Not All Subsidy Presses Are Created Equal: My Beef with Author Solutions

As the publisher of She Writes Press, a publishing model that falls under many categories—partnership publishing; hybrid publishing; subsidy publishing; self-publishing—I am often asked how we’re different from Author Solutions. And occasionally, because we charge for our services, we’re accused of being no different from Author Solutions. I’ll get to why that’s a hard pill to swallow in a bit.

I’ve been debating over whether to write about the difference between a press like She Writes Press and Author Solutions for a long time. Though there are many many many voices out there that are openly critical about Author Solutions and their practices, I’ve been hesitant to weigh in publicly because there are a lot of power players in the mix. Author Solutions now owns Xlibris, iUniverse, and Author House (its early imprints), but also its newer imprints, collaborations with major houses, which include Balboa with Hay House, Archway with Simon & Schuster, Westbow with Thomas Nelson, and Abbott Press with Writer’s Digest. To top it all off, since 2013, they’re owned by Random House/Penguin (owned by Bertelsmann and Pearson). That Random House/Penguin owns the self-publishing division of Simon & Schuster should give you pause, yes.

I heard about Author Solutions early on (they came on the scene in 2006). I started seeing their ads showing up when self-publishing was still a bit of a dirty word. No one I knew was self-publishing in 2007. I was deeply immersed in Seal Press, acquiring books and only barely aware of the major shifts that were about to rock the publishing world.

What Author Solutions got right back then was that there was an opportunity out there, and they seized it. They saw that tons of people were wanting to self-publish, and that they didn’t want to do it themselves. They truly were on the cutting edge of the whole hybrid model (as was Author House—the imprint they absorbed and expanded—before them). But unfortunately, this is where what they got right stops. Where Author Solutions has failed its authors is in not seeing the value in each and every single book, in not understanding that a book that goes out into the world is its author’s baby. They do not care about these babies, nor do they care to educate or nurture the parents. They don’t have any mechanism to help authors understand when their books are half-baked and therefore not ready. It’s not Author Solutions’ job to save authors from themselves, I realize, but a huge injustice is being done to publishing at large that so so so many books are going out into the world on their companies’ labels when they’re not ready to be published.

That they don’t care about editorial quality, however, is only the beginning. I’ve seen Author Solutions paperbacks that are 600 pages long and priced at $30—a product no one other than the author’s friends will ever buy. They do not help their authors understand the industry, or why price points matter. They also have subpar design. Even an amateur book designer understands that a book’s interior design is based on its cover fonts, but I’ve seen countless Author Solutions books that look as if whomever laid it out never even saw the cover. They probably didn’t.

While all of the editorial issues bother me (and, of course, since I’m an editor, they should), it wasn’t until 2012, when Author Solutions came knocking on my door, that I started to truly uncover what I now find so unsettling about them. In the early months of co-founding She Writes Press with Kamy Wicoff, we were approached by Author Solutions. They wanted what we had. The idea of adding a women’s imprint to their roster was appealing. At the time, I was concerned about their editorial and design issues, but I figured there must be a workaround on that. Like any new business owner, I was interested in the idea of a partnership with a company that had more resources than we did. Plus, I admired Hay House (and still do), so I figured I’d do a little exploring. And this is when I got my real education in how Author Solutions works.

They offered to put me in touch with the one person at Hay House who apparently acquires for Balboa. I was never able to reach that person, however. They highlighted for me how easy my role as publisher would be. All I had to do was feed them the leads, and they’d take it from there. As an acquiring editor for many years, I understand greatly the power of courting authors. Authors want (and many of them need) to be validated. Having someone like me whose whole job was to drum up authors could have been amazing for our bottom line (I’m pretty good at courting), but I am not and have never been an editor (and now I’m not a publisher) who doles out praise gratuitously. I personally don’t think it does any good to stroke an author’s ego when their book needs a lot of work. Plus, I wasn’t looking for my job to be easy. I wanted to do something quality—and to continue to support those countless authors I knew who had beautiful, well-written books but couldn’t get a traditional publishing deal.

