Recently, Harlequin announced a number of related initiatives (a self-publishing imprint, editorial and marketing services, and an e-pub branch), and the criticism they received for it was at some points withering. Accusations ranged from cashing in on their slush pile to exploiting naïve authors to flooding the market with titles to diluting their brand value.
It reminds me of the old exchange:
Q: “How can you tell a true pioneer?”
A: “They have arrows sticking out their back and their front.”
At the same time, the field I work in (scientific publishing) is experimenting with a phenomenon called “author-pays publication,” which is essentially a self-publishing motif. Supposedly, peer-review occurs to control the quality of the works published, in which case this is a purely financial arrangement, but there are documented cases of publishers using little or no peer-review and cashing in on author fees or employing the most modest peer-review while relying on the fees generated through bulk publishing.
You could level the same charges against these scholarly publishers that are being leveled at Harlequin – they are cashing in on rejects, exploiting naïve authors, flooding the scholarly literature with lower-quality works, and diluting brand value. It’s even gotten to the point in science publishing that some advocates believe such author-pays initiatives are the only viable future.
So we have a paradox – in science, a set of fields that purport to rigorously seek truth and prize quality above anything else, self-publishing initiatives are going over with nary a whisper of criticism. In fact, if anything, such approaches are proliferating, and are being embraced by librarians, scholars, and researchers alike. Yet in commercial publishing of fiction (aka, made-up stories), there is a major backlash.
Why does this paradox exist? Why would a field (consumer book publishing, especially fiction . . . especially romance fiction) have defenders of the faith launching vitriolic attacks at a publisher differentiating into services and self-publishing initiatives – even to the point of revoking memberships in related associations – while scientific publishing does not?
First, let’s look at the charges being leveled at Harlequin, one by one, and we might get a clue as to the level of hypocrisy at work:
- They are cashing in on their slush pile. The questions implicit in this is that the slush pile is of inherently less value than the accepted pile. There are plenty of reasons to believe this isn’t the case. Most novels have been in dozens of slush piles before they’ve been accepted. Does being in a slush pile mean a novel is inherently bad? Then nothing but Sarah Palin’s book would exist – hardly a ringing endorsement of editorial quality control over cynical marketing exploitation.
- They’re exploiting naïve authors. Um, pardon me, but book publishers are expert at exploiting naïve authors. That’s why royalties tilt so harshly to publishers, why rights are exploited, why contracts are mind-numbing. Do you really think most publishers sit down with an author and works out a custom deal while patiently explaining the ins and outs, creating author-friendly options to ensure goodwill, and conceding contractual advantages willingly? How naïve do they think we are?
- They’re flooding the market. The market is already flooded. There are more books published by traditional publishers than anyone can stock, review, read, or list. Publishers have not been an effective check on the promulgation of unread works, unsuccessful novels, or unappealing books. In fact, the consignment model makes the flooded market more wasteful and expensive than it needs to be by creating waste from the outset.
- They’re diluting their brand value. Well, temptations to joke about Harlequin’s brand value aside, most publishers have an inflated opinion of their brand value. Do readers really care that Random House published that novel? Does that make it more interesting, even if the topic, genre, author, and cover are revolting? Not at all. There is little brand value to dilute. For Harlequin, the cleavage of the heroine and the chisel of the hero are probably more important for sales and reader interest.
So, the “pot calling the kettle black” criticisms of Harlequin aside, why all the vitriol in fiction publishing for this model but not in scholarly publishing?
Probably because fiction publishing is more subjective, and therefore less defensible on rational terms.
Science publishing involves shorter works based on direct observations, stated study designs, and repeatable experiments. If a lousy report is published in a lower-tier journal, it will quickly vanish unnoticed. There is little harm to the scientists in the field. If a great report emerges from a surprising source, it will usually find its way to the top, so more publishing can lead to some pleasant surprises. Many famous experiments have been initially described in obscure journals.
Science publishing has built-in techniques among the audience to reward quality and reject inferiority, and it’s all based on expertise, facts, and repeatability. It’s rational and objective to a degree that fiction is not.
Readers of fiction have the same discerning characteristics, but fiction is more subjective, which is why I think there was so much vitriol against the Harlequin moves. Publishers realize their brand value is weak to non-existent; that their editorial process can be disintermediated from book marketing and manufacturing processes; that print-on-demand and e-books put authors on the same playing field; that the consignment model’s flaws are being exploited; and that readers have more ways to connect with, discover, and consume fiction than through the publishers’ traditional marketing and distribution channels.
But holding onto the status quo as long as possible beats change, so when one of their own begins to leave the fold with bold initiatives that hint at the future, the rest of the herd will try to beat them back into formation.
Science publishers have stronger brands built on decades and centuries of reputation-building; more objective measures of quality; and audiences possessed of an academic spirit of experimentation. That’s why self-publishing approaches are less criticized in those fields. They are less likely to do any harm, don’t really hurt the brands that stay above the fray, and are viewed as harmless experiments.
That’s not to say that naïve authors and rejected manuscripts aren’t being exploited. It’s just that the flood of materials is more efficiently diverted and the brands are less subject to erosion. So, the status quo is thought likely to withstand the experiments.
I think many commercial fiction publishers are scared by self-publishing, what it portends, and how they might be disintermediated.
As Clayton Christensen said, “When a layer gets commoditized, value is created through proprietary services in adjacent layers.” In Harlequin’s case, the traditional model is struggling (it’s a layer being commoditized), so they are looking for value in adjacent initiatives – self-publishing, e-publishing, and editorial and marketing services.
Harlequin knows that manufacturing can be independent of selection, which can stand apart from editing, which can be separated from distribution. They’re experimenting in disaggregation.
Good for them.
But the herd will bellow and snort in worry because they can sense the beginning of the end.