Swans Commentary » swans.com August 12, 2013  



The New Mullahs In The Publishing World


by Karen Moller





(Swans - August 12, 2013)   James Altucher wrote in Forbes that the book-publishing industry is dead but they don't know it. He claims, "It's like how the typewriter industry died, how companies like Blockbuster and Borders and the entire music industry is dying. Margins are going to zero for publishers. There's no financial benefit for going with a publisher if advances are zero and royalties are a few percentage points. Besides that the publishing industry does minimal editing. The time between book acceptance and release is too long (often a year or more). That's insane and makes zero sense in a print-on-demand world when kindle versions are outselling print versions. Publishers do nothing to help 95% of their authors build their platforms and their own brands that would increase author loyalty and make the lack of a meaningful advance almost worth it."

With such negatives, self-publishing is beginning to look like a better option, especially when in 2012 a leading global publisher, Penguin Books, purchased self-publishing house Author Solutions Inc. for $116 million. Author Solutions (ASI) is the parent company of self-publishing imprints Author House, iUniverse, Trafford Publishing, Xlibris, Palibrio, and Booktango, and also partners and powers a number of self-publishing imprints with traditional book publishers like Simon & Schuster (Archway Publishing), Thomas Nelson (WestBow Press), Hay House (Balboa Press), Guideposts (Inspiring Voices), and Writer's Digest (Abbott Press). Author Solutions reports publishing 190,000 titles written by 150,000 authors in addition to operating the Author Learning Center, the stated purpose of which is to provide authors with online education resources, access to industry expertise, and an online community to connect with other writers. At the time Kevin Weiss, chief executive of ASI, said: "Over the past 75 years, Penguin has demonstrated a commitment to bold and fresh thinking in the publishing industry. We are thrilled to be a part of its vibrant culture, and look forward to accelerating the pace of change the industry is experiencing. This acquisition will allow Penguin to participate fully in perhaps the fastest-growing area of the publishing economy and gain skills in customer acquisition and data analytics that will be vital to our future."

I read this as a money-saving option for Penguin as it would allow them an insider view of anything published by Author Solutions that looked likely to be a best seller.

"Author Solutions' revenues are estimated at $100 million per year, but surprisingly only one-third of that amount comes from book sales. The rest of its revenue is derived from the services it offers, such as editorial services, formatting and design services, production services, and marketing services such as a suite of 'book-to-screen' services intended to provide authors with Hollywood access and yet according to a number of authors they have published Author Solutions fails at the most basic task of paying its authors their earned royalties and providing its authors with accurate sales statements."

On April 26, 2013, US law firm Giskan Solotaroff Anderson & Stewart filed a five-million dollar class action complaint on behalf of authors in the Southern District Court of New York. The plaintiffs have been named as Penguin Group (USA) and Author Solutions of Bloomington, Indiana. The class action alleges that ASI misrepresents its company and services with the intention of luring authors in with claims that its books can compete with "traditional publishers," offering "greater speed, higher royalties, and more control for its authors." The suit also alleges that ASI profit from "fraudulent" practices, selling worthless services, or services that fail to accomplish what they promise, failing to take diligent care of its authors' works, failing to pay royalties due, and engaging in activities like "delaying publication, publishing manuscripts with errors to generate fees, making numerous and egregious publisher errors -- errors made by the publisher, not the author and aggressive sales techniques to ensure that these errors are corrected only for a fee of several hundred dollars. Even though, as a matter of policy, Author Solutions promises to correct publisher errors for free" (A 33-page document detailing this complaint can be viewed in full via Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware).

The uninformed might wonder why a leading global publisher and the largest company of paid-publishing services are named as joint plaintiffs in the same law suit. The answer is that Penguin's owners, Pearson, bought Author Solutions with the idea of revamping Penguin's own self-publishing service imprint, Book Country, using ASI technical know-how. Emily Suess's chronological catalogue of complaints goes back to August 2011, a year before Penguin's acquisition, and it's hard to believe that Penguin didn't know that Author Solutions was already notorious in self-publishing circles as a den of scamsters -- at the least they should have taken these problems seriously a year ago and cleaned up Author Solutions.

In spite of being an established and commercial author of two memoirs, Technicolor Dreamin' the 1960s Rainbow and Beyond and In Her Own Fashion, I admit I was also in the category of the uninformed. Considering the state of the present publishing world, a self-publishing house owned by Penguin Books seemed like an easy option for publishing my new novel compared to writing to two or three hundred agents and publishers and getting back two or three hundred rejections with only a slight chance of a positive response and an advance near zero, minimal royalties and minimal editing, and a time lag of a year or two before the book release. Therefore, I paid the fee and sent off my manuscript to Author House (parent company ASI) only to discover that they imposed draconian censorship.

