Now that the majority of the flames seem to have mellowed out, I’ve been thinking about what exactly went wrong with Harlequin’s launch of Harlequin Horizons.
Apart from the questions of self publishing vs. vanity publishing and profit and loss, I have been pondering why this was such a huge splashing fail.
My answer: brand inconsistency.
Note: I know there are some folks who think of branding as a negative thing. A false front or artificial construct designed purely to sell you things. Not necessarily. Branding is how you communicate who or what you are.
I think the biggest flaw of the entire launch was the increasingly close linking of the publishing wing and the vanity arm of Harlequin, especially the ads all over the eHarlequin site and the Harlequin community pages that read “Be an author!” With the addition of rejection letters directing writers to the Horizons line, the Horizons launch came across as predatory, greedy, and heartlessly tuned solely to profit and bottom line.
That said, corporations have one responsibility and one responsibility alone—namely: to make money for shareholders. So Harlequin’s effort to increase profits is not out of order at all. However, everything about the Horizons launch contrasted severely with the branding of Harlequin up to that point, and the volume of the outcry reflected that disconnect. In effect, that inconsistency created a major loss of goodwill.
Harlequin has gone beyond the reach of any other publisher in romance in the past few years to reveal the process behind the book production. They have entire blogs run by Harlequin staff which are devoted to their individual fiction lines, and employees serve as community managers that revealed the people behind the books to an unheard-of degree. Their digital efforts to reach a new generation of romance readers is part of their evolving success. Harlequin isn’t a “what.” It’s a “who,” and you knew a lot about the various whos who were running the show than you did about any other romance publisher. Harlequin was the first to openly emphasize the reader, the aspiring writer, and the author as a priority, and their efforts to create communities reflect that. I don’t agree with the idea that any romance reader is an aspiring romance writer, but I do see how Harlequin successfully formed communities based on that concept.
They’ve cultivated writers through contests and offer pages upon pages of instruction and tips for those who aspire to be Harlequin authors – for free! There’s no charge to access those instructional pages, nor to join the Harlequin community discussions, nor to post on the bulletin boards or hang out at the blogs. All that cultivation and generosity of time and effort creates… authors. New ones. Who write new books to sell. Whose books may be successful because the writer-turned-author has already invested herself in that community, and that community may have a more attentive interest in that writer’s career.
Of course Harlequin is all about profits. They should be without question. But until Horizons, they’d successfully emphasized the community of readers, writers, and authors to such a degree that their reputation was more than merely corporate.
Harlequin until now has been amazingly attuned to the readers and writers of romance – one of the earliest of the massive publishing corporations that listened and solicited opinions from readers. But Horizons and the ads and the links and the redirection in rejection letters demonstrated such a huge degree of tone deafness, it was jarring. It was wrenching and inconsistent with the brand they’ve established. Add to that the revulsion directed at self publication, the confusion as to what constitutes vanity and self-publication, and the miasma of contradiction found in the path to publishing, then contrast that with the value and meaning of the brand Harlequin cultivated on the part of its readers and authors, and it was a big ol’ mess.
If another publisher did something like this, one who wasn’t so reportedly in touch with readers, one, perchance, who wasn’t as profitable as Harlequin, I don’t think the outcry and fury would have been so enormous.
Harlequin has been more transparent about the publishing process and the types of books they are looking for within their lines, and actively engaging readers and aspiring writers for far longer than any other romance publisher. Thus the avaricious tone of the Horizon’s launch, coupled with the manner in which the Horizons line was connected with the established Harlequin publications, undermined their previous efforts at branding.
But as I said, Harlequin does listen to readers, writers, and authors. I don’t think this is finished, and I think there are lessons inherent in the last few days that apply to everyone who is invested in the romance community. Therefore, I’m listening, too.