Is the Author Solutions Acquisition a Good Thing for Authors?

Author Solutions and Pearson

Yesterday, news broke that Pearson (parent company of Penguin) had acquired Author Solutions for $116 million. Read the basics here.

Just to make sure we’re all up to speed:

  • Pearson is one of the Big Six publishers.
  • Author Solutions (ASI) is the world’s leading provider of self-publishing services, primarily dealing in print-on-demand (POD) publishing and related service packages.

As the guy who filmed the double rainbow said: “What does it mean?”

Some writers have reacted to the news by saying, “This means self-publishing is the future!”

This is a misunderstanding of Author Solutions on a variety of levels, as well as what Pearson might have to gain from acquiring them. Two-thirds of Author Solutions’ revenue comes from selling services to authors—not from selling books.

Saying that this is the future is kind of like saying: “Authors paying hundreds and thousands of dollars to publish a book that never sells more than 100 copies is the future! Yay!”

This is how confused writers are.

But I know what they’re thinking. They see self-publishing in terms of all those success stories you hear about in the media—like JA Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and John Locke.

Well, I challenge you to find one of these phenoms that used Author Solutions as a service provider. Rather, the self-publishing authors making big bucks are folks primarily using Amazon KDP or related “free” services. In March 2011, I wrote a column for Writer Unboxed, pointing this out, and predicting that POD services, of the type that Author Solutions specializes in, had reached their peak. (Click here to read that post.)

Let’s assume for a moment that my article was correct. Why would a Big Six company invest in a service whose time has already come and gone—especially given that it’s like falling off a log to publish your (electronic) book these days, and that’s what all the publicized success stories focus on. Go publish through Amazon and make a fortune!

Laura Dawson writes that the acquisition is connected to Book Country, the Penguin online community for writers. Acquiring ASI means acquiring a back-end/infrastructure to help monetize that community. But if my theory is correct, then there’s limited money to be made specifically in POD/print services. So Pearson may be looking to grow related paid services to writers that aren’t about POD. (This could include editorial, design, marketing, and promotion services, which ASI also provides.)

That would mean: Self-publishing isn’t exactly the future here. It’s rather making money off a growing number of people who are writing and seeking professional publishing services. As easy as it is to e-publish, it’s not a straightforward matter to navigate the options and produce a professional product that actually sells. Thus, there’s no shortage of people seeking assistance with DIY self-publishing, whether in print or electronic formats. Unfortunately, many people seeking help are not well-informed, don’t have the patience to research their options, and end up writing a big check to someone to make the headache go away. (And by doing so, they’ve assured their sales will be exactly the number of family and friends they can convince to buy their poorly edited, poorly designed book via Facebook wall postings.)

In short: Publishing ain’t for sissies, and no one likes sorting through the mess that is the current industry. That describes a big part of ASI’s business model, though I believe authors are becoming more well-informed every day.

Perhaps the Book Country or Penguin name will be (more) successful in providing services than ASI was, and in improving ASI’s reputation for such services. I have the same thoughts as Victoria Strauss at WriterBeware in this regard. Specifically, I might be convinced into thinking it’s a smart acquisition IF:

  • They’re sincere and transparent in their dealings with writers, especially about what it means to self-publish, and what is possible.
  • Pearson adds their expertise in print distribution and traditional book publishing practices (particularly sales and marketing) to improve overall services.
  • They offer training or services that have true value and aren’t dubious (eliminate stuff like the $20,000 Hollywood trailer).
  • To authors jumping on the e-publishing trend, they offer professional services that are complementary to services that already exist. What I love so much about existing e-publishing services—whether BookBaby, Smashwords, Amazon KDP, B&N Nook Press, or others—is that they are nonexclusive (you can use them in coordination with one another), and they honestly compete on royalty rates. I think Pearson/ASI can work best if they’re offering professional services that help authors amplify their success on existing channels (or somehow extend their distribution). It seems unlikely they can effectively compete with Amazon, unless it’s by offering misleading royalty rates and gotcha clauses. (That’s what ASI’s BookTango did for a while.)

