When I first started researching companies who provide author solutions services some years ago, Virtualbookworm (VBM) was one high on the radar. About four or five years ago, had you dropped ‘self-publishing’ as a keyword into a Google search or visited many self-publishing resources looking for information on self-publishing, you can bet VBW would have been pretty high up there in prominence. Try the same now and you will have to do far more extensive searches before you come across the name, VBM.
Instinctively, when I came across VBM a few years ago, I held off reviewing them. In many ways, they should have been in our first batch of reviews in early 2008. Back then, they provided quite an extensive range of services and price-ranges easily reviewed without the need to spend a considerable amount of time looking at what they had to offer. I actually still have a book I ordered from them in 2008 as an example of their physical book product with an intention to doing a review back then. It never happened.
For one, their services required a great deal of research and time, due to the wealth of information they provided, as well as the fact I had noticed a considerable slide off the top-notch of choices for self-publishing authors. I do not think a lack of a review did anything to help nor take away from what VBM had to offer self-publishing authors.
I know I checked the books the amount of titles they had published on Amazon and it was in the very high hundreds. A couple of years on—I note that it shows 1034 titles. The Virtualbookworm site has been radically redesigned since I looked at it in late 2009, around the time I had planned to look at their services again and do a full review. I actually led with an article in the autumn of 2009 suggesting the review would come in the following few weeks. The reality was every time I started my review of them, I perceived a continual shift in the sands, and felt it pointless to focus on a company struggling to maintain its high-ranking position as an author solutions services, with all the changes of print-on-demand and digital publishing.
In some ways, VBW, were a company who had decided to take a trip to some far-off flung island and just sit back and see how things panned out. At least that is what it seemed like; certainly they dropped off the radar for me and a great many other authors regarding usage and feedback I was getting in 2008. In fact, on more than one occasion I checked just to make sure VBW were still in business. We actually ran a poll in that year and the companies most popular with authors were as follows:
4. Outskirts press
Outside of the top four, we had services like Booklocker, Infinity and Authors online in the UK. VBW came in around 8 to 12th, a reasonable enough performance and representation. This was a time when we had less than half the amount of author solutions services we have now, and a time when services like CreateSpace were not offering online distribution beyond Amazon and companies like Dog Ear Publishing and Mill City were only finding their feet in the self-publishing world.
So, who and where are Virtualbookworm now?
“Then he [writer and founder] discovered self publishing and the endless opportunities it presented. However, such a venture requires countless hours of research of printers, proofreaders, artists, etc. And after publication, even more time is consumed trying to market the book.
So, Virtualbookworm.com was established as a "clearinghouse" for authors, since it offers virtually everything under one roof. Although we now charge setup and design fees, those costs are kept to a minimum so as to cover all expenses. And, as with "traditional" publishers, we carefully review each manuscript and only offer contracts to authors who truly have exceptional manuscripts. We don't print garbage, and we want our authors to proudly say they were published by Virtualbookworm. If we accept your book for publication, you can rest assured that it will be sold next to other quality books, and not just work that had enough money behind it. And, you'll receive some of the best royalties in the business!”
I have never once thought that a writer founding a service for self-publishing is entirely a sound foundation, unless of course that writer has had considerable experience in all the critical areas of the industry—sales, marketing, editing and production under the umbrella of a traditional publisher. I also do not think authors of any savvy will take to the description of VBW as being a ‘clearing house’ when it first was established.
I asked who and where is Virtual Bookworm? The short answer is Bobby Bernshausen and Texas. Bernshausen is listed as the owner and president of Virtual Bookworm, founded in 2000. In light of the above quote from the Virtual bookworm site, I found it odd I could not find a single book by Bernshausen, or that I could not unearth any sources of business experience in publishing or marketing. I am sure it could be there—somewhere—but I certainly did not find it. For a writer running a business offering publishing services; I’m more alarmed that I cannot find a book by Bernshausen on Amazon or anywhere—not even on VBW!
