Penguin Says If You Can't Beat Self Publishers, Join Them

So, anyone remember back when Harlequin tried to open a self-publishing branch, Harlequin Horizons?  They were pretty much reamed for smearing their good name with a venture into Vanity Publishing. Victoria Strauss on Writer Beware reported:
Like West Bow, Harlequin Horizons wreaths self-publishing in nebulous, glowing verbiage, extolling benefits and ignoring downsides. With West Bow Press, you can Begin Your Legacy. With Harlequin Horizons, you can Reach the Stars. And just like West Bow, Harlequin Horizons cordially extends the carrot of commercial publication: "While there is no guarantee that if you publish with Harlequin Horizons you will picked up for traditional publishing, Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through Harlequin Horizons for possible pick-up by its traditional imprints."

Unlike West Bow, Harlequin Horizons bears its parent's name. And that is making some Harlequin authors quite unhappy.

On the Dear Author blog, a lively discussion of the new venture is summarized here. Authors' concerns include dilution of the house brand (if low-quality self-published books carry the Harlequin name, the overall reputation of Harlequin may suffer), a loss of prestige for non-self-published Harlequin authors (the perception that "anyone" can get published by Harlequin), new authors spending money on self-publishing in the belief that it's a path to getting noticed by Harlequin (well, of course; this is one of the new service's major marketing pitches--no surprise, since Harlequin Horizons is a money-making enterprise), and the choice of Author Solutions as a partner (given the complaints about several Author Solutions brands--one of my blog posts is referenced).

...For the record, I don't for one teeny tiny second believe that discovering new writers, or giving them a chance to "begin their legacies" or "reach the stars," plays a major part here. That's just a marketing pitch. This is about money. Now more than ever, commercial publishers need to shore up their bottom lines--and adding self-publishing divisions is an easy and profitable way to do so.

The comments alone in the post on this topic over on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books were epic. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it was in those self-same comments that Zoe Winters had a dust-up with Nora Roberts.

Good times. :)

Well, guess what, cookies, looks like Harlequin's claims to simply be forward thinking where actually true, at least in the sense that their example is now being followed by another big name publisher. Guess who?


They are calling it Book Country. But you can also call it Midlistlandia or Genre World, because that's who it targets: romance, science fiction and fantasy, mystery and thrillers. The coolest part of the whole site is definitely the Genre Map. I mean, seriously, haven't you always wanted to see Subgenres like Techno Thriller and Legal Thriller or Cyberpunk and Steampunk graphed and color coded on a 2D matrix? Me too. (But I would have made SF blue, Mystery Green and Thrillers Red. And shouldn't Romantic Suspense have been next to Mystery rather than Epic Fantasy? I'm just sayin'.)

This isn't unexpected, is it? Some aspects of the venture aren't even new. The "community" aspect is pretty standard by now:
And so we have Book Country, a site run by Penguin that offers a free way for writers of genre fiction to talk about and share their work. The site is limited to romance, thrillers, fantasy, and sci-fi so this is not the spot to upload your Mythbusters slashfic....

It’s all fairly simple: you create an account and you can, if you so wish, upload your work. To have it “read” or “critiqued” by others you must complete a series of steps including reading three other works by other writers. You can, obviously, game the system and just type in gibberish but that’s not very sporting.
Del Rey started the Online Writing Community years ago, and that's still going strong, though it's no longer part of Del Rey.
While Book Country is distinctive, it is not the only online writing community nor is it the first to be launched by a major book publisher. HarperCollins has organized the online writing community of Authonomy, and InkPop, an online community focused on teen writing. Book Country is reminiscent of iPublish, a failed online writing community and digital publishing venture launched by former Warner Books president Larry Kirshbaum in 2000. Barton acknowledged the connection and noted that she had discussions with a former iPublish editor while developing the Book Country concept. While iPublish was a pioneering venture anticipating many of the services offered by Book Country, it was a bit ahead of its time and was forced to close in late 2001 with mounting financial losses. But it’s a different time and different market for e-books and digital publishing in 2011.
You'll see some familiar names here. Former agent Colleen Lindsay is a Book Country community manager and a moderater on the boards. But the "soft" approach, the money in this is going to be made by selling self-publishing services to authors. In other words, it is a vanity press, just as Harlequin Horizons. And just like Harlequin Horizons, the cheese in this mousetrap is the hope that the best authors will be "discovered" by Penguin.
Barton, an editor for more than seven years before moving to Penguin business development, said Book Country is an effort to discover and nurture writers of sometimes hard to categorize genre fiction. Barton said that when she was an editor she often encountered writing she liked, but didn’t think she could sell. She said that Book Country will offer writers a chance to “prove us wrong when they get rejected. They can show us there’s an audience for their work.”

