Monday, July 23, 2012

Penguin bought WHAT?!?

It was just a couple of weeks ago when I did a post about Author Solutions (also known as ASI) and what a sleazy operation it is.  To recap (in case you're too time-pressed to click the link), Author Solutions is the umbrella company for a host of vanity presses, including AuthorHouse, Xlibris and iUniverse.  Essentially, all of these companies are in business to separate would-be authors from their money.  They charge huge fees upfront to "edit" your work, then pester you mercilessly to pay for additional services.  Then they do the bare minimum to "market" your work.  And then they pay you pennies on the dollar in royalties.

I also mentioned that Author Solutions was owned by Bertram Capital, which looked to me like a venture capital firm -- the sort of outfit that takes an under-performing company (i.e., one that isn't making enough money to satisfy its shareholders), tweaks it, and then sells it for more than its investment.

Well, sooprise, sooprise, sooprise, as Gomer Pyle used to say.  The news this week is that Bertram has sold Author Solutions to -- brace yourself -- Pearson plc, which owns the Penguin Group.  Yup, that's right.  The company whose well-respected and award-winning author stable includes Toni Morrison, Patricia Cornwell, Garrison Keillor and the Dalai Lama now owns a pile of, uh, bad-smelling stuff.

David Gaughran has written a great piece about this at IndieReader.com. But I think one of his best observations is in the comments below the article.  Author Solutions boasts that it publishes 150,000 authors and 190,000 books.  Compare that, David says, to Smashwords, which has been in business for a much shorter period of time, and yet has published 140,000 books by just 40,000 authors.  If you had to guess, who do you suppose has the better customer satisfaction rating?

Speaking of Smashwords, Mark Coker was the first commenter on the PublishersWeekly.com article about the sale:
While Pearson is smart to develop a long tail strategy that includes self-published authors, the challenge with ASI is that its business model is entirely dependent upon blinding the eyes and stealing the dreams of unsuspecting authors. It earns 2/3+ of its revenue selling services and packages to authors, not selling books to consumers. That's a recipe for parasitism and exploitation, and in the long run as indies wise up, it's not a sustainable model.
Hear hear, Mark.  And thanks for the Indies Unlimited plug in your reply, too.

Going back to David's post for a moment, he mused about why Penguin would want to own something as unsavory as Author Solutions.  The answer, I think, is that traditional publishers simply can't tell the difference between vanity publishing and indie publishing.  I read a blog post not long ago (and wish I could find it again so I could post the link -- sorry) by a literary agent who was complaining about the terminology used by the indie author movement.  She chided us for calling ourselves "indie" and suggested instead that we use the term "self-published", because it's better understood in New York publishing circles.

The comments generated by that post made entertaining reading, and I believe the agent got an education.  But if her attitude is any indication, the Big Six consider "self-publishing" to be synonymous with vanity publishing.  Apparently many in the trad publishing business lump Smashwords, Kindle Direct Publishing, PubIt, CreateSpace and Lulu (and others) in with Author Solutions and others of their ilk.  If it didn't come out of trad publishing, in other words, it's just one big slush pile of steaming crap.  Viewed in that light, Penguin's purchase of Author Solutions makes perfect sense: if this "indie publishing" thing is going to undermine their core business, they need some skin in the game to stay viable, and purchasing an existing company in, you know, that end of the industry is just good business sense.

Are you gonna tell 'em?  I'm not gonna tell 'em.
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