John Scalzi is hosting an interesting discussion on Harlequin's decision to start what is basically a vanity publishing arm, and the reactions from the Romance Writers of America, the Mystery Writers of America and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The writers are Not Happy with blend of Big Publisher brand with the reality of having to pay to get your book published.
Speaking as a bookseller (so you're sure of my perspective and agenda), I see the following: authors are much better off with real publishers, not print-on-demand publishers, not vanity publishers. What an author gets with a real publisher is a distribution network --- it's getting the book/isbn on iPage and TitleSource and in Bowker, etc, so when your family and friends call their local library and bookstore, those folks can LOOK UP the book to order.
Both I and my bookstore have been burned by certain vanity publishers (requiring certain minimum numbers and not allowing returns, even for book signings). These are the companies I won't deal with any more. If a local author approaches me for a signing and they're with that company, I tell them that they (the author) must provide the books. I will sign a check to them, not their publisher...I am at least sure the author gets paid that way. Some of you may find this offensive but I'm trying to stay in business alongside the likes of the big chains --- so I can host more local authors.
If you are an author who has self-published, you have a VERY hard road to travel...marketing, distribution, travel, advertising is ALL YOUR RESPONSIBILITY.
So to get to Harlequin's decision: they're huge, and unlike other genres, romance is making money hand over fist. They shouldn't NEED to open a vanity arm. I wonder if this is a 'loss leader' for them? I don't think we'll know for awhile. It is absolutely bad for the writer community and possibly the publishing community as a whole. I applaud RWA, SFWA and MWA for taking a stand.