This week, we're taking a closer look at Pronoun, a relatively new digital distributor that's attracting a lot of interest among indie authors.
Pronoun is the result of a merger between the publisher Vook, the imprint Byliner, and the analytics platform Booklr. The company publishes ebooks to the five major online retailers: Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google Play, and offers free conversion of Word documents. Pronoun also lists referrals to vetted third-party editors, cover artists, publicists, and other professionals.
What Pronoun brings to the table
Pronoun's streamlined interface for uploading and formatting ebooks will be a delight to those who find KDP daunting. The step-by-step guide prompts the author for any necessary information along the way.
After selecting an ebook template and uploading your Word document, Pronoun converts your manuscript into .epub and .mobi versions which are yours to do with as you please. The setup process does not offer assistance in formatting your document, but a test document I uploaded with basic formatting converted cleanly, and yielded a professional-looking ebook in minutes.
Users may upload their own covers, or create one through the integrated connection to Canva. At any time, the user can view mockups of Amazon and Apple sales pages to see how their books will look in their native habitat.
Of particular interest are Pronoun's data comparisons. Authors can compare a book cover to the top selling books in their category (divided into Traditional and Independent listings). Suggested keywords are presented, with levels of popularity and competition graphed beside each one. Upon selecting a price, Pronoun displays the author's earnings from each retailer and a histogram of comparable book prices in the chosen category.
Pronoun provides a free ISBN (usable only through Pronoun) which lists the company as the publisher of record. You may use your own ISBN instead.
Authors retain all rights and may terminate the use of the service at any time, receiving any payments due and retaining free use of the digital files created through Pronoun.
How much does it cost?
As I sped through the setup process, one oddity stood out: the total absence of upselling, high-pressure sales pitches, or dire warnings about how my book would not succeed without their services. Pronoun never pushed add-on services. Even the third-party vendor referrals are housed in a separate area of the site.
Publishing services generally make money in the following ways:
• a share of royalties
• add-on and a la carte services
And yet, Pronoun doesn't charge for epub conversion, distribution, reports, or updates. They don't upsell expensive add-on services. They don't charge third-party vendors to be listed on the site, and they don't take a cut of the vendor's fees. And 100% of the retailer's net payment is passed on to the author.
By the end of the setup process, I was poring over the Author Agreement, the site's Terms and Conditions, and anything that might give an indication of the hook hidden within this tantalizing bait. The Author Agreement was refreshingly sparse and easy to comprehend, and I found no worrisome clauses in the text.
Too good to be true?
All these free services are a great deal for the author, but if you're like me, the instinctive reaction is to look for the catch. Even taking the company's altruism on faith, business ventures exist to turn a profit. All these free services raise the question of how Pronoun will stay in business, much less prove profitable to its investors.
I'm happy to report that there's a sensible answer.
Last year, Pronoun received a $3.5 million round of venture capital funding from Avalon Ventures, a group which has funded BookBub, Zynga, and a host of other content-driven, online ventures. Additionally, Pronoun relies on its not-insubstantial legacy business, which will sustain it in the short term.
However, sustaining the company in the years to come will require fresh revenue. That will come in part from voluntary partnerships with high-performing authors. These authors may be invited to publish through Pronoun's traditional imprints, giving up a share of royalties for enhanced services.
Q&A with Allison Horton
I had the pleasure of interviewing Pronoun's Author Advocacy and Marketing representative, Allison Horton, on Pronoun's philosophy, business model, and future plans.
How would you describe Pronoun's role in the self-publishing process?
AH: Pronoun gives authors the tools, technology, and information they need to create and publish better books. On our publishing platform, authors can create professionally-designed ebook files, sell them on the major retailers, update their metadata anytime, track daily sales and other performance metrics, and use our book data and analytics to optimize their metadata and make smarter marketing decisions. Pronoun authors keep control of their rights and receive 100% of their earnings.
Big picture: our mission is to build an author-first model for publishing that changes how books are created, sold, and discovered. We believe we've built the best self-publishing system yet, but we’re just getting started. We're investing more in pre- and post-publication support to help authors make their books better before putting them up for sale, and then to market them effectively thereafter.
Before publication, we connect authors with recommended and vetted editors and cover designers in their genres via our Build Your Team listings. After they publish, we help them get in front of more readers with tools that even the biggest publishers can’t provide. Our authors continuously get metadata-optimization suggestions to boost discovery on the retailers. We tell them exactly how their books are doing relative to similar titles, and what they can do to get a leg up on the competition. And we’re helping authors build their platforms and connect with readers.
Is Pronoun a useful tool for experienced indie authors, or is it primarily intended for novice authors?
AH: We’re creating tools based on the problems that all authors – novice and seasoned – face while publishing and marketing books. We pay close attention to what experienced, successful indie authors are doing, learn from them, and build around that.
So far, writers of all types and levels of experience have given us tremendous positive feedback about our platform, including easy conversion from manuscript to professionally designed ebook files; fast distribution to the major retailers; the ability (and encouragement) to make fast, unlimited metadata updates; and daily sales tracking across all retailers with milestones that let you track your sales performance after promotions, price changes, and other significant events.
Experienced indie authors in particular see the value in our data-driven metadata advice while they’re setting up their books, and the ongoing support they receive after publication, which we know is only the beginning. Right now, this includes email updates when something important happens to their books, and metadata optimization advice on a regular basis. (We’ve actually started making a few of the latter available to everyone, so if you’d like to see some of these emails in action, you can submit a book to track on https://pronoun.com/sign-up/track-your-books).
And we think experienced indie authors will love two features in the works: preorders and the ability to temporarily or permanently price books at $0.
