Is the Author Solutions Acquisition a Good Thing for Authors?

Author Solutions and Pearson

Yesterday, news broke that Pearson (parent company of Penguin) had acquired Author Solutions for $116 million. Read the basics here.

Just to make sure we’re all up to speed:

  • Pearson is one of the Big Six publishers.
  • Author Solutions (ASI) is the world’s leading provider of self-publishing services, primarily dealing in print-on-demand (POD) publishing and related service packages.

As the guy who filmed the double rainbow said: “What does it mean?”

Some writers have reacted to the news by saying, “This means self-publishing is the future!”

This is a misunderstanding of Author Solutions on a variety of levels, as well as what Pearson might have to gain from acquiring them. Two-thirds of Author Solutions’ revenue comes from selling services to authors—not from selling books.

Saying that this is the future is kind of like saying: “Authors paying hundreds and thousands of dollars to publish a book that never sells more than 100 copies is the future! Yay!”

This is how confused writers are.

But I know what they’re thinking. They see self-publishing in terms of all those success stories you hear about in the media—like JA Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and John Locke.

Well, I challenge you to find one of these phenoms that used Author Solutions as a service provider. Rather, the self-publishing authors making big bucks are folks primarily using Amazon KDP or related “free” services. In March 2011, I wrote a column for Writer Unboxed, pointing this out, and predicting that POD services, of the type that Author Solutions specializes in, had reached their peak. (Click here to read that post.)

Let’s assume for a moment that my article was correct. Why would a Big Six company invest in a service whose time has already come and gone—especially given that it’s like falling off a log to publish your (electronic) book these days, and that’s what all the publicized success stories focus on. Go publish through Amazon and make a fortune!

Laura Dawson writes that the acquisition is connected to Book Country, the Penguin online community for writers. Acquiring ASI means acquiring a back-end/infrastructure to help monetize that community. But if my theory is correct, then there’s limited money to be made specifically in POD/print services. So Pearson may be looking to grow related paid services to writers that aren’t about POD. (This could include editorial, design, marketing, and promotion services, which ASI also provides.)

That would mean: Self-publishing isn’t exactly the future here. It’s rather making money off a growing number of people who are writing and seeking professional publishing services. As easy as it is to e-publish, it’s not a straightforward matter to navigate the options and produce a professional product that actually sells. Thus, there’s no shortage of people seeking assistance with DIY self-publishing, whether in print or electronic formats. Unfortunately, many people seeking help are not well-informed, don’t have the patience to research their options, and end up writing a big check to someone to make the headache go away. (And by doing so, they’ve assured their sales will be exactly the number of family and friends they can convince to buy their poorly edited, poorly designed book via Facebook wall postings.)

In short: Publishing ain’t for sissies, and no one likes sorting through the mess that is the current industry. That describes a big part of ASI’s business model, though I believe authors are becoming more well-informed every day.

Perhaps the Book Country or Penguin name will be (more) successful in providing services than ASI was, and in improving ASI’s reputation for such services. I have the same thoughts as Victoria Strauss at WriterBeware in this regard. Specifically, I might be convinced into thinking it’s a smart acquisition IF:

  • They’re sincere and transparent in their dealings with writers, especially about what it means to self-publish, and what is possible.
  • Pearson adds their expertise in print distribution and traditional book publishing practices (particularly sales and marketing) to improve overall services.
  • They offer training or services that have true value and aren’t dubious (eliminate stuff like the $20,000 Hollywood trailer).
  • To authors jumping on the e-publishing trend, they offer professional services that are complementary to services that already exist. What I love so much about existing e-publishing services—whether BookBaby, Smashwords, Amazon KDP, B&N Nook Press, or others—is that they are nonexclusive (you can use them in coordination with one another), and they honestly compete on royalty rates. I think Pearson/ASI can work best if they’re offering professional services that help authors amplify their success on existing channels (or somehow extend their distribution). It seems unlikely they can effectively compete with Amazon, unless it’s by offering misleading royalty rates and gotcha clauses. (That’s what ASI’s BookTango did for a while.)

I have little faith, though. This is a for-profit venture, not charity. And it seems unlikely that Pearson would meaningfully change any business practices that made ASI profitable in the first place. Corporations too often take the short-term view, and milk acquisitions dry, rather than take a long-term view.

But here’s another wrinkle: If you didn’t know, a growing part of ASI’s business since roughly 2009 has been establishing white-label services. Thomas Nelson, Harlequin, Hay House, and even my former employer, Writer’s Digest, ended up striking deals with ASI to offer paid publishing services you might know better as WestBow, DellArte, Balboa, and Abbott Press. But those traditional publishers aren’t fulfilling those services; ASI is. The publishers selling the service are extending their brands, their customers, and their marketing power—and receiving a nice chunk of the profit in return. (I want to note here that I left Writer’s Digest before Abbott Press was formed; I was against the idea.)

Check out this big visual at the Author Solutions corporate website:

Author Solutions publishing partnerships

I’m sad to say I’ve heard publishing executives talk about the opportunity to “monetize unpublished manuscripts” and it’s why I left commercial publishing. Is this where the industry is headed? If so, I want no part of its future.

But what do you think the endgame is?

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