Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Author Solutions CEO Wants to Talk to Writers' "Guilds"

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In a video posted to YouTube on Friday, and in an accompanying press release, the CEO of Author Solutions, Kevin Weiss, invited the Romance Writers of America, the Mystery Writers of America, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (which he incorrectly dubbed the "Science Fiction Writers' Association"--though I can't fault him for this, as PW regularly gets it wrong as well) to sit down with him and other AS representatives to discuss the recent debate over AS's "partnerships" with Harlequin and Thomas Nelson. (Weiss didn't mention another professional writers' group, NINC, which issued a strongly-worded statement in response to the debate.)

(To recap, if you have been living in a cave for the past six months: This fall, Harlequin and Nelson--both major commercial publishers--launched "self-publishing" divisions, whereby aspiring authors could pay a fee and have their books formatted, printed, and distributed online. Both divisions were run by AS. A storm of public criticism ensued, prompting RWA, MWA, and SFWA to issue public statements and to de-list Harlequin, Nelson, or both.)

From the press release:

"I'm inviting the three writers guilds who've expressed the greatest objections with the partnerships we've established with traditional publishing to sit down with us and discuss how we can improve the opportunity for their writers and the choice for readers," Weiss said in the statement. 

In response to ASI's announcements of partnerships with traditional publishers, the three writer's guilds led a campaign to discredit the publishers involved in creating these groundbreaking opportunities, even going so far as to de-list one as a qualified publisher. Weiss believes the guilds may not fully understand the role self-publishing can play in expanding options for writers and consumers while at the same time providing benefits to traditional publishers who are in the midst of tremendous upheaval. 

"Not only do I want to discuss the differences they have with our business, as well as the partnership models that we're engaging with traditional publishing, but I also want to discuss the things that we are doing and plan to do to advance the cause of their members on a daily basis," Weiss said. 

In the video, Weiss claims that "choice is under attack," citing concerns that cheap ebooks and book retailers' price wars will undercut publishers' revenues, resulting in fewer chances for new authors and fewer choices for readers. The implication is that AS addresses that problem by making publishing services available to all (though I would find this more convincing if so many of AS's services weren't predatory and overpriced--there's a good analysis at Shiloh Walker's blog--and if, by Mr. Weiss's own admission, the average sales for an AS title didn't top out at 150).

Weiss also gets a couple of things wrong. I've already mentioned SFWA's name; also, RWA, MWA, and SFWA didn't de-list just one publisher, but both--MWA and SFWA by implication, since Thomas Nelson doesn't really publish in their genres, RWA explicitly, by removing Nelson as well as Harlequin from its conference-eligible publisher list. Plus, the press release's claim that RWA, MWA, and SFWA "led a campaign to discredit the publishers involved" is hyperbolic. The writers' groups made strong responses, but most of the outcry came from individual writers (and involved Harlequin; Nelson more or less got a free pass), and it was largely the outcry that spurred the statements, not the other way around.

I'd also love to know exactly what it is that AS does to "advance the cause" of RWA, MWA, and SFWA members "on a daily basis"--especially given that authors cannot qualify for membership in MWA and SFWA on the basis of self-published books--but I guess Weiss is saving that for the sit-down.

Will a sit-down, if it happens, be productive? Good question. Part of the objection to the AS/Harlequin/Nelson "partnerships" was the misleading way in which they were presented--seriously overstating the benefits of self-publishing for many if not most authors, using the carrot of possible transition to commercial publishing as a hook to draw in customers--as well as, in Nelson's case, a promise of referral fees for agents who steered authors its way, plus a truly exorbitant cost. Given that high costs and less-than-transparent presentation are at the core of AS's services, I don't think that's likely to change. Also, can there ever be a meeting of the minds between professional commercial writers' groups and a company that wants to present fee-based publishing as an "indie revolution?" Part of the problem, I think, is that Weiss is speaking a different language.