Furthermore, I started seeing Balboa’s messaging—promoting the idea to authors that they were going to be part of the Hay House family, and that they had a shot at publishing with Hay House if their book was, to simplify the point, good enough. While it’s true that Hay House has now published a couple of books from the Balboa list (to much fanfare and many press releases), there haven’t been many. When I was at Seal Press, I used to say that the percentage of books that came from the slush pile maybe amounted to 5 percent (one book a year, if that, on a list of 50 or so books). The number of Balboa titles Hay House has published is not listed on its site, but I imagine that percentage is in the .000s.

Author Solutions has been accused of exploiting authors. They’ve been sued by authors. They definitely upsell things authors don’t need (the worst of which was an offer I saw a couple years ago to send authors to Book Expo to the tune of $10,000 for some exclusive party that anyone who’s been in the industry for one year or more knows will do nothing to actually promote sales). But their worst offense, in my opinion, is preying on aspiring authors’ dreams. Publishing is a tricky business, and lots of writers, when they’re first starting out, are very very green, and by extension very, very naïve. In my work as a coach, I give my clients reality checks about what to expect. In my writing and in my work with She Writes Press authors, I’m always explicit that even selling 500 copies of a book is hard work. I sought out a deal for traditional distribution because I wanted our authors to have the best possible chance in the marketplace, and I saw how a sales team, solid distribution, and preorders would offer that. And now She Writes Press is in the process of securing a marketing and publicity partnership because we see that it’s the final missing piece, and something authors who want to succeed truly need.

Author Solutions is not problematic, as some people think, just because they charge. And on this point I cannot distance myself completely from how they operate. They’re a subsidy publishing option, and so is She Writes Press. They are not, however, a publishing house, and She Writes Press is. They are a mill. They will take anything, regardless of quality, and put it out into the world, and they will sometimes even make the end result worse. And for this reason I conclude that they do not care about books. I watch Top Chef, and I’m always amused but also moved when Tom Colicchio is offended by a contestant who has not honored their fresh ingredients. Usually they’ve butchered the protein poorly, or covered up the essence of the ingredient by using some weird preparation or sauce. And he’s truly incensed. I feel this way about publishing services like Author Solutions, because I feel something similar: they are not honoring books, or the long history of book publishing. And unfortunately, the otherwise lovely people at Writer’s Digest, Hay House, Thomas Nelson, Simon & Schuster, and Random House are complicit in this dishonoring.

It does no one a lick of good to put books into the world that are not ready to be out there, or to publish books with quality, length, design, or price point issues. All these things contribute to dismal sales and shattered dreams. I saw what Author Solutions was offering She Writes Press in a partnership and I walked away. It would have been a very easy job to deliver aspiring authors to their doorstep, to opt into a relationship with a company that would have done tons of advertising for us and gotten our name out there in a big way. But it also would have been selling out big time.

I want to take a moment here to say that some Author Solutions books are just fine. Many have won awards. Authors who go in with their eyes wide open and who demand good treatment, or who have some handle on what makes for a good book fare better. There are authors who’ve been picked up by Hay House and Thomas Nelson. (Not sure about Simon & Schuster yet.) I also believe Author Solutions started out with good intentions, but like anything that gets too big for its own good, its own acquisition strategy and greed has contributed to its ickiness.

So yes, it hurts me a little when people accuse She Writes Press of being like Author Solutions, though I know it isn’t true. But it hurts me just as much to hear people I respect talking about their partnerships with Author Solutions (maybe they haven’t done their homework?) like publishing with these imprints is on par with a traditional publishing experience. To be clear, it is not. There is not a single publishing company out there that would publish a book without a copyedit and/or a proofread. Publishing houses stand behind their titles 100 percent. I worked on several books at Seal that I literally had to salvage—and presses pay a lot of money to maintain their editorial reputation, even if it means doing whatever it takes to make sure a book passes muster. After all, this is the foundation upon which the industry was built. Good books.

