Thursday 19 March 2015

iUniverse: One Author's Experience

I am now a published author and ready to talk about my publishing experience with the largest and, perhaps, most contentious self-publishing platform out there: A branch of AuthorHouse called iUniverse.

The choice of iUniverse was actually only half-intentional. I started out by trying to use Amazon's free self-publishing platform, Createspace. But, as I'm Canadian, I had to get a tax exemption number from the IRS so that my profits would only be taxed in Canada. (At this time, I still had the notion that I might actually have profits. So naive.) My application was rejected three times before I realized that the rules had changed only weeks before I applied. This was not an easy deduction to make as the rejection form states only that the paperwork was inadequate. It does not specify which paperwork or in what way it might be inadequate. In my last correspondence I sent the IRS a rejection of their rejection containing a single checked box that said, "rejection paperwork inadequate." I should probably not travel to Disneyland anytime soon. Eventually, from online forums, I deduced that the form letter from Creatspace was no longer adequate proof that you were doing legitimate business. You'd think, being a writer, that I'd have come to terms with rejection, but this process had already taken about 6 months and I could see no way around the problem.

So I searched online for alternatives. As I wanted to avoid the problem with the IRS, I started at (Canadian bookstore company) which led me to (the online marketing arm of Chapters bookstores, their answer to Amazon.) Indigo recommended iUniverse.

Choosing iUniverse:
Finally choosing iUniverse was an exhausting process. I spent many, many hours checking alternatives and stumbled upon hundreds of postings from people who had very negative things to say. I read the rants and followed up on the ones who were at all rational and literate. In the end, I concluded that there were two types of disappointment out there.

The first was the disappointment of people who are basically illiterate and who believe they've somehow created something extraordinarily precious and expected iUniverse to fix all the inadequacies of their book and make them famous. A lot of these people also have difficulties with mathematics and felt that they were owed hundreds of dollars in royalties for the thousands of books that their friends, neighbours and relatives claimed to have purchased. I ignored those complaints.

More alarming, and by far the minority, were the people who could string a sentence together, though I don't know if they can weave a credible story. I read their complaints and found them well-reasoned. Then I checked their writing and found it competent. But, in the end, I think the issues were caused by their inexperience. For instance, many of them complained about being up-sold. They felt that they were being nickle-and-dimed to death. Most complained of paying thousands more than they'd been told. Others stuck to the initial packaged deal but felt that their product was denied services they had assumed would be provided. Most of these cases seemed to occur at the junction where amateur expectations meet professional realities. A thousand dollars seems like a lot to the average person, but if you think that you are getting a thorough, professional edit for $1000, you are wrong.

I guess because I've been in the publishing business, my expectations were more in line with what iUniverse has to offer.

Funnily enough, somewhere along the cyber-journey and before I mouse-clicked my money away, I had been switched to a dot-com iUniverse website. And when the receipt arrived in my inbox I noticed the currency exchange and realized that I was dealing with a US-based company and that I would have to deal with the IRS again! There's still a large red lump on my forehead where my palm landed and I may have actually said the word, "Doh!" for the first time.

If you learn nothing else from this article, remember that iUniverse, as an organization, is sales-oriented. They will offer discounts if they think they are losing you. Just be patient.

I was pretty much sold, but a little nervous and in no hurry. I hummed and hawed over the initial buy-in of $2,599 US ("Bookstore Premier Pro Package") and one day before the end of the month, my sales associate sent me a "final offer" by email. I bought in at $1,560. That's a 40 percent discount!

I remembered the timing and size of this reduced offer and used this information at every stage of the process.

The Packages:
To be fair to those with expectations that were not met, before I signed on the dotted line, iUniverse did not at any time indicate that there were editorial services available that were not included in my package. There is minimum detail on the website, but I talked at length to sales people by phone and email. They all implied that the package included everything I could possibly want.

Perhaps it is the wisdom of excessive age or my publishing experience, but I was not at all surprised when they later approached me with extra editorial options. However, I was surprised by the price. I thought iUniverse might ask for an additional $1-2,000 but was shocked when they offered me a Developmental Edit for $5,200 US.

Though I had been a magazine publisher, I had never heard of a Developmental Edit. I did a lot of research online and contacted a couple of editors. I was consistently quoted about $4,000 US.  In a way I was pleased. This meant that iUniverse was not completely scamming me. Again, I refused to be rushed, took my time in thinking it over. I was learning their methods and how far to trust them.

I ordered a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style which is the current industry editorial standard adhered to in popular fiction. After studying it for a few days, I realized that there were a lot of technical things I did not know—and would likely never know—about the English language. I also learned that though I am a writer, I am not an editor; nor do I want to become one.

On the last day of April, iUniverse offered me a twenty-five percent discount. I actually held out for more, but the saleswoman convinced me that I had hit the wall.

