Author Solutions: behind the headlines

Author Solutions: behind the headlines

In January Penguin Random House sold its self-publishing business Author Solutions to US investor Najafi. The sale, PRH said, reaffirmed its “focus on consumer book publishing”, but it also felt like a conscious uncoupling from a relationship that was still awaiting consummation.

Penguin bought AS in July 2012 for $116m (£74m), in an effort to take a stake in the growing self- publishing market. At the time, Penguin’s then-c.e.o. John Makinson said “self-publishing has moved into the mainstream of our industry”. He wanted Penguin to “gain skills in customer acquisition and data analytics that will be vital to our future”. The Bookseller said that it was “the day self-publishing came of age”.

Yet if the acquisition made sense in theory, the reality was somewhat mixed. Circumstance was not on its side from the very beginning. The deal between AS and Penguin came only a few months before Penguin-owner Pearson and Bertelsmann, owner of Random House, went public with their decision to combine the trade publishing units. In retrospect some now interpret the AS deal as a way of adding ballast to Penguin at a time when Random House had its own “self- publishing” business: Fifty Shades.

Meanwhile, AS faced its own internal distractions. In May 2013, c.e.o. Kevin Weiss departed, succeeded by Andrew Phillips, then president of Delhi-based Penguin International. In the same month, both AS and Penguin found themselves the subject of a lawsuit filed in the Southern District of New York by three authors who claimed to have been misled by AS (Penguin was later dismissed from the claim). The lawsuit added to the suggestions that AS operated at the murkier end of the vanity market, encouraging authors to sign up to “packages” costing thousands of dollars for services that failed to deliver. The lawsuit claimed AS was a “printing service that fails to maintain even the most rudimentary standards of book publishing, profiting not for its authors but from them”.

AS contested the suits, but the complaints did not come out of the blue. At the time of the Penguin deal, Kate Pool, deputy secretary-general of the Society of Authors in the UK, called the move by Penguin “absolutely extraordinary” and “worrying”. Others had less polite terms: the writer and blogger David Gaughran, who has written extensively about vanity presses—and in particular Author Solutions—says AS operates a “two-bit internet scam”. The Bookseller stopped taking advertising from AS in 2014.

Author Solutions was the subject of a number of lawsuits, which have since been settled.

The cases (the New York lawsuit and a second one in Indiana) were discontinued in late 2015 a few months before the sale to Najafi after confidential settlements were agreed. Nevertheless, the very public legal arguments gave AS’ detractors a field day. It also meant Phillips struggled to publicly defend the business.

With the lawsuits behind it, and the ink dried on the deal with Najafi, Phillips says he now wants to tell the AS story. This, he adds, includes talking about “what Author Solutions is about, why we are good at what we do and why there is a future for this business”.

Phillips says AS is primarily focused on four types of author/user: those for whom publishing a book is part of a “bucket list”; those who wish to support a cause; those for whom publishing is part of a wider business strategy; and those hoping to publish a bestseller. It is the latter type of writer that causes the most grief for AS, partly because such writers now have more options than ever before, and partly because it is these writers that historically have been most vulnerable to exploitation by vanity publishers. Actually, says Phillips, these authors do not make up the rump of the business. “We have authors coming to us with many different motivations. Only a minority are thinking of becoming bestsellers.”

Correcting the record

Phillips says that much of what is written about AS online is incorrect: “You shouldn’t believe everything you read, particularly on social media. There are stories that circulate that, when you look at them, are not true.” When asked to give an example, he highlights two online commentators— Japet Villamro and Karen Turner— both of whom claim to have worked for AS and who have left critical comments about the company on author blogs. Phillips says the business has no record of these individuals. He adds “just because someone is posting a comment on social media or claims to be an employee, that is not always the case, and when we can actually make contact with a real author, any concerns they have are usually addressed to their satisfaction”.