To be fair, we do not ask the same question of the CEO of Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan or Penguin, but author solutions services are a different kettle of fish, and they are often founded on the reasons Bernshausen describes above—for me—it remains curious, but something I am happy to put to bed. Bernshausen has being doing this gig for more than ten years and it should have brought him a wealth of experience in a changing industry. He founded and presided over a company which was one of the earliest to dip its toes into print on demand publishing.
The 2010 incarnation of the VBW homepage features one advertised book and large glaring icons about their services. This is a step backwards for VBW—the intent is clear—whatever they were, they are certainly driven now by attracting authors and present little for what their output might offer readers.
“What makes Virtualbookworm.com different than other POD providers?
Well, first off, we won't print garbage. You must follow the submission and genre guidelines ... and each manuscript must be reviewed and approved before we will accept your order. If we do accept the order, we will give you as much personalized support as necessary until the project is complete. This means your book won't be selling on the same site as a book that has tons of errors just because the other author had enough cash! Plus, Virtualbookworm.com is one of the most established POD publishers in the industry, having been in business since 2000.”http://www.virtualbookworm.com/about.html
VBW are based in Texas—their address is a post-office box—but they do offer a support centre driven by email and a ‘ticket’ formula to answer questions on their services and the process of publication. Beyond reading their FAQ’s, this is their preferred method of query and contact.
“Have a question or comment? Need help ordering or with the publishing section? First check our searchable Knowledge Base for Frequently Asked Questions. If you didn't find the answer to your question, please click the link below to go to our Support Center, which is on a separate server to save resources. After registering, you can submit a trouble ticket (which can be used for any question, etc.) or check the status of a ticket.”
VBW do offer a downloadable publishing guide to their services, an online bookstore, a latest release link at the bottom of their web pages, and a recently launched author community, which turns out to be essentially links to their Facebook and Twitter pages. However, for the first real time, we get a glimpse at a number of published titles with links directly to their online bookstore.
From memory, their previous web design worked better. It was more classical and stylish, and the present graphic rendition is glary with its blue background and white text. The links provide a FAQ, information pages, as well as details of their publishing packages.
VBM offer a bespoke service for authors wishing to truly self-publish by submitting their own completed files and can avail of design, edit and print services in preparing their book. Alternatively, they have a number of flexible packages.
The following are included in all packages:
Softcover available on white or creme paper.
Page counts as low as 48 and many as 828 pages.
ISBN assignment (author can provide own ISBN and imprint at no additional charge)
Copyright application kit
Book page on our website
15 free internal graphics/images (must be submitted to specs)
Book registration through Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Books in Print and many others
50% royalties of net receipts (Approximately 30-35% of cover price on paperbacks sold through us!)
Monthly Sales Report
Author may purchase first order of his/her softcover edition for 50% off list price (subsequent orders at least 30% off list, but discount increases with larger orders)
VBW list their packages in levels as to what is included. Each package includes the above basics as well as what is listed below for each individual level.
Level A: Includes all of the above services and one free book. The package includes a generic cover with an author photo and bio on the back. (The author may supply artwork for the cover as well, as long as the work is 300dpi or greater)
Level A Price: $360
Level B: Includes all of the basic services, Library of Congress number and three free books.
Level B Price: $440
Level C: Includes all of the basic services, Library of Congress number, five free books and professional cover.
Level C Price: $495
Level D: Includes all of the Level C services plus professional editing package (for up to 75,000 words).
Level D Price: $790
Level E: Includes all of Level D services, plus Bronze Marketing Package.
Level E Price: $1,110
Level F: Includes all of Level D services and the Silver Marketing Package.
Level F Price: $1,390
Level G: Includes all of Level D services and the Gold Marketing Package.
Level G Price: $1,950
If there is one thing I can remember from looking at VBW services over the years, it is the flexibility, but complexity of the packages and levels on offer, and again, I feel the latest incarnation of presented options for a self-publishing author is detailed, but somewhat confusing. Even for me—familiar with looking at many different companies and services—this really is a handful for any author even with a basic understanding of what it is they are looking for their self-publishing endeavours.
