Macmillan’s Pronoun Self-Publishing Platform Signs Off

In News by Porter Anderson

Acquired by Macmillan last year, Pronoun was a no-cost-to-authors self-publishing platform developed from Vook. Information about its closure provides guidance for authors to export their files from the service.

Image – iStockphoto: Antonio Guillem

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Pronoun’s Story Ends Here’

Some eyebrows were raised in the spring of 2016 when Macmillan bought Pronoun. And today (November 6), the trade publisher has announced that it’s closing the self-publishing platform.

“We are proud of the product we built,” the publishing house says in an “Epilogue” posted on the home page of the site, “but even more so, we’re grateful for the community of authors that made it grow. Your feedback shaped Pronoun’s development, and together we changed the way authors connect with readers.”

The statement doesn’t elaborate on how Pronoun is deemed to have “changed the way authors connect with readers.” And its message is sobering: “Unfortunately, Pronoun’s story ends here.”

The statement avoids any clear explanation of why the Pronoun is being shut down. “While many challenges in indie publishing remain unsolved,” the statement reads, “Macmillan is unable to continue Pronoun’s operation in its current form. Every option was considered before making the very difficult decision to end the business.”

Users are offered an FAQ with information on how authors’ books and accounts will be handled.

Pronoun: Originally Vook

Pronoun had a relatively unusual pathway to its eventual demise. As Publishers Weekly’s Calvin Reid wrote in May 2016, the self-publishing platform had been created as Vook, “one of the early ebook and multimedia technology producers in the business.” Vook specialized in combining electronic elements for storytelling such as video and social-media links with text.

In 2014, Vook also developed a sales-tracking revenue dashboard for authors called AuthorControl, and was said at the time to be supplying book-publishing software services to several news-media corporations.

In May 2015, as Reid recounted, Pronoun had been launched as a new evocation of Vook. And along the way, Vook had at times been in acquisitions mode, Reid wrote, buying “Booklr (a data analysis service for e-book sales founded by Brody), Byliner (a literary e-book publisher), and Coliloquy (a choose-your-own-adventure platform using enhanced e-books and apps).”

As Pronoun CEO Josh Brody told Reid, “We tried to create a company that would be transformational and would serve authors. You reach a point where you know you can’t do it all by yourself, and you need advisors and resources. So it makes sense to be a part of a traditional house.”

Last summer (June 2016), the Alliance of Independent Authors’ John Doppler appraised Pronoun under Macmillan’s ownership as part of ALLi’s “Self-Publishing Services Watchdog Reports” for authors. The outlook then was cautious optimism. The indie author service organization’s outlook was bullish on the fact that Macmillan had not partnered with a vanity press to create a self-publishing division as some publishers had done.

What’s more, Pronoun was assessed by many in the self-publishing community (as by Doppler in an earlier ALLi review) as a fairly simple interface for ebook creation by comparison to the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) system.

And yet, there was at times a community-wide hesitation around the platform because it charged nothing. Authors retained their rights and 100 percent of a retailer’s net payment–no cut to Pronoun. Doppler wrote in that earlier review that Pronoun’s services were free to authors because the company had $3.5 million in venture capital funding from Avalon Ventures and revenue from “its not-insubstantial legacy business.” Future revenue, he wrote, would come from “voluntary partnerships with high-performing authors. These authors may be invited to publish through Pronoun’s traditional imprints, giving up a share of royalties for enhanced services.”

Of course, the heady success of some self-publishing authors in the early days of the Kindle ecosystem has been less frequently seen in recent years. If Pronoun was anticipating partnerships with “indie bestsellers” as some of the best known outliers were known (Barbara Freethy, Bella Andre, Jasinda Wilder, Hugh Howey, Holly Ward, and others), it may have found that fewer of those high-earning chart-toppers were being generated in an increasingly competitive market.

Some in the industry have speculated that Pronoun’s value to Macmillan lay in data collection. Indeed, the company’s farewell note includes the line, “We believed that the power of data could be harnessed for smarter book publishing, leveling the playing field for indie authors.”

And Pronoun spokeswoman Allison Horton was quoted by Doppler last year saying an ambitious thing for a company about to be bought by a Big Five trade publisher: “Pronoun’s goal is to make indie publishing so successful that it becomes the predominant way great books are published.” That’s a vision that won’t be realized by the Pronoun platform, it turns out.

The company’s shutdown message concludes: “Thank you for the time and attention you’ve contributed to this experience. It has been a privilege to publish together, and we look forward to meeting again. #keepwriting”

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.