Friday, October 11, 2013

Writers' & Artists New Self-Publishing Comparison Service Leaves Much to be Desired

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware 

Writers & Artists--the Bloomsbury Publishing-owned writers' handbook that's the UK equivalent to the USA's Writers Market--has just launched a free self-publishing provider comparison service.

Here's how it works. Detailed questionnaires cover a variety of areas: editing, ebooks, design and formatting, marketing, and printing. Writers can fill out any or all of these. At the end of the process, they're presented with a list of self-publishing service providers selected from W&A's database, ranked in order of relevance. From this list, they can request up to a maximum of five "personalized quotes."

To test the service, I filled out the questionnaire for ebooks. My assumptions: I wanted ebook conversion and distribution to multiple platforms in Europe and North America, in ePUB and Mobi formats, for a manuscript of 100,000 words. I was willing to accept a distributor cut of up to 45%, and wanted control of pricing and regular sales reports. My budget was $500 (to my surprise, the questionnaire did not ask me how much I was willing to pay).

I was presented with 88 self-publishing companies, each with a little writeup about its services (according to W&A's FAQ, this data is provided by the companies themselves). Some of the companies I'd heard of--many of the Author Solutions imprints were represented, for instance, including the jaw-droppingly expensive Archway Publishing--but other names were unfamiliar.

Bewilderingly, top-rated for relevance was New Generation Publishing, which offers ebook publishing only as an add-on to its print self-publishing packages (a fact not mentioned in the company's writeup--you have to visit New Generation's website to discover this). Also, while New Generation's services include a menu of price-fixed publishing packages and marketing services, it doesn't seem to offer anything resembling the personalized quote promised by W&A.

Next in line: Memoirs Publishing and Matador. Neither company appears to provide ebook publication as a stand-alone option, and Memoirs doesn't show costs on its website, suggesting that it's pricey. Not until number four on the list did a stand-alone ebook option appear: Bookbaby, which also has the virtue of being relatively inexpensive.

I also filled out the questionnaires for Editing and Marketing, with similarly confusing results. For instance, Palibrio was included in my editing list, with no mention of the fact that it specializes in Spanish-language books; but the only dedicated editing company in W&A's database, Bear and Black Dog Books, was not. Marketing gave me AuthorHive, a company spun off from Author Solutions in order to hawk AS's huge collection of overpriced and dubiously useful "marketing" services; it also gave me Schiel & Denver and Llumina Press, about both of which Writer Beware has gotten serious complaints of unprofessional business practice.

Certainly it's helpful for authors to be able to access a big list of self-publishing service providers. There are scores of these, and the smaller or more specialized ones don't always rank high in search engine results. But Writers & Artists is billing their new service as a comparison service, designed to help authors make better choices. And based on what I've seen, that's not what authors are getting here.

I'm not the only one who is voicing concerns. Writes Mick Rooney of The Independent Publishing Magazine,
Yes, authors want some kind of guidance on reputable self-publishing services, and a way to avoid any pitfalls. I just don't see that here. This is a case of matching ticked boxes against a database. The information is as good as you indicate you want, without the proviso of any guarantee of quality or reputation of a company. Is it better than surfing Google looking for an editorial service, printer or self-publishing service? -- maybe. Is it a complete solution? No.
Members of the Alliance for Independent Authors (which worked with Writers & Artists on compiling a list of service providers and establishing a ratings system, but ultimately withdrew from the project due to disagreements over methodology) are also critical. Here's Ben Galley on why he's not happy with the new service. And ALLi founder Orna Ross provides this warning:
- The suppliers on this comparison site pay to have the author's contact details passed onto them as a "lead". ALLi asked that this would be made clear to authors using this service. As far as we can see, this key information does not appear anywhere on the W&A website.

- Good services like Silverwood books, Matador, Ingram, Amazon, Kobo, Mill City Press, ebook Partnership and many others -- including a number of our partner members -- appear beside some companies who are the worst in the business, without any way for an author to differentiate between those who serve writers well, and those who exploit.
Self-publishing expert David Gaughran also provides a blistering critique, calling W&A's plan to sell leads "unconscionable," and especially flagging the inclusion of Author Solutions imprints. "Author Solutions companies," he says, "have no place on a website which claims to provide authors with good advice."

W&A has responded to some of the criticism, admitting that companies that have agreed to "receive data" (i.e., authors' contact information) are charged "a flat fee" (this information does appear on W&A's website, though it's notably absent from this blog post from one of W&A's providers), and promising that a user review function will eventually be added so that authors will have "the opportunity to filter results by both ‘Best Match’ and ‘User Reviews’."

In my opinion, however, much more is needed to make this a truly useful service. Some suggestions:

- Refine the comparison engine so that it produces reliably appropriate results.

- Winnow the list of providers to remove dubious companies--or at least amend their writeups to note known issues and/or serious complaints (as with Author Solutions). Writer Beware stands ready to help, if requested.

- Provide real writeups on the companies--not just the companies' own not-necessarily-complete-or-transparent PR.

- For convenience, add links to the companies' websites.

- Include prices in the comparison chart. Cost is often one of the main considerations in choosing a self-pub service, and it's impossible to meaningfully evaluate any company without knowing how much it charges.

- Last, and vitally important: the questionnaires need to be amended to take writers' finances into account, so that comparison engine will select for how much authors are willing to pay. If I'm looking for low-cost self-publishing, for instance, I shouldn't see Archway Publishing on my comparison list.

4 comments:

Matador said...

Hi Victoria, Good blog about this service I think... I think W&A are treading a fine line here as they're damned if they do, damned if they don't.... getting any like-for-like comparison in the self-publishing market is nigh on impossible, I'm not sure that that is ever going to happen on an 'automatic' system.

Having received several requests for quotations through this site last week for Matador (which I run), I can say that it does throw a lot of extraneous stuff at the supplier... again an issue with how each category of service is defined I think. For example, you mention that you didn't think that Matador offered ebook only publication, which we do.... so there's clearly some tweaking required...!

But it will always be 'buyer beware' on this and any other such system... which I've urged W&A to make crystal clear.

Victoria Strauss said...

Thanks for your comment!

I based my comment about your ebook service on your Self-Publishing Process page, which says: "Once we have created your print ready files for your book, we can then also publish your book as an ebook." To me, that says "print first, ebook as an optional add-on."

What I didn't do (until just now) was download your Ebook Production and Distribution guide. That does make it clear that authors can choose to publish an ebook only. However, like me, I suspect that many people won't take the extra step of downloading this document--so I do think your website should clarify the fact that you offer an ebook-only option.

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Lee Drugan said...

You make some great points regarding what would make this site even better. Specifically, incorporating a budget into the mix. Many self-publishers aren't working with the kind of money that is required to work with some of these services listed.