I don't want to be unduly negative. There are certainly ways in which AS could benefit RWA, MWA, and SWFA members--by providing a reasonable, efficient way for members to bring their out-of-print works back into circulation, for instance. And, simply as a matter of pragmatism, I do think that we will have to get used to at least some degree of cohabitation between commercial publishing and fee-based publishing--since commercial publishers need revenue and fee-based publishing is (for now) extremely lucrative. If, in these difficult times of economic pain and technological transition, launching a fee-based publishing division could help a commercial publisher maintain its core publishing operation--and if the fee-based division were straightforward, reasonably-priced, and transparent (i.e., no bogus farm-team promises, or referral fees, or exaggerated portrayals of the potential for success)--I might be able to make peace with that.

Is AS the right company to provide those services, though? Do publishers even need to hire an outside company to set fee-based publishing divisions up for them? Those are whole other questions.

24 comments:

Project Savior said...

Correct me if I'm wrong but don't Professional Writers' Guilds hold out for, you know, Professionals.
Isn't that why they have the minimums for a sale in place? To recognize writers who have broken through the low paying circuit into the survival pay zone, so they can be called Professionals.

Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

Yes, we all know about those traditional/vanity publishers. Author Michael Marcus posted the first book from one of them on his blog, BookMaking.

The first "release" from this new vanity imprint has three huge errors on the cover.

Nice.

I don't think that traditional publishers have much to fear from these new vanity imprints.

Fools and their money will continue to part ways. Anyone wanna buy a lotto ticket with me?

JS said...

This is a very "The Walrus and the Carpenter" moment.

Oysters shoulda had a guild.

Daisy said...

Translation: "Hey, you guys with your "professional standards" are really hurting our marketing efforts. We're gonna try to recover some PR ground by making it look like you're the bad guy by not changing your rules to meet our needs. Also, we have a video camera!"

JFBookman said...

The combination of traditional publishing and fee-based services looks like it is going to be around for a while.

You say: ...if the fee-based division were straightforward, reasonably-priced, and transparent (i.e., no bogus farm-team promises, or referral fees, or exaggerated portrayals of the potential for success)--I might be able to make peace with that.

And I totally agree. In that scenario, it just becomes another service you can use if it suits your specific goals. Of course, AS companies have not always operated that way, and the temptation to engage in the kind of questionable advertising is pretty strong.

It seems the market is still open for a company that would operate according to these "open and transparent" principles.

Thanks for addressing this pretty crucial topic.

M.R.J. Le Blanc said...

I think Daisy hit the nail on the head. The only way a company like this would ever become a more transparent and honest operation would be a dip in income when people realize just how much they screw you over. At least Lulu is upfront and reasonable.

P.N. Elrod said...

I see he's calling it "self-publishing" and not what it really is: "vanity" publishing"--which would chase off prospective customers.

Shiloh Walker said...

I just want him to answer one question...

"How are you advancing my cause...because I'm not entirely sure you understand 'my' cause..."

The rest of what he said looked like just spin and more spin, and frankly, I dunno if the orgs will mess with talking to him, nor do I see why they should. They are geared to the professional writer and what do his companies have anything to offer to the writers of professional writer orgs?

Other than maybe explaining to us...how he's advancing our cause, that is. Yeah, I'm really curious about that one.

Anonymous said...

AS still doesn't understand where the objections came from. Unless they start changing their attitude, talks won't change a thing.

Learn the difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing.

Done that? Now you're ready to talk. Not a millisecond sooner.

jongibbs said...

Interesting.

Thanks for the info, Victoria :)

December/Stacia said...

Sadly, RWA has knelt before Zod. I wish I was still a member so I could resign in protest, but I got tired of wasting my money on them years ago.

James Macdonald said...

It's a PR move on Weiss's part.

He wants to be able to tell prospective customers who ask about RWA/SFWA/MWA/NINC's objections, "We tried to be reasonable, but they refused to meed with us."

Think of Robert Fletcher and his endless claims that we wanted a meeting with the various watchdog groups.

Victoria Strauss said...

I agree with you, Jim--it's a PR move. It also suggests to me that more "partnerships" are forthcoming.

Janny said...

I'd like to know where he gets the idea that these writers' organizations are "guilds." They're not, not in any real sense of the word--at least not in RWA's case. So his choice of words is, at best, interesting...

