Should you write on?
01.01.70 | Jane Smith
This is the first of a series of blogs by Jane Smith about the phenomenal growth in self-publishing.
Last autumn YouWriteOn announced it would publish 5,000 books for free, in time for Christmas. Ted Smith of YouWriteOn and Tom Chalmers of Legend Press, who are behind the scheme, claim it was a huge success: but how’s it really doing?
As Christmas approached and deadlines slipped by many of the writers who had submitted their work had no idea when or if their books were going to be published. When their emails went unanswered they asked questions on YouWriteOn’s message board: I saw many of those questions disappear; then entire threads disappeared; and the week before Christmas the whole message board was closed down. It still hasn’t reopened and, despite Smith’s assurance that it’s closed for updating, YouWriteOn’s internet management company Zarr has confirmed to me that no updates to the website are being made.
While 273 books have now appeared online, they’re all from writers who paid the optional £40 “distribution fee”: I’ve not yet found any of the titles produced for free available for sale (though authors can buy them direct from YouWriteOn). That “distribution fee” provides an ISBN, which gets a book online and enables booksellers to make special orders: but it doesn’t get the book onto bookshops' shelves.
The 60% royalty rate, which Smith claimed was four times higher than royalties paid by mainstream publishers, was calculated “after printing costs”, while the mainstream royalties he referred to are based on cover price. One particularly disappointed writer asked me to explain how her 60% royalty could possibly equate to the 79p she’s now been told she’ll earn per copy sold--11% of its £6.99 cover price.
The lack of editorial selection or advice, the absence of sales and marketing support, and the unattractive template covers have caused concern among publishing professionals. Scott Pack wrote on Sally Zigmond’s blog, ". . . how an influx of thousands of unedited works will end up baffles me.”
It’s probable that few writers will sell more than a handful of copies. In a news piece on theBookseller.com, Chalmers highlighted one title that had sold "more than 1,000 copies". But in emails seen by me, Chalmers admits that these were sold direct to its author.
Is this vanity publishing? Make up your own mind. It’s widely accepted that a vanity press is one which makes the bulk of its income from writers rather than readers, either by charging fees upfront, or by selling authors their own books.
Chalmers’s statement that they now plan to publish just over 1,000 books leads me to assume that they’ve received £40,000 in “distribution fees” from their writers without having to sell a single book. Consider too Smith’s and Chalmers’s other joint venture which is still operational, which offers to publish anyone willing to pay fees up to £1,499. And then consider that both YouWriteOn and Legend Press have received funding from Arts Council England.
From June 2005 to October 2008, YouWriteOn received nearly £85,000 in funding from Arts Council England, while Legend Press received £12,000. This led many writers to assume the publishing scheme was also supported by the Arts Council: but the Arts Council funding was provided solely for YouWriteOn’s peer review scheme. Eventually, Arts Council England instructed YouWriteOn to make clear that the Arts Council neither funds nor endorses this publishing scheme. A small disclaimer to that effect duly appeared at the YouWriteOn website, but the Arts Council’s logo remains on the top of every YouWriteOn web page—including those promoting the two publishing schemes.
Of the many writers who submitted their books to the scheme, some have now cancelled their contracts, and some still don’t know when or if their books will be published. One writer ordered thirty copies of her own book to sell at the launch party she’d paid for and they all arrived with green stripes across the cover she’d paid to have professionally designed; another has found that his cover image, title, author name and ISBN have been confused with other books’ details.
While some of those errors have now been corrected it is not surprising that some writers now deeply regret ever getting involved. Meanwhile, YouWriteOn intends to reopen for submissions this spring.