Further Thoughts on Traditional Publishers Getting into the Self-Publishing Business

In my brief post earlier today, I mentioned that Simon and Schuster has started a self-publishing division run by Author Solutions, an entity with a reputation for screwing authors.

I wanted to inflict upon you share a few further thoughts with you on the matter.  Why would a major publisher want to start a self-publishing division?  The obvious answer is money, of course.  Which makes all the noise about traditional publishers ensuring quality, curating culture, and defending literature all the more obvious as the load of horse pucky it is.

David Gaughran did an excellent job on summarizing why this venture is a bad thing for writers.  I’ll not repeat what he said here.  For one thing, this isn’t an echo chamber, and for another, I doubt I could say it as well as he did.

Instead, I want to speculate on how this might come back to bite Simon and Schuster in the ass, and what serious writers can do to make that happen.

In the comments to my post, Paul McNamee speculated that this move may have been calculated “to sabotage the self-publishing industry from the inside out.”  If I’m following Paul’s logic (and Paul, please correct me if I’m not), then what this company is doing is…well, I’m not sure.  Because I can’t see any way that this won’t boomerang on Simon and Schuster.  It might hurt self-publishing by taking some writers out of the game by creating such a hell that they give up writing.  I’ll explain why that isn’t necessarily a bad thing shortly, when I discuss why not all writers are created equal.  It might also give the general reading public the idea that all self-published books are crap.  I think that’s what Paul meant.  Even so, I can’t see Simon and Schuster coming out ahead in this deal.

Here’s why:  Big publisher buys/creates/conjures-up-through-diabolism a division that will help authors self-publish.  Fees for “publishing”, never mind editing, are exorbitant.  Anyone who signs up for this program is either desperate, stupid, incompetent, or some combination of the above.  If that comment offends you, too bad.  People who pay vast sums of money for someone to do what they could learn to do themselves (publish, not edit) or pay a percentage for the life of the copyright instead of a flat fee for a service(editing, cover art, etc.) have to be at least one of those things.

There’s absolutely no reason anyone who wants to have a writing career would agree to those terms.  Period.

What I think could happen is that Simon and Schuster, or rather Author Solutions, will begin to attract manuscripts that are horrendous.  Horrendous in terms of quality, horrendous in terms of story, horrendous in terms of character.  Horrendous, completely and totally.  I don’t know what imprint these books will be published under or how closely they will be associated with Simon and Schuster in the mind of the average reader.  From what I understand, most readers don’t know or care about the publishers of the books they read.  I’m so far outside the distribution on this, it isn’t even funny.  Ever since I was old enough to go to a bookstore and select my own reading material, I’ve been hyperconscious of who the publishers were.  That was how I  selected my next book.  I looked for things by publishers who had published the things I liked. 

What I predict is that the prophesied tsunami of crap won’t come from self-publishing in general but from this new venture of Author Solutions and Simon and Schuster.  What I hope is that it will be so bad, and so many readers will get burned by what they buy, that they’ll start to look at who the publisher is more closely.  And that Simon and Schuster will be prominently associated with this in the public eye.  Resulting, of course, in falling revenue.  A company that does this deserves all the bad that happens to it.

See, not all writers are created equal.. And I’m not talking talent here.  I’m talking about professionalism.  A true professional understands the field in which he/she works.  Understands what is ethical and what isn’t.  Understands that in almost every endeavor, success only comes after toil and hard work.  That most writers have to learn their craft, and while some learn quicker than others, one novel, memoir, or nonfiction book does not a writer make.  Dean Wesley Smith, in more than one post on his blog, distinguishes between writers and authors: writers keep writing no matter how many books they’ve published while authors write one or two books and never get over it, basking in the glory of a small number of publications, never building a career.  I think he has a good point.

I predict Simon and Schuster will attract a lot of author wanna-bees, people who don’t understand the first rule about writing for a living.  Money flows to the writer.  Period.  No exceptions. 

