Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Harlequin Mess: New Authors, Stay Out

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In the past few weeks, two well-known writing blogs (Passive Voice and A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, which is Joe Konrath’s blog) have taken a look at Harlequin’s onerous contractual language, and have come up with some startling conclusions.  Both blogs were based on a guest post written at A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing by Ann Voss Peterson, who used to write — prolifically — for Harlequin.  The reason she no longer does is because she can no longer afford to do so.  As she says here:

If you do a (very) little digging into publishing companies, you’ll discover that while the industry standard royalty rate for mass market paperback sales is 8% for US retail, Harlequin pays its series authors only 6%.

The royalty goes down from there.

(Peterson goes on to point out that Harlequin pays lower than standard industry advances, too.)
 
Then she discloses what she’s made on her most popular book:
 

My life-to-date statement says this book has sold 179,057 copies so far, and it has earned $20,375.22. (bold text by Joe Konrath) That means the average I’ve earned is a whopping 11 cents per copy. If you use the cover price to calculate (the number used in the contract), which was $4.50 at the time of release, I’ve earned an AVERAGE of 2.4 % per copy.

Why is this?

First, while most of my books are sold in the US, many are sold under lower royalty rates in other countries. In this particular contract, some foreign rights and -ALL ebook royalties- are figured in a way that artificially reduces net by licensing the book to a “related licensee,” in other words, a company owned by Harlequin itself. (content bolded by Barb Caffrey)

As Konrath says at the end of this blog, this is absolutely disgraceful.  But a comment made at both blogs by Donna Fasano points out something even worse than these horrible contracts; when someone has the guts to complain, he or she apparently gets blackballed.  From Fasano’s comment (cut and pasted from the Passive Voice):

While attending an RWA conference, a friend of mine stood up and asked a panel of HQ editors and other ‘suits’ how they expected their authors to live on the paltry wages they paid. Their blunt answer, “We don’t.” They said they warn authors not to quit their day jobs; they tell them not to expect to earn a living as a writer. They stress that this is a hobby, not a career. I was stunned and saddened. Consequently, after my friend spoke out, she never sold another manuscript to the company.

 

This experience raises the following question: what kind of publisher tells its writers not to expect to make a living at writing?

Obviously, after being made aware of this substantial problem with regards to Harlequin’s contract, my advice to other emerging writers is this: stay away from Harlequin unless they change their terrible contractual language (and for that matter, their horrible attitude regarding the rights of professional writers to make a living).  Remember that you can and will do better as a self-published author than at Harlequin or any of its subsidiaries.  And if you can’t bring yourself to test the self-publishing market yet, you’ll also do better at any other publisher because every one of them pays better royalty rates than Harlequin.

One caveat, though, for those who are going through any “Big Six” publishing house (these are the well-known, long-established publishing houses such as Random House, Penguin Putnam, etc.) — read the contractual language carefully before signing.  Get a lawyer to look it over if you can (if you have an agent, make sure they have a lawyer look it over as well), and know your rights with regards to any given contract.

Publishing is fraught with so many challenges as it is, which is why you must be careful and vigilant.  Know your rights.  Don’t get taken in by a big company with a long reach like Harlequin; instead, believe in yourself and your talent, because ultimately, that is the only way to win.

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Written by Barb Caffrey

May 17, 2012 at 8:44 pm

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