“When I was an editor I had a hard time saying no to authors whose work maybe didn’t quite fit on my list,” Barton said. “When I switched over to the digital publishing side, I wanted to find a way to harness the Internet in a better way to support writers.”
When Harlequin made their move, there was an uproar from authors' organizations and Harlequin had to backstep the idea. Will that happen to Book Country? Penguin has been careful to distance themselves from the start. It's an independent company, with a distinct name. But I think the biggest change is the with the publishing industry itself. Indie authors have swept up into the bestsellers list. Suddenly "vanity press" seems like a quaint term, something that doesn't automatically taint self-published authors anymore.

Furthermore, and most importantly, the competition to big publishers from small and independent presses/authors is now obvious to anyone paying attention. So if a publisher says they are starting a self-publishing branch to stay in business, hey, maybe we should take them at their word.

My favorite quote comes from Molly Barton in the PW announcement. "We created Book Country because while writing and publishing sites have proliferated in recent years, none were designed by publishing experts to create a more valuable pathway forward for new writers."

In other words, lots of people were making money on self-publishing. Authors. Amazon. Apple. Just about everyone except the people who called themselves publishers. Frankly, the thing that amazes me the most is that they didn't get skin in this game earlier.


Nellee Horne said…
So, we who self-publish are a threat to traditional publishing? Hmmm...
Mary Mary said…
Very informative post. I will agree in saying that these so-called "self-publishing" branches of well known publishers does sound an awful lot like vanity publishing. You pay out the nose to get a version of your work out there under a publisher's supposed self-publishing name. Makes you wonder who's really making the money here . . .
I don't think Penguin is threatened by self-publishers so much as they sniff money to be made off of them.
Ban said…
I can only imagine what things will be like when I'm ready to look into sharing my work ....
Lucas Darr said…
Great post. Very informative.

You know, as much as I think this is not going to turn out all the well, I give them major points for trying.

The problem I see is the self-publishers I know are all, well, professional. Really. I know there is self-publishing crap out there. However...

My writer network was not built on self-publishers. I did not seek out self-publishers. Inadvertently, I did start following, and then reading, self-publishers, their blogs and their work.

Everyone has tried really hard to give it the best professional shot they could make it. I've read some amazing self-published works, too.

What do these people benefit from Book Country?

Nothing. Not a damn thing. There is no value ad. In fact, there is so much information and networking opportunities out there, Book Country could be viewed as noise.

Thus, it seems to me, a little... vanity.

I think that sites like BookCountry and Authonomy are more like online games than they are like roads to actual publication. They give writers (mostly writers who are hobbyists and who likely don't write to a very high standard, if we'll be honest about it) an opportunity to play with others and pretend that they're doing things that will further their writing career. Penguin makes some money off these folks and everyone has a good time. But I really don't see how it has much to do with actual books getting to actual readers. It's like a theme park for hobbyist novelists. None of this is any kind of win for writers. None of this legitimizes self-publishing.
wannabuy said…
Their effort is amusing. So for authors who haven't found JA Konrath's blog. ;)

I agree with Scott, I just do not see many of these books finding their way to actual readers.