Author Solutions and Penguin Random House: The Real Deal?

We heard on Monday that the Penguin Random House merger has been approved in China; this, hot on the heels of the announcement, earlier this month, that Andrew Philllips had replaced Kevin Weiss as CEO of Author Solutions, the Penguin-owned, US and Philippines-based, self-publishing behemoth.  Two totally unrelated stories, no doubt.  Really? 

The Author Solutions acquisition was headline news last August.  Quite right too: the world’s biggest publishing brand acquires the world’s biggest self-publishing company.  The folks at Author Solutions got all their Christmases at once and Kevin Weiss got a seat on the main Penguin board, albeit briefly.  Legitimatisation, at last, for self-publishing in the wider industry and a substantial ROI for Bertram Capital, the California-based P.E. firm that built Author Solutions into the production engine it is today.

Then, Penguin and Random merged and the Author Solutions acquisition story disappeared from the front pages, as the consolidation of two of the Biggest Boys in publishing usurped what had been, thus far, the biggest story of the year.

What if we’re missing the point, though?  What if the two stories were actually part of the same, integrated, Author Solutions / Penguin Random House strategy? 

Back to that Author Solutions production engine... In just a few years, this incredibly efficient pre-press machine has transformed, literally, hundreds of thousands of self-published manuscripts into designed and print-ready book files.  A quick tot-up of the ISBNs of Author Solutions’ four core imprints - AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris and Trafford - delivers more than 263,000 titles on amazon. 

I’ll say that again: 263,000 titles.  And that doesn’t include those additional titles resulting from their partnerships with Thomas Nelson and Hay House.  That’s far more than the total, combined output of Penguin and Random House; far more than any ‘traditional’ publisher has ever published.  A notable proportion, in fact, of all the ISBNs issued in recent years.

We’ve seen Author Solutions piggy-back on Penguin in a number of the less high profile ‘international markets’ (‘Author Solutions India, a Penguin company’) but we’ve seen very little public association between the two businesses in the core US and UK markets.  Is that because Penguin is anxious about Author Solutions’ occasionally less than pristine PR, or, notwithstanding Author Solutions’ high margins, is it because Penguin really isn’t that interested in its core self-publishing business at all? 

A key driver in the success of the hybrid Penguin Random House giant has to be the consolidation, rationalisation and cost-cutting exercise that will inevitably follow the merger.  So here’s the theory: Penguin actually acquired Author Solutions in order to use its awesome, ready-made and heavily road-tested production engine as an integral catalyst to deliver a substantial part of the forthcoming merger.  Will Penguin Random House’s books have ‘Made in Cebu’ stamped on their verso pages in the future?

And what of my old boss, the effortlessly charming and driven Kevin Weiss?  I reckon he could go one of two ways: either he’ll turn up in a leading integration role within Penguin Random House, or he’ll disappear back into the Bertram Capital lair and metamorphose, new Dr Who-like, into CEO of their Next Big Investment.

Comments

the real problem with AuthorSolutions

The real problem with AuthorSolutions is the in-between one: as a former publishing professional, I attest to the extensive amount of work put in on most books by the professional publishers. Rewrites, great covers, and nurturing were (in my experience) all unappreciated by the authors. The editors of the larger publishing houses generally bring knowledge and great care to what they do, making the books much better, tighter, and giving exceptional feedback. The authors, who had the benefit of an entire structure of a publishing house supporting them, generally felt that all this support was gratis; overall there was a complete lack of appreciation for how much work the publishing house put in in order to get the book to print. And new authors often lie about their books, in many ways. One always had to be on the lookout for a thinly disguised rip-off of another author's successful book submitted by a "new" author.

This was my reason for leaving the larger houses.

However, as someone who did editing for AuthorSolutions for a period of time, I can also say that Author Solutions (in my experience) expects heavy "rewriting/ghostwriting" sold as "editing" for the "authors", most of whom knew nothing about solid writing, especially structure and grammar. Because most (again, in my experience) of the "authors" that use AuthorSolutions haven't spent time on rewriting or learning How to Write, they know what they are really buying: a service they expect to take sloppily written material and gloss it up.

The compensation versus the amount of work a manuscript needed was atrocious. The experience was the equivalent of working in a Bangladesh sweat shop, albeit with words rather than t-shirts. The reality is that a good edit of a book, any book that runs 300 pages or so, should take at least a month or two. The AuthorSolutions pay rate would make that impossible.

Now, from what I've seen, I believe most of the "editors", at this point, of AuthorSolutions are non-American, and thus have little real grasp of English. Bumping the compensation up for editors and using American, native-English speaking editors at AuthorSolutions would assist greatly.

