UK Author Unions Launch Investigation Into ‘Partner Publishing’

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From Publishing Perspectives:

The Society of Authors and Writers’ Guild of Great Britain–the United Kingdom’s two authors’ unions–have announced today (March 3) an investigation into “the financial and contractual impact on authors of publishers that charge for publication.”

With the support of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), the effort is intended, according to the groups’ media messaging, “to research the allegedly exploitative practices of some publishers that charge authors to publish their work.”

The establishment of an investigation, the unions write, “follows a sharp rise in complaints from authors about these companies received by both unions.”

This is something to be watched not only by authors but also by trade publishers, whose industry can be colored by perceptions of bad actors and author mistreatment: the public has never been adept at discerning the distinctions in how a writer’s work might get to market. Writers not represented by literary agents nor on contract to trade houses can be particularly vulnerable to scams, operating as amateur entrants in a crowded field of vendors’ pitches.

At issue here are offers called by many names and operating in markets beyond the UK. ‘Partner publishing,’ ‘hybrid publishing,’ ‘contribution publishing,’ and ‘subsidy publishing’ are all cases in which an author is published only by paying into the process. As the unions are pointing out, these companies “have much in common with what used to be called ‘vanity’ publishers.”

Standing somewhere between full self-publishing and full trade publishing, these publishers normally assume some of the cost in exchange for some of the rights and/or revenues from a book’s life on the market.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

“There’s a sucker born every minute,” a saying attributed to P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain, con man Joseph (“Paper Collar Joe”) Bessimer and a variety of others, certainly applies to vanity publishing, whatever it may call itself at this or any other time.

The OP describes in general what vanity publishing is. If you need more information, see ALLI, Writer Beware, Writers & Artists, the International Association of Professional Writers and Editors, and many other authors organizations.

PG expects most regular visitors to TPV don’t need this sort of advice, but urges them to pass their knowledge on to whomever they think may need it.

Regardless of whatever other shortcomings they may have, legitimate traditional publisher do not ask an author to pay them any money to publish the author’s book.

Vanity publishers often have fancy-sounding names – “Author House”, “Dorrance Publishing”, etc., etc.

One quick way to help identify a vanity publisher is to go to Amazon’s books section and search for the publisher’s name. PG just searched for “Dorrance Publishing” and the first book that appeared in his search results had a Best Sellers Rank of #4,213,968 in the Kindle Store.

This sales rank means that the author’s mother bought a copy and maybe one or two of the author’s drinking buddies bought copies before they sobered up.

Another way to help identify a vanity publisher is to visit a local bookstore (wear your mask) and ask the owner or manager about the publisher.

If the response is, “Who?” then it’s a vanity publisher. After receiving this response, ask the manager to recommend a good book and buy it to show your gratitude for her/his assistance in helping you avoid a stupid and expensive mistake.

17 thoughts on “UK Author Unions Launch Investigation Into ‘Partner Publishing’”

  1. I’m afraid that, on average, PG is off by a full order of magnitude in considering median sales figures for vanity presses, and I seriously doubt things have changed in the last few years. In the early half of the 2000s, I had access to inside figures from a certain Indiana-based “joint venture publisher” that was later acquired by a Big-N conglomerate. The median was 46 units sold per title, multimodally at 8, 17, and 23 units (that is, by far the most common sales history for individual titles was 8, 17, or 23 units, and infer what you wish compared to opposite-extreme sales of “several thousand units” and how that influenced the median). Several years later, related-but-not-completely-verified figures from the same operation indicated that the median had increased by two, to 48 units sold (with insufficient data to analyze mode).

    Which is a full order of magnitude above PG’s estimate of “one for the author and one for the author’s mother.” Shame on him! Even though it’s still appallingly pathetic giving the greatest possible benefit of the doubt (and not suprior to Howey’s guesstimates for Amazon self-published efforts, even with all of the inferences and data-validation problems).

    <sarcasm> tag omitted as unnecessary to anyone who knows diddly-squat about valid statistical analysis, let alone data soundness.

