Is Exploiting Authors to Be the New Publishing Model?

04/12/2012 15:08 GMT | Updated 03/02/2013 10:12 GMT

Instead of selling underpriced books to readers, is the new publishing business model going to be selling  overpriced services to writers?

That's the question that needs to be asked as Simon & Schuster (S&S) links with Author Solutions (AS), which runs a number of the most exorbitant and problematic of all the self-publishing packagers such as AuthorHouse, Xlibris, iUniverse, and Trafford.  Same question to Penguin-Pearson, who kicked off this sorry trend with their purchase of Author Solutions for $116m earlier this year.

As The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi)'s Services Watchdog, Ben Galley, puts it: "Author Solutions [is] the company which owns AuthorHouse and Xlibris, companies which make my blood boil, who sell  overpriced packages to unaware authors, to 'help' them publish sub-standard books. S&S have really gone down in my opinion here."

When we started The Alliance last April, companies like Author Solutions loomed large in our minds, companies who had little interest in good writing, in creative excellence or even, in some cases, in decent business practice, whose only interest in publishing or the literary world was to make a handsome profit out of writers' dreams

This was a key motive in establishing a non-profit organisation that would show writers effective ways to self-publish books with excellence and ethics at reasonable cost, in the company of other indie authors who were doing it well.

I have been bowled over by the creativity, hardwork, generosity and kindness of the indie author community, who are so generous in working together for each other and demonstrate daily that self-publishing is the most creative and reader-centred route an author can take today.

Self-Publishing Partners

As well as bringing writers who want to self-publish together, from the outset ALLi also offered a Partner Membership to service providers who were willing to be vetted by our authors.

And we are delighted to have been joined by partners of great skill and integrity -- many of whom are writers themselves or otherwise embedded in writing and publishing. Often individual or family operators and accessible through a search database on the member section of our website, their services are personal, bespoke and - of particular relevance when placed beside companies like AS - ethically delivered and reasonably priced.

A quick comparison: we have book designers, excellent at their trade, who've seen their books at the top of the Amazon charts, starting as low as $150 for an ebook cover. Formatter who will sort your manuscript for e-publication or print-on-demand for as little as $99, depending on length. And we point writers in the direction of software and other tools. For example, many of our members use software like Scrivener, which allow you to compile your manuscript for Amazon and all other platforms, at a cost of $45. Once. Ever.

Compare this to AS's inflated fees. Their fiction packages start - start - at $1,999 and go all the way up to $14,999.  For a nonfiction book, it can zoom as high as $24,999.

So what are you paying for?  That's where the bad news gets worse. Our watchdog, and longtime industry analyst, Victoria Strauss, on her blog at "Writer Beware" recently quoted Emily Suess, another writer-centred blogger who has long kept an eye on AS: "The short list of recurring issues includes: making formerly out-of-print works available for sale without the author's consent, improperly reporting royalty information, non-payment of royalties, breech of contract, predatory and harassing sales calls, excessive markups on review and advertising services, failure to deliver marketing services as promised, telling customers their add-ons will only cost hundreds of dollars and then charging their credit cards thousands of dollars, ignoring customer complaints, shaming and banning customers who go public with their stories, and calling at least one customer a 'fucking asshole.'"

Repeated stories from ALLi members, and other writers, confirm that these accusations are not isolated incidents or exaggeration.

Self-Publishing Scammers

Victoria has repeatedly criticised Author Solutions for their misleading marketing strategies. And now they've gone even further, as outlined by David Gaughran in this excellent post about their S&S link up and how the company "rips off writers": using fake accounts, posing as independent commentators or happy customers.

The Cause of Trade Publishing's Woes

It's no secret that trade publishing is in trouble and that their business models need to adapt if they are to stay in business. What put them there, I would argue, is that they lost their focus on readers and writers. A creative business has to balance both sides of that delicate scales and since the 1990s, when the mergers and conglomerations began, and deep discounting and super-size-me sellers started to dominate bookselling, that balance has fallen apart.

Contemporary trade publishing focusses on mergers and buy-outs, cost-cutting and and consolidation and slash-and-burn discounting on a scale never before witnessed.  Retailers like WH Smiths and Barnes & Noble or supermarkets like Safeway and Tescos decide how much shelf space a book should have and whether it will succeed. Supermarkets tell publishers what price to sell at, how many copies to print, what to put on the cover, what to call books and even what to put inside them.

This was the publishing mileu I entered when I signed a two-book fiction deal with Penguin back in 2003. Though I'd worked in journalism and media for years, I was shocked by the money-focus and cynical ploys of this business that seemed to expend most of it energy on chasing the next big thing.

From capitulation to the retailers to pretend charts in the shops (your bestseller slot bought and paid for by the publisher); from the pressure to repeat what I wrote first time out, to the short schedules and shelf time; from the loss of creative freedom and control to the downward pressure on royalties, it was a bruising environment.

It may be an exaggeration to say, as Michael Levin's recent HuffPo article claimed, that publishers hate authors but it is certainly true that publishing execs and editors do not view writers as equal partners.

We see this in language like 'slush pile' for unsolicited manuscripts or 'list-culling' for letting authors go. In lip service to the importance of writers while treating them as a supplier (in the new parlance 'content provider') rather than a creative partner.  Why, for example, is the writer of the book the very last person the marketing team would allow at their table when deciding how to reach readers?

When we launched our alliance last April at London Book Fair, a representative from Amazon attended wearing a T-shirt that said "We Love Authors".  Afterwards, two editors I know sniggered about this and when challenged said they thought it cynical and manipulative. I disagreed then and, almost a year on, having dealt with hundreds of self-published writers in the meantime, I disagree now.

It's not just a T-shirt slogan when it's reflected in terms and conditions. Not only do Amazon and Kobo pay our members up to 70% royalties instead of the 7% or so those of us who previously trade-published got when the discounting was done, they give us accurate, timely sales and payment reports instead of unreadable royalty statements. And they pay us monthly instead of yearly or bi-annually.

They, and Smashwords and Bookbaby, have figured out a way to do business in the new environment that is respectful of writers and readers.  Their models reveal Simon & Schuster and Penguin-Pearson as the cynics and manipulators.

We can only hope that these old and venerable companies are not really be trading in long-respected brand names for  an easy buck. "When Penguin's parent company bought ASI and folded it into Penguin, I expressed the hope that Penguin would start to clean up the problems at ASI,"  says Victoria. "[To] make it more customer-friendly and transparent, as Amazon did years ago when it purchased the then-very-troubled BookSurge. I still hope that will happen -- but I know better than to hold my breath."

David Gaughran agrees. "The scammy behavior hasn't stopped," he says. "In fact, some of it is getting worse. I've received reports of Author Solutions staff calling prospective customers and asking if they want to be 'published by Penguin'. Yes, they went there." And, he points up that contrary to challenging how AS did business, they gave their CEO Kevin Weiss a seat on their board.

Questions To Ponder

"How can we make money out of this?" is a sorry response to the creativity and self-expression that is being unleashed by the surge in self publishing. I want to ask publishing execs to consider a different set of questions. Questions like:

  • How might your publishing house run if you truly put writers and readers at the heart of how you do business?
  • If you remembered that you are a creative industry and actually got creative about how you sell books? And service writers?
  • If you saw Amazon as somebody to learn from?
  • If you thought of writers, rather than retailers, as your best route to readers in our newly technologised supply chain? What would that do to how you do business?

In short, how about a response to the challenges faced by our industry that incorporates the creative as much as the commercial?