FastPencil is a California-based publishing service and writing community for authors and publishers. The company was founded by Steve Wilson and Michael Ashley in 2007 and it was purchased in 2013 by the Courier Corporation, an innovative US book manufacturer and content management provider. (Update, May 2015 – Wilson bought the company back off Courier.) FastPencil provides authors and publishers with full-featured, open-platform solutions spanning content, workflow, marketing and distribution. It provides simple automated systems to help self-publishers get to market quickly and effectively in both print and e-book form, including the use of technology behind Barnes & Noble’s recently revamped Nook Press.
This is a highly competitive area of the self-publishing service sector, and while up against stiff opposition from similar DIY self-publishing platforms like Amazon’s CreateSpace, Lulu, Blurb and Smashwords, FastPencil has also developed premium services above and beyond its basic free entry-level offering. Therein lies my first concern with FastPencil—much of the way the company markets itself to aspiring authors is driven by offering a fast and effective self-publishing DIY option, and yet, much of what the company actually offers (to authors and publishing companies of varying size) comes in at the premium service end. We will touch on this a little later in this review.
First, FastPencil’s ‘About’ website page:
The traditional book publishing process can take many months of effort and more money than most writers anticipate. It’s no wonder authors get discouraged.
You shouldn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to write and publish your own book! We have removed the hurdles inherent in traditional book publishing by combining amazing advances in technology with a sophisticated online workflow system for both books and ebooks.
While powerful technology makes it possible for anyone to publish a high-quality book, our collaboration capabilities make FastPencil the easiest, fastest, and most exciting way to write and publish. Regardless of the type of book you’re writing, you need feedback as you create. When authors have ready access to friends and collaborators, the writing and editing process is faster and easier.
At any point in the writing process you can connect with like-minded people, share knowledge, gather feedback from reviewers and editors, and collaborate with other authors, all without leaving FastPencil.
FastPencil is Software in the Cloud – so you don’t have to download anything to your computer. It’s the fastest and easiest way to write, publish and sell books and ebooks—anywhere!
FastPencil might be one way to publish quickly and efficiently, but I’m not convinced it is the ‘fastest and easiest way to write.’ While the strength of FastPencil is offering online software to construct a book, and combining that with the ability for multiple authors or readers to record input into the creative process of the book, the platform introduces unnecessary restrictions. The principle is to remove complicated design software and load-up formats, making the creative process easy for non-tech savvy authors attractive and painless, and to be fair, it is. However, signing up to FastPencil and getting your hands on the basic software and FastPencil’s marketplace is free, but serious authors and publishers need to be prepared to shed some serious dollars to break from FastPencil’s propriety software restrictions. Using FastPencil is a little like a visit to the carnival down the street with its noise and flashing lights. You pay little or nothing to get in the gate, but once in, if you really want to have fun and have a go on all the exciting rides—you’re sure gonna pay for it!
You can publish a book with FastPencil by setting up an author or publisher account. There are three distinct options: Publish Using the FastPencil Imprint (brand and FastPencil registered ISBN); Publish Using Your Own Imprint (brand, logo, imprint name, publishing company and ISBN block); or using FastPencil’s mid-tier Wavecrest imprint. The Wavecrest imprint is described as ‘a professional partnership between the established author and our service providers and channels.
Every book under Wavecrest is scrutinized and evaluated for Book Store Placement. All Wavecrest packages include standard services such as format and edit reviews as well as professional cover designs. In addition, Marketing and PR are added according to your desired reach and budget.
This is the first of two FastPencil premium packaged servicesfor authors with package prices ranging from $4499 up to $7499 and featuring high-end professional design, marketing and PR services. For the purposes of this review, I am not going to explore these packages in any great detail as I suspect the majority of authors using FastPencil and its writing and publishing platform do not opt for these.
Considering these premium publishing packages are ‘scrutinized and evaluated for Book Store Placement,’ you might expect them to include some basic proofreading service, but you would be wrong. It is this kind of detail that makes me question the real value of book store placement, considering only the $7499 package actually includes a premium cover design service.
Likewise, FastPencil’s Premiere imprint is described as a ‘world-class, highly selective, publishing imprint that houses an exclusive line of high-interest titles and top-tier, best-selling authors. Among the elite authors are Mercer Mayer, Angela Sage Larsen, L. Douglas Keeney, Guy Gilchrist, and Steven Pressfield.’ Perhaps I lead a sheltered reading existence, but I’ve not heard of any of these authors.
