Writing is a glamorous occupation – at least from the outside. Popular depictions of our profession tend to leave out all the other stuff that comes with the territory: carpal tunnel syndrome, liver failure, penury, and madness.
Okay, okay, I jest. I love being a writer. Sharing stories with the world and getting paid for it is bloody brilliant. It’s a dream job, and like any profession with a horde of neophytes seeking to break in, there are plenty of sharks waiting to chew them to bits.
Publishing is a screwed up business. The often labyrinthine path to success makes it much easier for those with nefarious intentions to scam the unsuspecting. But it doesn’t help that so many organizations who claim to help writers, to respect them, to assist them along the path to publication are actually screwing them over.
Before the digital revolution made self-publishing viable on a wide scale, the dividing lines were easier to spot. Traditional publishers paid you if they wanted to buy the rights to your novel. Self-publishers were people who filled their garages with books and tried to hawk them at events. And vanity presses were the scammers, luring the unsuspecting with false promises and roundly condemned by self-publishers and traditional publishers alike.
Today it’s very different. The scammy vanity presses are owned by traditional publishers who are marketing them as the “easy” way to self-publish – when it’s nothing more than a horrifically expensive and terribly ineffective way to publish your work, guaranteed to kill your book’s chance of success stone dead, while emptying your bank account in the process.
Some of you might think: hey, it’s just business. Caveat emptor and all that. And don’t these people know how to use Google?
That’s easy to say from our position of experience. Do you remember how naive you were at the start? Do you remember just how badly you wanted to get published? Do you remember the crushing grind of the query-go-round?
I’m not surprised people get scammed. When you want something so badly, and you can’t seem to make progress towards that goal – no matter how hard you work – you start to go crazy. You get desperate.
And it’s much harder to tell the scammers from the legitimate organizations when they are owned by the same people.
Take Penguin-owned Author Solutions, one of the worst vanity presses out there. Here’s how they hoodwink inexperienced writers into using their horribly expensive service.
If you Google a term like “find a publisher” the results are littered with sites like FindYourPublisher.com (which I’m not going to link to because that will help their SEO, but you can cut-and-paste that address).
The website purports to be an independent resource, helping to pair you with the most suitable publishing company. Or as they put it:
dedicated to helping both first-time and experienced authors identify the most suitable indie book publishing company for their book. With the information you provide about your book and goals, FYP makes a recommendation as to which indie book publisher has the best publishing package to help you reach your publishing objectives.
Below this message is an online questionnaire asking you about your book. When you have completed that and handed over your phone number, the site makes a recommendation based on your answers.
Except the only companies recommended are Trafford, AuthorHouse, Xlibris, and iUniverse – all of which are scammy vanity presses, all owned by Author Solutions. And, fitting with the rest of the pattern, FindYourPublisher.com is just one of many (many!) such sites owned and operated by Author Solutions, purporting to make independent recommendations, but only recommending Author Solutions companies.
I have sympathy for those hoodwinked by awful companies like Author Solutions. The dividing lines aren’t as obvious as they were. And inexperienced writers naively assume that a company like Penguin has their best interests at heart. Maybe it’s the cuddly logo.
Newsflash: Penguin doesn’t care about writers
When Penguin bought the world’s biggest vanity press for $116m last July, many people in the publishing business gave them a pass. They claimed that Penguin would clean up the cesspool. But instead Author Solutions CEO Kevin Weiss was given a seat on the Penguin board.
A seat on the board!
Emily Suess wrote an excellent guest post here back in February, detailing how the slick Author Solutions scam hadn’t changed one bit since the Penguin takeover.
It’s now almost a year since Penguin bought the company (instead of buying, say, Goodreads, but I digress). It should be clear to everyone now that Penguin has no intention of changing Author Solutions’ scammy approach. In fact, Penguin just announced plans to take the scam global.
Penguin has been looking under the Author Solutions hood for 10 months now. Its conclusion was this: we can make this bigger. We can take this scam on the road and start exploiting writers all over the planet.
And Penguin is still getting a pass for this crap.
The Penguin Omerta
The Publishers Weekly piece on Penguin’s aggressive expansion plans for Author Solutions makes no mention of the company being a universally reviled vanity press that has cheated 150,000 writers out of their savings.
This is something I’ve been noticing for a while, and Publishers Weekly isn’t alone. The pieces in The Bookseller, GalleyCat, and Digital Book World also make no mention of the widespread criticism that Author Solutions has attracted, nor do they mention that the company is currently the subject of a class action suit for their deceptive practices.
