Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Writer Beware

I'm preaching to the choir here (albeit a very small choir), but I have to weigh in on the subject of Harlequin becoming the latest reputable traditional publisher to launch a 'self-publishing' service.

Disclaimer: I don't work in publishing, I have no inside knowledge on this, I've just been reading everything about it that I can get my hands on. This post is about my response to the debate, which I know something about, rather than the actual nuts-and-bolts of the publishing development side of it.

Brief synopsis for those who don't know - Harlequin have launched a service in partnership with Author Solutions, which allows writers to pay to have their books published. Initially, the plan was that such books would be published under the Harlequin name, thus muddying the distinction between books deemed good enough to merit investment by a publishing house and books written by people who wanted to pay to see them in print. As a result of much outcry, these books will no longer be published under the name 'Harlequin Horizons.'

Before I start, I want to make it clear I have no problem with people paying to be published. I doubt I'd ever do it, but some people write for niche markets, don't want or need widespread distribution or have the time and effort to self-market. Whatever. Go nuts, if you have the money and it makes you happy, and best of luck to you. The issue is that it is being implied that this service is a stepping-stone to traditional publishing, and there are plans to offer the service in rejection letters sent to aspiring writers. I'd love to know how they will be worded.

Firstly, everyone should read Writer Beware, all the time. It's great.

And everyone should definitely read it today. At the time of writing, their most recent post is a statement from Novelists Inc about vanity publishing 'arms' of traditional publishing houses. It's a good read, but it's also nice to see a professional organisation step up in defence of people who aren't their own members. It's niceness that I want to talk about today.

I read a lot of agent blogs, and I have read many posts from agents who believe that their posts aren't reaching as much of their intended audience as they should. Periodically, agents will post revised submission guidelines, or say 'People querying me keep doing [insert annoying or time-consuming habit here]. Kindly stop. And I realise if you are reading this, you probably aren't the ones doing it. Sigh.'

So, by their own admission, the advice given on agent blogs is reaching a self-selecting sample - the kind of people who do research (or the kind of people who get bored in work and google things a lot). The kind of people who do research aren't as likely to be suckered into an 'author solution' that isn't right for them (and again, let me stress that self-publishing is right for lots of people. I'm not sure Author Solutions is right for anyone, but it might be). And it seems to me that the main issue that the publishing community has with this development is misrepresentation - the idea that less-informed writers may be persuaded to part with money in exchange for what they believe to be a path to traditional publishing success. Once again, the people reading the advice are the people who need it the least.

This is a generalisation, and obviously there are tons of exceptions, but as a rule, the kind of aspiring writers who do poor research into publishing options are the ones who - fairly or unfairly - are most likely to be shoved to the very bottom of the slush pile because they didn't follow the guidelines, or they queried someone who doesn't represent their genre, or something similar. And we all know that potentially excellent writers sometimes don't succeed not because they're poor at writing but because they're poor at hoop-jumping, or rule-following, depending on your perspective. So the entire publishing community is currently up in arms about the interests of a group of people, most of whom they are relatively unlikely to ever make money from. Not one person has said 'A quick Google search will throw up all the blog posts and controversy about this. Anyone too naive or stupid to do that deserves to be conned.' I feel this point of view would be unfair, because we have all blindly followed paths because we thought they would lead to the things we've dreamed.

And I think it's rather nice that no one has presented that counter argument, and that an industry is responding with concern for people who aren't their cash cows.

That is all.

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