Scam vs Rip Off

The other day I was talking with author Jackie Kessler on Twitter (briefly, so this isn’t an Oh Hai I know THE Jackie Kessler post or anything) about the Harlequin Horizons thing (btw, they’ve now publicly removed “Harlequin” from the venture, which is what brought up the discussion.) And today I was looking at Snuggies because both the kids asked for them for Yule (I have one that Jason bought me as a gift that is 7xl and came from a housewares magazine, not a commercial. Everyone constantly steals it from me so I never get to use it because either someone else is, or it has been dragged/left on the floor and is covered in cat fur. So time to consider getting them their own Snuggies so I can keep mine clean and use it when I want.) After reading some of the scam reports online about the Fosdick Corporation (the one that runs most of those “As Seen on TV” ads) I hunted for and found, a free easy how-to-sew for a sleeved blanket instead (plus, my son wants a red one, and I couldn’t find one.)

The two situations are linked though, because it made me think a lot about how we fling around “scam” (hint: It’s a lot like we fling around “Nazi” even though today most people don’t really understand what a Nazi was, or stood for. History has faded some and now Nazi has been muted a great deal as an easy way for people to indicate racist, evil or over all bad people. And do you see how quickly some people throw around Hitler as well? Completely out of sync with the depth of who and what the man was and now just using it like Nazi, molester, rapist, etc as a lazy descriptor to provoke extreme reactions. Anyway…)

Let me first tell you my one and only experience with As Seen On TV. Two years ago I got online and bought a set of Topsey Turvies (If you look in the gardening category of my blog you’ll see how they worked for me). I knew going in they’d try to trick me into running up a big bill on shipping and handling, because with those deals that’s where they make their money. I declined an offer for “Two sets” though based on the online reports I read lots of people fell for it and thought two sets meant two of the product (this is why they offer to double or triple your product, it helps confuse you and override your “What a deal!” sensor). I opted for an upgrade that would let me grow herbs along the side of the bag of the Topsey Turvy (Don’t do this. They really aren’t big enough to support that much root, at least if you plant to plant a tomato plant in the bottom and herbs all down the side. If it was all herbs, then maybe it could work.) It was and extra $10 and I thought that was great for two bags. Except they didn’t tell me it was $10 per bag, plus extra shipping and handling, didn’t give me an option to get just one upgrade.

But I was never sent to an “approve your purchase” page or a “place your order” page. You put your credit card info in first so they can charge you all they want and never give you a total. I made my purchase in February and I actually received my shipment (because I had no way to cancel, and I did still want the product) in October to the tune for $57. So much for that 2 for $19.95 deal, but then, you are smart enough to know that already.

I don’t regret having the product, but I will never buy online from those kinds of places again, especially since you can go to Walmart, Target and CVS and get the product without all the “bonuses” that they use to rip you off.

Which brings me back to my point, I do not consider these business practices (the Snuggie, the Topsey Turvy, et al and Harlequin Horizons) to be scams. Scams imply the company or person take your money and give you nothing, or a seriously inferior product in return. Clearly I got my product, and I have enjoyed using it, and will continue to use it and might even buy more someday, directly from a store. With few case-by-case exceptions the companies do (or intend to) deliver on the product they guaranteed to sell you.

What all these things have in common is some seriously shitty business practices. This puts them clearly into the rip off category. They don’t scam you, they just bury things in the fine print, make it things you’re likely to miss if you aren’t paying attention. They give us the old Razzle Dazzle (yay, Chicago reference!) and we fall for it because this capitalist society has trained us to key in on deals and things and shiny pretty neat-o. Perhaps that is a rant for another time, so let’s chalk it up to they offer us a great easy deal and we don’t think about whether it’s that great of a deal or not because we WANT whatever it is that they’re selling. (And yay internet age, we don’t have to wait, but you should because it gives you time to consider if you really need it or not.)

My major problems with Horizons were/are:

1. It was advertised as Harlequin, but it wasn’t. The Wasn’t part is clear once you get to the packages and pricing, but before that it was set up to prey on people who were thinking with their passionate Muse-crazed hearts rather than their heads, and it cheapened the lines that other authors fought through slush to be published by. It killed their rep, and they had no say whatsoever in it, so it was unfair to those authors.

Without the Harlequin name on it this issue is significantly reduced. I don’t have a problem with a company owning a publisher and a printer. For example Insidious Publications does it on a small scale and they do amazing gorgeous wonderful work. And again, as I pointed out above when Insidious does a print run they doing is as the printer and someone else is considered the publisher. In most cases the purchaser never knows that Insidious did the printing for the publisher. This is how it should be because then if A Crappy Publisher employs Insidious to print a limited run for them A Crappy Publisher’s Horrible Novella of Hurt doesn’t damage the reputation of Insidious or of the authors published by Insidious. There’s a separation there that comes from a PUBLISHER selling to READERS and a PRINTER selling to PUBLISHERS (who will then later sell to readers).

2. Harlequin planned to or possibly is advertising their self publishing branch in all their rejections.

First look around the Absolute Water Cooler to see how aspiring and not-so-amateur writers feel about having their SASEs used to sent them advertising. Submitting to an agent., publisher, magazine, or writing an internet published review of a publisher’s product IS NOT OPTING IN. (Yes, this one is a little personal.) This is the real life equivalent of going to a job interview, where you almost always get the polite “thanks, but no thanks” and then having the interviewer take you through the gift shop and tell you about the great deals you can get there.

In short: It is not cool. At all.

This is still an issue that I have not seen or hear of being resolved. This is possibly my biggest problem with this whole thing because it hurts.

For an example of what I’m talking about visit this page of a supposedly legit publisher’s Guidelines. They recommend off the bat an editing service, two manuscript submission services, a how to book and a “custom printing” (aka self publishing) company. If you were surfing the web and read this you could quickly and easily dismiss the “publisher” as being not for you and move on. But what if you got a seemingly normal set of guidelines for this market from Publishers Marketplace or Agent Query or the number of reputable submissions tool sites out there and in the same envelope as your rejection was this spiel. Even if you’re to the point where rejections don’t cause an emotional response getting this ad with the reject would clearly show you that a) the initial guidelines were misleading b) you just wasted you time and money submitting to a publisher that is not at all what you want.

This is exactly what Harlequin’s Ads in rejects policy is/was doing.

3. The Horizons/Alecort/whatever packages are incredibly overpriced.

So are Snuggies and Topsey Turveys if you buy them on the phone or online. But overpriced isn’t a scam, it’s a rip off. You can easily see by comparing the prices at other printers, like Lulu and Createspace, and even other notorious over chargers like Dorrance Publishing. This, combined with #1 is borderline predatory because it lures you in with promises of “Harlequin published” then you see, no, not really but you can certainly say you put money into your work. (Seriously, buy a car instead. It could cost about the same and would be a much better investment. You know you can sell a car.)

While those who want to publish with Harlequin and those of us who really want a Slap Chop could get taken for a lot of money by the companies providing these products it primarily comes down to read the fine print, look before you leap and for gods’ sakes BUYER BEWARE.

I strongly feel that the break down in discussion about these sorts of topics (especially in politics, but again, that’s another rant) begins with the use of extreme, imprecise language designed to be inflammatory. Then it begats a lash back that is equally skewed and defensive. I don’t think we can have a logical, good discussion about serious topics if everyone resorts to this sort of thing. I know we are writers, and we are passionate and persuasive at our core. But sometimes having the discussion is more important than convincing people you’re right.

Even if you are.