Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Penguin Group & "Self-Publishing"

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article out today titled, "Self-Publishers Get Help."  When I read the headline, I thought, "Yay, this is going to be about the hullaballoo of retailer subscription-models and the grey space of 'when a unit of sale is not a unit of sale.'"

Or not

It's about the self-publishing venture of Penguin Group -- Book Country. Book Country positions itself as a writers' community. "Your Writing. Your Community" is the tag line. Tacking self-publishing on to that community is simultaneously brilliant and skeevy.  Penguin clearly anticipates the majority of their self-publishing customers to come from the community they've fostered. Logical business move. Risky and predatory, but bottom-line oriented (as any business needs to be).

I don't know if traditional publishers ought to be in the business of self-publishing.

Truly, I'm torn.

To Penguin's credit, they publicly state in the WSJ article they're not looking to generate revenue from rejections made by their "traditional publishing lines."
On the other hand, Penguin's traditional publishing business doesn't plan to refer authors it has rejected to the self-publishing operation. Molly Barton, Penguin's global digital director, said "it wouldn't be appropriate" to "suggest a path that involves fees" to an author whose manuscript had been rejected. -- WSJ

It seems Penguin learned from the backlash a few years ago when Harlequin was set to launch it's digital imprint. Their rejection letters were going to refer the crushed author to the then-HQN-branded ebook arm. Similarly, Book Country is not branded anything Penguin (save for the footer on the website).

Mind you, what eventually evolved into Carina Press was never publicly positioned as a self-publisher. They were and are an ebook publisher. Carina books are edited by freelance editors, get professional covers, and marketing support. For this, authors do not pay Carina upfront. Carina extracts the usual publisher % of revenue fee. Carina also operates on a traditional submission accept/reject acquisition-model; so not every Tom, Dick, and Harry can have their book published by them.

Not every ebook is a self-published book
Not every ebook publisher is a vanity publisher

Self-Publishing or Self-Serving: Book Country offers "self-publishing" in the way that a novel doesn't have be approved by gatekeepers to be pushed to the public. The novel don't get an editor, a professional cover artist, or marketing assistance -- normal for self-publishing. The author does get the honor of paying Book Country an upfront fee for the uploading, digital formatting, ISBN assignment, and hosting -- which is totally fair for self-publishing.

Paying Book Country 30-70% of revenue based on price points ... a bit dodgy.

Yes, some vanity publishers do that. They take an upfront fee and % revenue. Some just take an upfront fee. I haven't seen the Book Country contract to know who owns what of the Intellectual Property of said novel. For the author's sake, I hope the author retains 100% of their rights and that time limits, international access/distribution, etc. are all covered under that contract.

Monetizing Community = Short-Term Business Win: Having been a part of a big company who tried to monetize (and over-monetize) their community assets, I absolutely see the business advantages of adding self-publishing tools to a writers' community. Penguin has the audience, an audience drawn by Penguin's brand-value and perceived exposure to "Big 6 Editors." Thousands of aspiring novelists theoretically work together to hone their craft in Book Country's genre-fiction community. What are those pre-published writers to do after working so hard on their book? Why publish it, of course! Penguin makes it easy. They supply the technology, the community supplies the content. Classic internet business model -- for better and worse.


Intellectual Property vs Community = Long-Term Business Risk: There is a lot of grey space in the author-publisher relationship that has the potential to harm the author and the community of authors. Most of it deals with setting the industry standards for revenue, ownership, legal accountability. What if someone published pirated/plagiarized work via Book Country? Who's accountable? Who owes the copyright holder damages? Worse? What if members of the Book Country community "help" an author edit/rewrite their book, that book gets published, and that book becomes a bestseller? Is it really a book by Jane Author or is it a book by the Book Country Community? There is the potential for dozens, even hundreds, of people claiming to have had "significant input" into creating the end product. All of which is documented and stored in Book Country's servers. How are rules of Intellectual Property, burdens of proof, etc., applied in these situations? Yes, writers' communities have been around for as long as writers have been paid for their work. They've thrived on the internet without imploding. However, they haven't been as visible or tied to a NYC publisher before. The risk/reward for being a bad apple significantly changes.

Self-Publishing and Decline of Brand-Value: Generating revenue from aspiring authors is a big win for the publisher, but does it create negative value in the marketplace? In an era of evolving tech changing publishing and distribution models, traditional publishers ought to be concerned about the public perception of quality associated with their brand. That is what will keep consumers buying from them and authors submitting to them. If consumers associate subpar books published by Book Country to the overall Penguin brand, Penguin Group will lose ground to its competitors. Also, community squabbles within Book Country can have very public, very ugly repercussions on the parent brand.

Yes, there are great opportunities and big wins to be had with a grass-roots-driven product. Yes, it was inevitable that traditional publishers would get into the self-publishing game. I'm just not certain that being a self-publisher who preys on its community is the best long-term business strategy for a big publishing house with a strong brand and valuable reputation.

Will the assorted factions in the publishing community go up in arms about this? Will writers' organizations have opinions? Will there be any chest pounding from the agents? Should we expect the rest of the Big 6 to play lemming, just as they've done with ebooks?

This should be fun to watch.


  1. Very interesting post with lots of questions I've wondered about. The bit about putting up your manuscript for more or less public input and THEN trying to sell it or self-pub it scares me quite a bit - all for the reasons you've mentioned. Treacherous territory indeed.

  2. I know *somebody* has to set the precedent, but I sure wouldn't want to be that somebody.

  3. Im watching the pub world shift and shimmy from a distance. Not to say I'd "never" self-pub, but, boy-howdy, not there yet!

    1. It's the great "can versus should" for a lot of the players. The show keeps getting more and more interesting!