Agents, publishers and successful independently published authors (new authors with sales in excess of 10,000 copies and bestselling authors with sales in excess of 100,000 copies) are invited to contact FastPencil’s Premiere imprint to discuss partnerships designed to provide faster, flexible and ‘compelling’ royalty splits.
Back in 2007, when Steve Wilson and Michael Ashley founded FastPencil, I suspect their marketing buzzwords must have been ‘fast and flexible’ because those words resonate throughout all of the marketing speak, no matter whether you investigate FastPencil’s basic services or premium packages. Choosing the right publishing service option for any author nowadays can be complex and often bewildering, and I can’t help feeling that authors perusing through FastPencil’s offerings are going to feel a little disenfranchised if they don’t have a shed load of book sales already under their belt and a pretty substantial budget.
So, it begs the obvious question: what do I get for FREE or for a little investment in my book project?
Well, that of course depends on how much handholding and support you want as an author or publisher. FastPencil is not alone in the DIY self-publishing sector to develop and expand on premium services. They are all at it—from Lulu, CreateSpace to Blurb. If you want handholding, one-on-one guidance and support, you have to pay the premium price for it. After all, like or loath them, global self-publishing service giant Author Solutions built their imprint brands on this philosophy. However, while FastPencil might have the premium prices to match, it is trying to sell something a little different to authors and publishers than just print and publishing packages at expensive prices. FastPencil—I suspect for the majority of authors signing up for an account—is actually used like Lulu (or CreateSpace) but considered to have just a little more swagger and software sophistication. This is certainly the real strength of FastPencil, together with its collaborative writing community, which allows multiple authors to work on a book project and beta readers to help an author refine a work, but it also exposes FastPencil as something of a one-trick pony, despite its white label and licensing options.
That may seem a little harsh on a company that has invested deeply on a very sophisticated software engine over the past six years and clearly comes as a huge benefit to authors. An author can use the software tool as a writing tool directly, as part of the creative process—much as you can use any word processor—and load up additional images, while not having to worry about tricky conversion tools or how to format a book for publication. I should stress, though, FastPencil make much play on their software tools by referring—at times—to features like the ‘FastPencil editor’ and as an editing tool, but be aware that there are no automated bypasses or magic button tricks in operation here that replace professional copyediting. The software does all this easily, efficiently and at the touch of a button, albeit using ten interior templates with whatever trim size is selected. And there is the rub of it. If you want the real flexibility FastPencil can offer, it is there, but only in increments an author pays for.
In short, FastPencil is selling and licensing access to its writing and publishing software engine in a 101 different ways with added premium services most other full publishing providers also offer.
Here is what you get for FREE:
· Access to FastPencil’s basic writing and publishing software (this is template-driven, but the software will create a more than adequate book interior if used correctly)
· A social media interface allowing authors to invite reader review and collaborative input
· Access only to the FastPencil marketplace
· The author can pay for one print or e-book copies
This is not publishing per se, but simply placing something publicly online for consumption. Personally, I think an author gets more ‘FREE’ with Lulu, Createspace, Smashwords and Blurb, but the trade-off with FastPencil is not dealing with an awkward meatgrinder for loading up files, working with fussy and frustrating software, and you get the added collaborative aspects FastPencil offer. I’m pre-empting the question… No, you can’t just simply import an MS Word doc to the software directly like you can with other self-publishing platforms. (see my ADDED NOTES ON SERVICES AND CHARGES)
Now, let us get into the nitty-gritty of really publishing with FastPencil:
What I do like about FastPencil is the fact that all services can be purchased individually and that is important in today’s self-publishing sector when authors are choosing looking at publishing provider. FastPencil offer the three ‘Olympic Reliables’: Bronze, Silver and Gold. Distribution to the main online channels *Amazon, Apple, Nook et all) can be added for $299 for e-book and print editions ($249 for an ebook only).
· 1 hour of Project Management
· Basic Cover Design
· Professional Interior Book Design Templates
· Editorial Review up to 25,000 words
· 1 Free Copy of Your Book and eBook
· ISBN Number
· Distribution to FP, Amazon, B&N, Kindle, Nook, iPad and other bookstores
This publishing package comes in at $999. The ‘Professional Interior Book Design Templates’ is what is available in the basic FastPencil software engine when an author converts a book project to print PDF and e-book format. The ‘Editorial Review’ is exactly that—a summary review of your book project with suggestions from an editor. It is not a proofread or a copyedit of your book and it is limited to 25,000 words—at least a third of the length of most commercial novels. Yes, you pay for anything more than this length. The ISBN number registers FastPencil as the publisher of origin. Distribution is through the main online channels.
