How The London Book Fair Helps Vanity Presses Exploit Newbie Authors

londonbookfairThe most prestigious event in the UK publishing calendar, the London Book Fair, welcomes predatory operators with open arms, deliberately positions them opposite author events for extra cash, and then helps to whitewash their reputation – even running misleading interviews and puff pieces on its own website to help them get more leads.

I’ve been campaigning against vanity presses and author exploitation for five years now, and one thing that became apparent is the key role of book fairs and industry events in this mess.

Vanity presses are always keen to appear at these events because it:

  • lends their seamy enterprise an air of legitimacy to inexperienced authors who don’t know better;
  • gives them direct access to a pool of newbie writers attending the events; and,
  • creates an opportunity to sell various products to their users such as book signing services and book display packages costing thousands of dollars.

I’ve written previously for the Alliance of Independent Authors about how worthless book display services are a lucrative part of these events, and how they are mis-sold to inexperienced writers.

I’ve also written here about how book signing scams are a major source of income for vanity presses like Author Solutions (and a major source of heartache for the authors paying thousands of dollars and seeing little in return). While these articles have created awareness, not one of these events has taken action.

We aren’t talking about fly-by-night operators here – these are established, prestigious events like the Miami Book Fair or the LA Times Festival of Books. Most shockingly of all, the London Book Fair goes further than any of them.

On Tuesday, I wrote about a despicable trend: UK vanity presses who are shamelessly passing themselves off as legitimate trade publishers and only hitting authors with the news that they have to pay-to-play, and the (considerable) bill, when it comes to signing contracts.

One of the comments to that piece was particularly worrying:

Austin Macauley had a booth at LBF last year right in front of the Author HQ (I know, why would the good folks at LBF turn down a vanity publisher’s money, eh?), with one “publisher”, and 3, well… we decided to call them “booth babes”, holding a bunch of flyers and handing them to every passer by.

They basically combine all the cliches of a dodgy business — but the problem is that a lot of people will fall for these, and places like LBF keep putting them front and centre in their “self-publishing HQ.”

I was at the London Book Fair in 2013. The Author HQ is, like the name suggests, the focal point for writers at an event which is more geared towards publishers (and those providing services to publishers). Most of the author-focused events take place in that HQ area, and the passageways around it are where writers generally congregate. It’s probably the most heavily trafficked part of the fair (aside from the agents’ champagne bar).

And that’s where the organizers of the London Book Fair put vanity press Austin Macauley – the same one I wrote about on Tuesday which is masquerading as a trade publisher.

Could this have been an accident? Continue reading

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UK Vanity Publishers Austin Macauley & Pegasus in Horrible Bait-And-Switch

austinmacauleyA number of UK-based vanity presses are engaging in unsavory tactics: passing themselves off as trade publishers and only hitting writers with the bill when it comes to contracts.

I moved back home recently and started being assailed by all sorts of seamy ads aimed at writers in the UK/Irish market. One of the most widely advertised is a vanity press called Austin Macauley (I’m not linking to them and boosting their SEO, here’s a link to a Google search instead).

The basic MO is to pass themselves off as a regular publisher – right down to having commissioning editors, submission guidelines, the works – when they are really what the industry refers to as a subsidy press.

A subsidy press is generally defined as a publisher which requires its authors to make a “contribution” towards the publishing costs of the book. In practice, subsidy presses are simply vanity presses who are not being upfront about the fact that authors must pay to publish – and that the author is usually covering all of the costs (and then some) rather than making a contribution of some sort.

They often don’t publicize the costs involved on their website, they generally operate completely in the dark without any transparency whatsoever, and they usually respond furiously when someone calls them on their underhanded behavior. And because they operate without any real oversight, they get far less attention than the likes of Author Solutions. But their business model hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Here is a 25-page thread on AbsoluteWrite warning about Austin Macauley. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has included them on its “Thumbs Down” list of publishers to avoid. Jane Smith at How Publishing Really Works warned about Austin Macauley back in 2008 (and was threatened with legal action). And Victoria Strauss (of the leading watchdog group Writer Beware) has repeatedly warned about the company’s practices. Continue reading

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This Is The Modern Publishing Business

asandfriendsnewScammers used to operate at the edges of the publishing business, but have wormed their way into its heart. And the entire industry is in denial.

An unintentionally revealing aspect of the tiresome Amazon-Hachette dispute was a series of statements from an organization purporting to advocate for authors’ rights. One of the heinous crimes Amazon was said to have committed was treating books like toasters.

