07 December 2009

Repent, Harlequin!

Since I've already expressed my disdain for Harlequin's decision to embrace vanity press operations as a revenue source, the title of this post should come as no surprise. I'm not the Ticktockman trying to enforce conformity upon Harlequin; I'm an outraged jester myself trying to make the Ticktockman conform to the sources of her own authority.1

A quick summary, for those coming late to the party: Earlier this year, Harlequin began a paid-critique service for submissions. Apparently, despite serious questions raised about the service (such as whether, as the initial announcement implied but carefully did not state, the critiques would come from the same editors who had otherwise rejected the manuscripts), this wasn't successful enough... so Harlequin has allegedly dropped it for a worse problem. In November 2009, Harlequin announced that it was forming a new vanity-press imprint; this was followed by various vociferous objections, a mealymouthed change in the name of the new imprint, and removal of Harlequin as a "professional"2 credit by the MWA, SFWA, and RWA — the three trade groups that cover the vast majority of Harlequin's actually commercially published author pool. In turn, this has led to various apologetics by proponents of vanity publishing that vary between merely missing the mark and lying, such as some of the comments on the Writer Beware blog.

Initially, the underlying question is simple:

What part of "conflict of interest" does corporate management not understand?

The sarcastic answer is "Obviously, all of it." Sadly, based on a communication from Harlequin posted on Lee Goldberg's blog,3 that sarcastic answer appears to understate management's obtuseness. It's pretty damned obvious that nobody consulted competent, thoughtful counsel before starting either of these programs.

Internal to Harlequin, this black eye constitutes self-dilution of the Harlequin mark (and all associated marks). As a voluntary adoption of practices that are inconsistent with the perceived value of the mark ("leading publisher of series romances" has more than a trivial impact on booksellers' and libraries' perception of, treatment of, and willingness to carry/purchase its products), Harlequin's management is actually wiping "goodwill" value off its own books. This is both counterintuitive and inconsistent with the purpose of enhancing the company's own revenue streams; since any future financing — not to mention equity-market valuation — depends in part upon the value of that goodwill (at least if you believe Graham and Dodd), this will have an effect on future net profits. It also depends upon a hidden assumption: That of the captive market. Unfortunately, that's much too complex (both doctrinally and in reality) to examine in a blawg post — even one as overextended as is this one.

More subtly, Harlequin is also diluting marks that belong to others. An auctorial identity is best thought of as a mark, or at minimum a brand, regardless of the ridiculous formalism in trademark registration systems (that were put in place through the influence of publishing interests without regard to the authors' interests). Given Harlequin's cavalier attitude toward its own marks — the imprints — one can infer some (unpredictable in scale, but not in sign) effect upon the value of a particular author's name as a "quality of goods" identifier on a work that also bears one of Harlequin's marks. At this stage, it is not an actionable dilution; if nothing else, it would be virtually impossible to establish either damages or causality to sufficient legal probability without significant passage of time... and that, in turn, might allow Harlequin to interpose certain other defenses. It is, nonetheless, a dilution in the law-school-exam-question sense,4 and one no less wrongful for its lack of an effective remedy.

Finally, Harlequin's attempts to grab at apparently available immediate income streams reflect the dominance of short-term accounting over longer-term asset development. Some of this is an inevitable result of the short-term reporting requirements imposed by the securities laws; under the performance-measurement rubric of contemporary accounting, a profit in the next quarter is worth a helluva lot more than even predictable, substantially larger-quantity effects on the asset base several accounting periods in the future.5 It is more a reflection of the investment (and management) culture's understanding of the Lake Woebegone Pragma: When all of the children are "above average," the only acceptable immediate return on capital is one that is "above average." And what that says — rather unfavorably — about many of the underlying themes in Harlequin's series romances bears a disturbing resemblance to some of Lucifer's speeches before the Fall in Paradise Lost, and perhaps a bit more about self-fulfilling prophecies.

So I call on Harlequin to repent. Not just to change the name to protect the guilty, but to actually repent.

  1. You won't find a link to a free electronic copy of my client's award-winning story here, because there are no authorized free versions on the web. You could, of course, try paying for an authorized copy. Indeed, this is a rather unsubtle dig at the premises behind Harlequin's recent actions...
  2. It's not professional. Writing is not a profession. Writers per se are not professionals. Publishers per se are not professionals. Neither is it about "tradition"... since, if one actually looks at the "traditions" of the English-language press — particularly those of the late seventeenth century up to the end of the eighteenth century — the "tradition" is what we now call a "vanity press." See, e.g., John Feather, A History of British Publishing (2005); Robin Myers & Michael Harris, A Genius for Letters: Booksellers and Bookselling From the 16th to the 20th Century (1995). Instead, it is about commerce; and the only intellectually honest description is "commercial publisher." And this is not a bad thing at all; "commercial" merely means "in the stream of ordinary commerce."
  3. Goldberg is a member of the Board of Directors of the MWA, and thus was in a position to see the entire correspondence file on this matter.
  4. The irony that this dilution occurs because, on one tentacle, authors are treated as "independent contractors" and not employees by law, but on another tentacle the "series romance" is subject to an extraordinary degree of publisher control over the author's writing and even brand, just twists this particular set of panties farther into a knot.
  5. This is not an attack on the securities laws; as badly flawed as they are, short-term reporting requirements are the least-intrusive and most-effective means to combat outright fraud. It is, instead, an attack on the mistaken "profit is nonscale-bound" assumption that is at the heart of neoclassical and Chicago-school economics. Once again, that is well beyond what can be examined in a blawg entry.