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AuthorSolutions Is Not Evil: 3 Things I Learned

Categories: Digitization & New Technology, Getting Published, Industry News & Trends, Marketing & Self-Promotion, Self-Publishing.

Yesterday I visited the home office of AuthorSolutions in
Bloomington, Ind.—a fairly quick drive from Writer’s Digest home
offices in Cincinnati.

For those who don’t know,
AuthorSolutions dominates the publishing service market with a variety
of brands—including AuthorHouse, Xlibris, iUniverse, and Trafford.

Before
I say a word about this visit, I have to speak to all the people who
are already thinking: “I knew it! Writer’s Digest is in bed with
AuthorSolutions! Writer’s Digest exists only to pocket as many scam
advertising dollars as possible!”

Two points:

1) Such
critics exhibit their pure ignorance at the balance sheet of Writer’s
Digest. We are not an advertising-driven business and never have been,
even during the good ol’ days of advertising. If 100% of our
advertising went away tomorrow, we’d continue to exist much as before
(though admittedly with a modified print magazine presence).

2)
I visited AuthorSolutions in a previous incarnation known as 1stBooks
in 2002; they were a very small operation then. F+W, the parent company
of Writer’s Digest, was many times bigger and profitably growing. Today, AuthorSolutions is bigger than F+W, and experienced 40% growth in the last year.

AuthorSolutions
& Writer’s Digest have one very important thing in common: we
target an audience of writers. So even on the most basic curiosity
level, wouldn’t any responsible leader want to know more about a company experiencing such dramatic
growth in a period of transformational change (and decline) in
traditional publishing?

Plus wouldn’t it make sense to share information and compare notes on the issues we both face?

Ever
since the Harlequin brouhaha (read my take here), AuthorSolutions has
been particularly demonized by online writing personalities/communities, and the
industry is now experiencing a “true self-publishing” movement that
argues a “real” self-published author is one who eschews the use of services like AuthorSolutions.

I find the distinction
to be nonsensical and elitist. It’s like saying you should never hire
an expert or contractor to do your taxes, fix your car, or repair your
plumbing.

On the other hand, I understand why people question
the value of the service AuthorSolutions provides. If the traditional
publishing and media industry are prejudiced against self-published
books and authors, and don’t take their efforts seriously, then there’s a valid argument to be made that writers shouldn’t be disingenuously sold on the option.

However, many people who
self-publish aren’t interested in book sales or something that would
impress an agent or editor. They simply want to have a book, leave a
legacy, or spread a message.

Plus, agents & editors all preach how
difficult it is to get published, and the need for a writer to have
a commercial sensibility—an ability to bend. We all admit in the first
few seconds of conversation that making money is our primary concern,
and that most projects aren’t suitable for traditional publication.

So AuthorSolutions
fills a need in the market. They’d probably be more favorably looked
upon in the industry if everyone believed they were transparent, straight, and honest
in managing their authors’ expectations and communicating what is and is not
achievable through self-publishing.

What’s heartening is that
during my visit, we joked about how they’re frequently asked by their
authors how to get on Oprah—and that they consistently have to initiate a
(re)education process about what’s doable and realistic given an author’s situation and her book. They know the frustrations of dealing with authors just like traditional publishers.

So
I believe they are educating—but of course you can’t expect them to
preach against the very service they are offering, or they’d go out of business. (And I think that’s where the problem lies for the most vocal critics of AuthorSolutions.)

That aside, here are 3 things that stood out about their business during my visit.

1.
Very focused on the needs of the market/audience.
That’s all
AuthorSolutions talks about: what their authors want. It drives their
business, their growth, what they hang on the walls—which makes sense,
because it’s the authors who are writing their checks.

I wish
traditional publishers could be that focused on author needs as well. Instead,
they have to focus on distributor and retail account relationships
(which generate the cash), and how to reduce costs associated with
producing and marketing books (and that means reducing advances).

Think
about this for a second: Most traditional publishers (at least those
owned and run by mega-conglomerates) do not run a business that’s
inclined to favor the author any more than a publishing service. The traditional industry favors selling and distributing books
to a very large bookstore audience as efficiently as possible (and
hoping for wins that eventually benefit the author through royalties). That’s where their value lies today, but that value
diminishes as books move into the frictionless digital realm.