The above level packages have approximately an additional 10% increase if you are intending publishing a hardcover (packages range from $430 to $2100) and about 15% if you want a combination of paperback and hardcover (packages range from $590 to $2225). I am not going to represent all the levels for hardback and combination (paperback & hardback editions) packages here for the purposes of this review.
The marketing packages are included in the more advanced level packages, but can be purchased separately and are listed below.
Bronze Marketing Package: $400 (if purchased separately). Includes professional press release, 100 four-color business cards, and a personal storefront for two years!
Silver Marketing Package: $700 (if purchased separately). With this package, we will write a press release and send it to over 200 media outlets and send review copies of your book to at least 10 major reviewers. You will also get a Personal Storefront for two years and 100 four-color business cards.
Gold Marketing Package: $1,300 (if purchased separately). This package includes a professional press release written and distributed to over 200 media outlets, review copies of your book sent to at least 15 major reviewers, a Personal Storefront for two years, placement in Ingram's Advance Magazine, 500 four-color post cards, 500 business cards and 500 2X6" book markers.
VBW also offer colour (illustrated packages ranging from $625 to $2095) and an ebook package is $99 or $65 if purchased with a print option.
The standard 200 page paperback from VBW retails at $13.95, about average for a trade paperback, with the average hardback ranging from $20 to $26 for retail purchase. VBW offers its authors a 50% discount on the listed retail price on the first order of paperbacks placed with them, and 30% thereafter. For hardback books, the author gets a 35% discount on their first order and 30% thereafter. Even at the initial 50% discount on an order of paperbacks, the author will have to fork out $7 ($6.97) per copy on a book costing $3.90 to print as listed by Lightning Source. That is almost an 80% mark up from print cost, and by my reckoning, way too much. I can live with an author solutions service marking up a modest profit take per unit of say 20%, but 80% is just out of the park.
VBW pay royalties at 50% of net receipts to their authors. To clarify, net is after the print and retailers discount have been subtracted.
“How much of a discount does the distributor and/or bookstores receive?
This is a tough question since it depends on a number of factors. We usually list our books at a 30-35% discount. This keeps the retail price low and is acceptable by Amazon and the other "big boys." However, some small bookstores want a 40-50% discount. Since it is your bottom line that is affected (royalties), we let YOU decide on the discount (however higher discounts will raise the retail price).”
Taking the retailer discount at its lowest, for books sold through distribution networks like Amazon, the breakdown is as follows:
$13.95 – the retail cost of a book
-$3.90 – the cost of printing the book
-$4.18 – the discount given to the retailer
$5.87 – the net receipt to the publisher and author
VBW splits this net receipt 50/50 giving an equal share of $2.93. While it is not the worst deal I have seen from an author solutions service, it is by no means the best deal you will find out there. Royalties are paid on a monthly basis (others only pay quarterly or every six months) but the amount must exceed $25 before it is payable. This is a common clause and pretty much standard fare from most author solutions services. I have never really understood why some author solutions services choose to pay royalties on a monthly basis—it is just not necessary when most authors are simply not going to earn enough royalties through sales to warrant the time, effort and expense for a publisher to administrate this process. It is another sign of an author solutions service stretching itself in an area where there is no mutual benefit for anybody.
Distribution is the standard online global listing and availability offered by most author solutions services using print on demand. However, VBW do offer a $100 warehousing option, meaning they will keep a very small inventory of books onsite to fulfil and ship same day orders to customers who purchase directly from the VBW online store. A returns program for books is also offered to authors as an option. This is a service VBW ran for quite some time and they were one of the earliest author solutions services to do so. It was withdrawn for a period of time due to it being ‘abused’ and has been recently reintroduced again. I have previously expressed my opinions on publishers and author solutions services using POD for print providing these returns programs to the retail sector. I will say again, I believe it is admirable some companies want to make POD produced books acceptable to the book retail trade, but ultimately, it is entirely at odds with an on-demand print and fulfilment model of business. A returns program would be of real use and sense if author solutions services offered it in conjunction with a committed short print run of books.