I have little faith, though. This is a for-profit venture, not charity. And it seems unlikely that Pearson would meaningfully change any business practices that made ASI profitable in the first place. Corporations too often take the short-term view, and milk acquisitions dry, rather than take a long-term view.

But here’s another wrinkle: If you didn’t know, a growing part of ASI’s business since roughly 2009 has been establishing white-label services. Thomas Nelson, Harlequin, Hay House, and even my former employer, Writer’s Digest, ended up striking deals with ASI to offer paid publishing services you might know better as WestBow, DellArte, Balboa, and Abbott Press. But those traditional publishers aren’t fulfilling those services; ASI is. The publishers selling the service are extending their brands, their customers, and their marketing power—and receiving a nice chunk of the profit in return. (I want to note here that I left Writer’s Digest before Abbott Press was formed; I was against the idea.)

Check out this big visual at the Author Solutions corporate website:

Author Solutions publishing partnerships

I’m sad to say I’ve heard publishing executives talk about the opportunity to “monetize unpublished manuscripts” and it’s why I left commercial publishing. Is this where the industry is headed? If so, I want no part of its future.

But what do you think the endgame is?


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Jane Friedman
Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
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51 Comments on "Is the Author Solutions Acquisition a Good Thing for Authors?"

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3 years 6 months ago

Great analysis Jane – and I am so with you on the need to change the predatory practices of ASI – those huge packages $20,000 on a trailer! I hear from those authors after they’ve spend crazy money with ASI and got no sales – and have no money left to do smart editing etc and are heartbroken they believed.

3 years 6 months ago

MJ, i nearly fell off my chair when I saw that trailer package. I hoped no one would buy it!

3 years 6 months ago

So really is this the publishing industry moving from a model in which it pays authors to one in which authors (mainly would-be ones) pay them? Watching some UK publishers now cannibalise their own best-selling authors by putting their ebooks out for 20p (15 cents) here I wonder if any of these people have much of a clue where they’re headed, and trying to take the rest of us.

3 years 6 months ago

Jane, Looks like moving to Virginia hasn’t dulled your grasp of things. (I knew it wouldn’t. Being from VA, I suspected you’d only get better). When the PW email arrived with this news, I had very similar thoughts. At the end of this past academic year, I spoke to a group of college students and faculty about my journey so far into self publishing. I read somewhere that this is a 4 billion dollar annual industry. No publisher who already has the infrastructure in place is going to pass up an opportunity to tap into that revenue stream. Among other… Read more »

[…] Post navigation ← Previous Next → […]

3 years 6 months ago

Well said as usual. One of the first questions people ask me about my small press, Buzz Books, is how much we charge authors to publish their books. They seem surprised that we don’t. That being said, it puts us in the same boat with needing a book to break out to make a lot of money on it. Or the Amazon algorithm to kick in. And the retreat we are putting on this weekend will equal our sales revenue for last month so those may be necessary to supplement our venture – and of course get to meet new… Read more »

Marian
3 years 6 months ago

Well said Jane. Personally I couldn’t see the difference between this new business model seeking to “help” a writer self publish from the vanity press business model. For me your article is proof I was not being delusional. Better to be brave and slog through the muck and mire of self publishing and gain your just rewards than to let others benefit unfairly from your creative hard work.

Charlene Bell Dietz
3 years 6 months ago

Your knowledge and expertise on this is invaluable to me. I’ve grumbled the seven plus years while preparing a manuscript for traditional publishing because I’ve been bewildered with the evolution of this whole industry. You’re making me think that maybe things will sort of shake out into some sensible form sometime soon. There is no substitute for integrity, and I appreciate yours.