I have to say that spending an additional $4000 was nerve-racking. But my research had convinced me that the DE was necessary if my book was to stand shoulder to shoulder with those traditionally published.

I can honestly tell you that I made the right decision. The entire editing process brought my novel up a notch or two, tightened the story and eliminated every line that failed to contribute. I will never publish a serious novel without a full and complete edit.

I also want to mention that while the organization called iUniverse is entirely about the money, every one of the individuals I worked with during production seemed dedicated to the product.

iUniverse authors are insulated from the editorial staff by department coordinators. My guess is that it's because an edit is such an emotionally delicate part of the process. Authors—especially amateur ones—are very attached to what they've written and many do not handle constructive criticism professionally. Because their customer base is largely newbies, iUniverse is probably wise to not let authors contact their editors, directly. The coordinator will interpret and pass messages, but also, there seem to be several staff editors who sometimes step in to clarify technical issues.

Never getting to meet my editor was understandable, but disappointing. However, I used clues left behind in my manuscript to stalk her down, online. It turned out that she was primarily a romance novel editor, and this made me nervous. But she quickly dazzled me with her powers of observation, attention to detail and a level of technical expertise that was humbling. I think I took all but one of her suggestions. (I kept the word "whorled" instead of the more popular "whirled," if you must know.)

You will get a lot of automatically generated emails and you get passed along to a great number of coordinators throughout the process, but I managed to make a real connection with each of the key people during the edit and art production phase.

After editing, you are moved on to the artwork portion of the production. I was pleased to not be asked to throw in any extra money. Everything I wanted was included in my package.

I loved my art team. They truly did their best work for me and went the extra mile. The coordinator, especially, was able to understand my concerns and quickly translate these to the art people who raised themselves to the task.

I do not want to diminish what they accomplished for me, but I have to say that what they produce is relatively standard stuff. If you are expecting a truly bold and original cover design, you might be disappointed. These people are extremely competent, but they rely a lot on image bank photos and are probably working on a lot of projects at the same time. If you have clear and original design thoughts, you might get a fantastic cover, but you can not reasonably expect it to come completely from this design team.

The original cover I made.

The final cover iUniverse made for me.

I am very happy with the cover they produced for me. It's probably not the one that would sell the most books, but it very honestly portrays the content and mood of my story and it's better than I could have produced. I think I could get a better cover design, but I would expect it to cost me several thousand dollars.

The one disappointment in the art department is a thing iUniverse calls "cover copy polish." This is where they take your words for the back cover blurb and professionally finesse them. I thought what I had already written was pretty good and was hoping they could elevate it, the way the editors had done with my story. What I got back from them was an entirely awkward rewording. There was no polish. I rejected it outright and re-wrote the blurb. Further disappointing is that there is a small error in what I wrote and no one caught that.

I began to suspect that creativity was where iUniverse falls a bit short and this proved true when I moved on to the marketing phase.

One again, iUniverse contacted me with marketing options not included in my package. Once again I held out and, once again, on the last day of July, they offered me a 40 percent discount. My Publisher's Weekly advertisement and a Google Display Ad campaign came to $2,499 US. To be honest, I was very tired and busy at this time and did not do my homework. So I really have no idea if this is much of a deal. It hinges on the power of the little Publisher's Weekly ad. I'm not overly optimistic.

It is worthwhile noting that iUniverse is a vast, computerized network and your production team might be located on the opposite coast from your location, as mine was. I am in Victoria, BC Canada (west coast) and every one of my teams was somewhere on the east coast. This was tricky for me because of my work schedule and the 3-hour time difference. I made a point to talk to the team leaders on the phone at least once or twice, but communication by email was vital.

My introduction to marketing was very disconcerting. Months previous, I had arranged a few introductory phone calls with my advertising handler, but found the conversations awkward and I was never really able to connect with him. To me, he sounded medicated. He spoke little, had really nothing to tell me and offered insufficient, stock answers to my few questions. This was similarly true for the other two people on his advertising team, one of whom was obviously in a busy call center and never said anything that wasn't scripted. But the worst thing was that they absolutely never answered any of my emails. I am generally very patient and easy going. Hell, I'm Canadian. I emailed them some basic and simple questions which should have taken about ten seconds to answer.

In the weeks while I waited for answers, my thoughts were: So this is where the scam happens. They take all the money, then, when you get to the final stage, they leave you hanging. 

I endured the information deficit for about 2 months. Finally, I emailed the person who handles the handlers and was very relieved when she got back to me within hours with apologies and an entirely new team. My new handler answered my questions within hours, and three days later, they had everything they needed from me. My ads went live, a couple of days after that.

