The publishing world has been turned upside down by ebooks and self-publishing. All the old middlemen – agents, publishers, distributors, retailers – are scrambling to reinvent themselves, trying to remain relevant in a digital world. And many like Bloomsbury are making highly questionable moves.
This post is from 11 October 2013. It has not been updated except to clean up broken links, but it’s important to preserve these older posts on author exploitation and the comments remain open.
Self-publishing is big business. By my estimates, self-publishers have captured 30% of the US e-book market. And everyone wants a slice. Unfortunately, many organizations are prepared to do pretty much anything to make sure they get theirs.
Author Solutions is the market leader in the author exploitation game. That, however, was no impediment to Penguin splashing out $116m to purchase the company in July 2012. And it has been absolutely no barrier to a huge range of companies doing deals with them of one kind or another.
The latest edition to this gallery of rogues is Bloomsbury Publishing, who are famous for the Harry Potter series, but who are also known to UK writers as publishers of the querying author’s bible the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.
Its equivalent in the US would be Writer’s Market, and the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook holds a similarly special place for UK authors. The publishing industry has always been something of a swamp, and the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook was the most trusted resource to keep you out of the hands of unscrupulous agents charging reading fees, dubious editorial services, and vanity publishers.
What’s happening to the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook is a perfect example, in microcosm, of the industry being disrupted and embracing shady practices to protect future revenue. With less authors querying, less even wanting an agent or traditional publisher, and more and more electing to self-publish, the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook decided to reinvent itself.
Bloomsbury made all the right noises at the start. Along with a bunch of other self-publishers, I was invited to write something for their new self-publishing micro-site, which would form part of the re-launched Writers’ & Artists’ website. I was interested, but first wanted to see how the site went – being a little suspicious of publishers moving into this space, given the history of such ventures.
I’m glad I waited.
The centerpiece of the Self-Publishing section of the site is a “comparison service” of self-publishing companies. If alarm bells are already ringing, you’re on the right track.
Precious little information is given on the most viable path to self-publishing, the one that every single self-publisher I know uses (and I know lots of ‘em), namely, uploading directly to KDP and either uploading to Nook, Kobo, and Apple directly, or using a reputable distributor (like Smashwords or Draft2Digital) to reach the other retailers.
I don’t know of one single successful self-publisher who uses a “self-publishing service” to publish their books. The reasons are simple. At best you will have delayed sales reports, reduced payments, and less control over things like categories and pricing.
At the other end of the spectrum, where most of these companies reside, you will pay eye-watering prices only for your book to be poorly designed, poorly edited, have incorrect metadata attached (making discoverability and visibility an uphill struggle). You will be plagued by incessant phone calls and emails flogging overpriced services of dubious value, and you will experience trouble getting paid at all – if your book manages to sell anything, which is doubtful for the reasons mentioned.
When I tested the Writers’ & Artists’ comparison tool, I inputted answers that a typical newbie might. To no great surprise, the list of recommended providers was peppered with Author Solutions’ subsidiaries. No differentiation was made between the few reputable companies such as KDP, Smashwords, or eBookPartnership, and the much more numerous god-awful vanity presses like Trafford, Abbott Press, and Archway.
Author Ben Galley dubbed this approach “provider-centric” rather than “author-centric” – which is a great way of describing it. And it’s not just that terrible comparison tool. The FAQ is misleading and unhelpful, pushing writers towards providers, rather than letting them know there is an easier, cheaper, and more effective way to self-publish. An example:
Can I self-publish without working with a self-publishing company?
Yes. You can edit, format, distribute and publicise your own book or e-book, and publish your book under your own imprint, but if you do not have the time or expertise to do this then self-publishing companies can provide these services.
Of course, a newbie is going to read that and run straight into the arms of a “self-publishing provider” – and probably a disreputable one too, given the way the results of the tool are tilted. Bloomsbury claims the results are impartial, and that providers are ranked based on the number of services offered.
However, such an approach – by accident or design – will always rank a vanity press like AuthorHouse ahead of a legitimate service like Smashwords, because the latter doesn’t offer an encyclopedia of scammy services like a $1,199 “web optimized” press release or a $3,999 book signing.
Things get really interesting when you dig into the reasons why Bloomsbury took this approach.
When Bloomsbury first launched this site, they emailed the various companies listed in their comparison tool stating that there was no charge for being listed on the site, but that a charge for leads may be introduced at a future time. This is confirmed on the Writers’ & Artists’ site itself, where it states:
Every provider featured on the site has been contacted with the option of paying a flat fee for each lead received via our comparison service.
In other words, Bloomsbury wants to be an affiliate for some of the worst vanity presses out there. It is collecting personal information from inexperienced authors, and then parceling it up and seeking to sell it to some of the most disreputable companies in publishing – including Author Solutions and its myriad subsidiaries.
