Should self-publishers care that Pearson, the corporate parent of Penguin Group, has acquired Author Solutions and its subsidiaries? Maybe. Because among them are Author House, Booktango, Inkubook, iUniverse, Trafford, Xlibris, Wordclay, AuthorHive, Pallbrio, and Hollywood Pitch.
Thus, the move marks something significant happening in the world of self-publishing. Here’s my take on the acquisition and what it means, along with some pundits’ reactions to the merger and a report from my conversation with the senior vice president of marketing for Author Solutions, Keith Ogorek.
Why Author Solutions? Why Now?
It’s no secret that since traditional publishing houses have been suffering, smart agents and acquisitions editors actively seek successful self-published authors. Publishers like Harlequin, Hay House, and Thomas Nelson partnered with Author Solutions (ASI) to create self-publishing services for them back in 2009, both to expand into a profitable business, and to data mine for successful authors in their genres.
Penguin is no different, of course, and its solution was Book Country, a genre-fiction writing community, which only added self-publishing services in November 2011 — late to the game.
“Sure they’ve been watching the trend,” Ogorek said. “Penguin has already been acquiring self-published titles. With the [ASI] acquisition they will be able to identify self-published authors earlier in the process, the ones that meet the high standards of Penguin.”
Bringing in Community
One big question that arises from the purchase is: Will Pearson’s Book Country continue as both a genre fiction writing community and self-publishing service retooled to use Author Solutions technologies and services? Or will Book Country revert to a writing community and retire its self-publishing arm to open a new and improved self-publishing service more obviously branded next to Penguin?
“It’s part of the discussion,” Ogorek said, “We think there’s a bigger opportunity in the online learning center there, and it’s possible that Booktango could bring in Book Country as part of that. It’s a great site for curating content and community involvement. However,” he added, “I’d like to talk to you in about a month. After all, we just got married yesterday, and we haven’t figured out where all the furniture is going to go.”
(Book Country’s self-publishing tools area recently went offline while they “upgrade the site.”)
A Booktango and Book Country pairing could be interesting, as community is lacking in most self-publishing platforms.
Scribd comes close, with its document sharing and commenting features, paired with a sales platform. But it doesn’t distribute, so popular authors like “My Drop Dead Life” author Hyla Molander have to choose print and e-book platforms that get them into all the stores.
Then there’s the WattPad community for the young adult market, where authors like Brittany Geragotelis shared her writing and attracted 13 million readers, before deciding to self-publish using Amazon CreateSpace and KDP for print and e-book sales.
As a side note, WattPad and Smashwords partnered to close the gap between community file-sharing and commenting and getting books out into the stores. The right combination of community and publishing platform could attract authors to Booktango and Book Country.
DIY Services … or More?
Ogorek uses the home-improvement metaphor to explain that DIY services like their Booktango e-book service, along with Smashwords and Amazon CreateSpace, Kindle Direct Publishing and maybe BookBaby, are “for people with skills, who know how to build a deck and want to do it themselves.” Then there are the people who don’t have the skills, or maybe just don’t have the time, “who hire contractors to build the deck.” For these authors, ASI provide add-on services and “assisted self-publishing” tools like iUniverse and Author House, Trafford and Xlibris, for which authors pay into the five figures.
Self-publishers who dream of winning a traditional publishing contract may anticipate that Penguin will notice them if they’re popular on Book Country, or Booktango, or whatever it will be called. (Though so obviously impractical, the acquisition dream dies hard, even now, when so many traditionally published authors are jumping to the free services.)
How is an Author to Choose?
Instead of salivating over a possible acquisition by Penguin, self-publishers should be asking how the Penguin/ASI services help them now. Do Booktango and Book Country compete in the current market? Well, yeah. Let’s just say that ASI is pulling an Amazon and underselling, giving authors 100% of earnings when they publish with Booktango, without even a signup fee. “It’s a business decision on our part,” Ogorek said. “We think that authors will purchase services, and we’ll have the opportunity down the road to get their books out there and known.”
So how is an author to choose? Author Solutions is often criticized for its hard upselling, and Booktango’s pages are not exempt. There are “hot deals” on social media consultations, as well as “new” marketing services like Kirkus Indie Review, and blogger review services among the many listed on their site.
Their packaged services (iUniverse, Author House, etc.) are also famous for add-ons, but let’s stick to Booktango, whose e-book packages range from free to $189. In comparison, Smashwords is free, giving authors 85% of earnings. BookBaby’s pricing is closest in structure to Booktango by not taking a percentage, but it makes its money by signing up authors for $99 and in premium services. Amazon KDP gives the author 70% of earnings, and Amazon CreateSpace (print) 80%.
BookBaby, whose premium publishing e-book packages top out at $249, sells add-on services like design and formatting, with cover designs topping out at $279. (They can also provide web design and hosting with their HostBaby product.) Smashwords doesn’t sell anything but the authors’ e-books, and almost reluctantly passes on an email list of e-book formatters and cover designers liked by its authors.
