Thursday, July 26, 2012

Penguin Solutions? I Don't Think So

by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers
The big news in publishing this week is that Penguin, a major traditional publisher, bought Author Solutions, a major vanity publisher. There are so many things wrong with this deal that I struggled to organize this post.

But I'll start with some terminology and move to revenue sources. I called Author Solutions a vanity publishing company rather than a self-publishing service because it takes control of writers’ publishing endeavors and overcharges them for the experience. In contrast, true self-publishing is when authors retain control of the process and copyright and have an opportunity to make more money than they invest.

Author Solutions (iUniverse, etc.) earns two-thirds of its revenue from charging writers for editorial services, such as copyediting and cover design. (It earns the rest from selling books to the friends and relatives of its authors.) The company supposedly offers marketing services as well, but charging writers $1900 for putting out a press release is about as fraudulent as it gets. A press release takes thirty minutes to write, format, and send—and is practically worthless as a marketing effort.

So what is Penguin saying to writers and readers with this acquisition? We can’t make enough money publishing talented authors, so we’ll squeeze lots of hard-earned cash out of mostly-untalented authors to save our bottom line… rather than implement a business model that supports authors and earns a profit.

I wonder how Penguin authors feel about this. I wonder what this will do to the Penguin brand. Not that readers care about publisher brands.

Penguin is not the first to make this leap. A while back Harlequin partnered with Author Solutions to form Harlequin Horizons, a vanity publishing company. The Romance Writers Association promptly dropped Harlequin from its list of acceptable publishers, and regardless of how it turned out, the publisher suffered from bad PR. 

Penguin probably will experience a similar reaction from other author associations. That will be a blow to new Penguin authors who find themselves unable to join. But author associations have so little value in today’s interconnected world that joining or not joining will make little difference.

But long term, if Penguin and Harlequin are fine with charging some authors for their editorial services, how long will it be before they start charging everyone a reading fee? Then stop paying advances? Then simply move to being an author-funded service provider? 

The lines between traditional publishing, self-publishing, and vanity publishing get blurrier every day. I believe that eventually, it will just called publishing, because all authors will be entrepreneurs who finance their book releases, either through individual contracts for editorial services or from one-stop service providers.

But hopefully writers won’t choose an overpriced shop like Author Solutions, which by then will probably be called Penguin Solutions.

What do you think this means for the future of publishing?


  1. Excellent points, LJ, but I think the Harlequin Horizons thing happened well over two years ago, and Harlequin and RWA came to terms (as I recall, Harlequin removed itself from Horizons). I do know that Harlequin IS an RWA approved publisher.

    Which is a totally different can of worms. Professional societies such as RWA and MWA still have lists of "approved" publishers. Right now at RWA, there's a hoopdedoo about recognizing Indie published authors. Seems a $1000 advance is good enough if you're traditionally published, but if you're Indie, you have to prove $5000 in sales from a single title.

    All I can do is echo the words of Bob Mayer...publishing is changing fast, but nobody knows where it's going.

    Terry's Place

  2. Excellent, informative, thought-provoking post, LJ. And thanks for the additional info, Terry. Seems like the whole publishing world is in an upheaval, and it's getting harder and harder to keep up with all the rapid changes--not all of them for the better!

  3. At first glance, it feels like a desperate move by a publsher who may be in financial trouble. As far as how it will ultimately reflect on Penguin, It depends on whether they leave Author Solutions unchanged or use it to create a platform to find new authors who might become Penguin authors… much like Amazon and Thomas Mercer for example.

  4. At first glance, it feels like a desperate move by a publsher who may be in financial trouble. As far as how it will ultimately reflect on Penguin, It depends on whether they leave Author Solutions unchanged or use it to create a platform to find new authors who might become Penguin authors… much like Amazon and Thomas Mercer for example.

  5. I simply don't know. I am aware of two wonderful authors whose latest books have been cancelled by Penguin Putnam for no good reason (maybe sales numbers were cited in one case, but it was bogus). Really depressing to see what they're having to do to make things profitable (for I suspect that's what's going on).

    I simply remind myself that Henry David Thoreau had to self-publish WALDEN, which has lived on and is now a classic. Emerson self-published some of his work. The early pamphlets by the Founding Fathers were run off in the equivalent of Kinko's/Copy Max and handed out. I can't say how this will all shake out. I only know that books will never die (scrolls of papyrus, electronic book files, zines made by hand). The book as intellectual property is the proper meme, and it will survive in some form. We'll just have to hang on to the rollercoaster bars until the ride comes to a full stop and we can look around to see where we ended up.

  6. I don't get it. Unless they have some goal to revamp the program to make it more author and cost friendly, it seems like a very bad move.

    I also can't understand why traditional publishers can't look at what Amazon is doing and realize that treating authors with respect and value benefits everyone. I express gratitude every day that they came along and changed the way this industry does business.

  7. Thanks for the update, Terry. But keep in mind that Harlequin also has a class-action lawsuit against it from authors who've feel they've been cheated out of subsidiary royalties. It seems more and more obvious that publishing industry is not looking out for authors' best interest.

    Peg, I'm sure that the best manuscripts from Author Solutions will be submitted to Penguin for consideration. But you can't really compare it to the Amazon Kindle Direct/Thomas & Mercer scenario. The difference between KDP and Author Solutions is that KDP formats and publishes ebooks with no upfront fees, then pays a 70% royalty. Nobody walks away from KDP feeling ripped off.

  8. I agree one-hundred percent, LJ. KDP gives authors a better deal than it gives itself. They only take 30% while we get 70%. When has that ever happened in publishing? It's unheard of and beyond generous.

  9. Penguin always meant something to me when I bought a book. I can't see how that reputation will continue. What on earth do they have up their sleeve to proceed with this? Nothing, I suspect. A desperate lurch in the wrong direction.

  10. Twelve years ago, I published two dozen of my husband’s out of print books under the Author’s Guild Back in Print Program with iUniverse—a 25% royalty on print. In addition, I added a few more books to iUniverse at $99 for set-up. Those received a 20% royalty. Some were also E-books at 50% royalty. iUniverse was constantly behind in reporting. Then when Author Solutions took over, the reporting was even worse, especially when it came to sales with Amazon. My repeated phone calls to them made no difference. To this day, I do not know if I had a fair accounting.

    I cancelled out with iUniverse/Author Solutions nearly three years ago, and went with Amazon Createspace and KDP, and what I do know is that my sales on these same books have increased significantly.

    Obviously Penguin, along with the other New York publishers, are in a panic over the changes taking place. If they had learned long ago to treat authors well, this would not be happening. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is a visionary and I love him for that. I’m happy being in control of our works.

    And as a member of the Authors Guild since 1990, I don’t plan to renew my membership with them due to their stubborn stand against Amazon. In my opinion, the Guild, an organization that supposedly has authors interests at heart, has miserably failed at that over these publishing issues.

  11. Thanks, Linda, for taking the time to post such a thoughtful comment. It will be interesting to see what happens in the ebook world when the DOJ lawsuit against the publishers is settled. I think Amazon will prevail.

  12. This is really baffling, and I cannot understand why a trad. publisher would deal with a vanity publisher, given the way they bag them.
    I guess we are still in a twilight zone when it comes to understanding where the publishing industry is going. It remains difficult for indie pubbers to really establish a huge following, despite some individual notable successes. On the other hand, there is no guarantee traditional methods will result in a best-seller either.
    We all need to keep trialling different methods I guess. Maybe that's what Penguin is doing, trying to gain access to a new type of writer. Who knows?


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