Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Let's Take a Look at iUniverse

RWA's new definition of "vanity publishers" reminded me I've recently heard negative comments from a number of self-published writers about their experience with iUniverse.

I've been a bit surprised by this, given the company's great partners and terrific financial backing. In today's post, I thought we might take a closer look at the company.

According to its website, iUniverse started in October, 1999 as a print-on-demand press with "two facets: new title publishing . . . and back-in-print publishing."

In November, 1999, Barnes & Noble purchased a 49% stake in the company.

In 2001, venture capital firm Warburg Pincus invested $21 million in iUniverse. That capital infusion permitted iUniverse to aggressively pursue an expansion plan. The company built a digital platform that, according to its website, permitted "mass customization, personalization, and print-on-demand services." The following year, 2002, iUniverse began to focus its efforts on self-publishing.

In a press release dated January 14, 2003, iUniverse announced its Star Program, pledging "to invest in books that demonstrate promising initial sales." As iUniverse described it, the Star program would secure book reviews, direct marketing initiatives, advertising and media coverage. By investing in one of iUniverse's higher end printing packages, an author could qualify for Star services, including possible placement in Barnes & Noble.

There was some debate on the blogosphere as to how valuable the Star Program was. On 5/16/05, in an article titled "iUniverse By the Numbers," Publishers Weekly (PW) posted the following with respect to 2004, the first full year the Star Program was in operation.

18,108: Total number of titles published
14: Number of titles sold through B&N's bricks-and-mortar stores (nationally)
83: Number of titles that sold at least 500 copies
792,814: Number of copies printed
32,445: Number of copies sold of iUniverse's top seller, If I Knew Then by Amy Fisher

Let's ignore for the moment the fact that there were only 792,814 copies of iUniverse books printed in 2004. When divided by the 18,108 titles published, that comes out to an average of less than 44 copies per title.

Susan Driscoll, iUniverse's CEO, waited over a year until June 2, 2006, to post this on her blog here. The bolding is mine: "To set the record straight, those statistics are wrong, and we've notified PW of the error . . . At the time the article was published, iUniverse had accepted 83 titles into the Star Program. (We have since accepted additional titles.) . . . We have many titles that are stocked locally in Barnes & Noble. The 14 titles that PW quoted had been stocked nationally and purchased in significant quantity. And, with our new Publisher's Choice program, this number will increase dramatically in the coming months."

The only fact that Driscoll seems to contest is that 83 titles sold more than 500 copies. She says many more titles did that--although she fails to give actual numbers (and given that average of 44 copies per title, there have to be a LOT of people not printing any copies beyond the 21 free ones that come with their package). She claims only 83 of those writers who sold more than 500 copies were accepted into the Star Program. And, of those 83, only 14 got that highly desirable placement in Barnes & Noble nationally.

Every writer knows that their local bookstore will frequently accommodate them by stocking copies of their book. It's a courtesy, nothing more. PW recognized being carried by B&N nationally was what really mattered. That's why they focussed on that number. And Driscoll acknowledged that the 14 given as the number of titles carried nationally was correct.

Let's take a look at that new and improved Publisher's Choice program. To qualify for consideration in the program, the writer has to purchase the Premier Pro Publishing Package here for between $1,299 and $1,399 (for which the writer receives one free hardback copy of the book and twenty free paperback copies of the book. At 21 books for $1,399, that's essentially $67 per book).

If you plan to sell your book to the public, the Premier Pro program offers you the right to buy additional books at a volume discount. You get the first 30 books at a 45% discount. After that, the discount ranges from the next 1-5 books at a 30% discount to an order for 2,000 books at a 65% discount.

IF you qualify for the Publisher's Choice (and if you can afford the additional cost to print the number of books required for placement), your book will be featured in a local Barnes & Noble for eight weeks. If it sells during that time, it may be considered for placement in the national B&N chain.

So, bottom line, writers fork over a minimum of $1,300, hoping to get placement in Barnes & Noble nationally. However, the only thing they're guaranteed is that they'll receive 21 copies of their book (at $67 a copy, remember) with no assurances at all. If they're accepted for placement, they get to buy even more books, which they hope to sell.

To be fair to iUniverse, the majority of self-pubbed writers I've met are self-pubbed because no publisher wants their manuscripts. Most, but not all, self-pubbed writers simply haven't done the work needed to make their books saleable. The books are frequently badly written and/or badly edited.

I know one self-pubbed writer who routinely brags that his novel is over 1,200 pages (not manuscript pages, BOOK pages). The only novel that long I've ever attempted to read was the hardback version of Gone With the Wind (1,048 pages). I never finished it.

So, while I don't blame iUniverse for not pushing bad books forward, I have to wonder how honest they are with the writer up front. Do they give a forthright critique of the book, or are they non-committal, taking the writer's checks and making no promises? Obviously that $1,300 includes editorial input. The small number of Star Program books released nationally makes me wonder how much editorial help the books receive.

Interestingly enough, about two hours after I finished writing this post, I was sorting through all the free books I'd received at RWA National. I found a copy of a book called Get Published! The author was Susan Driscoll. In checking it, I discovered the book was an iUniverse book about getting published with iUniverse. Guess what is going on my TBR pile?


Stephen Parrish said...

Thanks once again for opening a window to a relevant slice of the industry. You post so often, it's hard to keep up. I'm grateful for every post, even if I don't always comment.

Maya Reynolds said...

Thanks for whenever you do stop by, Stephen.

Peter L. Winkler said...

"The small number of Star Program books released nationally makes me wonder how much editorial help the books receive."

I'm betting that the editor(s) at iUnivrse who oversee the Star program function like acquisition editors at trade publishers. They select the best or least worst books out of those submitted to the Star program. I doubt anything is done to improve them. Actually having an editor to critique and guide an author would mean keeping some experienced editors on salary, which sems inconsistent with the profit motive at iUniverse. I think their Star program is largely a cruel deception and just a scheme to sell already desperate writers on investing in what is esentially a literary lottery with a very expensive entry fee.