Tag Archives: author publisher relations

CEO Weighs In: “Authors Sue Self-Publishing Platform Author Solutions”

The big shoe that I was certain would drop just did:

Three authors have filed suit against self-publishing service provider Author Solutions, and its parent company Penguin, airing a laundry list of complaints and alleging the company is not a publisher so much as a “vanity press.” — PW May 1, 2013

I have no special insight into the merits of this suit as a legal matter, but the filing of it brings to light the obvious fact that there are companies out there exploiting the hopes and dreams of neophyte authors. More from the PW article, “Authors Sue Self-Publishing Service Author Solutions”:

The suit, which seeks class action status, alleges that Author Solutions misrepresents itself, luring authors in with claims that its books can compete with “traditional publishers,” and the company offers “greater speed, higher royalties, and more control for its authors.”

The problem here is easy to spot. No doubt in the literature that they show prospective authors, and in the agreements that they execute with them, such “publishers” are careful not to promise sudden authorial fame and fortune. But of course the prospective authors do want some degree of Book authors file class action suit against Author Solutions self publishing platformrecognition, and they would like some remuneration too.

What most people think they know about publishing comes from the utterly anomalous success stories the media finds newsworthy. It used to be “first time novelist gets million dollar advance.” Now it’s “first book by self-published author sells 500,000 copies.” Getting hit by lightning three times on a sunny afternoon is much more likely.

So, aspiring authors have some expectations. What expectations do self-publishing services such as Author Solutions have?  Read between the lines of the following “prepared statement,” quoted in the same PW article.

In a prepared statement, Author Solutions pointed to the fact that it has “successfully enabled more than 170,000 authors to self-publish more than 200,000 titles,” and noted that it has received an “A” rating from the Better Business Bureau.

I am not sure that the 170,000 authors of those 200,000 titles are all that thrilled by their publisher’s “A” rating from the Better Business Bureau. They might have preferred a place on the best-seller list.

Perhaps the authors who are suing were a little naive. Let’s look at two publishing scenarios. In the first, the publisher pays an advance, covers the editing, designing, and printing costs, and will suffer a big financial loss if the book does not sell. In the second scenario the “publisher” charges the author for all of the publication costs and makes a profit even if the title does not sell a single copy. Which outfit will be motivated to sell books? To understand a business deal you need to follow the money.

And now this article, in Friday’s PW. The CEO of Author Solutions has, for some reason, been replaced by a Penguin executive. Here is how they are spinning the change:

Penguin chairman John Makinson said that the appointment of [Andrew] Phillips [the new CEO] will connect Authors Solutions more closely to Penguin. “Andrew’s impressive range of talents and experience equip him perfectly to extend the international development of Author Solutions, to build on our network of publishing partnerships, and to strengthen the ties with Penguin companies around the world.” — PW May 3, 2013

This statement looks like an attempt to blur the distinction between Author Solutions and Penguin—so that the cash register will keep ringing for Author Solutions. But no amount of corporate speak about building on a “network of publishing partnerships” or strengthening “ties with Penguin companies around the world” can bridge the apparently huge gap between these two enterprises.  The big question is why Penguin, one of the greatest publishing companies on the planet, is willing to wrap its name around a dubious proposition like Author Solutions.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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Making Indie Publishing & Social Media Work Together: Part II

“Social media has one foot in the highly commercial world of advertising and the other foot in the realm of human communication—hopefully sincere human communication. This combination might not always be a comfortable one; but it is now possible to glimpse some social media strategies that may be especially well-suited to the needs of indie publishers.”

Making Indie Publishing and Social Media Work Together Part IIEffective social media marketing has to at least appear to have a higher purpose than just selling a product. It needs to support the idea that community-building information is being exchanged. But can you really make an effective sales pitch, somehow hidden inside friendly communication, in a tweet or a blog or a Facebook post? I think authors and independent publishers can pull it off.

How? With the exception of bestsellers, marketing books has always been a question of bringing the right title to the attention of a buyer already interested in the book’s subject. It has always been a question of matching rather than convincing, a soft sell rather than a hard one. And traditional book marketing has long had a crucial social aspect: word of mouth—information passed among members of a community—is really what drives book sales. Since authors and indie publishers have all along aimed to create some degree of community rather than just driving sales, social networks present a new opportunity to further this goal.

