How to make money from books

Willan's latest book

ROME—It may seem churlish to criticise one’s publisher and blame him for the commercial failure of one’s book, but anyway here goes.

I was a satisfied iUniverse customer, until recently.

          In 2002 I republished my first book, “Puppetmasters: The Political Use of Terrorism in Italy”, which has sold slowly but steadily ever since. It had been published in hardback by Constable in the United Kingdom in 1991 and had been out of print for several years.

          A friend told me about the then new phenomenon of Print-on-Demand (POD) publishers in the United States, who could breathe new life into otherwise defunct titles, for a modest fee from the author. The 9/11 attacks had recently occurred, so international terrorism was a hot topic.

          I posted two copies of the hardback edition to iUniverse’s headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska. One was to be ripped apart and scanned to create a digital copy, ready to be printed and delivered by mail to anyone ordering online.

          iUniverse’s designers came up with a striking cover design and the new paperback version was ready to go.

Instead of languishing in a few libraries and private homes, my work was once again available to readers and researchers worldwide, with access to a truly global market, thanks to the Internet and Amazon. Despite not having been updated since the first edition, it continues to sell a few copies every month, developing into something of a classic in its genre, if I may blow my own trumpet here.

          A year ago I decided to repeat the experience.

          Since “Puppetmasters” was first published, iUniverse had been bought by Bertram Capital, a private equity firm based in California. It had merged with Author Solutions Inc and moved to Bloomington, Indiana. In the five years it was owned by Bertram Capital, Author Solutions grew its business by more than four times, becoming the largest POD publisher in the world.

          Fattening up the company for sale meant squeezing authors for the maximum amount of money – easier to do than selling more books -- and introducing controversial marketing practices that would lead to complaints and a lawsuit.

          The first iUniverse title to make it onto the New York Times bestseller list, Amy Fisher’s “If I Knew Then”, sold more than 34,000 copies and climbed to number 14. Many iUniverse authors would probably recognize the sentiment in Amy’s title, to judge from the irate comments I discovered after Googling the company’s name together with the word “complaints”.

          In 2007 I had published a book about the murder of the Italian banker Roberto Calvi, again for Constable (now known as Constable & Robinson). The new title, “The Last Supper: The Mafia, the Masons and the Killing of Roberto Calvi”, had met with a limited response from the book-buying public, but by 2013 it too was out of print.

          Though originally conceived as a “true crime” story about an unsolved murder, it is really the story of the Western world’s Cold War crusade against communism, which saw the Vatican embroiled in an unholy alliance with Western secret services, conspiratorial freemasons, and organized crime.

          Since the book had never been published in the United States, and the story was importantly American, I decided to update it and seek an American publisher. The response from agents was not encouraging, so I opted to go down the self-publishing route, which saves time and uncertainty, but still carries a degree of qualitative stigma.

          The resignation of Pope Benedict, overwhelmed by scandals and factional feuds, many of which traced their roots back to the Cold War era, meant that the timing of the new edition – now titled “The Vatican at War: From Blackfriars Bridge to Buenos Aires” – could not have been better. Updated and with new chapters on Benedict’s demise and the arrival of Pope Francis, the book stood to capitalize on the enormous interest in the Vatican generated by these two momentous events.

          The production process was trouble-free and iUniverse again came up with an attractive cover design: a photo -- taken by me -- of St Peter’s dome at sunset, with a large seagull flying above it.

          The gull was actually a stand-in for a crow, the bird used by the Italian media to symbolize whistleblowers, and the label attached to Paolo Gabriele, the papal butler who had discomfited Pope Benedict by leaking his private correspondence to the press.

          In the bottom left-hand corner is a small photograph of Roberto Calvi, the ill-fated protagonist.

          Negotiations over the cover introduced me to iUniverse’s inflexible imposition of its own house rules. My original idea for the subtitle was the self-explanatory: “From the Murder of Roberto Calvi to the Election of Pope Francis”. And I also wanted a photograph of Pope Benedict, seated on a golden throne as he delivered a speech to the Vatican diplomatic corps on economic injustice, looking across the cover at Calvi.

          To use a person’s name or photograph on the cover I would need their written permission, or that of their heirs, the publisher told me.

