Penguin Launches Rip-Off Self-Publishing Service

Penguin has unveiled a self-publishing service – which will operate under the aegis of its online writing community Book Country – but questions are being asked about the huge fees they are charging, and the massive royalty cut that they are taking (on top of what retailers such as Amazon charge).

This post is from 11 November 2011. It has not been updated except to clean up broken links, but it’s important to preserve these older posts on author exploitation. Comments remain open.

This topic has already been covered by bloggers such as Joe Konrath, Katie Salidas, Linda Welch, and Passive Guy. Their posts are worth reading in full – especially the comments where you can see the widespread disapproval of this move from the self-publishing community.

However, this message needs to be repeated again and again to reach as many writers as possible to steer them away from this truly awful deal, and to counter the wall-to-wall, uncritical coverage from the likes of eBookNewser, Publishers Weekly, and the Wall Street Journal.

The most contentious parts of Penguin’s self-publishing operation are the fee structure and the royalty grab. There are lots of other things to dislike, but we’ll get to that.

Overcharging for services

Book Country offer a range of options to self-publish your work, all vastly over-priced.

The premium package costs a whopping $549. To be clear: there is no editing or cover design included in this package (the two biggest expenses for self-publishers). There is also no marketing or promotion included in this package, aside from a “Publishing Kit” with “tips” and “ideas”.

All you receive in return for your $549 are your formatted e-book files and your typeset print files which they upload for you. Needless to say, there are a whole host of companies out there that will do the same job, quicker, for a lot less money.

For those with slightly less money to waste, the next package costs $299. The astounding thing about this package is that you get nothing other than the aforementioned “Publishing Kit” (with those “tips” and “ideas”), and the ability to use their software to format your own print and e-book files, which they will upload for you.

Again, it should be pointed out that this is more expensive than paying somebody else to do it for you. If you want to do it yourself, the software you need is free. I should also note that it costs nothing to upload your files to all the major retailers.

The cheapest package is $99. This gets you that “Publishing Kit” and the ability to use their software to format your e-book file only, which they upload to the retailers.

At the risk of repeating myself, there is no value in this package either. You are doing all the work, aside from the uploading, which is free, quick, and simple anyway.

But the poor value in these packages isn’t even the worst part as you will keep paying them every time you sell a book.

Royalty grab

Not only do writers using their service get hugely overcharged for the “services” Penguin provide, they then go on and pick their pocket at the back-end by peeling off a huge chunk of their royalties. This, of course, is on top of the retailer’s cut.

Here’s how it breaks down. For sales on the Book Country site itself, writers receive 70% royalties. This part, at least, is justifiable. Book Country are providing the retail platform, they are processing the sales, and dealing with the customers. And it’s a comparable percentage to the major retailers.

However, through Book Country, you can also sell your book on those major retailers, such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. This is where the real trouble starts.

Book Country claims that writers will “earn 70% on your sales when priced at $2.99 or higher on all channels.” This is an extremely disingenuous claim, as it is not 70% of your cover price, but 70% of the money Book Country receive from retailers.

A fuller explanation is on their FAQ where the customer is left to calculate for themselves (if they notice it) the huge 30% cut that Book Country take when sales are made on those other retailers (where the overwhelming majority of a writer’s sales are likely to be).

In short, if you price your book at $2.99 and sell it on Amazon through Book Country, you will only receive 49% royalties, instead of the 70% you would have received if you uploaded it yourself.

From the Book Country FAQ:

Here is an example of the difference in earnings if selling on Book Country versus Amazon:

For a $2.99 eBook sale on Book Country, the author is entitled to $2.09.

For a $2.99 eBook sale of a Book Country title on Amazon, Amazon takes $0.90 and then the author is entitled to $1.47.

What they leave out, of course, is the $0.62 (30% of what Amazon pass on) Book Country are keeping from each $2.99+ sale on Amazon, and they take an even bigger slice from cheaper work. Not only is this deceptive, it’s out-and-out gouging.

How can Penguin/Book Country justify this royalty grab? They are already (over)charging their customers for the simple act of uploading to the retailers, and now they charge them for the same service a second time by taking 30% of their royalties.

Indeed, why would any writer sign up for this?

Penguin targets vulnerable writers

Book Country launched in April this year as an online writing community where authors can read and review each other’s work and receive advice from publishing professionals.

At BEA in July, Penguin CEO David Shanks said that he wanted to make Book Country “the most comfortable place for a new author to come.” Much like Authonomy, authors who receive the most favorable reviews rise to the top of the list, where there work will be reviewed by Penguin staff.

The carrot being dangled for new, unpublished writers is considerable – at least on paper. As David Shanks said in that same interview, “at the top of that list, we’ll start to look seriously at those people and say ‘here’s our new crop of potential bestselling authors’.”

