by Pat Holt
Wednesday, September 22, 2004
OUTSOURCING AT XLIBRIS
My heart sank at the recent news of outsourcing problems at Xlibris, the print-on-demand publisher owned by Random House.
It's not just that Xlibris laid off 35 customer-service workers in Philadelphia and moved the jobs to the Philippines. Or that authors continue to complain about basic services at Xlibris.
It's rather that CEO John Feldcamp doesn't seem to care what it means when a *book publisher* - even a subsidy publisher like Xlibris - tries to quantify, automate and remove itself from its relationship with authors.
Feldcamp sees the whole thing as a no-brainer: As he explained to PW, workers in the Philippines are paid so low that Xlibris can "hire three times the number of customer-service people" than it could in the United States. Outsourcing thus allows Xlibris to cut its U.S. staff from 65 to 25, and increase the overseas staff from 50 to 220.
So this is quite a leap in quantity. But are the authors who are clients of Xlibris grateful?
No, the impatient louts. They want Xlibris's promises to be kept about routine business matters - you know, timetables, processes, schedules, quality. That can't be too much to ask. It's just that, as CEO Feldcamp acknowledged, problems do occur when you insert "a new team of people in new job."
Of course, deep down, the problem doesn't stem from outsourcing. The website at Xlibris.com offers jobs for people in "the writer-centric culture" who are interested in "mission-critical roles." So clearly Xlibris has been dealing with English as a Second Language for a long time.
Not to mention the Xlibris offer to help authors "finalize your manuscript." Such high standards for quality writing abound at Xlibris.
But here's the reason my heart sank. Xlibris sees nothing wrong with outsourcing, or with asking authors to be patient until the "new team of people" get their feet wet.
Feldcamp speaks as though we should all celebrate the low, low salaries of Philippines workers and rush to exploit them at the same time. After all, their standard of living hit the gutter by American standards so long ago that businesses like Xlibris are *helping* the economy by paying starvation wages.
This is the kind of logic that has aided the Wal-Marts, the Gaps, the K-Marts, the Nikes, and the Bush re-election effort (yes, our "buy American" President has outsourced his own campaign). Insisting they can't compete without outsourcing, these folks have contributed to the kind of horror stories we hear about children working for pennies who are chained to their machines and given a patch on the floor to sleep. These are not just slave wages but slave lifetimes, and they have been documented.
True, Xlibris seeks workers on the other end of the spectrum - trained customer service telecommunications agents in foreign countries who learn business English to answer American customers' questions. These hard workers may be the burgeoning middle class of countries like the Philippines, India, Russia, China or others in Southeast Asia.
Amazon uses them, Microsoft uses them, Bush's campaign has used them, so why not Xlibris?
I guess if Xlibris were one of these rag-tag ripoff vanity publishers that makes no bones about skimming the surface and betraying clients' trust, that would be one thing. But Xlibris is owned by Random House, which used to be a class outfit about such matters. Even in its empire-building days, Random House brought professional standards to publishing procedures that were consistent and dependable.
But now the message from Bertelsmann (German owner of Random House) to Xlibris and other Random House subsidiaries seems to be this: Make your profit quota any way you can. We don't care. Tell your authors to quit complaining until the system is ready. That way the customer service representative in the Philippines can understand what is being asked and can select an answer from the list provided. If the formula response does not satisfy, well, there's always the complaint department in Sri Lanka. (That last part I made up.)
Feldcamp implies that Xlibris can't compete with other companies without outsourcing, but that's by now an obsolete argument. Here's why:
Maybe Xlibris will learn a lesson from all this, though I doubt it. The company is now too big, too global, too sluggish, too pinned to old formulas to reverse itself or make adjustments quickly.
CALLING A 'PUBLISHING CONSULTANT' AT XLIBRIS
I wanted to see if authors' concerns were being listened to at Xlibris, so I called the number, (888) 795-4274, that Xlibris' website says will put authors in touch with "Publishing Consultants." To keep things simple, I decided to ask only about the company's latest offer to its author clients of "Free Marketing Services in September!"
The first operator said she was located in the Philippines and wanted to register me right away as a prospective author. When I declined, she asked for my home address so Xlibris could send me a kit. She was unable to answer questions about the Free Marketing Services, so she routed the call to another operator located in Philadelphia, the home base of Xlibris.
This person was the very "Publishing Consultant" advertised, and she did know about the Free Marketing Services. Depending on the publishing level at which the author signs up - "Basic," "Professional," "Custom" - these marketing services, she said, will send press releases to "media targets."