Need to polish your work before publishing? With our Bronze package you’ll receive an hour’s worth of assistance from a FastPencil project manager. One of our skilled graphic designers will create a beautiful front cover. You’ll even receive a (1) free print copy of your Book and eBook.
Authors should note the deal on the basic cover design. A ‘front cover’ is exactly that. It does not mean an entire all-dancing, bells and whistles book cover. The old adage in life suggests nothing is really free—and it isn’t. If you are paying $999 for this package, then be assured that FastPencil has factored in the cost of your ‘free print copy.’ Authors screaming; ‘Where’s my lovely spine and back cover?’ please move to one side and see FastPencil’s additional services.
NOTE: A Customer Cover Spread Override can be purchased individually for $199 allowing the upload of an author’s cover spread with ISBN, barcode and giving complete control on how the cover appears.
SILVER (adds to Bronze)
· 2 hours of Project Management
· Formatting Review up to 25k words
· 1 Free PaperbackCopy of Your Book and eBook
Take note of that word ‘Paperback’ (my bold). I’m extracting from this that it means you don’t get physical copies with the bronze (just PDF and ePUB file copies), but a physical copy of the paperback edition with the silver package. The cost for these additional services is $1199—that is $200 above the bronze.
GOLD (adds to Bronze)
· 3 hours of Project Management
· Premium Front Cover Design ($999 individually)
· Formatting Review up to 50k words
· Editorial Review up to 50k words
· 5 Free Paperback Copies of Your Book
Those reviews are still drastically short of the standard length of a novel and the editorial work is not actual editing. The cost of this package is $1999.
FastPencil’s additional services can be found here and the company also provide a showcase for independent author services through its FastPencil Connect community (based on registered FastPencil users).
If an author wants to publish through FastPencil using his/her own imprint, logo and ISBN numbers, they must sign up with a publisher account. This costs $599 with an additional charge of $49 per title per year.
Publisher Accounts are for professionals that are tech savvy and have their own Publishing business. You will be expected to set up your new account as a publishing imprint business using our platform. Our software handles writing, collaborating, editing, template design, publishing, printing and distribution. With the Publisher Account, our system will also allow you to have your own Imprint information and logo on the book and cover, as well as your own ISBN and meta data.
In addition, FastPencil will also extent the flexibility of their online tools, software and support for publishers through licensing agreements. This allows author/publishers to break out of the fixed standard user-structure of the software, allowing in-house, publisher-designed files to be uploaded and integrated fully with FastPencil’s system and wide distribution channels.
The author sets the retail price and royalties are set at an 80/20% split in favour of the author (after manufacturing costs) within the FastPencil marketplace. For wide distribution, generally the retailer receives 40% of the book retail, 5% goes to FastPencil, and the author takes 20% of the retail price. For e-books, the spilt on a book retailing at $9.99 is:
$1.40 (14%) – FastPencil
$3.00 (30%) – Retailer
$5.60 (56%) – Author
SOME ADDITIONAL POINTS TO NOTE ON SERVICES AND CHARGES
Send us your manuscript in digital format (MS Word, etc.) and we will import it into FastPencil, setup the book project and get all the chapters and sections organized for you. This is a great way to jumpstart your book project and get closer to publishing ($299 – up to 120k words/20 images)
Manual Price Change
If you published your Book or eBook into wide distribution and would now like to change the price, you can now do that without having to republish. Just purchase this manual price change service and let us know what you want the new price to be. ($149)
Custom Cover Spread Override
If you want to use your own custom cover spread, including spine design, you must purchase a cover override. This allows us to override the system and upload your own cover spread. Use this service when you have your own ISBN and barcode, or if you want total control over your book cover spread. ($199)
When basic and premium cover design packages are purchased ($599-999), authors should also note the following disclaimer (my bold):
You may provide front cover image, author image and ideas. Up to two revisions if necessary. *Cost of photos and stock imagery is extra.
Full editing services can be purchased from FastPencil, but please note that the rates are above what an author might pay with a freelance editor. Line editing is listed as $0.039 per word, with advanced editorial editing at $0.076 per word.