Author Solutions—though seemingly the most popular “solution” for large houses these days who want to create a self-publishing arm of their business—is not the only option. I want to give a shout-out to Turning Stone Press for choosing something different for Red Wheel/Weiser. Turning Stone Press, while not as inexpensive as the Author Solutions base packages, is actually part of Red Wheel/Weiser. They have a mission and a submissions process. To publish with Turning Stone Press is to publish with Red Wheel/Weiser. You actually do have access to their team and their expertise. In other words, they’re delivering what they promise. Turning Stone Press is the self-publishing model that Simon & Schuster and Hay House and Thomas Nelson could have turned to when they made the decision to enter into the self-publishing space. But the readymade model Author Solutions offered was easier. It meant only allocating a single employee to the task at hand, allowing the press to pay attention to what they really care about: their traditional list. I get it, but what I don’t get are the false promises that otherwise self-published authors are publishing “with them.” In the end it all comes down to sales and money and volume. I guess it gives authors bragging rights, too. What Author Solutions represents is sad for publishing. It’s a company that took what could have been a good thing—supporting authors to succeed—and opted for an easier, faster way to get books out into the world to the detriment of authors and readers alike.

*Generic book courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com.

Superstar Author Events: Discoverability on Steroids

So here’s something exciting in the world of publishing. Oprah is launching a fall tour—The Life You Want Weekend Tour!—that features a roster of celebrities, yes, but these are celebrities who are best known and connected to one another for something they share in common: being authors. It looks like the line-ups will vary from city to city, but on the books so far are Deepak Chopra, Iyanla Vanzant, Elizabeth Gilbert, Mark Nepo, and Rob Bell.

 

Oprah has long been on a mission to create and hold a certain kind of space. In the press materials announcing this event she says: “All of my life I have wanted to lead people to an empathy space. To a gratitude space.” She gives space to thought leaders and deep thinkers (the kind of people she seems to gravitate toward) in the form of her Soul Series radio show, Super Soul Sunday on OWN, and now this fall tour. What Oprah has to offer feels a bit like church for the progressive masses, because no matter what your belief system, she’s consistently offering a menu of content for the soul. Since leaving her show, she continues to live closer to her own purpose, and she deserves serious credit for walking her talk.

But back to The Life You Want Weekend Tour! and why it’s actually an unprecedented book event. Conceptualized and brought to the public by Harpo Productions and William Morris Endeavor Entertainment (a branch of Oprah’s talent agency), the tour itself is a tool for discoverability. If you keep up on what’s new in books and/or book publishing, you’ll have heard about discoverability, and the many strategies underway to try to help readers discover new books. With the decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores, discoverability a big problem that’s met with a lot of hand-wringing from publishers and authors alike–the idea being that with so many books flooding the marketplace, how can readers discover books they love, or more to the point, how can publishers and authors help readers discover their books?

Oprah’s weekend tour is one innovative strategy for/solution to this problem, though it begs mentioning here that Sounds True is a leader in this author-leader event space. Its third-annual Wake-Up Festival is happening this August 20-24 in Colorado, featuring mostly spiritual leaders, but certainly there’s a focus on the leaders’ written word, and there will be a lot of book-selling going on.

To date I’ve only seen events like these oriented toward transformation, with a fairly overt spiritual angle. But it seems to me that rock star author weekends can and should be the wave of the future. I would certainly pay to have a daylong event featuring my favorite memoirists speaking on a particular topic, beyond the usual confines of what we see at literary conference keynotes. Elizabeth Gilbert, after all, is best known as a memoirist. She’s raised her own profile and legitimacy through her Ted talks, but she’s a great example of someone who’s broken out of her genre not only by writing a novel, but also by becoming an expert on creativity and genius and expectations—all topics she’s explored in her speaking. Who knows what she’ll tackle onstage with Oprah.

Authors have always had the potential to rise to a certain level of celebrity, but you don’t often (ever?) see authors hitting the road in group tours. The author tour has historically been the realm of the single author, generally (though not always) supported by the author’s publishing house. However, author tours are less common than ever because publishing houses support them less than ever. It’s getting harder for authors—even well-known ones—to bring out big crowds, and tours are therefore largely discouraged in traditional houses for all but the biggest authors.

Oprah’s fall tour is way more than an author tour. And she’s not doing it to promote a book. But her collaboration with William Morris Endeavor Entertainment is evidence that these eight weekends are about books—and about finding bigger and broader audiences, not only for Oprah but also for the other leaders she’s bringing along with her. That events like these would be seen as a discoverability tool—and that they have the capacity to be on par with going to a concert—is pretty cool for books. It’s good for authors, too, because it showcases innovation at work. There are lots of ways to get the word out about your book, no matter who you are, but beginning to see yourself as a thought leader capable of holding your own in a conversation about ideas is a critical component to getting the ball rolling.

