Harlequin Lawsuit's Happy Ending

Sitting in front of me is the settlement check I received from a class action lawsuit against Harlequin. Because this Harlequin lawsuit was settled out of court, there was no winner legally. That’s not how it feels. Not at all. Let me tell you, the authors won.

Readers rarely care about the machinations and travails behind the scenes of publishing. No reason they should. Their relationship is with the book – at least that’s the way I feel when I’m reading. I don’t want to know about the author. I want to know about the characters.

So I absolutely understand if you don’t read this. No hard feelings.

On the other hand, this has been a part of my life for more than five years.

Five years.

I can hardly believe the Harlequin lawsuit is over. Heck, I can hardly believe it started.

In the Beginning

In the spring of 2011 a group of authors, shepherded by Ginger Chambers and Barbara McMahon and with me part of the flock, hired Elaine English for a legal assessment of clauses governing ebook rights in various Harlequin contracts. Under contracts that spanned several years, ebook rights were lumped under “All Other Rights.” These contracts were written and signed before ebooks became truly commercially viable, but because of the length of Harlequin contracts they were still in force. The “All Other Rights” clause said Harlequin and the author split whatever monies came in from the exercise of these rights 50-50.

However, when books under those contracts eventually were digitized, it became quite clear the authors were getting way, way, way less than 50%.

What Harlequin did was say that our contracts were signed with Harlequin Switzerland, but the ebooks were published by Harlequin Toronto, and golly, gee, Harlequin Switzerland sold the rights to Harlequin Toronto for 6% of cover price. So Harlequin Toronto sent Switzerland 6%, Switzerland kept 3%, the author received 3% … and Harlequin Toronto kept all the rest. (BTW, this agreement between these Harlequins was created well after the contracts were signed. Authors were never informed about it.)

That original group of authors disbanded, but I formed a second one (that’s another story that I won’t bore you with unless we’re in a bar somewhere some night, though the group did some definite good for many Harlequin authors.) An offshoot of that second ad hoc group of authors, led by Day Leclaire, pooled our money and hired lawyer David Wolf of David Law PLC to talk to Harlequin about living up to its contract.

A word about Harlequin contracts – they are essentially not negotiable, with extremely limited exceptions. You might be stunned at the major authors Harlequin could have kept if it had been willing to negotiate a bit. It chose instead to let those authors walk. You either accept the contract as Harlequin writes it or you don’t publish with Harlequin. (The latter became my choice around 2008.) They could do this because of the structure and business climate of publishing at that time.

I had a few excellent individual editors among the 34 I had for 25 books (yes, you read that right … editor turnover might lead some to suspect Harlequin didn’t treat many of its editors well, either), but my overall experience with Harlequin was … let’s say “not good.” By the end of 19 years with them I was disheartened, depressed, and done. I didn’t think I would write for publication ever again. I didn’t even want to try.

By 2011, however, I was back on track. I was publishing backlist books as an indie, I was writing again and publishing those originals as an indie. And, thanks to Harlequin’s machinations, I got a good jolt of indignation to return me to my feisty self. My reaction to what Harlequin was doing was summed up after reading one of their missives to authors that summer when I said aloud, “How stupid do you think I am?”

The answer turned out to be a whole lot stupider than I am – or than most authors are.

But it took quite a while to make that point to Harlequin – I’m not sure they get it even now. Certainly in late 2011, they thought they could make David Wolf and these pesky authors go away by refusing to talk to us.

We didn’t go away.

From Talking to Suing

And David Wolf, bless his heart, took the case on as a potential class action lawsuit, which he and Michael Boni and John Sindoni of Boni & Zack, LLC, filed in July 2012. The lawsuit is Keiler v. Harlequin. The three named plaintiffs on whose behalf the suit was filed are authors Barbara Keiler (who writes as Judith Arnold), Linda Barrett, and Gay Wilson (who publishes as Gayle Wilson.)

Harlequin’s reaction? “This is the first we’ve heard of it.” That is what’s known in writing as A Big Fat Lie.

Remember, David Wolf had been talking to them for the better part of a year at that point.

The Harlequin lawsuit had plenty of twists and turns. It was completely dismissed at one point in 2013. The lawyers decided to appeal.  Mind you, they were Not Paid a Cent all this time. Once they started down the class action road it was all on contingency. (Yes, they’ve been paid out of the settlement now – getting nowhere near what they could have earned through ordinary billable hours for the years of work they put in on this.)

