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 Amazon.com (288 books, as of this writing) and Barnesandnoble.com (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):
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).