So thanks, Oprah, and thanks, William Morris. I’m going to Seattle in November. I hope to see some of you there!

Concert image courtesy of BigSockPhoto.com.

[Behind the Book] Loveyoubye

By the time I was ready to submit my memoir, Loveyoubye, for publication I was already burned out from my efforts to get my two YA African-based novels, Monkey’s Wedding and Mine Dances, published. A real sob story, that one. At the last moment my publisher merged with another house and I was dumped. This was during all the changes taking place in the publishing industry, along with the advent of vampire and teen fantasies.

My agent and I parted company and I launched back into the fray to get published. But then my husband started disappearing for weeks at a time and I threw myself into writing Loveyoubye to try to make sense of it all. After I finished the book, I went through the whole rigmarole of querying again and got a few nibbles. But it was only after I was rejected by a well-known agent, a solid recommendation (which assured me of at least a fair chance)—“the writing is excellent, but it would be a tough sell in today’s publishing climate”—that I decided to check out other publishing options.

As I’m sure anyone who has researched alternatives to traditional publishing knows, it’s a mind-boggling, soul-sucking process. Even the terms given to the various available options are confusing. Literary agent Jane Friedman breaks it down to “Partnership,” “Fully-Assisted,” “DIY + Distributor” and “DIY Direct,” while others contend that overall there are only two options: “Subsidy” and “Self-Publishing.” The more I researched, the more frustrated and discouraged I became. The “subsidy/partnership/fully-assisted” publishing services were either too expensive, or, as in the case of Windy City, who published a friend’s book, way too expensive (plus they did a bad editing job).

And as for self-publishing. I’d read every how-to book I could get my hands on, as well as all those online guides. I knew that if I set my mind to it, I could do it. But honestly, I really didn’t want to. The whole proposition made me want to take up drinking the hard stuff. And then there was the stigma attached to self-published books because of the generally poor quality of the writing/editing, along with the fact that unless you’re a marketing maniac like Amanda Hocking, et al, most self-pubbed books don’t have a long shelf life. I didn’t want to be another Wile E. Coyote charging over the cliff, beep-beeping all the way to the bottom of the canyon floor.

So while I agonized over which path to take, I had Loveyoubye professionally edited. Whatever I ended up doing, I wanted to make sure I started out with a scoured and polished manuscript. I chose Thomas White, a recommended professional editor and Pushcart nominee. He not only helped me tighten and clarify, he asked all those questions my mentor and other readers hadn’t; he made me dig clear down to my toes.

Enter She Writes Press. Something a little different. Although it called itself Partnership Publishing, SWP vetted submissions. That’s a biggie. It took three months for me to decide to sign. Still hoping for a publisher on a white horse to come galloping along with a huge advance in hand? Probably. But the fact of the matter is I needed to move forward, a big theme in my book. So I signed. Decision made. And then it struck me: I had committed to having my heart, guts, and soul laid out in print. The final step forward.

In tailoring my essay as to how I made the decision to publish with SWP, I didn’t mention the recently added bonus of having Ingram Publishing Services come on board as SWP’s distributor. They usually only handle traditional publishers. It was a coup for SWP. And a coup for me. Now I’ll have a sales force behind me, as well as become eligible for reviews by Publisher’s Weekly, and similar outlets that normally don’t review “partnership” or self-published books. Loveyoubye will be coming out in April 2014. 

[Behind the Book] An Author’s Dream-Come-True Moments

“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.”

~Gloria Steinem

On a sunny February afternoon in 2013, a big brown UPS truck pulled up in front of my house. My husband and I spied it from our open garage, where I was admiring the custom stain he’d applied to the oak mantel he was building. Tom is always ordering one or another widget or gadget from obscure websites that provide replacement parts or new attachments for his other widgets and gadgets. Deliveries are a near daily occurrence at the Fasbinder house. But when the UPS driver, Dave (I learned his name later) pulled out the second of what would be eight identical boxes addressed to me, my heart hammered against my ribs.

It’s my book. The words rang in my ears.

