I signed up to be a beta user over at Book Country way back before it was open to the public. Mostly because I was curious, but also because I was suspicious. I wanted to know what Penguin was up to. So once I logged in, I read all the details and scrutinized the fine print. And concluded it was basically a legitimate site where writers could upload their work and give and receive constructive criticism among peers. How nice. (For what it’s worth, I still think that part of it IS nice.)
It’s not something I was interested in doing, but I could see its value to writers who didn’t have a support group of other writers. And I’m the last one who would ever question the value of an online community. So I pretty much shrugged, wished them all the best, and went on my way.
But I admit, I was still suspicious. Because Penguin had invested what seemed to me to be an inordinate amount of time and effort (i.e., money) in the venture. For what? Were they really that dedicated to helping writers become better at their craft? I mean, sure, that would be a generous and benevolent goal, but it didn’t seem like a viable business objective.
So I wasn’t truly surprised when Penguin/Book Country announced last week that they were now offering to “help” writers who want to “self-publish.”
I’m not going to go into all the details when others have already done so, and done it very well, but I will say that if you’re a writer and you haven’t read the related posts by JA Konrath and David Gaughran and Kristine Rusch you should go read them. Really. There is no excuse for ignorance when information is a click away.
So now people are all agitated about Penguin taking advantage of writers who are presumably new to the business and don’t have a support group of other writers (well, other than Book Country) who are willing to tie them up and sit on them until they come to their senses.
And they’re upset about Penguin charging exorbitant fees for doing nothing more than basically clicking a button to upload work onto Amazon. No editing. No copyediting. No proofreading. No custom cover art. No marketing or promotion, other than some vague advice about how to do it yourself.
There are other disadvantages, such as the three-week delay before ebooks are available, not being able to make ANY changes to an ebook once it’s published, pricing changes only allowed every 60 days, inability to include pictures or images in the text and, if you choose the less expensive option of distribution only on the BC site, it will be available only in ePub format, which can’t be read on a Kindle.
Penguin is also, in addition to the upfront fees, staking a claim to 30% royalties, in perpetuity. If you choose the “wide” distribution option (not limited to the BC site), that percentage is calculated on the amount left after other distributors take their 30%. So the 70% Penguin pays a writer is substantially less than the 70% Amazon or B&N would pay a writer.
Why would any writer in their right mind add a restrictive middleman to the self-pub process, especially one demanding royalties for what should be one-time flat-fee services, when it is so ridiculously easy to contract it out or do this stuff yourself? They wouldn’t, unless they didn’t know any better.
So yes, all of that is upsetting to me too. Of course it is. I hate the prospect of writers getting screwed due to lack of experience or dearth of information, and there is vast potential for that to happen here. Then again, if you’re a writer and you want to do business with the big boys (and that includes Amazon and B&N), you’d damn well better learn how to educate and protect yourself.
[And this is precisely why I wasn't offended by that whole "Be The Monkey" nonsense on Konrath's blog a while back. Getting "screwed" is a familiar concept in business. Crude? Yes. But it's standard terminology. In some businesses, being able to screw the competition is cause for celebration. Bonuses. Promotions. It happens when one party to a transaction is more knowledgeable, more powerful, or has greater leverage than another. It results in people saying things like, "Did you hear about the contract Susie Q just signed with that vanity publisher? Boy, did she ever get screwed." And that's only if they're being polite about it.]
As troubling and opportunistic and disingenuous as all of this is, what struck me as ironic — and by ironic, I mean mind-bogglingly unbelievable — is that Penguin is now apparently prepared to pay self-pubbed writers 70% of net for ebook sales. While they’re reportedly paying their traditionally pubbed writers, those with “real” publishing contracts, 25% of net for ebook sales. Less, of course, the 15% cut that goes to an agent.
If I had a standard publishing contract with Penguin right now, my head would be exploding with furious disbelief.
How did this happen? I have no idea, and I’m totally making this up (hey, it’s what I do), but I can imagine the conversation between a bunch of corporate bean counters sitting around a conference table and saying things like:
“We need to cut costs and increase income. If only we could figure out a way to get writers to pay US an advance.”
“HAHAHA! Right. It wouldn’t even have to be a big advance, if we could get enough of them to do it.”
“Yeah, and if only we could do away with those pesky editing and cover art expenses.”
“Have you seen the crap that’s selling in the self-pub ebook market? Those ignorant click-happy Kindle owners will buy anything.”
“I don’t think they even read half those ebooks, they just see a low price and buy buy buy.”
“Y’know, we could publish crap too. Readers don’t look at the name of the publisher — they’d blame the writer if they hated the book.”
“And god knows, we’ve got an endless supply of desperate gullible writers in the slush pile.”
And I can just imagine the stunned silence in the room as they process all of this. And come up with a plan. A profitable plan. A plan that looks an awful lot like . . . Book Country.
I hate it when the suspicious side of my nature is validated. It just makes me more cynical.
I’m not saying the writers over at BC are bad writers. I’m sure they’re a mix of good, bad and mediocre, just like any other group. But probably the majority of them have not yet spent enough time writing to become excellent. Yet. I put myself in the same category. And I have nothing against self-publishing. But at a minimum, you need a good editor. That’s not optional. It’s also not offered at Book Country, where they’re ready, willing and able to publish unedited fiction.
I feel sorry for the true professionals at Penguin — and I know they exist — who really do love books and are passionate about good writing and captivating storytelling and who care about taking the time and making the effort to publish the best of the best. Because, with this latest venture, the bean counters at Penguin have grabbed that reputation for excellence by the throat with both hands and strangled it to within an inch of its life and then thrown it under the bus.
Penguin can put whatever spin they want on this venture, but actions speak louder than words. Corporations spend money on (and pay higher royalties for) the things that are important to them. In this case, that appears to be mass quantities of ebooks with low production costs. Period. It’s like they’ve become the puppy mill of publishing.
To hell with experienced writers who consistently produce quality work. To hell with agents who seek out and nurture those writers. To hell with editors who help refine and hone that work. To hell with cover artists and formatters who make it all look good. And, most damning of all, to hell with readers who expect quality and value for their hard-earned dollars.
That last one is the transgression I can’t forgive. All the rest is just business. Bad business, to be sure, but business just the same. It’s rare that a manufacturer is willing to screw its entire supply chain, but if supply is plentiful and quality control is no longer a consideration, it can be done. Profitably, even. Just maybe not indefinitely.
But as a writer, my contract is with readers. It might be unwritten, but it’s binding and it’s non-negotiable. That’s a trust I’m not willing to betray. And I wouldn’t hesitate for even a New York minute to turn my back on anyone who is willing to screw readers.
There was a time, not so long ago, when I would have been thrilled to be published by Penguin, to have that name on the spine of my books. It seems that time has passed.
What a damn shame.