The Critics Say…
Smashwords founder Mark Coker is a longtime critic of Author Solutions, pointing out in his blog that they make more money from selling services to authors than selling authors’ books: “Author Solutions is one of the companies that put the ‘V’ in vanity. Author Solutions earns two-thirds or more of their income selling services and books to authors, not selling authors’ books to readers … Does Pearson think that Author Solutions represents the future of indie publishing?”
It’s not news that ASI, along with Amazon, is the company that some publishing pundits love to hate. Jane Friedman, in her Writer Unboxed blog, notes that ASI’s acquisitions are “appearing more and more like a huge scramble to squeeze a few more profitable dollars out of a service that is no longer needed, that is incredibly overpriced when compared to the new and growing competition, and has less to recommend it with each passing day, as more success stories come from the e-publishing realm where author royalties are in the 70-85% range. (An author typically earns less than half that percentage for royalties on a POD book.)”
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, formerly of Digital Book World, was skeptical of Penguin’s claim as to the value of the acquisition, posting in his blog that “my own first reaction was pretty cynical.” And he finds Penguin Group CEO “John Makinson’s claim odd, as reported by Publisher’s Lunch, that he expects there will be a ‘new and growing category of professional authors who are going to gravitate towards the ASI solution rather than the free model.’”
I always advise authors to be skeptical of add-on services — marketing especially. It’s generally agreed in the industry that unless you’ve got very deep pockets, you just cannot hire it out to someone else, and that’s even if the book is great. I’ve remarked many times that authors are as much, or more at fault, as the seller, for paying more than they need for services, and for paying for services they don’t need. Especially vulnerable are new authors, and authors recently dumped by their publishing companies, as they would like to believe it can be easy to simply throw money at a service to solve their problem, mewing in an almost deliberate naiveté, “I just want to write.”
Lest I sound too harsh, I have often found the language on some of ASI’s pages to be convincing, easily frightening uneducated authors into paying for a service that can be cheaply and easily done themselves.
When I voiced skepticism about their $699 book returns program (and $300 per year thereafter), since so few books – especially by self-publishers – are sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores anyway, Ogoreck responded, “I would disagree with you for sure on the booksellers return. No bookstores are going to order your book if it’s not returnable. So we protect the bookstore and we protect the author. The interesting thing about our returnability, you are paid the royalty on those books, you don’t have a chargeback on your returns in the royalties.”
I concede, this would a great program if you are a very successful author, but the fact that the great majority of self-publishers sell fewer than 200 books, and bookstores are less and less effective places to sell books, doesn’t warrant it.
It was the language on Booktango’s U.S. Copyright Registration service, along with the $150 price tag, that led to me write my previous post on how to easily and cheaply register your copyright electronically for $35 in 35 minutes.
I asked Ogorek to comment, and he responded with the deck analogy. “It’s up to the individual to decide whether they want a product. They may have the time and skills to build the deck themselves, or they may not want to learn how, and hire the contractor instead. We provide tools and services to serve both cases.”
Should self-publishers put ASI’s Booktango in the running when they’re considering Smashwords and BookBaby, Amazon CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing? I’d say yes, with a caveat to resist the upsell – except that Booktango – or any of ASI’s other publishing services – do not let you apply your own ISBNs to your books. This is a dealbreaker for me. See my previous article A Self-Publisher’s Guide to Metadata for Books for why it’s so important to buy your own ISBNs.
Should you consider purchasing ASI’s iUniverse, Author House, Xlibris, or another package? Besides the ISBN issue, it is very difficult for a committed do-it-yourselfer like myself to be convinced. I’ve never taken a hands-off approach to publishing, and I like to work directly with editors, designers, and formatters, instead of throwing it into a mill and seeing which cubicle it lands in. I may get lucky with a riffed senior editor from Random House, but I might also be working with a recent college graduate. But the bigger question may be, will Penguin provide a much-needed publisher’s touch to organize the confusing array of products and soften ASI’s hard-sell approach?
Confusing array of products? Ogorek disagrees, and though he is clear on which of the half-dozen services is be best for literary excellence (Trafford, apparently), and which is best for childrens’ books, or business book, I flip through the properties and can’t see a particular focus to any. But this may be unimportant to many authors, and they have some happy customers who like buying a package and magically getting a book.
For me, the interesting questions swirl around possible clearer product differentiation and the Book Country community. Will it prove to be valuable to authors who seek to perfect and sell their books? Is all the acquisition and activity productive and author-friendly, or is it just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? Penguin has a chance to reorganize, rebrand, and remarket Author Solutions companies with a level of transparency that gains the trust of authors and critics in the industry.The activity is worth watching closely.
Carla King is an author, a publishing consultant, and founder of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp program providing books, lectures and workshops for prospective self-publishers. She has self-published non-fiction travel and how-to books since 1994 and has worked in multimedia since 1996. Her series of dispatches from motorcycle misadventures around the world are available as print books, e-books and as diaries on her website. Her Self-Publishing Boot Camp Guide for Authors is available on her website.