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Self-Published Authors Sharply Criticize Penguin's Book Country

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Many popular self-published authors are coming down hard on the self-publishing services that Penguin added to community writing site Book Country earlier this week, calling the initiative overpriced, royalty-grabbing and “truly awful.”

The primary criticisms are that Book Country’s services, which range from $99 to $549, are much too expensive–“vanity press, pure and simple,” writes one commenter at The Passive Voice — and that Penguin takes a cut of 30 percent cut of royalties authors earn from third-party retailers like Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN). In other words, an author who directly uploads his or her work to Amazon receives a 70 percent royalty. An author who uses Book Country to upload his or her work to Amazon receives 70 percent of that 70 percent. An author who publishes a $2.99 e-book directly on Amazon will receive $2.05 for each sale. An author who publishes an e-book to Amazon through Book Country will receive just $1.47 for each sale.

Well-known self-published author David Gaughran, who writes the blog “Let’s Get Digital,” describes this as “out-and-out gouging.” He expanded on that to me: “Formatting and uploading are one-time jobs. There is no justification for taking an ongoing fee in the form of 30 percent of the author’s royalties. That is, quite simply, gouging.”

In a statement, Penguin says, “Like many sites, Book Country takes a percentage of each sale of a book.”

“I’ve sold 500,000 e-books,” writes Joe Konrath, an extremely successful self-published author who has a deal with Amazon Publishing for some of his books. “If I’d published with Book Country, they would have taken $290,000 in royalties from me.

Self-published authors accuse Book Country of preying on inexperienced authors who do not realize how easy it is to publish their books themselves, designing them and uploading them directly to Amazon, Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) and other etailers, or outsourcing the formatting work for much less than Book Country charges. (Uploading books to the major etailers is free.) Worse, he says, these authors may use Book Country in the belief that Penguin will discover them and give them traditional publishing contracts–which seemingly has not happened yet. (HarperCollins has signed up authors it found through its community writing site Authonomy, however.)

Penguin responds that the tools offered by Book Country “are not intended to be the least expensive in the market — the free, instant e-book sites exist and they may be the best choice for some writers. However, what you get on Book Country is not the same as what you get at these other free sites. On Book Country, you can publish high quality e-books and print books, and you don’t have to upload your books in multiple places, manage multiple ISBNs, or manage multiple accounts. In all three packages offered by Book Country, our e-books are individually hand-coded, not run through a software program with no human intervention.”

“The main reason that I am concerned that Penguin are behind this is because that will make it more significantly attractive to those newer, less experienced writers,” Gaughran told me. “A much-desired carrot is being dangled in the form of a potential publishing deal with Penguin. Their logo is all over the site. And their backing will lead to some confusion. For example, the Guardian’s article about Book Country on Wednesday presented it as a way to get published ‘by Penguin’ for only $99. That, obviously, is not the case.” Penguin says “the Penguin logo is in the footer of the Book Country site so you can easily click to get an explanation of the fact that Book Country is a subsidiary of Penguin’s with its own dedicated staff.”

Gaughran said he “can’t imagine” why anyone who has already self-published would use Book Country, but “I am afraid that less experienced writers will go for it because it is backed by Penguin. That dream of a Big 6 publishing deal is widespread, and hard to shake.”

For Penguin’s full statement, see the next page.

Penguin’s statement:

The Book Country Community is free and always will be, it’s a great resource for writers – so far, nearly 4000 people — who are using the site to workshop their fiction.

The Book Country publishing services were introduced to give genre fiction writers a new path to publication, if they want it.

The publishing tools offered by Book Country are focused on quality and convenience. They are not intended to be the least expensive in the market – the free, instant ebook sites exist and they may be the best choice for some writers.

However what you get on Book Country is not the same as what you get at these other free sites. On Book Country, you can publish high quality ebooks and print books, and you don’t have to upload your books in multiple places, manage multiple ISBNs, or manage multiple accounts.

In all three packages offered by Book Country, our ebooks are individually hand-coded, not run through a software program with no human intervention. In the two user-formatted options, we give you instructions on preparing your book file for best presentation when we turn the file over to be coded. You could do this formatting work and upload it for free elsewhere, but on Book Country we’ll produce a professional grade ebook that looks terrific.

This means you get great looking chapter openers, drop caps, and you won’t end up with bizarre spacing issues that confuse and frustrate readers, not to mention diminishing the perceived value of the writers’ work. These abnormalities happen often on the free upload sites.

If you opt for the $549 package, we will do all of the formatting and the coding for you, for BOTH eBook and Print files.

