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Harlequin’s Lameness: Cialdini 101

When I first heard about Harlequin Horizons, I thought, “Heh, that’s kind of cool.”  All I’d heard was that Harlequin was opening up a new division to help people self-publish.  Then, I read a little more about it, and thought, “Wow, that’s actually really lame.”

This article from Jackie Kessler clears it up:

In short, Horizons is a vanity press, capitalizing on authors’ desire to be associated with Harlequin so that they can feel like “real writers,” but not actually getting ANY brand association.

Taking advantage of writers’ need for validation.

As I commented on Courtney Milan’s “Your Power In Publishing” post, writers crave validation through official channels.  They don’t feel like Real Writers until a Real Publisher says they are.  Here’s the full comment for the purposes of this post, but you should read her related post, too, since it’s really good:

“More writers should be able to value their work without a Real Publisher’s stamp of approval, but yeah, it takes real guts. It’s hard to kick that obedience to authority — that desire for a widely-recognized stamp of approval. I hear so many people say, ‘I’m not published yet, so I’m not a Real Writer.'”

For a lot of people, it’s hard to feel like a true success unless you win in a way that everyone else gives the nod to, like getting your degree from a so-called good school, rather than a community college. No matter how good the education, or how smart you are, you may still feel insecure compared to your Yale and Harvard graduate friends.

In my critique group, most of the writers only care about getting in print by a Real Publisher from the Inscrutable Publishing Coalition. Anything else wouldn’t count, they told me when I asked.

If this is true, I don’t wonder that writers don’t have more confidence in their own negotiations. By their definitions, their successes aren’t true wins. They still have that not-published-yet feeling, and still think of themselves as beggars at the table.

“I think that, for some, even making $100,000 in self-published revenue wouldn’t have the same sparkle as making $10,000 with a Real Publisher.”

Harlequin’s Brainwashing Revealed.

I’m going to get a bit technical here, but bear with me.  (I’ve got a cognitive and behavioral science background, and I’m an ad writer, so…)

1) In Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: Science & Practice,” authority is one of those social factors that people are conditioned to respond to without thinking.  Without authority of some kind, most people feel lost.  For the most part, this is good, otherwise children wouldn’t obey their parents and end up dead.  Hence, the stopping-in-tracks response to Mommy Voice.  When people have to define their own path — self-publishing, for example — it’s a rare person who feels totally easy doing that; most need some kind of authority telling them that what they’re doing is good and right.

2) In “How To Win Friends And Influence People,” Carnegie says that the one need that goes unfulfilled most is one’s feeling of importance.  Most writers get their FoI through writing, but only if people actually read it and value it.  This has to be proven in some form, like money, comments, RSS subscriber numbers, or whatever.  If this weren’t the case, we’d all be content to write in our diaries.  In my experience, “artists” who profess not to care if anyone likes their stuff are insecure about their abilities, so they reject their potential rejectors first.

3) Cialdini, again.  The authority of Real Publishers isn’t without merit.  Their authority comes from another influence factor, “social proof.”  The validation of the masses.  Collective experience.  These Real Publishers have seen thousands of manuscripts and have to serve millions of customers.  If they choose you, they’re speaking for those millions of potential readers — they’re a shortcut for the social proof generated by the masses of readers.  Supposedly, the Real Publishers have their fingers on the pulse of the masses (when you know that isn’t actually true — most fiction books lose money!)

Jackie Kessler bats it out of the park.

She gives a blow-by-blow dissection of their duplicitous copy, so I won’t got into it here.  Basically:

– Harlequin Horizons is a vanity press, where people have to pay to get books printed.

– Harlequin Horizons won’t help authors sell their books or give authors the Harlequin name.

Harlequin is working those influence factors.  They’re capitalizing on authors’ intense need for validation by pretending to associate them with the Harlequin name, something that stands for unmistakable success (authority & social proof.) That way, authors can get their temporary feeling of importance when they tell their friends that they were “published” by Harlequin Horizons.

It’s leveraging authority by implied association, but with nothing explicitly promised… or delivered.

Here’s a Cialdini cheat-sheat for those interested in world domination ethical application of influence factors.

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