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Not All Subsidy Presses Are Created Equal: Why Author Solutions' Practices Are Bad for Book Publishing

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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.