    • I always thought orders of magnitude at least implied more than double-digit numbers, C, but, as mentioned before, I stopped taking any math classes at the earliest possible opportunity, so you have the advantage of me in this area of scholarly inquiry.

      • Just remember that for most lawyers, math is a four-letter word. Except in England, where it’s a five-letter word (it’s called “maths” Over There). But I was a biochemist with one course short of a minor in math(s), which both came in handy and required face-palming in some law-school classes that have famous Bad Math decisions… and I don’t just mean Corporate Tax (which isn’t math, but magic)…

  2. An interesting OP, and I must say, a little simplistic for my tastes. If I look at the nine points, for example, not all of the points are at the same level.

    A. Mission and vision for its publishing program…having one or not doesn’t affect whether you’re a good or bad publisher, and is mostly irrelevant. Lots of “big publishers” have no discernible vision other than profit.

    B. Publish under its own imprint(s) and ISBNs. Generally sounds good…but what if the author wants to control the ISBN process for ANY reason? Does that negate the publisher? I agree it should be offered, but vanity can do it as easily as anyone else, so doesn’t indicate anything.

    C. Publish to industry standards. “A hybrid publisher accepts full responsibility for the quality of the titles it publishes. Books released by a hybrid publisher should be on par with traditionally published books.” What is really interesting is there is no indication in the points whether this means physical quality (which is inarguable) or content quality (which is arguable) or both, which is a giant gray area for many.

    D. Ensure editorial, design, and production quality. By the definition, it says this HAS to include developmental editing, copyediting, and proofreading. Yet again, what if I’ve polished my MS within an inch of its life, AND a publisher basically says, “Nope, not good enough” and sends it back until you DO have it done. Are they still a hybrid? They sure don’t look like vanity.

    E. Pursue and manage a range of publishing rights. I have to say, this is the STUPIDEST one of all. They literally are saying, “If the publisher doesn’t pillage the village for every dime they can get, they’re not real publishers”. I know several authors who would NOT sign with big publishers PRECISELY because it includes both print and the kitchen sink, and they’re not handing over anything beyond print. But their starting point is the publisher takes all rights.

    Yet there are things that pretty much EVERYONE would agree on:
    – Vet submissions i.e., they’re not publishing everyone;
    – Provide (proactive) distribution (and sales) services — the brackets are mine, as I think the assumption of a sales team, networks, and a marketing and sales strategy for each book is a bit suspect considering many big publishers never share that with their regular authors. It is more like “What are YOU going to do to help the publisher”. Nice if you can get it, but I think proactive distribution and sales (rather than simple availability) is probably the best you can “insist” upon.

    C and PG’s comments about sales give me some pause. Not for the numbers but rather for the “new publisher” who wants to make a difference. What if they’re just getting started? What would be considered “Demonstrate respectable sales”. Is it the one book that PG looked for? Is it all books by that publisher? With what timeline? I fear there is a gremlin lurking in the weeds that is the flipside of mid-list authors who get dumped because they had low sales. Yet with a series, some of them feed off each other, and there are self-pubbers doing well AFTER 4-5 books in a series and not much before. We can argue if it is because the first 3 should have got dumped and the 4-5 were actually worth reading, but let’s not quibble.

    And then we come to the kicker. Pay authors a higher-than-standard royalty. Wait. Why is it higher? Well because there is an investment by the author. What kind of investment?

    Let me go with a new scenario. A mind exercise. I call up PG and say, “I want to start a small publishing imprint”. And my key ingredients are:

    a. My mission: To find new mystery authors with a distinctive 21st century voice.

    b. I read through 2000 MS, all mystery, and select the best 10. I only want to partner with authors who have done their homework, have worked on their MS, and maybe even hired their own editor to give it a polish, and it is ready for solid review. Sure, I’ll do line editing and copyediting, but I’m not spending a whole lot on developmental.

    c. I’m going to issue my ISBNs, stick an imprint on it called “PolyWogg Mysteries”.

    d. I’m going to publish a first-rate book, print only, they can keep digital and audio, I only want print. I don’t have a lot of staff, but I can farm out a high-quality cover with a small stable of freelancers, and I’m even going to give the author input into the process, aren’t I just special?

