By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From July 22, 2012
Part of my series of columns on publishing, appearing at the invitation of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
The Great Divide Widens
Soon, Jane Friedman, host of the Ether, would be writing:
I’m sad to say I’ve heard publishing executives talk about the opportunity to “monetize unpublished manuscripts” and it’s why I left commercial publishing. Is this where the industry is headed? If so, I want no part of its future.
Put baldly, the extreme end of what Friedman was getting at is a potential scenario in which major publishers could effectively cannibalize their main resource, turning the industry’s authors into paying consumers of publishing services.
And on Thursday, I was intent on watching the emails rolling by on a private publishing-industry Listserv.
“…$116 million…buying positive cash flow…sound strategic move…”
“…the business will continue to be run by ASI …”
Some eyebrows were raised, yes:
…the Society of Authors in the UK, openly refers to ASI as a ‘vanity publisher’…
A few wondered at the announcement’s silence about Book Country, Penguin’s own author-development program, once proudly ballyhooed, now absent from the press releases:
…Penguin’s John Makinson said…they hadn’t put much thought into how it might work with Book Country…
Some people contributing to this email thread have business links to Author Solutions, something Friedman flagged in her agenda-setter, Is the Author Solutions Acquisition a Good Thing for Authors?:
If you didn’t know, a growing part of ASI’s business since roughly 2009 has been establishing white-label services. Thomas Nelson, Harlequin, Hay House, and even my former employer, Writer’s Digest, ended up striking deals with ASI to offer paid publishing services you might know better as WestBow, DellArte, Balboa, and Abbott Press.
But the only thing that seemed to slow down the debate was a lone voice, a member of the list who was in an awkward position because she or he runs a rival outfit, of sorts, to Author Solutions:
…ASI…heavy handed sales practices…exploit the hopes and dreams of unwitting authors…
Reports of “heavy handed sales practices” were the type thing Friedman would soon be writing about.
- So would David Gaughran in his post, Penguin’s New Business Model: Exploiting Writers.
- So would Victoria Strauss in her highly regarded watchdog column, Writer Beware: Pearson Buys Author Solutions.
- So would former Saturday Evening Post assistant editor Emily Suess in her scathing post this weekend, Calling Bullshit: A Closer Look at the Author Solutions Press Release. Suess:
The short list of recurring issues (by which Suess refers to allegations cited over time by authors about Author Solutions companies) includes: making formerly out-of-print works available for sale without the author’s consent, improperly reporting royalty information, non-payment of royalties, breach of contract, predatory and harassing sales calls, excessive markups on review and advertising services, failure to deliver marketing services as promised…
But these are not the kinds of things our pundits were talking about.
A great, gaping divide was revealed on Thursday between (a) the professional practitioners of the industry! the industry! in its digital disarray and (b) those authors who must supply this business with its essential, indispensable raw material: the writing.
- I asked one specialist from the email discussion, someone I thoroughly enjoy and whose work I respect, “Have you spoken to any authors about the Pearson-AIS deal?” The answer: “No, not yet.”
- I asked a highly placed Penguin Books manager in New York, another operative I admire and whose work I follow closely, “Do you know if anybody in acquisitions at Pearson or at Penguin asked any authors about Author Solutions before buying it? Did they speak with any writers?” The answer: “No, they did not.”
So perhaps this can explain why industry figures were confounded by the resentment of some in the creative camp about the Pearson-Penguin move: No one seemed to think it important to ask authors what they thought of it.
No one seemed to think of the authors at all. Even when they had to say the word “Author” every time they said “Solution.”
Maybe they believe that the corporation on Liberty Drive in Bloomington, Indiana, will receive Author AbSolution once it enters the Temple of Pearson. And, lo, the Penguin’s wings shall turn to those of an angel and the halo of hope shall crown each lonely writer with the glory of successful publication.
Our colleague Peter Turner — a staunch advocate for independent bookstores, by the way — did have the grace to ask about the consternation the acquisition has triggered. He put it this way in a comment on the Ether:
Maybe I’m missing something here but I have to confess I find it perplexing, the dustup over the acquisition of Author Solutions by Penguin and its effect (or not) on Book Country’s model. It’s a minor acquisition by a major publisher at an extraordinary moment of wide-spread spaghetti wall tossing. And the exclamations of surprise and horror at some self-publishing-providers-industry’s predatory attitude toward authors and would-be authors strikes me as very Claude Rains.
I’ve collected key articles and posts at the top of Writing on the Ether, an “EtherDome” section, so you can peruse for yourself what coverage has moved.
In addition to the writings mentioned above, there’s work from Jeremy Greenfield and Laura Hazard Owen — these are two journalists I know to have followed the news call with Penguin Group’s Chairman and CEO John Makinson and ASI’s CEO Kevin Weiss.
In a rare return to blogging on publishing issues, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez helps clarify the big divide we see in the reactions to this unusual story. Gonzalez writes that when he first learned of the acquisition:
My cynicism was driven partly by my own experience working with several of ASI’s units, before and after they acquired them (back when I worked for Writer’s Digest in 2007-2008)…
There’s a chasm of interpretation between observers on the creative side of the conference-floor aisle, if you will, and those on the business side.
Authors as commodity
If a Big Six publisher like Penguin moves from selling books to readers to selling publishing “products” to writers, then maybe it’s not so surprising that consulting those authors — consulting the commodity, as it were — begins to look silly.
Not such a big jump, either.
In the old days the author would dither in off the street clutching the sole copy of his/her typed manuscript (if not having left it on the train). The publisher says, “Leave it there,” and it enters the huge opaque apparatus of editing, design, printing, distribution, marketing, etc that used to comprise publishing. Eventually the author is given a long lunch and shown the finished product that has emerged from the machinery. If they recognize their own book from the baffling choice of cover design, it’s a win.