In a way, Simon and Schuster will be doing the rest of us a big favor.  They’ll be clearing the field of all the people who just want to be published.  These folks will get discouraged and quit.  Dean thinks this is already happening and that the trend will accelerate.  Those serious about their writing will do the best they can on their current project, put it up for sale, and move on to the next project.  These will be the people who will have careers.  These are the people who will write great literature.  These are the people who will define culture.  Not the major publishing houses. 

To paraphrase an old saying:  The best revenge is in writing well.  That’s how serious writers will help this horrendous lapse in judgment come back and bite Simon and Schuster on the ass.  By writing good books, books that people will want to read.  And doing it consistently enough and often enough that the difference in product becomes so obvious a blind man could see it.  If that happens, and I admit it’s a stretch, then Simon and Schuster could very well get a reputation for producing a tsunami of crap.

I don’t know if that will ever happen.  A lot will depend on how closely Simon and Schuster are associated in the minds of the public with what’s going to be coming out of this deal.  There’s been a lot of talk in recent months that publishers need to develop distinctive brands in the minds of the reading public.  That can be, and hopefully will be, a two-edged sword.  We’ll just have to wait and see. 

Oh, and I’m looking forward to Konrath’s reaction to the news.

I wrote last December that I wasn’t going to be buying many books from major publishers but would be focusing on indie works.  That decision was reinforced today.

15 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on Traditional Publishers Getting into the Self-Publishing Business

  1. David J. West

    Very well put Keith.

    I could have sworn I posted on the earlier post too–but its not there? In any case, one of the only business models with all of this that makes sense, is how much S&S will get from the wannabe’s (and I am continually surprised at how many there are, who don’t understand money flows to the author) AND in the extremely unlikely event that someone submits a good book it will fall into the “Backlist” mentioned on Steven Pressfields blog here. http://www.stevenpressfield.com/2012/11/unsustainable/
    Either way, the big guys come out ahead financially, though not ethically. It does equate to taking candy from babies who just don’t know any better, though I have to agree with you that perhaps in the long run it is for the best. I just couldn’t personally take their money in good conscience.

    1. Keith

      I’m not sure what happened on the other post. I replied to Paul’s comment, and at some point it disappeared. I never saw your comment, although I appreciate that you did respond.

      I haven’t seen Pressfield’s blog yet, so thanks for the link. Dean Wesley Smith had a few things to say as well: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=8260

      I couldn’t take their money in good conscience, either. I’m hoping Author Solutions gets hit with some major legal action over some of their past shennanigans and the resulting bad publicity hits Simon and Schuster and Penguin (which now owns Author Solutions) hard.

  2. David Alastair Hayden

    I wouldn’t call this self-publishing in this age. I’d stick to calling systems like this vanity publishing. Was it Konrath who started calling traditional vanity? Gotta love that guy. I think they run a chance of losing a substantial amount of money since the cat’s out of the bag fairly well that people can do this themselves.

  3. Paul R. McNamee

    Honestly, I am not one given to conspiracy theories but I could think of no other reason why S&S would bother with this plan. I was forgetting the plain greed factor, though. It’s not really about the effort to sabotage self-publishing with a terrible model and bad reputation – that would take too long to see a turn-around.

    No, it’s simply about S&S finding a way to get more money. They’ll milk all kinds of naive, vain authors without putting in much effort. Heck, they’re even outsourcing the effort – no startup cost for S&S. If they do stumble on a gem in the rough (the next Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, [ok, not gems, but big sellers] or maybe even something with Harry Potter quality) I’m sure they’ll get first rights on moving it from self to house published.

    I am surprised they didn’t go in-house and went with a known shady third party, though. Someone didn’t do their homework – no surprise.

    Believe it or not, I’ve seen something like this on a smaller scale in my industry (software.) Only there, it’s not about screwing people but it is very much a “can’t beat ’em, don’t want to join ’em, but can we work with them to get more money?” philosophy. Usually it involves interfacing larger products with freeware stuff so the freeware becomes complimentary not competitive and allows the company to charge additionally for the interfacing.