I believe that social media marketing can be particularly effective at the author level. Authors can get away with a little obvious self-promotion. Writing a book is very hard work, often for little pay (again excepting the bestsellers), and most importantly requires a level of self-exposure and risk of failure that most of us simply shy away from. There is a heroic aspect to authorship that serious readers appreciate and admire.

This special connection allows authors to promote their own books, as well as those of their compatriots, without violating social media etiquette. They can inspire readers to buy books through tweets, blogs, and other forms of social media and can use those social outlets to steer customers to their publishers’ websites. After all, to the extent that their publisher is working a niche, that website will in itself amount to a sort of community where publishers, authors, and readers can connect over a shared interest. Over time, it is possible to build a bridge that leads from the author’s social media efforts to the publisher’s website.

What can a distributor do to turn the social media efforts of authors and publishers into sales? IPG has constructed sophisticated shopping carts, at no charge, for some of our client publishers’ websites. These shopping carts are customized to match the look of each website or meet the design preferences of the participating publisher, and they offer eBooks, print books, and streaming audio and video directly to consumers. IPG takes care of all of the back end processing and fulfillment services, as well as automating product and stock information and providing options for promotions. IPG is also developing a “buy button” which can easily be attached to author and publisher social communications, taking readers directly to the relevant book page on a publisher’s new shopping cart. These initiatives are still in beta, but they look very promising and will offer authors and publishers a chance to capitalize on the online communities they’ve cultivated through their social media efforts.

At a macroscopic level, every participant in the publishing industry can be a participant in the larger social conversation revolving around books and the people who love them. By engaging in these conversations, indie publishers (and distributors) can join vibrant communities of authors and readers, leading these groups to their websites, and thus, their books.

**Check out some of IPG’s new shopping carts here: Urban Land Institute Bookstore, American Cancer Society Bookstore, and Nomad Press Bookstore

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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Finding Your Publishing Niche

I defined the attributes of a good publishing niche in part one of this post. In this second part I am going to explore the idea of the “pseudo-niche,” the publishing possibility that might look like a winner for an independent publisher but will probably not support good sales because it does not offer the advantages of a true niche. I will also discuss some examples of how new niches can be discovered.

We all know that it would be suicidal for an indie press to publish another book on French Cooking; but how about a book on Northern French Cooking, or Northern French Fish Cooking? Isn’t that a “niche-y” enough subject to be unattractive to a big publisher but still wide enough to provide a viable market for a small one? Perhaps the subject is still too broad. How about Low-Fat Northern French Fish Cooking?

The trouble with this line of thought is that it conflates the complicated idea of a true niche with the way-too-simple notion of mere narrowness. A big subject sliced finer and finer might keep the big houses away, but it does not necessarily offer anything like the pre-existing, structured, and engaged niche audience needed to support a successful indie title.

That said, dividing a strong category into ever finer sub-categories is a time-honored and often effective strategy for independent publishers. Part of the trouble with the French Cooking example above is that French cooking as a category has lost most of its sizzle. There surely was a time when very fine subdivisions of French cooking made viable titles for small presses. That time is over. Here, however, is a current example of the slice-it-very-fine strategy that does work: Chicago Review Press has done well with a series of titles devoted to very specific kinds of movies. The newest one, The Slasher Movie Book, is selling even better than expected.

Another tricky strategy that sometimes works is to combine two strong but seemingly unrelated subject areas into one, thus creating a new and theoretically very powerful niche. Suppose we were to combine the ever popular subject of romance with the ubiquitous hobby of bird watching. Let’s call it Romantic Bird Watching. Could this be made to fly? Maybe not.

But how about combining the idea of doing good with the notion of taking a vacation? On the face, this is not an easy pairing. Isn’t doing good the last thing you want to have on your mind when you’re on vacation? However, Chicago Review Press’s title Volunteer Vacations is in its 11th edition and has sold over 150,000 copies. The difference between the Romantic Bird Watching concept and Volunteer Vacations is that there really are wonderful do-good vacation opportunities: building nature trails for the Sierra Club and so on. As for birder romance…

Then there is the strategy of taking an established subject area up-market. The market for children’s books is of course ferociously competitive, but it is possible to carve out niches within that market. Twenty years or so ago Chicago Review Press started a series of activity books for kids based on the idea that kids are smarter than the education establishment thinks they are. Many educators and parents think that children should never encounter an unfamiliar word or concept in a book. Our notion was that a child should always encounter unfamiliar words and concepts in the books they read.

