November 24, 2009

CLASH OF THE TITANS Posted by Sheila Connolly and Sarah Atwell, who are equally ticked off There was a great disturbance in the Force this week: Romance Writers of America took up arms against the publisher Harlequin. The story is both simple and complex. To give some context, some numbers first. Romance Writers (aka RWA) is a writers organization with over ten thousand members, whose "mission and purpose is to advocate for the professional interests of career-focused romance writers," according to their website. In the industry, they are a force to be reckoned with. I am a member, and have been for six years. I started out trying to write romantic suspense and found that I simply don't have a romance voice, but I've stayed with RWA because they provide a terrific support structure and a lot of valuable information for writers. Among the advantages of membership is access to their annual market review. For 2008, RWA reports that romance fiction generated $1.37 billion in sales, and they estimate that this level will hold steady in 2009. Compare this to mystery sales for 2008, at $668 million according to RWA's figures. Harlequin Enterprises has been distributing books in North America since 1957, and while I can't cite statistics, I think it's safe to say that they dominate the romance market. While you may not always see their imprints on bookstore shelves, they do mail order as well, and they have throngs of hungry readers who may read as many as 30 of their romance novels each month. Harlequin is one of the few companies which actually reported increased sales for last year, in the face of economic turmoil (escapism sells!). So what has pitted RWA against Harlequin this past week? Harlequin announced a new venture: Harlequin Horizons, a vanity/subsidy press. And RWA ejected them from the kingdom, because RWA has clearly-stated guidelines about what kinds of publishing they endorse, and this does not include vanity presses. Harlequin ignored those guidelines in creating their new venture. RWA acknowledges the right to publish through a vanity press, but their stand against Harlequin represents an effort to protect member-writers from exploitation. Why does this matter? Harlequin will no doubt continue to thrive, with or without its new vanity press. But RWA will not let them continue to participate in the annual national conference, which offers free meeting space, the chance to hold editor appointments and offer spotlights for their program only to eligible publishers. Harlequin can attend the conference–if they pay. But they cannot use RWA resources to publicize or promote the company or its imprints, and this includes Romance Writers Report, which goes to all RWA members. Pity the poor RWA members who are published by Harlequin, and there are quite a few. They won't be drummed out of RWA, but they won't be eligible for RWA-sponsored contests, of which the biggest is the RITA, awarded at the national conference. Romance writers seem to love contests, and the RITA is the jewel in the crown; Harlequin books will not be allowed. Ouch. Members have been vocal on various loops, and the majority support RWA's stance. The guidelines are there for all to see, and have been for years. Apparently Harlequin did not consult with RWA when they planned their new venture, even as a courtesy, and they feigned dismay at RWA's quick response. [MWA and SFFWA have joined with RWA to condemn Harlequin's actions; Sisters in Crime has made a slightly more cautious public statement.] So what is the stink really about? Who's got more power, more clout in the industry? Not exactly. Harlequin has every right to create a new imprint, and that is a business decision. What is offensive is the way they went about it. The scenario boils down to this: you, Eager Writer, submit a manuscript to Harlequin. You receive a rejection letter–which includes the suggestion that you contact Harlequin Horizons (note: Harlequin backtracked almost immediately, saying that they would remove "Harlequin" from the title–maybe because it was quickly labeled "HarlHo" by loop members–but it's a bit late, since everybody knows now that they're behind it). This new imprint will be happy to accept your money–up to $1,500–and produce your book. Oh, and they'll be happy to take 50% of the proceeds–after you have promoted it yourself. And if you're really, really lucky, and the book does well, maybe a Harlequin editor will look at it and consider publishing it. But, oops, Harlequin isn't going to ensure that your self-published book will appear on shelves alongside their own. This is just wrong, and violates the ethical standards of almost any writers organization. Eager Writer is clueless about the industry, and will do almost anything to see her name on a book cover, particularly one with Harlequin stamped somewhere on it. Harlequin is exploiting that, and pocketing a nice piece of change while they do it, dangling the hope that somehow the Harlequin name will guarantee success. Could this mess be laid at the feet of the new CEO of Harlequin's parent company, Canada-based Torstar–who is a number-cruncher? Does he see Harlequin as a cash cow, and that slush pile Harlequin sits on as a potential goldmine that will help him bolster the sagging Torstar? It's an ugly scene all around. The consensus among members is that RWA has done the right thing, but at a price. Harlequin's image in the eyes of its writers had fallen, but the general public probably won't notice. Who wins? But I salute RWA for sticking to its guns, and for its sister organizations for following RWA's lead. We as writers need powerful advocates who will stick up for writers and protect their interests, and I for one am glad that RWA has taken this stand. I hope it makes a difference.