I contacted Eela Devani, the Digital Business Development Director at Bloomsbury who oversees the Writers’ & Artists’ website, to express my concerns. She had previously denied any deal with Author Solutions, but when I confronted her with evidence that Bloomsbury was seeking such a deal, she said the following:
The reason we do not have an agreement with Author Solutions is because they are yet to sign anything. Should they wish to sign an agreement, they would be treated the same as any other self-publishing services provider featured on our site. That is what impartiality means.
When I suggested that Writers’ & Artists’ had lost all credibility by including Author Solutions companies, Eela Devani replied:
We have only used information within the public domain. Just because you omit one provider from the site, it does not mean that writers won’t find them.
I think they will be a little easier to find when Bloomsbury recommends them in the comparison service. And the way results are tilted means that Author Solutions companies will invariably be near the top, squeezing out the reputable providers.
The most frustrating thing about my exchange with Eela Devani was her pushing back against my classification of Author Solutions as a disreputable provider. She said:
How do we go about deciding which companies are reputable and which ones not? User Ratings are a good gauge and will be introduced as a way for people to discuss their positive/negative experiences with providers.
I can’t believe that someone with Eela Devani’s experience would be unaware Author Solutions’ reputation. I can’t believe a publisher like Bloomsbury is unable to spot a vanity press. I guess being slated by every watchdog in the business, hated in the author community, and being the subject of a class action suit for deceptive business practices doesn’t change the color of their money.
Eela Devani mentioned “User Ratings” making an appearance on the site at some point, and this is where the story takes another twist which reveals Bloomsbury’s true intentions.
The Alliance of Independent Authors had worked with Bloomsbury for several months on potential rating system for their comparison tool, but after a pilot trial showed Author Solutions companies to rank very poorly, Bloomsbury got cold feet. Orna Ross of the Alliance said that the project completely broke down on the issue of pricing.
The Alliance wanted (quite rightly) to make pricing a key metric of the rating system, but Bloomsbury refused, claiming that such information wasn’t readily available. I don’t know if anyone at Bloomsbury knows how to use Google, but it took me about ten seconds to get the relevant information. Orna Ross told me:
A rating that didn’t take pricing into account wasn’t worth having and wasn’t something we could stand over. When it became clear they had no real intention of incorporating it, we withdrew.
If you want background on that part of the story, Orna Ross has more here where she explains why the Alliance has issued a formal warning to authors to avoid the Writers’ & Artists’ site.
At this point, you might be asking what we can do about this. Well, we still have time to stop newbie authors getting delivered into the hands of scammers. The deal with Author Solutions hasn’t been signed yet, but Bloomsbury is closing in. Our only chance of stopping this is to make as much noise as possible.
Authors’ rights are under attack from all sides, and we must be resolute in our defense. We don’t have billion dollar companies and the associated PR machines to fight our corner. But we do have the internet, and thousands of author platforms.
As John Scalzi put it back in March, when lambasting Random House for the awful terms of their digital-first imprints:
What Random House is doing with their Alibi and Hydra imprints is what the raptors in Jurassic Park did: They’re testing the fences, looking for weaknesses. If they find them, then why wouldn’t they charge through them, to feed on the soft and chewy morsels on the other side (i.e., authors)? And if they can get away with it, why wouldn’t other publishers follow their lead, using the excuse of “this is how the business is these days”? This is why authors have to keep the fence electrified.
I sincerely hope that Bloomsbury change course, and I think there is a reasonable chance of that happening if we make our displeasure known. As Orna Ross said to me:
This could be a good service for the kind of author-publisher who doesn’t want to go the DIY route. We would urge Bloomsbury to make the relatively simple changes that would make it transparent and fair to writers – surely the first duty of an “impartial” author service.
In my view, Bloomsbury needs to do the following:
1. Ditch the plan to sell “leads” (i.e. authors’ personal information) to Author Solutions and their subsidiaries. This plan is unconscionable, and there’s no possible justification for Bloomsbury to deliver inexperienced writers into the clutches of the worlds’ biggest vanity press. Same goes for the other dodgy companies listed.
2. Remove all mention of Author Solutions companies. Author Solutions companies have no place on a website which claims to provide authors with good advice. Even if you must mention them for the sake of completeness, then there should be big neon signs warning authors away, like they do at Preditors & Editors.
3. Provide information on the DIY path. From a cynical perspective, I can understand why this information isn’t front-and-center on the Writers’ & Artists’ site, instead of the comparison tool. Actual, sensible advice on self-publishing is much more difficult for Bloomsbury to monetize. KDP doesn’t run an affiliate program for the delivery of leads. It doesn’t need to because they are a reputable service with an army of satisfied self-publishers doing that work for them… unlike Author Solutions.
These are steps that Bloomsbury could take right away, and, until then, the Writers’ & Artists’ website can no longer be considered a trusted resource for writers.
Before I go, it was announced today that Writers & Artists has been nominated for Best Publisher Website. Which tells you everything you need to know about traditional publishing, its approach to Author Solutions, and how much it cares about writers.