As for the sales transactions after a book has been published, like many sites, Book Country takes a percentage of each sale of a book.

When we distribute your book out to other sites, the third party sites also take a percentage. This is not unusual. This is how many new publishing operations function. In contrast to traditional publishing houses, Book Country offers the author a much higher percentage since Book Country is not incurring editorial, marketing or publicity costs.

Book Country is incurring costs to code the professional ePub file, set-up the print file for printing, distribute the book files and the metadata out to all retailers, account for incoming sales in multiple channels, and pay out to authors on a monthly basis. Not to mention the cost of maintaining the Book Country site and all of the tools, like the Genre Map, that are meant to help authors actually find paying readers, very valuable benefits.

Book Country can make your book available everywhere that ebooks are sold.

We distribute more widely with a single upload than any other self-publishing side today.

Unlike other sites, we are non-exclusive. We do not restrict writers to only sell within our site in order to be eligible for a certain percentage of each sale.

We do not charge writers a per-megabyte download fee when someone buys their book. (Read the fine print on some of these other sites!)

We do not set a maximum price for your ebook.

We do not charge a monthly listing fee to keep your book available for sale. It is like consignment, we take a percentage to cover our costs only when you succeed in making a sale.

The Penguin logo is in the footer of the Book Country site so you can easily click to get an explanation of the fact that Book Country is a subsidiary of Penguin’s with its own dedicated staff. I’ve attached an image of a Book Country book so you can see the Book Country logo on the spine.

25 Responses to “Self-Published Authors Sharply Criticize Penguin's Book Country”

    D Publishing by Australia’s largest bookseller, Dymocks.

    I commented about this on Facebook the night of Dec 8. D Publishing withdrew their Publishing Agreement agreement and replaced it with a reworded version on Dec 9. The problems remain, but disguised by less direct language, which is even more concerning when it comes to authors not experienced in the business side of publishing and with contracts.

    The following article outlines a series of major problems with their Publishing Agreement

  2. The entire purpose of self-publication is to cut out the middle man. In this case, the middle man comes knocking to crash the party. 

    I don’t see why an author would shell out $549 for someone else to format their manuscript and upload it, when those are one-time things, and a third-party independent contractor can do that for a fraction of the cost. E-formatting is not rocket science. You can hire someone to do it for you, or play with the preview option until it’s to your liking. While I understand that some self-pubs aren’t DIY, there’s cheaper alternatives. What, exactly, about the $549 package is worth the money?

    I’m a freelance graphic designer. For a book-formatting package, I wouldn’t charge anywhere near this amount. And for that amount, I’d design a cover, draft a press release, and spend some time with the author developing a social media strategy to boot. 

    Also, for print publication, CreateSpace is, quite technically, free. You can pay for the proof, or publish without. Nothing that Book Country is quoting is optional. You’re charged a fee for up-front usage. This is a vanity press, not a self-pub. World of difference there. 

    Yes, Book Country is acknowledging self-publishing as viable, and yet it’s counting on a self-publishing author to not research their options and hand over money for something that they may not have to pay for with someone else. It’s not illegal, but it’s definitely not good, and they make out like bandits on that, at the author’s expense. One step forward, two steps back. 

    And last time I checked, no one had revoked the rule of thumb of the writing world that the money flows to the author, not the other way around. 

    • Dualhammers

      Don’t sell your services short, Kat.  Good editing and quality design work are difficult jobs that have their own level of craft.  Working cheap on volume does not always lead to quality work.  

      Publishing houses do have a lot of problems but they often are willing to pay the bill to hire editors and designers who are very good at their job and pay them accordingly.  An individual author often lacks the money to do that on their own and their work suffers because of it.

  3. It’s a no-brainer where I would go if I wanted to avail myself of a publishing service: anywhere but Penguin. See, the problem is that Penguin’s terms are too limiting, and as a free range chicken for 40 years I don’t see the point in arguing with another publishing company which takes pains to criticize the power of self-publishing. They had their chance back in 1972 and they blew it. It takes maybe 15 minutes to learn how to produce an ebook, and it’s not that hard. There are also several quality publishing services which don’t charge to produce an ebook; at least not at the rates Penguin would like to pay the author. More. I have self-published 15 books and an equal number of ebooks, short stories and essays without the “help” of anyone. Are self-published authors appreciated? No. Some of the greatest authors in history self-published before they were picked up by traditional publishers; in many cases long after they were dead. It makes no sense to endure the humiliation trad publishers heap on us. Give this one a wide berth.