The advertisements look good, but the words are underwhelming. My best advice is that you need to be prepared to write your own advertising copy. These guys are not going to produce anything worthwhile. At best it will be cliche. At worst it will be grammatically, semantically or logically incorrect. Their severely limited ability to generate competent ad copy was a disappointment to me and I had to exert extra effort at a point when I was very busy and a bit tired. I basically corrected their largest mistakes and let the cliches fly.

How effective this campaign will be, I have no idea. Truly, I think trying to establish a writing career will take me 10-20 years, 10 good novels and about 500 blog posts. I don't expect much from a few weeks of advertising.

My advice to you: Don't waste your money on iUniverse's marketing. Whether they are adept or incompetent is not really relevant. Twenty-five hundred dollars does not go far in advertising and, in the long run, it will be your own efforts that make your writing career take flight.

Of all the accusations hurled online, to me the scariest was that iUniverse does not honour it's royalty agreement and fails to pay all the royalties the author has earned. Personally, I never really believed this for a few reasons. Firstly, the contract seems to guarantee them no loss from lack of sales, and a reasonable return on each book that does sell. If they were out to scam and never intended to honor the contract then they would be more enticing with the royalty structure. Secondly, iUniverse was bought by Penguin in 2012 and I don't think that a major traditional publishing house would knowingly associate themselves with fraudsters. And, thirdly, none of the rants I read online convinced me that the authors calling foul had verifiable proof of their actual books sales.

Still, I was nervous. Then I received my first royalty cheque.

Yes, the amount is small. But this covers the 4th quarter of 2014. My book was released on December 16th, so this represents the first 15 days of sales and is larger than I'd assumed. I should probably say "thank you!" again, to all my friends and family.

Overall Impressions:
Using iUniverse is very much like being involved with a traditional publisher. They hold your hand a bit and take care of some details that a writer generally is not equipped to handle. On the other hand, they take a large piece of the pie and you have less control over your product.

The package price includes a very wide distribution of the novel through a vast network of bookstores and online platforms, but like a traditional publisher, they only pay the writer 25% (if sold directly through iUniverse) and 10% (if sold elsewhere) on each print version. Authors do get 50% on each e-book. I could do much better on my own, but the real question is: How valuable is that distribution network?

You do not have control of the product the way you would have if you had uploaded it yourself onto several bookselling platforms. For instance, I can not alter typos. I would have to contact the editorial department at iUniverse and pay $100 for each 50 changes. Similarly, I can not alter the cover art. In fact, technically, I do not even own the finished typesetting or artwork, though I believe I can buy these for about $150 each.

You can terminate your iUniverse contract with 30-days notice, after which all the rights revert back to you. However, it will mean getting new ISBN numbers and re-uploading them to the various booksellers. All of your old reviews and other sales statistics will disappear and you might lose a follower or two in the transition. This is all inconvenient, but minor, in the scheme of things.

iUniverse was a good choice for me and my first novel. I do not think that they are the most economical option, but neither are they a scam. I paid $8,000 US (about $9,700 Cdn., at the time I purchased) and feel I got guidance and value in the final product. My book looks and reads better than ninety-eight percent of the independently published books I've seen, and it's available to a larger demographic.

However, one thing that has become clear to me through months of research is that it takes huge sums of money and marketing effort to shine a light on any single title, amid the millions that are out there. No one can publish your book and make you famous for $10,000.

Would I use iUniverse again? Probably not. I no longer need them. Next time, I will pay for a complete and professional edit, commission a fabulous cover, do the typesetting myself and upload the novel to the various bookselling platforms myself. This will probably save me about $4,000 US which I will use to upgrade my marketing or, maybe, for food and shelter—whichever seems more important at the time.

UPDATE (16-04-26): About a month ago I gave my month's notice to iUniverse and asked for all rights and control of my novel to be returned to me. This is an important test of their credibility and they honoured their agreement without any delay, unnecessary bureaucracy or hidden fees. They even gave me copies of the interior text file and the cover artwork at no charge. (This used to cost $150, but apparently they have changed their policy on this and it's now free.)

My conclusions to this day, remain unchanged: iUniverse is not a company of scammers. They offer professional services that many novices will need, and are able to bridge the gap when the author is the only amateur in the loop. For this, you will pay slightly higher prices than you might, otherwise—but I found their prices in line with the level of production services I received. If your manuscript is solid, then they can certainly produce a good product for you.

As I had predicted, the iUniverse marketing campaign did almost nothing... I think 3 books got sold. But, now that I've been in the game a while, I realize there was very little they could do, marketing-wise, with such a small budget. Effective marketing in this muddy puddle takes a major investment of money. So I'd definitely give the marketing department a miss.

One thing iUniverse does have is a decent distribution network and this moved a few books every month. However, my royalties from iUniverse were so paltry that if I sell 20% of what they did, I will make more money on my own.


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