We’re working to build a platform so robust and valuable that every writer, of all types and genres, will publish books on Pronoun.
Pronoun's leadership appears to have a strong traditional publishing background. Will that experience translate to the idiosyncrasies of the indie market?
AH: Our team embraces the idiosyncrasies of the indie market! Indie authors are transforming the publishing landscape in a way that benefits both authors and readers, using tech-driven platforms to do so. For example, new and undiscovered voices are reaching untapped pockets of reader demand, both through online retailers and on new platforms like Wattpad. And with authors in control, we’re seeing more reader-friendly pricing and innovative tools like Bookbub to reach those readers.
We believe a tech- and data-driven platform will make independent publishing the predominant way books are created and read. To do this, we’ve brought together a team from diverse backgrounds, including engineering, design, data science, and media. And yes, we’ve picked up a few publishing veterans along the way who share our mission to create a new, author-first model for publishing.
Can authors opt out of any of the five retailers Pronoun distributes to?
AH: No. This was a deliberate decision we made while building Pronoun. Today, we see indies stitching together a myriad of tools and services from lots of different providers, including multiple distribution platforms. For example, we know that authors distribute separately to take advantage of specific features (e.g. iBooks preorders, free price promos) or to solve problems (e.g. Google Play discounting). We're taking a much more integrated approach, building together all the pieces an author needs to publish successfully while reaching 98% of the market.
Does Pronoun plan to expand its distribution to other retailers?
AH: We’re all about helping authors reach more readers – and making sure all readers can reach our authors – which is why we distribute to the five major retailers that, combined, account for about 98% of US ebook sales today. That said, our goal is to learn from authors, so we’re listening. If they make a compelling case for another retailer, we’d be thrilled to jump onboard and get them in front of those readers.
Authors occasionally run into problems when Google Play unilaterally discounts the sale price of a title. Amazon's price-matching then kicks in, resulting in a loss of revenue for the author. How will Pronoun address or prevent these pricing conflicts?
AH: We're aware that it's a real issue that affects authors. As we work to build a technological solution that works for everyone, we're handling these cases manually as we see them.
Looking beyond venture capital and the legacy business from Byliner and Booklr, how will the company generate revenue in the long-term?
AH: Here’s our long-term business model: We’re making publishing accessible to all authors, building a platform that helps their titles succeed, and forming partnerships with the most successful ones to offer additional support (editorial, publicity, ad campaigns, email marketing, and so on). Royalty splits are a part of this.
Our model aligns us 100% with the author. It is not our intention to sell (or worse, upsell) authors on services that probably won’t help them meet their goals. We succeed when our authors succeed, without requiring us to take a percent of sales from everyone. Joining a partnership will always be optional to the author; anyone can continue to publish on Pronoun for free.
Will Pronoun target high-performing authors for premium services?
AH: If we identify high-performing authors who would be a great fit for a partnership or imprint, they could sign on and get additional support. This would involve a royalty split (as is the case with our imprint Byliner, for example).
Will those authors be invited to publish through the Byliner imprint?
AH: A strategy in all of our imprints is to spot undiscovered, high-potential voices publishing on the Pronoun platform (we use 3+ years of book data to find early indicators of success). When we discover talented authors who are a great fit, we’d love to have them join the Byliner imprint, which publishes edgy, smart, and modern journalism; The Studio imprint, which (in partnership with Paper Lantern Lit) publishes Young Adult and New Adult fiction; and all future imprints.
If Pronoun does market its own services to authors, will those services be in competition with the third-party professionals featured on the site?
AH: We don’t plan to offer editing, cover design, and hands-on marketing services to Pronoun authors. These are not one-size-fits all, so instead of selling subpar services that are outsourced to a third party, we choose to connect authors directly with the best author-recommended freelancers in their genres, via our free Build Your Team listings.
Imprints and partnerships operated by Pronoun currently use a combination of specialized internal resources and freelancers, in a model that draws from traditional publishing but is tailored for the needs of independents.
Is there anything else you would like indie authors to know about Pronoun?
AH: Authors who sign up for Pronoun aren’t just signing up for the toolkit we have today. They’re shaping the future of Pronoun, the future of how books are published, and the future of how new voices are discovered.
We use feedback from our authors everyday to build tools that make their books better and get them in front of more readers. Right now, for example, we automatically give authors customized, pre-populated Tweets when something big happens to their books (e.g. a great review, a price change, a new release, etc). We’re creating gorgeous marketing collateral like social-media cover photos and promotional images for each book. And we’re investing in technology that will help any author build her platform and turn it into a powerful marketing tool.
Pronoun’s goal is to make indie publishing so successful that it becomes the predominant way great books are published. Our hope is that we can not only serve the needs of authors who are underserved by today’s industry structure, but can also encourage creative people of all types to publish great books that may fall outside the traditional genres mandated by the publishing industry. We believe in the future of books, but we also believe that the future won’t be like the past. We are working to create the infrastructure that will power that change.
As with any venture in its first year, there are a few question marks surrounding Pronoun. We'll be following up to see how Pronoun's impressive array of features develops over time; whether their no-pressure, service-oriented approach thrives in a highly competitive market; and how the company interacts with the authors it partners with for its related imprints.
In the meantime, Pronoun represents an absolute treasure trove for indie authors. And at its hard-to-beat price tag of $0.00, Pronoun's services are well worth exploring.
UPDATE, June 2, 2016: Since the publication of this review, Pronoun has been acquired by Macmillan. You can read our assessment of this change and a follow-up interview with Allison Horton in our supplemental coverage.
OVER TO YOU
Have you tried Pronoun's services? Thinking of giving them a try? Let us know in the comments below!