Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Enter The Penguin

I've had the weekend to contemplate last week's news that London-based Pearson PLC, the parent company of "traditional" book publisher Penguin, will purchase self-publishing house Author Solutions, Inc. for $116 million. On the recommendations of various colleagues and advisers, in 2009 I chose to publish my first book, a thriller titled Blood of the Moon, via Author Solutions subsidiary iUniverse. It was my initial foray into so-called "independent publishing," back at a time (not very long ago) when independent publishing options weren't quite so abundant as they are now. Blood of the Moon remains in the iUniverse catalog to this day, so I have a little bit of skin in this new Penguin game, in addition to a perspective different from authors inexperienced with Author Solutions.

I've enjoyed immensely my authorial journey since Blood of the Moon came out. The book has won a few awards, and earned some great reviews. I've traveled around the country to meet enthusiastic and supportive readers at various events. I've forged warm relationships with many gifted authors across all genres, from folks you might not have heard of to perennial residents of the New York Times' bestseller lists.

The question is, have I enjoyed myself these ways because of my relationship with iUniverse, or in spite of it?

The short answer is, in spite of it.

Put is this way: I independently released last year my second book, an anthology of a handful of scary short stories titled Trust and Other Nightmares. Publishing it with iUniverse never crossed my mind. I published the book through Smashwords. Unlike with iUniverse, with Smashwords my independent publishing experience has been nothing but professional, efficient, and pleasurable.

When possible, I like to shake hands with the people with whom I do business. So in May, 2009, I began my relationship with iUniverse by flying from Virginia to visit the company's head offices in Bloomington, Indiana. I toured parts of the facility, and met some earnest people. Shortly thereafter, I contracted with iUniverse to publish Blood of the Moon. Some publication products I purchased from iUniverse, other services I retained from professionals to whom I was referred by contacts at the William Morris Agency's Manhattan offices. Though the journey wasn't always smooth, I was very happy when Blood of the Moon was released in October, 2009.

In the approximately three years since, I've watched Borders fail, and heard Barnes & Noble talk about spinning off the Nook division from the rest of its operations. Somewhat curiously, Amazon has launched imprints in the "traditional" book publishing model to work alongside its CreateSpace (and to some extent Kindle) independent publishing services. Many good independent bookshops I knew and admired have shuttered their windows for the last time, while a few tinker with their business models and continue to satisfy slews of devoted customers.

It has been a tumultuous three years in the book publishing world, with raucous change the only constant.

Except at iUniverse.

For the past six months, I've been trading e-mails and voice-mails with iUniverse about Blood of the Moon royalties due me for the third quarter of 2011. It's not a lot of money, but that's not the point. iUniverse doesn't even dispute that those royalties are due. They simply haven't gotten around to paying them. In legal circles, that's called breach of contract. On the shiny side, I'm informed that this year iUniverse has finally updated its accounting software to accurately track and pay e-book royalties, though I've yet to see any actual evidence of this. Meanwhile, iUniverse has screwed up my federal tax withholding status for 2012, despite acknowledging timely receipt from me of the appropriate tax forms and that my status hasn't changed since 2009. At least iUniverse hasn't wavered in one way they plainly consider seminal to their singular driving definition of first-rate customer service -- they continue to contact me regularly in pathetic attempts to sell me stuff I neither want or need.

And now, enter the Penguin.

I've read a lot of commentary, most of it harsh, about Pearson's buying out Author Solutions. In the press releases trumpeting the acquisition, Penguin C.E.O. John Makinson said purchasing Author Solutions provides Penguin "a leading position in this fast-growing segment of the publishing industry," and that self-publishing "has moved into the mainstream of our industry." In the current book publishing climate the "mainstream" comment makes some sense. But if Makinson and his bosses truly think Author Solutions d/b/a iUniverse represents a "leading position" in independent publishing, they're either victims of deeply flawed due diligence, or they're indulging in a shocking degree of self-delusion.

I can see what some people at Author Solutions get out of this deal. Its C.E.O. Kevin Weiss and his buddies snatch a cash-laden exit strategy from an enterprise they've managed poorly, if not outright carelessly.

It's not so apparent what Penguin's risk-reward analysis is. If Penguin lets matters at iUniverse (one of several Author Solutions self-publishing subsidiaries) and its sister companies proceed as they currently do, federal and state regulatory complaints and class-action lawsuits from wronged authors aren't outlandish considerations. If Penguin spends appropriate time and money to clean up Weiss' messes, it might be able to develop a new way of discovering talented authors among the thousands who eschew the death throes of the "traditional" publishing model for what Smashwords and CreateSpace, among a handful of other companies (but certainly not Author Solutions), do very well. Unfortunately, many sage observers predict Penguin's first significant moves after swallowing up Author Solutions will consist largely of fairly Draconian cost-cutting measures in a desperate quest for "synergies" as it merges the two businesses.

Let's assume for a moment that Penguin's motives are commendable. If so, my modest suggestion is for Makinson and his people to quickly assemble an advisory group of Author Solutions authors, and to request frequently and respect greatly their input. iUniverse don't have to suck like a black hole. It chooses to. That malady doesn't have to be Penguin's choice too.

Unless that's the way the Penguin wants it.

"The main impetus to continue appearing on Batman -- besides
 the desire to get some TV work -- was that it was fashionable."
~~Burgess Meredith~~


  1. Hello Richard Gazala,

    I read with interest your piece published here.
    I have published seven books with iUniverse
    and I cannot say I am happy. About W-9 tax form, this seems to be a scam. Last year I spoke to customer service about this. They are supposed to have the tax information already, and yet they seem to be eager to collect 'taxes'. I checked my account with them just today and I see that my tax information is not there. I had already filled in the form weeks ago. In a word, I am disgusted.

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