  4. I agree with Laura, I think Penguin is doing this in good faith. Hand coding of ebooks requires manual human intervention, and people cost money.  The marketplace will ultimately judge their implementation and execution.  I agree with Fran, there is a need for paid services such as Book Country or Author Solutions that cater to writers who don’t have the skills or initiative to prepare their own manuscripts for ebook production and distribution.  I also agree with David, Joe Konrath and other critics that most writers will do well to carefully consider one of the other options as well, my own included.  I have a horse in this race so consider my opinion worth the price paid to view it.  Our Smashwords Meatgrinder is the most-used (87,000+ books published, and 8,000+ releases in the last 30 days), most-loved and simultaneously most-ridiculed automated conversion system.  We make it fast, free and easy for any writer, anywhere in the world, to publish and distribute a quality ebook.  Our Smashwords Style Guide at is probably the most-downloaded ebook formatting guide ever written (130,000+ downloads).  Coincidentally, writers who follow our Style Guide tend to appreciate the utility and capabilities of Meatgrinder, while those who don’t follow the Style Guide are correctly inclined to conclude Meatgrinder turned their book to hamburger (true, it will if you don’t follow the Style Guide).  Although I think we offer a compelling, affordable (free!) ebook publishing and distribution platform, I know there are many authors out there who require the services of others. We certainly don’t try to satisfy all authors.  Authors who want to pick up the phone and speak with a live salesperson or customer service rep, for example, are quickly frustrated when they discover we provide online support only (and we don’t sell services), so they go elsewhere. 

    Traditional publishers offer a wide range of services not always recognized or appreciated by authors.  For authors who choose to self-publish, they soon realize the amount of work necessary to professionally publish.  The great thing about this new world is that authors have the power to make their own decisions.  They can do everything themselves, do some of it themselves, or outsource some or all of the required publishing responsibilities to one of the many providers who now fill the services spectrum.

    Kudos to Book Country for recognizing self publishing as a viable option for professional authors.

  5. Laura Hazard Owen

    Some thoughts: 1) FWIW I do think Penguin is doing this in good–or not bad–faith. It’s not a slapped-together service, it’s been in the works for a long time.
    2) That said, I understand the complaints about the service, and think a lot of them could be resolved if Penguin stops taking a 30% cut of outside sales (I don’t know if it is inclined to change this)
    3) I see value in some e-book publishing services for specific genres–Penguin’s romance-specific fonts and designs, for instance–though those could be provided by any third party service…templates, etc.

    • I’d be willing to believe the mostly good faith thing a little more if I hadn’t seen many, many Penguin works out there in e-format that were poor-quality and obviously either scanned or slapped-up e-versions of their print offerings.

      I’d also be more willing to believe in good faith if it weren’t obvious that the upload process is a single, discrete event–it’s a mouse-click. It happens once. And it’s more than likely going to be performed by an underpaid or non-paid intern. And for that, they want 30% of every single copy sold, either demonstrating that they want to be repaid over and over for an action they did once, or demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of how electrons move–they do not have to perform that upload mouse-click every time a buyer purchases a book.

      I’d also be more willing to believe in good faith if it weren’t also obvious that Penguin still seems to insist on catering to their legacy accounting systems that simply can’t handle the real-time tools the major distributors have available.

      If this is not a thinly-veiled attempt at a money-grab, flavored with scorn for the content producers, it is at best a rigid attempt to force self-publishing into a model that subjects itself to the very inflexibility of traditional publishing that the self-pub broke out of. It’s fitting a square peg into a round hole.

  6. Fran, no one is “threatened” by this; Penguin will not be competitive with this business model, and one must be competitive to be a “threat.”

    This is simply a bad deal, hence, the negativity arises from warnings, e.g., if I see gas at $8.00/gal but find it down the street at $3.00/gal, I am not “threatened” by the higher price, but my negativity of said price may bleed into warnings for others to avoid the 8.00/gal seller.

  7. This is like a repeat of what’s happening in the music industry. Since there are a ton of “artists”… a ton of companies have risen to make money off said artists. 

    This will soon become the case in publishing as well. Companies will make money off aspiring writers.

  8. It’s really interesting to see all this negativity over a service that is at best “optional”.  Why do you all feel so threatened?  If you are all doing so well on your own, GREAT! Congratulations.

      However, there are many aspiring authors that don’t have your skills or abilities, and for those, this option may present itself as a good one. 

      We should all be rejoicing that there are as many options as there are for new authors to be paid for their endeavors.  Slashing at a service you will never use at best is unprofessional, and at worst degrades your own success.

