Last autumn, YouWriteOn’s “free publishing deal” attracted a lot of attention from writers and industry watchdogs. It was discussed on several writers’ message boards; Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware blogged about it; and so did I.
The deeply sceptical felt that it was at best an ill-thought-out scheme or at worst, a cynical vanity publishing plan to separate naive writers from their money; the optimistic saw it as an innovative publishing scheme designed to break the mould of corporation-controlled publishing (in case you haven’t read my original posts, I fell in with the sceptics).
Publication was initially scheduled for the first week of December but as we moved into the second week of the month, only a tiny handful of writers had been notified that their books were available. Books trickled onto Amazon and Barnes & Noble—but only those written by authors who had paid what Ted was misleadingly referring to as the “distribution fee” (the £39.99 he had charged writers to assign an ISBN to their books): not a single book appeared from the writers who had chosen the free option.
YouWriteOn members began to post questions on the YouWriteOn message board, asking when their books would appear: but Ted Smith, who seems to run YouWriteOn single-handed, largely failed to respond directly to their questions: instead, he pointed out that publication by Christmas had always been an aim, but not a promise. When the level of complaints and in-fighting threatened to overrun the message board, Smith began deleting posts (including a few of mine); then he began deleting whole threads; and then, on December 19, he closed down the entire message board, supposedly for its brief annual Christmas break. The board remains closed to this day. It’s apparently undergoing upgrades. They had better be good.
What is YouWriteOn doing with this break from message board moderating? You’d think that it would be taking care of the legal obligations that come with running a reputable publishing company, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Last week a representative of the British Library confirmed to me that despite all publishers having a legal obligation to provide it with copies of all their books under the Legal Deposit scheme, YouWriteOn has not provided a single copy of any of its latest titles. And YouWriteOn can’t say that it was unaware of this obligation: it was discussed on the YouWriteOn board before the board was taken down, and in Absolute Write’s thread about YouWriteOn which Ted Smith has contributed to; and if that were not enough, the Legal Deposit team alerted YouWriteOn to its legal obligation last summer when it had to make an official request for one of YouWriteOn’s previous publications, when YouWriteOn failed to provide a copy within the legal deadline.
Meanwhile, what of YouWriteOn’s authors? As I write this, 192 books are listed under the YouWriteOn imprint on Amazon, and 273 on Barnes and Noble—although I’ve also noticed several YouWriteOn books listed without any imprint details, so the actual number will be higher.
Not one of those books that I’ve checked (and I've looked at over half of them) has any form of synopsis to tell the browsing reader what the book is about: and most of the jacket designs use the same standard template in purple, cream and black which is, I’m afraid, downright ugly; or an image of a blue planet, which renders the superimposed title illegible. So much for the ten foot rule.
I’ve spotted many errors in Amazon’s listings: one author’s first name was correctly given as Tamsin on her book jacket, but was listed as Jasmine in the Amazon details, which would have made searching for her by name impossible; there were several cases where the Amazon details referred to one book but a completely different book appeared in the cover image provided by YouWriteOn. Many more showed spelling errors in names and/or titles on the provided image of the book jackets, in the details provided to Amazon, or on both; and there were some particularly odd inversions of the authors names. Two authors have discovered that their titles, names and ISBNs are confused to such an extent they’re not sure which is their book, and which belongs to the other. Am I nitpicking? Hardly. Out of one hundred YouWriteOn books that I chose at random from Amazon UK two weeks ago, sixty seven had errors in the details provided to Amazon by YouWriteOn. Of those sixty seven books with errors, only one now shows corrected copy. The remaining errors are still in place.
One writer paid to have her cover professionally designed and, while the designers did a good job, all thirty of the copies which she ordered for her launch party arrived with a green stripe running across the cover, as did copies that her friends ordered at different times: which implies that this was not a printer malfunction, but an issue with the PDF held by Lightning Source—which was, of course, supplied by YouWriteOn.
At least she has a book, though: several writers have still heard nothing about their books’ status from YouWriteOn despite repeated requests for information. Writers who didn’t cough up for the “distribution fee” have been told that their books will be available to order from the YouWriteOn website on some unspecified date in the future and as the contract states that they won’t earn any royalties on copies they buy themselves, they have no real way to make money from the sales of their own books. Some writers have cancelled, but have received no confirmation that their cancellations have been received; and meanwhile, YouWriteOn has blithely announced on its own website that following the huge success of its publishing scheme it’s planning to open its doors to a new round of submissions in the spring.
I have to ask: a success for whom? Not for the writers who still have no idea when, or if, their books will published; nor for the writers whose books are incorrectly listed on Amazon. And while I’m genuinely pleased that some YouWriteOn writers are happy with their books, I wonder how well their books will do bearing in mind that YouWriteOn has provided these books with no editorial input or distribution whatsoever.
One thing that has been provided, though, is a nice big chunk of money to YouWriteOn: the authors of every single one of those 273 YouWriteOn books now showing on Barnes & Noble paid £39.99 to YouWriteOn to get them there: a total of £10,906.35, plus the income provided by the authors whose YouWriteOn books are listed as “imprint unknown”. That’s a very nice return for making a couple of slapdash downloads every day in the four months or so since this scheme launched: and it doesn’t take into account any of the money which YouWriteOn has earned on the back of the sales of these books. Is this vanity publishing? It certainly looks like it to me.
(Please note: I'd have liked to have linked to various posts at YouWriteOn's message board to provide my many sources for this piece, but as it's been taken down that's not possible; and while it might have been useful to link to some of the many errors I've seen on Amazon I didn't want the authors concerned to feel that I was poking fun at them: so I've decided not to highlight any individual books here.)