    Now, I’m just getting started, I’m doing all the right things to make deal with commercial wholesalers to get the books in the stores for the summer beach crowd and on book club lists. And everywhere there’s a paperback being sold. I don’t have a history, but dang gum it, I’m keen.

    Up until this point, I could be a scammer or a legit publisher. You have no real way to know.

    Now let’s talk brass tacks. How much money will you get? Well, here’s the deal, Sam.

    Option A) I’m going to match big publishing, and give you 50% on the first 5,000 copies sold. I have to recover some of my costs of course, but once you get above 5000 copies, I’m going to increase that to 60%, at 10,000, it will go to 75%. That’s the kind of guy I am.

    Option B) I’ll pay you an advance of $1000, you’ll make 50% on your first 7000 copies sold, and 7K-10K it will go to 60%, >10K to 75%.

    Option C) My costs are about $2500 for everything. You can pay that upfront, and get 60% on every book up to 10K, 75% for everything after that.

    Guess what? All three are equal to me as the publisher. I take a bit of a risk in B, but if I’m expecting you to sell 7000 books, I get it all back. I don’t care as publisher, if you sell over 10K, I will make the EXACT same amount of money. Yet B is considered traditional, A would be hybrid, and C would be vanity.

    After all is said and done, and more often said than done in my case, hehehe, I am very traditional:

    If you “vet”, publish and make an effort to sell my book, you’re a publisher.

    If you don’t vet, publish, and make no effort to sell my book, you’re a printer.

    Of course, some people like a pretty mission statement more than an income statement.

    • Thanks for the detailed comment, Paul.

      I tend to watch out for authors because 1) I’ve been happily married to an author for a long time and 2) as an attorney, I’ve always instinctively sympathized with the little guy/gal (not the best recipe for easy riches, but I’ve made it work).

      I have worked with what I call “new model” publishers and drafted their publishing contracts. “New model” means “We don’t screw authors.” One of these publishers who was just starting up and has become successful called me and said sometime like, “I want you to make me a contract that you won’t use as an example of a bad publishing contract on your website.”

      With respect to your described plan for a hypothetical publishing business, I think a lot of indie authors would be interested in an arrangement that let them keep keep digital and audio and granted the publisher all print rights.

      My impression is that most indie authors make most of their money from ebook royalties from Amazon. For reasons I don’t completely understand, Amazon’s POD system doesn’t provide attractively-priced trade paperbacks with much of a royalty for the author.

      So, more than a few authors might be interested in an everything-but-digital-and-audio deal from your hypothetical publisher. And I expect most authors would be interested in your option that didn’t require them to put up any money.

      In today’s market, I don’t know if your hypothetical publisher would make it financially, however. I don’t think a great many physical bookstores will be able to survive the Covid shutdown and the resistance of more than a few shoppers to go to physical stores even if they’re not shut down.

      There’s also the question of whether your hypothetical publisher gets to keep the rights even if it doesn’t pay any meaningful royalties to the author for years and years.

      Again, thanks for your detailed comment.

      • Oh, good point about not paying for years. I’ve always assumed that the only business model that makes sense is one that is highly transparent. I’m an aberration, I know, hence why I could never be a publisher, but I always thought the contract should start with the premise that it is licensed for a set period of time. Say 3-5y, with slightly different terms depending on which version they want to grant/sign (both sides). And there would be reporting every quarter with payments every time an amount owed goes over a certain small value (like $10 or $20) just to avoid stupid royalty payments like in film or TV.

        Where I have always sat on the fence is three other related questions.

        First, can either side terminate before the 3y?

        Second, what would be reasonable terms to offer to “continue”?

