Self-Publishing Platform FastPencil Expands Print Partnership With Barnes & Noble

By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

If limited distribution to e-bookstores and not bricks-and-mortar retail stores, where most books are sold, is a problem for aspiring self-published authors, FastPencil has a solution.

Since the first quarter of this year, the Campbell, Calif.-based self-publishing platform has been selling a limited selection of its books in Barnes & Noble, Hudson News, Costco, Target and other stores. A new partnership announced today by FastPencil and Barnes & Noble will give the self-publishing platform’s authors additional opportunities to be marketed and sold through Barnes & Nobles’s channels.

Best-selling authors Mercer Mayer and Steven Pressfield are among several dozen that have fairly traditionally publishing relationships with FastPencil and whose titles have appeared in print in stores. Both Mayer and Pressfield – along with about 25 others – are authors who publish under FastPencil’s Premiere imprint, a sort of publishing-company-light that performs all the functions of a traditional publisher.

The difference between Premiere and publishers like Simon & Schuster and Macmillan? Premiere authors get no advances (and sometimes invest some of their own capital in publishing) but reap much higher royalties than are offered by traditional publishers – for both p- and e-books.

Depending on their contract, royalties for those in the Premiere imprint can be as high as 40% of gross revenues for e-books and 20% of gross revenues for print books; that’s 15 points and five points higher than many traditional publishers are thought to offer to their best-selling authors, respectively. And authors can collect double those royalties if they sell a book directly through their Facebook page or blog through a widget FastPencil provides.

Like traditional publishers, Premiere gives its authors support in terms of editorial, design, production, distribution and marketing services. The company also handles sales and rights management. FastPencil only has ten employees, however, and so most of these services are performed by an army of hundreds of freelancers, vendors and, in the case of licensing and rights management, the company’s CEO Steve Wilson and President Bruce Butterfield lend a hand.

“Our unique relationship with retailers has been a big trigger to some larger authors frustrated with traditional publishers,” said Wilson. “We allow these authors to get their content out faster, to have better royalties, to have more control over their content.”

According to Wilson, Barnes & Noble, the largest print bookseller of the lot, has no similar deal with any other self-publishing platform but that the FastPencil model could be applied to other players.

In addition to printing Premiere books, FastPencil has two other sources of book content: the Wavecrest imprint and the FastPencil self-publishing platform. The former is a sort of vanity press where authors buy certain publishing packages – but only authors who have platforms or a meaningful following are able to join this imprint. And the FastPencil platform is a self-publishing platform like Smashwords or Author solutions that is largely free or cheap to use, depending on how an author uses it. Premiere, unlike the other two, is highly selective and only publishes “best-selling” authors, according to Wilson.

Books from all three imprints have been published in print and sold at Barnes & Noble since the program started in the first quarter of this year. Books from Premiere will be all but guaranteed a shot at print distribution; Wavecrest and FastPencil authors have opportunities to be distributed in print based on the performance and quality of the e-book.


Competition for Authors

FastPencil’s move into print distribution is part of a larger arms race between self-publishing platforms and traditional publishers in an attempt to entice authors.

While self-publishing sites have been frantically adding features, functionality and competing on pricing, traditional publishers like Random House and Hachette have been making a case to authors and agents as to the value they add in the publishing process.

Author Solutions, which was recently acquired by Penguin, offers authors 100% royalties on books published and distributed through the site, making its primary service free for many of its customers – this promotion was to end on July 4 but was extended indefinitely due to its success. The company also recently launched BookStub, a service where authors can sell their e-books in person using a credit-card sized voucher with a picture of the book cover on one side and a product code on the other.

A new company called Your Ebook Team just launched and says that it offers authors “360 degree” service, from editorial to distribution. Self-publishing site recently launched an “author advice” tool.

Meanwhile, Random House has put out the first in a series of videos that explain how much value it adds to the publishing process and just added a monthly agent newsletter to its popular monthly author newsletter. Late last year Hachette leaked a document to Digital Book World that touted its prowess in publishing to authors and agents.

“Large self-publishers to large publishers are our competition,” said Wilson. “We’re seeing the traditional publishers open their eyes up to this.”

About half of FastPencil’s revenues come from providing the technology infrastructure for other companies to produce and distribute e-books and Wilson added that in that way traditional publishers aren’t the company’s competition.


Why Wilson Thinks FastPencil Could Win

Aside from offering higher royalties and much the same in service and support that traditional publishers offer, Wilson feels that FastPencil, with its new way of thinking about the book industry and flexible corporate structure, can out-publish the publishers.

“What we’re seeing with traditional publishers is that the level of support has dwindled,” he said. “A lot of the marketing and add-ons that they used to provide, a lot of them aren’t providing them.”

Wilson cited a New York Times best-selling author who recently joined FastPencil who said that his last book published by a traditional publisher sold 400,000 copies and that “he did every bit of the marketing himself,” said Wilson.

“Other than having the publisher logo on the book, what are they going to do for him?” he added. “FastPencil is going to put the book right in the middle of the octagon at Barnes & Noble [referring to an advantageous book placement in the store]. Would Random House do that for him? I don’t know.”

The best-selling children’s author, Mayer, has signed with FastPencil for his next 12 books and will likely publish with the company for the next three or four years.

Some of the Premiere imprint authors work with agents that have steered their clients toward FastPencil and Wilson said that some agencies have approached the company about developing a more involved relationship, perhaps like those that exist between agencies and traditional publishers.


FastPencil of the Future

As its more traditional publishing operation grows, FastPencil won’t be the same company today that it was several years ago when it was just a self-publishing platform with underlying technology.

Today, it gets about half of its revenues from content and publishing and the other half from licensing its technology. The last calendar year was the first the company was profitable but, unlike many other start-ups, it isn’t beholden to a gang of venture-capital investors. It raised a $1 million seed round from angel investors in 2008 and is owned partly by that group of investors and management; to continue operating without profit, the company took out loans that it has largely repaid.

Wilson wouldn’t comment as to whether the company was seeking to be bought, much like Author Solutions was bought by Penguin this month, but said that FastPencil and other self-publishing players will be coming out with new innovations that will “shock” the industry in the months to come.

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