I had to read this article from Newsweek magazine twice before I could believe it.
According to the article, Chronicle Books, a sizeable commercial publisher, is teaming up with Blurb, a self-publishing service, in what Chronicle calls a “mutual referral deal.” Chronicle, which accepts unagented submissions, will refer rejected authors to Blurb. If they buy Blurb’s services, Blurb will pay Chronicle an “undisclosed cut” of the revenue.
Yes, you read that right. Blurb will pay a kickback to Chronicle for sending authors its way.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Well, first of all, it’s a conflict of interest. If someone can make money by recommending a service, how can you trust that the recommendation is in your best interest? This is exactly the way the Edit Ink book doctoring scam operated–agents and publishers sent rejected writers to Edit Ink in exchange for a percentage of whatever the writer wound up paying for (overpriced, unskilled) editing. The agents and editors who profited from Edit Ink referrals didn’t reveal the relationship, nor did Edit Ink. Will Chronicle inform the writers it sends to Blurb that it gets a cut of what they spend? Will Blurb let writers know it paid to get their business?
Secondly, Blurb is among the most expensive of the self-publishing services. The book-creation software is free; it’s when you order books that things get costly. The justification for this is that Blurb’s books are “bookstore quality,” which, let’s face it, books from self-pub services aren’t always. Still, if Chronicle is going to send writers to a pay-to-publish company, wouldn’t it have been kinder to pick a cheaper one?
Last but not least–Chronicle’s referrals to Blurb will come with the weight and reputation of an established commercial publisher behind them. A reputable publisher won’t tell you to do something that’s not in your best interest, right? It’s likely, therefore, that authors will take the recommendation seriously. This is bad enough for books that aren’t publishable. But what about the books that don’t fit Chronicle’s list, but might be a good match for another reputable publisher? What if those books get sidelined into Blurb? Again, Chronicle will not be doing authors any favors.
(Note that I don’t intend to imply that Blurb is in any way disreputable. But it’s a self-publishing service, with all the limitations that implies. Great for some books in certain circumstances. Not so great for most.)
So what about the “mutual” in “mutual referral deal?” According to Sarah Williams, Chronicle’s executive director of business development (quoted in the article), the program will provide “an opportunity for writers to test their product in a digital marketplace where success might bring them back to us.” Note the use of “might.” Even if she’s serious, the resemblance to Edit Ink is again uncanny. Agents and publishers who made Edit Ink referrals promised to reconsider manuscripts once they were edited–which of course increased writers’ motivation to buy Edit Ink’s services (in most cases, the promise was a lie). Also, not for nothin’, but haven’t we gotten past the whole farm team thing? I thought that idea died back around the turn of the century, when Random House acquired a stake in Xlibris.
And speaking of Xlibris…some of you may remember the trouble it got into a few years ago, when it contacted agents and editors with an offer of a 10% kickback for each rejected author who purchased Xlibris’s services (“Now find out how your slush pile can actually become a source of revenue,” the letter said). Uproar ensued (back then, the Edit Ink scandal was fresher in people’s minds), Xlibris hastily backtracked, and the program got the kibosh.
Chronicle, Chronicle. You’ve got a great publishing program–in fact, you published one of my very favorite books of the past few years. I’m really disappointed in you.
UPDATE: Apparently the Newsweek article was in error.
Joseph Ternes of Chronicle Books stopped by the blog to post the following comment:
The information in the Newsweek article was incorrect. Chronicle Books will not receive a referral fee for recommending Blurb.com to aspiring authors or artists.
Just as from time to time our editors refer authors or artists to other trade houses, Blurb.com presents another option if they consider it an appropriate choice. This option will not be part of our response to every author submissions. There are many self-publishing options in the marketplace, though far fewer for illustrated book authors and artists. As an independent illustrated book publisher in San Francisco, Chronicle Books felt an affinity for the locally based Blurb.com and the quality of the product it is offering the public.