Writing on the Ether: Oil, Water, Publishers, Self-Publishers

3 October 2013 iStock_000016610957XSmall photog Serasker texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Echoes of Past Mistakes
  2. ALLi Is Not Amused
  3. CONTEC: Do They Have Any Business in Your Business?

Echoes of Past Mistakes

Another once-venerable publishing brand, Writers & Artists, an imprint of the Bloomsbury group, is showing little regard for writers as they move into the self-publishing arena.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Jonny Geller, Kristin Nelson, Michael Tamblyn, Jon Fine, Hugh Howey, Amanda Barbara, Peter Armstrong, Florian Geuppert, Matthias MattingHold that thought. Hang on to those words of Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, an international group based in the UK. The keywords I want you to note in that line from Ross are publishing brand and little regard for writers as they move into the self-publishing arena. We’ll be back to Ross shortly.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Jonny Geller, Kristin Nelson, Michael Tamblyn, Jon Fine, Hugh Howey, Amanda Barbara, Peter Armstrong, Florian Geuppert, Matthias MattingWednesday evening in New York City, I was glad to be invited to speak on a panel of journalists who cover publishing at a session of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR)—the literary agents’ organization. My colleagues on the panel were Andrew Richard Albanese of Publishers Weekly, Michael Cader (our Twitter refusenik) of Publishers Lunch, Laura Hazard Owen of GigaOM.

Agent Brian DeFiore organized the evening, which included a lot of frank, thoughtful exchange between agents and media types, a good event.

Our moderator was Shana Cohen of Stuart Krichevsky’s seaworthy agency. (I’ve teased Krichevsky for years that if he takes on any more books about dreadful historic disasters at sea—Sebastian Junger’s harrowing The Perfect Storm, Nathaniel Philbrick’s someone-may-have-been-eaten In the Heart of the Sea— his staff is going to be wearing life rings in the office.)

One of the questions Cohen asked us at the AAR panel in New York was what questions we might put to chiefs of the major publishing houses.

I answered that I’d like to ask major publishers how such smart, accomplished business people keep making the mistake of approaching the self-publishing phenomenon in ways that so clearly—and so predictably—hack off the author community.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Jonny Geller, Kristin Nelson, Michael Tamblyn, Jon Fine, Hugh Howey, Amanda Barbara, Peter Armstrong, Florian Geuppert, Matthias MattingI’m referring to the Pearson-Penguin buy of Author Solutions announced in July 2012 and the November 2012 announcement of Simon & Schuster’s creation of Archway Publishing, a “self-publishing experience,” as the press release phrases it, from Author Solutions (ASI).

And the links in the above paragraph take you to Author Solutions’ own announcements of its Penguin parentage and its Archway deal with S&S. There’s a reason I’m linking to those ASI statements, in which you can read the company’s own way of announcing these things.

1 October 2013 iStock_000016421102XSmall photog Lisay texted story imageLast weekend during the Writer’s Digest West Conference (#WDCW13) in Los Angeles (I’ve written about the event in Ether for Authors: Do All Conference Roads Lead to Writers Now? at Publishing Perspectives), I met and spoke briefly with Author Solutions’ Keith Ogorek, Senior Vice-President of Marketing.

A more affable and able panelist you’d be hard-pressed to find. Ogorek made his points very well on the “New Frontiers” self-publishing panel moderated by Writer’s Digest Publisher Phil Sexton.

Keith Ogorek

Author Solutions runs a Writer’s Digest division, Abbott Press.

And Ogorek’s good contributions to the panel were announced prior to the conference by Author Solutions in this press release.

Here’s a bit of the tweeterie I was churning out during the panel on September 27 relative to the sort of comments Ogorek contributed.

Ogorek’s observations were the insightful, experienced comments of an executive from a company that is expanding its approach to self-publishing authors through arrangements with traditional publishers. ASI becomes those companies’ self-publishing arm.

In a quick talk between presentations in Los Angeles, Ogorek made the point to me that criticism of the company frequently is made without an attempt to get a comment from ASI. This is not good practice. It’s why I’ve chosen to link you to ASI’s own statements about its associations with Pearson-Penguin and with Simon & Schuster, and about his appearance at Writer’s Digest West. In those statements, you can read the way ASI, itself, sees and phrases these events.

Today’s central issue, however, coming to us from Ross and the Alliance, does less to call Author Solutions into specific question than it asks a larger question about the UK’s Bloomsbury and other major publishers working with author-services providers.

