Authors On Line describe its company as an author solutions service. The company proudly claim to be the original UK based company to offer a digital Print On Demand publishing service with full distribution. It may have been, but a lot has changed in self-publishing since it first began in internet publishing in 1997. There are more companies offering these services across the globe than at any time ever before, and the quality of service can vary widely.
A look at the Authors On Line web site quickly tells you that they are book and author driven with sizeable space given over to their books with ‘buy’ links, rolling tickers and the latest PR news about their titles. A read through the information present suggests these guys know about self-publishing, but they also understand the business of publishing itself and how it has particularly changed in the recent few years.
“Since we first introduced this revolution to the UK in 2001, the technology has grown and improved, and many authors have themselves acquired the knowledge and software to prepare manuscripts and cover designs ready for publication. In response to this growing trend, Authors On Line are now able to offer an even more flexible and up to date service catering for all levels of technical ability.”
You get the sense that Authors On Line are discernible enough and eager to pitch to authors with skills useful in self-publishing. This is a welcome change from the heavy-handed service marketing speak from other companies. I refer to the ‘we can fulfil your dreams—not your book’ type of self-publishing author services.
“If your manuscript is of an acceptable literary standard, Authors On Line can help you to realise your dream and put your book into print with whatever level of distribution you require.”
It is important here that the ‘dream’ for an author is seeing their book in print—not bestselling lists and literary fame. No self-publishing service or traditional publisher can promise or guarantee this. Note the words ‘book into print’. One of the key criticisms of companies offering self-publishing services is that they simply ‘print’ rather than ‘publish’ your book. And though this criticism is meant as a slight on authors who choose self-publishing as a path; there is some truth to it. Publishing a book entails far more than just printing, binding and slapping a registered ISBN on to it. The key to publishing a book is the resources employed by author and publisher (paid service provider or not) to market, promote and provide a direct channel of distribution through to the retailers (on line and actual shelf space) and ultimately the reader.
Authors On Line offers a package to self-publishing authors, but they have a varied and flexible range of add-on services which they refer to as ‘Modular Services’. They actively encourage each author submitting to reduce their financial outlay by utilising their own technical skills.
“WHATEVER YOUR NEEDS, and budget, we can hopefully suit your purposes. You don’t even have to publish the final book with us!”
From these last few words we can quickly glean that some of the recent self-publishing companies we have reviewed undertake to publish a book for an author as a service, rather than be listed with Nielsens Bookdata as the publisher. Nielsens are the UK equivalent of Bowkers in the US. They look after recording published book data and ISBN allocations to publishers. Authors On Line will allow you to assign one of your own ISBN’s or they can assign one of their own. Authors also have ownership on the completed PDF files of the book.
The ‘Basic Service’ from Authors On Line is entirely free. It involves the author downloading standard templates, pasting their own book in, saving the file as a PDF and submitting it to Authors On Line. No ISBN or distribution is included, though those services can be added from the ‘Modular Service’ list separately at a cost. This package is really just intended for those wishing to have books available to print for family and friends. The cost of the actually books is £1.00 plus 2 pence per page. That works out at £5 for an average 200 page paperback book. This is reasonable and an excellent option which every author solution service should provide.
“Perhaps it’s a private family story, or you are preparing for submission to a trade house for consideration, or you are a school, company or organisation requiring a few copies (or even a few hundred).”
I am curious about the idea of an author using a private printed book to go courting a perspective trade publisher. I have seen this suggestion from a number of other author service companies, and I would suggest it is wholly unsuitable, ill-advised and positively unprofessional. A traditional publisher of any kind wants to see a polished and marketable manuscript from a writer with talent—not a sample copy of a book they might be publishing.
