Thursday, September 26, 2013

Meteoric words

Take from this what you will.

I don't know without digging into my records what the exact time frame was, but I'm pretty sure it was in the early 1990s.  Harlequin Enterprises had started gobbling up its competition and establishing itself as a near monopoly in category contemporary romance.  They'd bought the Silhouette operation from Simon & Schuster in about 1984 and proceeded to dominate until most of the other lines -- Rapture, Candlelight, Candlelight Ecstasy, Second Chance at Love -- had folded.  Bantam's Loveswept was ultimately the last to fall in about 1995.  Again, I'm not positive on the dates, but that should be pretty close.

There had been, for a number of years, a company called HCA, or Hosiery Corporation of America, which sold pantyhose by mail subscription.  You signed up, chose your color, style, size, etc., and every month they sent you four pair.  The price was extremely competitive and the quality was every bit as good as most and better than a lot of what you could buy in the store -- No Nonsense, L'eggs, etc.  I know this because I was a long-time customer of HCA and still have a bunch of their product.

Harlequin, and some other publishers, were cashing in on their own subscription services, and someone at HCA got the bright idea to go into the publishing business.  Their line of category contemporary romances was called "Meteor," and they were going to undersell the big brands.  They had a HUGE mailing list of women who were already buying things on a repeat monthly basis.

They sent editors to RWA conferences and they began buying manuscripts.  They didn't pay a lot in terms of advance against royalties, and I don't know right off the top of my head what their royalty rate was or what rights they bought -- I'd have to do more research than I have time at the moment to do -- but they were not a scam.  They published the books, sold them, and so on.  How successful were they?  I don't know.  I'm sure there's some information in the RWA "Rate the Publishers" surveys from that time, and I have those.  I'll look later on, if anyone is interested.

I suspect they were reasonably successful.  Yes, their authors were lower tier, and undoubtedly many of them had been rejected by the other, better paying houses.  The books were decently produced, though some of the cover art was kind of on the cheap side.  At least Meteor was successful enough that they represented some kind of threat.  After about a year of operation, they were bought out/shut down/silenced by Harlequin.

Despite assurances that any and all books already under contract would be published in some form or other, pretty much nothing happened.  Meteor disappeared, many of the authors disappeared, and of course there was no concern whatsoever about the readers.  I'm not even sure if RWA took much of a stand on it.

By about 1995, when the uproar over royalties on subscription sales was reaching a crescendo, I wrote, as the PAN "rabble rouser," an impassioned plea for someone, anyone, to step up and provide some competition to Harlequin.  That plea was quoted at length in Paul Grescoe's Merchants of Venus but ultimately nothing happened.  Loveswept folded, authors are still being screwed by Harlequin, and the only competition is from the small digital publishers and independent writers who are putting their work on Amazon and Smashwords and selling it for 99 cents or giving it away for free.

Harlequin didn't give a rat's ass about the writers at Meteor.  They didn't have to.  That entire operation stood in their way and all they saw was an obstacle.  They allowed the writers to vent and whine at RWA conferences, much the way Steve Zacharius allowed us to vent in the Zebra forum, but then they went ahead and continued to do what they intended to do all along.

As I recall, now that I'm thinking about it, Kate Duffy was the start-up editor for Meteor.  Kate's obituary in the New York Times a few years ago was one of the little omen-like events that prodded me toward resuming my writing career.  A couple years after that, the friend who showed me Kate's obituary showed me Walter Zacharius's.  I don't believe in omens, but that was kind of the reminding nudge that got me started again.

The point is, for those of you us who are complaining about The Powers That Be not listening to us, it's not because they are afraid of us or don't have answers.  It's because they never had any intention of answering.  They don't care.  They don't have any fucks left to give.

Neither do I.

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