editing, printing, distribution, etc. without a third party holding any rights or share of the proceeds.

Vanity/subsidy publisher — A company that publishes books at the author’s expense. A vanity press derives its profits from authors. Sometimes provides additional services — for a fee — for design, publicity, etc. These fees can generate many thousands of dollars for the press. It’s pay-to-play.

Traditional publisher — Pays an advance/royalty share to authors on the sale of their books. Money flows towards the author. Profits are based on sales. The publishing company’s overhead covers editorial, production, distribution, etc.

What these things mean in a query….

If the query mentions a book that has been published, but does NOT mention the publisher, the tendency is to assume that it’s either self-published or from a vanity publisher. On some occasions, a google search might turn up the information, but that depends on whether one has the time or inclination to look.

As far as I’m concerned, a book that has been self-published rarely has much impact in a query. I’m not against self-publishing. There are times when it makes sense for the author (see this interview with Wil Wheaton, for example). And, indeed, there are books like The Shack or Eragon, which show it can sometimes lead to more opportunities. And this isn’t a new thing either: The Joy of Cooking was originally self-published in 1931 (3,000 copies by a company that printed fancy labels but had never printed a book before). Those success stories are still a decided minority. Then, again, it depends on the author’s definition of success and what the author is looking for in the experience. But the same holds true for an agent looking for new clients.

A book that is published by a vanity or subsidy press…. this can be a bit more complex. Many say it’s a negative mark on the writer’s reputation to have been involved in this approach. Why moreso than self-publishing? Perhaps it’s just the sour taste it leaves behind as these types of publishers tend to prey on an author’s hopes and use them to their own advantage. In this scenario, it feels like the publishers are making the writers pay for their dreams, often with little hope of any return due to lack of distribution and poor design quality. On top of that, many of them will often take a cut of the profits (sometimes most of it), so the author is not only footing the bill but then paying the publisher a share of the proceeds too. In this case, what motivation does the publisher have to help the author succeed? As for an agent’s feelings on this — well, see those links above, but in most cases it provides a sheen of unprofessionalism, shows a lack of understanding the workings of publishing, and would put the author in the position of starting with a poor hand on a publishing field that is already anything but level.

Would I tell an author not to self-publish? Not necessarily. But I would tell them to employ due diligence and research what it entails and what they are likely to see in return for all their hard work. The author really needs to understand publishing and reaching their readers in order to decide if this is the right path for them to take.

14 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. Thanks for the balanced perspective on this.
    The whole reaction to vanity press reminds me of the reaction by the pet communities to people who buy pets from pet stores/puppy mills. It’s not as though the animals in pet stores are any less deserving of rescue, but it perpetuates a cycle that is causing overall damage to the community. It’s not about the book/puppy so much as the system.
    That said, it’s getting a little muddy now what constitutes a vanity press, as opposed to a self-publishing-assistance operation that makes it cheaper and easier for an author to get their work to market. It makes economic sense for a larger operation to help an author share these costs, but we don’t currently have the infrastructure/metrics to distinguish an abusive organization (e.g. PublishAmerica) from a reputable service. It’s all part of the market transition…

  2. Clear and articulate, as always.

  3. Like most writers, I’m also a reader; and as a reader I have no problems giving publishers money. But that’s for other peoples’ books.
    Now I am thinking of basically self-publishing the piece I’m working on now for NaNo through Smashwords. It’s a Doc Savage pastiche/homage and I don’t know that any publisher would want it even if it were complete. Still, I’m not going to pay any money out for it.
    Harlequin’s self-inflicted conflict of interest should bite them on the backside, and I’m glad to see that’s exactly what it’s doing.

    • There are a number of reasons why self-publishing fiction would work for one, but I wouldn’t let the fact of it being a Doc Savage homage/pastiche keep you from trying traditional publishers.
      In my Clarion class, we had an author submit essentially a people-of-color Conan homage. There were issues with it, sure, but then we got around to PNH, who told us all why it was more interesting to him than to any of us.
      Later, I came to accept that it was, in its present state, an interesting failure, but not one that couldn’t be salvaged. Which was a good thing because my interesting failure came up next….
      FWIW, I grew up reading men’s adventure novels like Doc Savage and would love to see more on the shelves.

  4. I know that at least one of your clients has published with Harlequin in the past. Will you continue to work with their legitimate publishing imprints in the light of this new venture?