Phillips says much of the criticism comes from individual authors or author groups that are opposed to the assisted-publishing route. “We try to remain focused on what we do very well, regardless of that social media noise. Having said that, we have engaged, and if any of those parties wanted to have a reasonable conversation then we would engage again, but it seems that [some of them] don’t want to have a balanced conversation. I do think there is a fairly entrenched position with some parties which is: ‘There is only one route, and you shouldn’t have to pay.’ I don’t believe that. My view is that authors should have a choice.”

Orna Ross, founder of the UK Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), agrees that there is an impasse. “Author Solutions has never acknowledged feedback from ALLi or the author community, or sought to engage with its critics, aside from one meeting with Andrew Phillips at the London Book Fair in 2013, after which he ignored all the issues raised. I wrote to him again at the end of last year to ask if any of our many concerns were going to be addressed. I have yet to receive a reply.” The SoA’s Pool says, “Our view of Author Solutions has not changed. We would always strongly advise authors to consider very carefully whether what they are paying for is worth the cost (which with AS that tends to be a considerable sum of money).”

Gaughran adds: “I don’t believe that Author Solutions or Andrew Phillips have any genuine interest in reform...but I would be delighted if they proved me wrong.”

Changing tack

It is clear from talking to Phillips that reform is not on the agenda, and one can understand why: it is not short of customers. AS dates its origins back to 1997, when it first opened in Bloomington, Indiana. It became Author Solutions in 2007 after it bought rival iUniverse: five years later Penguin valued it at $116m. Phillips will not say so, but it is clear that sales remain roughly where they were when Penguin acquired the unit, reflecting how the market has shifted, but also how the merger of its parent impacted its ability to flex and grow. “We have grown our author base, the mix of our sales changed, but self-publishing is a very mature market now. We are at a very stable level and that is reflected in our trading.”

The focus, says Phillips is on customer service, highlighting, as he has done in other interviews, its A+ rating with the self-regulatory Better Business Bureau in the US, as well as the retention of its author clients. “We always did take it seriously, now we take it even more seriously. Our mission in the world is to service authors and help them achieve their publishing goals. We have a meeting every Thursday at 2 p.m. and what we look at are our contacts with authors, and what we can learn from that. We monitor customer service—when you are inside you see a lot of incredibly passionate people, and that is not so visible, perhaps, when you read about Author Solutions.” Phillips also points to its two Twitter feeds (@AuthorCareTom and @AuthorCareKevin) who respond directly to customer complaints.

AS is incredibly attentive to its customers: The Bookseller’s Sarah Shaffi, who investigated the business two years ago, says that “if there were awards for persistency, Author Solutions would win”. She adds: “The company does like to sell, sell, sell. My first conversation with them lasted an hour, and consisted of a quick trip through the various packages on offer, with each one getting gradually cheaper as I said no. There was a push to get me to sign up during a discount period in that initial phone call, and during subsequent emails (one of which urged me to take advantage of a ‘50% offer for the first two weeks’ of a particular month).” She is still being contacted two years later.

Phillips says authors can have their contact details removed from the database at any time: “it is an easy equation, they call us, we call them, if they do not want to be called they can opt out. There is also a limit we put on the number of phone calls, the caveat being that if we launch a new service we will re-engage with an author.”

AS operates five imprints: AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, Trafford and the more recent Wordclay. Phillips says there is little overlap between the writers who are attracted to one imprint over another. The cost of publishing packages across these imprints ranges from $299 to $15,000, though there are also add-ons (such as marketing) that can be selected separately. One recent addition is the Hollywood Producer’s Pick, which creates a script from a novel that is then put in front of Hollywood management and production company Thruline Entertainment.