My novel, Forbidden Games -- Wuthering Heights in a contemporary spirit -- is set first in the wilds of the Canadian mountains, then in the European world of fashion and the arts. When the father in the story, brings home Tor, his son by his deceased lover, a friendship develops between the two half-siblings. In the first part, approximately 50 pages, Tor, twelve as the story opens, struggles with his raging hormones. His half-sister Julie, ten years old envies the power and freedom of boys. She begins to feel her own power when she discovers that her developing body has an interest and fascination for Tor. Their exhibitionistic and voyeuristic games, entirely in their minds, are kept at arm's length by the boy's guilt-laden Catholic upbringing. The activities and thoughts of these adolescents are natural and innocent, and the language, to me, not only inoffensive, but can be found in millions of books on the market. At no point is there any physical contact between the two half-siblings until, as a joke, Tor, age eighteen, shocks his sister by asking her to put her hand into his bottomless pocket.

Nowhere in the Author House advertising or contract is there any reference to censorship and yet Author House informed me that I had to modify my manuscript as it did not pass the censorship of Author Solutions Inc. When I asked for an explanation this is the reply I got:

My name is Leo Montano and I am a Production Supervisor here at Author House. Company policy states that we will not publish materials containing underage sexual content -- defamatory, slanderous, libelous, or obscene... The wording obscene here would include any sexualized materials involving any characters under the age of 18 years. We do not permit any explicit or graphic descriptions of sexual situations featuring individuals under the age of eighteen, be they participating or present. This does not mean that we are opposed to the characters in a story being involved in sexual situations for character development, because that does occur in real life, however, we want to make sure that all the details of the sexual situations are avoided. Such scenes would include a scene of sexual dialogue between characters, descriptions of a sexual act, kissing in a sexual manner, sexual touching, masturbation, physical descriptions of the bodies (specifically descriptions of the genitals of either sex or the breasts/nipples of the female), visible signs of arousal or sexual attraction, descriptions of a sexual assault (such as molestations or rapes), etc. Text that is more graphic than "Character A and Character B had sex" is not allowed.

The options are as follows:

1. Adjust the ages so all characters present (be they participating, viewing, or otherwise) during scenes of sexual content are at least 18 years of age. The ages of the characters need to be plainly stated somewhere near the scene in question.

2. Remove any scenes containing sexual content where a character under the age of eighteen is present.

I was, of course, shocked. My two adolescents don't have sex and don't have any physical contact with each other, but according to Author Solutions the thoughts and innocent curiosity of children about the opposite sex as they grow into adults needs to be censored until they are eighteen. By what right does a self-publishing house have to impose such draconian censorship on its authors when normal publishing houses don't? And how would it be possible to adjust the ages of adolescents to eighteen without making them seem retarded in their development? Since when is masturbation or normal sexual curiosity considered obscene if a person is under eighteen?

The cover, a rather abstract design of a girl and an image of a boy's face at the window was also censored. They insisted that the tiny red dot on the breast be removed. I enclose a copy.

Pic: "cover" - Karen Moller - Size: 7k
© Karen Moller

I quote in my memoir Technicolor Dreamin' the 1960s Rainbow and Beyond the conversation I had with Penguin Books' then-owner, Sir Allen Lane, in 1961. He was being prosecuted for keeping the word "fuck" in his paperback edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover. He told me that in England the true meaning of sexual words was often distorted. To illustrate the contradictions of publishing rules he recounted a story he intended to use in his present court case about a man talking to his friend in a pub: "There I was, fucking tired after a fucking day of fucking hard work, and I found my fucking wife in bed with a fucking friend having sexual intercourse." Sir Allen won his court case and that began the liberalization of publishing laws in the United Kingdom. Barney Rosset, the brilliant owner of the publishing house Grove Press, and publisher and editor-in-chief of the magazine Evergreen Review, whom I also met, led a successful legal battle to liberalize publishing in the United States, (affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1964), in a landmark ruling for free speech and the First Amendment.

I am disgusted by child pornography, whether it is on the internet or in books, but censoring the literary depiction of the delicate realities of adolescent sexuality cannot be included in the same catch-all censorship. One has to ask the questions: Why this reverting to pre-1960s censorship? Is this a one-off company imposing their own draconian censorship on writers or is this an attempt to impose American/UK neo-Puritanism on the publishing world? Do we really need to fight the old battles all over again? And where is the modern day Sir Allen Lane to help fight these battles!


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About the Author

Karen Moller is the author of Technicolor Dreamin': The 1960s Rainbow and Beyond (Trafford Publishing, 2006, ISBN: 1-412-08018-5) and a fashion designer who lives half time in Paris, France, and the other half in Venice, Italy.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published August 12, 2013