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Overnight, Authonomy site administrators posted a response to the criticism on the forum:

This will be another free feature of the site. It certainly isn’t about exploitation. It won’t be compulsory. It is part of the authonomy toolkit. Like forums, messaging, RSS feeds, watchlists etc., we won’t be forcing anyone to use these features, but if you want to, then they’ll be there. For you.

Read the whole post here.

My initial thought is that if HarperCollins really are introducing the POD option simply as another feature of the site which adds value for its members, why bother to go to the expense and effort of building your own solution? Why not simply partner with an existing service, such as lulu.com, which is bound to be more efficient and less costly?

Bren MacDibble alerted me on Facebook to  some grumblings about HarperCollins’ Authonomy site.

Authonomy participant, Alexander McNabb, fought his way to a top 5 ranking on the site, spurred on by the promise that each month HarperCollins would read the Top 5 ranked manuscripts. What he got was not what he expected.

But the HC review of my book (next to the gold star on the book page) was slapdash and odd. And many other writers who’d got to the top of the ‘greasy pole’, as some called it, got the same feeling. Now, over 25 chart-topping reviews, five months, into the exercise, HC has not asked for ONE full read from a writer whose book reached the top, let alone taken anything further to any degree.

Yesterday, HC sent me a note offering me the chance to put my books up as POD (Print on Demand or Publish on Demand) books on authonomy. Soon, according to the email, all books on authonomy will be available as POD books but for now only ‘a few early adopters’ have been offered the opportunity – and a ‘gift’ of the first 10 books free.

For those who’ve not discovered it yet, Authonomy is HarperCollins UK’s social networking experiment for authors. Authors can upload all or part of their manuscripts to an online community. The best ranked submissions, based on the community’s votes, are read by HarperCollins editors. Members also have  chance to converse and swap critical feedback.

I’m not a member of Authonomy and am certainly not in a position to judge whether Alexander’s account is accurate. But regardless of whether HC editors are reading full manuscripts or not, the move toward POD sales of members’ books is disquieting.

My best friend‘s favourite adage is “It’s all about managing expectations.” HarperCollins have clearly encouraged certain expectations among aspiring authors flocking to the site.  Authonomy’s tag line is “Beat the Slush” which holds out to authors the promise of catching the attention of publishers who are seeking fresh new talent. In the original media release that accompanied the announcement of Authonomy, HarperCollins stated:

For aspiring authors the site is both a new route to publication with a leading publishing house and a genuine base from which to build a long-term following online.

Authonomy also reinforced this expectation on the site itself, both in the FAQs and in its own “HarperCollins response” thread on the forum:

We thought this would be obvious, but perhaps we need to spell this one out: Our editors _do_ browse the site looking for manuscripts that meet their requirements and if we like something we follow up directly. (To pre-empt the sceptical who seem to doubt everything we say – yes, we’re in dialogue with a number of authors from authonomy).

HarperCollins have at no point promised any author any outcome at all, other than to read the most popular content posted to the site. But all of these messages create a very strong expectation: that Authonomy was set up as a pathway to publication for aspiring authors.

If it’s true HarperCollins will now be offering members the opportunity to sell their work to the community via print on demand (presumably for a fee, or by ceding some rights and sales revenue), members would be justified in feeling their expectations have been betrayed. Many Authonomy members have posted their own reactions on the site’s forums. Here are a few:

“Authonomy has moved from potentially innovative to concretely exploitative.” Richard P-S

“Slow-moving slush pile is one thing… but captive market and preying on our desires to be published is another thing. It’s just cruel. Lulu already exists… and at least you know what you’re doing when you sign in there.” macdibble

“If I wanted to POD, I’d have gone (as I think Diane said) to Lulu by now. I don’t. I thought that, no, was led to believe that authonomy was a genuine effort to create a peer-reviewed, community based filter for publishable writing. And by publishable, I don’t mean POD.” alexander

I will emphasise not all responses from Authonomy users on the forums are negative ones. For balance, I recommend you read through the threads yourself to assess what the reaction has been, but to me it appears the majority of users (at least those bothering to voice their thoughts on the forum) are feeling misled.