For this reason, I’m not engaging Ogorek directly on this one, but will be most happy to hear any comment if he feels he’d like to provide one, as I was glad to have input recently from corporate folks involved with BookExpo America and ran that commentary, in full, on the Ether.

Before leaving ASI, I want to show you something else you learn when you look for the company’s press releases in its news section on the site: announcements of legitimate deals, Author-Solutions-originating books chosen by major publishers. Many—but not all—of the titles listed have been picked up by ASI’s new parent, Penguin.

A Naked Singularity by Sergio de la PavaThe most lustrous of those currently listed is Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity.

The author published the book, himself, originally through Author Solutions’ Xlibris.

It was picked up by the University of Chicago Press. And now, it has won the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize.

Another such publishing deal from an Author Solutions start is Brand Damage! It’s Personal! by Larry G. Linne and Patrick Sitkins. That one was picked up by Prentice Hall, a Penguin Random House imprint to be released in January 2014 as “Brand Aid: Take Control of Your Reputation—Before Everyone Else Does.”

There are more. But today, our topic is the peculiar discomfort in which publishers find themselves when they try to get into the self-publishing service-provider gig, themselves.

Book Country Literature Map July 2013 final - literary highlightedAs you might recall, the Pearson-Penguin buy was particularly awkward in some observers’ minds Penguin Global Digital Director Molly Barton and her team were making a big effort at the time to win the respect of authors with their Book Country program. (More about that program, now relaunched, is in my write-up at Publishing Perspectives, Book Country: Now Opening New Territory.)

It appears that the publisher in question this time is Bloomsbury, which has attempted to expand its own author-wooing “services” effort with what it calls a “self-publishing comparison service” as part of its expanding Writers & Artists program for authors.

It’s this effort the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Orna Ross is addressing in the comment that opens today’s Ether.

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ALLi Is Not Amused

We’ve written…before about trade publishers like Penguin and Simon & Schuster showing insufficient care for authors as they trade on their brand-names to sell over-priced and under-performing services to poorly informed aspiring and beginner writers.

Now Bloomsbury is joining in — but in a different way.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, Tools of Change, O'Reilly Media, author platform, blog, blogging, journalism, TOC, #TOCcon, Author (R)evolution Day, #ARDay, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Sam Missingham, Foyles, #FutureFoyles, London Book Fair, #LBF13
Orna Ross

In her piece on the new Bloomsbury/Writers & Artists “comparison site” of self-publishing services, Warning: New Self-Publishing Resource from Writers & Artists , Ross reveals that ALLi actually was working with Bloomsbury/Writers & Artists to help create the comparison functionality—which sounds, on first hearing, like a place to go to check out one service’s offerings vs. another.

Four members of our Watchdog team — Mick Rooney, Ben Galley, Philip Lynch and I — spent a great deal of time and thought working through a pilot trial, to ensure that the ratings provided would be robust and meaningful.

Choosing a Self-Publishing ServiceThe choices of author service providers Bloomsbury was making, however, wasn’t what Ross and her associates felt they should see.

An update: While my understanding originally was that Ross based her ratings of such providers on ALLi’s own guide for self-publishers, Choosing a Self-Publishing Service Guidebook, she tells us in a comment below that the process worked in the opposite direction: the commentary in the book is based on the research done “initially as a response to the request for assistance from Bloomsbury.” You can read her comment here.

Meanwhile, in her statement on the ALLi site about author-service providers listed by Bloomsbury/Writers & Artists, she writes:

…Some of these [service provider] companies received abysmal ratings in our Choosing A Self-Publishing Service Guidebook.

So why are they on the Writers & Artists Website?  Is it that the people at Bloomsbury didn’t know?

The ALLi-Writers & Artists relationship went south, it seems, when, Ross writes, “it became clear that service providers, not authors, were the focus of this endeavour. ”

She writes:

Writers should be aware that:

  • The suppliers on [Bloomsbury/Writers & Artists’] comparison site pay to have the author’s contact details passed onto them as a “lead”.  ALLi asked that this would be made clear to authors using this service.  As far as we can see, this key information does not appear anywhere on the W&A website. 
  • Good services like Silverwood books, Matador, Ingram, Amazon, Kobo, Mill City Press etc. appear beside some companies who are the worst in the business, without any way for an author to differentiate between those who serve writers well, and those who exploit.

Since Ross posted her piece, Writers & Artists has posted one of their own at their site—making our job easier because a comment is being provided.