    • Because Penguin is ripping them off and taking advantage of them. That’s why. Because for years, the big 6 have sneered at self-published authors, now they’re taking money from them. 

      Look, I’m in publishing and even I can see that it’s just not cricket. It’s one thing if they charge for formatting, but then to take 30% is robbery. Small publishers will do all the work – and I mean ALL the work, and only take 50%.

      It’s just a show of complete contempt for authors by the Big 6 – YET AGAIN.

    • This “service” is optional the same way that falling into a hole in the middle of the sidewalk is “optional.” And it’s neither a threat nor does it diminish my own success at avoiding the hole if I warn the guy coming up behind me that there’s a hole in the middle of the sidewalk.

      I am more than willing to share my mad hole-avoiding walking skills, and even if that guy behind me does not want to learn to walk around holes, I can tell you and him that falling into a hole is no way to make up for not knowing how to walk around one.

  9. JR Tomlin

    What appalled me was the fawning uncritical adoration this move on Penguin’s part received from publications such as the WSJ and The Guardian. The lead sentence in The Guardian article was an outright lie. 

    I suspect some of the fury in the indie publishing community would have been less if ANY of the mainstream media had been telling the truth about what Penguin was doing. I have seen poodles in heat show more discrimination.

  10. With the decline in print sales, it seems that Penguin has found a new revenue source – Writers. Now that readers are shifting to a medium that has been actively attacked by the big six, it would seem that publishers are hoping to make money off of writers without having to deal with readers at all.

    This idea is almost dumb enough to run for public office. They failed to keep up with their target market and now they want to ride on the coat tails of authors. The idea is flawed as they wont attract the seasoned writers who know how to reach their audience. They will end up attracting the first time authors who have no market presence.

  11. This is a real shame and unfortunately another way that people other than the authors are moving in to make money from the ebook self publishing industry.  The first guys to get in there are the advertisers. One group asks you to pay $25 to give your book away for free. What? I’d like to see a site where authors share what has actually worked for them, because I suspect that a lot of the little guys just keep paying out and don’t get a lot back. Like anything, you need to do your research first and just like vanity press proved that many people don’t, penguin will thrive on this to the detriment of niave authors. We have to shout this loud and clear – It’s a rip off.

  12. Contempt for the people who create the content that makes them money is not a new attitude for major publishers, and Penguin has taken it to new depths with what I can only see as a scheme to part inexperience writers from their money. 

    New writers, if you want to know the present state of the publishing industry, let David Gaughran (above) and the other publishing-savvy professionals you’ll find through his site offer you some up-to-date advice. And while you’re learning what publishing’s like right now, and how you might best find your place in it, stay away from Book Country or any other site making similar offers.

  13. As a self-published author of close to 40 ebooks — and who’s been self-publishing since 2004 — I can second almost everything said here to date.
    Look at is this way if you’re on the fence about it, would you pay someone $5,000, $10,000, $290,000 (see JA Konrath’s blog post on Big Country) to format your ebook?
    Well, that’s what it can amount to over the long term. Ebook profits are FOREVER. Don’t give someone thousands of yoru hard-earned dollars 10 years from now for something they did that you can pay less than a couple of hundred bucks for now.
    Don’t do it! It’s a bad, bad deal for self publishers.
    And yeah, like others here, I blogged about this on my site. Click my name for the link.

  14. This is a fascinating turn in the publishing industry. Big publishing has now acknowledged, publicly, that the money isn’t in big publishing anymore, it’s in self-publishing. I knew that years ago, but finally, Penguin – the largest trade book publisher in the world - has to admit it.

    I’m fascinated by the reactions to this move though I think it’s only fair to Penguin to point out that this is the same model offered by no less than 20 other “self-publishing companies” like Lulu, Author House, Exlibris, and Outskirts Press, just to name a few. And actually their offering is well in line with these companies in terms of cost and royalties.

    Me personally, I’d never use any of these companies. It’s down right silly to pay someone to do something for you (badly) when you can do it really well all by yourself and cut out all the middlemen.

    I’m actually looking forward to watching this story unfold. It’s the most desparate act I’ve seen since Black Wednesday and if anything, it validates the business decision I made years ago to bring my own brand of indie literature directly to readers.

  15. This is a money grab, pure and simple.

    Their flat fees are not entirely outside of reality. While ebook conversion will usually cost only $50-150, if you opt to not do it yourself, print book design will often cost $200-500. So the $549 package is a little higher than you can get elsewhere for flat fees, but not insanely so.