3 years 6 months ago

So it’s okay for Amazon to monetize unpublished manuscripts but nobody else? (And yes, they do this. Their “free” services result in them getting royalties from the sales of tens of those books to the “author’s” friends; multiplied how many times? Their larger strategy is capture the ebook market by having thousands of titles–quality irrelevant–to drive Kindle sales. By sheer volume, they are monetizing mss that would have once been called “unpublishable.”) The new publishing model seems to be: Publish it and they will come. The truth is, most of the time, they DON’T come. Most of the time, all… Read more »

[…] continue to be run as a separate business,” and in a new post today reflecting on the deal, Friedman skeptically notes that “it seems unlikely that Pearson would meaningfully change any business practices that […]

3 years 6 months ago

Have you read this Article by David Gaugrahn?
http://indiereader.com/2012/07/penguins-new-business-model-exploiting-writers/

This is not good for aspiring authors. It is shaky at best and dodgy :(

Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

3 years 6 months ago

I try to always see the positives, but it’s interesting to me that the Publishing Industry has a history of criticizing Self Publishing for its poor quality, yet as they lose revenue to it on the front end, we see several publishers jump to cash in on this same ‘tainted product’ on the back end.

Like you, I do hope they are not only seeking to profit from this stream and are instead planning to help Self Publishing to grow in areas where growth is difficult, namely distribution and raising the profile of self published books with book buyers.

[…] aux auteurs qui franchissent le pas de la publication numérique, comme le souligne très bien Jane Friedman. Les aider à livrer des livres numériques et à les distribuer et les vendre, tout en leur […]

3 years 6 months ago

I’m thinking of starting a publisher’s soap opera. I might call it “As the Lines Blur.” I recall not too many years ago when Harlequin added self-publishing. Knees jerked everywhere. This time I am finding the reaction slower to surface and much more restrained. There is more wait and see with the admission of the dirty little secret that all publishing is “for profit” and only the models differ. The thing about commercial publishers for me was the maintenance of quality standards. But as any editor will tell you, they see high quality work all the time that they simply… Read more »

3 years 6 months ago

Jane
I’m thankful that little fishes in big ponds (like myself and thousands of others) have the wisdom and credentials of people like yourself to help shine the light on the changing landscape of publishing (even if those changes aren’t all that they are professed to be). Thanks for having the chutzpah consistently point it out.

[…] Is the Author Solutions Acquisition a Good Thing For Authors? By Jane Friedman at Jane Friedman […]

Pam Stucky
3 years 6 months ago

Great post, Jane – thank you. When I read about the acquisition my first thought was, “Oh, nice, Penguin, you’re not willing to publish my books [they rejected me] but you’re more than willing to take my money to let me do what I can do for myself? No, thanks.” I also read somewhere that (and I paraphrase here) in response to people who are worried that getting involved in the seedy business of self publishing, Penguin has said they’ll make sure it’s clear whether you’re buying a Penguin book or an Author Services book. Heaven forbid someone think a… Read more »

Pam Stucky
3 years 6 months ago

Er, that is, as you and everyone in the comments ARE saying. :)

[…] has purchased a company called Author Solutions, Inc. (ASI). Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) wonders, Is the Author Solutions Acquisition a Good Thing for Authors, something Victoria Strauss (@victoriastrauss) at Writer Beware (R) also commented on recently. The […]

[…] "Seems unlikely that Pearson would meaningfully change any business practices that made ASI profitable." @janefriedman http://t.co/K5rO2ic8…  […]

robert ray
3 years 6 months ago

dear whistle-blower online-
nice work slapping the hands of ASI-
they are a sorry bunch
no question about that
preying on the hopes and dreams of us writers
when you figure out how to use a book (print version or e-version) to grab the attention of a culture wired to i-phone-like gadgets
let me know
robert ray
the weekend novelist
just hit the LIKE button.LOL

[…] and host of the Ether, Jane Fried­man, has writ­ten an impor­tant piece on the story: Is the Author Solu­tions Acqui­si­tion a Good Thing for Authors? I’m sad to say I’ve heard pub­lish­ing exec­u­tives talk about the oppor­tu­nity to […]

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