Why did Penguin buy AuthorSolutions? One has to wonder. The only answer that makes sense to me is all those email addresses that can be used to advertise to. Maybe that's the real answer.

Thanks, everyone, for your comments...

To clarify a few points: I wasn’t hired by FutureBook, rather I was recently invited by them to join their 150 or so bloggers, I imagine because of my wide experience across numerous areas of the trade over more than 30 years, 4 of which were spent at Author Solutions. 

FutureBook had no idea what the subject of my first post would be, indeed neither did I until the day before I wrote it. It was by chance that I chose Author Solutions / Penguin Random House as my first topic; it was certainly not a pre-meditated decision.

I am neither a critic nor a supporter of Author Solutions and I was and am aware of the strength of feeling around them. My post was not about their business model or practice, rather it was a presentation of my theory of one of the reasons why Penguin may have acquired them, namely to use their prepress operation to facilitate the Penguin Random House merger. 

I should stress that this is my own personal theory and that I have no insider information to support it. (I left that business 3 years ago.) Given that my two theories about Kevin Weiss’ next role both appear to be incorrect, I wouldn’t bet on my ‘merger facilitation’ one either, frankly.

Poor customer service not poor PR

OrnaRoss's picture

The writer says the problem with Author Solutions is poor PR; I would contend it is poor service. At Alliance of Independent Authors we receive regular and repeated  complaints about ASI. In our recent publication -- Choosing A Self-Publishing Service -- ASI imprints were rated 1 or 2 out of ten. Leaving aside service, most of their imprints offer the most expensive services and the poorest terms and conditions, making it virtually impossible for a self-publishing author to make a profit. Now they are branded 'A Penguin Company' on all their literature, giving naive authors the erroneous impression that if they pay up, they are being "published by Penguin". When are we going to see some analysis of this in the trade press?

Euphemism

Lexi Revellian's picture

Author Solutions ‘the world’s biggest self-publishing company’? Surely you mean the world’s biggest vanity press?

Censoring comments

So negative comments don't get posted? I wonder why you think this necessary - could it be you are well aware of just how shamefully exploitative Author Solutions is, but don't want to upset Random Penguin?

Shame on you, Futurebook. 

This article is a joke

David Gaughran's picture

This article is a joke. Where do I start...

1. Penguin's purchase of Author Solutions did nothing to legitimise self-publishing and everything to legitimise a scammy vanity press.

2. Penguin purchased Author Solutions because it's very good at exploiting inexperienced writers. Nobody with any experience or who knows anything about the business goes near a joke outfit like Author Solutions.

3. I find it hilarious that you describe the universally reviled Author Solutions as having "occasionally less than pristine PR." Are you kidding me? 

For those unaware of Author Solutions' awful history, here's a summary from blogger Emily Suess:

"The short list of recurring issues includes: making formerly out-of-print works available for sale without the author’s consent, improperly reporting royalty information, non-payment of royalties, breach of contract, predatory and harassing sales calls, excessive markups on review and advertising services, failure to deliver marketing services as promised, telling customers their add-ons will only cost hundreds of dollars and then charging their credit cards thousands of dollars, ignoring customer complaints, shaming and banning customers who go public with their stories, and calling at least one customer a ‘fucking asshole.’

If you want the evidence for those claims, you can start with this post by me - http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/the-author-exploitation-bu... - or this post by Emily Suess - http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/penguins-solution-for-auth...

This puff piece by an ex-member of Author Solutions' management team (which really, really should be flagged up top) also fails to mention something else pretty relevant: Author Solutions is currently the subject of a class action suit for deceptive practices. You can read more about that here from Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware - the leading watchdog in the USA, who have received more complaints about Author Solutions than any other company. Ever. More here: http://accrispin.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/class-action-lawsuit-filed-again...

I really shouldn't be surprised that FutureBook - once again - has published something like this, but I really thought they had learned after the last time.

Terrible stuff.

Euphemism

Author Solutions is 'the world’s biggest self-publishing company'? Don't you mean the world's biggest vanity press?

You're behind the times, Tim.

You're behind the times, Tim. Kevin Weiss now works for an airline inflight franchise company and has no connections with Bertram or ASI.I also notice you don't make any mention of the poor reputation ASI imprints have in the savvy clued-in self-publishing community.

Interesting piece, but...

Alastair Horne's picture

... shouldn't a little more prominence be given to the fact that Tim has worked for Author Solutions, beyond a hint in the final paragraph, and an author bio a link away?

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