"That's it?" I said. "You send press releases?" I said. Well, it's more complicated than that, the woman said. The price list, for example, has three tiers. You could have the press release sent to:
"But people in the media get thousands of press releases all the time," I said. I thought I heard the Publishing Consultant murmur that this was true. "Do you offer any follow-up calls or other contact?" The Publishing Consultant said it would be "difficult" for the company to add that component.
Her tone suggested that I wasn't appreciating the benefits Xlibris offered, so she decided to explain that the value of these marketing services lies in the "algorithm search" Xlibris conducts within its "target media database." This means that if I were to write a religious book, I could ask for religious media targets only, or a mix of religious and general, within the number of press releases sent out.
I then asked why these "marketing services" aren't really just a mailing of press releases that most "media targets" will throw away. It's more than that, she said, because Xlibris *writes* the press release for the author.
So there you go. Xlibris offers "marketing services" that cost the author hundreds of dollars - pretending, to put it kindly, that a press release mailing will do the book any good.
Both operators on the phone were polite and attentive as they tried to get me to "commit" to Xlibris' many packages. The problem is that I have experienced more engaging relationships buying dog food over the phone.
True, catalog companies train their telemarketers to take your order and suggest other products you might not have thought of. They're out to take your money, of course, but you don't feel in most cases they're *pretending* that, say, dog food is a shared condo in Paris.
UPDATE ON #388
If you received a single block of type masquerading as issue #388 last time, please accept our apology. The entire staff insisted on outsourcing itself (their word for "vacation"), and I missed the "send as text" box when sending it out.
The gist of #388 is that media paralysis began way back in the Reagan administration and was made even more spineless by corporate ownership. That's one reason why so many are so weak about aggressively investigating the news today.
The heartbreaker this week reveals again that ironclad standards of professionalism are missing in even the best journalists of our time. Thus did "60 Minutes," which took an aggressive stance by reporting on the memos about George Bush's military service, ended up with egg on its face instead. For that, the astounding contrast between Bush and Kerry during Vietnam will probably be lost forever. What a shame.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Regarding PW's "bottom line" (a letter from Patricia Eakins in your August 26 issue regarding the cut-backs in poetry reviews, etc.), I wonder if eliminating the wonderful free distribution of PW Daily didn't hurt PW's (i.e. Reed's) bottom-line. I can't imagine that all former PW-Daily subscribers leapt on the "pay for our magazine or else no free newsletter" wagon. What do you think?
Robin K. Blum
Holt responds: I don't know if the two are connected, or what it would mean if they are. I do think all of us in the reviewing trade have to be determined to make space for every kind of literature, including and especially poetry. If we don't make deliberate efforts to do so, we'll lose the coverage and never get it back.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Do you have any thoughts for authors trying to come up with the perfect title for their book? Are there any tried-and-true exercises or formulae?
A Writer (in fact about a dozen writers have asked this question)
Holt responds: I think the rule of thumb goes something like this: If people have to read the book to understand the title, you're not there yet.
On the other hand, if the title gives a glimpse of what's inside and is compelling on its own - i.e., if it strikes a little nerve of curiosity so that people want to open the book to read more about what the title is hinting at - you've got a hot one.
A formula to consider: You may think the current crop of bestsellers does not tell the reader enough because their titles don't invite the reader in - they're cryptic and inbred, as in "The Da Vinci Code," "The Bourne Identity," or "The Rule of Four."
But these and others do share a proven formula: 1) They hint of the key to the mystery - a "code," a "rule," an "identity," an "index," a "candidate," a "dynasty," a "legacy," a "list," a "sanction," an exotic place or a number; and 2) they offer a classy name, such as "Da Vinci," "Bourne," "Bangkok," "Alien," "Manchurian," "Adrian Messenger" or "Eiger."
And here's a fascinating (to me) corollary: The same formula applies to diet books: 1) a classy name - "South Beach," "Dr. Atkins," "Beverly Hills," "Dr. Ornish," "Scarsdale," "Golden Door" "the Hamptons"; and 2) the key (or gimmick) element in the book: pineapple, meat, grapefruit, no salt, protein powder, water, no sugar, carbohydrates, seafood (Omega3).
