Jackie Kessler posted an excellent guide to the Harlequin Horizons situation here. She points to some details that had escaped me previously, including Harlequin's stated intention to include contact information for Horizons in the rejection letters sent to authors submitting to their traditional lines. Yeah, they're going to send out letters saying, "Your writing isn't worth publishing. But if you want to give us money to print it anyway, here's the address." And at that address, they'll assure you that if you print this way you might get noticed by their editors and claim that having a bound copy of your novel can help you get an agent. Which is blatantly false unless a heck of a lot of agents have been lying to the whole world.
Jackie also gets into whether or not Horizons is really a self-publishing set-up or not. Her conclusion, with which I am inclined to agree, is that it's not. It's a vanity press. What's the difference? In self-publishing, the author pays all costs and pockets the profits. In a vanity press, the press is making a large amount of money off of the author. Sort of like when Wal-Mart takes your money to make a photo book for you. Would you say you were published because you had a book about your last summer vacation printed for your grandmother? Because I've done that and I'm pretty sure it doesn't count. There's nothing wrong with making Grandma a book. In my experience grandmas like that sort of thing. And there's nothing wrong with Wal-Mart profiting over it. But you'll note that Wal-Mart doesn't have a little icon on their photo center page inviting you to click on it and become a published photojournalist. And I'm pretty sure you aren't given a link there when you submit a photograph to Time and they turn it down.
I'm not sure if the above is as inherently nauseating to people outside of the writing community as it is to those in it, but to me it's pretty revolting. And there are plenty of rants around the blogosphere assuring me I'm not alone in that. This is the main basis of the RWA's objections and why they're willing to punish established authors from Harlequin's traditional lines in order to express their disgust. I suspect it's also why I haven't seen any of those authors bashing the RWA. I haven't seen any of them outright lash out at their publisher yet either, which is a well ingrained no-no to most writers, but I wouldn't want to be a Harlequin editor fielding calls from my authors this week.
My beloved (AKA Jimmy Brokaw) commented on this when it was posted elsewhere. Here's what he said:
I looked at the Harlequin Horizons website, and I didn't think the prices were bad for a self-publisher, but they're awful for a vanity press. I don't agree with your test to differentiate the two (price), so let me explain mine.
A vanity press charges you money to publish your book. The key is they are publishing your book -- you write the book, send them money, and now they sell it and give you a small pittance for each copy they sell. Amazon buys books for something like half the list price -- if the publisher sells copies to the author for anywhere near half price, that's vanity publishing. In fact, many vanity presses give authors a 10% or 15% discount over list price, meaning they charge the author far more than they charge Amazon for the book. The author may retain legal ownership of the copyrights, but he isn't in control of the publishing process.
In self-publishing, the author is the publisher and the company is the printer. Obviously the printer must make money, so the author will still pay per copy, but that cost will be related to printing costs and not related to the list price of the book. The author sets the price on his own.
As a general rule, vanity press is evil. As you state, it works for one-off or very low production runs like a holiday scrapbook. But those products shouldn't come with startup costs running several hundred dollars, either. Vanity presses that charge authors $500-$2000 in initial fees then allow the author to purchase their "own" books for $10-$15 each (paperback) are predatory scum. A self publishing imprint that charges the same set-up fee but then allows the author to purchase copies for $2-$5 each gives a motivated marketing-savvy author a chance to make a decent profit on a book a traditional publisher might pass on.
Which is Harlequin Horizons? Beats me. They list start-up fees but not the cost to actually purchase the books. The statement on their website that they give authors "bulk purchase discounts" makes me think they are a vanity press. They can't give authors a "discount" unless they're setting a price for the books and giving the authors a "discount" off that price. If they were a self-publishing house, they'd have a price list for printing books, and that's what it would cost the author to purchase the books.