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?

I called the London Book Fair this morning posing as a potential exhibitor called Arthur Kerr (sorry, couldn’t help it). Actually, the person I dealt with so nice and helpful that I felt terrible for the subterfuge, but I needed to establish some key points:

  1. It costs more to exhibit near the Author HQ, especially directly opposite same.
  2. Part of the deal (costing several thousand pounds) is a marketing package which includes “lead generation” – marketing speak for “we will deliver even more authors into your clutches.”
  3. No vetting whatsoever is done of exhibitors – even those who explicitly state they are engaged in author services and wish to take a stand directly opposite Author HQ. There were more questions about how many chairs I would like than what my “company” actually did (a big fat zero on the latter).

You might have guessed all of this already, but it was good to get it confirmed: the London Book Fair has absolutely no problem with exploitative author services being positioned where most writers will congregate.

Not only that, but the London Book Fair will also directly assist in whitewashing your reputation. Here is an interview with Austin Macauley conducted by the London Book Fair and hosted on their site, where they breathlessly describe them as “an energetic and imaginative independent trade publisher.”

Imaginative is one word for it.

I’m sure many of you are angry about this – and you have every right to be. This is the leading event of the UK publishing industry, and one of the most prestigious in the world. And the London Book Fair is not just allowing these guys to appear, but it’s actively generating leads for exploitative services, and directly engaging in PR efforts on their behalf to make them seem like legitimate publishers.

And it has to stop.

Here’s my proposal: the London Book Fair must immediately ban exploitative vanity presses and author services from appearing at its events. It has to end the practice of profiting from these predatory operators which are causing untold misery to authors across the UK.

Organizations like the Society of Authors should immediately back this call. If they can’t protect the most vulnerable writers from the worst of the worst, what’s the bloody point?

This is down to us authors. We can’t expect the publishing establishment to help us. Over 25,000 publishing professionals attend the London Book Fair every goddamn year and say nothing about this seedy crap.

Before I sign off, I’d like to deal with some reasonable objections that came up on Twitter when I floated this idea yesterday – primarily all variations on a theme. Namely, how do you define a vanity press or exploitative service? Where do you draw the line?

Well, if there is general agreement in principle that shady operators should be banned then working out the rest is just details. I’m skeptical the appetite is genuinely there, but I’ll play along.

I see two possible approaches:

  1. Start with the very worst operators and work from there. I’m sure that we (i.e. people like myself, Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware, Mick Rooney, the SFWA, and Orna Ross & the Watchdog team at the Alliance of Independent Authors) could easily come up with a solid list to start with – which I imagine would comprise of people like Archway, Tate, Austin Macauley, AuthorHouse, Xlibris, Balboa Press, Partridge, America Star Books (formerly PublishAmerica), Strategic, Trafford, Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie, iUniverse etc.
  2. Alternatively, hammer out a working definition of a vanity press/exploitative service. Potential starting point: is this service making money with authors or from authors? If that all feels a bit loose, the Alliance of Independent Authors have put an incredible amount of work into a comprehensive scoring system for vanity presses/self-publishing platforms/author services which I’m sure they would be happy to share.

This problem can be solved – you just have to want to solve it.

I’ll leave you with this thought: vanity publishing and associated predatory services are generally assumed to be at the fringes of the industry. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The deeper I dig – five years of this, let me remind you – proves that these guys are central to the industry, and that whole swathes of the publishing establishment is geared towards separating inexperienced writers from their money in incredibly dishonest ways. And we never even talk about it, let alone take action.

Because this is the modern publishing business.

About David Gaughran

David Gaughran is Irish, living in Prague, and the author of Mercenary, A Storm Hits Valparaiso, Let's Get Digital, Let's Get Visible, and this here blog.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to How The London Book Fair Helps Vanity Presses Exploit Newbie Authors

  1. Orna Ross says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for your post and yes, we at the Alliance of Independent Authors would be very happy to to share author community feedback and our ratings system, with anyone who is interested.

    We believe if LBF is to have a dedicated Author HQ at the Fair, and run an Author Club year round, the company has a duty of care to the writers it actively recruits — which includes a responsibility to ensure that the services presented by the Fair in those dedicated author areas are not exploitative, profiteering or predatory.

    Otherwise LBF is effectively acting as a conduit for such problematic services, giving them the LBF brand’s stamp of legitimacy, and delivering potentially vulnerable authors into their hands.

    Of course LBF is not, as you point out, the only publishing organization that needs to reconsider its policies around author services, particularly self-publishing services. In the wake of the welcome dissociation of Penguin from Author Solutions, we’d urge all mainstream publishing companies to educate themselves about the issues involved and learn how to evaluate, and distance themselves, from problematic services. We are happy to offer our support.

    • Thanks Orna. I hope someone takes you up on that offer.

    • I fully support all efforts to thwart these leeches on the publishing industry. But I’d really like to see clarity about the term ‘self-publishing’. There’s a world of difference between proper self-publishing and what you’re talking about, ie vanity publishing. I and a professional photographer started by self-publishing our first casebound, full colour book. I wrote, he illustrated, I designed, he did the technical layout, we hired a pro cover designer, found a printer in Barcelona, took the digital files across, made proof corrections, watched the sheets come off the print machines, watched the binding process, organised warehousing and distribution, logistics, marketing, PR and sales, accounting and tax. I think by anyone’s standards that is publishing in its entirety, done by the author and illustrator. Self-publishing. We sold 4,000 copies in 40 days, reaching No.2 in our local Waterstones at Christmas.
      Whereas handing one’s words to a ‘publisher’ to do the whole process for a large fee and little return, in terms of printed books or anything else, has to be vanity publishing. Calling these outfits’ services ‘self-publishing’ casts an undeserved pall over decent self-publishers who, if any good, will grow to publish other people’s work (as we did).