Possible tip: I've heard that song lyrics offer a treasury of ideas for authors who are stuck on the title for a novel or general nonfiction book (like a memoir or biography). Be careful of clichs, of course. You don't want to use, say, "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain When She Comes," or "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," or "It Don't Mean a Thing" or "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" or "Blue Velvet," for example - too obvious, too schmaltzy, too specific.
But if you search within the lyrics for recognizable snippets, you might come up with something intriguing. "If It Ain't Got that Swing" could be an inviting title. So could "Bluer than Velvet," or "When a Lovely Flame Dies," or of course that great classic, "When I'm Driving in My Car" - okay, I'm kidding, but it's a way to kick around ideas.
I do think if you are an author entering the publishing process - i.e., if you are sending a query to an agent or submitting a manuscript to a publisher, you MUST, in this highly commercial era of publishing, be absolutely sure about the title. You have to LOVE it from the gut. If you're working on a manuscript and don't feel personally sold on the title, make a list of possibilities and try the best ones on people you don't know very well (not too many! they'll run when they see you coming). If *everyone* reacts to the title with surprise and delight, and an instant hunger to know more, you're on your way.
SOME PERSONAL THOUGHTS re Bad Title example: "The Bug in the Martin Olive" was a terrible title for a biography of a private detective. It's catchy but confusing. I get to say this because it was my book and I don't blame the publisher's committee for pouncing on it. My first title was "The Good Detective," which the marketing department thought was too bland, and they were right. So we all panicked and came up with something that sounded like insects in the gin, not exactly inviting.
Good Title example: At the Maui Writers Conference one year, it was suggested that my partner Terry Ryan had come up with an exemplary title for her memoir: "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less." Now here's a title that certainly spells things out - you don't have to read the book to understand it. But it's also a gamble: So much is conveyed by the title that readers may not give the book a chance. I wouldn't have thought, for example, that I'd be interested in a woman who won jingle contests in the 1950s and '60s - until I opened the book and read Page One. *Then* I was sold.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Since you have run schemes from publishers that turn out to be questionable in the past, I thought your readers might be interested in this short sectionfrom a contract that I was offered from a subsidy publisher (a publisher that is paid a fee by the author to print and otherwise contribute to the publishing process of a book):
"It is the intention of the Author and Publisher not to divulge any of the financial terms of this agreement unless both parties shall mutually agree to do so. The Author further agrees not to hinder or adversely interfere verbally or otherwise with the Publisher's efforts to market and distribute the Work; such hindrance includes, but is not limited to, disparagement of the publisher in any medium or format as to its procedures, abilities and intentions. Such activity on behalf of the Author may result in disruption or delay of the publication and release of the work or immediate withdrawal of the Work from distribution."
Somehow this reminded me of an illustration from "Oliver Twist." It depictsa cook beating a young lad with a ladle. The caption is: "Oliver Twist asks for more."
The "deal" I was offered was outrageous and made me wonderwhy an author with any kind of business sense would get involved with this particular "publisher." The last sentence sounds threatening, particularly in view of the facts that this subsidy publisher would have taken several thousand dollars up frontwith a promise to publish the book in abouttwo years, and apparently the company would have the power to hold the manuscript hostage for a considerable period. I didn't go for it.
Had everything else been right (which it wasn't), I would haveinsisted on puttingthe front money in my attorney's escrow account, to be promptly paid upon performance by the publisher. Using an arrangement like this with a subsidy publisher assures the publisher that author has the money, and assures the authorof performance. It may not be simple or easy to work out such an arrangement, but if you can, it provides some protection for everyone. In negotiating such an arrangement, it needn't be "no pay till completed." The publisher should be able to make reasonable draws from the escrow accountat agreed upon points in the production of the book. An arrangement like this encourages the publisher to perform, rather than reward procrastination by allowing the publisher to have a 2-plus-year interest-free loan at the author's expense.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Regarding your article last time, THE SECRET(S) BEHIND THOSE NEWSPAPER APOLOGIES ...AND ALL THOSE ANTI-BUSH BOOKS, I, too, remain amazed as what passes for journalism today, and all the "we're sorry" posturing has done little to appease me.
But I am wondering why, after doing such an in-depth analysis of political coverage, you chose to drop the ball when describing the chain of women's fitness franchises, "Curves," in your discussion about anti-choice funding and Curves founder Gary Heavin's million-dollar contributions against Planned Parenthood and for anti-choice groups (GET MAD AND FIGHT BACK: GLORIA FELDT'S 'WAR ON CHOICE').