2.
You can’t please everyone all the time.
Publishing services are often
criticized for putting out books that aren’t top quality. But their
goal isn’t to serve an outsider’s view of quality. They know some
manuscripts and covers aren’t good by traditional publishing standards.
And they do advise writers not to make those embarrassing mistakes—like use their family member’s artwork on the cover. However, writers
are paying for the service, and they get to decide what they want.
AuthorSolutions has a business model that’s based on making authors
happy—not the critics.

3. Know where to devote your resources
for best return.
AuthorSolutions devotes a lot of resource to staff who
can talk to writers at any time of day, whether they are already a
customer or not. In this, they’ve figured out a No. 1 desire of every
writer I know: to talk to someone who can help them figure out what to
do.

Of course, AuthorSolutions is by all appearances a
sales-oriented culture, and biased in favor of what sustains their
business. Their solutions may or may not be in the author’s best
interest.

Who today can offer unbiased but also professional advice to writers? A quick survey of options:

  • People in the industry. You think publishers, editors, and agents are
    taking calls and manuscripts from writers wanting advice and
    assistance? No one has time for that.
  • Experienced
    writers/authors. Some writers find help from other writers, but
    many don’t—or even receive bad advice. But it’s better to have some
    kind of mentor rather than none.
  • Writing organizations. They’ve
    traditionally been a great resource, but they have their own agendas
    and biases, which I won’t go into here.

In my mind, the people
who are angry and indignant about publishing services should be working
to provide free or inexpensive consultations to the hundreds of
thousands of writers who wonder how to get their work in print—that is,
if those people feel that writers can’t readily determine, after
researching all options, what their best path forward is.

Of
course at Writer’s Digest we try to help as best we can. We don’t have
a 24-hour hot line (though I’ve certainly thought about it!), but we
answer as many questions as possible through other means—e-mail, blogs,
Facebook, Twitter, community forums, etc. And we sustain our business
by charging writers for the most valuable information/interactions on
how to write better and get published. We’re capitalists, too—and
demonized similar to AuthorSolutions for profiting off the dreams of
writers.

Final note
AuthorSolutions is of course concerned
about the controversy stirred by their partnerships with Harlequin and
Thomas Nelson. They reached out to the writing organizations to have a
conversation and find common ground. But so far no one has agreed to
meet with them.

I believe writing
organizations will be forced to adapt more progressive attitudes long
before companies like AuthorSolutions fade. It’s confounding to me
these organizations would turn down an opportunity to relationship
build and have a discussion, even if it’s to agree to disagree.

But then—I feel like I know the
culture of AuthorSolutions better than these organizations.
AuthorSolutions does work for authors—and they try to spread good news
through their own successful authors, but maybe there’s more work for
them to do.

If more people could see AuthorSolutions’ ideas
about publishing’s future, I think there’d be a lot less criticism and
a lot more idea sharing. If the authentic personalities inside the
company could be seen by the public, we’d all have to finally admit:
these people are not evil.

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12 Responses to AuthorSolutions Is Not Evil: 3 Things I Learned

  1. @Les – Thanks so much for taking the time to thoughtfully comment. I definitely share your concern about authors who aren’t properly educated. It’s a difficult issue these service companies face, because the realities of business will push them to accept people’s money even if they know disappointment lies ahead for those authors. An ethical dilemma to be sure.

    In my mind, it opens the door for a new type of author services company that has strict standards in place, and only agrees to work within a particular framework.

    Maybe I need to start that company! ;D

  2. As the chairman of the board of a writer’s organization, I have mixed feelings about self publishing. Some of our authors have done it successfully – they went into it with their eyes open; they got their books well edited; they invested in good covers; and they had a well researched marketing plan. Self publishing can be done well – for some it might be their best choice.

    As an organization, we have opened our contests to self published books – and some have won awards…. but we also see way too many dubious quality books and we hear horror stories.

    Unfortunately, too many authors come to us with questions AFTER publishing. "My book is arriving next week (5000 copies)- now what do I do?" "How do I market this book? (and the cover is awful and it appears to have had no professional editing?" "Can you help me get this into the book stores?"

