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Is Exploiting Self-Publishing Authors To Be The New Publishing Model?

Is Exploiting Self-Publishing Authors To Be The New Publishing Model?

Radical concept: could publishers start treating writers as partners?

Is the new business model for publishers to be selling over-priced and under-performing services to writers?

That's the question that needs to be asked as Simon & Schuster (S&S) links with Author Solutions (AS) to run their new self-publishing service, Archway.

And same question to Penguin-Pearson, who kicked off this trend with their purchase of AS for $116m earlier this year, and who contrary to our hopes at the time, show no interest in cleaning up the practices there.

Author Solutions is, of course, the controversial company widely distrusted by savvy self-publishers for its exorbitant and problematic service provision, under a variety of names — AuthorHouse, Xlibris, iUniverse, and Trafford.

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 displayed 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 appeared to be making a handsome profit out of writers' dreams

This was one 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.

We understand that, depending on our circumstances as authors, doing it well is likely to require us to partner with author services, perhaps a freelance designer or editor, or in some cases if time is more precious than money, a full-service package provider.

But only one that understands the function of publishing is to sell good books to readers.

Self-Publishing Partners

This is why, as well as connecting writers who want to self-publish well to work together for each other, from the outset ALLi also offered a Partner Membership to service providers who were willing to be vetted by our authors.

We are delighted to have been joined by many partners of great skill and integrity, many of whom are writers themselves or otherwise embedded in the writing and publishing industry. Accessible through a searchable database in the member zone of our website, Partner services are ethically delivered and transparent around terms and conditions and value for money.

They serve authors in the quest of reaching readers. They are, by definition, authorcentric.

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. Formatters 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 allows you to compile your manuscript for Amazon and all other platforms, at a cost of $45, once-off (discounted for our members).

Compare this to ASI'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 ASI. In a colourful blog post, Emily lists some of the many customer complaints'

Repeated complaints from ALLi members, and other community feedback, confirm that these are not isolated incidents.

Strauss has repeatedly criticised Author Solutions for their misleading marketing strategies. And now they've gone even further, as outlined by David Gaughran in this 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 business models need to adapt if they are thrive in the new digitized landscape. What started their  woes, I would argue, was a loss of 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 tilted too far towards the business side of the equation.

Contemporary trade publishing focusses on mergers and buy-outs, cost-cutting 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 the book will sell at, how many copies to print, what to put on the cover, what to call the books and even, on occasions, what to put inside them.

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 executives and editors do not view writers as equal partners in the publishing process.

We see this in language like ‘slush pile' for unsolicited manuscripts or ‘list-culling' for letting authors go. Trade publishers pay lip service to the importance of writers but treat 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 indie authors 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. They pay monthly instead of yearly or bi-annually. And they offer a non-exclusive publishing platform which allows us to retain all rights.

They, along with Smashwords and Bookbaby and others who are emerging, have figured out a way to do business in the new technologized publishing environment that is respectful of writers and readers.

Their models reveal the venerable houses, Simon & Schuster and Penguin-Pearson as the ones who are cynical and manipulative in linking with the world's most controversial vanity publisher.

“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 ASI did business, they gave their CEO Kevin Weiss a seat on their board.

Questions To Ponder

“How can we make easy money out of authors?” is a sorry response to the literary creativity, craft and self-expression that is being unleashed by the surge in self-publishing.

What if trade-publishers started to ask themselves a different set of questions. Questions like:

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

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

RELATED POSTS: 2014: Penguin ASI Still a Poor Choice

2015: The Alliance of Independent Authors, Penguin & Author Solutions

Author: Orna Ross

Orna Ross is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction and inspirational poetry, and a creativity facilitator. As founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, she has been named one of The Bookseller’s Top 100 people in publishing. 


This Post Has 30 Comments
  1. The legit publishing company does not hide in the shadows. It has a face, an office, contact numbers and emails, and employees who engage with their clients daily. Aside from their visible online presence ( official website, social media platforms, etc.), legitimate self-publishing companies are active in communities and participate in traditional activities such as book exhibitions and book fairs.

  2. Hi there, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar one and i was just wondering if you get a lot of spam responses?
    If so how do you reduce it, any plugin or anything you can recommend?
    I get so much lately it’s driving me mad so any assistance
    is very much appreciated.

  3. This is a great post, and one that should continue to be re-issued now and then. I do question this one statement, that suggests they should learn from Amazon.

    … “If you saw Amazon as somebody to learn from?”