    But when they collect 30% of the income from sales as well? Ridiculous. They’re offering NOTHING worth that. That’s absolutely ludicrous – honestly, I find it insulting that they even made an offer like that. It’s an indication of what they really think of the writers using Book Country. Penguin is showing disdain for writers in this offering.

    How stupid do they think we are?

    For $300-400 in flat fees, you can get the same conversions and print setup done by a pro. For an hour of work, you can then upload them to all the retailers. After which, you collect all the income, vs losing 30% of that income to some third party. Under no circumstances is “uploading the work for you” EVER worth 30% of your income.

    It’s a money grab. Penguin saw a lucrative opportunity to bilk newer or uninformed writers of their money, and went for it.

  16. Melissa Smith

    Again, David hits the nail on the head in one single strike. Everything he says is true. I too learned to hand format my books (although it took me a little longer than a couple of days, I did figure it out) but to pay someone else over $500 to do it? Crazy!

    This is definitely buyer beware.

  17. What Penguin are offering combines the worst aspects of traditional publishing – lost of control, small royalties – while not doing anything the writer couldn’t either learn how to do himself, or subcontract for a one-off fee. 
    It may seem scary to take control of your own publishing; it’s a steep learning curve, but all the information you need is out there on the internet, and if readers like your books, the rewards can be considerable. 

  18. I’ve been working on the Web for 16-years as an Internet marketer. One thing I can tell you for sure about creating successful business models is that you need to design your product with the best interests of the customer in mind… not yourself.

    This deal by Penguin is clearly a case of a company wanting to get over on their customers. That is the wrong way to build a long-term business. Your value must exceed the cost, otherwise, in the long run you’ll be left with the majority of your customer base feeling resentful for having been taken advantage of earlier. Then what? That’s when the pitchforks come out on social media.

    I don’t care how they spin it, it is just not worth it. The value is just not there for the cut they take. That’s the issue. It’s not that they’re coming to play in the self-publishing world. We welcome change from legacy. We’re sitting around waiting for them to play in this sandbox fairly.

    I’ve published 5 books on my own and honestly, I just upload a Word doc and spend about 2 minutes formatting it. It’s completely fine and looks great. Even if Penguin spent 6 hours formatting my book it wouldn’t be worth 30% commission forever.

  19. If Penguin were truly adding value to the self-publishing proposition,
    how come every single self-publisher I have spoken is firmly against it? I
    can’t find one self-publisher to say anything positive about this. The response
    has been universal, and damning.


    You know why? Because this is a rip-off. My last book took me three
    hours to format (and I hand code the HTML, it’s not rocket science – I learned
    how to do it from scratch in a day or two). But, if I wanted to pay someone, I
    could have got the best guy in the business to do it for $200. Uploading is
    quick and easy. And I don’t want anyone else to do that for me because I want
    those royalty checks coming to me, not somebody else. You know what happens
    when they go to someone else? They take a cut. And in Book Country’s case
    that’s an eye-watering 30% (which is AFTER the retailer’s cut).


    I also want to upload my own files because I will have control of my
    account, meaning that I can change my price whenever I like. You can’t do that
    on Book Country. They only let you change the price on Amazon every 60 days.
    Their lame excuse? Because it will mess with their royalty systems and they
    won’t know how much to pay you. That doesn’t sound like they have a very good
    system for tracking royalties, and the Big 6 hardly have a great history in
    that regard.


    Formatting and uploading are one-time jobs. There is no justification
    for taking an ongoing fee in the form of 30% of the author’s royalties.


    This is Penguin’s mealy-mouthed defense: “As for the sales
    transactions after a book has been published, like many sites, Book Country
    takes a percentage of each sale of a book.”


    What they fail to mention (which is consistent with their disingenuous
    marketing) is that they take a cut IN ADDITION to those other sites. Amazon
    take their 30%, hand the rest to Book Country, who then take ANOTHER 30%. And
    for what? For uploading your book? That is, quite simply, a rip-off. There is
    no reason to take an ongoing fee for uploading a writer’s book.


    Self-publishing is viable (and potentially lucrative) precisely because
    the digital revolution has allowed writers to cut out the
    middlemen and still reach readers around the world. No longer are we forced to hand over huge percentages of our
    royalties to agents and publishers. What we have here is the abhorrent
    spectacle of one of those middlemen – Penguin – inserting themselves in the
    self-publishing process for no other reason than to pick the pockets of unsuspecting


    To any writer considering using Book Country to self-publish, my message
    is simple. Don’t. Walk away. Keep your money. There are thousands of writers
    already self-publishing who don’t need to use rip-off services like this. We
    are all willing to help you take your first steps.


    And we won’t take any of your royalties.