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August 16 2012

14:00

Why Self-Publishers Should Care That Penguin Bought Author Solutions

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?

Keith Ogorek, Sr VP Marketing, Author Solutions

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.")

Book Country Self-Publishing Tools Offline

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, they 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?

Booktango List of Services

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 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 cover design and advanced formatting, with cover designs topping out at $279. (They can also do web design 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, saying 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?"

Mark Coker, Founder, Smashwords

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 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. In fact, 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."

The Future

Should self-publishers put ASI's Booktango in the running when they're considering Smashwords and BookBaby, Amazon CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing? Sure. Just resist the upsell.

Should you consider purchasing ASI's iUniverse, Author House, Xlibris, or another package? Hmmmm. It is very difficult for a committed do-it-yourselfer like myself to be convinced to recommend these options. I've never taken a hands-off approach to publishing, and I like to know who is editing, designing, and formatting my book, instead of throwing it into a mill and seeing which cubicle it lands in. I may get a riffed senior editor from Random House, or 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?

Will the Book Country community prove to be valuable to authors seeking 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 regains 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 was updated in early 2012 and is available in print and online at the usual resellers.

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May 03 2012

13:53

Can E-Books Succeed Without Amazon?

E-book author Victoria Hudson doesn't like Amazon or the power it seems to wield with independent writers.

She didn't want to sell her book and short stories on its Kindle Direct Publishing Select program, something she calls "too restrictive to authors." Instead she chose an alternative book distributor based in the San Francisco Bay Area called Smashwords.

"I want my work to be available in as many places as possible," she said.

In the e-book market, Amazon.com is the biggest name in the game. But, as criticism mounts -- especially from people who believe that Amazon, and specifically, it's KDP Select Program, can hurt rather than help writers -- alternatives like Smashwords are on the rise.

But can an independent author afford to bypass Amazon, especially when it provides so much exposure to self-published e-books? So far, the answer isn't a clear one.

The Criticism

Most of Amazon's criticism comes because of the KDP Select program. For most authors at the Kindle Store, books are usually split between two prices -- 99 cents and $2.99. At $2.99, Amazon's take is only 30 percent with 70 percent going to the author. At $2.98 and below, the author's take is only 35 percent.

But the KDP program offers more visibility on Amazon if authors agree to give their book away for free for five days during a 90-day period. The author must also sell exclusively at the Kindle store for those 90 days. While the subject is a hot topic on the Kindle boards, many authors are already a part of the program in hopes of getting momentum and their title climbing the Kindle charts. "Charts are everything for Amazon publishers," said Erica Sadun, an independent and traditionally published writer. "Chart position gives you momentum."

kindlelibrary.png

Authors are also asked to loan out books for free at the Kindle Owners' Lending Library for a chance at a pot of $600,000.

"Successful books are not in this program," Sadun said. "It's the ones trying to get market traction and trying to climb those charts." It is one of the few ways that people can successfully market a book that would have no market otherwise, she added.

Questions sent to Amazon for comment on the KDP Select program and its new publishing arm went unanswered.

Amazon Alternatives

While that may be true, some say that Amazon's heavy-handed attitude is hurting independent authors, and writers are looking for alternatives to the Amazon juggernaut.

Hudson, a writer from Hayward, Calif., has a chapter from a future book distributed by Smashwords as well as "No Red Pen: Writing, Writing Groups and Critique," a handbook on giving better writing critiques.

"Smashwords was an easy way to get the electronic version out to a lot of markets," she said.

Mark Coker created the Los Gatos, Calif.-based Smashwords four years ago after trying to get his own book, "Boob Tube," published.

"The more I thought about the issue, the madder I got that a publisher has the power to stand between me and my potential audience," he said.

Now Smashwords has more than 37,000 authors and publishers and 100,000 e-books in 32 countries -- with a 60-85 percent royalty for authors.

Coker doesn't like the KDP Select program because he questions its fairness. "It's using self-published authors as pawns as a broader campaign to wage war against retail competitors," he said. "If it wasn't for the exclusivity requirement, I would be a big supporter of KDP Select. I love the idea that an author can receive payment when it's borrowed."

The exclusivity also hurts authors, he said. "We lost 6,000 to 7,000 books around the Christmas season," he said. "Yes, in three months you can bring that book back, but you have lost any momentum that you had."

Despite his dislike of some of Amazon's practices, Coker holds no animosity toward the company nor does he suggest writers have any. "For those authors who do not work with Amazon out of principle, that's not a behavior I would encourage," he said. "Authors should be everywhere."

BookBaby.jpg

Another alternative to publishing on Amazon is Portland, Ore.-based BookBaby, which has a $99 "self-publishing made easy" option which formats e-books, offers cover design, and has a better-known sister company called CD Baby that sells independent music. It distributes its books to the iBookstore, Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble's Nook, Sony Reader and others.

"We are taking nothing from the back end and passing on 100 percent of net royalties, so authors get to keep all of the money they earn," said Brian Felsen, president of BookBaby. "Our payments are timely and transparent, and we pay immediately upon receipt from our partners."

Hyperink is a new kind of e-book publisher, one that comes with $1.2 million in venture capital funds and seeks out experts to write targeted e-books.

Kevin Gao, a co-founder of digital publisher Hyperink, said his company looks at search engine data, book sales, and tables of content to find out the hottest book topics. "In general, there are two types of authors: professional writers who are freelance writers interested in writing e-books and experts with an area of expertise," he said.

Gao said the year-old Hyperink launches about 100 titles a month on Kindle, Kobo and the iBookstore, and royalties to authors typically run 25-50 percent. But if experts need help organizing material or their thoughts, or the company needs a quick-hit e-book, Hyperink finds freelance writers to take on the task.

Zach Demby, a 28-year-old writer from Oakland, Calif., answered one of Hyperink's initial calls for writers. He penned an 8,000-word study guide or "quicklet" for the book "Freakonomics" and was paid $200. He received no royalties.

"I just found them on Craigslist," he said. "They paid a flat fee plus royalties ... But I didn't expect any royalties." Now with pay rates cut, Demby said he would rather put his efforts into more lucrative freelancing and his own work.

A recent Hyperink call for writers stated it was looking for new freelance writers to take on 5,000- to 8,000-word quicklets ranging $80 to $130 plus 15 percent royalties.

Gao said rates for writers have gone down on a per-word basis since its launch. "There's a lot more supply and a lot of writers out there looking for work," he said.

Amazon's New Publishing Twist

While the alternatives to Amazon exist, independent authors would be wise to watch what the online retailer is doing. Amazon is reinventing itself and becoming a traditional publisher, making it more difficult for writers to ignore the company on principle.

While the Kindle Store still handles the majority of e-book sales, Amazon has been busy creating its own stable of authors. It began its own publishing arm, Amazon Publishing, last May and published 122 books last fall. The publishing house now has six imprints: romance, mysteries, science fiction and fantasy, international authors, emerging authors, and how-to books. Would-be authors can now submit their book proposal directly to Amazon.

The courting of authors could easily edge out both publishers and agents by offering a direct-to-print service.

"The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader," Russell Grandinetti, one of Amazon's top executives, told the New York Times. "Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity."

Barbara E. Hernandez is a native Californian who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has more than a decade of experience as a professional journalist and college writing instructor. She also writes for Press:Here, NBC Bay Area's technology blog.

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