Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers and industry news and commentary. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

February 5, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- YouWriteOn...Again

Last September, I blogged about peer critique website YouWriteOn and its ill-advised print-on-demand publishing endeavor. In collaboration with Legend Press, YWO promised to publish a maximum of 5,000 writers for free (or, if they wanted an ISBN number, for £39.99) by Christmas 2008, as long as they submitted their manuscripts by October 31.

Among other criticisms, I questioned how it would be possible to crank out that many books in a mere two or three months, and whether the cramped timeframe would allow for any sort of quality control in the production process. I pointed out that the promised 60% royalty, touted by YWO owner Ted Smith as "four times higher than mainstream publishing," was nothing of the sort, since royalties were paid on net, with net defined as "after printing costs." Last but not least, I questioned the wisdom of sacrificing first publication rights for a quickie, bare-bones book production service all but guaranteed to have substantial logistical problems.

It really doesn't give me any pleasure at all to report that YWO's publishing program has experienced all the problems identified above...and then some.

The YouWriteOn story has been covered in detail by Jane Smith at her blog, HowPublishingReallyWorks, with a series of skeptical posts around the time of the publishing program's inception, and two updates so far this month. In the updates, she discusses the delays experienced by many writers who submitted their books to YWO in expectation of Christmas publication (as yet, fewer than 300 YWO books show up at online booksellers' websites), the deceptiveness of describing the purchase of an ISBN number as a "distribution service," the accusation by some writers that priority was given to those who were willing to buy ISBNs or commit to bulk book purchases, the poor production quality (unprofessional-looking cover templates, unreadable titles, typos in titles and/or author names, inconsistencies between book listings and cover information), the increasingly angry discussion of these and other problems on the YWO message board (there's been some energetic discussion at the Absolute Write Water Cooler also, with several authors indicating that they canceled their contracts because of problems), and the abrupt closure of said message board, which has not yet re-opened, despite promises from Ted Smith.

Does this sound like a successful project? Not for many of the authors, maybe. For YWO, though...Based on the book listings at (288 books, as of this writing) and (268 books, as of this writing), Jane calculates that YWO has received at least £10,900 in income to date just from the sale of ISBN numbers, a figure that's almost certainly higher if there are books still in the pipeline. Obviously, that's not all profit; there's cost associated with buying the ISBNs, as well as with file conversion and setup. But let's not forget the big bonanza: author purchases, which are a major source of sales for most print-on-demand publishing programs. This page of Author News, posted by YWO, confirms that authors are indeed buying their own books.

And some may be buying in very large quantity. According to The Bookseller, Legend Press's Tom Chalmers says that he and YWO hope to have all the remaining books "cleared" by the end of February (the number of titles has been reduced from 5,000 to 1,000), and plan "a second run of the initiative" this spring. Though some of the problems detailed above are mentioned, "Chalmers said the project had largely been a success, with books generating a handful of reviews in the national press and one title selling more than 1,000 copies."

That sounds impressive. But check out this email (quoted at Absolute Write), which was received by YWO authors in January (my bolding):

Dear Writer,

As an addition to previous email with an update on your book's production, and for your information, I just wanted to provide details of the ordering system for once your book is complete. As it stands, for those without the distribution service, it will only be available for purchase by the author from us (info on how to order is sent once your book is available) – although we are currently working with YWO to introduce an automated service allowing orders for all via the site. Details in due course.

Therefore, you have the option of purchasing and selling yourself, if you wish, (one author so far has already bought up to 1,000 to sell using this approach) or alternatively you can sign up to the distribution service through Lightning Source, which will mean your book being available via the online sites of all the major booksellers – Amazon, WHSmith, Waterstone's, Barnes and Noble etc.

So the 1,000 copies cited by Chalmers may in fact have been purchased by the author. Did I say "bonanza?"

A final note: Jane Smith's research has uncovered the fact that since 2005, YWO has received more than £84,000 from the UK Arts Council--including, four months ago, £11,000 for a competition "in association with Random House" that has yet to be announced. According to a disclaimer that appears only on the index page of the YWO website, Arts Council funding covers the critique portion of YWO, with the publishing arm funded by YWO itself. The disclaimer was added to the site as a result of a request from the Arts Council (see comment #5 following this blog post).