Out of this up-market niche have come dozens of successful books for children nine years and older with titles such as Frank Lloyd Wright for Kids, The Civil Rights Movement for Kids, World War II for Kids, and just out, Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids. The content within these titles presents refreshing challenges to underestimated youngsters eager to understand the world at large around them and breaks from the typical mold of children’s books.

Finally, publishers may want to consider the concept of the down-market niche. The wild success of Fifty Shades of Grey may indicate that erotica is now just a down-market niche within the category of fiction. Indie publishers, however, should probably leave this new niche alone. The big houses are already all over it.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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When It Comes to Authors: Part II

Will good authors put up with rough editorial handling? They will, and with enthusiasm, if from the outset you involve them in the development of the marketing ideas that shape the book. The idea is to get them to focus not just on the publication of a book with their name on it, but on the publication of a successful book.

The essential first step is to have your authors fill out a demanding author questionnaire. (If they refuse to fill it out, find another author.) This questionnaire, in addition to eliciting the usual biographical information, should request information on possible special markets, professional contacts, relevant specialized media, sources for blurbs, and possible sales “handles” or angles. What websites did the author use to help research the book? Social media marketing of a title works much better when it is done by an author with an already engaged audience rather than a publisher.

Then, when the book is past the editing stage, furnish the author with a written description of how your company publicizes the books it publishes. This will provide a second opportunity to discuss with the author how the book will be marketed and to explain the author’s role in making the book a success.

Involving the author in the marketing of his or her book is not a cynical means of manipulation and control, but a highly effective strategy. Authors who really know their subjects (if yours doesn’t, find another author) are easily the best source for marketing ideas, especially niche marketing ideas; and the process of winnowing out the good ideas from the less promising will put your author in the right frame of mind to produce not just a book but a successful book.

Including the author in aspects beyond the creation of the book itself have other unforeseen benefits as well. Over the past few years many independent presses have been pleasantly surprised to find authors with fine track records at major houses showing up on their doorsteps prepared to accept a small fraction of the advances customarily offered by the major publishers. Most major houses do not want to hear an author’s marketing ideas, and if offered them anyway, summarily dismiss them. Many authors feel that they are treated like three-year-olds by such publishers.

If we are willing to listen to our authors (and we are crazy if we are not willing to listen) we can maintain their goodwill and cooperation–even when we are tougher on them. Or perhaps because we have been tougher.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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When It Comes to Authors: Part I

Many people believe that in simpler times authors wrote the books, publishers touched up the spelling and punctuation, designed a suitable package, and published them. The truth however is that you can add books to the famous collection of things that you don’t actually want to see being created, along with laws or sausages.

An author’s manuscript is usually just a promising first draft. All sorts of marketing questions need to be asked and answered even before the editing—which is likely to be extensive—begins. Who is the book for? What is this audience really interested in? Are illustrations needed? What is the right tone, the right length, the right price?

Occasionally, the author’s views on these matters are exactly correct; far more frequently the author’s very closeness to the subject prevents him or her from having an objective, balanced assessment of the material and the market for which it is intended. Most manuscripts need to be cut back here, augmented there, lightened up or made more serious, reorganized or restructured—in short, extensively rewritten by the author according to ideas insisted upon by the editor or publisher.

Some authors object to this process, but anyone who has been at publishing awhile knows that it is usually the new and inexperienced authors who believe that every word they have written is sacred. Experienced authors in fact insist on strong editorial guidance; they often follow suit when their strong editors switch publishing companies.

Independent presses, of course, often publish new authors and have to contend with their inexperience. The time to explain that every word is not sacred, and that extensive revisions will probably be needed, comes before the author/publisher agreement is signed. If the author is uncooperative during this initial phase, find another author.

Perhaps this advice sounds harsh, but consider the likely consequences of going forward with an uncooperative author. A book that is wrong for its market will not sell well. And if you as the publisher or your editor is forced to rewrite the book, you will have so much time tied up in the book that it will almost certainly be a financial failure even if it does sell quite well.

But what if you have signed up an author and despite your best precautions find you have a prima donna on your hands, or else an author who is simply incapable of responding to editorial direction?

The only reasonable course in such cases is to insist to an author that, if the book is to be published, either the royalty rate must be reduced to reflect the work that the author cannot or will not perform, or else that the royalty must be shared with a ghost writer of the publisher’s choosing. To earn a full royalty, an author must do a full author’s job.

In the low-margin business of publishing, there isn’t a percent to spare.
To be continued…

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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