          Calvi’s son, Carlo, had helped me with research for the book, but has a habit of disappearing from contact for long spells. One of these periods of purdah happened to be now. iUniverse wouldn’t let me use Roberto Calvi’s name in the title but eventually relented on the photo, when I showed them that it had originally been emailed to me by his son for inclusion in the first edition.

          I decided not to embarrass myself by seeking the written permission of the current and former pope to use, respectively, a name and a photograph.

I settled for the small headshot of Calvi on his own and the relatively cryptic subtitle.

          Though irritating, one can see that iUniverse’s rigid rules make some sense. As a self-publisher that doesn’t have time to vet the content of its books in any detail, the cover authorisation rules provide some protection against libel.

          If you want to publish a critical book about President Obama, and name him and use his photo on the cover – as one would – iUniverse is not the place to go.

          More serious wrangling developed when I moved on to the marketing phase of the book’s life.

          A self-published book risks withering on the vine, since it is not distributed in bookstores and doesn’t benefit from the promotional services normally provided by a commercial publisher. In my case, “The Vatican at War” was not even a wholly new book, so it was unlikely to get reviewed. For that reason it seemed to make sense to use the promotional services offered by iUniverse.

          The first marketing consultant to call me on the phone told me I might as well use her services because I had already paid for them in my publishing package. In reality, her role was simply to recommend other marketing services that I hadn’t paid for yet.

          A succession of marketing consultants subsequently came on the scene, all presenting themselves with Anglo-Saxon or Irish names, but all apparently working from iUniverse’s offices in Cebu, in the Philippines.

          The iUniverse reps recommended a dizzying range of barely comprehensible promotional services at staggeringly generous discounts. I eventually opted for a package involving display of the physical book at an iUniverse stand at the American Library Association meeting in Philadelphia, inclusion in the regional show’s catalogue “to be sent out to big time names in the book industry”, and a professionally written press release. The cost of this package was discounted to $1,500.

          In the end I wrote a press release myself, which I took a lot of trouble over and liked. iUniverse’s professionally written press release I did not like and declined to use. They refused to use mine because, they said, it did not conform to AP writing style and their standard press release format.

No idea here that the customer is always right and no practical logic, that I could discern, behind their decision.

          The latest marketing consultant to come on the scene said he couldn’t reimburse me for the press release component of the package because it had been discounted. Then he told me it had actually been thrown in for free.

          In the absence of the press release, the $1,500 promotional package appears to have had zero impact on sales in the United States.

          In the month following its appearance at the Philadelphia book fair “The Vatican at War” crept up from number 3 million in the bestseller list to around 1.5 million, equivalent, I imagine, to the sale of two or three copies. After that titanic effort, it started sliding down again towards the 3 million mark, selling fewer copies on than the un-promoted “Puppetmasters”.

          Aside from my personal gripes, iUniverse and Author Solutions appear to have built up a considerable fund of bad will among their authors, a potential problem for Penguin, which purchased the group for $116 million in July 2012.

          It has been reported that the average Author Solutions author spends $5,000 and sells just 150 books, netting a royalty of perhaps $600. That math may have looked good to Bertram Capital, but it is hard to see how it can be good for the long-term relationship of the company with its writers.

          Last April a judge in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed part of a class action complaint seeking $5 million in damages from Penguin and Author Solutions on behalf of three disgruntled writers. But Judge Denise Cote ruled that the plaintiffs’ unjust enrichment claim in relation to non-contractual publishing services was “adequately pled”.

          Lawyers for the unhappy authors claimed Author Solutions “sells authors expensive publishing packages, loaded with bogus services, for the publication of their books and then pressures those same authors into buying more, equally bogus marketing and publishing services.” The plaintiffs also pointed out that Author Solutions’ interests were in conflict with those of its authors, since the author, rather than the author’s readers, served as the company’s most profitable consumer. “In other words, Author Solutions makes money from authors, not for them,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers said.

          Marketing services of dubious utility and disproportionate cost, aggressively sold over the telephone, have done little to enhance the company’s reputation. It may be the biggest, in the fastest growing sector of the publishing industry, but it is likely to pose something of an ethical dilemma to its new owners.

          Meanwhile I find myself being stalked by online ads for iUniverse and its related companies’ book publishing services whenever I go on the Internet. I only wish they were half as effective in promoting the sales of my book!