A 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.
Austin Macauley are far from the only ones. This bait-and-switch seems to be increasingly popular among vanity presses, especially in the UK right now, and it usually plays out the exact same way.
And I have the correspondence to prove it.
I was at a conference in York this month and met a writer who was considering self-publishing. She emailed me afterwards for advice, wanting to know if UK-based vanity/subsidy press called Pegasus (aka the UK-based Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie Ltd., not the various US-based companies called Pegasus – here’s a Google search with them up top) was legitimate and I was able to warn her away. She kindly passed on her correspondence with them, and her “publishing contract,” and allowed me to share the details with you to help prevent further victims.
Like Austin Macauley, Pegasus is not remotely upfront that it is a pay-to-play operation, and goes to great lengths to make inexperienced writers think that they are dealing with a regular trade publisher. And, just like Austin Macauley, the internet is filled with complaints from writers that were hoodwinked.
Pegasus and Austin Macauley seem to have very a very similar history. Pegasus also appears on the SFWA’s “Thumbs Down” list, also have a complaint-filled warning thread on Absolute Write, as well as writers who regularly cover vanity presses like Mick Rooney. They also have been doing this for several years now – and getting away with it.
But what really takes your breath away is seeing how disingenuous these guys are in practice. I’m going to print the whole email chain here (with the author’s name and any identifying information removed) so you can see for yourself. Click any of the images to make them bigger.
You will see this email is signed by someone claiming to be “Andrew Smith, Assistant Editor” (if he is a real person, has left a remarkably small footprint on the internet). “Mr. Smith” is responding to the author’s submission, and is now requesting the full manuscript.
You will see that no fees are mentioned at this point. And if you remember back to when you were a querying author, you will also know how excited you would have gotten here. The dream moves one step closer!
Once the author submitted her MS, she received an acknowledgement from “Suzanne Mulvey, Commissioning Editor” – even the supposed job titles are designed to give the impression of legitimacy, as is the cruel reference to a “publishing board” (when I strongly suspect these guys publish pretty much everything from anyone willing to pay).
The author will be on tenterhooks at this point – the dream is almost within their grasp. A real publisher might actually publish their book!
The “commissioning editor” presented her book to the “publishing board” and it was accepted. The author is probably dizzy with excitement at this point.
This is real. It’s actually happening. There’s even a contract attached. These guys don’t hang around…
But, wait. What’s this? “I would like to offer you one of our inclusive contracts.” Inclusive is good, right?
“This type of contract requires a share of the production costs to be provided by the author but is otherwise no different to our traditional contracts.”
This is particularly slimy. They wait until the writer is completely on the hook, then they hit them – for the very first time in this whole 2-month process – with the information that the writer has to pay to publish. And we aren’t talking pennies either here. £2,500 (around $3,300) makes it one of the most expensive ways to get your book out there.
“Particular attention should be paid to clauses 14 – 16. These clauses cover marketing and promotion as well as the contribution figure. As you can see royalties and subsidiary rights have been enhanced to reflect your contribution towards production costs.”
I would hate to see the terms before they were “enhanced” because they are simply awful. Here is the clause on “Advances” which has the concept of an advance backwards and is asking the author to pay £2,500.
It takes some serious stones to put in the following two clauses when the author is already paying thousands to publish.
Yeah, that’s just 50% on *net* (meaning you are getting only 35% of the sale price on Amazon as opposed to double that if you go to KDP yourself).
But they are also grabbing 50% of your foreign rights, your anthology rights, your reproduction rights, even your goddamn movie rights! This isn’t double-dipping in someone’s wallet, it’s driving them into the mountains and chaining them to the wall until their bank account is empty.
They aren’t done either. There’s an option clause demanding first refusal on the author’s next two books. Which is unreal. I’m not a lawyer, but I suspect that option clause wouldn’t stand up in court – but the likes of Pegasus and Austin Macauley are probably banking on people not taking it to court or even consulting a lawyer.
And it all gets even more disturbing when you realize who these guys are targeting, and how. Vanity presses are famous for preying on the vulnerable and the inexperienced; the ad on the right was spotted by a friend on a mental health advice site. Nice touch, guys.
It would be great if we could get the industry to do something about this kind of thing. But I guess the main problem with that is that they have their snouts in the same trough.
Until next time and, please, spread the word.
UPDATE (Sept 20):
These comments didn’t come in by the time the above was posted but are worth highlighting now. I asked the author who provided the correspondence above whether she had any idea that Pegasus would demand payment to publish her book, and how she felt when they demanded all that money.
I was not aware that they would ask for any money. I submitted my work to what I thought was a traditional publisher looking for new writers. I was completely gutted when they asked me to pay. I had spent two weeks awaiting their response.
Once I carried out some research and realised they were a vanity publisher I felt so deflated and somewhat cheated. I do worry for people who do hand over money.