The appeals court upheld the most important element of the case in spring 2014 … and the next day, the sale of Harlequin to Harper Collins was announced. How would that affect things? We had no idea.

On top of that, the appeals court sent the case back to the same judge. Who hadn’t, to my unlegal eye, seemed to grasp much of anything about the issues. So how could we hope to fare better than the first time round with him?

Then that judge died unexpectedly as the result of a fall. I am not kidding you.

A Turning Point

The new judge took a different approach. In October 2014, the 1,200 authors affected by the contract clause were certified as a class. We were, truly, a class action lawsuit. There was champagne that day.

The work wasn’t over. There was discovery. There were depositions. Harlequin subpoenaed at least two authors groups, demanding from one all communication among its members. So much for privacy. It was an onerous effort for a volunteer-run organization to gather all the information and, as expected, it got Harlequin nowhere.

If I were writing this in a novel, I’d let the reader know that the big corporation had done it just because it could – to punish those upstart authors any way possible.

Finally, in June 2016, a settlement of the Harlequin lawsuit was announced.  While maintaining it never did anything wrong, Harlequin agreed to pay $4.1 million.

The settlement checks from the Harlequin lawsuit began arriving in authors’ mailboxes Monday, Sept. 12.

The checks are nice. Very nice.

But let me tell you when the authors really won. It was back in July 2011.

I told a few fellow authors that I was going to write a letter to Harlequin through Elaine English to let them know that I was not as stupid as they thought I was. Several said, “We want in on that, too, and we’ll share the expense.” One author, Susan Gable, said she’d start an online group for us.

I said, “We don’t need an online group. It will only be a handful of us.”

She was right. I was wrong. We had a hundred by the end of the week. I remember tears coming into my eyes when we topped 300. And more came.

Most vividly, I remember tears from some of the communications from these authors. They were risking their livelihoods, but had to join the group because what Harlequin was doing was simply wrong. They had written for Harlequin for 30 years and felt betrayed and would never write for them again. They had just achieved their dream of selling their first book to Harlequin and they were scared, but this was too important to ignore. They were from all over the United States and Canada, from the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. They couldn’t afford the $35 each of us put in to start, but would send me $5 a month until they had paid their share. They wrote a check for well over their share to help cover those who struggled to pay.

And the subgroup that first hired David Wolf became warriors. They collected, organized, and dug through contracts and correspondence. They taught themselves legal concepts. They searched corporate reports. They asked brilliant questions. They did what needed to be done.

You will notice that those 300+ were about a quarter of the class. The remaining 900 owe much gratitude to David, Michael and John, to Day, Barbara, Linda, and Gay. They also owe gratitude to those 300+.

Precedents Set

And here’s something those 300+ will have forever – the knowledge that they were part of authors pulling together to stand up and say, This Isn’t Right.

There is no legal precedent set by this case. But there is that precedent of pulling together, and it’s a powerful one. I hope Harlequin and all publishers take notice so it is not necessary again. Even more, I hope authors take notice, in case it is.

Okay, and the check’s not bad, either.

P.S. The Comments

I am so appreciative of the wonderful comments so many folks have shared. From readers, from authors in the class, and authors not in the class. I’ve read each of them and I hope folks who come here to read the blog will also read them.

58 Responses to “Harlequin Lawsuit’s Happy Ending”
  1. Carolyn says:

    Congrats! Way back when – early 80’s – I worked the RWA as a bookseller. Our store brought a kiosk to the convention and sold books to attendees. Those years were wonderful, full of meeting my favorite authors, late nights listening to stories told, adventures had, and omg the laughs. The Harlequin editors bought lots of dinners/drinks and a good time was had by all. The Editors were very nice people-with one or two exceptions, but even then there were rumblings of getting out from under those contracts. I’m so happy you and your group pulled together and did this thing. again Congrats! Keep writing and I’ll keep reading.

  2. Sharon Schulze says:

    Beautifully stated, Pat! And yes, the check is nice 🙂 . . . Raising my glass in toast to everyone who stayed the course and believed in this!

    –Sharon

  3. Phoebe Conn says:

    Congratulations, Pat!
    This has been a long fight for what was rightfully yours.
    So glad it ended in your favor.

    Phoebe C.

  4. Susan Gable says:

    Well said, Pat. I’m pleased to have played my small part in this. My huge thanks to you, Barb, Linda, Gay, and Day. And of course, David!