Book Manufacturing Costs
FastPencil’s book manufacturing costs can be checked out here. Frankly, even in light of some of the other points I have made above, manufacturing costs alone make FastPencil prohibitive for most authors looking at basic self-publishing options (unless you don’t intend purchasing copies of your book or you only intend using FastPencil for an e-book edition). Many DIY self-publishing providers and assisted publishing service providers add print mark-ups—even DIY service platforms like Lulu and Blurb. FastPencil’s print mark-ups are simply off the scale completely. I played around with their calculator for quite a bit, using many standard book options (200-300 page length, paperback, B&W interior layouts and trim sizes) and I couldn’t get a single book example of any specification to work out less than $9.20 (with a $1.40 per unit discount if you order 100 copies). Similar specification books can be readily purchased directly from Lightning Source or CreateSpace for 50-60% cheaper. If an author wants copies of their book to hand sell, for author signings, reviews etc., the print prices are utterly insane. I expect this kind of pricing from poor services like PublishAmerica or Author Solutions brands, not from a company like FastPencil, with something of real value to offer self-published authors and small publishers. Though, FastPencil is entirely transparent about information presented to authors and publishers. Perhaps the recent purchase of the company by Courier (a dedicated book manufacturer) will help to reduce some print manufacturing costs. I certainly hope so.
FastPencil publishes everything “On-Demand” so you don’t have to pay printing costs up front. When a book is purchased, the cost of printing is incorporated into the retail price and paid by the buyer.
Nice. But I don’t want my readers paying $9.20 + our profit margin + wholesale/retail discount for a 200 page print paperback in the marketplace. As a curious aside, a similar hardback option, using a smaller trim size, worked out with a similar print cost to the paperback. Shsss… but an e-book and hardback option might actually work out with FastPencil if you are prepared to shed a few hundred dollars. Very curious…
I have actually had few complaints about FastPencil prior to carrying out this review, but I am wondering now if that is more to do with FastPencil not being seen as a competitive option against other companies, rather than the existence of any notable group of FastPencil authors with a disappointing experience. Whatever the reason, print cost mark-ups are a serious X against any provider no matter how strong the software engine is.
Test driving FastPencil for book publication is a little like taking a month’s free trial version of super tech software you find online. It’s great for the first half hour, but the moment you get into the swing of things and really start to test its features on a serious project, you realise there’s a hell of a lot of grey non-function buttons on the interface menu. Somewhere in the mix, between original concept and trying to develop a powerful publishing solution, FastPencil has fallen hopelessly in love with its software to the determent of the overall goal—creating a publishing engine authors and publishers won’t want to be without. Instead, FastPencil has ended up with a system authors and publishers can do without, and that is because FastPencil has convinced itself that their software is an answer to all solutions.
The writing tools are slick and easy for creation, but nothing compared to the nuts and bolts of Scrivener. The back end publishing and conversion tools work a treat, but don’t have the hands-on user-flexibility and depth of Caliberor InDesign. In the grand scheme of things, FastPencil has missed the target with both authors and publishers. FastPencil might be an attractive option for the casual author, but if wants to seriously attract the DIY-savvy author, it’s going to have to offer more at sign-up entry level to the FastPencil system. Publishers already have their dedicated book creation, data sharing and distribution software systems, and I suspect are going to be unwilling to cede any significant control on system integration. The FastPencil publishing engine could certainly be beneficial to small press publishers ill-equipped or under resourced and with a small investment budget.
All in all, I think FastPencil is a terrific publishing engine for the right author/publisher client, but like many entrepreneurial software companies, I think it has greatly overvalued the price of access to the software engine in a highly competitive solutions market, certainly at the basic author-entry level. In a sector where technical development and expansion can happen very quickly, you must first ensure your core author clientele are onboard and grow with you, before rolling out a host of expensive premium services and partnerships. Otherwise you risk alienating your core client and disenfranchising any new commercial market. Right about now, FastPencil would do well to take a long hard look at Adobe Systems and its recently launched Creative Cloud for software licensing and solutions via a subscription model.
As an author and owner of a publishing imprint, I’d be happy to pay a reasonably fixed monthly subscription to all of the features of FastPencil’s software engine (but it must first be properly and seamlessly integrated with professional design software used by publishers) and then choose from an a la carte menu of services I need for individual book projects. Blurb managed to integrate their software system with other external design software products; I don’t see why FastPencil cannot do the same.
· Address those damn inflated manufacturing print costs. While e-books might be a serious option for an author at FastPencil, don’t ever think print is dead. It might be about to jump up and bite you on the ass.
· Drop most of your publishing packages—you are in danger of looking more and more like an Author Solutions brand. Packages are what we buy for convenience and speed in supermarkets when we are in a hurry. They are not an ideal, long-term, cost-effective solution to a professional challenge.
· Get your hair cut and keep your hands out of your pockets where I can see them.
Another sleeping giant with as much positives as negatives. Pretty okay for e-books but a big DOH! for print books. Now I’ve got my hands dirty, I’m thinking, is it worth the expense and trouble? She looked sooo much better from a distance… I wish I was still there!