Tag Archives: authors

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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Can an Authoring Platform Make You an Author?

At the recent Tools of Change conference a new program called Inkling Habitat, an “authoring platform,” was introduced. This new “authoring platform” does serve a purpose, because it helps authors easily add digital bells and whistles to their texts. This help is welcome. However, a Google search now turns up over 300 “authoring platforms,” most of which claim to make authors out of amateurs. Can they do it?

Authoring Platforms

Let’s unpack that phrase, “authoring platform.” The term “authoring” is a very odd duck indeed. We used to think that writers authored, or wrote, books, a process that had an end and therefore required the past tense. Now we are to suppose that authoring is a sort of continuous daily activity, like eating, sleeping, or breathing. This is a sneaky way to suggest that a computer program can make being an author a straightforward, usual thing that almost anybody could do successfully.

The “platform” part implies two things. One is the familiar idea that computer programs can interact much better with one another if they sit on top of a common substrate, like Word, Excel, and so on perched on the Windows platform. This is fair enough. The other implication, however, is quite misleading: the idea that a speaker often stands on a platform when addressing a crowd, an image that appeals to the egos of some aspiring authors because it positions them at a level above their audience–gives them a bully pulpit.

Both of these connotations obscure the real issue—are intended to obscure the real issue—by suggesting that if an author just has the right support, the right place to stand, he or she will be freed from the organizational, structural, and inspirational problems that bedevil even the most gifted writers. Somehow software will eliminate such difficulties.

The truth, of course, is that good writing is very hard to do. The real problem most would-be authors have is a lack of training, or experience, or something to say, or talent. Will these issues be solved by using the right authoring platform? Microsoft Word is an early authoring platform that certainly makes many tricky editorial operations very easy to do. But Word has not led to an explosion of terrific prose. On the contrary, many people think word processing programs have made writers more verbose. There didn’t used to be so many 800-page books. Legal documents are certainly four times as long as they used to be. (Perhaps we now spell a little better.)

The authoring platform is just another example of the sort of “easy shortcut” that Americans fall for every time. When I was a kid, it was “get rich writing short paragraphs.” For years the internet has offered me advanced degrees with no need to study or attend a class. Now I can become a famous author by climbing up on an authoring platform and broadcasting my thoughts in all directions. Of course everyone has a book in them! It would be highly undemocratic to think otherwise. Too bad it is not true.

Self-publishing is just the latest bubble. Tens of thousands of people are being relieved of serious amounts of cash by charlatans offering quick publication fixes. It is entirely possible to publish your own book in a responsible way. There is, however, one tried, tested, and highly effective authoring platform: a publishing company.

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Vivian Maier & Independent Publishing

Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows | CityFiles PressTwo seemingly disparate parts of your life can sometimes collide with a bang. I have worked in the independent publishing business forever. A decade into that career, my wife and I employed a nanny named Vivian Maier to help raise our kids. Years later, Vivian (sadly, only after her death) has burst into prominence as a street photographer of genius, and a book of her startlingly evocative images, Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, has been published by CityFiles Press, one of IPG’s client indie presses. Her work is appearing in shows all around the world. In a recent starred review, Library Journal said:

[The authors] show that Vivian Maier was a great artist—not simply “the nanny photographer,” as some have called her. VERDICT This book will be greatly appreciated by anyone interested in art photography, 20th-century art, and American cultural history. Highly recommended.

Of course, people have been asking me what she was like as a person and what it was like to employ a genius nanny. Well, she was no Mary Poppins, if what you have in mind is Julie Andrews in the 1964 Disney movie. But she was a lot like the original character in P.L. Travers’s 1934 novel: eccentric, opinionated, peppery. When she came to work for my family in 1982, our kids were eight years, six years, and five months old. She was businesslike and usually competent, but our children knew she was much more interested in taking photographs than she was in them. She never took them for a walk without her Rollei twin-lens reflex camera hanging around her neck (during her life she took over 100,000 pictures). My Source: lens.blogs.nytimes.com: Vivian Maier Jeffrey Goldstein Collectionkids don’t remember her with any special affection, and I am afraid it is true that one time she wandered off somewhere during a walk and the kids had to get home by themselves.

Her terrific photographs of children shed light on her complicated attitude toward them. Some of her images show bright-eyed, confident-looking children, but something about the photo tells you that such confidence cannot last. More often, her images show anxious children in situations that look uncomfortable or dangerous. There is a fabulous shot of a woman standing outdoors behind a table; it takes a couple of beats before you notice the sad child sitting in the shadow under the table. Children made her uneasy. She was not afraid of them but she was certainly afraid for them—afraid for their safety, their chances for happiness in what she saw as a difficult and disappointing world. I think she wanted to stop time with her camera to keep them safe.

At one point, impressed with her intense picture taking, I asked Vivian to let me see some of her work. The half dozen prints she showed me were terrific. I asked her why in the world she had not made a career out of photography.Source: Vivian Maier, courtesy Jeffrey Goldstein Collection Vivian Maier, Highland Park, Ill. 1965. She knew of course that she was a gifted artist—the geniuses know who they are—but she could not get past her deep paranoia. She told me that if she had not kept her images secret, people would have stolen or misused them. In our age of flagrant internet exhibitionism, her reluctance now seems quite strange…and honorable. As a result of that secrecy, the world might never have seen Vivian’s incredible works—were it not for the sharp eye and dedication of one small independent publisher.

CityFiles Press is almost as sui generis as Vivian was. The two gentlemen who run the press have been honing an uncompromising aesthetic appreciation of cityscapes and urban architecture for many years. They write and produce all of the books they publish—so far five beautiful titles. What a fine thing it is that the work of this highly idiosyncratic street photographer was discovered by people so well equipped to grasp and document her unique contribution. This is indie publishing at its best.

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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