The site has been running for over six months, but no writers have been signed by Penguin. Instead, Book Country are now offering a rip-off self-publishing program, which will allow those writers to claim they are being published by Penguin.

Think that’s too much of a stretch? Here’s the opener from yet another Book Country puff-piece – this time from the UK broadsheet, The Guardian:

Want to be published by Penguin, the historic press which is home to authors including Roald Dahl, Beatrix Potter and Kathryn Stockett? Now you can be – and for as little as $99 (£60), as Penguin’s American arm announced a move into self-publishing.

The reason that Penguin/Book Country are targeting newer writers is clear: more experienced writers, and those already self-publishing, will see this for what it is. A rip-off.

However, newer, less-experienced writers will see that Penguin logo and cough up to make their dreams come true – not realizing that they are being over-charged, and that Penguin will continue to take money off them for each book they sell (off their own sweat, because Penguin won’t be helping them).

Some are shielding Penguin from the blame, pointing out that Book Country is a separate legal entity. Let’s deal with that right away.

The head of Book Country is Molly Barton, who has been working at Penguin since 2005, and was promoted this week to the position of Global Digital Director. Book Country was set-up by Penguin, is funded by Penguin, Penguin’s logo is all over the site, and Penguin staff write blog posts for the Book Country blog. The demonstration for Book Country’s new self-publishing services was even given in Penguin’s offices.

Penguin own Book Country. End of discussion.

Self-publishing is easy

Writing a great book is hard. Finding readers and building an audience is hard. But the self-publishing process is easy. It really is.

Turning a (finished, edited) manuscript into a good-looking e-book is straight-forward. Uploading to the various sites is quick and simple (and free).

However, if you are not comfortable with these (minor) technical aspects, there are companies that can take care of that for you for a flat fee leaving your royalties intact.

There are zero advantages in going with Book Country and lots of disadvantages – aside from those mentioned above – including, but not limited to: restrictions on changing your price; no access to KDP, its tools, its customer support, and it’s real-time sales figures; and royalty checks which go to Book Country first, instead of you.

All of this information is taken from their own FAQs. There could well be further hidden nasties in the Terms of Service or the contracts. If anyone has a copy of either of those, Passive Guy would like to take a look at them.

We need to steer unsuspecting writers away from this deal. If you hear of any new writer considering using Book Country’s services, please point them towards this blog post (or any of the others above).

In fact, I have an offer for them. If they are seriously, genuinely considering using Penguin/Book Country to self-publish their book, I will send them a free copy of Let’s Get Digital to show them how easy it is – and how much cheaper it is – to do it themselves.

They can email me here: david (dot) gaughran (at) gmail (dot) com.

UPDATE: PaidContent have published an article on Book Country this morning. I was interviewed for the piece, and they have quotes from Joe Konrath. There is also a statement from Penguin responding to our criticisms of Book Country. They only printed a portion of what I said, so here it is in full (and I’ll be talking more about this soon):

I would be critical of this whoever was running it because it’s a terrible deal.

For starters, services like this should always be on a flat-fee basis. Formatting and uploading are one-time jobs. There is no justification for taking an ongoing fee in the form of 30% of the author’s royalties. That is, quite simply, gouging. And the fact that this is aimed at the newest, least inexperienced writers is particularly distasteful. The marketing information on the site is also a little disingenuous, as they don’t make quite clear how big a cut they are actually taking.

It could also be argued that it’s questionable to attach a self-publishing service to a writing community at all. Members of such communities should be able to assess service providers independently so that writers can get impartial advice.

The main reason that I am concerned that Penguin are behind this is because that will make it more significantly attractive to those newer, less experienced writers. A much-desired carrot is being dangled in the form of a potential publishing deal with Penguin. Their logo is all over the site. And their backing will lead to some confusion. For example, The Guardian’s article about Book Country on Wednesday presented it as a way to get published “by Penguin” for only $99. That, obviously, is not the case.

I can’t imagine why anyone who has already self-published would be attracted to this service. The reaction has been damning, and universal. That should tell you something. However, I am afraid that less experienced writers will go for it because it is backed by Penguin. That dream of a Big 6 publishing deal is widespread, and hard to shake.

As to the services themselves, there are plenty of experienced, talented professionals working as freelancers, and they cost a hell of a lot less. But the price isn’t the big issue, it’s that Book Country take a big slice of your royalties. Writers will be earning $1.47 on a $2.99 book when they should be getting $2.05. Book Country will take $0.62 on every single book you sell. And the worst bit is: you have already paid them!

Let me finish by saying that self-publishers are not concerned about this venture because Penguin is coming to play in our patch. Rather, we fear that our fellow writers will see the logo, be seduced by the possibility of a publishing contract, will pay over the odds, and will hand over a significant portion of their royalties on a continuing basis for no good reason.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.