Was Jane Austen a professional author? Not according to Mystery Writers of America!

Last Wednesday I saw the wonderful Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City. See it if you get the chance; it will be up through March 14th. I was especially fascinated with the description of the publication of Sense and Sensibility:
"It was published on commission by Thomas Egerton in 1811, an arragement in which Austen paid all the publication expenses but retained the copyright and increased her potential profit."
That sounds exactly like my own publication arrangement with Virtualbookworm, yet I'm not considered a legitimate author by Mystery Writers of America - or by some folks on Crimespace, for that matter. So would Austen have been eligible for Active Status membership in MWA? At this stage of her career, definitely not.

MWA has just sent out an official memo saying that as of December 2nd, Harlequin is no longer on their list of approved publishers because they are "in violation of our rules regarding between a traditional publisher and its various for-pay services." In other words, Harlequin has ventured into some new 21st century publishing arrangements, and that's strictly verboten.

Read more on my new blog post about the crappiest trip to NYC I've ever taken. Go to:
Julie Lomoe's Musings Mysterioso.

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From what I've seen, the Harlequin endeavor was for a vanity press under the Harlequin imprint. They have since changed their mind about using the Harlequin imprint for this.

The problem with vanity presses is that anyone and their favorite aunt can publish anything by paying for it. The issue became dubious in academic circles when professors availed themselves of this and then claimed pomotions and salary increases for having published. For many people who pay to be in print, this is an ego-trip. Hence the term.
The problem with the Harlequin thing is that they fully intend to refer the rejected slush authors to the vanity publishing arm, which is a predatory practice and is what the genre organizations are responding to by delisting them. They're intending to make money off the authors they would otherwise never have published.
Has Harlquin, or DellArte I think they're calling it, said how much they'll charge to "print" one of these rejected manuscripts? As I understand it, it's e-book only. Also, will these e-books be for sale everywhere or will they only be available from the Harlequin website? Any idea how much they'll be charging? As I understand it, Harlequin expect to trck sales of these books and then publish traditionally the ones that sell enough.

Sorry, I guess I could just go look this up. It does seem that there are a few differences from traditional vanity-press publishing.
This is in partnership with Author Solutions, parent company of a whole slew of companies in the pay-to-publish branch. There's also an ebook venture starting, but I think it's supposed to be a separate thing.

Writer Beware has a bunch of posts on this.
Thanks for that link some very good stuff at that website.

I doubt the fact that Harlequin is a Canadian company means much, but the Crime Writers of Canada do allow self-pubished books to qualify for awards and recently teh Stephen Leacock Award (pretty prestigious here in Canada) ws won by a self-published book. I think we can do this because there are just fewe books involved.

Looks like some big changes are coming...
Interesting information about the Crime Writers of Canada. I recently received the 2009 Author of the Year Award from the Friends of the Albany Public Library. Granted that's a pretty small playing field, but they've been giving the award for about four decades, and they told me this was the first time they'd ever chosen a self-published book. The fact that it was self-published had no bearing on their decision, however; they chose ELDERCIDE because of the book's quality as well as its relevance to current social issues. So times are indeed changing!
Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Dan. I'm glad that you acknowledge self-published books can be of good quality. Personally, I gave up on seeking a traditional agent and publisher after relatively few (under 20) rejections, because I'm psychologically challenged and simply couldn't take the continued assaults on my ego and self-esteem. This is one of the many good reasons to self-publish. The standard advice is to buck up and develop the hide of a rhinoceros to handle rejections, but that advice doesn't work for to everybody.

Julie Lomoe's Musings Mysterioso
I want to make it clear that I'm not against self-publishing. I have a friend who has decided, after looking at all the options, to self-publish her mystery novels, and I support her decision. There are good books that get self-published, for good reasons.

All I'm saying here is that referring authors straight from slush into a vanity press and telling them that editors will be monitoring things with the possibility that some of those authors might get picked up later by Harlequin is predatory and a bit deceptive, since these are authors Harlequin rejected in the first place as unpublishable. It's the bait to get them to part with their money.
Yes, I agree.

But they may very well monitor things and some writers may get picked up. No publisher can really publish every book it wants to. The problem with this straight-to-vanity is that there is no seperation (I don't think), they'll just be sending the same form-letter to everyone.

And also, there is deep in here a little admission from the publisher that the don't actually know what will sell. A lot of this venture depends on how they will present the "self-published" books.

Oh, and to answer the original question, no I don't think Jane Austen was treated with nearly enough respect "as an author" in her lifetime. Most of her literary reputation is revisionist - even if it is well-deserved.
Harlequin has already admitted they aren't going to market the books. So, take that as you will.

Apparently, Harlequin is the only branch of their parent company that's making any money, so take that as you will as well.

And no, many artists and authors are never recognized for what they are during their lifetimes. It's a shame.
Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful responses to my post. I don't fully understand all the fine points of MWA's decision or Harlequin's policy, but my reading of the MWA memo suggested that they would have taken this stance regardless of the details of Harlequin's policy. If the two business models are linked in any way whatsoever, MWA considers it unacceptable.
I'm saddened that Jane Austin died so young. I would very much like to read what happens to her characters as they get older and change. I've never been satisfied with marriage as being the be all and end all of a life. Certainly she was talented enough to make later life more fascinating.

I've always preferred the Brontes to Austin, particularly the Bronte of Villette. There's a much wider range of experience in those books.

But, I'm off topic. What does a "professional writer" mean? Making one's living from writing? Austin's class and gender both gave her time and limitation to what she wrote. Thackery worked in the British civil service and wrote between 4-6 in the morning before his work day began. Joyce starved. Beckett picked beets in Spain and hid from the Nazis. I wonder if they considered themselves professionals?

Now, we all need medical plans, want to have a middle class life, etc. etc.


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