Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Harlequin Survey

Harlequin just sent out a survey to its authors, seemingly asking for sincere feedback.

Maybe it has to do with their current lawsuit. Maybe it has to do with their recent financial woes.

Or maybe, just maybe, they really want to try and improve their relationships with the one group of people who are essential to their survival.

On the surface, this is smart. I don't know if the survey is truly anonymous or not, only that it is hidden from the public and each author can only complete the survey once because the survey is electronically linked to that particular author. This is done with tracking software, and those trackers could conceivably reveal who said what, even though the HQ email stated it is anonymous and confidential. My guess is the survey might intimidate some authors, preventing them from speaking the truth. Bashing the hand that feeds flies in the face of common sense, even if that hand is asking for honest answers.

Hopefully, some gutsy authors answered honestly. I know one author was gutsy enough to send me screen shots of the survey.

Are you there, Harlequin? It's me, Konrath. And I'll answer your questions honestly.

If you really want to know what your authors think of you, I'm friends with dozens of them, and have been going to writing conventions for over a decade. I've spoken to hundreds of HQ authors at RT. I've listened to so many tales of woe and hardship and mistreatment that the Big 6 look like angels compared to you.

Can you handle the truth? Because here it is. Do yourself a favor and really heed my responses.

Here are screenshots of the survey, followed by my answers.

I have been a published author for 11 years. I have not been published with Harlequin, though my agent has submitted some of my work to your mystery imprint, MIRA. MIRA rejected those titles, which have gone on to earn me in excess of a million dollars via self-publishing.
I have three series, and many single titles, in both print and digital. I used to be with legacy publishers, but now have my rights back and am self-publishing those titles exclusively.

Just self-publishing. That's how I made the million. Though I do have several books with Amazon Publishing imprints, because their contracts are so much better than anyone else in the industry.

  • Cover art is very important to me, as both an author and an avid reader. 
  • Marketing support is no longer needed in a digital world, except for prime placement on Amazon.com and free ebook announcement websites. Those are the only two marketing efforts I've seen that directly translate into sales.
  • I don't find publicity important at all. I've found no correlation between press and sales.
  • I find editors very important, but don't need regular communication.
  • Proofing and copyediting is very important.
  • Author control is very important.
  • Editorial guidance is not very important to me, but I've written 28 novels and don't need much help anymore. But I still need editors to vet.
  • Publisher knowledge can be very important, if they use that knowledge to make me money.
  • I don't believe most readers can name who publishes their favorite authors. HQ is unique in that it is bought as a brand. But usually the author is the brand. I put that in bold because it is such an important point.
  • I never cared about who published whom. Most publishers are interchangeable.
  • Transparency is essential.
  • Books should be available in all formats.
  • Books should be distributed as widely as possible.
  • Fair monetary compensation is essential to keep me happy. In fact, I think it may be the number one concern of the vast majority of authors.
  • I didn't become a writer because I felt a need to belong.
  • A strong brand is very important. But visibility and competitive pricing are more important.
  • Editorial expertise is very important.

  • I've seen some very good HQ cover art. And some not so good.
  • I've talked to many, many HQ authors who never got any marketing support whatsoever, except for the ones who became giant bestsellers. And then HQ capitalized upon that celebrity by re-releasing their backlist books with new titles to trick fans into thinking it was the their latest thriller. Tsk tsk tsk.
  • Publicity support? Seriously, out of all the authors you publish, how many have you gotten any publicity whatsoever? Reviews in RT don't count.
  • I've heard many HQ authors love their editors. I've heard a few have had problems, but that seems to be the case with any publisher.
  • I've heard authors have very little control, because many series and imprints have restrictions and rules. While I understand different guidelines for different imprints, I've heard of editors rejecting stories or insisting on rewrites in ways that cause the authors a lot of stress and unhappiness.
  • HQ has knowledge of selling trends? If they did, they'd be making a fortune with ebooks like I am.
  • HQ has a very loyal readership base in print. Where's that loyalty in digital?
  • HQ has the worst reputation among writers out of every publisher I know, with the exception of the recently departed Dorchester. But now that they're gone, you're Number 1!
  • Transparency? How about allegedly licensing rights to yourself in order to avoid paying authors full royalties? Was that transparent?
  • I know a few dozen HQ authors who don't have audiobooks, and none who do.
  • HQ has incredible distribution.
  • HQ has the worst royalty rate, and some of the lowest advances, in all of publishing.
  • HQ throws great parties, and treats authors very well at conferences and conventions.
  • HQ has a terrific print brand, directly linked to its distribution network and loyal fans.
  • HQ has knowledgeable, professional editors. But knowledgeable, professional editors can be hired for a set fee.
It is 2013. The benefits that publishers have traditionally supplied, including editing, cover art, jacket copy, formatting, can proofing, can all be hired out for fixed costs. There is no need for any author to sign to HQ for ebook publishing. I can reach just as many, if not more, ebook readers on my own than Harlequin can.

With print, HQ still has its large distribution network, which has value. But that value is fading as more bookstores close and more readers embrace ebooks. And that distribution network doesn't benefit authors much when they are making literally pennies per copy sold.

