Opinion: Pearson Acquisition of Author Solutions – Change, What Change?

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There is certainly nothing out of place with today’s acquisition by Pearson – Penguin’s parent company – of the largest self-publishing service provider, Author Solutions (ASI). While the purchase of ASI might raise a few furrowed brows in the established publishing industry, the sale by ASI’s parent compant, Bertram Capital, has been on the back burner for the past year. It wasn’t too long ago that I felt we might see ASI dabble in the second-hand publishing market and pick up a few small presses, but instead, the strategy of ASI has been to woo some of the established players like Thomas Nelson, Hay House and Harlequin into self-publishing partnerships.
Wherever you personally place ASI and their stable of self-publishing imprints like iUniverse, AuthorHouse and Xlibris in the scheme of publishing – be it as vanity house in disguise or a slick corporate marketer with promises of self-publishing dreams made true – ASI has developed an engine room efficient and quick to turn manuscripts into print and ebook products for authors, whatever arguments you make about the literary quality of many of the books published. I’ve heard far too many within and outside of the industry take an easy swipe at ASI over the years – just as so many are quick to take easy pot-shots at Amazon – but both companies got where they are by seizing opportunity, providing services to customers willing to part with cash, and, crucially, had the resources to develop and deliver their services to a global market. In today’s world – salesmen aren’t paid to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They are paid to sell services and products. The buyer often says yay or nay dependent on how informed he or she is about what is needed. Both companies have also developed their fair share of innovative tools and services – Amazon with it’s most recent move to deliver some products on the same day of ordering, and ASI has turned a lot of heads with it’s ebook platform, Booktango, and even more recently, with BookStub, a loyalty card complete with a QR code for gifting books. But the real jewel in the crown for  Penguin today is immediate access to the ASI production engine.
Everyone directly connect with this decision will be happy. Bertram Capital has shifted a marque they needed to and trousered $116 million, ASI CEO, Kevin Weiss, makes the board of Penguin Group, and Penguin gets the keys to the ASI engine room and the resource of 1600 employees. That will help nicely with digitizing a lot more of the Penguin back catalogue, provide a further financial revenue stream, and who knows, maybe provide a very few new authors to the mothership which hitherto went under the radar of Penguin. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that self-publishing is enjoying something of a vogue status however many stuffies we still hear throwing their toys out of the established publishing cot over the perceived watering down of traditional publishing brands. If anything, this purchase by Pearson is proof that even Penguin is not the brand it once represented and the average book buyer won’t give an iota about this deal and future implications for the industry – that’s if most will even be aware of it.
For me, it’s at least another step forward in the right direction – to a day in the book industry when we focus entirely on the quality of content (as providers not publishers and authors behaving as separate entities guarding their nests and interests) and not who paid for a book to be published or whether self-published books are lined up on one side of the room and traditionally published books on the other side – and that’s when they are allowed in the room! The biggest lie in publishing at the moment is that traditional/legacy publishers – call them what you will – have nothing to do with self-publishing and fear nothing from their lesser brethren. The truth is traditional publishers have been knee-deep in the self-publishing world for several years – and I mean the big six we hear so much about. Did you know Random House once held part ownership in Xlibris nearly 12 years ago, before it eventually became part of the ASI self-publishing mothership? Did you know that some writers who emerged from MacMillan’s New Writers’ program were self-published authors? Did you know that HarperCollins‘ Authonomy has been a breathing ground for many self-publishing services, and regularly fields advertisements from companies like CreateSpace? Penguin may have been the first of the big six to launch a full-blown self-publishing service with Book Country, but believe me, the traditional courtship with self-publishing began many years ago. Eoin Purcell, on his blog today, also rightly pointed out that even Bloomsbury, following its acquisition of A&C Black, have subtly been dabbling in the author service arena.
“Some companies have been busy creating product suites that cater to the diverse needs of authors.
A really good example of someone who is moving into the space in a measured and clever way is Bloomsbury through their  Writers & Artists Yearbook site. What was once  a staid old handbook of contacts has, over the last number of years, been recast as something entirely different, something very impressive.”
We should not forget the big independents. I’ve spoken enough about ASI’s previous partnerships with Harlequin, Thomas Nelson and Hay House. Faber also run the respected Faber Academy for writers, using it as a workshop and school for the next budding Faber talent – all additional revenue streams for what we may soon stop describing as traditional or legacy publishing. And it work’s both ways – author solutions providers have long developed hybrid models of publishing where the investment from the author is not measured in finance, but time spent on marketing and exploiting their social networks. A few disgruntled authors – after years within the traditional world of publishing – would argue that that’s the way it work’s for many authors signed up by large publishers.
I’ve no doubt we will see more deals like today’s between Pearson and ASI. It is what it is. Publishing – and what it once meant and how it’s executed – is changing in process as well as the myriad of developing e-markets. Earning a living crust from the sale of books alone for most authors was never a reality, in spite of what the book-buying public’s perception might be. It seems now that running a publishing house in New York may also not pay enough of a corporate crust without the help of some self-publishing friends.
We may hear rejoicing in some circles this evening – and not just in the Weiss and Makinson households – but a few ardent and dedicated self-publishers raising a glass or two that their voices may be heard just a decibel higher from now on. Though many may greet this news as welcome – that self-publishing has somehow come into the fold of publishing for good – I don’t really see too much changing, because it already has. It’s easier for a publisher or agent to watch the Amazon ranking list or look at the latest Nielsen BookScan reports to tell them what is selling rather than sifting through the mountain of slush piles. The future is now, and it isn’t in those slush piles. Instead, it’s about taking a deep breath; learning your writing craft through a good writing workshop; informing yourself and learning about the industry as it is now; building a fan base and actively engaging with your readers; finding champions of your work; believing in yourself and persevering; and putting yourself out there.
Many stalwarts of the industry will still rely on the old adages – Yog’s Law, and How Publishing Really Works. I’d say the difference now is that the responsibility is squarely on the shoulders of the author to ensure money flows to the author through the decisions he or she takes. Traditional publishing and self-publishing are both risks – the personal and financial value is learning how to wager those risks sensibly. It has always been about How Publishing Works – just How Publishing Really Works Now!
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