I know that the singular noun form is grammatically incorrect, and that eight boxes contain plural books, not a single book. But in my mind these were not eight boxes, each containing twenty-eight books. This was my book. Writers understand in their bones the distinction I make here. While Dave continued to unload boxes and Tom assisted, I snatched a utility knife from the garage.

Buzzing in the background, Tom and Dave chatted–I suppose about the weather, or the Giants, or how many stops Dave had that day. I heard none of it. I had been deafened by the contents of the box.

There it was, my book, cloned and stacked with its littermates, birthed by their mother press. I held my breath. There before me sat a thing previously held only in my imagination, a real and actual noun—a touchable thing that had dimension and weight, color and texture. I picked up one copy and stroked its felt-finished cover. Smelled its inky pages. Eyed the cover image that seemed to emit its own light.

“That’s a lot of books,” Dave said to Tom.

“Yeah, my wife’s a writer.” I’d never before heard Tom use this description of me. I’ve always written, but it hasn’t been my day job. My heart rate must’ve launched me to diagnosable cardiac distress levels at that point.

“Congratulations,” Dave said to me. “What’s it about?”

This would be my first presentation as a published author. Author…another new noun had entered my life with this delivery. “It’s set in San Francisco,” I stammered,  “and it’s about the perils of passion and the seemingly inextricable link between artistic genius and madness.” (Full disclosure: that’s not how I described the book that day. It’s more likely that I blubbered unintelligible nonsense about it being a dark love story…but not a romance romance…I mean…you know, something that men would like too and all…and on and on. My babbling wouldn’t be so great in the re-telling and I’ve worked on my elevator pitch since then, so I’ve taken poetic license with my own dialogue here.)

“Sounds good,” Dave said.

On impulse I asked, “Would you like a copy? As my thanks for being the one that delivered it?” Suddenly my ears got hot. I mean really, what could the man say? Maybe he didn’t even read books. Perhaps he was wishing he’d just delivered eight boxes of the newest version Grand Theft Auto, or cases of Jim Beam, or a gross of banana hammocks.

“Wow, that would be great!” he said with genuine enthusiasm. Then a sheepish expression crossed his rugged face. “But is it okay if I ask you to sign it? When you get famous, I’ll be able to brag that I got the first copy.”

My cheeks throbbed as I penned my first inscription on the title page of Fire & Water. Childish glee tickled the entire surface of my skin as I handed Dave the book.

To be truthful, by this point my publishing path had taken a detour from my original dream. About the time I was ready to submit my book for publication, the usually narrow openings in the doors of traditional publishers—my Plan A—had been closed even more tightly by the recession and the continuing consolidation of the big houses into fewer, bigger publishing houses. This was especially true for the unpublished and unknown. Light barely shone through the cracks in those doors by this point. I got an agent, tried to stick my little pinky newbie toe in the door’s hairline crack, but eventually decided I’d like to have a book—maybe even two or three books—before I become eligible for Social Security. When Plan B, an alternative publishing path appeared before me, I struggled with the idea at first, but then it just felt right.

In hindsight, I know a big part of why this dream-come-true moment occurred is because Plan A didn’t happen. I chose to publish my book with an indie, partnership publisher, in my case She Writes Press. SWP’s acceptance of my book gave me the external validation that the book was “good enough to be published,” a validation I’ll admit I’m shallow enough to need and that purely self-publishing didn’t quite provide for me. And it is no accident that the book is exactly as I hoped; I was included by the press in every stage of its design. This is rare, if not unheard of for newbies at big houses. With my indie, my input was valued and balanced with the skill and knowledge of professionals whose suggestions kept me from making at least a dozen rookie mistakes while staying true to my vision of the story and the finished book. Plan B can sometimes work out better than Plan A…if you’re open to it.

The commercial side of publishing and promoting a book can get overwhelming, discouraging, and just plain tedious. It’s easy fall into the trap of cynicism about “the book business” or to get jaded about yet another novel arriving in the world. But I’m dedicated to celebrating every one of these little dream-come-true moments. I’m doing all I can to imagine new stories and books into reality. I’ll choose silly excitement, girlish glee, and gratitude over cynicism and discouragement every time.

And I’ll always remember Dave the UPS driver as the first guy who got a signed copy of my first book, on the day my husband first called me a writer.