More disturbingly, my comment pointing this out appears to have been scrubbed from The Bookseller, is stuck in the moderation queue on Digital Book World’s piece (despite explicitly stating that they had posted it).
The reaction at the London Book Fair was similar. No-one from traditional publishing wanted to talk about Penguin’s ownership of Author Solutions. No-one wants to talk about how a supposedly legitimate publisher now owns the most successful author scamming organization on the planet.
These guys are probably taking their cue from the New York Times, who won’t mention anything remotely critical about Author Solutions, but are happy to spend lots of time showing them in a positive light (like here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).
The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has done sterling work over the years warning writers away from people like Author Solutions both on their own site, and through their industry watchdog Writer Beware.
However, I would love to see them go one step further.
Remember those awful Random House digital-first imprints? Public pressure forced Random House to change the horribly one-sided terms it was offering writers. That result was achieved after Writer Beware blogged about it, SFWA president John Scalzi followed up, and SFWA itself threatened to de-list Random House as a qualifying market.
What Author Solutions is doing to writers is far, far worse.
Isn’t it time to do something about this? Isn’t it time to threaten to de-list Penguin as a qualifying market if they don’t clean up Author Solutions?
Hands Up If You Don’t Own A Vanity Press
There’s only one problem with this approach. Where do you stop? Because you would have to threaten to do the same with all these guys too:
2. Harper Collins-owned Thomas Nelson have their own crappy vanity operation called West Bow Press – also “powered” by Author Solutions.
3. Harlequin, never afraid to turn down a penny, jumped in the game a few years ago. Author Solutions provided the white-label vanity operation for them.
4. Showing that it’s not just the larger publishers, Hay House contracted Author Solutions to set up Balboa Press – another scammy, crappy, overpriced vanity press.
If it was down to me, I would threaten to de-list all these guys until they cleaned house, but Penguin would be a good start, given they (a) it all comes back to Author Solutions, (b) Penguin owns Author Solutions, (c) Penguin has shown no interest in addressing concerns, and (d) Penguin is planning a massive expansion of the Author Solutions scam.
Writers Digest & Lulu
I’m sure Digital Book World’s reluctance to mention the problems with Author Solutions has nothing to do with the fact that they are owned by F+W Media, which also owns yet another crappy vanity press – Abbot Press (which has some of the worst prices out there).
In a refreshing change of pace, this crappy vanity press is not actually powered by Author Solutions. Abbot Press is a division of Writers Digest. Yes, that Writers Digest.
If that catches you by surprise, I’m sorry to say that Writers Digest went over to the dark side a few years back, and now spam their subscribers with crap like this.
I’m sure Author Solutions was disappointed to miss out on that deal but at least they can console themselves with the new partnership they struck with Lulu last month to provide premium (i.e. overpriced and ineffective) marketing services to Lulu customers.
That’s right. Lulu made a deal with the devil.
How Can We Fight Back?
Penguin think they can continue to ride out the storm, ignoring the criticism and collecting their ill-gotten gains, but if we make enough noise, they will have to respond. That starts with sharing this post, or, even better, blogging about it yourself.
But it also means reaching out to inexperienced writers and trying to steer them away from these crooks. We need to get the message out that self-publishing is not the impossible task it’s painted as. Sarah Woodbury has a helpful post on the basics here, and I have another here. Feel free to point newbies to them, or write your own.
Each time you see an article talking about Author Solutions and not mentioning all the issues, comment underneath and call them on it. Even if the media don’t change their one-eyed approach, readers will see the comments.
If you’re a member of a writers organization like SFWA, RWA, or MWA, ask what they are doing about Penguin. Ask them why they haven’t threatened to de-list Penguin. And keep pressing them! The SFWA (and the RWA) were really strong in response to Random House. We need the same from them again.
150,000 writers have been screwed over already. I think that’s enough. Don’t you?
CORRECTION: Abbott Press (the Writers Digest vanity press) shares the same address as Author Solutions so I think it’s safe to assume it’s being run by them. The packages are all quite similar, as is the marketing. Indeed, Emily Suess names Abbot Press as being powered by Author Solutions (scroll down to bottom). More profit for Penguin! Hooray!
UPDATE (Weds May 8): The editor of The Bookseller has made a wishy washy defence of his reasons for deleting my comment criticizing them for their whitewash of Penguin and Author Solutions (here, scroll down). You can see my response below that.
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