    1. Keith

      There was an interesting comment on the Dean Welsey Smith post about a possible motivation I hadn’t thought of. One potential market for this service isn’t aspiring novelists but corporations. The scenario works something like this: Big company wants to impress potential clients. One way to do this is to have a book published by Simon and Schuster that they can show off. The cost comes out of operating funds, and if this book helps seal even one six figure deal, then the expense has been worth it. That I can understand, although it appears that this division will have its own imprint, so I’m not sure how much mileage a corporation will get from the publisher’s name.

      Another suggestion was that this was a means to cut down on the cost of publishing text books, which are very expensive to produce. That’s an area where we’re starting to see some major changes. My department switched texts for our intro classes this semester, and one of the deciding factors was the ability to package the text electronically in multiple ways to lower the cost to students. When the sales rep for the publisher we had been using found out, she threw a hissy-fit of epic proportions. To the point of tracking down the chair of the text selection committee at a conference in another city to try to get him to reverse the decision.

      Either of those objectives make sense. Where Simon and Schuster shot themselves in the foot was opening it up to potential novelists. They won’t eliminate any competition because the smart writers will know not to use them. The suckers who fall for this scam aren’t trad publishing’s competition. It’s the smart, good writers who can produce books faster and cheaper than trad pub.

  4. Keith

    BTW, some of you may be wondering why I type out in full the name of this publisher under discussion rather than abbreviate it like many publishing industry folks do. It’s simple. Sword and sorcery is a genre I care deeply about. I use S&S as an abbreviation for that genre. I won’t sully a genre I love by having it share an abbreviation on my blog with a publisher that engages in slimeball practices like Simon and Schuster have done this week. Just in case you were wondering.

    1. Keith

      Please understand I wasn’t taking issue with either of you or anyone else. I was simply taking advantage of an opportunity to slam Simon and Schuster again. I don’t have a problem with you or anyone else using S&S to stand for the publisher rather than the genre.

    1. David J. West

      That’s where I think its the biggest ripoff Charles, I don’t believe they will do anything more to really promote than any other vanity press – ie a section int their own imprint catalog that nobody but their own authors will see.
      Potential readers don’t browse vanity catalogs, they hardly browse legit catalogs.

      It’s gonna all fall to the author themselves and the word of mouth generated…and if that is the case, why give a 50/50 split with anyone for the price you paid? The odds of anybody using Author Solutions and coming out ahead of what they paid to “buy in” is as bad (or worse) than the lottery.

    2. Keith

      I don’t see the need to give a 50/50 split to anyone regardless of whether I paid them or not.

      The thing that’s misleading about distribution is that a distributor carrying a book doesn’t really mean anything unless a buyer for a brick and mortar store decides to stock the book. How many midlist books have you gone into a store looking for only to discover that it isn’t in stock even if it’s a recent release? Only bestsellers (i.e., books the publisher really promotes) are guaranteed to be in most brick and mortar outlets. Midlist books, especially by new writers with little to no established audience, often don’t get stocked. So the ability to place books in wider markets is not a guarantee they will be placed. What the buyer for the chain or independent store chooses to stock isn’t something the distributor can control beyond a certain point. And what control they have will go to trying to get books with an existing audience stocked.

      That’s why I find the whole distribution angle so misleading.

  5. mooklepticon

    I think it’s merely cargo cult capitalism or me-too-ism. Having seen had a big boy job for a while now, I can easily imagine where someone when to S&S and sold them on the pitch of how “self publishing is the new hip thing! We should do that!” and they fell for it. I’m not worried about it. (Not that I worry about the publishing industry much. I’m not their target demographic.)

    1. Keith

      The problem is a lot of writers are going to get ripped off, and while you can make a compelling argument that those who fall for the scam deserve what they get, the end result will be some potential writers whose careers will be damaged or ended before they can get started.


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