Other publishers have 8% paperback royalties and 25% ebook royalties. HQ is far below industry standards. As a self-published author, I make 70% ebook royalties.

Think about this long and hard: Writers no longer need HQ to reach readers. They can do it themselves, via Amazon.com, and make a lot more than HQ pays them.

Why should any author stay with HQ? Because you throw great parties? Because they have a desire to see their book in Walmart (for as long as Walmart still sells books)? Because they want to (ack) experience a sense of belonging?

HQ was once the only game in town when it came to serial romance. But you are becoming obsolete. And the one group that could save you--your authors--has been paid so poorly for so many years that they are eager to pursue other avenues.

I'm very unhappy with HQ, and I don't even work for you. I'm unhappy with your royalty rates and low advances. I'm unhappy with the sneaky, underhanded way you allegedly licensed rights to yourself. I'm unhappy with how you've strung authors along for years, contract to contract, with barely a cost of living increase. I'm unhappy how you keep their rights forever because you claim you sold one ebook in Bulgaria, even though there have been no other sales in years.

I think you prey on the naive and needy, treat your authors poorly, and the best thing for the world would be HQ gone.

But I do like your parties.

I've heard so many authors complain about HQ that I've lost count. Those who defend HQ do so like apologists, crediting their success with the meager support HQ gave them.

 Here are the benefits HQ should provide:
  • Rights returned upon request for titles older than 18 months, or which haven't sold over 3000 copies in a six month period. Seriously, that's not a lot of copies. My book Whiskey Sour has sold 4000 copies this month, and it's only the 12th. 
  • Paperback royalties at 8% of list. Like the rest of the industry.
  • Ebook royalties at 35% of list. Like the rest of the industry should.
  • Minimum $20k advance per book. 
  • Transparent, monthly royalty statements, like I get self-pubbing. And like Amazon Publishing does.
  • Monthly royalty checks, like I get self-publishing.
  • Author input over title and cover art. An author should be allowed to say, "That stinks, try again."
Now all of that might seem ridiculous to you. But it is what authors can get without HQ. If you want to keep authors, you'd better offer them something better than they can get on their own.

Fellow authors are my key source of information.

Good on HQ for sending out this survey, but I'm pretty sure agents and authors have been complaining about these things for decades. And nothing has been done, because authors didn't have a choice. They either accepted your unconscionable terms, or didn't get published.

That is no longer the case.

Let me put it this way: Harlequin sells eggs, and all of their chickens are unhappy and leaving. You won't be in the egg-selling biz much longer unless you give them a reason to stick around.

HQ doesn't have brand power anymore, because you don't have a lock on digital distribution like you had one on print distribution. So you'd better start understanding that authors aren't interchangeable cogs who can be easily replaced.

A romance reader walking into a brick and mortar store went to the romance section and saw a limited number of series titles, most or all of them Harlequins.

A romance reader looking for series romance on Amazon has a much wider choice available, and HQ no longer dominates. In fact, you get lost in the mix, especially with a lot of savvy authors running their own promotions.

HQ needs savvy authors, because authors are now the brand. And the only was to get them is to treat them very, very well.

No other options.
Battered Person Syndrome, preventing them from leaving.

Really. HQ is that bad.
Besides the above, settle the ongoing lawsuit fairly and retroactively compensate your authors for past royalties using current industry standards.

There is no HQ without authors.

I want to know how many HQ authors make a living wage, and what that average wage is.
I want to know how many HQ authors write two or more books a year and still have to keep their day job.
I want to know how HQ can justify its treatment of authors.
I want to know how HQ expects to last the decade.
I want to know why HQ can't find the same success with ebooks that it did with print.
I want to know what will happen to all the book rights HQ has if it declares bankruptcy.
I want to know what you've done with the many millions of dollars you've made exploiting authors.
Most of all, I want to know how you folks sleep at night. Because I wouldn't be able to.

Don't pretend you've been in the dark all this time. You've known all this all along.

But now, finally, authors don't need you anymore. They have a choice. A choice that will allow them--in many cases for the very first time--to be adequately compensated for their work.

Respond on my blog, in the comments section.

As harsh as this blog post has been, I wrote it to help your authors, and help you. If you don't listen, you won't be around much longer. Because you won't have any authors left.

Kudos for sending out this survey, HQ. But read between the lines. Separate the placation and fear from the honest, reasonable complaints. Listen closely to those who are giving you advice, even if it is unflattering.

I debated whether or not to play the gender card, and ultimately decided I should. So here it goes:

The only reason you've been able to exploit writers for this long is because the overwhelming majority of your writers are women.

Not because women are weak. But because women are strong. And you preyed upon women's greatest strengths.

You preyed upon their unwavering loyalty.

You preyed upon their need to support their families.

You preyed upon their power--as the stronger sex--to grin and bear it even when being treated unfairly.

You preyed upon their amazing ability to nurture, their indomitable spirit that helps them persevere during tough times, and their awe-inspiring capacity to forgive.

Shame on you, Harlequin. Now make things right.