    Although Amazon is the one company we, as authors, can’t do without, I wouldn’t hold them up as a model of how to treat indies. Apple is a far better example of a company that treats people/vendors fairly. Amazon bullies us, as they do everyone. They use the old “stick” method of motivation, as opposed to Apple’s “carrot.” Take note of these few differences.

    Amazon pays 70% only when books are priced between 2.99 and 9.99
    Apple pays 70% for all.

    Amazon pays only 35% for an ever-growing list of territories unless you are in Select.
    Apple pays 70% worldwide.

    Amazon requires price matching and is aggressive, to the point of threatening to remove your books.
    Apple lets you sell your book for whatever price you want on other channels.

    There are many more examples. My point being that if we are going to hold a company up to the light and say, “emulate them” let’s make sure it’s really a company we want them to emulate.

    Think of it this way, how much better off would all authors be if Apple were the one to have the market share lead?

    1. Love this comment Jim, the article was written in 2012, though, when Apple demanded exclusivity. Completely agree that they are a great model now, along with another great player now for POD, IngramSpark.

  4. I have successfully published and marketed three self published books. I am about to publish another. My experience may be useful to other would be self publishers.
    My books were published before the age of the Internet and epublishing. In many ways, it is now far easier to self publish. However, there are a lot more potential hazards. To use a very mixed metaphor, self publishing these days is a bit like swimming in a minefield with the sharks continually circling.

    I’m quite savvy about the business side of things but I was almost conned. I very nearly signed a contract with a large self-publishing company that promised to do everything from editing, cover design, marketing through to distribution into bookshops (a blatant lie – bookshops do not stock self-published books). The sum quoted was nearly $6000 dollars. On close reading of the contract, I realised that for this grand total that I would receive just 20 copies.

    Fortunately, I contacted the society of authors in my home town which put me onto a local small publisher ( [email protected].) which was able to provide a far superior service at half the cost and I get 300 copies of the book. If I sell 150 copies I break even – anymore and I make money.

    My advice:

    Be cynical. Assume you are going to be conned. Research! Research! Research! Read the fine print of a contract very closely. Get somebody less emotionally involved to act as devils’ advocate. Google reviews of the service. Go local if possible. Personal references are the best. Recognise that almost all self published books never recover costs but neither do most books that are stocked in bookshops. You can publish a fine book that you will be proud of for a reasonable amount of money if you do your homework.

  5. I received an information packet a couple years ago from Xlibris. This was long before I seriously thought about publishing. Even then, their pricing was ridiculously high. There is no way anyone would ever “earn” back their “investment.” The sharks abound in this sea of self/vanity publishing. One must keep their eyes wide open, gut check everything, and seek advice from those you know and trust.

    It’s hard enough as it is. All of this new freedom in publishing opens the cage for the vultures to start circling.

  6. […] Law firm Giskan & Solotaroff, on April 26, filed a class action complaint on behalf of writers Kelvin James, Jodi Foster, and Terry Hardy. The complaints listed in the action won't come as any surprise to those who follow the behaviour of ASI in recent times: overcharging for services, up-selling editing and marketing packages of poor quality, deceptive practices,  poor royalty reporting and nonpayment of monies due. (For a full list of ASI iniquities, see this earlier post.) […]

  7. An excellent article Orna. I published with Trafford in 2006, and although I have known of some purchasers, I have yet to receive any confirmation of a single sale, despite all the ‘second hand’ copies available and offered through Amazon. I have no belief that I will ever see a single royalty payment. I intend to republish myself, but it is a lonely path, not the technical ‘get the book’ out part but the absence of anyone else to support the book’s progress. I believe that author ‘co-operatives’ are probably now the way forward to provide this necessary support, and endorsement.

  8. It is unfortunate that those companies happy to exploit would-be self-published authors simply for profit sully the reputation and opportunities of other more ethical, author-centred and professional companies out there.

    Fortunately, there ARE some publishing services companies that do an unimpeachable job for those authors who don’t have the technical savvy or the confidence or the time to publish their own books entirely by themselves – and not many aspiring authors have all three of those.

    One good tip to those seeking a publishing services company to help them achieve their self-publishing goal is to find a company that is led by people who are themselves authors, self-published or otherwise, because they will know EXACTLY what it’s like to be in the position of its potential customers. SilverWood happens to tick this box too.

    In the interests of objectivity, I have to declare an interest here, in that SilverWood commissioned and published my own recent book, “Sell Your Books!”, but I will also be using their services to self-publish two books next year at my own expense, so I am putting my money where my mouth is!