With such a claim, Authors United was attempting to tap into a current of feeling about the commoditization of literature – as if Amazon was the first company to put a price tag on a book, and writers around the country were hitherto living off laurels and kudos. It’s tempting to suggest that other entities in the publishing business might be doing as well as Amazon if they also treated books like toasters and attempted to sell the bloody things, but I digress.

What this characterization by Authors United highlighted was that most precious of things: how the industry likes to view itself. Publishing, you see, is far above the rough and tumble of everyday capitalism. Publishers may make profits now and then, but only as an accidental by-product of their true pursuit: the promotion of literature. Without publishers there would be no books, of course, and we should thank the heavens that an eagle-eyed intern plucked Beowulf from a slushpile or the world would be very much the poorer. Continue reading

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Book Launch: LIBERTY BOY

LibertyBoyCoverNew release time!

LIBERTY BOY is available now for $3.99 from Amazon US | UK | CA (and all the rest too).

It’s the first book in a new series, and the first I’ve set in my home country of Ireland – specifically, in the aftermath of Robert Emmet’s failed 1803 Rising.

The wonderful cover was done by my very talented sister – Kate Gaughran – and a huge thanks to her for that.

Before I get into the background, here’s what Liberty Boy is about:

Dublin has been on a knife-edge since the failed rebellion in July, and Jimmy O’Flaherty suspects a newcomer to The Liberties–Kitty Doyle–is mixed up in it. She accuses him of spying for the English, and he thinks she’s a reckless troublemaker.

All Jimmy wants is to earn enough coin to buy passage to America. But when the English turn his trading patch into a gallows, Jimmy finds himself drawn into the very conflict he’s spent his whole life avoiding.

Continue reading

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Let’s Get Digital Is Free. Maybe Forever?


FREE at Amazon | Apple | B&N | Kobo

I first published Let’s Get Digital in July 2011, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and then released a (much) revamped and updated version in September 2014.

Combined, both editions have sold well over 25,000 copies at this point, which is about 24,000 copies more than I ever hoped. So my sincere thanks to all of you for that – particularly the generous authors who contributed to the book and the army of writers recommending it to others.

Speaking of which, a friend told me the other day that she was grateful I’d written the book because it gives her a quick and easy way to answer emails from newbs.

Well, let me tell you, I’m totally fine with monetizing other people’s laziness. If I could monetize my own laziness I’d be richer than Croesus (one of the original investors in Facebook).

I know they are ten-a-penny now but back in 2011 there weren’t so many self-publishing guides. There was lots of great advice online, albeit scattered across a hundred different websites. I had the time to sift through all this stuff. I’d just moved to Sweden. I was at a loose end (we’ll just skip very quickly over that neat euphemism for being unemployed). And I figured it might be useful to pull all that advice together and organize it in a way that was accessible and useful for a newbie.

Like me.

You see, I was very wet behind the ears when I wrote Let’s Get Digital. I had only sold maybe 150 books – there are no zeroes missing there, people – and I’d only published a few short stories. While I had been writing for a few years, I’d only written a couple of novels. And even that paltry output sounds better than the actuality because one was permanently trunked and the other still a draft or two away from being ready.

In other words, I was hardly a grizzled veteran. But I wasn’t bringing nothing to the table. I had been studying the market for a while, taking in the changes that were starting to ripple through the industry. Plus I’d seen this movie before and knew how it ended.

When I was working at Google (more than ten years ago now), I saw industry after industry get disrupted by the internet. Each of them thought they were special, that they had insider knowledge or uniquely valuable skills that couldn’t possibly be disintermediated by a mere website or replicated by some kind of plebian crowd wisdom. It amazed me that one industry couldn’t learn from the other. Travel, retail, financial services, insurance, newspapers, telecoms – they were all disrupted at different times but they all made the same key mistake of underestimating the threat that digital posed. Continue reading

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KU Scammers Attack Amazon’s Free Ebook Charts

freescamLast month, Amazon was caught up in a crisis at least partly of its own making when bungled attempts to deal with a growing Kindle Unlimited scammer problem resulted in the sanctioning of innocent authors.

Amazon has since apologized, and has also pledged to beef up its response to the KU scamming mess – but questions very much remain about whether Amazon is taking the problem seriously enough. A quick check shows that some of the main scammers are still operating, under the very same author names and book titles that were reported to Amazon in late February and early March. Which is very disappointing.

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with Phoenix Sullivan about the problem and she told me about something else she was witnessing – scammers taking over the free charts in the Kindle Store. I could see what she was describing and invited her to share the story here. But first, Phoenix wanted to give KDP an opportunity to take action.