Stuffing Wars, The Dish Lottery, and Other Holiday Customs Posted by Kate Flora The other night at dinner, my husband was asking about my family's holiday traditions. I must be a bear of little brain, as Pooh says, because I can't remember very many traditions. I think I spent my entire childhood being unobservant, because I always had my nose in a book. Also because holidays tend to be those occasions when people fight, and having your nose stuck in a book makes it easier to filter out the raised voices. However, under his persistent questioning, I was able to dredge up a few memories of turkey days past. Here are the ones that top the list. The Year My Mother Outraged My Father's Family! Thanksgiving seems to have traditionally been held at our family farm in Union, Maine. Depending on the year, we would have my grandmother, her sister Lillian, Lillian's son Richard, his wife, and their too-sweet daughter Sherry. Uncle Kleba. Uncle Guy and Aunt Lucille. Against this overwhelming onslaught of Clark relatives, my mother created her own protective device--the collection of strays. That meant that along with all the people who, in my father's opinion, BELONGED there, my mother would collect a tiny handful of little old ladies who lived alone and a few odd folks from church, and they would also be included. By the time my parents were done, we had a rather large crowd gathered around the table. And after the tiny green glasses of creme de menthe to aide the digestion were downed, we had rather a large number of dirty dishes. Feeling, most righteously, that she had already spent the better part of the day in the kitchen, my mother evolved an equitable system for assigning dish washing duty. Everyone got a number, and people did five or ten minute dish washing stints according to their numbers and a kitchen timer. My poor father, who was always desperate to avoid being embarrassed in front of his relatives, used to writhe in humiliation as the tottery old Uncles and Aunts were marched to the kitchen, wrapped in aprons, and set to work doing dishes. He never got used to it. I expect the relatives, particularly the elderly male relatives never got used to it either, and my brother John, my sister Sara, and I marveled at our mother's courage. Stuffing Wars. It is a fact well known in any blended family that THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FAMILY doesn't make stuffing that is as good as ours. I think we've gotten over that, for the most part. My mother made wonderful stuffing. My mother-in-law's stuffing is better. By contrast, my uncle Kleba's wife made the world's worst stuffing--miserable, tasteless bits of burned, dry bread that no amount of gravy could resuscitate. Interestingly enough, my mother-in-law's sister also made awful stuffing. We used to hope for Thanksgiving at our house so we wouldn't have to eat the gummy mass thick with chunks of liver and giblets that one relative produced. And one year, my sister Sara, who had spent her summer working on an island off the coast of Maine as the cook for a picky and eccentric New York interior designer, decided that we needed to get just a wee bit more sophisticated in our tastes, and brought a separate dish of oyster stuffing. She was a fantastic cook, and it was a hit. (As long as there was also mom's stuffing for the ritual next day turkey sandwich. Oysters don't quite make it in a turkey sandwich) It is very easy to assume that stuffing really doesn't matter very much...whether it is good or bad...until somehow, the stuffing gets completely forgotten. Which is what my brother John did one year. He got the job of fixing the turkey, and completely forgot to make stuffing. A fact that wasn't revealed until everyone had searched the table, and the oven, and the carcass, repeatedly, assuming it had to be somewhere. He has never been allowed to forget this dereliction. Indeed, some years, he gets a phone call, reminding him of the importance of stuffing. And the terrible year of NO STUFFING is always mentioned several times during dinner. Thanksgiving is also not "right" unless there are too many pies. Usually, a ration of one pie for every three people is considered correct, but my sister Sara used to get a bit manic about baking pies. She never could make just one. Or two. Or three. One year, she showed up with five. Among them, since toward the end of her insane baking spree she was running low on ingredients, was a pie that was a mixture of sour cherry and raspberry. Not a traditional turkey day offering. Bar none, the best pie I've ever eaten. I'm waiting for the next generation to start a few wars of their own, once we get the family horse-trading straightened out and figure out who has to go where each year to appease which family. Meanwhile, we've only got three styles of cranberry relish. Whole berry (I made my own this year), jellied, and the wonderful raw cranberry, apple, orange relish my son Max makes. Surely there must be some other styles. Surely we can find room for one more dish on table? Or maybe not. Oops...forgot perhaps the best T'day story of all. One year, my friend Nancy happened to have Julia Child at her house for Thanksgiving. Julia arrived with the turkey, and a separate oven to cook the legs. Nancy, who gets a bit nervous about entertaining anyway, got so flustered she forgot to serve about half the things she'd prepared. Who among us would have done any better? Finally, no Thanksgiving Day is complete without the ritual reading of Art Buchwald's column, Explaining Thanksgiving to the French. You might find it here: Meanwhile, I'm avoiding all the TV shows that tell me that by just picking five nuts off the pecan pie I can save 100 calories. Dieting on Thanksgiving Day is a...

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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