July 24 2012

Author Solutions Acquired by Penguin

Self-publishing. Vanity press. Independent author. What do these terms mean, anyway? Well, for most people outside of the publishing industry, they are probably interchangeable, or more likely, completely unknown. How often do you as a consumer even look at the name of the publisher? Do you wander into Barnes and Noble and ask where the Knopf section is? Not likely.

Booktrope is often misunderstood by even those in the business as being a version of self-publishing. This is common when you are inventing something totally new – people want to put you in a category that they already understand and have a reference point for. So before we dive into what we think the headline here means, I want to dispel that myth one more time. We are not self-publishing. We do not accept all manuscripts, nor do we charge fees. Self-publishing may be a great choice for certain authors, and one which we respect completely. It just isn’t what *we* do here at Booktrope.

So, back to the topic of this post! What do those terms above really mean, and where does this acquisition fit in to the picture?

Self-Publishing and Independent Author – synonymous. Current meaning is that these authors have published their work without the involvement of a publisher, however, they probably have availed themselves of the services of others (editors, designers, etc.) and have paid those professionals out of their own pocket. Amazon is largely credited with shifting the term to “independent author” in an attempt to bypass much of the negative stigma with the term “self-published”. Prior to this shift, “independently published” referred to someone who had been published by a small press which were also termed “independent press” referring to the lack of affiliation with one of the Big 6 (who all own multiple imprints). There are some fantastic options out there in the area of true self-publishing, namely Createspace (owned by Amazon), Lulu and Smashwords. All of these companies make money by taking a commission off of the book sale, or by selling optional services. Note the term “optional”! These are reputable companies, which do not gouge authors.

Vanity Press – These companies charge exorbitant fees (thousands of dollars), or require large minimum book purchase quantities. This was really the only option for many years if people wanted to self-publish, therefore making it an option for only those with a lot of money – hence the term “vanity press”. The biggest names in this industry are Author Solutions, and Publish America. Both companies operate multiple imprints. Both companies have received much criticism on the web for shady practices; a quick Google search will return many hits on either.

Subsidized Publishing - These are smaller press options that could be considered as falling into the above category but in general they are more reputable, and do quite a nice job on their books. Most will share set-up expenses with the author, although they do charge up-front fees. Typically they curate their selection, only accepting books they believe they can market and sell. Another key difference, unlike the vanity press highlighted above, they actually work to assist in the marketing of the books they put out.

Penguin paid $116 million dollars last week to acquire Author Solutions. The Indiana Student Daily has a very comprehensive article here if you want all the nitty-gritties. To my mind, this shows evidence of three key points:

  1. Traditional publishing sees the independent author phenomenon as not going away anytime soon, and they have to get on board somehow.
  2. They recognize this is a big revenue stream.
  3. They do not know how to get into the business, and so an acquisition made the most sense.

Yet – they chose to buy one of the least reputable versions of self-publishing in the business. A business which not only garners horrendous reviews from authors, but their own employees! Bob Mayer (a very successful independent author) did a great job of outlining the shortfalls of Author Solutions on his blog last year here, and a recent series of posts by Emily Suess (a freelance author and editor) highlights on her blog the internal dissent visible on HR tracking site Glassdoor.com. Now, on the one hand, I see the sense in what Penguin has done, as Author Solutions does generate a healthy income stream. Their business model must feel comfortable to these traditional folks, therefore the integration would be a simpler cultural fit. On the other hand, I am left wondering, what about the reputation of this business? Doesn’t a vanity press, pay-to-play model clash with Penguin’s own reputation for publishing high-quality, edited and selected writing? What happens when you combine a company like Penguin, that has been around for decades and virtually created the mass-market paperback, with a company like Author Solutions who epitomizes the oldest and sleaziest form of self-publishing? Unclear.

From the business perspective, this is yet more evidence that the shifts in publishing are nowhere near done yet. Microsoft invested $300 million recently in Nook and now this. Who will be the casualties in this war for publishing dollars? Not yet obvious by a long shot. Who will be the winners? I think it is evident already – the authors, and the readers. More material in the market, and of a higher quality; these are nearly always the result of a tectonic shift of this nature.

We here at Booktrope plan to remain flexible, stay format agnostic, shift with the times, and continue to provide a solution not available anywhere else. Stay tuned – this is going to be interesting!