Don’t miss a chance to get a FREE download of Fire & Water, available July 26, 27, and 28th. You can order directly to your Kindle, iPad, or Android reader as well as you PC. This is a great way to support indie and self-published authors.

In the Company of Women.

Yesterday morning, I took a shuttle and a ferry boat to Whidbey Island–the home, for twenty-five years now, of the Hedgebrook Writers’ Colony, a retreat for women writers. I am here for a pre-AWP pow wow with Brooke Warner, the publisher of She Writes Press, Amy Wheeler, the Executive Director of Hedgebrook, and some of the women of VIDA, including Cate Marvin, Amy King and Jennifer Fitzgerald. (Jennifer and Cate had to excuse themselves yesterday morning to do an NPR Morning Edition interview about The Count, one of the most important advocacy tools for women writers anywhere. So cool.) Sometimes I feel like my life is a parody — I am the co-founder of the New York Salon of Women Writers, board chair of Girls Write Now, a founder of She Writes and She Writes Press, formerly of the Advisory Council for the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford and fiction/nonfiction editor for Women’s Studies Quarterly, and now I’m thinking about starting a chick poker night at my place on Fridays.

Any reasonable person might ask: is there some reason I don’t want to be around men?

The fact is that I enjoy men, a lot. I am dating the best one I’ve ever met (yes, we are still in that phase–after five years of being single in the post-divorce wilderness I am madly, stupidly in love), and I’ve got two little men-to-be living with me who are on track so far to be the most wonderful, and most feminist, men ever. My son’s friends are delightful, and so is my father, my brother, and the many other men I call my friends. But when I need the space to be creative, or want to bring people together to build something new or help me solve a problem, it’s almost always women I gravitate to.

I can trace this back to my first meeting with Diane Middlebrook in London more than ten years ago. I had always been a feminist–my mother made sure of that–but Diane was the one who brought me definitively into the she-space by inviting me to be her co-host in founding a salon of women writers. (You can read more about Diane and the salon’s role in seeding She Writes here.) I remember vividly sitting on the deck of her flat on Warrington Crescent, the white balustrade of the terrace bright against the leafy green trees below, the two of us at a small round table, imagining what the salon might be like. The vision that emerged (really, Diane’s) was to bring writers of all generations and genres together at her home or mine to discuss the craft and the business of writing. The mission was unabashedly practical: members of the salon would leave each evening better educated, more inspired, and better connected, than when they arrived. And it would be for women only. Diane observed that some of the women we planned to invite wouldn’t like this–they would feel we were creating a second-class salon, a place for women at the kids table rather than at high table with the grownups, aka men. But when I closed my eyes and imagined who we would ask to speak to us, and who would dominate the discussion that followed, it was as clear to me as it was to her: if men were there, it wouldn’t be what we wanted–or, more important, needed–it to be.

And what did we need it to be? Two seemingly contradictory things: a place where we could forget about being women…and never be asked to forget we were women, either. Having only women in the room made this possible. On the one hand, it freed us, from speakers to attendees, from the “woman writer” prism/prison women are inevitably seen through in a world where “women’s writing” is treated as a sub-genre of male Writing-with-a-capital-W. Diane, a biographer, kicked off our first salon talking about the peculiar ins-and-outs of fair use as they pertained to her work on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and was free to fully immerse herself in her topic without being the token woman on a panel, for example, or being asked how, as a woman, she could be so admiring of Ted Hughes’ poetry. (Both of these things happened to her often in other venues.) At the same time, we could quickly and easily convene a panel to address the Chick Lit label, featuring women like Alix Kates Shulman and Laura Miller of Salon.com, and feel free to have a passionate discussion about its impact on us as women writers without being accused of whining or being told shut up.

I need both of those things. I need to be a writer without being a Woman Writer. I also need to be able to candidly discuss and strategize with other women about being read, reviewed and treated as a Woman Writer, because I will be whether I like it or not. The places and spaces where I can do that aren’t ghettos or hide-outs. They are fueling stations, where I power-up and increase my power-to’s. I come to them not to escape the world, but to fortify myself to flourish in it.

Maybe someday women won’t need or want to gather exclusively in the company of women anymore. But for me, that time hasn’t come yet.

How about you?