That’s author and video game designer Dave Morris, in a note to me. A key concern nowadays, he says, is that writers find themselves expected by publishers to carry so much more weight than before in publicity and other aspects of the work, but they say:
“We still offer 10% on print, 25% on ebooks. It’s non-negotiable, so if you don’t like it, there’s the door.”
There’s still an old guard who wants to keep us (self-publishing authors) as second-class writers. Plenty of literary competitions and review sites specifically bar indie authors.
Roz Morris found that when she followed her bestselling success as a ghostwriter by self-publishing her own fiction:
I had to explain (the decision to self-publish) to the industry. If you listen to interviews with editors or pundits from The Bookseller or Publishers’ Weekly, they reinforce the notion that authors are feeble and ineffectual without the guidance of a publisher. Which is complete rot – often a new author will get hardly any editorial help.
Doing themselves no favors
One of the thorniest elements of all this may be that authors actually work against themselves in their representations of their own work.
As many sensible things as Roz Morris may have to say in her article on self-publishing authors, her writeup lies on a site called Do Authors Dream of Electric Books?
This is the shared blog site of a group of 28 self-publishing writers, each of whom takes a turn blogging each month.
Graphically, it’s a cross between the proverbial “dark and stormy night” and a knockoff of the cascading code from “The Matrix” imagery.
The visual elements don’t go well together and appear to be stray scraps found online, sometimes tiled like the background on a recipe site.
By my count, there are at least six fonts or variants used “above the fold” on the blog page.
On the other hand, it’s encouraging to see that this UK-based site has two Flash widgets from Amazon, one for UK readers to get to that site and the other for US readers: internationalism is a must these days.
But those widgets are alternating images of the group members’ book covers with products including:
- Crabtree & Evelyn’s Rosewater Body Lotion
- Chapelwood Butterfly Tower (“a safe place for butterflies to rest and spend the winter”)
- Barnes and Noble Nook Simple Touch Reader — yes, being sold at Amazon for $91.01. Unless I have a different model here somehow, It appears to be $99 at BarnesandNoble.com
- The Falcon CITY 6 WOMENS 19″ Leisure Bike, £159.99
- And just in case you still don’t think this site is about Faeries at the Bottom of My Garden, you can purchase the Heather Harp Tm, 22 Strings for US$381.65 (a saving of 11%). It’s pictured amid puffy clouds in a blue sky. You can pluck out your own Celtic ditties for the wee people to dance to.
Did We Ask Who?
So what shall writers say to the publishers, metadata experts, mainstream journalists, academic-journal chiefs, Big Six operatives, and other top-ranked pundits in the industry who didn’t ask any authors how they felt about Pearson-Penguin’s buy of the widely disparaged Author Solutions Inc.?
I believe the Electric Authors are professionals. Their combined output is tremendous, and I know, personally, that Morris — an editor who has worked at major publishers — is a complete pro. But I have to look past the group’s presentation of themselves to think this, and it’s a shame to see a group of accomplished writers poorly represented by their online storefront.
And that’s the case with too many in our creative pool. Whether you’re at a group site or a single writer’s homepage, It’s hard reading with one’s eyes wide shut, Mr. Kubrick.
Had the industry folks come calling with sharp, discerning questions about ASI’s business practices, could they be expected to overlook:
- Cute cat and dog pictures as social-media avatars?
- Goofy bios that might go down well in an undergraduate yearbook but not a day later?
- Gurgling Facebook entries that somehow mix serious work items with the grandkids’ birthday parties?
- Blog sites with no contact information, no bylines, no archives?
And the books. Here’s Roz Morris:
What doesn’t help is when self-published authors say they don’t mind the rough edges that you sometimes get with an indie book. The less-than-perfect editing, the cockeyed typesetting, the home-made aspect. That it’s part of the charm. I don’t find it charming and I think this attitude doesn’t do us any favours.
My point is that there is fault on each side of this canyon.
- The professionals in the offices, the business people of the industry are, collectively, a very old dog with some new tricks to learn fast. And the first and most elemental of those tricks may just be to include authors, consult authors, talk regularly with authors, learn what’s up with these people. As we used to say at a large news network, be nice to every intern on the floor because by next week, one of them may be your new boss.
- The authors — this vast, platform-whipped crowd without credentials, factioned off by genre, preyed upon by self-styled “gurus” — must achieve more professionalism in presentation and performance and deportment. As Jane Friedman has said in earlier writings, one of the great problems of the amateur is that she or he doesn’t know what professionalism looks like. Get a site review. And not from your mother.
As disappointed as I was to see so little communication between the suits and the cargo shorts about the Author Solutions story, I could understand why some of the business stakeholders might hesitate to approach the far-flung writer corps.
The two great camps of publishing may finally have to get together, you know. In fact, why don’t we meet in the same boat? Roz Morris:
My agent said to me that one of the most reassuring things for his side of the industry is that self-published authors find it hard to tackle the problem of discoverability.
If a company like Pearson wants to make money off the aspirations of authors, it needs to know what those authors see when it makes an acquisition. I may be wrong, but I don’t think the Birds Who Walk Upright knew what this move would look like in the field.
And if the writers want to take their place at the table and control their careers as they have every right to do, they’re going to need to clean up their acts. If that means availing themselves of Author Solutions in the House of Penguin, buyer beware and do your research — the responsibility is yours.
The last line goes to Dave Morris:
I prefer to be with a major publisher for most projects; they add value. But now we need to break open that mysterious machinery, separate it into components, and see where value is really being added. And that will be a different equation for each author.
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