Jane Smith said...

Victoria, thank you for the kind words--but really, I did very little here. I found nothing that wasn't easily available, and wonder what else I could discover if I looked a little harder.

Sadly for the writers involved, the YouWriteOn publishing initiative just keeps on providing us with plenty of rich material.

nkkingston said...

The Arts Coucil will be furious if they find they've funded a scam. It's a shame, because with the Olympics their budget has been slashed already, and smaller projects need that money.

Anonymous said...

Once again, we're too quick to use the word SCAM (I'm referring to the previous comment, not the original post!). It looks to me as if the people who run this company just got in over their heads. In the computer age, we imagine that all you have to do is click and the machines do the rest. 5000 books is an absurd number and should have been seen as a warning sign by anyone considering publishing through this company.

But it just goes to show what I said during the University Press comments: DO NOT PAY TO PUBLISH. Too many people are fooled into thinking that having an ISBN number gives a vanity published or POD published book some degree of legitimacy. It does not. Vanity publishing is vanity publishing, no matter how you try to sweeten the package.

My impression is that these guys are just not professional enough. Like many people, they've got the impression that running a business like this is easy. It's like when you see a packed restaurant and think that the owner must be making a fortune, but you don't know all the expenses he has. As we've seen recently, banks have billions of dollars and still manage to make a loss!

Too often we hear people saying that they paid for copyright and ISBN numbers. How much does it cost to obtain the ISBN number by yourself?

Anonymous said...

It costs a lot more than 39.99!

But I am sure someone will shoot me down on that figure...

I agree. YWO isn't a scam, it was just very badly run. Eventually all the books will be published, all the mistakes corrected, it will just take much longer than it should because Ted is just in way over his head.

The problem with YWO is the Forum Shout! A number of vocal people decided, up front before when it all started way back in October, that this was a scam. These people made passionate forum posts, the snowball gathered steam, it rolled and it rolled...

All of a sudden, nothing else mattered. The Forum Shout ruled over all!

I've seen some lovely posts, from people who say if you want to be a "real" writer, you need to go the traditional route. How patronising is that? To assume that someone is not a writer simply because they haven't had a book published!

To me, a writer is someone that writes. Not just published and not just people who seem to have so much time they spend every waking moment creating blogs and posting on various forums telling anyone who took part in YWO that they are stupid and that they are part of a vanity publishing scam.

Odd really that a lot of these people don't care! They have their book, they get out there and sell it. I guess the only difference between them and "real" writers is that their books won't end up in heaps of remaindered copies in Hay-on-wye selling for 50p a go!

Roger's Access Blog said...

@ Anonymous (1)

While YWO may have started off with the best of intentions and just gotten in over its head, one must look at the subsequent actions of its principle.

An honest person, when he's discovered he's gotten in over his head, will admit such and try to make it right.

YWO shows no sign of doing that. They continue to call it a success, continue to accept new projects, continue to defend its process, even while closing its forums, effectively quelling discussion by its authors.

Is it a scam? Depends on your definition.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed over the past few weeks that the community is being divided into two camps: the traditional publishing people who think that the traditional way is the only way to go, and the people who haven't managed to get published yet and are criticizing the traditional way, saying that the whole querying business and finding an agent is on the way out or just dumb to begin with.

Yes, I agree that a writer is 'anyone who writes', no doubt about it. But we don't want to be just writers, we want to be PUBLISHED writers. I've been saying for a while now that you can take any alternative route you like: POD, e-books, vanity publishing, self publishing... but to the public at large it is not a real book. You can't get these books in bookshops, real shops on the high street. And that is still where most books are sold. You can make pods and give them to anyone you like, but it will never bring the same satisfaction as knowing that someone, somewhere right this minute is buying or reading your book without you having to cajole them into it. It must be great too to have a publisher who will market your book, instead of you yourself having to stick up home made posters and shove your book down people's throats, knowing that even if you manage to get them to buy it they probably won't read it! That's what the argument is about. Vanity publishing is for the enjoyment of the author; real publishing is for the enjoyment of the reader.

