Today, the romance blogosphere is abuzz with news of the launch of Harlequin Horizons, a vanity/subsidy press created by a cooperative venture between vanity press Author Solutions and Harlequin Enterprises. The news has spewed the self-publishing vs. traditional publishing debate all over the romance-themed websites and comment boards.

Within the romance community, Harlequin is a prestigious and respected imprint. Many of today’s most popular writers honed their craft writing for Harlequin, and entire careers are based on writing the monthly romances the company so successfully markets. They currently publish some of the most successful writers in romance, including Linda Lael Miller, Debbie Macomber, Diana Palmer, and many more.

But with the launch of a Harlequin vanity imprint, many writers are worried that the cachet of being a Harlequin writer has been diluted. Some Harlequin authors are understandably upset at this new development, while those who have taken the self-publishing route are understandably insulted by their objections.

For the Harlequin authors, the company’s vanity venture means the Harlequin name may no longer stand for a certain level of quality. Anyone with six hundred dollars will be able to call themselves a Harlequin author.”To many writers, it feels like you’ve worked your way to a four-year college degree, and someone else sidestepped all the work and just bought a degree off the internet–and now expects the same respect.

Meanwhile, self-published writers argue that paying to publish your own book is the wave of the future, and that it’s sometimes necessary to sidestep the long, hard slog of submission and rejection that is traditional publishing if you want to see your book in print before you die of frustration.

I understand that frustration. I spent five years and garnered over 60 rejections before finding an agent, and was turned down by more than a few editors after that point.

But those agents and editors were right. When I finished my first novel, I thought it was terrific. I thought it was ready. And if I hadn’t known better, I might have fallen for the siren song of the vanity publishers and paid to get my book in print.

But working in bookselling, I see the struggles of self-published authors. I see the quality of the books produced, and I’m well aware that many (not all!) self-published books are not adequately edited. Without the input of agents and editors, most (again, not all!) self-published books are simply published before they are the best they can be.

Because as the rejections and frustration mounted, I learned to be a better writer. I honed my story, tightened my prose, and dove into my characters’ goals and motivations to come up with new and better plot twists. I attended workshops and entered contests to get feedback from published writers. I edited and re-edited, and then I wrote three more novels. After that, I went back and rewrote the first one–which will finally be published in March. It’s barely recognizable as the book I first submitted to agents back in 2005. Had I self-published that version, I would be embarrassed by it now.

Those who support self-publishing argue that publishing is changing. Self-publishing is getting more and more common, and thanks to the internet, it’s much easier to promote your book without the backing of a major publisher. Some writers who go the self-publishing route argue that big publishing houses will soon be obsolete; anyone will be able to get a book published, and it will be up to the readers to decide which books succeed.

As a reader, I hope that doesn’t happen. Agents and editors winnow out the slush pile, rejecting something like 99% of submissions, and ensure the books that reach the marketplace meet a certain standard of quality. It’s hard enough to select five books out of the thousands at Barnes & Noble; imagine if there were that many more to choose from–and if the only selective factor was whether an author could afford to self-publish!

Members of Romance Writers of America (RWA) have been speculating on the comment boards on how the organization would respond to Harlequin’s new venture. RWA’s mission is to advance the professional interests of career-focused romance writers, and I just received an e-mail that states they have withdrawn conference privileges for Harlequin as a whole. While Harlequin and their writers are still welcome to attend the conferences, they will no longer be provided free meeting space, will no longer be able to hold editor appointments, and will no longer be allowed to offer spotlights to promote the imprint.

So because of Harlequin’s new venture, their writers have lost the privilege of being a part of one of the romance genre’s most important networking and promotional events. With the prices the publisher will be charging–$600 for a base package, another $400 for editorial review, and an additional $1000 for a package that includes publicity and copyright registration–they won’t miss any sales lost.

But the writers will, and they’re powerless to change what’s happened. Hopefully, this will all shake itself out, and Harlequin will be able to somehow separate their vanity arm from the rest of their company and regain their RWA status.

The one incontrovertible truth in all this is that publishing is changing, quickly and profoundly, and we never know from one day to the next what the next surprise will be.

(Image from Adre Photography/ “warmsummernights” photostream on Flickr Creative Commonshttp://www.flickr.com/photos/adreaphotography/3586853272/)