      • The problem is that there IS no clarity – at least partly because of the deliberate obfuscation of entities like Austin Macauley who are, quite clearly, a subsidy press pretending to be a regular trade publisher. But even without that underhandedness, we would have imprecise terms.

        If someone uses a third-party platform like Troubador or Lulu to print up 100 copies of their grandfather’s WWII memoirs for family and friends and aren’t seeking to reach readers or build a career are they self-publishing or vanity publishing? If someone IS seeking to self-publish and reach readers and build a career and get tricked into using a disreputable provider like AuthorHouse are they self-publishing or vanity publishing? If someone isn’t seeking to self-publish or vanity publish and is actually looking to get a regular deal, but get tricked into using someone like Pegasus, what would you classify that as? Do you see the problem here?

        If it was down to me – and it’s not – I would like to see a division between ethical and dishonest providers, between those seeking to make money WITH authors, rather than FROM authors (and I think that’s the general approach ALLi has been taking to differentiate the good from the bad).

        And anyway, even if we do come up with perfect terms that doesn’t solve the problem either. Author Solutions will still market itself as a self-publishing platform. Austin Macauley will still market itself as an independent trade publisher.

        Instead of arguing over definitions – which is a rabbit hole from which one may never return – my mission over the last five years has been to (a) expose the worst providers, and (b) educate authors that there are better, easier, and cheaper ways to publish their work.

        If there is a better way, I’m all ears.

      • I suppose there’s no single way to achieve your aims which so many of us support. You’d think that no-one would want to waste money, no matter how desperate they re to be published, but there seems no end to the supply of hopefuls who fall prey to the dodgy outfits. All credit to you, David, and all power to your elbow.

  2. Pingback: How The London Book Fair Helps Vanity Presses Exploit Newbie Authors | The Passive Voice | A Lawyer's Thoughts on Authors, Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing

  3. It must seem like a herculean task, but thank you for all you do to educate fellow authors on a serious hazard of our profession.

  4. Idelle says:

    Keep up the good work, David! I applaud your efforts to uncover the these deceptive scams that prey on authors’ dreams. Not to mention rip them off big-time!

  5. Keep it up, David. I always share your blogs on my social media, hoping to educate newer authors.

  6. lynnefavreau says:

    Thank you David. I appreciated your effort to save writers from these predatory practices and services. Our industry isn’t the only one to make money off the naiveté and inexperience of it’s customers. I fear expecting the industry to police its unscrupulous arm of vanity presses–one it makes money off of–will be a long time coming. Not until we stop funneling money into attending events that included these service will they be more proactive in excluding them. It would be nice if all writers took on the responsibility of speaking out against vanity publishing and associated predatory services, sharing articles, sites that expose them, and those that highlight publishers and services that are legitimate.

  7. Pingback: How The London Book Fair Helps Vanity Presses E...

  8. dawitkop says:

    Thanks for fighting this fight David – Behind you all the way, even from Africa, our authors are deceived by businesses outside our shores.

  9. rchazzchute says:

    Reblogged this on C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m and commented:
    David, as always, on point and serving up the best journalism on publishing.

  10. MishaBurnett says:

    My question is how would authors leverage an event like the London Book Fair? I don’t know how they operate, but from what you are saying they make a lot of money from the booths run by vanity presses. How much money do they make from authors? Even if you could get every single author to agree not to attend, would that make any real difference to the Book Fair’s bottom line?

    • I’m not suggesting a boycott of the fair. Two reasons – 1) That might put some authors (esp trad) in a difficult position & 2) I generally don’t favor boycotts as a form of collective action for a number of reasons.

      I’m always open to ideas, but IMO, public pressure could be a lot more effective. I don’t want to get into tactics too much at the moment – I’d prefer to keep a few things up my sleeve – but stuff is already in the works.

      Having said all that, the Author HQ has been a huge success and has really revitalized LBF. When I was there, it was where all the energy was, where all the interesting stuff was happening. If authors and/or orgs withdraw support that could have a real effect.

  11. Pingback: How The London Book Fair Helps Vanity Presses Exploit Newbie Authors - Self-publishing Info

  12. Pingback: Self-publishing News: Flying High | Self-Publishing Advice Center

  13. Not surprising, really. Here in SoCal, the LA Times Festival of Books got a lot of static about ASI being a major presence. Many scummy scammers have deep pockets and a desire for an appearance of respectability. And too many cash-strapped literary fairs and festivals are only too happy to take the lucre and look the other way. 😦

    • Was there any scandal locally? I remember blogging about it myself and trying to make some noise, but all anyone cared about was that Amazon was *gasp* part-sponsoring the event. I remember all the local indie booksellers up in arms, threatening boycotts, the works. And not a peep on the Author Solutions association.

      The publishing industry in a nutshell, right there.

  14. gvkbj says:

    Very strange. Whatever I tried I could not post this on LinkedIn, the link here does not work and trying directly “there was an error”. Are you censored? Never had this before

  15. Reblogged this on Freemagination and commented:
    If you want to write, and think you will self-publish, read this post. You need to know the very large differences between self-publishing and vanity publishing, and avoid the latter like the plague if you don’t want to be parted from large amounts of your money for very little return.

  16. Pingback: #Publishing ~ Good and Bad | Notes from An Alien

Release Your Word-Minions!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s