Word ver: flumfull

Jane Smith said...

"It costs a lot more than 39.99!

"But I am sure someone will shoot me down on that figure..."

Here I am, rifle in hand.

You can buy a block of ten ISBNs for about £107, so yes, if you only want one it is more expensive than £39.99: but if there are ten of you, you can join together and share one block.

YouWriteOn, however, are likely to have paid far less than that per ISBN, as if you buy a block of 100 the cost is £202; and for 1,000, the cost is £522.

Here's a link about it all:

And Roger, I agree with you: the only decent thing for Ted Smith to do now is to step forward, admit he made a mistake, and take steps to sort everything out properly, once and for all.

Victoria Strauss said...

There is no indication that YWO's publishing program is a scam. Spectacularly ill-advised? Horribly executed? Of more benefit to the publisher than to the writer? Yes. But a scam? No. There's no evidence of that whatever.

"Scam" is not a word that should be carelessly applied--but that seems more and more to be the case in these comment strings.

BuffySquirrel said...

I guess the only difference between them and "real" writers is that their books won't end up in heaps of remaindered copies in Hay-on-wye selling for 50p a go!

That's true--but not for the reason you think.

Sally Zigmond said...

Why do people (ie Anonymous 8.09) think that people like me who look askance at vanity-publishing are a) patronising and b) old-fashioned and stick-in-the-muds?

The reason I object to vanity publishing is that it doesn't care one hoot for their authors--despite what such publishers tell them--in fact they takes their manuscript and their money, do very little if nothing after that and that's it.

Traditional publishers make their money from selling books to book-shops and through them to the book-buying public. They employ professional designers for the covers. They have fully tried and tested distribution services in operation that gets books into bookshops quickly and efficiently.(How do I know? Because I've worked in bookshops over the years.) They edit and they copy-edit. They provide publicity, they set up book-signings and send out publicity material and ARCs to the media.

Not only do they not charge their authors anything for all this, they actually pay them. Advances may not be mega-bucks for most authors but it's still money to the author.

Also, if you put a traditionally published book next to a vanity-published one you can see which is the better 'product' even before you start reading it. And, on the whole, the standard of writing in a vanity-published book is not as good as a in a traditionally published book because quality control is not part of the process.

Traditional publishers don't pretend to give writers 'what they deserve' but what can make them--and at the same time, the author--money. But traditional publishers--even the very biggest--take chances on unknown names every day.

And I know for a fact that a certain big book chain in the UK will have nothing to do with books published by vanity presses. On its database, certain books have symbols after the title to tell shop staff not to order even single copies. This isn't snobbery, by the way; it's because vanity publishes do not offer a sale or return system.

I am on the side of all writers. I want them to work hard and aim for the best and get the best and believe they deserve NOT taken for fools. If a writer wants to self-publish, then have no problem with that. But that is not the same as going with a publishing venture like YWO.

Anna said...

I joined YouWriteOn a while ago now and it was one of my best decisions.

It provided me with vital feedback and took me on a steep learning curve. I could not have enjoyed writing so much as I do now without Ted Smith setting up YouWriteOn.

He is, in effect, running a small but growing business. Even charities need funds and I do not think we should begrudge YouWriteOn any funds it can find to encourage struggling writers. I am grateful to the Arts Council for assisting with funding prospective successful writers.

I did not put my 'book' forward for the pod initiative. I had, however, planned to buy some books from writers I admire and it has been disappointing for the books not to be ready yet. That's all - disappointing.

I suspect the work load overwhelmed the staff.

I don't think we should turn, like pack dogs, on an overworked comrade to whom we (well certainly I and many others) owe a lot.

Anonymous said...

I'm puzzled by one thing. If Youwriteon issues an I.S.B.N for 40 quid, do they also supply the six copies for the various libraries of record or does the author pay for that? I was under the impression that the publisher (owner of the imprint) had that responsibility.
If so, surely 40 quid for an ISBN plus copies in the legal depositories is quite a good deal. I don't see how youwriteon can break even on that.

Jane Smith said...