        Third, assuming there is termination, what are the obligations w.r.t. working products of the process? So, for example, let’s say we go through it all, we edit, we come up with a cover, we publish and sell the book for 3y. Then you decide to go self-pub after that, no renewal, we shake hands and go on our way. If you want the final edited version of the MS, I think that should be automatic. If you don’t have it already from back when you were doing the back and forth. That seems obvious and reasonable to me. But suppose you want to use my cover, without my logo. Hmm…are you “entitled” to it? Presumably I paid for it, and if I just “give” it to you, what’s the incentive for you to keep using my company for distribution after 3y? On the other hand, presumably you’ve “earned out” and I’ve got my money back on the cost. I feel like I *should* give you the cover and all rights to it, at least the front cover? But I’m not sure. Oh, and you might want the final copy of the typeset-equivalent doc that I send to my printer so you can send it to Amazon or someone else. A POD-like file. On that one, while a few Guilds and others have issued varying decrees as to their “rights” over the years, and often mistake “wants” for “needs” and “entitlement”, claiming they have the “right” to that, I’m firmly in the “no” on that one. That’s asking too much of a publisher to just “do everything for you”, pay you a royalty and give you all of it later so you can do it yourself without them. Too much like a carpenter coming to your house and leaving you all their tools in case you have to do a repair sometime.

        I dream of this day way too much.


    • Traditional publishers used to be called risk publishers because they would spend a certain amount of money to acquire a manuscript and produce a set number of books. They, not the author, risked losing their investment. A publisher that requires the author to risk losing money ny paying for publication of his book reverses the formula. The author risks his money. The publisher risks nothing, makes money, and has no incentive to promote the book. Those characteristics typify a vanity press, no matter what you call it.

  3. The key problem is today’s commercial publishing is a low margin high volume business without the high volume. Everything else follows from that.

    Publishers doing as little as they can to move a book, as cheaply as possible? Minimal return requires minimal investment if even a small return in needed.
    Publishers narrowly sticking to “known good” authors and stories? Minimize risk. “The same but different” and 20-volume series are all about mining micro niches. It’s no different than TV shows running for 20 years.
    Reliance on release window sales, payola, letting books go out of print to make room for new releases, and all the other disfuntions stem from the inability to deal with dilution and the death of the bandwagon bestseller. So is concentration among the big tradpubs; it’s all about keeping the pipeline flowing and if they can’t sell more of even the most popular titles, they try to sell more titles with lesser sales. It’s all about the total number of units now.

    All that is the “legit” publishers.

    The vanities? They don’t bother trying to move volume to mine retail. Instead, they focus on mining authors. They too go for low volumes of as many titles as possible and don’t mine the double digit sellers because the money that matters is what they scam out of dreamers.
    That means that the vast majority of scammers money comes from one-and-done’s (because few dreamers have to means to keep on absorbing losses and even dreamers catch on eventually to the scam they fell for) but then the big tradpubs are also increasingly doing one-and-done because of the declining feturns on midlisters and newcomers.

    In some ways the two sides of the same coin are converging (demanding more of authors than just a manuscript) while diverging on others (the increasing reliance on backlist at the biggest publishers) but in the end both are reliant on what they take from authors: upfront cash vs lifelong+ copyright control. And as big tradpubs slowly switch to backlist mining, thdy become more and more like the scammers, living off what they take from authors: life+ copyright control, global rights, subsidiary licensing, etc.

    Investigating the shady practices of scammers is waayyy overdue on both sides of the pond, but then so are the practices of tbe biggest publishers who are increasingly reliant on exploiting the unwary.

    The differences are only in tactics, not in goals.
    In both cases the author is the source of profits, directly or indirectly, with increasingly declining returns for their reliance on “assisted” publishing. Because where the rubber meets the road is at retail and dilution at retail isn’t stopping. The online used book business isn’t going away as long as print endures, bandwagons are increasingly rare-to-nonexistent, and digital isn’t going away.

    Remember the HYDRA fiasco?