  9. Like many others, I have seen products of author services’ companies; sad books with poor covers, illegible blurbs, wobbly print and unedited writing. I’ve also seen high-quality books with professional covers and production values and containing a gripping, well-edited story. The first category seem to prevail and only by hard research will you find the second.

    A good publishing services provider can help the nervous self-publisher and is an option which should not be closed off by lumping all such companies together in the naughty corner. The crucial thing is to equip writers with the skills to be able to discern the cowboys from the diamonds. I recommend reading Mick Rooney’s 12 point guide: http://www.theindependentpublishingmagazine.com/2012/07/12-points-to-consider-when-looking-for.html

    I’ve blogged myself on such providers: http://alison-morton.com/2012/11/10/what-are-publishing-services-providers/
    The key element in the decision should be this: “A sign of a good provider is that they highlight the author as the copyright holder. This is extremely important. On no account should you cede any rights. You are granting the publisher a non-exclusive licence to publish your book. Anything else compromises your position.”

    You can pick and mix or tailor a package to your needs. Any good provider will do this. If they won’t, run. And the cost? Anything like $24,000 is beyond ludicrous. But with negotiation, it shouldn’t exceed £2000 for everything. If you have the confidence your book is a high-quality product because of the validation and editing it has gone through, then this investment will be recouped.

    The S&S/ASI association is scary. I sifted ASI out of my list at a very early stage, mostly for the reasons Orna describes. With my publishing partner, SilverWood Books, I have total control plus the benefit of a book-oriented but experienced publishing company.

  10. Orna … a wonderful contribution to the discussion. I self-published 4 years ago before all the “helpers” were out there. Printing a book is a task, a bit like doing all the set up for a charity gala … check out content, proofread the text, get a good design, find a printer. All are eminently doable if you’re willing to put in the time … not very hard, and not particularly expensive. The hard part is, as it has always been, the marketing and distribution. But as I understand, these “newcomers” are not necessarily offering to do that part … let alone they should do it well.

    Thanks for a thoughtful “caveat emptor”

  11. Excellent piece, Orna. I self-published my debut novel, a thriller titled BABY GRAND, this year, and my only expenses — for the most part — were for cover design, proofreading, formatting, etc. The price tag on some of those packages you mention are outlandish! Self-published authors need to know that they can go it alone and do well.

  12. New??? What a strange word to be followed by the information that the ” acquisition includes brands like AuthorHouse, Xlibris, iUniverse, and Trafford.” My word, is this a best kept secret known to only the few. Self-publishing authors (like me) have been subjected to a tidal wave of offers to help me well before and well after I actually published with “a liitle help from my friends” at a fraction of the prices offered by these helpful “authors services” companies. Just as Amazon put together it’s e-publishing package through acquisition, now the consolidation phase of author services is underway and soon there will be 3-4 large players looking to capitalize on the opportunity to milk the cows.

    This is not necessarily a bad thing in that it could attract rational business people who will drive out the exploiters sans morals and ethics and create a rational marketplace for new authors.

    And how big a leap would that be to full-fledged new-world publishers kicking ass on the Legendary Seven with their hot new clients. Think about that while you pound away in the garret .

    I remember when new auto dealers were bribing Honda and Toyota executives to get more than their fair share of new models. God Bless free enterprise and open markets with the desire to accomplish one thing–get the hot new product to market before your competitor does.

    When one stops thinking of creative authorship as a divine calling and begins to recognize it for what it (mostly) is–entertainment–one begins to understand the future. The future is no longer in the hands of a small number of prestige “houses” who use their exclusive power to create best-sellers, thus leveraging their power and capital as best for them, and becomes an open market for talent with New-Age publishers firing inexpensive (from a risk capital standpoint) new authors works into the reader sky, then we will have an exciting marketplace for qualified authors equivalent to the garage band wave of recent decades. How about 10 best sellers every week and the top hundred hits this week. What fun.

    And for those who see themselves not as rock-stars but as serious classical musicians, there will still be symphony publishers looking for exquisite literature. What a country!!

    david thornhill thompson–newbie

    1. Hi David, of course Xlibris et al have been at it for ages, nothing new there. New for trade publishing, though, the first time a trade house has partnered with a self-publishing packager. Love your vision of us all blasting into an open sky though it doesn’t seem like progress to have the writers funding the enterprise, rather than the publishers. I do hope you’re right and that we are in an interim phase on the way to a rise in standards — no evidence of that so far but we live in hope (occupational hazard!).

    1. I have been badgered for years by AuthorHouse, cajoled, hassled and lied to. I’m so glad I waited until this time to get on with publishing and to do it via companies with integrity. Thanks for this article.

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