Anon, you're right that it's a publisher's legal duty to provide the Legal Deposit office with 1-6 copies (depending on the LDO's requirements) of every book that it publishes: but the last time I checked, the Legal Deposit office told me that YouWriteOn had not supplied any copies, despite the deadline for such provision having passed on many of the books it had already published.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Jane, am I being dim or is Yorwriteon breaking the law by not supplying
1) a copy of each book published within a month to the British library
2) 5 more copies for the Libraries of Deposit on request within a year from publication?
What implications, I wonder, does that have for Youwriteon's business model? That could be a nasty little liability building up. If youwriteon collapses before fulfilling this obligation, what implication, if any, is there for the author's copyright and intellectual property?
Of course, it may be- for all I know- that the libraries of deposit don't actually want to be bothered with dreck. Still, it might be something to highlight for authors who believe they are actually being properly published for the small outlay of 40 quid.
Of course, it may be, youwriteon has budgeted for all this- it may be they have a special deal with Lightning source for short runs of 6 or 7 copies at a low price.
Still, it's kind of worrying.

Simon Kewin said...

I'm one of the 5000 that has been let down by YouWriteOn/Legend Publishing, about which I've written quite a few times over on my blog. But I'm past anger now and have reached amusement and indifference about the whole thing

For me, though, the big problem has not been YouWriteOn biting off more than they can chew. I'm all for shooting for the stars. It's been their inability to communicate effectively with the writers. Form emails and garbled "we'll get back to yous" was all I had from them for months. I wouldn't have minded quite so much if they'd kept me in touch with what was happening. Instead there's just been a wall of silence.

But I'm in two minds as to whether to try again when they next do this publishing deal. Am I mad?

Anonymous said...

I previously published with youwriteon. firstly, it is dificult to get through to them-you have to send untold emails. I also got in touch with other writers who were having lots of problems with them. I wish I'd listened. To be honest, I'd recommend writers take the traditional route, even though it may take more time. Youwriteon is way too stressul! I wish I could recommend youwriteon but my conscience will not let me.


I am now looking for an agent,

Anonymous said...

One winner of crit didn't want the prize? So asked it could go to another (and actualy named the author and the story of the person they would like it to instead?) I voiced my opinion and got banned!

DWM said...

I agree with Anna;

and do I smell a whiff of sour grapes in these post? This is not meant to be inflammatory; but really!
I somehow get the impression that Literary Agents and Publishers are beginning to notice the writing on the wall with regard to Digital publishing.
The good old roundabout of "Sorry, I don't represent Unpublished authors... Sorry we don't represent Unagented authors" seems to have been dented by initiatives floated by the likes of YouWriteOn and Legend Press.

I have succeeded in getting the three books of a 400,000 word Fantasy Trilogy published and distributed onto Amazon etc, under the free publishing initiatives of YWO, and Legend press under their imprint New Generation Publishing. (The first, by YWO; the subsequent two by New Generation Publishing.)
The product quality from Lightning source is as good as... if not better than the avarage trade paperback.

I can only speak as I find. These two targetted sacrificial lambs may not be as slick as the Corporate traditional publishers; but they most certainly are not "scams" or "Vanity publishers"... (unless you know where you can get three books printed and widely distributed for under £160.)

With regard to the Returns (Sale or return) system... Print on Demand does exactly what it says on the box. Amazon, for example gathers the orders for a book and then orders from the printer. The Digital machinery can produce a book complete with cover in minutes. They dial in the information and quantity and press the "Go" button. So there are virtually no overheads, save the setting up of the original digital file. Consequently the royalties ARE considerably higher than the traditional route, and there are no unsold copies to be pulped or more usually, dumped into landfill sites.
(Something like 52,000 individual titles were pulped in 2009, in the UK alone.)

So, I think the moral of the tale is "If you ain't tried it... Don't knock it."

Victoria Strauss said...

DWM, there are several other free self-publishing programs--Lulu and CreateSpace, for instance--that also make books available on Amazon and other online booksellers. (It's very easy, by the way, to make a book available on Amazon; anyone can do it). So the service Legend Press is providing is far from unique--in fact, such services have been available for 10 years or more. They are highly profitable for the people who run them--but not for most authors. The typical book from such services sells fewer than 200 copies.