JB

Anonymous said...
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Ann C. Crispin said...

I know one thing. If SFWA/Writer Beware decide to accept this invitation to meet, I'll use my (admittedly small) Writer Beware budget from SFWA/MWA for Victoria's and my expenses.

I'm not having any vanity publisher claim that we accepted ANYTHING from them. We try to err on the side of Caesar's wife, and so far I think we've done so. That's not going to change.

But, if we paid our own way to sit down and talk, I'd be willing to debate/discuss this topic with AS in the hopes we could influence them to stop that "spin" and really have Truth in Advertisng.

But Writer Beware is not available to meet until early summer, probably. Both Victoria and I are finishing novels. I'm under a crunch to finish up my Pirates of the Caribbean novel. Actually, I'm not even here 2009, most of the time. My days and my dreams are spent on high seas circa 1700, following Jack Sparrow around to see what he'll do next.

I'm so steeped in things nautical that at this point if I said anything to AS, it would be "Avast!"

(Which doesn't mean "hello," btw.)

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware
www.writerbeware.com

Mark Coker said...

It's time to retire "vanity" as a term. It deserves a place alongside "death panels" in the trash bin of worn and misleading phrases.

It's vain for any author to refuse to publish unless published by a big name publisher.

It's vain for one author to disparage another simply because one doesn't have a book deal, or because they decide to self-publish.

It's vain to brand an author as "non-professional" simply because they don't have a book deal.

Sure, AS and Harlequin failed on the transparency front with their first iteration, though IMHO it's not fair to simply dismiss his offer as a PR stunt. Since when is it a bad idea for people with opposing views on an issue to sit down and understand each other?

Many talented authors are unable to get book deals because their projects aren't deemed commercial enough. It's vain to judge a book on commercial merit alone.

There should be no shame if an indie author (or self-published author, whatever you want to call them) decides to invest their own money to hire editors, book doctors, cover artists, publicists or publishers.

The important thing is that all parties must enter the relationship with realistic expectations and full transparency.

I would welcome the opportunity to join Weiss in these conversations to explore how all of us can work together to advance the cause of authors.

Richard White said...

Victoria,

Looks like you were right. I'm trying to get information on it, but it appears that Harper Collins has started trying to direct Authonomy contributors to publish their stuff through Createspace, with the hint that if they do well, HC will look closer at their next contribution.

I'm trying to get confirmation and a copy of the newsletter sent to you, Ann or me.

Anonymous said...

A.S. is running infomercials on Retirement Life TV. Take granny's credit card away NOW and hide the deed to the house. Better lock away the good china and silver, too.

Seriously

Jana Oliver said...

I wasn't that upset with RWA's decision as it opens the door to legitimate small and e-presses attending their annual conference and using the conference's facilities. They really were in a nasty place with HQN's decision. The best thing they can do educate the new writers as to their choices. Then if New Writer wants to pony up a fortune to see his/her book in print it's on his/her head.

Deb said...

Let's wait and see how open RWA is to "legitimate small- and e-presses" exhibiting at Nationals side by side with Harlequin. I won't be there (like Stacia, I got tired of the kerfuffle a long time back), but my friends will.

If they've moderated their stance on royalty-paying e-publishers as a whole, I'll be among the first to cheer. I'm just not holding my breath.

Barbara said...

I'm not sure where he's getting "more opportunities for new writers." The "opportunity" to spend your money and buy publication has always been around. An actual opportunity involves the opportunity to BE PAID for your writing. If all you want is to spread your story around, for heaven's sake, even a paid account on a blog-site is cheaper, and probably has wider circulation. If I wanted to self-publish, that's how I'd go. Why pay a thousand bucks when you can get just as much bang for free in a lot of cases, or for less than a hundred if you want to go nuts and set up a whole website for it? Doesn't seem like a smart investment for a writer, and it's no less respectable than vanity publishing.

Neil Patrick said...

i think it will improve the writer skills more over there may be lots of writers

Julia said...

I will never understand what the attraction of self/vanity/subsidy publishing.

If I can't sell my book to one agent/editor (which I haven't been, so far) what would make me think I can sell it to the public?