You can guess how that went.

If you unfamiliar with Phoenix, she wears multiple hats: author, self-publisher, and publisher, as well as a very smart marketer and someone with a peerless understanding of Amazon’s systems and the various algorithms that power its recommendation engine.

Here’s Phoenix Sullivan with more:

KU Scammers Attack Amazon’s Free Ebook Charts

Over the Easter weekend, I was watching a carefully orchestrated promotional campaign of Steel Magnolia Press titles. By design, we’re back down to just the original founders of the micropress—Jennifer Blake and myself, with a couple of pen names and about 75 titles between us. Our catalog is currently exclusive to Amazon, meaning we’re all-in in Select and KU. Our promotions are planned to optimize visibility via a mix of Free and Countdown Deals and keep our back and front list afloat for a few weeks, then rinse and repeat.

For our Easter weekend promotion, we had 12 books sharing an ad budget of about $1300. Of that, $365 was allocated to our anchor ad—a BookBub placement for a free box of 3 of Jennifer’s backlist romances. Things were trundling along as expected on Saturday, and the anchor title hit #2 on the freebie list late afternoon. So far, so good.

But a curious thing was happening further up the Top 100 Free list. Two other free books of ours seemed to be garnering enough downloads for ranks that would put them in the Top 100, but they were sitting just outside that visibility. In fact, during the early evening, one of those titles lost a rank. Yes, a single rank, but at #107 with a good history of increasing downloads behind it, that was very telling movement.

Additionally, we had another book in the Top 100 that seemed stalled in the #70s despite increasing downloads that day. Continue reading

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Amazon Takes Aim At Scammers But Hits Authors

kuNOTE: There are numerous updates at the bottom of this article, including responses from Amazon – the latest update being from March 31 as this story continues to develop.

The short version is that Amazon has apologized for incorrect enforcement around TOCs and Quality Notices and stated you may now have a rear TOC without fear of removal. Amazon also said it is taking the scamming problem seriously. I have doubts about that, but you can make your own mind up…

Amazon is an extremely innovative company – and usually quite responsive to self-publisher’s concerns – but sometimes it gets things very wrong too.

Today is one of those times.

I’ve received several reports from writers threatened with having books removed from sale, and heard even more worrying stories from others who had their titles actually removed from the Kindle Store without notice.

What were these authors guilty of? What crime did they commit for Amazon to adopt such heavy handed treatment? Something completely innocuous: the Table of Contents was at the rear of their books instead of at the front.

Yep, that’s it.

We’ll get to what might be the root cause of this crackdown in a moment, but Amazon is claiming that having a TOC in the end-matter instead of the front-matter is a breach of the (ever-changing, 100+ pages) Kindle Publishing Guidelines (PDF). Amazon says that rear TOCs result in a poor reader experience, and it has very suddenly decided to clamp down heavily on this practice, without notifying the community-at-large, even though moving extraneous front-matter to the end of the text has been fairly standard practice for years.

Some individual authors are receiving Quality Notices warning them that their title will be removed from sale unless the TOC is moved to the front. Normally these notices – which appear to be generated by bots – give us just five days to comply. Other writers are having their buy buttons removed without receiving these notices.

To give you an idea of how disruptive this can be, read the story of author Walter Jon Williams – who had his Nebula-nominated SF novel Metropolitan removed from sale during a BookBub promotion. Can you imagine?

His buy button was eventually restored a few days later, but Amazon wasn’t finished. After he moved his TOC to the front of the book and uploaded the new version, Amazon then sent an email to all previous purchasers of the book saying that the author had now corrected serious formatting and editorial issues. Walter Jon Williams said that there were no such issues with this book – which has been on sale in one form or another since 2005 when it was originally published by HarperCollins – and the sole change he made was to move the TOC, as requested.

Needless to say, he’s not too happy at this message going out to his readers. (I should say that the author has been remarkably restrained considering the circumstances, I would be hulk-smashing in all directions.)

Metropolitancover7001Note: I don’t know Walter Jon Williams but I’m sure he won’t mind if you would like to show your support by grabbing Metropolitan at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple or Kobo.

Metropolitan is currently #10,436 in the Kindle Store. But, after a BookBub promo, his book should be much higher in the charts than that. Because of the way parts of the Amazon recommendation engine work (such as what is colloquially known as the Popularity List), being off sale for those several days could continue to depress his Sales Rank and his general Kindle Store visibility for some time to come. Continue reading

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