VBW will provide a ‘true self-publishing’ service to authors. In other words, they will facilitate an author with their own block of ISBN’s and their own imprint and whatever bespoke services are required for a book project.
“Since some authors think true self publishing is when you do all of the setup, etc. yourself, we’ve decided to just put all of the services under one roof (er, website) for you. Instead of having to search for a cover designer, layout artist, editor, printer, etc., you can simply do it all here. Just let us know which services you need and how many copies you would like in your original order and we will send you an estimate.
Please note that you will be sent the master files of everything, so you can always go elsewhere to get the books printed if you prefer.”
VBW offer their authors a non-exclusive contract, though it should be noted they require exclusive distribution rights for ebooks—meaning you cannot make your ebook for sale outside of VBW’s distribution channels. The contract contains a cancellation term of 90 days for the author, but this is subject to a $50 fee before the author can move their book to another provider/publisher. The term of the contract is for two years.
I cannot fault VBW for aiming high and they offer a vast range of services and options many large competitors do not offer. I like VBW and what they do. The overall approach is sound and ten years as an author solutions service shows they understand the business and are doing a lot right. But sometimes when you offer so much in one place as a small operation, things can spread out a little thin in other areas. The lower priced packages promise a great deal, even offering editing and book cover design. I cannot help feeling it is a considerable stretch for an author solutions service to make a $600 to $800 package include a full cover design and an edit—no matter how basic the edit—at all the listed prices. At look through the VBW store reveals a mix of strong cover art and some pretty basic stuff.
While the VBW book retail prices are competitive, I would find it hard to live with an author solutions service taking an almost 80% mark up on print costs when I was the one forking out the cash for the set-up. But, that is just me, and if an author can get over that, then VBW has a great deal to offer an author and a multitude of options. This is going to particularly work against VBW if an author is already considering submitting print ready files. Frankly, those authors would be far wiser going with CreateSpace or directly with Lightning Source who can do their distribution and fulfilment.
The web page provided for authors is a very basic static listing for a book and I think it reflects the limitations of VBW’s own website design, which is flat and lacks any real dynamics, not to mention books. The contract on offer is reasonable, though there is one or two terms in there I would be uneasy about in the event of a dispute.
Contract – Paragraph one.
“The Author also agrees that he/she will hold Virtualbookworm.com, its distributors, and any retailer harmless against any recovery or penalty arising out of his/her breach of this warranty. Author will also reimburse Virtualbookworm.com Publishing for all court costs and legal fees incurred.”
Heck, I don’t fancy paying VBW’s court costs even when I’ve won a judgement! I am not sure how this term would play out with a judge in a court of law, but technically, I have signed the contract and I am bound by its terms.
I stated at the beginning of this review that VBW were one of the earliest author solutions services I looked at several years ago. Back then VBW were very much part of the big six of options for an author considering self-publishing, but with authors becoming more savvy, business orientated and discerning, and with the rise in DIY services like CreateSpace and the direct option of going with Lightning Source, VBW seem less elevated on the map of self-publishing solutions. I have thought long and hard about what precisely it is about VBW that has changed over the past few years. Maybe it is my own self-imposed nostalgia or the fact that this publishing business as a whole changes and develops month to month, but VBW isn’t like I use to remember it.
Reviewing VBW this week was like going back to a wonderful restaurant you remember from a few years back. The food is still good, the staff pleasant, and the prices ok, though the decor has changed a little, but overall, the experience is not quite the same. The restaurant is still were it always was in the street, but many of the other buildings have changed. If you weren’t absolutely sure that’s where it was, you’d has passed it by without noticing it.
VBW need to go one of two ways. Either they need to strip away the complex levels in their packages and have no more than four basic packages with a list of add-on services, or they need to offer all services as tailored bespoke options for an author’s book project. Attempting to do all things for all authors in the way they are creates an illusion of an operation working on a grand scale and dilutes VBW’s ability to stress what their core strength is or should now be—working one on one with authors on a book project.
Sometimes in life, less can be a great deal more.