The ‘Basic Service’ can have ‘distribution’ added to it for £199 and this will get you database listing, on line availability, legal copies to national libraries, a website and the first year’s hosting fee included, and a registered Authors On Line ISBN. If an author provides their own ISBN then the individual ‘Modular Service’ cost of £25 for the ISBN will be taken off the £199. Personally, I think this service actually offers more value for money than Lulu’s equivalent ‘Publish By You’ package, which does not include legal registration. You will have to manage the layout and conversions of files without the kind of support and widgets that Lulu.com, and Authors On Line do make this clear on their website that they cannot supply technical support if the author chooses this package.
Authors On Line also have a ‘Standard Service’ which incorporates all the standard modules (formatting, file conversions to PDF, a sample copy, legal library registration, a website, an ebook and annual ‘in print’ fee) plus ISBN, distribution, 6 author copies, unlimited press releases to UK journalists, and additional copies at print cost plus 25%. The cost of this is £525. Normally I find that the mid range packages with author solution services are the best value. In this case, I have to disagree. The difference between the £199 ‘Basic Service’ and the ‘Standard Service’ at £525 is the file formatting and conversion and layout. For me, it is too big a jump for so little. It may be that Authors On Line has deliberately weighted things in favour of the ‘Basic Service’ to avoid having to take on the more time consuming formatting and layout tasks. Still, the ‘Basic Service’ is excellent value for what you get.
The final package is the ‘Enhanced Service’ at £1225. It is only now that we have the full and original cover design from Authors On Line. Individually this would cost £350 as a separate service. Proofreading is also included, but only up to 80,000words, with a £1.50 per 1000 words thereafter. If you purchase both the proofreading and cover design, then you get 20 free copies. You also get additional author copies at print cost plus 20%.
Authors On Line pay their authors 60% of the remainder after retailer and print costs have been subtracted. On a £10 paperback book, after a 40% retailer discount, we have to minus off the print cost of, say, a 200 page paperback at £5 That is £6 minus the £5 cast of printing. And 60% of our remainder £2 leaves £1.20 for the author. In real terms that is about 6% of the retail price, less than the author will recieve from a commercial publisher, and the weakest area of Authors On Line service.
The ‘distribution’ offered here is the standard service most author solution and print on demand publishers offer. There is no guarantee of sales and the vast majority will come from either the authors own efforts or on line sales through sites like Amazon. And like most descent companies, if a title starts to sell and there is a demand for it, Authors On Line will aid an author in trying to get physical placement in stores.
“We cannot guarantee to sell a single copy and Authors On Line does not wish to give any potential author unrealistic expectations as to earnings.
We can initially help with press releases and fact sheets as well as offering help on organising book signings and preparing prospect lists. We can also help with certain types of merchandising.”
As I pointed out earlier, Authors On Line do have a screening process and will not accept every manuscript they receive if it is not to a reasonable literary standard. Authors On Line realise that more and more authors are becoming savvy about self-publishing and the day has long passed when it was enough to present authors with off-the-menu packages. Authors have different skills which they can bring to bear on the self-publishing process. They are more likely to baulk at a ‘package’ which is filled with services they are not only perfectly capable of doing themselves, but actively want to do. This is Authors On Line’s strength, but in some ways, I feel they have somehow missed hitting a large, slow-moving target.
For the £525 ‘Standard Service’, you have to include original cover design, however simple. It is almost as if Authors On Line do not want their authors to choose this package, but rather, the ‘Basic Service’ at £199. The ‘Enhanced Service’ simply does not stand up against other competitors. The proofreading parameter at 80,000 words is too little for a standard novel of 100,000 – 120,000 words and pushes the price up. For this kind of expenditure from an author, they are going to expect more than 20 free copies.
Authors On Line do the simple things perfectly; they have the essence of what is a sound author solutions service, their ‘Modular Service’ is an excellent idea and their ‘Basic Service’ with distribution is excellent value, but somewhere beyond this, Authors On Line have dropped the ball in an effort to be all things to all authors.
UPDATE, November 7th, 2014.
Authors OnLine Cease Trading