As for royalties--the percentages paid by self-pub companies (if they pay royalties at all--CreateSpace and Lulu let you set the price and control your profit, and in return, take a 20-25% cut) are often higher than those paid by commercial publishers, but the amount of actual money you receive will be similar, or, possibly, less. Commercial publishers base their royalty percentages on a book's list price, while self-pub services pay on net (list price less wholesalers' discounts--50-55% in some cases). So even if the self-pub service's percentage is higher, it's calculated on a smaller amount, yielding a smaller amount of money. In YWO's case, net was further reduced by the deduction of printing costs.

Anonymous said...

Victoria, I wondered if I might gatecrash your blog to warn readers away from another of YWO’s services, namely their ‘professional critique’ service?

Details of the service are here:

I commissioned an editorial report on a manuscript of mine via YouWriteOn. I am a pubished author (three novels to date, one further forthcoming this year), and the report I commissioned was on a book I finished in Oct 2008 which my editor wasn't keen on so we shelved it, but which my agent liked and thought might be worth reworking. Information on the YWO website indicated that I should expect approximately 10 pages of report (given the length of my manuscript) on a usual timescale of 4-8 weeks. I requested the critique in Oct 2008 (16 months ago now) and have been chasing pretty constantly ever since, but have so far have had only just over three double-spaced pages of critique specific to my manuscript (1,450 words).

The timescale so far:

- October 2008 I originally requested the critique, by e-mail to YWO.
- January 2009 (after badgering constantly to find out details of cost, where to send the m/s, etc.) I sent YWO my fee (£400 sterling) and the manuscript.
- August 2009 I received the editor's report (again, following regular badgering). It was good and helpful as far as it went but contained only 1450 words on my manuscript, and not touching at all on one of the three story strands (the one that my editor and agent had been most worried about). There was a spontaneous offer to answer follow-up questions (from both the editor and YWO), on grounds of the long wait (though there was no mention of the shortness of the report). I sent a letter with questions to YWO the same day.
- Early December 2009. After pursuing YWO and demanding my money back unless I got a further report, and being constantly told they couldn't get any reply from the editor, I finally obtained the editor's e-mail from them. I contacted her and she claimed she'd never received my follow-up questions, not heard anything from YWO. Also, she'd need the manuscript again because now she couldn't remember it. I re-sent the manuscript and my questions.
- It is now more than 11 weeks since I re-sent the manuscript and questions, and the editor tells me (yesterday, when I chased her) that it will be another two weeks before she gets on to any of her backlog of critiquing.

YWO had my cheque for over 13 months now. And all I have had is a very short and incomplete report, far short of the promised length.

On the basis of my experience I would certainly advise readers not to use YWP for a critique of their manuscript

Anonymous said...

I know this comment follows at a long interval after the previous ones but I just came across a novel published by YWO, the first time I'd come across them. I can honestly say that I've never read any book with as many typos, spelling and grammar errors in my life! The first chapter was evidently copy edited to some extent and thereafter the quality is shocking: there are glaring horrors on almost every page.

brian humphreys said...

Brian Humphreys said: Having just published with YOUWRITEON, I encountered no problems at all. They delivered what they said, and my book is available worldwide on-line including Amazon Books, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, and is on the shelves locally. I designed my own cover and the end product (copy-edited privately)is good. Satisfied author.

Seamus Glas said...

Good for you did you do with the reviewers from YWO,, how did they do. happy with their feedback; did you think they were impartial-unbiased-helpful maybe even sufficiently knowledgeable and you just swallowed all they said, no doubt. Great, you are one happy camper. How about that rating system of theirs, where one good review gets you 2 stars one time and the next the same good review somehow gets you one star, and even though you read other stuff and though you may enjoy them, somehow they get to be a golden boy with his type of set up, and you fail, though you write just as skillfully. None of those instances where you had doubt how he operates even. then. Or what about those moments when you're being judge on your particular genre, let alone your talent for writing in it. All good there; then you are one big satisfied customer. Good luck with that.

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