    Sometimes…the mice roar. We’d all written our share of “stand up and do the right thing, fight the good fight” heroines to know that sometimes you’ve got to stand.

    And so…we stood.

    I’m proud of everyone who threw their hats into the ring. Well done.

    And yeah…the check is nice.

  5. Pat says:

    Good for you!!!! Go girls!!

  6. Kathryn Anderson says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. I am so glad it ended well, for all authors.
    Kathryn

  7. Linda D Campbell says:

    Bless you and all the authors who joined.

  8. Malka Essock says:

    Hooray!

  9. Zoe says:

    This is an amazing story. I’ve heard bits and pieces of it over the last few years, but seeing it all laid out like this…I’m so impressed with you all. Well done, and thank you.

  10. Pamela says:

    Congratulations. As a reader I love books but along with those books I have meet some Amazing Authors. As I try to help them as much as I can I see the hard work, long hours, as they say the good the bad and the ugly. I have amazing Authors who have become precious friends So I am so happy that you and the other Authors have won. What a great accomplishment.

  11. Raine Miller says:

    This makes my heart happy to hear. I shared dinner with several of the women in this class at RWA San Antonio and was absolutely horrified at how they were treated. You have made a difference for all of us. Well done!!!

  12. Kate Douglas says:

    Congratulations! I’ve heard tales of Harlequin contracts and often figured it would be a futile battle to go up against Goliath, but then I remember how that story ended. That’s a truly amazing accomplishment, and hats off to your legal team for staying the course.

  13. Deb Salonen says:

    I’ve tried to explain this many times to many people over the years but I’ve never come close to explaining it so brilliantly. I’m saving this to share with my granddaughters. We stood up and things changed. I’m very proud.

  14. Mary says:

    So exciting! I stopped writing for them in 2012 (two more books were published until 2014 because of contracts) but I knew as soon as I saw those royalty sheets that I could never submit to them again. My 6% (already bad) was 4%, 2.55%, and 1.77% on tens of thousands of books. Why? The only answer I ever got was something about Switzerland and Canada and wholesale and giveaways. (What? They gave away 10,000 of my books in Canada? How is that possible?)
    I’m completely thrilled that HQ is being held accountable for their funny business. I think they’ve taken advantage of authors for far, far too long.

  15. Donna Fasano says:

    Participating in this quest has so helped to alleviate some of the helplessness I felt over the years while writing for Harlequin. I am so grateful to the attorneys and authors who stood together. Victory feels good.

  16. Barbara Silkstone says:

    Congratulations! Nothing makes me happier than seeing David eventually prevail over Goliath.
    You have left a lasting mark on the history of publishing. Brilliant!

  17. Kate Sparks says:

    HMOG… holy mother of god. You could write a book about this!!! Congratulations to all of you!! And that law firm should be getting cookie/brownie baskets every month for life!! It’s nice to see something like this happen. I’m sure the money was sweet but it probably wasn’t what you would have earned if H Publishing had been honest/fair from the get-go!

  18. Marilyn Pappano says:

    Thanks for laying it out so clearly, Pat, and for all the work you and the others have done on this. Credit where credit is due! I’m proud and grateful of all of you and for the chance to have been a small part of it.

  19. Maureen McGowan says:

    So proud of you all! So happy about the outcome. I’m not personally affected by this, but I think this is relevant and important for every author and every aspiring author who wants to publish traditionally. Definitely a David and Goliath story that (one hopes) will make publishers realize that we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore! 😉

    And reading your fabulous summary, I had a thought:

    If you’d written a plot twist like this in a novel, “Then that judge died unexpectedly as the result of a fall,” an editor probably would say it was too much of a coincidence to be believable. 😉

    Well done, all!

  20. Cynthia Wright says:

    Congratulations to you, Pat, and all your sister author-warriors. Harlequin underestimated the hearts & courage of authors when they messed with theirs. Even though I never wrote for Harlequin, I’m proud to be an author today!

    See you at NINC, I hope. <3

  21. Helen Page says:

    I’ve been cheated by a big publisher. I’m so happy to hear this news. Congratulations and may your publishing career flourish.

  22. Barbara Ankrum says:

    Pat, Congratulations! Well done, well explained here. I am blown away by this all-woman effort against a Goliath and the well-aimed stone that landed squarely in their pocketbook. So proud of you all!

  23. Nancy Greenfield says:

    I’m so happy for all of those authors reaping the rewards. You truly deserve it.