    It was ahead of the times.
    But the day is coming when that kind of deal is big tradpub’s bread and butter.

  4. Basically the difference between an unequal partnership and an outright scam is one of degree not kind. Both reside on the same spectrum.

    Theoretically a well-meaning “assisted” publisher might exist but if the bulk of their profits come from the author they are living off vanity whether intentionally or not. And yes, that includes tradpubs big and small. The only true divide is copyright control.

    Honest publishing services are upfront, one time deals, with no copyright liens. Some might be horrendously expensive but those can be…educational. 😉
    Everything else is suspect.

  5. I am a self-proclaimed expert on all things. I have also written extensively and brilliantly on all things. Why, I have a bookshelf that houses my bound wisdom. I charge handsomely for brilliant consulting services. After all, I am a published and renowned expert. See my bookshelf?

    Here’s my 3/4 profile picture, and here’s the blurb for the back cover. How much for a five book package with publication dates starting four years back?

  6. Keep in mind, too, that much of “commercial publishing” rests on a class assumption: That authors are not relying upon their royalties for basic living expenses. There is, instead, a built-in silent presumption that authors are authors because they had the time above and beyond their basic living expenses — the trust fund, the well-paid spouse, whatever — to wait until the publisher was damned well ready to pay them, because the royalties aren’t even mad money but for a better grade of caviar.

    I wish I was joking. I’m being perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but only a bit; the traditional semiannual royalty payment schedule is a big hint that this isn’t for essentials. (Care to guess what else in the US has traditionally paid on a semiannual schedule? And who benefitted from those payments, especially during the period from 1878 to 1963? It wasn’t lower-middle-class factory workers and farmers in the Midwest slaving over their kitchen tables at 9pm after work…) Now throw in the “that’s where the money is” rationale for con artists, and…

    This isn’t a complete explanation, by any means. But from what I’ve seen — ranging from contemporary public accounts to not-so-contemporary private papers of Major Publishing Figures — any explanation that doesn’t consider it is at best incomplete.

      • Publishers offer the smallest amount the author is desperate enough to accept. Publishers don’t care how the writer will manage to survive as long as they can manage to complete the manuscript.

        • As in the Harlequin self-dealing scam.

          Many decided they weren’t desperate enough to BOGU for that.
          I know of quite a few seminal authors, many female, who simply decided it wasn’t worth putting up with. Chad Oliver, for one, was writing “soft” psychologically driven SF in the 50’s but quit. Something about preferring to be Chancellor of a midwestern university. In some alternate universe he might have gone on to be a major literary figure making millions for his publishers.

          The whole “scam the author” strategy is self defeating, as TORSTAR discovered when all their Harlequin victims took their reverted books to Indie, Inc. and hollowed out their “empire”.

          Likewise, vanities get to scam their victims…once. No return business.
          Short sighted bad business in addition to being ethically wrong and bordeline(?) illegal. Considering how much of the “respectable” tradpub establishment is part of the vanity game, a case could be made in the US for a RICO prosecution.
          Should, too.

      • No, publishers base their pay to authors on both “who the authors are” (whether they’re the “right” kind of people) and the likelihood that they’ll be sued for not enabling a better grade of caviar versus not enabling rat-free housing. Because the publishers — and the decisionmakers at the publishers — only ever encounter rats when either touring spotless laboratories seeking grant money, or watching reruns of Ben at o-dark-thirty while still somewhat sloshed after yet another wine-and-whine-and-wine-and-cheesiness party celebrating a book they haven’t read and have no intention to read (but attending was a social obligation). I say this because I know them. Or, at least, have deposed them (and I know their lawyers).

        You can substitute N’ville and H’wood equivalents throughout — it’s a problem that stretches across the entertainment industry. Again, it’s not that discrimination against “the wrong people” is either conscious or a complete explanation — it’s that such discrimination is a necessary part of the discussion, and ignoring it is (to use a meme Those People would at least pretend to understand) intellectually dishonest.

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