Back in September 2013 UK publisher Bloomsbury launched a resource and service comparison database for new writers and self-published authors. The database is part of Bloomsbury’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook website, and its accompanying yearbook brand which provides information, articles and resources for writers.
At the time of the launch Eela Devani, digital development director at Bloomsbury Publishing UK, explained the purpose behind publishing services comparison database when she spoke to the The Bookseller.
There is a big need out there for a service like this—a lot of writers thinking about self-publishing don’t know what kind of service will suit them, or even what terms that we take for granted mean, like ‘ISBN’. We wanted to have somewhere they could come to that would help guide them through it.
Authors who use the database are taken through an extensive series of multiple choice questions designed to produce a list of self-publishing service providers which best match the criteria they supplied in their answers. Authors can then select a number of provider services and click a button which allows Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook to put authors in contact with a service provider via the website.
At the time of the launch I expressed several issues with the system, as useful as it might seem to authors. Namely, what real quality criteria had Bloomsbury used in the selection and inclusion of companies and services? Essentially the database makes no effort to steer authors (particularly new authors to the self-publishing field) away from poor or unscrupulous service providers and in the direction of reputable services. To be fair to Bloomsbury, the final database created was not intended to make specific recommendations. From the FAQs on the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook website in regards to the aims of the database:
Unfortunately, we can’t recommend any specific self-publishing providers. Our aim is to remain completely impartial – inclusion of a self-publishing provider does not mean we endorse or recommend their services in any form. We aim to provide you with an objective list of self-publishing providers, tailored to meet your specifications.
That kind of sank the ship a little for me. Yes, authors want some kind of guidance on reputable self-publishing services, and a way to avoid any pitfalls and the database doesn’t provide this. It is a case of simply matching ticked boxes the user has filled in online. The information is as good as what you indicate, without the provision of any guarantee of quality or reputation of a company. And that’s because Bloomsbury is really vetting companies. Is it better than surfing Google for an editorial service, printer or full self-publishing service? – maybe, maybe not, but it is certainly nothing like a complete solution to finding the right service provider. Ultimately authors still need to do their homework, talk to previous author/clients of a service provider, and do things like request samples of books/materials to appraise without direct marketing sales pressure from a company. I’m also conscious that once authors are directly in contact with a service provider discovered through the database, they may still feel somehow protected from possible pitfalls and still end up making a poor choice.
The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) founder and director Orna Ross also expressed concerns about the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook comparison service not long after it was set up. Indeed, much as we suspected, it quickly became apparent that the comparison database listed many Author Solutions’ imprints (the company is the subject of three separate class action lawsuits in the USA) and as a result was feeding unsuspecting authors to Author Solutions’ imprints. Indeed, ALLi had actually worked with Bloomsbury in the earlier stages of development of the comparison service database before finally withdrawing from the project. Orna Ross explains:
ALLi worked with Bloomsbury for some months on a potential rating system for this new comparison website. We were excited to think that Writers & Artists was producing a website that would be of value to authors and were pleased to be invited to rate the providers and provide a system that would do that.
Four members of our Watchdog team — Mick Rooney, Ben Galley, Philip Lynch and I — spent a great deal of time and thought working through a pilot trial, to ensure that the ratings provided would be robust and meaningful.
We did come up with a system that we were proud of but in the end it became clear that service providers, not authors, were the focus of this endeavour.
Feeling that authors were not being well served as the vision unfolded, we withdrew.
However, ALLi announced on Friday that Bloomsbury — in light of events over the past year concerning Author Solutions — has had a change of heart. As part of a two-stage approach, writers who use the comparison engine will no longer be able to select Author Solutions’ imprints and therefore the service provider will not be able to contact an author through the website. Ultimately, as part of a second-stage process, Author Solutions’ imprints will be completely removed from the database. In the words of James Rennoldson, Senior Digital Product Manager at Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.:
As part of the next data import, all companies under ownership of Author Solutions will actually be removed from the site, meaning they will no longer even appear in search results.
While it has taken some time, it certainly comes as welcome news.
And in some other Author Solutions related news…
Lawyers for Author Solutions Challenge Class Action Claims
Dorsey & Whitney LLP, the law firm representing defendants Author Solutions in three class action claims (one filed in New York and two in Indiana), has contested claims made in the lawsuits against its client. Filing further papers with the District Court for the Southern District of New York on May 15th, Dorsey & Whitney suggested that the idea “every one of the thousands of authors who has ever purchased (for any reason) a bookmark, an advertisement a publicity campaign, a radio interview or any other marketing service offered by AS, has been deceived” should be rejected by Judge Denise Cote in consideration of whether she should grant class action status to the case.
Dorsey & Whitney also informed the court in its filed papers that Giskan Solotaroff Anderson & Stewart (GSAS), representing the three plaintiffs, have “twice amended their complaint…[and] have repeatedly revised their proposed class definitions on behalf of a shifting roster of named plaintiffs alleging continuously changing theories of purported misconduct.” GSAS previously informed the courts that one plaintiff had withdrawn from the case and had been replaced with another. Dorsey & Whitney say the plaintiffs’ allegations against its client now centre on a claim “that this case is really all about AS’s marketing services operation”.
Dorsey & Whitney concluded in their filing that the case is “unsupported by any persuasive evidence” and is founded on “pure conjecture and speculation […] contradicted by substantial evidence regarding the breadth of AS’s marketing services operation”.
Judge Denise Cote could choose to hear oral arguments or simply make her decision on class action status based on the papers filed with the court already. It’s uncertain at the moment how long she will take to rule on the plaintiffs’ application for class action status.