  24. Lily says:

    Thank you for standing up to the giant, Ladies! Thank you from authors everywhere. It took grit and it was undoubtably a harrowing experience for you. Patricia, I am glad you are still writing today.

  25. Sandra Masters McCart says:

    Deb:
    So happy for all of you and your courageous and tenacious fight. Having read through all of this, it would have been easy to give up. All of you have set an example for all of us. For this, I thank you. Smile all the way to the bank, it’s well deserved. Sandra Masters

  26. Sandra Masters McCart says:

    Deb:
    So happy for all of you and your courageous and tenacious fight. Having read through all of this, it would have been easy to give up. I thank you. Smile all the way to the bank, it’s well deserved. Sandra Masters

  27. Sharon Gillenwater says:

    A huge thank you to all of you –authors and attorneys– who fought this fight for us. Yes, the money us nice, but righting a wrong is even sweeter.

  28. Bobbi says:

    So very happy to hear this! Raising a virtual toast to you and all your friends.

    Hugs,
    Bobbi

  29. cheri says:

    I am so happy for you all. It takes guts to do what you did, even being right. Some big companies are abusive because they can be.

    Congrats to you all. Have one for me!

  30. Elizabeth Ellen Carter says:

    Many congratulations Pat. It’s a huge win for authors and an examples of how so many are willing to work together to champion the rights of all authors.

    Congratulations to the 300, plus the legal team who put everything on the line.

  31. Jeanie Jackson says:

    I know that the financial recompense was nothing compared to what you earned but I am so glad to see any group, much less my heroes, stand strong against big business. I had no idea what you were all going through but I can see now that for many it was a brave stand and it will have a lasting impact even though it did not make it to court so no official precedence has been set. Those of you who fought did set a precedence and sent a message to major publishers. Bravo and congratulations!

  32. Jody Sherin says:

    Congratulations. You don’t know me, but I am friends with several authors and do a lot of beta reading and/or reading chapters as they come one by one, hot off their laptops. I know how hard you all work. I am tickled that you all stood up together. I recently got a nice big fat credit at Amazon (it was almost $400) from another class action (I can’t even remember who sued whom except the whom is a/or a bunch of publisher(s). Price fixing I think. In any case, it is nice to see some of these companies get their come-uppance (is that a word?) because they do make life hard for you all. I recently found out that one of my pal’s friends found a huge number of horrible errors in her last book, well before publishing and they refused to do anything about it. I would swear it had NO editing. Now she looks virtually illiterate (trust me, I could barely read the finished product). What a shame. Way to go folks!

  33. Faith h says:

    Cheers to the women who took a tough stand and to the legal team who stuck by them to the settlement. Guns blazing, you are my heroes. I know its your livelihood but the message finally delivered and affirmed… you make it a bit better not only for you but all of the new authors and those who dream of becoming paid writer.

  34. Sharyn says:

    I am SO Happy for you all Pat. You guys are absolute heroes for leading this. Enjoy that check 😉 x Shar

  35. Susan Wiggs says:

    Pat, as part of the et. al. of the class, I owe you a huge thank you. This site won’t let me have a huge font but THANK YOU.

  36. Cheryl St.John says:

    THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!

  37. Debra Clopton says:

    Thanks Pat and to Susan, Barb, Linda, Gay, and Day! And David and the other lawyers! I’m a proud part of the 300+

    The courage of all of you I applaude!

    And thank you for such a wonderful explaination.

  38. Fedora says:

    As a long time Harlequin reader, I applaud you all–good for you authors for hanging in and hanging on, and I’m thrilled for all of you that your work has paid off with this recognition!

  39. Kim Headlee (@KimHeadlee) says:

    I had only one Harlequin title (Liberty, HQN Books, 2006) and I think it sold like two digital copies, one of which was to me. So I didn’t bother to join the class and frankly I had forgotten all about the lawsuit. Now I read your article and learn that Harlequin has been sold to Harper Collins. WTH?? Boy, have I ever been out of the loop. Oh wait, I LEFT that loop (in 2012) because of all the crap that was being dished to authors even without having been cheated on royalties. Being an independent is hard, but at least I don’t have a publisher that’s staying up nights trying to invent creative ways not to pay me.

  40. Susan Donovan says:

    Rock on, Harlequin babes!

