Saturday, September 27, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- 5,000 Writers

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.

21 comments:

A member of planet Earth said...

Interesting

Jane Smith said...

Victoria, I've now been told that by bulk buying you can get ISBNs for £517 per thousand, roughly 52p (or $1) each, which brings the return up even more for YWO.

You're right about people signing up for this already: yesterday I read a post on a UK writers' website in which someone announced that their book had been accepted for publicatin by YWO under this scheme. Much congratulations followed, along with comments from the original poster that this was a dream come true for him. It was heartbreaking. And there was nothing I could do.

JP Fife said...

I signed up for this as a bit of solidarity after they took a stance against the Amazon furore a few months ago, with all that fuss about booksurge and POD publishers having to go through Amazon, blah blah.

On the site itself I found the links to the ‘services’ offered by Legend Press (They’ve also got a paid for critique service which I think is just as bad).

Anywhoo I wrote to the Arts Council in England via email to ask them why they are giving funding to what is effectively vanity publishing. This was back in July, and I got the following reference numbers [ME-080729-607288] and [ME-080716-186343]. I never got any response or even acknowledgement from the Arts Council in England (I’m in Scotland but that shouldn’t have precluded them from responding) and I can only assume that they must support the idea of giving funding to vanity publishers.

Sandra Patterson said...

Some interesting points, Victoria. It will be interesting to see how things pan out.

December/Stacia said...

Translation: Our conversion process may introduce errors. Sucks to be you.

*spittake*

Excellent post, thanks for it. So often I see people suggest to writers that they self-publish, because they "won't lose anything" by doing it. Like first printing rights are nothing. Sigh.

Victoria Strauss said...

Jane Smith takes a more detailed look at the first rights issue at her excellent How Publishing Really Works blog.

Victoria Strauss said...

An area of confusion about YouWriteOn, which prominently mentions its Arts Council funding in its press releases and on its website, is exactly what the Arts Council's role in the site is. Some writers seem to believe that the site is run, rather than just funded, by the Arts Council--a notion that's furthered by this recent interview with Edward Smith of YWO, in which he states that "YouWriteOn.com was started by the Arts Council in 2006."

However, I contacted the Arts Council myself last May to ask about YWO's funding, and received this reply: "YouWriteon is not regularly funded by the Arts Council England, however they have applied for two one off grants from us." So YWO has gotten grants from the Arts Council, but they don't sponsor it on an ongoing basis, and YWO certainly was not started by them.

Jane Smith said...

Victoria, thanks for that plug to my blog--my post is far inferior to yours, though.

I like that interview. So, Mr Smith claimed that the Arts Council started YWO? That's more than a little misleading, in my opinion. You find the best things, you know.

Jane Smith said...

There are other issues going on at YWO too, apart from this particular one.

I find it very disturbing that the message board administrators seem to make a habit of infringing the copyright of all sorts of different publications and writers--if you check out the board, many of the posts there apparently consist of entire articles which have been copied across without any real permissions, licenses or attribution. I know that they've been taken to task about this: Ted Smith, the man behind YWO, has been admonished by a certain Victoria Strauss for large-scale cut-and-paste copying over at Absolute Write, where such things are taken very seriously.

In my view, that shows a distinct lack of respect for writers and their work, which is kind of at odds with the remit of a writers' board.

In addition, I've been told that member(s) have been banned from the place for objecting to how the scoring system works out the rankings upon which the crits are awarded. You can read the thread where it all blows up here:

http://www.youwriteon.com/forum/Deviation-Topic-8528-1.aspx

I'd urge everyone who is concerned about this to contact the Arts Council (writing's better, I should think, than a phone call)and explain their concerns. I know I'm going to.

Mike French said...

Re the Arts Council: I've spoken to the Arts Council recently in connection for funding for my literay magazine, The View From Here. This is what they say re funding:

"They only fund projects for a specified time period and do not just keep funding year after year the same project."

So YWO funding will come to an end at some point, and they will have to reapply for funds for a diferrent project under the YWO banner.

Plus the Arts Council liked my "No Self-publishing adverts" stance on the magazine and say - get this, bearing in mind this article:

"They see self-publishing as the same as vanity publishing"

Be interesting to see what happens with YWO and the Arts Council over the next year.

Jane Smith said...

Mike, did the AC make that comment to you in private correspondence, or does it appear on their website?

It's worth noting that the AC probably isn't aware of all of this kerfuffle about the latest YWO project, nor that YWO has offered a vanity publishing package for some time now. If people want the AC to know, they have to write and tell them.

Mike French said...

It was over the phone Jane

Jane Smith said...

Victoria, I've seen the contract too and think I might have spotted a problem with it. I've emailed you the details and I'd be interested in your viewpoint on this: I'll not say more here until I've heard from you because you're better with contracts than I am, but if I'm right then this will have a big impact on everyone who has chosen to use this offer to publish their books.

denni-schnapp said...

I remember YWO advertising that it is backed by the Arts Council and thinking what a good initiative that was.

I wonder how many writers have been suckered into trusting that company because of those ads.

LW said...

Thanks for posting this, very interesting indeed.

Bianca Raven said...

Very interesting indeed. I need to bookmark this and show a friend of mine at once. Thank you

Jane Smith said...

There's no wholesaler organised for these books, of course, as these are POD books, nor is there any distribution scheme in place.

And as I thought, the contract doesn't allow for any author discounts on copies that the authors buy for themselves. Nor will they receive payment on those copies. So the writers will have to pay full RRP on copies that they buy for themselves.

So how will any of these books get into bookshops without the writers making a financial loss?

Victoria Strauss said...

Independent of any other concerns, the lack of a wholesaler would make YWO's service less desirable than just about any other POD self-publication option out there, in my opinion.

Jane Smith said...

Victoria, Ted Smith has indicated on the YWO message board that he is not going to use a wholesaler or distributor for the books at this time. Which means that the writers will be pretty much on their own when it comes to selling their books.

I heard that the first are due out on December 9th. Ted Smith has asserted that due to a good takeup on the offer he's now going to be able to offer author discounts, and the amounts will be negotiated once all the books are published.

I can just see it. "Buy 50 copies and you can take advantage of our special promotional rates in time for Christmas. But hurry--this is a strictly time-limited offer!"

Veronica said...

I subscribed to this offer, paid 40 pounds for an ISBN, told my friends my book would be published by Christmas and thought it would be fun to flog a few copies in the local bookshop run by my friend.
Today the YouWriteOn website sent out a message saying that they are not publishing any more books. They said the ones they didn't publish had defective cover images - although I did not actually send any cover art because their contract said they would do it.
Adding insult to injury, they said the many writers they have published have had huge success placing their publications in bookstores, but they have made no mention of the titles or authors of any of them. Weird, eh? They also made no offer to refund the money I have paid, and simply said they are going to start programming software to allow anyone who wants to, to upload their book to POD server via an online interface.
So, yes, you were all correct, it was a scam and they should be avoided like the plague.

Veronica said...

I have just looked at Ed Smith's "large number" of writers who have been published in the "publish 5000 writers for free" offer by searching for all books available on Amazon.com published by YouWriteOn, i.e. all those who chose to buy an ISBN along with the offer. The grand total was sixteen.