    We feel helpless and angry at the companies that encourage them to spend the money with unrealistic expectations. They hide behind the statement that they are trying to make their clients happy – well, if they were trying to make clients happy two years after the sale, in many cases they would refuse to publish it with that cover and without editing….and until they do, the ‘self-publishing’ brand will continue to be a negative one.

    Your article suggested that they would like to talk to writer’s organizations. I wonder if that would be valuable.

  3. To be clear, this is not an advertorial. ASI did not ask me to visit, pay me to visit, or ask me to write about them.

  4. Mike says:

    Unsubscribing from this blog now. Advertorial is boring.

  5. @Todd – All points well taken, and if I were self-publishing, I’d do exactly as you suggest. But I have a lot of knowledge about the industry and how to do these things. Less knowledgeable people are willing to pay, and AuthorSolutions wouldn’t be in business if their prices were out of line with how the market values their service.

    @Bill – Really appreciate you reading & commenting! I love your idea. I’m putting it on my list of projects to investigate! :-)

  6. Okay, Jane, your post gave me an idea for WD. Perhaps you could corral a number of Writer’s Digest writers, who would be happy for the extra exposure, to staff an NPR-like volunteer call-in line once a quarter that wannabe writers could call in to ask their writing/publishing questions. The calls could be recorded and the best of them transcribed and edited and put on the website or in the magazine. Or perhaps even excerpts of the audios put on the website.

    Just a suggestion and I am only a hypnotist.

    Bill

    P.S. By the way, I’m completing my 30th book this weekend (it’s due on Monday, to be published by W.W. Norton later this year). Woo-hoo!

  7. The problem I have with Author Solutions is their printing and distribution is outsourced. They are a reseller of LightningSource.com. They mark up the print price 100% or more and only pay the author a 20% royalty on sales through LightningSource.com that they had nothing to do with. A self-publishing author can set up their own LightningSource.com account for $75 on time fee and buy their books at actual cost and keep 100% of the income generated by their book.

    A true self-publishing service provider will charge reasonable fees for editing, design, marketing, and publicity. The author should be provided with the application files used to create their press-ready files without additional fees. The should be educated about their printing and distribution options.

    If an author is being paid a "20% royalty" from a "self-publishing company", they are being ripped off.

  8. @Livia – Appreciate you taking time to comment!

    @Theresa – Konrath is a phenomenal teacher and mentor for new writers. Thanks so much for recommending his blog. It’s a must-read. … You definitely are right about his path not being typical. Many authors who successfully self-publish already have an established following, which is why it’s important for people to ask QUESTIONS & find out specifics of everyone’s success story. It’s never magic or luck.

    @Michael – You’ve hit the nail on the head. I feel like I wrote the whole post just for that last paragraph! :)

    @Tony – Very much appreciate your view & contribution. Couldn’t agree more. There’s a great article in the Guardian speaking to your point about variety: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/mar/08/best-and-worst-of-times-publishing

  9. Great post, Jane. I think that often the negative attitude toward companies like Author Solutions stem from either:

    1. A bad experiences with the company.
    2. The fact that they are an alternative from what they are using or what they want to use.

    When you look at the full spectrum of publishing paths, the variety is truly a win for the authors. There are so many variables that go into choosing a publishing path, including an author’s purposes for publishing, that no one can truly extol one over the other unilaterally.

    I would say that even though Author Solutions may have a great vision for the publishing future, authors still need to remember that they are but one path. That path may or may not be the best for them. The author needs to perform due diligence when choosing a publishing path and understand what they will be giving up when they choose a path for them.

  10. In your closing, you have suggested an excellent marketing strategy for them. They need to do what Intel did when they pulled back the curtain, got rid of the Solid Gold dancers in hazmat suits, and used their real, brilliant, geeky, charming employees. It put an emotional/likable face on a formerly faceless behemoth.

  11. There’s a place for self-publishing, but I don’t think it’s the place for me. I follow a blog whose author has been successful in the self-publishing/e-book business. He’s written a string of posts about his success. Here’s the most recent one if you want to take a look:
    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2010/03/whoa-there-ebook-writer.html
    But his path isn’t typical – he had a measure of success and a following before self-publishing.

  12. Livia says:

    Thanks for offering an alternative perspective, Jane.

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