  5. An olive branch
    No offense intended, but self-publishing strikes me as a mirage, or the Emperor’s new clothes. I recognize its worth for family keepsakes, niche or personal projects. It’s fine for that, but I shudder to imagine the floodgates of mediocrity bursting open and spilling all over the shelves at B & N, Borders, or on Amazon.
    Someone once said if you’ve ever read two self-published books, you know they’re not good. And if you’ve ever read four self-published books you know that ‘not good’ is a generous description.
    The exceptional monster success story aside for a moment, I think it was Mark Twain who said “Bad poetry is worst of all, sincere.”
    Even accounting for individual tastes, there must be some standard of professionalism and quality for a piece to be published. Everyone, reader and writer, deserves that.
    As someone taking their first steps writing fiction, I recognized my wishful thinking didn’t make it good. I took writing classes. I read books on technique and practical aspects of the craft. I hired a professional editor to review, correct, and comment on my novel. I’m pursuing representation rather than diving into self-publishing because I want to write well and become a better writer. I love writing fiction, but I want the confidence of knowing my work met some professional criteria. I’d like to see that olive branch extended toward me.
    Technology has wrought tectonic changes in the industry, but I’ve yet to see if those changes create new landscapes or disaster.

    • Just a suggestion
      But you might want to look up the story behind a book called Naked Came the Stranger before you assert that just because a book is published by a major publishing house it’s guaranteed to meet standards of professionalism and quality.

    • Re: An olive branch
      I’ve read a couple self-published books, by a particular author, and they seemed good ’nuff to me. She cared enough to have someone look over for at least a copy-edit, and got good layout, and the stories were good. (The second one needs a sequel, I think, but that’s an issue of “social issues are not resolved! needz moar!”)
      I’ve also peered at things like fanfiction.net and fled, clutching my eyes, from some. And others, I’ve bookmarked with glee.
      The main things about self-published stuff is that 1) there’s so much of it, and 2) the “90% of everything is crap” rule. Without word-of-mouth and samples, I would not buy a self-published book, either. With word of mouth and/or samples? Well, I did. O:>
      And of course the waters get even more muddied when midlist authors decide that they’d like to write something in a series that the publishers aren’t interested in anymore ’cause it’s not a paranormal romance with hawt supernatural sexxors. (I like a few of those series, but really, I only have so much brainspace for such.) I plonked down $5 per story, for four stories, from one of my favorite authors — finally, one of my favorite series gets a new story! (Need to print them out now!) Self-published? Yes. Good? I can’t see how they’d be otherwise.

  6. How do you feel about mentioning e-books in queries? Does one from a reputable publisher like Double Dragon help or hurt?

  7. Guarantee?
    Of course there’s no ‘guarantee’ every piece of commercially published fiction is quality – but at least there’s a reasonable confidence its coherent and in complete sentences.
    I’ve read far, far too many books and thought “Gah! Someone got paid money for this?” I’ve read others and wondered what all the hubbub was about. I’ve returned others after 20 pages because they were so tedious and/or confused, I was ready to hurl them across the room.
    But at least those went through some series of checks. But imagine if even those meager benchmarks were gone…
    Someone once said all art may be self-expression but not all self-expression is art. No one – reader or writer – is going to benefit by tearing up minimum standards and abandoning professional guidance. That leaves the authors in a fool’s paradise and the readers waltzing through a cow pasture.

  8. I’ve stayed away from this blog in the past, in the fear that perhaps I was depressing other people. This story about Harlequin, going vanity, though — not merely self-publishing, but hardcore vanity — is pretty depressing.
    I never thought I’d want to go back to the subject of lucky underpants!

  9. What are books published by Samhain, Edge, and Mundania Press considered? Mundania, for example, deals primarily with ebooks, but if a certain sales threshold is met, they might print a run for bookstores.

  10. So, I do have a question about all of this with Harlequin and RWA, SFWA and MWA. Since they’ve extended their non-recognition to ALL of Harlequin’s imprints–of which there are many traditional ones–what does that mean for the authors published or soon-to-be published by those imprints? Are other agents and publishers going to look at them in the same light as self-published authors?
    I kind of think that RWA, SFWA and MWA are now alienating “legitimate” authors by stating this. I understand it’s about the principle of the matter, but why should the authors be punished for it?

  11. What if someone initially published a few books in a series either with a small press, an e-book-only publisher, or as a self-publisher, and now wants to continue the series with someone else.
    How does one query that? Or do you just have to write off the series and do something else?

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