No doubt, according to Curves International's website (http://www.buycurves.com/why-buy?c=us), Heavin's part of the membership money is a substantial chunk of change. He receives roughly a $29,000 fee for each franchise initiated (that is over $200 million), plus monthly fees between $195 go $795 per month per franchise. That is, at least, $14,000/month and could potentially be $56,000/month. Such a fortune aimed in the direction of women's right to choice is certainly reason enough to avoid Curves.
However, your column implied that women would be losing something important by losing Curves. This is where your analysis remains shallow. Yes, the mostly women-owners have invested substantial amounts of money into these gyms, and it would be a shame to undermine these women in the specific case.
Several personal trainers and women's gym operators I've interviewed over the past year tell me that, even if they stick with the program, most of the women using the Curves system will eventually reach a limit in terms of the benefits they receive from using the equipment. Muscles need variety, and they need to be tested a little harder each time, in order to become stronger. The Curves model will not achieve this.
That doesn't even take into consideration that most of the people who run Curves do not know how to teach proper use of the equipment. This means that many of their clientele will get injuries, which will discourage their continued training.
Finally, while giving lip service to inclusion of different body types, individual franchise owners have pushed weight loss in addition to exercise. This means that women are once again being told that they should seek a certain body type rather than fitness. Fitness is strength, flexibility, stamina and balance. The Curves model may make a few women feel good about themselves for a short period of time, but the long-term benefits are not supported.
The business model of the health club is simple: depend upon your members getting bored with, injured from or outgrowing the equipment you provide. Then, take their money anyway. The client feels guilty because she didn't have the "will power" to fight the boredom, play injured or keep doing something that doesn't provide any real benefit. So the client fulfills her contract without question. The club owner gets more money for essentially providing no service other than salving the guilt of members who tell themselves that someday they will be back. Curves has not offered any alternative to this model.
What Curves has done is essentially put women in the same place they've always been - worried about their body size above all other health considerations with little resources to become strong and physically fit and blaming themselves for their failure to measure up. If Curves has created the illusion of inclusion to this task, it is only because they hope to keep as many women as possible in their place.
If you want to feel bad about taking money away from women, then consider what Curves has done to the independent women's gyms across the country who cannot compete with the fast-food franchise model. A number of innovative, women-centered health clubs have failed in the wake of Heavin's model. Because they are truly women-centered, their members come to use the services offered. This means that such clubs have to provide services, instead of just taking their members' money and doing nothing. It makes the clubs more costly and the franchise model, in true capitalist fashion, undermines the market with an inferior product.
Heavin does not have women's interests in mind. Curves is just another door-to-door-cosmetics, cooking-party, plastic-storage-wear-party or pyramid-scheme-cleaning-product method of making women rich. It's okay to be wealthy as long as you stay in the kitchen, the home or the oppressive mindset of worrying about your body instead of the more important things like how journalism has become the propaganda machine of the state. Seven thousand women gain financial security while their clientele are given a circuit of standardized exercises without properly trained supervision that will do little in the end to strengthen their bodies. I want women to be empowered, not simply feel good about themselves. I had a sense that you agreed with that assessment until your discussion of Curves.
Quit Curves. Encourage a truly women's centered gym to open in your area. Maybe the Curves women could take their franchise profits and start a real revolution where women of all sizes are honored and strengthened by the joys of movement and the clear mind of someone who gets enough to eat and enough sleep. Now that would be powerful indeed.
Pattie Thomas, Ph.D.
Holt responds: Wow! I haven't seen such a heavy-handed blast against chains since the early days of Holt Uncensored! You certainly do raise an important point about Curves that I missed - this kind of one-system-fits-all circuit training eventually isn't enough for many people (it wasn't for me). But you also seem to miss the fact that for many women this exercise *is* enough and that for very overweight clients who seek fitness training and help with weight control, Curves offers a sensible program - not as innovative or customized as you might wish, but hardly as "boring" or injury-prone as you've suggested. Perhaps one has to sign up and experience this kind of circuit-training for several months to see that it ain't no Tupperware party, the trainers are knowledgeable, the franchise owners hardly get "rich" and many women do feel empowered by it. And finally: Is Curves bad *because* it is a chain? In the sense that independent women's gyms may have closed because of Curves (or never opened), of course it is: As customers, we all want to have more options than any chain-dominated market allows. Still, what makes Curves stand out among all the chains is that founder Gary Heavins uses the millions he makes from women customers to stop other women from exercising their Constitutionally protected right of choice about unwanted pregnancy.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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