Glitches, Complaints Hit iUniverse.com
Calvin Reid -- 9/18/00
Titles inexplicably disappear; another 100 digitized books left waiting in production queue
Anytime 400 digitized book titles inexplicably disappear from a title database, authors are going to be upset, and justifiably so. That's what happened in late spring at iUniverse.com, the print-on-demand subsidy publisher 49% owned by Barnes & Noble Inc. The site lost those 400 manuscripts plus another 100 digitized books waiting in a production queue.
But rather than being an example of a new media carryover of traditional publishing's reputed indifference to authors, as some reports claimed, the unfortunate scenario appears to be something fairly common in the new digital workplace: a technical glitch that occurred during iUniverse.com's automated migration to a new Web site and to a new software system. And while the authors have a right to be perturbed, the site appears to have responded aggressively to correct what an iUniverse.com spokesperson acknowledged was a "calamitous" situation. Authors have also complained that the site, which has claimed that it will publish 70,000 books this year, has expanded far beyond its ability to print and deliver the books contracted through it.
Rebecca Lieb, director of corporate communication for iUniverse.com, told PW that in late May, during iUniverse.com's migration to a new site and a new software system, 400 titles "didn't transfer automatically and should have. We could not get them to transfer, and immediately hired staff to manually input the titles. All were restored to the system within six weeks--most much more quickly than that. That d s not mean the titles were not still available from other sources during that period at places like Amazon, bn.com and Books in Print listings."
She also said that a glitch in the tracking software allowed another 100 titles in production "to be delayed." Lieb said that submissions at iUniverse.com are increasing "by 10% to 20% each month... things were backed up. But we have taken massive steps to correct the problems." In addition to manually inputting the missing manuscripts, the site said it had increased staff to deal with customer service; added ordering and tracking systems; enlarged its network of printers; and formed an internal committee (that includes iUniverse.com executives) to rectify complaints. The site has placed a notice on its front page acknowledging that demand has "exceeded our ability to produce and deliver books on time," and outlined its efforts to correct the problem.
Lieb was critical of reports that the National Writers Union was conducting an "investigation" of the site in response to complaints by NWU membership. "Some NWU members have legitimate grievances about production problems," Lieb told PW. "But we were dismayed that the union would talk to the media before they talked to us." Contacted by PW, NWU president Jonathan Tasini said that while there have been complaints, "investigation is a loaded word. We're in discussions with iUniverse." But Tasini also pointed out the site's rapid expansion: "Writers will find that these POD publishers are no different from the old publishers. How do you market all these titles? Complaints to come will be about why these books haven't sold. That hasn't changed."
As online publishing continues to grow with more sites like iUniverse.com, Xlibris.com and Time Warner's soon-to-launch iPublish.com, a combination of technical glitches, burgeoning submissions and the always delicate relationship between writers and publishers will make these kinds of situations almost inevitable in the near future. John Feldcamp, CEO of Xlibris.com, another subsidy/vanity POD publishing site that is 49% owned by Random House, told PW that while Xlibris.com has not experienced a glitch on the order of iUniverse's, his site currently has 1,000 manuscripts in digital production, and it is receiving 500 submissions a month. He expects that to increase to 1,000 submissions a month by December. "Given the current state of the technology and the scale of growth, we break things," said Feldcamp. "But we apologize and we work to fix them. We have an ironclad refund policy. We're going to screw up and sometimes you're going to be perceived to screw up."
Feldcamp said, "I get a couple of e-mails a week from authors complaining about Xlibris. We have staff dedicated to dealing with this problem. You've got to give a damn, but given the number of submissions we receive, mistakes are a statistical event."
Volume 246 Issue 38 09/18/2000