  41. Debra Holland says:

    I’m so proud of all of you who stood up to Harlequin! Bravo! I’m not a Harlequin author, thank goodness, although not through lack of trying back in the day. Thank goodness things have changed and authors have options. I hope Harlequin has learned a lesson and will treat their authors better, although I’m not real hopeful.

    Patricia, McLinn, I’m proud to know you! You go, girl!

  42. Ruth Logan Herne says:

    Pat, a wonderful outcome and perfect summation! Congratulations to you ladies for sticking to your guns and doing this legwork… and the investment… God bless you!

    Behind-closed-door tricks are unacceptable, and I’m glad the court agreed. I love my work, I love writing for various publishers, but I like to be treated fairly and openly.

    KUDOS!!!!

    Ruthy

  43. Janis Susan May says:

    Brava! You and the rest of the 300 are most definitely heroines! I will admit I do not understand the mindset of those traditional publishers (including HQ) who have no qualms about cheating writers, about expecting writers to do the majority of the work (formatting, editing in some cases, PR and selling) yet keep the majority of the money for the company. Don’t they understand that without writers they would not have an industry? I guess not, yet they are amazed that a great number of writers – including many of their own – are leaving traditional publishing in order to self publish. This is a great time to be a writer, largely in part to your courage and persistence. Again, kudos, congratulations and a great big huzzah! to all of you. And, thank you.

  44. Cecilia Clark says:

    Thank you Patricia for sharing this story and for having the courage to take this road. Thank you to all the brave authors who stood up not only for themselves but for all of us.

  45. Kathleen Lawless says:

    I only published one book with Harlequin, but am honored to be one of the 300+.
    Huge thanks owed to everyone who spearheaded this action.

  46. azteclady says:

    Every time the few risk it all for the benefit of the many, humanity moves forward towards true justice for all.

    As a reader who does care about the behind the scenes of publishing, my hat is off to all of you who cared enough about what is right, to risk so much.

  47. Evangeline Holland says:

    Congratulations to you all.

  48. Jenny Crusie says:

    Thank you so very much. This is an amazing thing you did, and I will forever be appreciative.

  49. Judith Ashley says:

    Pat, Thank You for a clear, linear explanation of what happened. I was aware of something but not the details. Thank You for staying the course. Not that I expect HQ or any of the big publishers to change but knowing that if we stick together we can make a difference is important. May your career as an Indie Published Author be full of bestselling books!

  50. Maggie says:

    You like to think this doesn’t happen, that publishers care about their authors and pay fairly and correctly, and if a mistake is made, correct it. I suspect this, or some variation of the theme, happens too often. Enjoy the hard-earned check! And woo-hoo for your attorneys.

  51. Lindsay McKenna says:

    Hey Ladies, you ROCK in my Book of Life. I didn’t take part in this, although I was there in Spirit with you. Your courage, your heart and equally, your sense of right and wrong, are exceptional. We don’t see that much any more. But you are truly heroines of the finest kind. And I know the stresses involved. Thank EACH OF YOU for your heart, hard work and belief in fairness and justice.
    Lindsay McKenna

  52. Molly Maka says:

    Congratulations to all involved! Thank you for sticking to your guns and sticking together. What a wonderful example to the romance writing community.

  53. Jodi Anderson says:

    Thank you!!

  54. Elizabeth Thompson says:

    Congratulations and well done for all of you for standing together. I’m not published by HQN, but as an indie author, I appreciate so much what you’ve done and accomplished.
    XXX from NZ,
    Lizzi Tremayne

  55. Janis Reams Hudson says:

    I get all gooseumpy when I think of what you authors have accomplished. All I can say is, WOW. Thank you.

  56. April Gentry says:

    Congrats!!!

  57. Jane Steen says:

    Congratulations! I’m not a Harlequin writer nor a Harlequin reader–I came to this post via the Hot Sheet newsletter. I rejoice at the example you guys have set of cooperating to right a wrong. It doesn’t matter how you publish or who your publishing partners are–authors need to reinforce the principle that our writing is THE most essential part of publishing, and we deserve a fair share of the profits.

  58. Claire Harter says:

    Thank you for your post, and congratulations for standing for all authors everywhere and WINNING! I had wondered why some of my favorite authors were no longer publishing with HQN, and why some had gone Indie (I found them on Amazon while shopping for my Kindle). Knowledge is power, and there is strength in numbers. You have proven that in spades. I’m sure the money is nice, but I’m just as sure the thrill of victory is even nicer.

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