Phillips denies, however, that these packages escalate too steeply. “The perception is that AS is offering high-priced packages, and to some extent,that is true, but we do start with a zero-priced model, and we do have a DIY tool that is available completely free of charge. There is a misconception around this. We do go up the price scale, but that is an author’s choice. I don’t think they go up steeply: it’s not a question of going from $499 to $15,000, there are a number of different price points along the way, and you can look at the value of each of those packages. We are transparent about that. We don’t try to hide the prices.” Phillips cites four AS-published books that have been optioned by film producers. The AS website lists 60 titles that have been picked up by traditional publishers. “That’s not the goal of the majority of authors, it’s certainly a success for those who want to go that direction.”

He says that for new clients the “initial order on average is around $1,000”, adding that “if they don’t want to pay, they can publish for free”. AS runs two low-priced services: Booktango and the Penguin-created BookCountry. The former enables authors to publish in e-book format for free (including ISBN); the latter to use community tools to develop their writing. AS also runs an “author learning centre”, offering tips and tools for an annual feel of $149—Phillips says AS would like to play a role in every area of an author’s career, from education to reviews, “we not just thinking about the publishing piece.”

In addition to its own imprints, AS runs a number of partner imprints with traditional publishers, including: Archway Publishing with Simon & Schuster; Balboa Press, a division of Hay House; LifeRich Publishing, an imprint of Reader’s Digest; and WestBow Press, a division of HarperCollins’ businesses Thomas Nelson and Zondervan.

Author Solutions has a number of partnerships with traditional publishers.

Internationally, it operates Partridge in India, South Africa and Singapore with Penguin Random House; it runs Megustaescribir with PRH Grupo Editorial in Barcelona, for authors writing in Spanish; in Germany it operates GABAL Global Editions with German publisher GABAL, offering US market exposure for German authors; and in Australia it runs Balboa Press Aus.

Each individual publisher partner is able to tailor the packages. Archway, for example, offers attendance to an author reception at BookExpo America for those packages costing more than $4,999. Phillips does not believe—as for example the SoA does—that the association with a traditional publisher is misleading for authors, rather that it means those publishers can offer authors a positive alternative path to publication.

The like line

Phillips says he does not know the price Najafi paid for AS, but says the group was interested in the business before Penguin bought it. Reminiscent of Victor Kiam, a number of Najafi family members had published with AS—the purchase perhaps then the ultimate endorsement.

The sale to Najafi, Phillips says, will not impact AS’ development, but instead give it impetus. “The sale, by PRH, was not about us. We became less of a focus when PRH doubled in size. We now have an opportunity to move faster and grow our business quicker. Najafi will take a long-term view—there is no pressure or time limit.” His own contract, he says, is open-ended: “My life has not been about one sector of publishing, or even just about publishing.”

But does the separation from PRH mean that the ambition of bringing traditional publishing and self- publishing together is over? “What Penguin did was visionary: bringing together two market leaders. But having said that, what we always intended on doing was running them as two different businesses.”

He cites the international expansion as a key success of the PRH years, and this push will continue as self- publishing becomes a meaningful concept outside of English-language territories. “A priority is growing outside of the US, particularly in other languages. One of the ‘go forwards’ is to be more local, and by that I mean have more local services appropriate to the local market. At some point I would like to have a presence [in the UK]. There are some things you can do remotely, but in terms of talking to the community here, we need to be here.”

Global reach

AS employs around 1,600 staff, with 400 in the US, and 1,200 in the Phillipines, mainly handling operational functions, sales teams, fulfilment teams and training teams. The majority of editorial functions are handled in the US, Phillips says, though some are run out of the Philippine island Cebu.

A further opportunity is to use the firm’s core competencies in other areas, and Phillips highlights its recent deal with the Bertelsmann-owned university Alliant. “There are a lot of colleges that have a mission to spread knowledge, but a lot of them don’t have presses. There is an element of curation there, as the faculty will want to select what they want to publish, with the faculty paying, but then we come on board as the partner.”

And as for the naysayers? “If our story is known and understood, I don’t think there is anything Author Solutions does that is at odds with the goals of authors. I think it comes down to giving authors a choice. I don’t think anyone should be saying authors can’t buy some services if that is what they want.”