You may recently have seen an announcement, such as this one in the UK's Telegraph, about a group called YouWriteOn that is promising to publish 5,000 writers for free. If you've wondered what the deal is, you aren't alone.
A bit of background first. YouWriteOn is a UK-based writers' community. Similar to Authonomy, which I blogged about a couple of weeks back, YWO allows members to upload stories or book excerpts for reader critiques and ratings. Each month, the top-rated stories receive free critiques and feedback from a number of literary professionals who participate at the site (a list is here). These professionals also select six Book of the Year Award winners, who can be published for free via YouWriteOn's POD self-publishing service.
As a critique community, YWO seems to be helpful to its members. And, as with Authonomy, the chance for feedback from professional agents, editors, and writers is a terrific benefit. It's where YWO ventures into publication that things get a bit sticky.
YWO has backed away from its initial policy of automatically including POD publication in its Book of the Year Award (if a book is good enough to be selected by publishing professionals, putting it out via a self-publishing-style service might not be doing the author any favors). Writers are now offered the "opportunity" for publication, which they presumably can refuse. YWO has expanded its self-publishing endeavors, however, partnering with Legend Press, an independent UK publisher that also provides text-setting and layout services, to provide several print-on-demand packages. These range from fairly inexpensive to pretty pricey. Curiously, YWO's website doesn't seem to have a bookstore, or any other way to view its published books, but according to Amazon UK, it seems to have published just five to date.
YWO's new POD publishing initiative seems to be an effort to ramp up its self-publishing activities. It will publish for free the books of the first 5,000 writers who contact it by October 31, and have their books ready for order by Christmas 2008. Books will sold through the YWO website, and can also be made available at Amazon and other online vendors--though authors who want that option will have to buy an ISBN number for £39.99. Royalties per copy sold will be 60%--"compared," YWO says, "to 12 to 15% royalties that authors usually receive through mainstream publishing."
So why would you not want to take advantage of this offer?
Well, for one thing, you could use Lulu.com's "Published By Lulu" distribution service to set your book up right now--with an ISBN number and online retail availability--at no cost. Not only would you not have to shell out for an ISBN, you'd be working with a proven DIY self-publishing service that has put out tens of thousands of books over the past five years, rather than with a part-time publisher that seems to have produced just five.
For another, YWO will publish your manuscript exactly as you submit it, and you will not have a chance to proof it. This may be fine if you're able to provide YWO with a PDF file of your manuscript, already laid out for print. Otherwise, say YWO's submission instructions (obtained by Writer Beware), "We will publish the manuscript that you send, so be sure you are happy with your grammar, layout, and spelling." As thousands of PublishAmerica authors already know, errors can be introduced in the PDF conversion process. Will YWO check to be sure this hasn't happened? Or will it simply print the books, mistakes and all?
For yet another...that 60% royalty. On the YWO website, it's touted as being ever so much higher than the mingy royalties paid by commercial publishers, and YWO manager Edward Smith makes the same point to the Bookseller: "Print-on-demand allows royalties to be about four times higher than mainstream publishing." Ah, but there's just one little detail missing from this rosy picture: what the 60% is calculated on. If you assumed cover price, guess again. According to YWO's publishing contract (also obtained by Writer Beware), royalties are paid on net, with net defined as "after printing costs." So your royalty will be a lot less than 60% of retail--or even, very possibly, 60% of wholesale. In fact, since the contract doesn't specify how much will be deducted for printing, you actually have no idea what your royalty will be.
And then there’s the promised by-Christmas publication date. 5,000 books is an insane number to crank out in just two or three months, even if all you do is download them, bang them into PDF format, and send them to the printer. Even AuthorHouse--which has a large staff and its own production facilities--doesn't come close to that kind of volume (in August 2008, according to Amazon.com, AuthorHouse's output was 519 books). So can YWO, which appears to be run by a single individual, really deliver? It's hard to see how. Possibly that's why the contract provides an out: "The Author accepts that [Christmas 2008] is an aim and not a guarantee as unpredictable events may affect the timeline." Uh huh.
(The contract--which otherwise isn't bad, taking only print rights on a nonexclusive basis and allowing the author to terminate at any time--has a number of disclaimers of this sort. On correspondence: "...to ensure that we publish all 5,000 Authors...we cannot enter into correspondence whatsoever beyond these instructions." Translation: OMG, 5,000 authors!! No way do we have time to answer questions or deal with problems! On manuscript submission: "The Author accepts that for Work submitted to different computers that text may not appear as it does on their computer and this may be reflected in the published book...This is because of how word processing systems work and we cannot be held responsible." Translation: Our conversion process may introduce errors. Sucks to be you.)
Last but not least, what’s the benefit? What possible advantage could writers derive from this quickie, bare-bones book production service? None, as far as I can see. According to YWO's website announcement, "Our aim is to give the opportunity to new writers to help create success for their books," and in a recent press release, Edward Smith declared that “We now intend to break the traditional mould of publishing itself.” But for all this talk of paradigm-shifting, the contract makes it clear that YWO will do no more than print the books: "There is no agreement on the part of the Publisher however to engage in or fund promotion or marketing expressed or implied by this contract for free publishing." If all you want is no-cost printing, you can get it from a far more established and experienced provider that isn't trying to crank out an unrealistically enormous number of books in an insanely inadequate amount of time. And if your goal is to be published, you won't achieve it here--and you will probably lose your first publication rights into the bargain. In other words, this is a freebie that could cost you.
So what's YWO's angle on all of this? Judging by the number of books its regular self-pub service has so far produced, it isn't exactly lighting up the world of POD self-publishing--so perhaps this is an attempt to make itself appear competitive with larger self-pub companies, and thus attract more clients. (Will it actually get as many as 5,000 manuscripts? Perhaps not, but I bet it gets a bunch.) Or maybe it's a publicity stunt to keep itself in the news. Or maybe it's an effort to make some cash, since authors will undoubtedly want to buy their own books, especially during the Christmas season. YWO will also make money on the ISBNs it sells. ISBNs cost £105.75 for a block of ten, which works out to £10.58 per ISBN. YWO is selling them for £39.99--a profit of just over £29 per book. Not a large amount--but those small numbers add up. (Thanks to Jane Smith for this info.)
In the quest for publication, it is rarely a good idea to act in haste. Rather than rushing to make the deadline, writers who are tempted by YWO's offer of free publishing are well advised to step back, take a deep breath, do some research, and engage in some sober consideration.