November 20th, 2009


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.