At the heart of this anger and disquiet in the Authonomy membership is HarperCollins’ failure to understand online communities. Authonomy has all the trendy social networking bells and whistles. It’s got well-trafficked discussion boards and user-generated content. But social networking platforms at their most vibrant cede control to the community, they don’t (in fact can’t) hoard it for the platform developer. (Which is why Facebook is having trouble monetising itself) Authonomy users came to the site because of an expectation they were sold by HarperCollins. Having built up a successful community, those users don’t now wish to be told by HarperCollins to do or be something else especially when it’s transparently about making money for HarperCollins. Or, as put by an Authonomy member:

‘Hidden agenda’? How about a rollout plan that hasn’t been shared – an intent to create a site in phases without sharing with, or consulting, the people that populate that site? How about misrepresenting the site to those people as you do your rollout? What does that make you? alexander

I wonder what HarperCollins’ answer will be?

Sorry I’ve been away from the blog for a few weeks. More travel and even, selfishly, some carefully hoarded time away for my own writing, joy! I’ve got some meatier blog posts brewing but here are some links to some fantastic articles to keep you going until then.

From Print to E, Some Items to Consider – Booksquare
Kassia Krozser has some fantastic suggestions for publishers who want to get e-books right. I particularly support her ideas regarding royalties and rights. Authors are wary of e-boook business models because the profitability for publishers (whether some or none) is so opaque. Open it up, show you’re about collaboration and sharing, and authors will follow.

Target, Serve and Adapt: A Simple Model for Audience Development – Tools of Change for Publishing
Living as we are in an attention economy, it’s useful for publishers to think about how they can target niches. This article from TOC looks at two examples of publishers – Politico and myballard.com – who are getting big by thinking small.

Bookkake; Or, putting my money where my mouth is – booktwo.org
James Bridle of booktwo has launched an admirable new project called Bookkake, a print on demand publishing service of classic literature. The new website is fantastic – simple, elegant with excerpts, introductions and multiple e-book editions available for free download. You can order p-book editions on the site which will be printed and shipped directly to you. Fingers crossed for this one! This is exactly the kind of model that the Literature Board of the Australia Council could adopt to return classic Australian literature to readers, instead of whinging that publishers don’t support unsustainable traditional print runs of it.

Author Questions: Distribution – Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog
Joe Wikert has a neato series going about questions authors should ask their publishers. Joe says,”Far too frequently it seems like the critical discussions between author and editor focus on things like writing schedules and compensation packages.  While those are certainly important subjects there are plenty of others that need to be covered as well”. The first topic he deals with is distribution.

Sorry for my absence for the blogosphere lately, chickadees, I experienced a few health hiccups but am now back at the keyboard.

And while I was away those sneaky folk over at Amazon did a 180 on me. Here I was thinking how helpful and forward-thinking their services were for small presses and self-publishers. It turns out monopolistic and aggressive might have been better descriptors.

As first reported over at Writers Weekly Amazon are now insisting that Print on Demand (POD) books be printed by Booksurge (an Amazon-owned company) or they will not be offered for sale on Amazon’s website. POD publishers and small presses who are printing with other companies, Lightning Source for example, will have to shift their lists to Booksurge or have the “Buy” button taken off their amazon listings. According to Writers Weekly, Amazon representatives have admitted that eventually their desire is to carry only Booksurge printed POD titles.

Though egregious, I agree with Booksquare that this is hardly surprising. Vertical integration is a tried-and-tested method of increasing efficiency and hence profitability within industries, and for a mature company like Amazon this is a strategy that makes sense.

What I’m interested to see next is how publishers respond and whether they’ll be able to leverage any collective power to win changes. While this appears like agressive even bullying market behaviour on Amazon’s part, it seems unlikely that it is in breach of antitrust laws or competition legislation.