Writers & Artists @writersartistsIn Our self-publishing comparison service: where we stand (unsigned, in corporate tradition), the people behind the Bloomsbury/Writers & Artists comparison site appear to step forward to lay out the truth of who is paying whom here:

Providers who have elected to receive data are charged a flat fee, ensuring all those featured remain on a level playing field. Should writers wish to do so, their information on which services they are interested in is then passed on to providers. They will then be contacted by providers with further information regarding the services they have indicated within the questionnaire.

Even with Bloomsbury/Writers & Artists now stating clearly—seemingly thanks to Ross’ and ALLi’s public commentary—that providers are paying to attract author interest by being part of the comparison program, the “comparison” term, itself is questionable.

What a “comparison” turns out to be when you work your way through the Bloomsbury/Writers & Artists questionnaire, which you can find here, is a price-quote sent to you by one or more providers you choose from the list.

Bloomsbury/Writers & Artists makes some other interesting offers to authors, these in direct exchange for money, aside from the “comparison service.”

For example, you can buy a “How Strong Is Your Book Idea?” appraisal for  £119.99.

Or a “Beat the Rejection Clinic” for  £199.

Another interesting twist—Bloomsbury/Writers & Artists’ statement following the ALLi post includes this, emphasis mine:

In addition to the comparison service itself, there are also articles from industry experts (from editorial and marketing advice through to warning signs to watch out for in a provider); an ever-evolving glossary of industry terms; an expanding FAQ section; and interviews with self-published authors. These features have all been included with writers in mind. Our goal is not only to help demystify the self-publishing process, but also develop an accessible, impartial service that puts writers in touch with the providers best-suited to moving their novel forwards.

So we have a firm line in the sand. ALLi sees the Bloomsbury/Writers & Artists “comparison site” as being about the providers who pay to be on it, not about authors who might come to find them. And Bloomsbury/Writers & Artists is using the phrase “with writers in mind.”

In short? This is a confusing presentation of something called a “comparison.” In all fairness, we should include this note from Bloomsbury/Writers & Artists, which makes it seem as if Ross’ and ALLi’s concerns may not be a surprise:

We are, of course, expecting lots of feedback from writers using our service, and we’ve already planned how we’re going to put this to good use. Once we’ve received sufficient data from writers, a second ratings section will be introduced in the results table. This will allow authors the opportunity to filter results by both ‘Best Match’ and ‘User Reviews’, further strengthening the transparency of the platform and allowing freelancers to rank alongside established companies established within the industry.

“The transparency of the platform” sounds good to me. What Ross and ALLi are reporting in careful, level-headed language, is that they believe such transparency is not in place and may not, indeed, be an actual goal of the Bloomsbury/Writers & Artists.


The bottom line lies in each writer’s assessment of his or her own needs and resources.

However you feel about Bloomsbury/Writers & Artists or about Ross and ALLi or about one service provider or another, the real question here is about publishers moving into the self-publishing space, some quite aggressively, with offers of what are inevitably presented as highly useful, writer-supportive products.

While many legacy publishers may not like to think about how large the self-publishing movement is (Smashwords alone, has announced that writers have self-published more than 250,000 books on its platform), it appears that making money off self-publishing authors is just fine by the traditional houses.

And that is, at the least, an unattractive reality.

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CONTEC: Do They Have Any Business in Your Business?

I don’t know whether publishers operating in the self-publishing services space will be a specific topic of discussion, the coming CONTEC Frankfurt 2013 Conference’s extended “interactive learning lab” session, “Self-Publishing and Its Implications for the Industry,” will be looking at many such issues on Tuesday, October 8.

CONTEC SelfPub Impact Panel iStock_000013987129XSmall photog MacXeverMore about that panel is here in a piece from Publishing Perspectives on it, Self-Publishing and the Industry: Implications and Impact. Our purposefully large panel for the session includes author Hugh Howey; Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary; Peter Armstrong of Leanpub; Amanda Barbara of Pubslush; Jon Fine of Amazon; Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown; Florian Geuppert of Books on Demand; journalist Matthias Matting; and Michael Tamblyn of Kobo.

Both Jane Friedman, host of the Ether, and I will be on-hand at the CONTEC Conference all day and you’re most welcome to follow the many fine sessions from this day-before program at Frankfurt Book Fair through hashtag #contec13. For the Book Fair, itself, the hashtag is #fbm13.

Have you availed yourself of “author services” offered by a traditional publisher? What was your experience? How do you feel about traditional houses creating these programs to sell to self-publishing authors? 

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Main image:  iStockphoto – Serasker

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