Last year, giant publishing services firm Author Solutions Inc. contracted with two major commercial publishers to create publishing service (a.k.a. self-publishing, a.k.a. vanity publishing) divisions: West Bow Press for Thomas Nelson, and DellArte Press (formerly Harlequin Horizons) for Harlequin. ASI also, at some earlier point, set up a similar operation, Cross Books, for Christian publisher LifeWay.
While West Bow Press produced barely a ripple of concern, DellArte Press created a tidal wave of criticism and debate, not just among authors but among professional writers' groups (you can see Writer Beware's coverage of the controversy here). Was it unethical for commercial publishers to run pay-to-publish divisions, drawing in newbie writers with the lure of the publisher's name and the promise that successful books might make the transition to a commercial publishing contract? Or was it a pragmatic move on the part of cash-strapped publishers--a way to tap into a highly profitable business model and monetize the slush pile, and use the profits to support their other publishing programs?
Ultimately, the criticism forced Harlequin to change its publishing service division's name. But it didn't cause either Harlequin or Thomas Nelson to re-think the divisions themselves.
At the time, I speculated that Cross Books, West Bow Press, and DellArte Press were just the beginning--that other publishers wouldn't be able to resist the potential profits of adding publishing service divisions. And it seems I was right. According to a press release issued today, commercial self-help publisher Hay House has contracted with ASI to establish a publishing service division called Balboa Press.
"We receive thousands of manuscripts annually, but we can publish only 100 products a year," said Reid Tracy, CEO of Hay House. "Our self-publishing division, Balboa Press, has been formed to allow many more people get their message out. While these books won't be published by Hay House, Balboa Press will be monitored for success, and hopefully we'll find the Hay House authors of the future," Tracy added. "This is the legacy of Louise Hay-25 years later-she wants to help the next generation find their voice."Although attributed to Hay House's CEO, this appears to be ASI's standard marketing pitch for services like Balboa Press. At any rate, it's the same trinity of enticements--greater access for authors, possible transition to commercial publishing, and the blessing of the parent publisher--that West Bow and DellArte employed. The Balboa Press website lays it on even thicker: "With Balboa Press, you have the freedom to self-publish your book in order to help others as well as achieve your own aspirations..." chart your own course and shape your future..." "Balboa Press is your gateway into the world of publishing..." "...explore the new opportunities that await you as a published author..." Canny use is also made of the fact that Hay House was originally established as a way for Louise Hay to self-publish her own books. And then there's this, from the About Us page:
As a division of Hay House, Balboa Press titles are monitored regularly by the parent company. Hay House is one of the fastest-growing self-help and transformational publishers in the world and hopes to find through Balboa Press new inspiring authors that display their potential to add to their catalog.For PR purposes, Hay House will probably have to pick up a title or two. Beyond that, I'm not holding my breath, and neither should aspiring authors. Publishing service divisions aren't about finding fresh new voices; they're about making money for the parent publisher. But I'm sure that for writers who are unfamiliar with the publishing industry, who've bought into the prevalent mythology about self-publishing as a starting point for a commercial career, or who just don't think a major publishing house would lie to them, this will be a major inducement.
Balboa's publishing packages range from $999 to $7,999--at the top range, more expensive than the standard packages for either DellArte or West Bow (though West Bow's prices for its top-range packages are truly jaw-dropping). You can also buy marketing packages, some of which will cost you an arm and a leg. There are some similarities among DellArte, West Bow, and Balboa packages, but each company offers a different mix of services--presumably, ASI gives the parent publishers an a la carte menu of services, and the publishers pick the ones they want. It's also interesting to compare all three websites, which differ in the details and tailor their information to the parent publisher's genre or focus, but all contain similar basic information, author inducements, and overly rosy views of self-publishing's potential for commercial success.
As I've said in previous posts, I understand the attraction of publishing service divisions for publishers, especially in this time of economic pain and seismic change. Why not tap into a growing, profitable field as a way to support core publishing operations? But there has to be a way to do this ethically, without overstated promises and misrepresentation, and without exploiting the ignorance or innocence of aspiring writers.
So who's next?